There are too many unanswered questions for Ian Harbinger - but paramount - where did his Aunt Anastasia die? In a sense of loyalty for her he is determined to resolve the question, his search takes him from ‘Homemead’, the family property to the trackless deserts of Namibia. What awaits him becomes totally life changing!
Everything about him seemed in a state of aching, or was pain a more apt description? Neck, shoulder blades, to say nothing of the noise that since yesterday had definitely decided to take up residence inside his ears…
The tide was now in the process of slowly advancing. Early morning sunlight induced a clearly def ined contrast of lighting, creating an overall appearance that is both recognised and appreciated by landscape artists frequenting this part of our coastline.
The inspiring view from his apartment window was not on this occasion apparent to Ian Harbinger. To escape his ailments he was sitting entombed by cushions in the relative comfort of the lounge sofa. He was consumed in a total sense of persistent worry, confirmed by the fact he was in the process of sipping yet another cup of black coffee.
He watched the array of subtle changes of light influencing the estuary view. His thoughts were not allowed to be there, they were fixed on one dominating subject matter aware there were to be no surprises. Facing him was a simple and vital task that needed his urgent attention; open the three envelopes addressed to himself, and then read their enclosed contents.
The letters requiring his vigilance were arranged neatly on the glass-topped table in front of where he was seated. Occupying the table was also a letter opener, he mused to himself at least that is ready for use. It did not however alter the fact that for nearly two hours it had laid there waiting in a redundant state.
Lack of discipline on his part had started to instigate noticeable stress levels, aided no doubt by his generous intake of black coffee. The austere official looking envelopes had their origins from HM Revenue & Customs, with the other two generated from banks, including his own business bank situated in Keswick.
Persisting for years, Ian had a self-inflicted and irritating trait concerning his incoming mail. Having recognised the possible content from the actual envelope, and if a concern existed to what a letter might regard, it would remain unopened. Eventually of course, following a protracted period of time, a day of reckoning would arrive and their contents finally revealed!
On this particular morning there appeared no exception to his irrational habit. He pondered on the realms of positive thinking, remembering those self-help books that are bought, read, and attempts made to act upon. The ‘power of positive thinking’ totally persuaded him this had to be his logical solution.
What is the worse that these letters might contain? After all he had passed through real dangers to life out on the drilling rigs in the North Sea. That was his job and his working background, there he would have total command of his circumstances. Given a well-known saying, that is supposed to be true, ‘worse things happen at sea’.
Outside the apartment window birds that he recognised as swallows were enjoying a virtual fly past. Soon if he had remembered correctly they would need to undertake the task of departing to their overseas wintering grounds. By contrast on the chimneystack of the old house visible below, a clandestine group of resident jackdaws were performing a quarrelling routine. Not until the order of importance for these birds had again been restored would there exist a fragile semblance of peace.
He was in the process of consoling himself. There are always difficult situations in our lives, which leave us no option other than to face them. He called out aloud, ‘Come on it has to be done, they are only letters.’ With noticeable determination he reached out and took hold of the letter opener, there followed a period of methodical ease as the envelopes that waited their execution with the letter opener were systematically dealt with, allowing at last an exposure of their contents.
His daunting task was showing signs of progressing. Removing the first of the three letters it emerged in an upside down position, he even attempted to read it in a reversed format. He shuddered, knowing whichever way it would be equally disastrous.
Since his arrival on the previous evening, these letters had awaited his attention; now by his actions they had been opened.
Ian however did not deserve their enclosed implications.
Appearing like a regimental arrangement the communications were fully decreased and laid out on the table. A pocket calculator had joined them, the last entered figures still remaining visible on the screen by the power supplemented from the window’s sunshine. In consequence all three letters produced what would manifest and disclose a series of losses and probably that of personal despair, there were no surprises. He remained rooted, slumped in a protective wedge shape on the lounge sofa. This was too much to comprehend, what a stupid idiot he had allowed himself to become. But why? What a state of affairs; how could all this have happened?
Ian’s stomach nerves were as tight as elastic string contained within a golf ball. A glass of water occupied the place where the coffee cups had been, headache tablets taken earlier were as yet to have any effect. His immediate future plans he had worked towards, focused on with a yearning for a change of life direction were appearing as if in tatters.
He accepted the fact, now what he had read was having the effect of taunting him, although he tried to remain cynical about his whole financial situation. By some strange macabre reasoning he likened his letters to that of bodies extracted from their respective body bags. He tried desperately to reason, snap out of it, be sensible, you need to get back in control. Face up to these hard facts, it is not like storms hitting a drilling platform out at sea, they do eventually blow through. In contrast he had no option other than to confront the issues, the letters had outlined his current predicament in both a transparent and precise way, his financial state was more unstable than he imagined!
The attendant jackdaws on the old house were once more fiercely squabbling over the territories that existed between the chimney pots. At least they have a simple, and what appears an uncomplicated life, unlike what had materialised out of all proportion for me to resolve.
