Saulius’ arrival is a source of excitement in a quiet English village.
It wasn’t what he intended.
There may be one in the house, but there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden. Only the lazy river that flows from under the bridge. A lane leads past my thatched cottage, across the bridge and onto a shallow embankment through the old water meadows opposite, before joining the main road and heading off to the big town. All very ‘chocolate box’. Or it was before the floods of ’68.
Our village was lucky to survive. A couple of feet higher and the water would have been washing at the walls of the cob cottages. Not good for buildings made of clay and straw. The old stone bridge was not so lucky and it collapsed under the force of the flood, leaving only the abutments on either bank.
When the waters receded, the council tidied up the abutments and found a steel through truss to bridge the gap. A temporary measure they said. The stone bridge would be rebuilt they said. Temporary for nearly fifty years? And, yes, the truss was second hand.
The bridge is only wide enough for single track and after some idiot misjudged the approach and bent himself on the steelwork, they painted it yellow. Not very sympathetic to the rural idyll. That was a few years ago now, and rust spots are beginning to show through, mellowing the effect.
In fact we’ve come to like our iron bridge. Its tracery provides a focus in our landscape. No longer the landscape of some romantic past that never existed, the bridge gives the scene some edge.
We’re not the only ones who admire the bridge and its setting. On dry days easels and sketch pads will appear around the village, manned by amateur artists each doing their own interpretation of the scene with variable results. Then there are the snap-happy types taking pictures they will never look at. Just occasionally we get a professional outfit on some shoot for a magazine or advert where the budget wouldn’t stretch to anywhere more exotic than southern England.
The forecast is for a nice day, and when I open the curtains and look out I think it might be right for once. The sun is shining and farmer John’s Friesians are grazing contentedly on the rich pasture of the old water meadows on the other side of the river. As I always do, I look to see where the red one is. Her markings are brown instead of the usual black. The boss cow, she is normally in the middle of the lead group wherever the herd is going, but never at the front. That position is for one of her trusty subordinates.
I have some breakfast then take Duke, my black lab, for our morning constitutional around the village. Everything seems to be in order and all is right in the world. On our return Duke heads off down to the river for a dip. He has decided it is to be an outside day. I agree and get changed into my gardening gear intending to potter about doing some odd jobs, but mainly just enjoy the day.
From time to time Duke comes over to see what I am doing, but mostly spends his time either basking in the sun or cooling off in the shade of an old apple tree or in the river.
Ready to break for some lunch, I look up and see a big camper van squeeze itself across the bridge. The sort of thing that you should need an HGV licence to drive. It parks up a little way into the village and the driver gets down from his cab. A big beardy bloke who looks as though his day job would be bouncer at a National Front rally. He moves round and opens the side door. First out, a couple of skinny girls followed by a guy of average build with a pair of cameras around his neck.
I’ve seen enough. It’s a photo shoot and no doubt they will be heading down to the bridge. I go in to make a sandwich and a cup of tea. Better make that a pot. Marjorie will be along in a bit. She likes to know everything that’s going on. She’s nosey, but means well and is not a gossip. We call her our Miss Marple.
Taking my sandwich and tea things to the patio at the corner of the house, I see that the shoot is setting up on the bridge. I am getting settled when I hear a voice from by the front gate.
“Please excuse me, Sir.”
Polite, and is that a bit of an accent I hear? I look up and see a young man, perhaps twenty, plus or minus two, with long dark hair that falls across one eye and looks as though it has bleached in the sun. I suspect the effect is not natural. Attractive though. Very attractive.
“Would it be possible to get some water, please?” He holds up a couple of five litre containers and gives me a slight smile.
Yes, there is an accent and if that smile is fake, I don’t care; it has me hooked. I want to help him so that I get to see it more. I hold out my hand for the containers.
“Why don’t you sit down while I go and fill these?” I gesture at the chairs on the patio. I smile at him and hope that I don’t look like some lecherous old queen.
Returning with the full containers, I find Duke successfully demanding his attention. I hand over the water and get my reward: the smile. He turns to leave and almost bumps into Marjorie, who watches him walking back to the bridge before she turns to me.
“You’re old enough to be his father. Behave yourself!”
“Grandfather, more like. I can look and admire the view, can’t I? Don’t deny it, you did too! It’s not as though I could do anything anyway. You know - ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’.”
