Mark did manage to make it down to Spain, taking it in easy stages. Krit, Tim, and Ian travelled with him. Feeling the drive down would be too much for the three-year-old, they went by train, though Mark suspected this was more for him than for Ian. They took the Eurostar to get to Paris, then TGV to Toulouse where Thomas met them with the Tucson to drive down into Spain.
Mark spent a relaxing ten days, lounging in the sun by the side of the pool, watching Thomas and Connor teaching the three-year-old how to swim.
Richard had once again been filming in Barcelona, though he was pleased to tell everybody that this was going to be the last time as they had reached the end of the final series. As he put it, eight weeks a year filming in Barcelona in high summer for five years was enough hell for anyone. As soon as filming had finished Joan and Richard made their way to Pamplona to join the group for the last four days at the villa. They then accompanied Mark and his party back to Sheffield by train, Richard pointing out that he was often mobbed by fans at airports but very rarely at train stations.
On the way back, Joan asked her father if he had heard from Johnny. He replied that he had not.
"Well, apparently he is on the warpath over Tim adopting Ian and your apparent approval of it. He's been on the phone to both Phillip and Emma saying you must be suffering from dementia," Joan informed him.
"I gather he has not spoken to you, then?"
"No, Johnny has not spoken to me since I told him what I thought of the way he treated Tim. After I had finished, I had to go and look up some of the words I'd used."
"What do Phillip and Emma think about all of it?" Mark asked.
"Well, Emma has considered her big brother a total idiot since she was four and he put her white teddy bear in the washing machine with his red football strip. As for Phillip, he just questions what century Johnny is living in."
"Good. I don't think there is much we can do about Johnny, to be honest."
"Unfortunately, I think I agree with you Dad, but he has got me worried."
"It's all this talk about dementia—he knows you have been ill, and I think he knows you have changed your will again since Ian joined the family. He may be thinking of using your supposed dementia to challenge your will if anything happened to you." Mark just nodded.
One immediate problem that Mark had to face once he got back to Sheffield was what to do about Tara. She had finished her access course and now had an offer of a place at Sheffield Hallam. Although she had said she would still like to work for Mark it was clear that she would not be able to do the hours that she had been doing for the last few months. Eventually, Mark came to the decision that he would have to get somebody else, but he did come to an arrangement with Tara for her to do ten hours a week, which was to consist mostly of taking Mark shopping and helping in the garden.
It was Mrs Wright who in the end forced the issue when she advised Mark that she was seventy on the twenty-eighth of September and would be retiring then. Mark could not believe that she was seventy. He always imagined that she had at least a half a decade on him. It was quite clear that with the loss of Mrs Wright coupled with the reduction in hours of Tara, Mark would need somebody else. When Mark said to Mrs Wright, "Oh, I really need to get somebody in now," she had a solution.
"My daughter-in-law, Agnes, is looking for some extra work. Her Sid is a useless hunk, even if he is my son, and she lost her part-time cashier's job when the supermarket moved to its new site. She doesn't drive, and the new location was too far to get to."
So, it was that Mrs Wright's one and a half days a week were replaced with a new Mrs Wright doing two full days and three half-days a week. If Mark had always considered the old Mrs Wright to be a formidable woman, the new Mrs Wright made her look like a pussycat. Within days of her taking up her post, she had the men in the house organised as she wanted them. But, Ian had her wrapped around his little finger.
Thomas and Connor came over for the last week in September before returning to London for their second year at UCL. It turned out that they had found an old MG Midget on their trip up through France coming back from the villa and were in discussions about buying it. The money the O'Mallys had put into the savings account for them would more than cover the cost of buying the car and getting it shipped back to the UK. What the boys wanted to know was, could they put it in Mark's garage, now that he no longer had the Merc and the Jag, so they could work on restoring it during their vacations.
The car arrived a couple of weeks later, on a trailer. The two delivery men carefully unloaded it and pushed it into the garage for Mark. Once they had gone, he phoned up the automotive shop at the works and asked if they could send one of their mechanics round? Mark might not be a member of the management team any more, but he still held sixty-five percent of the shares, which gave him some privileges.
Jeff, the senior mechanic, arrived a couple of hours later. "Afternoon, Mr Wainwright," he said when Mark opened the door to him. "What's this car you want me to look at?" Mark led him through to the garage, little Ian joining them on the way.
"Who's this, then?" Jeff asked, looking at the small boy who was peering at him from behind Mark's legs.
