It Was Something In Her Voice
Some would say that Greg Perry was a cold fish. But he wasn't. He was passionate about so many things. It was just that he never lost his temper. If he raised his voice it wasn't passion or anger, it was a purposeful decision to raise his voice, to underline whatever he was saying. But, he was a kind, fair-minded and loving man.
His main passion by far was his wife of twenty five years, Susan. He also loved and was proud of his two children, Melissa and Jude, but they were grown up now. Melissa had graduated with a good degree and was building her own career, and Jude was about to start his last year at University before he would also strike out for himself. Greg was very proud of his children, but he looked forward to Jude graduating and moving off to his own life, leaving Susan and Greg to enjoy their empty nest.
On this last Monday of August, Greg was sitting at his desk pondering if there was anything else he could do to encourage his Board of Directors to accept that he wanted to retire early, or at least edge towards working part-time. It was over six months now since he had promised Susan that he would start planning to ease his work load. She had given up work last year when she was made redundant, and they had talked and decided that it really wasn't worth her while trying to pick up her career somewhere new if Greg would retire sometime soon. So he had promised her he would have freed himself up no later than Jude's graduation next year, but he knew that she was getting impatient and bored with being at home all day. The house was empty without the children, and she missed them. She was doing more charity work with her Church, but she had refused Greg's offer to help her take golf lessons, so that she could have joined him on the greens. In fact, Greg smiled as he thought of it, her Church and his golf were the only things that ever kept them apart, other than work. On Sundays she would head for her God, and Greg would commune with his, in a regular foursome with old friends.
Greg brought his thoughts back to getting the Board to agree to some form of part time working. The problem was that the Board were scared to let him go. Greg had founded Perry Consultants over fifteen years ago. His calm manner, his ability to turn problems into opportunities, his optimistic outlook even when the going got rough had seen him through. And he could look back on times in the business when the going had got very rough, but now they seemed to be in calmer times, and the company was growing steadily. Greg had a good right hand man in Tom Gould, and everyone expected Tom to takeover when Greg did retire, it was just the Board were reluctant to actually let him ease up at all. They were scared of him just not being there, and whenever Greg raised the idea of retirement or an easier work load they had procrastinated: "We need you to see through the current contracts" Or "Let's talk about it after year end." There was always some reason why not. Greg knew that as majority shareholder he could just dictate his own future, but he wanted the outside shareholders, and his colleagues within the firm to be happy at his retirement. He wanted the Board's approval and full support. He didn't want to walk out on a company and a team of colleagues that he'd worked with for over fifteen years, he wanted to go with their blessing.
In truth, Greg didn't really want to retire completely. He was only fifty, and he still had a lot of energy for they company he had created. But he did want to please Susan and spend more time with her. And these days, it seemed his office hours were getting longer not shorter. Somehow he had to get his colleagues to accept his partial retirement, and he had to get Susan to accept a compromise of partial retirement.
There was only one member of the Board who would probably be happy to see him go, and that was Phil Tremit, an external director and a successful local businessman... He was a champion for Tom, and anxious to see him promoted. To try and speed things up, only last month Greg had tried having a quite chat with Phil, telling him that maybe, with the current mood of the other Directors, he had to accept that he wasn't going to be allowed to retire for some years yet. Greg hoped that Phil would take the challenge, and talk a few Directors round to his way of thinking, but he hadn't seen any signs of change yet.
Just then, as Greg was lost in his thoughts, he heard a knock at his open office door. Paul Benson, the Finance Director, was hesitantly wheeling himself in his motorised wheelchair towards Greg's desk, waiting to be told that Greg had time to see him. Paul had joined the company about nine years ago, when he wanted to return to work after a dreadful road accident that had left him with very weakened legs, he could just about stand and take a single step, and a totally paralysed left arm. He was a fully qualified accountant, but no other company in town wanted to know. It was only Greg who could not see any connection between a man's walking ability and his ability to keep accounts, and had immediately offered him a job on the proper pay for the responsibilities.
"Yes, Paul? What can I do for you?"
"I thought you might like to see this list of charity donations we will be making for this financial year before tomorrow's meeting." Paul proffered Greg a sheet of paper.
"Mmmm... thanks. Anything that's going to cause arguments?"
"I don't think so. Eighty percent of them were on the list last year. The new recipients are the ones in bold type."
"And you used the same percentage of the gross profit as always?"
"Yup. It's mainly your money, so if you are happy with it, then who am I to argue?"
Greg glanced down the list. All the charitable donations that were made through the company were to local small charities, Friends of the Hospital, the local Mother and Baby group, that sort of thing. Then Greg noticed one he didn't know:
"What's 'Help at 43'?"
"43 Manvers Street. It's an advice centre for addicts. It helps them find a bed for the night, they know which hostels accept addicts; help them get full social security payments despite their problems, that sort of thing."
"How about getting them off drugs. That might help them more."
"Oh no. That's the point, they aren't preached at. Their lifestyle isn't challenged. It's for people who haven't got to the point of wanting to give up yet. It's to help them stay safe until they're ready to make a big change in their lives."
Greg looked up at Paul. "No way!"
"What's wrong with them?"