Travel tiredness was having an inherent effect, resulting from yesterday’s long journey, which had been fraught with endless difficulties. Due to prevailing weather conditions which affected flying, the company helicopter was almost cancelled prior to pick up from the rig. Following take off it was assigned in battling with head winds before eventually reaching its destination in Aberdeen. Ian considered he was still travelling, endorsed by pains emanating seemingly from every muscle, accompanied by this noise persisting in his ears. He was not complaining, but he rather favoured the noise from the drilling rigs anytime.
It did not end there, the ongoing flight to Bristol for an obscure reason was suffering delays. On finally achieving his next stop, the car hire company had made an error with dates that of course curtailed his booking.
An accumulation of events had transpired prior to leaving the rig. At the last possible moment he was organising schedules for less experienced work colleagues, amounting to an avuncular list of do’s and don’ts which arguably really needed his attention; a result of his considerable experience in the oil industry.
However, his leave entitlement was long overdue, and he was elated to have escaped, subject to receiving any communications via the company satellite phone in his possession. For him it was rather like encountering that situation known as paddling against the tide of life.
From Bristol the motorway resembled a sea of rain, causing significant flooding where it goes through the Somerset Levels. Do I have to tell myself it is the effect of global warming, knowing one of the main reasons that has supposedly caused this situation, then hang my head in shame, fossil fuel, and spending over 20 years of my working life supporting the oil industry. In blunt terms this amounts to one of the prime root issues regarding our planet’s current causes of concern. Then what is my commitment?
Drilling even deeper attempting to hit new oil reserves thought impossible a few years ago.
Recollections of yesterday’s journey were not helping his predicament. No, enough was enough. A walk was called for, I need some fresh air. What was currently hanging in tatters would have to wait. The path leading to the estuary was waiting his urgent attention, he required thinking time and the sanctuary of some space. Somehow he must attempt to resist a habit of a lifetime; the figure of an ‘ostrich’ engrossed with burying its head in the sand.
He was mindful of one thing before leaving the apartment; the company phone was rather unceremoniously thrown on the kitchen table, the last thing he wanted were problems from the other rig engineers adding to his current burden, let them sort things. Defiantly his thoughts concluded on a salient note, this is my overdue leave it belongs to no one else.
Leaving the apartment he glanced reassuringly towards the parked hire car, noticing in daylight the vehicle’s colour, having travelled the last part of yesterday’s irksome journey in gathering darkness. No need for the car today, as there exists a gratifying walk towards the destination of the estuary. Zero carbon emissions, he laughed feeling somewhat smug, only my pure footprints, tell that to our esteemed government. His continuing defiant and assertive mood was beginning to percolate into his subconscious.
One of the main reasons that Ian together with his younger sister Julia had combined to buy their holiday accommodation on the Devon coast, reflected in the fact of the wonderful inspiring locations. Or put more simply at least from Ian’s point of interest it was a good investment, a desirable property with views that were superb, no arguments. Julia was able to spend more of her time there, describing the apartment to most of her arse aching friends as that essential bolt hole to escape from where her work took her, that of London’s fashionable area of Chiswick.
Joining the narrow lane he became embraced in a consoling feeling that the time of summer days were starting to wind down, you could notice the vestiges of early morning mists remaining noticeable on the overgrown grass, latticed with spiders’ webs that only nature can replicate. He was conscious of those letters waiting his attention, but at this precise moment this walk was his undeniable therapy. It would not avert his problems, but it was that much needed relief, and nobody was going to stop that.
I have to think… I need to think and really hard; he was inaugurating a self-assessment process, believing this must help somehow?
The background to all these events, how did he allow himself to arrive in this situation, to be misled and cheated by those that he knew and trusted? Face the facts he told himself, accept and recognise this cruel imposition. You have had your face pushed into the dirt, it’s happened and unlikely to be resolved. He walked on wanting those headache tablets to take hold.
He started to recall the financial history appertaining to his hotels. This amounted to a joint business venture that was to mature and consolidate with its financial fulfilment; the investment had been his future. Ian had on occasions fallen in a trap that allowed him to be described as a selfish person, although not necessarily with any malice. In an analysis for his defence he considered himself a man of self-preserve, assured in life that his personal right belonged only to him. Now this attitude of self-preservation was undergoing its most stringent test; that of the embezzlement by his business partner. She had secretly contrived and succeeded in cheating him of his capital at the highest possible level.
The narrow lane gradually receded, into his view came the long sweep of the estuary, even the air seemed different, invigorating, totally up-lifting. His train of well-ordered thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a distant but altogether familiar note. A determined call that sounded regimental in its concept, the crow from a cockerel, it appeared to be originating from the yard of a small farm that he was about to pass. A group of hens were hunched together enjoying the liberty of their free range orientation, scurrying as chickens do in a perpetual search for food. He looked on with genuine interest, but his attention was no longer there, as his mind had become a receptor flooded by a series of incoming memories, causing him to drift back to a time of his past and that of his childhood.
