The old man shuffled across to the sink and emptied his cup of tea down the drain.
Couldn’t drink more than half a cup nowadays. Would the boy never remember?
He rinsed the cup and stood for a moment, catching his breath and looking out of the big window at the snowy garden.
Just a few more days.
A long time he’d been doing it. A very long time. More years than he could count. All good things had to end, though. Pass it all on to the boy. He’d be all right. They’d take care of him. Safe hands, they were. Knew the operation inside out. Slick business it was now. Not like the old days, when it was just him and a couple of his little helpers working out of that damp old cave.
He smoothed his long beard and pottered back to the armchair, wheezing gently.
It was all so difficult nowadays. Everything took longer and hurt more. He used to take it all in his stride, bounding from one destination to the next, carefree and jolly. But it was no fun any more. Not when he struggled to walk up the stairs. He was longing for it to be over, to put his feet up and just do nothing.
He stopped a few feet from the chair to allow the stabbing pain to subside.
Perhaps he should admit defeat and hand over to the lad now? What was to be gained by carrying on stubbornly for one last hurrah? Nobody would know the difference. Not that they seemed to care nowadays. Might as well mechanise the whole process and be done with it. He certainly got no pleasure from it any more. He hated the cold, loathed confined spaces, his ankles swelled up when he flew, and he was allergic to soot and hay. Not exactly an ideal fit for the job. He’d never have passed the interview nowadays. Jack it all in and take his well-earned retirement a couple of weeks early, why not?
But no. That wouldn’t be fair on the boy. Not at such short notice. Operation of this size, he’d need a whole year to get used to it. Best to struggle on somehow. It would be all right. Satnav took care of most of it anyway. Not like the old days, when he had to do it all himself.
The giddiness came back in great big waves, overwhelming him. He flopped down into the chair, sweat breaking out on his forehead. He felt clammy and weak.
Ow ow ow.
He closed his eyes and tried to calm his breathing, like the doctor had said.
A little shuteye, that would do it. Just a short nap. Save the old energy for the big day.
He laid his head against the back of the deep armchair and drifted off and very soon the kitchen was far far away.
The young man cradled his cup of tea and looked out of the office window at the snowy garden below, thinking.
Should he broach the subject now? Everyone knew it was time, even the littlest of the thousands of helpers. The trouble was, the old boy was stubborn. He’d been doing it for years, thought nobody else could do it.
How to tell him that it was the brand that everyone loved, not the individual? As long as the tradition was respected, that was the main thing. No matter how big it became, it needed the personal touch. And he’d take care of that, when the time came. Of course he would. It was a huge responsibility, but one that he relished. He’d been bred for it, after all.
But the old man was stuck in the past. ‘Resistant to change’ was the expression these days. Couldn’t accept that things moved on. And he seemed intent on seeing it through, never mind his health or whether he could actually do the job any more.
“I’ll be fine. One last go, then it’s all yours. Humour your old man, will you?”
So he’d agreed, against his better judgement, and had smoothed it over with the workforce.
He could see why the old man was reluctant to let go. Of course he could. But somebody had to make him see the reality. It was a young man’s game. Just one night a year, of course, but what a night! And there was all the day-to-day stuff, too, that the old man had increasingly neglected in recent years. So much correspondence to deal with. When the time came, he’d make sure to read each one personally, no matter how long it took.
The personal touch. That was what was needed.
He made a decision and pushed his chair back. Go downstairs and tackle it head on. Don’t take no for an answer. Tell him he was concerned about the health aspect. Let him see how worried he was. Which he was.
He caught sight of himself in the hall mirror. Beard might need a bit of work, come the day. Not as bushy as the old man’s.
He went downstairs and into the kitchen, talking before the door was fully open.
“Dad…there’s something I’ve been meaning to bring up. I think it’s time we had an honest chat.”
No answer. Just a stillness that seemed to have its centre in the chair in the corner.
And then, in an instant, he went from not knowing to knowing.
The old man wasn’t having a nap. The rosy cheeks, beloved of so many, had lost their lustre, the jolly laugh silenced for ever.
“Oh no. Dad. No.”
He rushed across to the chair, knelt and laid his head in the old man’s still lap, heaving silent sobs.
After a minute he stood up, took three deep breaths, smoothed his beard and steadied himself.
This is it, he thought. Here and now. Got to be professional.
He buckled for a moment under the burden of the massive task ahead of him, and the guilt and grief that accompany loss.
Then he pulled himself together.
No time to waste. Only two weeks to go. Business as usual. Plenty of time for all that afterwards. Keep the operation running smoothly.
He picked up the phone and dialled the number.
“It’s me. Listen…I need you to come round right now…yes, urgent…I’ll tell you when you get here.”
He put the receiver down and waited for the future to begin.