"The problem is, Dave," Debbie was saying, "these numbers just don't add up." I was only half listening.
We were, finally, in our new 'home'. It was getting on for full winter, already, and it hadn't been the easiest of moves. Well, any move is supposed to be the third most traumatic event in anyone's life, but this was especially difficult. After all, we were moving four separate 'households' – and an office – simultaneously from London to deepest Cumbria, had no real communications at the delivery end – well, we'd sorted out a landline but the various drivers wouldn't be able to use their mobiles – and, worse of all, we'd left Naz in charge of the southern end of the operation. OK, so Seff was down there, too, but in theory she was mainly keeping up some sort of skeleton service from our rapidly emptying offices. So it had been a long and tiring day. And what I really did not need was a business meeting ... which was just what Debbie appeared to be planning to give me.
Bronstein Associates (Europe) had survived its various birthing crises and was now a fully fledged legal entity with – more or less – guaranteed funding streams. We had, finally, moved to our newly refurbished temporary accommodation and could even see – when the torrential rain let up, a bit – a large blue plastic tent under which, allegedly, a variety of local artisans were labouring to convert a 19th Century slate works into an ultra-hi-tech eco-office and accommodation complex. Personally, I felt that all this merited some sort of celebration – yeah, OK, I did mean a drink – but instead I was sitting on a packing case while Debbie metaphorically waved a fucking spreadsheet at me. Honestly, I wasn't in the mood.
Which made it something of a welcome relief that the vague gurgling which interrupted the proto-confrontation turned out to be what passed for a doorbell. And even more so when Debbie stomped off to answer it and found that our first visitors were Rosie – technically a colleague, given that we were paying her for local liaison work – and a very young looking red-haired woman who introduced herself as Linda. Which made her, I realised, our de facto landlord, given that she worked as PA to the owner of the timeshare complex we were lodging in. Not that that mattered a whit, given that I rather rapidly spotted the key fact that they were holding a bottle of champagne and some glasses...
Debbie, as it happens, was polite enough to forget her financial preoccupations for a moment and, after a brief three way discussion – no-one seemed to think it worth including me – it was agreed that our chaotic arrangements were not conducive to the quaffing of bubbly ... and we all headed down the pub.
The Albion was pretty much as I remembered – hardly surprising, given that it was only a couple of months since I'd been there – and Rosie just as I'd remembered her. Except, that is, for what might be termed the Debbie effect: Even as we were waiting for Linda to get back from the bar with the drinks, she launched into a detailed account of the work she'd commissioned on our behalf and the progress to date thereof. None of which was – or should have been – news to me, given that I'd signed it all off, but seemed to be a bit of a red rag as far as Debbie was concerned. Things did not seem to be brightening up as rapidly as I'd hoped.
And maybe that was hardly a surprise, I thought, glumly, as the conversation stuttered and faltered around me. After all, I had been in Germany for most of the time since we'd managed to secure the operation's future – working to deliver our first big contract, doing so on site just because it was the first one – and yes, probably hadn't been working as inclusively as I'd have liked. Then again, Debbie herself had taken to running her bit of the project – arranging the move, sorting out a portfolio of future contracts – pretty much as a personal fiefdom, using Gareth and Seffi as assistants when the latter wasn't over with me, while Naz seemed to have retreated into himself a bit ... working to get his wind turbine ideas into actual production, continuing to improve the software that the whole edifice depended on, generally being available to help where needed but, somehow ... peripheral.
And maybe I should have noticed – or we should have noticed – but, hell, yeah, we were all really busy, we weren't facing an imminent crisis, for a change, and ... I guess we must have taken our previous unity of purpose for granted, a bit. Which was all well and good, but, I felt, with Debbie and me already here, Gareth due up tomorrow and Seff and Naz a couple of days after that ... it was a hell of a time for the thing to implode. So maybe I should stop such ponderous prognostication and do something about it.
I did. I went and bought another round.
++ +++ ++++ +++++ ++++ +++ ++
When I got back from the bar I found Debbie had been summonsed to take a phone call – she gave me a vague wave from the lobby as I passed – and Rosie and Linda looking a bit shell shocked at our table. Rosie broke the silence.
"Good to see you and all that, Dave, but what the hell have you done with the Debbie we used to know? You know, the real one, the one with a sense of humour? The one it was actually fun to spend time with?"
Yes, well, I thought, shrugging ... and there's a question. I said something non-committal about it having been a long, hard day but that was never going to satisfy Rosie – a woman never knowingly under-informed.