She sniffs at the mis-applied quote. I pour her tea and hand it to her.
“Thanks. I don’t think your Lithuanian friend is a happy bunny. Did you notice how the spring had gone out of his step before he had gone ten paces back towards the bridge?”
“I can’t say that I did, but from where you were standing you had a better view. How do you know he is Lithuanian?”
“The camper has ‘LT’ on the number plates.” She finishes her tea. “Let’s go deadhead the roses. We can keep an eye on them from there.”
The roses look pretty, but they fight back with their thorns. I probably wouldn’t have them if the house wasn’t called Rose Cottage. A couple of my gay friends suggested it should be Rosebud Cottage, but Marjorie said that was just wishful thinking. She can be a cow sometimes.
As we work, we watch the activities on the bridge. As we expected, the two skinny girls are modelling the women’s collection. My friend seems to have the job of gopher, holding the girls’ surplus clothing or fetching more from the camper. After a while the scarecrows retreat to the van, presumably to do a full change and to repair their hair.
We look back. The young man is reaching up to the steelwork of the bridge, posing for the photographer. So he is also the model for the men’s collection. It is soon apparent that he is not to be permitted the use of the van to preserve his modesty. All his changes, including underwear are done in the street, the beardy hectoring him all the while.
Although we can hear them, we do not understand their language, so it is some time before we get a better idea of the dynamics of the group. The photographer is fawning over the two girls, presumably expecting to get into the knickers of one or both. The beardy guy is the photographer’s fixer, but he is delegating everything to the young man. The photographer is too busy with the scarecrows to notice. They all like to shout at the boy, who looks more and more forlorn as the day progresses.
“That boy is being bullied.” Marjorie announces.
“It could be just banter.” I don’t sound convinced by my comment.
“Can’t you see it? That’s not banter, that’s bullying and it’s been getting worse all afternoon.”
“Maybe you’re right, but what can we do about it?”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’m going to put Bill on standby.” She gets out her mobile and texts away like a teenager.
Bill is a policeman from a neighbouring force who retired to the village a couple of years ago. He has managed somehow to keep hold of his uniform. His turning up in police gear has defused several awkward situations.
It is getting towards four o’clock and we see the fixer splashing water on the girls. Time for the ‘wet look’ shots. They must be nearly finished.
We are distracted by a cloud of blue smoke crossing the embankment on the other side of the river. It’s Dave, John’s cowhand, in his ancient Land Rover. He stops by the gate to the field. He and his dogs will have come to collect the cows for milking.
We return our attention the bridge, just in time to see the fixer shove our boy over the handrail. We look on in horror as he falls to the river, a scream rending the air.
I set off running, but before I have taken more than two strides, a black form passes me and launches itself into the water. Duke. By the time I get down the bank, he has got to the young man and is trying to drag him to the side.
I kick off my shoes and wade in. God, that water is cold. Between us we get him to the bank and I drag him ashore. He does not seem to be helping. Is he unconscious or just shocked? I find a pulse, thank goodness, and can see his chest rise and fall a little. He seems to be breathing. I am relieved. Marjorie has joined me and we manoeuvre him into the recovery position.
“Bill is on his way. I’ve told him what we saw. He says he’ll use his car to stop them taking the camper out through the village.”
“Do you think we need the ambulance?”
There is the sound of coughing and we look back at our patient. He retches, then takes a couple of deep laboured breaths before his breathing returns to a more even pattern. He moves to sit up. Duke comes over and nuzzles him.
He sees my wet clothing and gives me a grateful look. “Did you rescue me? Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank Duke there, he did most of the work getting you out.”
He scritches the dog’s head, and looks at me again through watery eyes.
“I told him I couldn’t swim.”
He starts to sob. I cover for him.
“You’re shivering, you are getting cold and so am I. Let’s get you up to the house and out of those wet things.”
I give him a hand to stand up and we set off. I am wondering if I have any clothes that will fit him when Marjorie chips in.
“Duke, here boy. We’ll go and see if we can find some clothes for this lad to wear.”
She marches off towards the bridge with the dog at heel. He is used to walking with her and in spite of his soft nature, would be straight in if anyone tried to threaten her. She gathers up as much of the men’s clothing from the shoot as she can find and returns.
