(What follows is an uncorrected excerpt from
Thomas Cregan's novel-manuscript "MY GARDEN".
Copyright Thomas Cregan; all rights reserved)
I strolled down the oak-paneled corridor, which was illuminated by the late-afternoon light streaming in from the massive windows overlooking the fertilizer plant where I worked. I was, on one hand, thinking about how I hadn’t taken a walk in the countryside for a long time; I missed marching through the grass, facing the biting winds and marveling at the English country sky with its constantly-changing configuration of clouds and its blue-gray expanse. My professional life—and, by extension, my life—was all contained spaces, in the lab and in my office, where I was paid to tinker with microscopes, fertilizer formulas, and endless paperwork. On the other hand, I was more than ready to receive my long-awaited promotion.
I had been the Head of Research & Development for over twenty-seven years. I had gotten the job through Brandon Harrington, grandson of the founder and current company head. Two decades back, Brandon and I had gone to Trinity College at Oxford. Not long ago, Brandon took over as President. At first, I had expected it would be uncomfortable to report to Brandon. However, our new working relationship served more to prove to me that no real friendship had ever existed. Our relationship revolved around polite exchanges about the company’s daily goings-on. My wife, Charlotte, was friendly enough with Brandon’s wife Isabella, and they did socialize together, attending the same dinner parties. And now that Brandon had become interested in a political career, it was understood by me that I myself would take over Brandon’s responsibilities and become CEO.
I stopped in front of my boss’s door. I stared at the leather-covered surface, decorated with a border of polished brass studs. I raised my hand to the knot of my tie. Chief Executive Officer, I mused. Very American. I would no longer be a man of science. I would no longer be developing fast-dissolving fertilizers and creating cheaper ways of synthesizing nitrogen and potassium. After two decades in the same position, I was more than ready for a change. And, frankly, I could use the money. Although I had inherited Shute House, a relatively-modest manor house—with a suite of formal rooms on the ground floor, five bedrooms on the second floor and a small servants’ wing—my salary had never been enough to maintain my family’s lifestyle and keep Shute House intact. As head of Shute House, I considered myself the steward of the manor, of its lands, and of the family legacy. After all, I had inherited Shute House from my father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who had built the Portland stone house and assembled thirty acres of land for a gentleman’s farm at the end of the nineteenth century. I was responsible for the house, and its residents, who, now that the children had grown, consisted of myself, Charlotte, and, for the past decade, my father’s youngest sister, my Aunt Jessica. Charlotte had never liked the idea of Aunt Jessica moving in, but I embraced the distraction. At 94, she didn’t do much beside play bridge, but, she had a pleasant demeanor, and my and my aunt’s rapport grew over the years into a true friendship.
My hand rose to the over-sized door. I knocked. Brandon’s secretary answered with a raspy-sounding “Come in.” I casually walked into her office and greeted the old woman with an upbeat “Good afternoon.” She peered at me with mild annoyance, as if I were interrupting her tea break. She pressed a lever on a towering mahogany speaker-box and said, “Mr. Stevenson, sir.” There came a muffled response. “Mr. Harrington will see you now,” she told me.
I walked into Brandon’s office, taking in the deep colors of the oil paintings, their thick gilt frames, and the oriental carpets that covered almost every surface. Even after all these years, the pipe smoke in Brandon’s office never failed to stun me. Smoking was vigorously prohibited everywhere at the plant except for the employee’s smoking area, a good thousand yards away from any working facility, in a shed next to the main entrance. Not that I had anything against smoking, but among the tons of fertilizers they manufactured it was imprudent, if not dangerous. With all those compounds and elements being mixed, blended and combined, only a fool with no knowledge of chemistry would think of lighting a match in such a volatile environment. But Brandon was the boss; what could I say?
Brandon’s heartily-fed frame slouched in a crimson leather chair behind the expanse of his gleaming walnut desk. In front of the desk sat a pair of wooden chairs, each with a touch of padding on the seat. All of my previous moments in either of these chairs had been brief. Whenever I sat to present his budgets it never took long, and any request by me was almost always met. Brandon was seemingly more interested in quail hunting and in becoming a Member of Parliament than anything else.
Brandon was silent as he focused on lighting his pipe. I glanced at the side-table stocked with crystal decanters. Scotch, whisky, sherry and port. He knew them well. Usually Brandon would propose a tipple. My mouth was, in fact, rather dry—the potato soup at lunch had been bland, yet salty. It being Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t have objected to a splash of Scotch. But Brandon didn’t offer one. He was still preoccupied with his pipe.
Finally, Brandon squeaked back in his chair, took a long draw on the pipe and then exhaled forcefully enough to flutter his lips and scatter some of the smoke. “Well, old man,” he began. He waved his pipe like a conductor’s baton, brandishing it erratically before his one-person orchestra, “I’ll make it quick, Tony.”
I was very ready for a celebratory drink. I figured we would toast after the announcement—perhaps Brandon had the foresight to order a bottle of bubbly. I leaned forward, inhaling a dose of smoke-tinged air. I waited.
“Tony, we’re letting you go.”
I froze; my mind raced in those silent seconds, until I assured myself that Brandon’s following thought had to be “...from your current position, in order to promote you to CEO.”
But Brandon just pursed his lips and nodded his head in self-approval; his cheeks puffed out as he drew on his pipe.
As the realization dawned on me that no words were to follow Brandon’s first statement, my vision grew blurry and my mouth turned pasty. Another minute or two passed in silence. Had I heard correctly? My body felt heavier, waterlogged, even. There was a strange disconnect between what was going on in my mind and the smoky confines of Brandon’s office. Surely this was a mistake, a grave mistake. I was going to be the CEO, how could this pipe-puffing buffoon suddenly be firing me? It must be a joke. But Brandon was not the joking type, and in fact seemed very sure of himself, ensconced behind his hulking desk.
Slowly, I absorbed the fact that I’d just gotten sacked—fired. But I was too young, I was too old—I couldn’t contemplate what it all meant.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Brandon finally continued. “You probably sensed it yourself. We’re cutting back across the board. There’s talk among the workers about a strike. So many things—it will all soon make sense to you, Tony, I’m sure.”
The only thing I could do was tell myself to nod my head. It was a feeble nod, like a person falling off to sleep while sitting upright. It was a nod of acquiescence, a slight downward tick of my head, and it seemed to acknowledge my expendability, my worthlessness and my delusion in one single movement.
Forget any bubbly, I needed a real drink, and a big one at that.
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