"I'm not spending my money, and as you rightly point out, I am still the majority shareholder so it's mainly my money, on a bunch of people who are deliberating hurting themselves and probably everyone around them."
"But they need help until they get to sorting themselves out."
Greg sighed, "Look, Paul, I shouldn't have to tell you, I'm not against helping people who are trying to help themselves. People who have had a difficult period say, even if self-inflicted, but are trying to dig their way out of their problems have my respect and support. To my knowledge, we've got at least two ex-drug addicts and one recovering alcoholic and one guy with criminal prison sentence behind him, and about four registered disabled, including yourself. They are putting their lives back together, and we will give them all the help we can." Greg looked at Phil and answered his unasked question, "And No, you don't need to know who they are. But they are doing a good job and good luck to them. But there's a world of difference between respecting and helping them, and a bunch of losers who want someone else to put their world right for them. So cross that one off your list and reallocate the money. OK?"
"Would it help if I said that my wife is a volunteer there?"
"No. I admire Jean for trying to do her bit in society. But tell her to go and help people who have problems through no fault of their own and who respond to the help they are given. That's just my opinion. Sorry, but she gets none of my money."
"OK. I'll revise it before the Board meeting tomorrow."
The monthly Board Meeting the next day went well. No mention was made of Greg's retirement, and the charitable donations went through on the nod. Greg was feeling quite pleased with everything until they got to Any Other Business. Then Paul looked up and said he should inform the Board that C&G Services hadn't paid their invoices for nine weeks. Paul wasn't worried about C&G's credit, but there was a potential cash flow problem for Perry Consultants.
There was a general mutterings around the table about C&G being their biggest client, using well over twenty percent of the company's consulting team. There was a discussion as to whether anyone had heard any gossip about C&G, and Phil Tremit had played golf with Leslie Goodman, their managing director on Sunday. Phil suggested that he thought that they were possibly in very early takeover talks."
Greg had been sitting listening to the discussion, angry with Paul for not telling him a lot earlier about a potential problem. But then Tom Gould, knowing what his boss would be thinking, leant into him to say that Paul had been reporting to him about the situation, and they were monitoring it closely.
It was time for a firm hand, Greg decided, "Paul, what percentage of our turnover is down to C&G?"
Paul looked up his notes, "Twenty-one point four percent."
"And their contribution to our gross profit?"
"Twelve point seven"
"So they are nowhere near as profitable as our smaller clients. OK. Where are we in getting tough with them?"
Tom spoke up, "We've issued our strongest and final warning letter already. Actually we are legally in a position where we could withdraw all our guys at a moment's notice, not that we would do that. Perhaps I ought to go and see Leslie Goodman and get him to cough up."
Greg looked at him, "No. It's time to play hardball. Remind them one more time that they are in default. But, if we have no money by tomorrow evening, then on Thursday tell our guys to report here on Monday morning, and not to go into C&G. If we tell our guys on Thursday, C&G will get to hear and that gives them Friday to get their act together and pay us."
His co-directors were suddenly worried that Greg was willing to throw out their biggest client, and he could feel the vibes of concern.
Greg looked around the table, at each of his co-directors in turn, "I don't mind giving a good deal to such a big and important client. We'll do all we can to help them. But, they have broken the bloody contract. I'm sorry, but they'd have our guts for garters if we broke our side of things and didn't supply the guys they need when they need them. They'll either pay up fast, or we'll discuss a new contract with them after the event."
Again, Greg looked around his colleagues, no one seemed prepared to speak against him. So he turned to Tom: "Tom, could you bring me a plan, sometime tomorrow, of what we do next week if C&G don't cough up. I guess there will have to be some lay-offs at some time, make sure that's the freelancers. I know that some of our best consultants took the extra money of being self-employed knowing we would contract them for years. Well they'll learn that there's a downside of being freelance, we owe our loyalty to the salaried employees first, and so the freelancers will be the first to go. But let's hope it doesn't come to that. OK?"
"Yes, Greg. But I don't like this situation. I think we could handle it a bit less confrontationally."
"It's not me who's breaking the contract with C&G. It's them. It's out of our hands. And anyway it'll give us the chance to put up our prices if they want to come back to us. Or we can use our better people with some of our smaller and more profitable clients." Greg looked around his board again, "Well, if there is no other business, let's close this meeting. Thank you, Gentlemen."
The meeting broke up, with Paul wryly remarking to Greg that it was at least the first meeting in months when Greg's retirement wasn't mentioned. Greg noticed that Phil Tremit was standing fairly close to him as he replied loudly enough for Phil to hear, "Well, it seems I've got to accept that you guys won't let me go. I've given up on suggesting anything else."
Greg just hoped that it would prompt Phil to start undermining him and ease him into retirement.
On the following Monday, Greg was working at his desk when Leslie Goodman burst into the room: "What the fuck are you playing at Greg? I thought we were friends."
"We were, and I hope we still are, but I can't afford to have guys working at your place when you aren't paying for them. It's as simple as that. You were warned, several times, both formally, and my guess is, informally as well."
"Well, yes I was, but I never thought you'd follow through on the threat. I thought I was too important a client to you for you just to throw it all away over being a few days late with our payment. Well here's your money, it's a banker's draft, so it won't bounce, and we can get back to where we were meant to be."