"My great-grandson, Ian."
"Christ, Mr Wainwright, that makes you sound old."
"Jeff, I am old; I'll be 75 next month."
"Yes, I suppose you must be. I've been with the firm thirty years and you were a director when I started as an apprentice."
"That, Jeff, had nothing to do with my age. It was the fact that I had married the boss's daughter."
Jeff laughed. "Good point. Wish you were still in charge; things have not been the same since you retired. None of the current management has ever worked on the shop floor. They never come down and walk the works like you did. Actually, since Mr Strange left, none of the managers, let alone the directors, spend any time on the shop floor. They have no idea of what is going on." Mark nodded, making a mental note to ask his nephew, Paul Strange, if he would consider coming back.
None of Mark's children had shown the slightest interest in the business. However, his sister's stepson had been interested. He had joined the business as an engineering apprentice when he left school. The lad could have gone to university but said he wanted to get a real job. He had done OK and risen up through the company to become production manager.
When Mark had been the managing director, he had thought a couple of times of bringing Paul onto the board but never had. He had always been a bit wary of nepotism and did not want any promotion to look like he was favouring family, even if the family connection was indirect. He had dropped strong hints to the board members when he was retiring that Paul would make a good addition. For some reason the hints had not been acted upon and soon after Mark had retired, Paul had moved on to Mattashion's Precision Engineering in Derby.
Jeff looked at the car and told Mark that he would need a good hour to check it over, so Mark left him in the garage and returned to the kitchen to teach Ian how to play draughts. Mrs Wright was just making a pot of tea for Mark when Jeff came back through from the garage.
"Pretty good car you've got there, though it will need some work."
"It's not my car, Jeff, it's the boys, and they will be working on it. Just wanted to check they were not wasting their time." Mark commented, then added, "How about joining me for a cup of tea."
"Fine, you're the boss."
"No, I'm not, Jeff, I stopped being the boss years ago."
"Yes, Mr Wainwright, but you're still the owner."
Mrs Wright placed a couple of mugs of tea before them, then added a plate of cakes before she vanished off into the main body of the house to start hoovering.
"Where's the little one?" Jeff asked.
"Having his afternoon nap," Mark informed him. "He's going to pre-school in the morning, ten to one, and he gets pretty tired out."
"They do at that age, all the running around they do."
"So, Jeff, tell me about the car," Mark requested.
"Well, the bodywork is in surprisingly good condition, as is the underside. Of course, it is a bit hard to tell until you strip the bodywork back to bare metal, but my guess is that there is nothing that will require major repairs. That is very unusual, since usually on these old Midgets you've got really bad rust problems, but there is hardly any on that one. Where's it been kept?"
"Down in the south of France," Mark responded.
"Ah, that would explain a lot. No salt on winter roads down there. It's the salt that does the damage.
"The engine and running gear are another thing. Could not turn the engine with the crank, so it must be completely seized up. All the hosing is perished and some of the piping joints look corroded. I suspect that the engine wasn't drained before it was put into storage, so there are likely to be a few problems as a result. They will have to strip the engine right down and then rebuild it.
"The diff has a crack in its casing; looks like it has been hit by something. That will all have to be repaired or replaced.
"The big job is going to be the wiring harness; it looks as if something has been chewing on it. All the wiring will need replacing and I suspect most of the cabling."
"So, it is repairable?" Mark asked.
"Oh, yes, Mr Wainwright, provided they understand what they are doing, and it won't be a quick job."
"Don't think that will be a problem, they've got a few years to work on it. Have you got any free time on Saturday?"
"Should be after ten—dropping the missis over at the daughters. Why?"
"The boys should be coming up to look at the car. Why don't you pop round and have a chat with them? You can also tell me more about what's going on at the works. If you want to bring a couple of the other lads along, do so." Jeff nodded. He understood what had just been said.
Tim picked Thomas and Connor up from the station on the Friday and drove them to Mark's. They immediately went to the garage to take a good look at the car.
"Do you know anything about cars?" Mark asked.
"A bit, we used to work on Mum's car from time to time," Connor responded. "Dad wouldn't let us touch his."
"A wise man," Tim quipped.
"Dad used to make me help him when he was working on cars," Thomas commented. A dark look passed over his face. Mark decided it was probably best not to pursue that point.
"Look, I've asked a friend of mine, a man named Jeff, to come and give you some advice about it. He's already had a look at it. He'll be coming sometime tomorrow after ten."