Another farm in another county had all but eclipsed his present location, for him a far off different world. For whatever reason he was unable to comprehend, there existed something of a transformation with recollections and events of a schoolboy.
In his reincarnation he was proud and equally important, seeing himself all those years ago carrying an old dented galvanised bucket lined with matted straw. His pride was to demonstrate self-determination whilst performing the daily ritual of visiting the chicken coops, enjoying the privilege of carefully collecting the farm eggs for his aunt.
Ian’s noticeable appearance along the exposed estuary bank caused the flocks of wading birds to scream away in a universal flight of alarm. His panoramic view across to the sea revealed that the tide had already completed the morning task, those ebbing waters had left a glazed signature as evidence of its previous encroachment. Shadows created by incoming cloud were now responsible for the loss of morning sunshine. That no longer mattered, as what he saw was a reassuringly deserted landscape. This is what I need, personal solitude; my recipe for valuable thinking time.
An ancient bleached tree trunk resided above the high tide mark, providing a perfect, if not an entirely comfortable resting place. From this newly acquired seat he clearly viewed the meeting of the two rivers, their independent water courses having journeyed through the county, flowed as a united front of solidarity to finally discharge into the approaching sea.
He remained equally calm and self-disciplined, concentrating his thoughts on the English Lake District, and his involvement with the financial investment of his two hotels. The morning’s location seemed far removed from where his thoughts lay, but he accepted his immediate environment was providing valuable escape. To himself there was an agreement that the process with his recollections should be straightforward. What was that quoted phrase? ‘Begin at the beginning… and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’ It’s from such a classic book, but on this occasion the title escaped him, but for now that was unimportant.
Begin at the beginning, that was easy in recalling. Was I wrong with my plan to stay with the oil industry and bring in someone whom I knew as a business partner would have total control managing the hotels? Other people do the same thing, it made so much sense with my continuing disposable income simply directed to the hotel business investment. Now with hindsight that was my undoing, and it left me financially vulnerable. I was ruled by a passion for success in the hospitality business, and I proved myself, but failed in one department overlooking the vital fact that my eyes and ears were not there.
The first of the two hotels was the most demanding investment. Purchased at what would have been described as an attractive price, as anyone in the immediate area would endorse. It was waiting for that breath of fresh air the right calibre of new owners could bring. Success with this hotel was achieved, despite what could only be described as healthy and aggressive competition already entrenched in the surrounding tourist region.
One year into the running a decision was agreed upon for the hotel’s refurbishment. The plan that was devised required a substantial capital investment. How delighted he had been by the fact it was generated without any form of financial loan. Ian thought back to those heady times of lucrative on target bonuses, the oil industry knew no boundaries. In comparison with the current climate of credit restrictions he was finding it hard to believe it took place, but it did. These inf lated bonuses were allowed to be channelled into the vortex of his hotel investment.
We waited in a state of nervous anticipation to review the outcome. Thinking now it only seems like yesterday, our decision and investment worked, the bottom line figures spoke volumes.
We could have kicked ourselves, why did we not capitalise with this refurbishment earlier? But no matter, it was done and worked to our advantage.
The English Lake District where the hotels are situated is inundated with every conceivable variety of outlets, both privately and group owned with the under belly of the hospitality industry eroded by countless guest houses, and of course our beloved B&B establishments. The strategy to stay ahead, and remain there was not always the easiest of tasks. True you could list up all the factors that spell out success, but it firmly comes down, if you ever need reminding, to that of your staff commitment combined with the quality of dedicated leadership.
From the onset Ian’s associate as his hotel business partner was a woman whose particular skills originated from a background of knowledge accumulated in hotel management, and that was an education she accrued in particular from the best of the bunch. It became a pleasure to witness her superb and uncanny flair reflected in anticipation of customers’ requirements. Demonstrating a quality performance to the point of being infectious with any of her staff who happened to be present.
He pondered, you really could assess any hotel’s strength by the all important service apparent at its front of house, like a job interview, that’s often decided in the first few seconds! All that aside you have to face up that eventually your hotel involvement progresses down to what your accountant wants to witness. The first investment was definitely on the surge of ongoing success.
His business associate was excelling herself, Ian was usually domicile on some windswept drilling platform, but certainly not all at sea with his ‘onshore’ business concerns. True, certainly with regret he accepted that he was the silent partner in the hotel involvement. However the partnership revolved around that dirty word called money; the commodity making our world go round. Then he never lost sight of the fact it was his sole 100% capital investment.
Where was all this now? There was an invasion of a noticeable low spot gaining access to his managed train of thoughts, understandable considering how he was feeling. How desperately he had wished to turn back the clock over the last few months. The tree trunk that at first provided some comfort was now having a reverse effect. Accept hard facts, like what you are sitting on, you cannot turn back time. Even if you are old enough to remember blue police telephone boxes, now used successfully by a certain ‘time travelling doctor’. Who would have thought this stream of seemingly useless memories could possibly invade his thinking space?