Greg took the proffered draft, and walked out with it to his secretary, "Give this to Paul for banking."
Greg returned to his desk and looked up and smiled at Leslie, "Fancy a coffee?"
"OK, as soon as my secretary comes back. Out of interest, Leslie, why did you stop paying our bills?"
"Ah! Yes... Well... We were having a special audit done, and I just wanted to up our cash position a bit, if you understand, Greg. We lost a few invoices into a bottom draw for a little while."
"It sounds a bit fraudulent if you ask me, but that's your problem not mine. I had heard that takeover was in the air."
"Not any more it won't be if they visit today. We're basically at a halt without your guys."
"Well I remember telling you over dinner when we signed last year's contract, that you were a fool to rely on us so much. We're meant to be consultants and interim managers, not sub-contractors supplying all your essential staff."
"Well, yes. After this morning I guess I will have to give that some thought. Anyway, I won't wait for that coffee, thanks. If you could get your guys back after lunch, lets put this little hiccup into history, eh Greg?"
"I'm sorry Leslie, but they won't be there after lunch."
"But... But I've paid you what's owed. So you've got nothing to worry about."
"But you broke the contract. We don't have any contract between us, Leslie. And I've checked, your non-payment broke it absolutely. Kaput. We could negotiate a new contract if you wanted, but I warn you, I'll be upping the price. I see no reason to have you as my least profitable client when you don't pay your bills. But, look on the bright side, it gives you an opportunity to negotiate a deal where you can move towards being less dependent on us, if that's what you want."
"I could see my lawyer..."
"And spend a fortune, and he'll tell you the same as me, that the old contract ceased when you defaulted on payment. You broke it, not me. Now what do you want to do?"
Leslie stared at him and hesitated. Reluctantly, he admitted, "You've got me over a barrel, Greg. I guess I will have that coffee."
The Board hadn't liked what Greg had done with C&G, but they had to reluctantly accept that Greg had done it again! Everyone on the C&G contract were back to work after lunch that Monday, as an act of good faith by Greg, but the new contract was more profitable and better for both companies.
So, come the last Tuesday in September, Greg was looking forward to the Board Meeting.
He looked at his watch, it was just before two thirty, and he was the only one there. But then all the other Directors arrived together. That raised a thought in Greg's mind, he didn't know of any problem or discussion that he was excluded from, and Tom Gould hadn't warned him of any trouble brewing. But, something was up, Greg instinctively felt it, knew it. He waited whilst they got seated around the table.
When they were settled, he leant forward to bring the meeting to order. But then Phil Tremit caught his eye, "Excuse me Greg. Before we start on the agenda, do you think we might raise something else?"
Greg leant back again, "Of course, Phil, what's the problem?"
"Well, first, I think we should congratulate you on your brinkmanship with C&G last month. I saw Leslie Goodman last week, and although he is licking his wounds a bit, he's quite chirpy about C&G's future and full of kind words about you. But there is another thing, some of us have been having a little talk, and we were wondering if you could clarify your own future, and any possible plans you may have for retirement?"
Greg thought: so at long last they want to talk about my retirement do they? Thank God for that! But they've got to go gently, I'm still the majority shareholder, and after last month, I'm a hero. "Well, Phil, Gentlemen," He looked around the table, many of his colleagues looked uncomfortable, looking anywhere but at him, "I think I've got plenty of time to think about my final retirement, I was only fifty on my last birthday. And I've still got a son at University."
Phil Tremit looked directly at him, all the others were carefully studying their papers. "Well, there have been times when you've mentioned that you may look forward to taking things a bit easier, and we thought it might be helpful if you could put some time frame about that, and some ideas on your possible successor."
"Well, I think you all know that I expect Tom to take over, when I do go. And, yes, I had hoped to come to this Board at some time to seek some arrangement which allows me to relax a little, but not before Jude is off my hands. I'd rather accepted it that you wouldn't let it happen."
Phil Tremit seemed to be their spokesman, "Well, none of us are looking to push you out, Greg. We all appreciate how you've built this company." There was a general mumble of support from everyone at the table for that, "But, we are beginning to think that the company is moving into a new phase of its development, and that maybe now is the time to hand over some of the reins to Tom. Perhaps you would give it some thought? No rush, but now might be as good a time as any."
Greg looked around the room, and thought. He guessed that the little C&G debacle had been more distasteful to some of them than he had expected. He always felt that a problem was an opportunity, like the problem of C&G which he'd turned into an opportunity, and this was an opportunity to please Susan and he wanted to grasp it in both hands... If the Board were willing to do the right deal, then some holidays and adventures rather than work was in the offing. And the other directors' full approval would ease the minds of the outside shareholders and auditors.
"Well, gentlemen, maybe you're right. I was thinking that I wouldn't even raise the subject again, after your reluctance last time, until next summer at the earliest. But, if you all think it is time for Tom to do more, well let me put a proposal to you." Greg paused, looking out of the window but not focussing on anything, he was collecting his thoughts. They are all probably relieved that he hasn't sacked them, they're grateful they seem to have survived this gentle but critical confrontation. They'll probably agree to more than he should have dared to ask for. "I could hand over to Tom this afternoon. He could become General Manager today. I would remain, but all the day to day stuff would be Tom's problems. Now, if you would agree that I could up my holiday allowance from whatever it is now, and don't ask me, I've never taken my full allowance for as long as any of us can remember. But if I could take twenty weeks, say. On my full current salary of course, then maybe would take the opportunity to partially step aside."
