It is twelve years after Everard’s death. Septimus – now 35 – continues to grow Upland Hygiene; turnover is now £22 million (after five acquisitions) with operating profits of £3.7 million. Petunia became Upland’s sales director once the children (the eldest is 11) were all at school.
Septimus stared out of the window, absently rubbing at his chest – the pain this morning didn’t last long, but left him gasping. He promised himself a weekend in the Lakes and some long walks; he had to do something to cut down the stress.
For one thing he wasn’t at home much and although he saw Petunia in the office, occasional business meetings with one’s wife didn’t exactly amount to domestic bliss. He left the house before she did and rarely got home before 9pm – then there were Petunia’s sales trips which took her away for days, if not weeks, at a time. He never saw the kids, either. Lupin, his eldest, had been expelled from one school and was shaping up as a troublemaker. Charming, though, even at 11. Septimus sighed as he thought about the years ahead. It didn’t get any easier.
He turned as Dora, his FD, came into the room. ‘Morning, Septimus. Are you ready?’
‘I suppose so.’ Septimus smiled ruefully at his financial obergruppenfuhrer. Dora Argent had been in at the start of Upland Hygiene, and now had options on 8% of the business, like her fellow directors Robinson and Petunia. (As the boss’s wife Petunia had felt aggrieved at getting the same as the others, but Septimus rewarded those loyal to him.)
Now the other shareholders were here for an informal meeting to talk about flotation. Septimus and Dora walked down to the boardroom. Cosmia and Malachi were there, and Mrs. Bold – looking less flamboyant than usual. Septimus was petrified of the woman and kept well out of her reach. She’d been batting her eyelashes at him ever since buying into the company eight years ago, and Petunia loathed her. Septimus longed to buy her out, but she had some extremely valuable contacts in the States which he couldn’t afford to lose.
Leo Disciple was talking to the corporate broker whose name Septimus could never remember, and his faithful PA Nellie was there to take notes.
There was a general shuffling and scraping as everyone sat. ‘Morning, everyone,’ said Septimus. ‘So what’s to do about this proposed flotation? We’ve got three basic options: OFEX, AIM and the main market. Leo, do you want to run through them?’
‘… so there’s no point in OFEX if we want a serious war chest,’ said Septimus.
His accountant nodded. ‘If you want to raise a decent amount of money to make the next few acquisitions there’s only one real choice, and that’s to go for a full listing. But as Mike explained,’ said Leo, gesturing towards the broker, ‘you’d be a minnow on the Stock Exchange, and the market isn’t interested in small companies at the moment. Whether things will change in a couple of years, who knows. May well do. It’ll take you at least 18 months to get into shape for a float, anyway ….’
He was interrupted by the fire alarm, and a second later by the phone. Septimus snatched up the receiver and hushed everyone while he listened, the colour draining from his face. ‘I’ll be right down. Get everyone out of the factory but don’t let anyone leave the site. And turn the alarm off, for god’s sake.’
He put down the phone and turned back to his shareholders. ‘There’s been an explosion on No.3 line. Jeff Stoney’s been killed. There’s no fire – you don’t have to evacuate. Stay here till I get back, please.’ He grabbed his production director by the arm and headed for the door. ‘Robinson, Dora – come on.’
The others could hear Septimus cursing as he ran downstairs.
Malachi broke the shocked silence as he slumped back into his chair. ‘God…’
‘Who’s Jeff Stoney?’ asked Mrs. Bold.
Cosmia answered: ‘He’s an engineer. He only joined us last month. A PhD… Septimus had him marked as a high flyer.’ The irony of the phrase made Cosmia blench, and she sat down rather suddenly.
Leo fished a bottle of scotch out of a cupboard and pushed a glass into Cosmia’s hand. ‘Anyone else?’ he asked, waving the bottle.
‘We must go and help. We can’t just sit here,’ said Helvetica, sitting there.
‘We’d only be in the way, Mrs. Bold. Septimus asked us to stay here,’ said Nellie, firmly. ‘If you like, you can help me make us some tea.’
It was well past midnight by the time Septimus slid into his car to drive home. He sat in the dark enclosed silence for a few minutes, trying to summon the energy to turn the key in the ignition.
The health and safety people had been there for hours, poking round and asking questions till everyone could have screamed. Then the insurance woman had turned up, cold as ice. She was furious that Septimus had left the site before speaking to her, but he’d refused to let someone else go and break the news to Jeff’s wife. He’d taken Nellie with him so she could stay with the poor girl – they’d been married less than a year.
Septimus couldn’t think of a worse day in his life. He’d never seen anyone dead before, let alone a young man like Jeff – let alone someone he was responsible for.
He drove the 14 miles home without thinking, exhausted.
When he walked up to the house, he could see Petunia through the window, talking on the phone.
She jumped when he opened the door and dropped the phone. ‘Oh! I didn’t hear the car….’
Septimus hugged her tight, then taking her hand, led her upstairs, turning out lights as they went. As they got into bed, he asked: ‘Who were you talking to?’
He didn’t see his wife’s face as she said after a fractional pause, ‘Er, Cosmia. She’s still very upset – she rang to see if you were OK.’
Septimus pulled Petunia to him. ‘I’m very glad I’ve got you.’
At home thirty-odd miles away, Cosmia called to her husband from the bathroom. ‘Who was that on the phone?’
Kevin said smoothly: ‘Septimus. He just called to see if you were all right. He sent you his love.’
Lying back in bed, Kevin allowed himself a small smirk, then thought about the fun he’d have in the morning, telling Alaric about Upland’s disaster.