I almost lost track of the year after that, for it was all rather an anti-climax following on from such events. We got some new boats in to replace some of the older cruisers, for the people who wanted them rather than traditional narrowboats always wanted all mod cons, whereas the other sort kept our little souvenir shop turning over nicely. I have heard all sorts of words applied to what we sold, the rudest being ‘tat’ and the politest ‘folk art’, but the hand-painted enamel plates and watering cans sold well.
Susie had been her usual devious self, and I found young Darren missing a few shifts after she arranged a City and Guilds course for him behind my back. She was entirely unapologetic about it.
“Happen I’m doing you both a favour, Gerald! Better than alternative, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Proper engineering course would be down in Leeds. I looked it up on Net, and you’d never see him at work”
“Look. Let me explain”
It wasn’t quite like being back at school, but it as a close-run thing. She was patient, though, even when she was explaining to me how much I was paying for his course.
“Gerald, look. How old are you? No, don’t answer that. Who taught you about the work here?”
“See that? Still calling him Mister. Now, if he were ill, or away, who would have covered that job? Who does it now?”
“Well, suppose I do”
“Aye, and while we were away gallivanting round Europe, who covered it then? I’ll tell you who: Darren did. No real papers to his name, no letters”
“Aye, happen he did, but he’s a good lad”
“Right. Who signed off the maintenance records? Whose name against the certificate s for safety checks, insurance and all? Not Darren’s, is it? Why’s that?”
“Well, suppose he’s not, you know…”
“No, I don’t suppose he’s not, I bloody well KNOW he’s not! So what we do, is we let him get letters, papers, that say he IS, and that means we don’t have to lie to safety people, or insurance company, or customers, and if something goes tits up we don’t end up in bloody court!”
“Aye, but surely—”
“Bollocks, Gerald! Lad is devoted to you! You give him a leg-up, he has even more reason to stick by. He’s a bloody good worker, and with a little bit of a freeby for the qualifications, and hint hint hint a lift in his pay, you get a proper, certified foreman and assistant manager in all but name. Give him a title, if you want, and he’ll chop his own hand off rather than leave Dobbs and Barker. Not only that, but it sends message to other lads that hard work, commitment, all that brings a career and not just a job till summat better comes along. What are you grinning at, you daft bugger?”
I started to chuckle. “Just so funny, aye? They had you stacking bloody shelves instead of running bloody shop! Pardon my French!”
She stepped forward and hugged me. “Aye, but you had vision they didn’t have. All I had to do when I was looking at Darren were to think about how I felt. You lift folk up, Gerald Barker. You make a big difference in this world”
My weakening bladder gave me the excuse to break free before she got too embarrassing, and then we had tea, and I called Darren in for the chat we needed.
“You and Susie have spoken about this, aye?”
“Er, aye, Mister Barker. Once she’d said, you know, about certificates and that, well, it made sense”
“You think you can handle the studies, son?”
“I’ll do my best. All I can say, really”
“Well, we’ve been having a bit of a discussion, me and the lass, and we both know she’s sound when it comes to business. I mean, that shop full of plates, aye?”
He grinned. “I’d never have guessed that stuff would be so popular!”
“Well, brace yourself, cause we’re adding some compact discs and that of local music. Make it a proper York Experience thing. Anyway, wasn’t what I wanted to say. Look, I’m getting on, aye, and Susie were right: I don’t have the energy, nor the time, to keep looking over shoulders. So I’ll be looking for a foreman, site manager, assistant gaffer, whatever best term is. Someone who can make sure lads don’t botch a job, rush the work, drop half a Bolinder into Ouse. That sort of thing. I’ll need someone as has qualifications—“
His mouth was wide open now, and he seemed to close it only after a major effort. He turned straight to Susie.