The directors all looked at each other, and then at Phil Tremit, waiting for his lead. "I suspect we are all a little scared to lose you, Greg. But, we think it's the right time for Tom to move up, but we had hoped you'd be around a little more than that."
"Oh! Don't worry about that. I want to do a lot more travelling with Susan. There are so many exciting places that neither of us have ever seen, and so many exciting things to do when we get there. But, with a satellite phone and an Internet connection in every hotel I go into these days, I'll always be contactable. All you need do is phone me, or email me. Get me the right phone and a new laptop and I'll always be with you. And anyway, except for public holidays, I'll be here for thirty two weeks of the year. How about a five year contract?" Greg looked around the room.
The directors looked at each other, not sure what to say. Greg broke the impasse, "Look, I'll leave you for a few minutes. Talk amongst yourselves, and let me know. I'll be in my office." Greg stood up and walked through the double doors that led to his office. Tom left by the other door, saying "I think I should withdraw, as I could be a beneficiary of your decision."
Greg sat at his desk, smiling to himself. No one had questioned the full pay part of his deal. And he had expected to have to offer at least a twenty five percent drop in salary to get them to agree to this if he had proposed it without Phil having been motivated to raise the issue.
Within five minutes, Phil Tremit knocked on his office door, and asked Greg to rejoin the meeting. "Greg, I hope you will be pleased to hear that we would like to fully approve your generous offer. And I'd like to add my personal thanks for handling what could have been a very delicate conversation so tactfully."
Greg turned to Tom Gould who was just coming through the door, and slapping him on the back, "Congratulations, Tom, it's all yours." And there was five minutes general bonhomie all round before the meeting resumed with the original agenda.
After the meeting, Greg had a few minutes conversation with Tom, to arrange some immediate handover details, but put the majority of that off until the next day. Then he sat at his desk and allowed himself to daydream. Balloon Safari in Kenya? St. Petersburg? Railway through the Rockies? The Taj Mahal? River boat down the Nile? The Great Wall of China? Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco? A cruise of the Pacific? Drive across the Australian Desert to Alice Springs? Bungee Jumping in New Zealand? White water rafting somewhere? Hill Walking in Nepal to Everest Base Camp? Ah! Now that's more like it, something a bit challenging as well as the usual tourist stuff. After all he was only fifty, and very fit. Some adventure, that's what he needed, with Susan at his side, and now he had the money and time to do it. Life was definitely looking up.
His thoughts drifted to Susan, his life partner for twenty seven years and his wife for twenty five of them. At forty eight, Susan was still a sexy and fine looking woman. Maybe a little heavier than on her wedding day, she had to work hard to hold her weight. And he knew she had to visit the hairdresser more often than she once did to keep any grey hairs from ever showing. But he was still proud of her. She would be delighted that he'd honoured his promise to take things a bit easier and have more time with her, even if it wasn't full retirement. Tonight they would celebrate!
Greg decided that he would start his new life with a big surprise for Susan. No, with two big surprises for Susan. First, he'd go home early, that would be a surprise. Second he would book a two week holiday somewhere warm and sunny and romantic, where they could relax and really talk about their plans for their future.
Greg got home at about six o'clock, with a bottle of Champagne in his hand and a confirmed booking for two weeks in the Seychelles in his pocket. He called out for Susan, but she was upstairs, saying she'd be down in a second. Greg put the Champagne in the fridge, and as he was coming out of the kitchen, Susan was coming down the stairs.
Greg greeted her with a kiss as he took her in his arms. "Hi! Had a good day?" he asked, deciding that he would hold back on his news until dinner, a better setting to discuss the future, and to surprise her with the Seychelles trip.
"Hi, darling, what brings you home so early? Not that I'm not pleased."
"Oh, I'll tell you about it later. It was a big day for company politics. And at the end of it I decided to come home early." Greg answered as he headed into the sitting room.
He sat down in his usual chair and noticed the television had a little red light on, it was on stand-by. Not really unusual, there was no reason why Susan shouldn't watch a little day time television, but she rarely did, and he was sure that he had turned it all off properly as he went to bed last night. Well, let's flick it on, he didn't usually get to see what was on at this time of day. It was on a sports channel. Now that was unusual. Not impossible, Susan might have watched some tennis if there was any on, but unlikely. The television came to life with a golf tournament somewhere in the world. They were about to take a tee shot, Greg's eyes became glued to the screen, he couldn't help but watch.
"One of your boyfriends left it on golf." he said without much thought. Her fictitious boyfriends and his fictitious obsession with the fictitious blonde barmaid at the Golf Club were two of their private jokes. From within their secure relationship, it's easy to joke about such things.
"Oh! I let them watch it while they're waiting. You know, when there's a queue of them, waiting their turn with me in the bedroom." Susan replied.