"Come to that, what happened to the relaxed and frankly chaotic you we saw last time? You've hardly said a word since we met you. And what the hell happened to the great romance you both spent so much time talking about. You know, the one that was about to overwhelm the pair of you? Not my business, I know, but you don't seem to be behaving like a couple newly entwined in the joys of – umm – couple-dom?"
Well, maybe that was because we weren't, I thought, but again chose to give her a vague sort of reply, not least because I could see Debbie herself ending her phone call and I didn't really want her to find me discussing stuff with Rosie that I'd never – to be brutally honest with myself, for a change – even tried to discuss directly with her. Not that that satisfied Rosie, of course, but further discussion was effectively precluded by Debbie's return to our happy little gathering.
++ +++ ++++ +++++ ++++ +++ ++
With, it turned out, news that the last of the delivery vans was currently rather more than axle deep in water – the beck had burst its banks again – and wasn't going anywhere in a hurry. No matter, I thought – a day or so's delay would hardly matter and, perhaps luckily, the van in question was mostly carrying my own stuff so it was hardly mission critical if the damn thing got swept completely away. I said as much and got a distinctly scathing reply from Debbie – along the lines of it being typical of me just not to care – which I felt was a bit unfair ... and which also deeply discomfited our companions. Things might have got even more uncomfortable if Rosie's sister, Kath, hadn't chosen that moment to arrive in the pub.
She came over to the table looking a bit damp but otherwise the strapping figure of outdoor womanhood – even if she was actually an IT teacher – that I'd got to know. Only this time she didn't seem too happy.
"Well," she said, "here I am, risking life and limb to drive through hell and high water – literally in the last case – to get to a welcoming party and I arrive to find you all sitting like you're at a teetotallers wake ... god, even some of your drinks look like they've been sitting there for ages..."
She left the thought hanging but you could see a small wave spread round the table as people visibly tried to get stuff together. Even Debbie, I was pleased to see, made a bit of an effort to be more sociable, though said effort didn't immediately appear to extend in my direction. And so the evening progressed.
Actually, it began to go a lot better – after all, both Debbie and I had known Kath – and in Debbie's case Rosie and Linda's aunt, too – rather intimately, so while we might not be communicating terribly effectively between ourselves, we did at least manage to function within the group. Surprisingly, what drew Debbie out most was Kath's production of the final report of the ecological survey of our new site by students of one of her colleagues – the aforementioned aunt. She'd seen the data before, of course, but even I had to admit that someone had done a really good job of presenting the results on paper. They'd also produced a full scale action plan for 'enhancing the landscape value' which Debbie seemed enthralled by – without, I noticed, quibbling at all at the associated costs. Well, each to their own priorities and all that, I thought, simultaneously peeved by the inconsistency and happy to see her looking enthusiastic for a change.
And then I chucked in my pet idea for development: Putting up a full scale wi-fi net across the village – hell, why not have hotspots throughout the entire valley – so we could at least use skype/VOIP for mobile communications even if we couldn't get a conventional signal. This went down quite well with the locals – at least, after I'd explained what Voice Over Internet actually was – but I could pretty much see Debbie reckoning up the costs even as I was setting out the idea. Well, fuck you, I thought – I'm the one who thought up the idea for the bloody company (in a way, anyway, I mentally corrected myself) and I was the one currently bringing in the money. So maybe I should have some say in how it gets spent?
I didn't say anything out loud, of course, but there it was again – a definite chill in the air.
So it wasn't entirely a surprise, when I was next heading back from the toilets, to find myself accosted in the back bar by Kath – with a determined look on her face.
"OK, Dave," she said, backing me into a corner of the otherwise empty room, "What the fuck is going on? You and Debbie should be wrapped around each other like boa bloody constrictors, according to the assumptions both of you seemed to working to when you were last up here, but it seems like you're finding it difficult to exchange a civil word. So what went wrong?"
I muttered something about needing to get back, about not needing this conversation at the moment, but she wasn't having any of it.
"I think you'll find – actually, I know you'll find – that my sister is having pretty much the same conversation with Debbie even as we speak. We are sisters, you know. Quite good at co-ordination and communication and all that sort of stuff – at least between ourselves."
Clearly, I had no way out. I was, in fact, in a corner, I was faced with Kath, who did not seem in the mood to drop the subject and... , so
I explained. As best I could. Which probably wasn't very adequately...