Jeff did not arrive sometime after ten, but dead on ten. Mark introduced him to Thomas and Connor then let them go off to the garage to talk about the car. Just before they went through Jeff turned to Mark and said, "I suggested to Barry and Bert that they might pop round, told them I'd be here at eleven-thirty. We should be through in the garage by then."
"By Barry, I presume you mean Barry Small, toolmaker, but who's Bert?"
"Bert Klever, Big Albert's son. He's in the machine shop, probably started just about the time you started to step back." Mark nodded, remembering Big Albert, difficult to forget what with being six foot six and massive, too, a shop steward who brooked no nonsense.
"By the way," Jeff added, "Barry's running the foundry now."
"Since when?" Mark queried.
"End of June. Mr Waters said that one foreman could cover both the foundry and the tool shop." Mark shook his head at this piece of information; it just did not make sense.
Actually, Jeff finished with the boys a bit earlier, just after eleven, and came through to the kitchen where Mark was playing with Ian.
"How's it gone?" Mark enquired.
"Fine. They know which end of a spanner is which and the basics of car mechanics. As long as they don't rush it, they should be fine. Told them what they need to do first and the order in which they should do the rest. Also gave them my contact details so if they get stuck, they can give me a call."
"Good. So, give me the lowdown on what's going on at the works."
"If you don't mind, Mark, I would prefer to wait till Barry and Bert arrive, as there's no point in going over the same thing twice and they can give you insights into things that I can't."
"OK," acquiesced Mark, "how about some tea? This terror is just about to be taken out by his dads."
"Yes, my grandson Tim and his husband Krit adopted Ian last year, or at least Krit adopted him in Thailand. Krit's Thai. Tim adopted Ian earlier this year as Krit's partner."
"So, your grandson is gay. How about that pair in the garage, they're a couple as well?"
"Yes, Thomas and Connor have been together since they were fourteen. They're both studying at the same university."
"I wish my Peter could find somebody," Jeff murmured, almost to himself. Mark recalled Peter, Jeff's youngest son. He was sure he had been invited to Peter's wedding.
"I thought your Peter was married?"
"He was; bloody expensive fiasco that was. Don't think it lasted six months before she went home to her mother. Can't blame the lass, because Peter fucking used her. He came out and admitted he was gay, thought if he got married, he could make himself straight. Didn't work and messed the girl's life up as well.
"Peter spends his time now going to clubs and picking blokes up for one-night stands. I worry myself sick over him at times, he's already had a couple of STDs and I'm scared he will cop something serious one of these days."
Just then, Krit came into the kitchen and called Ian to him in Thai. Krit and Tim had established that during the week and when they were outside the house, they would speak English to the boy but at weekends they would use Thai, as they did not want him to forget his native language.
"We're just off, Granddad," Krit said. "Should be back about four."
"Tell Tim I expect him to take some photos this time," Mark responded.
"I will." With that Krit picked up Ian and left the room. Jeff looked at Mark.
"They're looking at buying a property up on the moors, somewhere they can go at weekends and have space for Ian to run around. They were going to get a place in the city, but I told them not to bother, they may as well live here," Mark explained.
Barry and Bert arrived just gone eleven-thirty. Mark guided them through to the lounge and organised coffee for them, then got to the point. "From a couple of things that Jeff has said I gather things are not going well at the works. This surprised me as the figures have been looking good and profits are up."
"Yes, but at what cost?" Barry asked. "Profits and turnover may be up, but that is only good if it is sustainable. The way the management are is running the place now that's not the case. There has been no new machinery for at least the last three years and no new technology adopted." He stopped, a bit embarrassed at what he had said, and Mark indicated he should carry on. "The thing is, the current management have no real understanding of the company or how it works. They're never down on the shop floor, all they are interested in is the bottom line and the profit they can make. Anything they can sell off they are selling off. They've already sold off Electrical Systems and the word is that Advanced Materials is about to go." That surprised Mark. He noticed that Jeff wanted to say something.
"The thing is, Mr Wainwright, when you were running the company, it was your company. You owned it and you had an interest in the long-term well-being of the company. I don't think any of the present management have a long-term interest in the company. That's not good for us workers."
"Carry on," Mark instructed.
"Look, we have an interest in the company; it's our livelihood. A lot of us learnt our trade in the company and we're bloody good at what we do. Nowadays, though, there are very few companies that need our level of skill, at least in the UK. If the company goes under, our jobs go, and that means our livelihood has gone. It is unlikely that any company round here would need the level of skill most of us have, so we will have to take jobs way below our current level or move away, probably overseas."