In the coming weeks, Greg would go over that reply time and time again. Was it that she hesitated? Or that there was a slight inflection in her voice? Or a false emphasis? He never could work it out. But after twenty seven years of love and partnership he knew it was false. He just knew, it was something in her voice.
He stood up and turned to look at her. She stared back at him, slightly challenging him and trying to half smile. Eventually, she looked away, "How about a drink before dinner?"
After twenty seven years of love and partnership, she knew when he knew she was lying.
He continued to look at her, she turned to look back at him, and her face said it all. She looked shocked and guilty and hurt, all at the same time. There was a boyfriend!
Greg suddenly felt his stomach tighten, and his heart was hammering at the walls of his chest, But he found his voice first, "I'll go and pack some cases. We can talk later." And he just walked out of the room and upstairs.
He was just trying to get two suits too many in a garment carrier when she came into the bedroom. "Greg, we must talk. Please. I've been in such a muddle, my thoughts are in turmoil, but I know that I love you. So please Greg, let's talk."
Greg looked at her, there were tears pouring down her face, silently. "We can talk, in a few days. Then we can decide what we both want to do." He noticed that his voice was rasping with unexpressed emotion.
"Don't go, please Greg." She pleaded, stepping forward towards him.
For the first time in his adult life, Greg wanted to shout at her, genuinely shout at her, but he knew that would be alien to himself and to their whole relationship. "Who and how long?" was all he said.
"David Shiner, you've never met him." She whispered, but Greg heard it as if she was shouting.
"David Shiner? No, I don't think I have, but I'm sure I've heard the name, perhaps you have mentioned him. And?" Greg went back to stuffing the suits into the bag.
"And how long has this been going on?" Greg picked up a large suitcase and laid it open on the bed, and he went over to his chest of drawers.
"We met about four months ago, but we've really only got to know each other in the last month. And it's only been physical in the last two weeks." Susan's voice remained a whisper.
"Two weeks, eh? So how many times is that? One? Two? Three?" Greg asked, with an ugly edge in his voice now, although it remained soft and quiet.
Greg went on packing in silence. Susan just stood and watched, silent tears running down her cheeks. Both were silent, maybe neither knowing what to say. Eventually Greg had packed and zipped up the suitcase. He lifted it off the bed, and stood and looked at Susan.
"I'll go to the River House Hotel. At this time of year the season must be over, I guess they'll have a room. If they don't then I'll let you know."
"Oh, please Greg. Please, let's talk. This is ridiculous, you can't just walk out on twenty five years of marriage without even talking." Susan had at least stopped crying.
Greg looked at her, "We'll talk in a day or two." She just looked at him, she was pale, red-eyed, and her mouth was quivering. "Do you love me, Susan?" he asked.
"Yes, Greg. I love you, you are my husband and my life."
"Well then, when we do talk, you can start by explaining to me how you reconcile climbing into another man's bed, not once but four times, with that professed love for me; with your own religious beliefs; with your wedding vows given whilst you stood at an altar and in front of our friends and family. Start by explaining that, Susan. And if you can't do it to your own satisfaction, then don't bother to even try with me."
Greg put the carrying strap of his suit carrier over his shoulder, and picked up his suitcase. In doing so, he pushed his suit jacket almost off his shoulder, and a white envelope fell on the floor. Susan bent down to pick it up, "What's this? You dropped it."
Greg glanced at it, "It's confirmation of a holiday for the two of us to the Seychelles starting in the week after next. I bought it for you as a surprise. I agreed my part time contract today. We were going to go travelling, to see the world, to meet new people and do new things. It seems you beat me to some of that, Sue. Pity!"
He took the envelope in his spare hand and brushed past her as he headed for the stairs. He staggered down stairs and out of the front door, with Susan watching him, and just mumbling "Please... Greg... Please..."
Greg Perry checked himself into the River House Hotel. The receptionist seemed nice and cheerful, and Greg managed some small talk with her as they sorted out his room.
"OK. Thank you. I'll take my bags up to the room, but do you think you could do me a very big favour?" he asked
"If I can, Sir. What is it?" she was still smiling.
"Could you get the bar to have a very very large gin and tonic sitting on the bar, when I get down again in about three minutes. I need one urgently."
"Well, why don't I arrange for someone else to take your bags up to the room, and you go and get that drink straight away?"
"I love you." said Greg, and headed for the bar.
After that large G&T, and introductions to George, the barman, who Greg felt he was going to get to know very well in the next few days, Greg went into the restaurant. He ordered himself a simple steak, medium cooked, and with a side salad. And a bottle of decent red wine.
The steak looked good, Greg thought. But he really couldn't give it a full review, not on the basis of only two mouthfuls, and the salad was only checked to the level of Greg tasting one piece of tomato. The waiter watched him, Greg drank some of his wine and stared at the picture over the fireplace.
Eventually, the waiter approached, "Have you finished Sir?"
Greg looked at him, a visitor from another planet, "Yes. I think so. You might as well take it away. My apologies to your chef."
"You're not hungry, Sir?"
"No, I've got rather a lot on my mind. Sorry."
"Well would you like something else, Sir?"
"No. I think I'll take that bottle of wine and my glass, and go and sit on your terrace and do some thinking. Is that OK?"