“You never said you were—”
She held up her hand. “Shush! It makes sense, so I spoke to Mr Barker here, and the more I talked, the more sense it made. Think about what it’ll look like on your CV when you move jobs”
He was looking from me to her and back again, then shook his head in disbelief. “What the hell would I want to change jobs for when I’ve got best bloody boss in Yorkshire? Aye, Mr Barker. I promise you nowt but that I’ll do my best. And thank you. Got a BMC in bits and a Mercury to get lads started on. Thanks. All I can say, do my best”
He was out the door, but not without me spotting Susie slipping him a paper tissue from her handbag. I looked at her, absolutely comfortable in what was still her new life, and grinned.
“How did I ever cope without you on board, lass?”
She gave me back her own grin. “Neither of us coped well without the other, did we? Cuppa?”
“Aye, go on”
It was different the day after, because we’d had post waiting for us when we got home, and it was big news indeed. Julian and Charles had been as good as their word, and she had a place in a Brighton hospital for August.
“Why bloody August, Gerald? Busiest part of year!”
“Better chivvy Darren along, then. Look, I don’t really know, but won’t it be less busy in the hospitals then, folks on holiday?”
We were sat at the table, a nice shepherd’s pie before us, and she couldn’t stop rereading the letter. I took it from her hand.
“Have you rang your Mam?”
“No, not yet”
“Do it now. I’ll fetch phone. No buts”
In the end, I simply held out my hand for the telephone as her voice grew more strident.
“Val, it’s Gerald. Take a breather, aye? Then talk to me”
Some heavy sighs at the other end, and she as there. “Gerald, thank you. She’s not talking sense right now”
“In what way?”
“It’s too soon!”
“Well, she’s only been doing this for a short while—“
I felt I needed to stop her sliding off into hysteria, for it was there on the edges of her voice, waiting to take control.
“Val, think on. How long has she been Susie?”
“Well, when did she move in with you?”
“No, think on. She’s been away from you for years, so long before me. Look, who was it you had?”
There as quite a long silence at the other end, and then Val spoke again, in a very small voice.
“You’re saying she’s always been Susie, aren’t you?”
“Done quite a bit of reading, but more than that I’ve talked with lass. You said ‘she’, anyway. Do you not see her as that?”
“Well, of course I do! Anyone can see that!”
“But it took her own mother a while, didn’t it? Now, the lad. He can see, I suspect he always has been able to, and that bet were actually an excuse”
I caught Susie sitting up straighter, and I gave a sharp head shake: not now, before continuing.
“Val, love, how do you feel about her and Andy? Does it really sit right with you?”
“You know it does!”
“No. I don’t. Nor does she, not really. Look, all sorts of things people say, but in the end, I have to ask: do you love your child?”
“Yes! Of course I do!”
“There’s no ‘of course’ about anything, love. Hear me out: I think you love your son. You have him back, you think, but he’s a girl, and, well, you can live with that, but seeing her complete means your son is gone forever. Am I right? No going back?”
Another long near-silence, but I could just hear the weeping.
“Gerald, how did you get to be so wise?”
By being blind for far too long, Valerie. I couldn’t say that to her, though.
“Val, love, look. She hasn’t said she’ll take the date”—another sharp ‘no’ with my head—“So why don’t you come down for Sunday. We’ll do a roast, and I’ll try to get her to cook veg properly. And I think we need lad down as well, as I think he has more than a passing interest in all of this”
“Right. OK. Look, want me to do pud? Crumble?”
“Aye, that would be good. We’ll give lad a shout, and then you go and have a soak in bath, watch something silly, and stop worrying. We do nowt on our own, aye? Family business is family business, we do it as a family, and what other family do I have?”
That did the trick, and both Susie and I were silent for a little while after the call, before she began to bristle slightly.
“Gerald Barker, if you think I’m going to be talked out of it, think again”
I shook my head, tired already. “No, lass. Just get her here, family dinner, and Andy does need to know as he’s made commitment. Not a small thing, and you’re not just not doing it just for yourself, you’re not doing it alone, aye?”
I got a hug and a kiss on the cheek for that, which meant I didn’t have to talk about the other letter, the one from my doctor.
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