"There has just been no new investment since you left," injected Bert. "Once the investment plans you had set in place had been implemented, that was that. They are just running the company, so they can get the most out of it, without putting anything in. At the moment we are just getting away with it, but in a year or two our current machinery is going to be so far out of date that we will not be able to compete on price or match the quality requirements."
"Is that right, Jeff?"
"Yes, the old man started the company on the basis of providing high-quality precision engineering. You took it over and ran it on the same lines. We machine prototype components and special one-off or low-volume parts. In automotive engineering, we make stuff for F1 and high-performance sports cars. Bert is making prototype components for the next generation of jet engines or parts for rockets. Barry in the foundry is casting things that are going into satellites and space exploration vehicles. Nothing we do is standard: everything we do is cutting edge. That means we need to keep at the cutting edge of tools and equipment and training to produce what we make.
"All right, we have CNC milling machines that can mill to within one ten thou., but the newest can do it to one-hundredth thou., and that is what people are asking for now. I know we have lost a couple of orders, what should have been really lucrative orders, in my department in the last nine months because we could not meet the specs required. I also know we are getting a higher percentage of stuff returned for not meeting requirements than we used to.
"The current management have no commitment to the long-term future of the company. They get their pay but most of their money comes in bonus payments, and that is based around profit and turnover. The bonus system gives them more when they bring in more, so the higher the turnover the more they get. So long as they can continue to increase both, they make more money. Sooner or later, and it's already begun, we're going to be losing business. Why should an F1 team pay thousands for us to do a lost wax cast of a one-off component and then spend weeks finishing it by hand when they can get it 3D printed for half the price and in a tenth of the time?
"Mr Wainwright, unless something is done pretty fast, the company will be dead within three years." Jeff finished, pick up his coffee cup and drained the remains of the now-cold coffee.
"I can see where you are all coming from," Mark commented. "I need to do a bit of digging. Is Marsha still in accounts?"
"Yes," Barry replied, "but not for much longer. She's sixty-five at the end of October, and they are saying she has to retire."
"Right, give me a few days and I'll get back to you. I presume I can contact you through Jeff?" Both Barry and Bert confirmed this was so.
Thomas and Connor came through from the garage, somewhat dirtier than they had been earlier, just as the three men were getting ready to leave. Connor thanked Jeff again for his help and said that they would be coming up in a couple of weeks and would start on the restoration then. For the time being they needed to sort out the tools and equipment that they would need. As the three men left, Mark sat down, slumped in the chair. Thomas turned and noticed him.
"Uncle Mark, what's wrong?" he asked.
"I've made a mistake?"
"Want to tell us about it?" Connor queried, going to sit in one of the chairs opposite Mark.
"Stop!" Connor froze, as Mark continued. "If you sit down in those clothes, you'll get grime all over the furniture, and then Mrs Wright will kill you. That is not something I want to face right now. Go off and get cleaned up and changed, and then we can talk." The boys went off and came back some fifteen minutes later, showered and dressed in clean clothes.
"Will we do?" Thomas asked.
"You'll pass muster," Mark replied, smiling at the boy's cheekiness. Then he quickly sobered. "Now sit down and listen, and don't interrupt till I've finished what I have to say." He then gave them a condensed version of what the men had told him, coupled with his own understanding of the situation.
"So, what's the problem?" Connor asked. "You don't run the company now."
"No, but I still own it or at least most of it and I put the management in place."
"It's about responsibility, isn't it?" Thomas commented. "If you take an action, you are responsible for the consequences of that action whether or not you intended them or even if you couldn't tell whether they were foreseeable or not."
"I think you might have been spending a bit too much time talking to Krit," Mark responded. "That sounds a lot like his philosophy, but essentially you are right.
"When my wife was taken ill, I stepped back from running the company, and eventually I sold part of it to fund my retirement. I got twenty million pounds for fifteen percent of the company, but I still own sixty-five percent and each of my children owns five percent. Some of the current directors bought some of the shares I sold but none holds more than two percent and most have a holding of less than one percent, if any. Barry was right when he told me they had no long-term interest in the company. They don't."
"But what can you do, Uncle Mark? You can't go back to running the company," Thomas commented.
"Of course, I can't but I can make sure somebody with more interest in its long-term future is running it."
Comments, questions are always welcome at Nigel Gordon