"Yes, Sir. But I think you'll find it rather chilly out there. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a frost tonight."
"Well, maybe the coldness will cut through to bring me some reality where food didn't." Greg smiled weakly and left with his bottle and glass.
Greg sat on a garden seat on the terrace, by the light of a few garden lamps. He was lost in thought. Questions went round and round in his head. Answers went round and round in his head. In that cycle some questions never got an answer, others got two or three different answers.
He poured the last of his wine into his glass and with glass and bottle in his hands he strolled down to the river bank. The river was black and silent as it slipped along only lit by some distant street lights on the town bridge far off down stream.
Greg began to feel anger rising in himself, not anger at Susan and this David, but anger at himself that he was getting nowhere in his thinking. He couldn't find any solid fact on which to start a logical thought process to what he should do next. Then somewhere from the gloom of the recesses of his brain came his business attitude. Susan had broken the contract!
He knew that he had 'loved and cherished' throughout his marriage. He thought, but was no longer sure, that she had. Certainly they had done the 'in sickness and in health' bit, thank God it had mainly been 'in health', the only sickness had been the occasional flu in winter and the common cold, and he'd sprained an ankle when he fell off a kerb once. He knew he'd 'forsaken all others', but she hadn't. She had broken the marriage vows, and the contract was dead. Divorce was only a matter of legal recognition of what already applied. The marriage was over, kaput.
That realisation cheered him up in some way, and to celebrate he threw his bottle into the glassy black river and could just make out it's slow drift towards the bridge and the sea, like some gentle, stately marker to his old life drifting away forever.
A problem is an opportunity. Susan and this David had suddenly opened up before him a total new freedom to choose his life from here onwards. What did he want? He could choose to try and reconcile with Susan, assuming she was willing to try, and they could call the divorce off. Or he could strike out on his own and build a whole new life. It was his choice, and except for an immediate, happy marriage, everything and anything was possible.
Greg walked back up to the bar, where he ordered himself a large whisky, and sat on a bar stool, watching George at work, and making small talk with him when he had a moment or two not serving. Slowly the evening crowd drifted to their beds, leaving Greg and George as the only two in the bar.
Greg looked around, recognising that George probably wanted to close, he slid his glass across the bar, "Put a large one in there, and I'll let you close up, George."
"Certainly, Sir." And George poured another double scotch through the optic and returned the glass to Greg. "My guess is, Sir, that some woman has let you down. Am I right?"
"Does it show that much?"
"Only to professional barmen, Sir. Do you want to talk about it?"
Greg took a large slug of whisky, and stood up. "Not tonight, George. Maybe I'll bore you with it tomorrow night." He drained his glass and slammed it down on the bar. Belched, and staggered to his room.
Greg fell into a restless sleep, but woke early. He stood at the window, looking at the river in the dawn light. He knew that he had to face Susan, to tell her that he would start immediate divorce proceedings. Only after that could they start to consider their futures, together or apart. He also knew that it would take a huge effort of control to have a civilised conversation with her, and not a bitter exchange of insults.
As soon as it was reasonable, Greg went down to breakfast. Now he was hungry, and he had a full English breakfast with plenty of cups of tea. Once he was finished, he strolled down to the river again, but purely for the privacy to phone his secretary and tell her he was going to be late to the office, but he didn't explain why.
Greg drove back to his house, a large and expensive house on the right side of town. Although he had a door key in his pocket, he rang the bell and waited. Susan opened the door, she was pale, her hair was a mess, she had no make up and she was still wearing a dressing gown.
"Hello, Susan. You look as if I've got you up. I'm sorry, maybe I'm a bit early."
Susan took one look at Greg, and stepped forward with her arms outstretched, "Oh, thank God! Greg!"
But Greg stepped backwards. It wasn't planned, it was an automatic reaction to shy away from this woman, once so well known and loved, but now a stranger. "I'm not here to make up, Susan. I just want a few moments of your time for a civilised talk."
Susan dropped her arms, and looked at him. "Yes, of course, I'm sorry." She turned back into the hall.
"Just a civilised talk, Susan. No hysterics. No tears. What is done is done. It is just a matter of what we are going to do now."
"Let's go into the kitchen, Greg. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"Why not? Let's drink tea and talk about divorce. That sounds civilised doesn't it?" Greg sounded bitter, but then he was bitter.
In the kitchen it was Greg who set about making a pot of tea. Susan just sat at the kitchen table and watched him. She knew him well enough to know that she had no option but to wait until he talked.
Once the tea was made and Greg had laid it on the table, with cups and saucers and milk, he sat down and just looked at her, the woman who represented twenty seven years of his life.
"Oh, Greg. I'm so sorry. You were never meant to be hurt by this. Please, I promise you, we can get over it."
Greg looked at her, he felt that strong urge to shout, to really tell her what he thought of her, to show how much he hurt. But what would that gain him? Nothing. "I don't need to hear your self-justifying whines. I said, I want a civilised talk. It won't help if you just sit and blubber about how sorry you are. Anymore than if I tell you just how much I hate what you've done to us, and how I hate what a lying bitch I think you are, to not just make a mistake, but to go back and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. That was cold blooded deliberate determination on your part, Susan, to do permanent damage to a happy trusting marriage of twenty five years. But you know that..." Greg swallowed, he had gone further than he ever intended, he must get control of his words.
If Susan was pale before Greg's outburst, she was paler now. She gasped in shock, and then sobbed, with tears coming to her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Susan. That was harsh. Truthful, but harsh. But maybe unnecessary. OK. Wipe your eyes, we need to talk."
Greg quietly poured the tea while he waited for Susan to compose herself. He slid a cup across the table towards her, and sipped his own.
Eventually, Susan blew her nose, and looked up at Greg. "You're right, Greg. I shouldn't be surprised that you think that of me, or that I don't actually know it myself. It was just hearing you say it. I'm sorry, I must have hurt you so much."
"Well, Susan, I've got a couple of questions for you..."
"Would it help if I explained a little of why, of what I felt with David?" Susan asked, quite gently, in almost a whisper.
"No. I don't need to know that. I'm not sure I even care. Just answer me a couple of questions. I am right in thinking that you knew exactly what you were doing when you went to bed with him four times?" There was still an edge of bitterness in Greg's voice, and Susan noted that he couldn't bring himself to even mention David's name.
"Yes, Greg. I did know what I was doing. I never thought you would find out. It was just something I wanted... No, needed to do."
"And was this the first time? Or is he just the latest in a long string of lovers over the years? Should I be having Melissa and Jude DNA tested?" Greg asked, quietly and deliberately, as he raised his eyes to look directly into Susan's eyes.
Susan lowered her eyes, "That's a horrid thought. That you should even think that of me. No, there have been no other lovers. For twenty seven years you have been the only man in my life. I promise you that."
"Well, I guess that's good to hear. But it seems to me that the result of your little affair is inevitable."
There was a sharp intake of breath from Susan, she instantly felt a premonition of what was coming.
"Susan, you broke the contract. As far as I can see we are no longer married. I will instruct a solicitor to start the divorce proceedings immediately. I don't know whether this will help you, free you up in your relationship with your lover, but I don't think we have any duty or responsibility towards each other any longer. The marriage was broken when you went to bed with him. You admit you knew what you were doing, and you confirmed it three more times. All we need do for each other is make sure that we make proper arrangements for splitting our assets, and for supporting Jude until he finally moves on."
Susan just stared at him, totally stunned by his words. No discussion, no questions of why she'd done it, or of how they might get over it. Just the finality of divorce.
"I don't want a divorce, Greg." Susan's voice was raising, in desperation, "I love you and I want us to remain married. I've lain awake all night. I know what I've done, and I know we can get over it. I know it won't be easy for you, but I know you will see it through. I know you won't walk out on all we mean to each other, the wonderful children, our life, our friends..."
Greg looked at her, "Well, once the divorce action is well underway, maybe we can meet and talk about what happened and what we each want in the future. If we both want to be married, and we can get over it, then we can call the divorce off, but at the moment, I feel you've imposed it, I don't have a say in it. You broke the marriage, and divorce is the inevitable result. That's where we are today. It may change in the future, but not until we've both done a lot of clear headed thinking."
Greg looked at her, "Actually, I don't really know whether you had plans to run off with your lover boy. Or whether you fancied spending your mature years being some free spirit, free love and I don't know what. Maybe you don't really know yourself. That's why we need some time to do some thinking."
"No, Greg. I have never imagined myself as anything but your wife, and us moving together to a happy old age. I don't need any time to know what I want in the future."
They looked at each other, both wondering what was going on in the other's mind.
"Well I'm sorry Susan, but I do. Now, as you know, I've got a holiday booked in the Seychelles. It was meant to be the start of our new life together. Now I'll go alone and use it to think about what my new life should be like, and if I want you to be my partner in it."
"Couldn't we both go, and use it as a way to bring us back together? I know it might be painful, but surely we need to be together, not on opposite sides of the world to each other?"
"No, Susan, we can't. I'll go and maybe I'll come back with some better thoughts. In the meantime, I don't know what you are going to do about your lover. Maybe you want to continue your affair for just one last time, or maybe you hope I'll learn to tolerate it. But, be clear about this, if you do want us to have any hope of getting back together, then you will telephone him immediately and tell him it's finished. So, are you willing to promise me that you will never ever see that man ever again?"
"Oh, yes, Greg. I promise that, happily and willingly. It wasn't his fault, it was something we both did, but I never ever want to repeat it with him or anyone else. I promise. I phoned him last night and told him that I never want to see him again."
"OK. Well, let's go down that line of thought a bit further. I know that in all my jumbled thoughts and emotions since last night, I am full or hate and revenge against him. I could happily kill him. I don't care whether you gave yourself happily and freely, or whether in fact he chased you and seduced you, it doesn't matter. He chose to climb into bed with a woman who claims to be happily married. Is he married, by the way?"
"Yes, he has three children."
"Well, if his wife ever finds out, then I guess you can expect to feel the same depths of hatred from her. But that isn't my concern. What I want to know is: if I decide that I want to exact some revenge on this man who has deliberately involved himself in the destruction of everything I love and believe in, will you join me in that? Will you help me destroy his life, if that is what I want? Are you willing to do that to help get me over this, and win me back, Susan?"
Susan gasped again, realising the terrible emotions she had unleashed in Greg, "I don't know, Greg. It's so unlike you. I don't like seeing this side of you. And David isn't some wife cheating bastard, he's a nice guy who made a mistake, like me. That's all, he doesn't deserve to have anything nasty happen to him."
"No, Susan, you were right the first time. A wife cheating bastard is exactly what he is. And he deserves everything he gets... But I don't know what I'll do about him. You're right about me as well, I have never deliberately taken my revenge on anyone ever before. But perhaps this will be the first time..."
They sat and drank their tea, in silence. Both of them deep in thought.
Susan broke the silence, determined to have one last attempt at reconciliation, "Come home, Greg. Even if you sleep in the guest room. What do you think people will say when they realise that you've moved out? And then we could talk, I could explain..."
"No, Susan. First of all, I don't give a damn what people think. And I'm saddened that in all of this, that's one of your first concerns. And second, at the moment I don't need you to explain anything. You did it, you freely chose to do it. Not once, but four times. And you admit that you knew exactly what you were doing every time. You knew that you were betraying me, and our marriage, and everything you've ever professed. At the moment, that's all I need to know. Now I have to decide whether I want to live for the rest of my life with a person that has done that, or what it is I can salvage of my life from the mess you've created."
Susan just crumpled to tears, and Greg quietly stood up and left.
Greg arrived at the office and immediately told his secretary that he was now living at the River House Hotel, and why. By the end of it she was weeping, and through her tears, asked Greg if he knew what he was going to do. "Yes, start divorce proceedings. Then think about what I want after that. That may include reconciliation.".
Greg's day was made up with a series of short meetings with Tom Gould, as Tom constantly referred to Greg on various issues, as Tom picked up the reins of the company. In between these meetings, Greg made a few phone calls around the town. First to his lawyer, to arrange an appointment, but he couldn't get to see him until the next day.
Then he started phoning old friends and colleagues, just gently asking after a David Shiner, did anyone know him? Who was he? With an hour or two, Greg knew David's address, that he was apparently happily married with three children, that he was about forty years old, and most interesting of all, that he worked for TMD Electrical. So, after lunch, Greg phoned Ed Maskill, the managing director of TMD and an occasional golfing buddy of Greg's. Greg invited him to a quiet drink at the River House Hotel after work.
Greg was chatting to George when Ed arrived. After their greetings and some business small talk, Greg brought the conversation to what was on his mind, "I asked you here tonight to have a quiet word with you, because I have a favour to ask you. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Susan and myself have split up, whether temporary or permanent I don't know yet, but we've got our problems at the moment."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Greg. Is there anything I can do?"
"No, not directly. But you can keep an eye on Susan for me. You see, she's had an affair, and as you are a regular at All Saints, I guess Susan may seek the support of the Church as she works through her thinking. Well, I'm sure that tongues will start wagging in the regular congregation, so I thought I ought to tell you directly. You know, so that you can put anyone straight if the rumours are too hurtful for her, protect her a bit, that sort of thing."
"I'm on the Parochial Church Council, so you've come to the right man. I hope she will be treated with decent Christian charity. But, the Church isn't going to give a blessing on that sort of behaviour, if what you tell me is true."
"Oh, yes, it's true. A short affair with a bloke called David Shiner. I don't know him, but she does, rather intimately by all accounts. She doesn't deny it."
"David Shiner? Good Heavens. He works at TMD you know. He's been with us for about eight or nine months, in our Marketing Department."
"He works for you, does he? Well, I guess he's got to work somewhere." Greg reacted with innocent surprise.
"Yes. And he's married too. A lovely wife, I met her at the summer barbeque. And some children, two I think, but it maybe three. Well, there's not much I can do about it. You know as well as I do, Greg, that we can't delve into employees' private lives these days. But I don't like this sort of thing, I do have some morals you know, that's why I attend All Saints." Ed paused to look at Greg, who was apparently listening, but seemed surprisingly relaxed, "Well, I may not be able to sack him, but if it's any consolation for you Greg, I'll be damned if he's going to get any promotion on my watch. And it was due, there was talk of making him Marketing Director. Well, over my dead body. Sorry, Greg, but I don't like this sort of thing."
"Well, I'm not too fond of it myself, Ed. Not from where I'm sitting." said Greg with a wry smile, that he hoped covered his inward feeling of mission accomplished, and more easily than he was expecting.
After Ed had left, and Greg had actually eaten his steak this time, he returned to the bar, to sit on what was rapidly becoming his favourite barstool.
As the bar slowly emptied George had more time to chat to Greg, and Greg decided to tell George his troubles. Between serving the occasional other customer, George listened patiently. At the end of his story, Greg looked at him, "And how many times have you heard that story?"
"This year? Three times. You're the fourth. And I'll say to you, what I said to all those other guys, life is what you make it."
"And how the hell is that meant to help me?"
"Well, if you want to make it back with your wife, then don't doubt that you can. But, if it was the final straw, then go out there and make yourself a different happy life. It's up to you, life is what you make it."
"The wisdom of barmen."
"Hey, don't knock it. Just drink to it. This one's on the house." And George poured Greg another whisky.