“Bill’s there, interviewing the crew, but I don’t think he’s getting very far. They claim they don’t speak any English, but that’s not totally true as the photographer asked me where I was going with the clothes.
“You two. Get dressed quickly and come outside. I think Dave is up to something.”
I look at her questioningly but get her best enigmatic grin in return.
As we assemble on the patio, Bill comes over and deliberately sits down facing away from the bridge.
“That was hard work. I’ve told them to stay on the bridge where we can watch them while I interview this young man.”
He gets out his pocket book and starts the interview. We learn that the man’s name is Saulius, but then Bill tells us to move off down the garden to give them some privacy.
We were only half listening anyway. We are watching Dave with the cows. Things are not going right today. He is whistling away at his collie cow dog, Fly, and she is running about like a demented moth. Not like her at all. She usually has everything under control and always looks like she takes pride in her work. Dave hardly ever has to whistle. The cows are anxious and jumping about trying to kick her but she is too quick for them. Then I notice Dave’s other dog, Fergal, the lurcher, standing in the lane beyond the gate into the field. Fergal is usually in the Land Rover. Fergal is mean. Even the red cow won’t argue with Fergal.
Dave must be bringing them across the bridge. Odd, they usually go round the other way through the ford. Keeps them out of the village.
As the last cow comes out of the field and turns toward the bridge, Fergal barks. That gets the cows even more on edge and kicking at each other as well as trying to land one on Fly. The red cow is out of position, on the side of the herd and well back. She has really got the jitters. Fly seems to be giving her special attention. As the red cow is passing the fixer, Fly lies in front of him. The cow sees her chance and lashes out with her hind leg. Twice. But Fly has gone. Instead the fixer gets both barrels. The first slides up between his legs and gets him where it hurts. As he folds, the second gets him full in the ribs. He’ll know about that for a few weeks even if nothing is broken.
Dave stops whistling and by the time the last cow has cleared the bridge they have calmed down, the red cow back in her place. Order restored.
As he passes us, Dave grins and we hear him say, “Got the bastard!”
I think we owe him a drink.
Now, there is something you should know about the lush grass on the water meadows. It makes for very sloppy cow pats and the cows make water frequently.
As the herd passed, the photographer was smacked by a wet shitty tail at least twice, the scarecrows were drenched by the splash back from a cow who decided to piss as she was next to them, and as for the fixer, I doubt he will want to be anywhere near a cow ever again. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned vegetarian just to make sure. As the last cow passed him recovering on the ground, she did a little waltz to avoid Fly and dropped a pat right on him.
We turn and head back to the house. Bill has finished interviewing Saulius and we see the boy has a grin on his face. He must have seen some of the action on the bridge.
“What is going to happen next?” I ask Bill.
“He doesn’t want to press charges, and to be honest there is not much point. By the time the case comes up they could be back in Lithuania where I doubt we could enforce judgement.”
“He needs some redress though. Has he been paid for the shoot?” I turn and look at Saulius who shakes his head.
“How much would you have been paid?”
“One hundred pounds. I need the money.”
“That’s not much. Come on Bill; let’s see what they can come up with.” Marjorie sets off for the bedraggled crew still standing at the end of the bridge. Bill sighs and follows her.
In ten minutes they are back. They are carrying the rest of the men’s collection from the camper. Marjorie had discovered that the collections were to have been given to the models, the girls had got theirs, but the photographer was planning to keep what should have been given to Saulius.
Bill then hands him just over £2000. He has made them all empty their wallets and purses and he found the slush fund hidden in the van. He says not to worry about them; they are all carrying credit cards.
Saulius is overcome and thanks them both but then remembers something. “How am I going to get back to London?”
“Well, you can’t go with them.” I say. “Do you need to rush back? You can stay the night here and we can sort something out in the morning. I could run you to the end of the Underground network.”
“Thanks, that would be great. I have a day off tomorrow, so there’s no rush.”
I look at him and see the smile is back.
“I’d better go and see them off, and then go and write up my notes, just in case they want to make something of it.” Bill turns and shakes Saulius’ hand. “Good luck, lad. Come and see us again sometime.”
Marjorie also says her goodbyes but wags a finger at me on her way out of the gate. I get the message; she’ll be watching me. Cow!
The midges have started to come out. I suggest we move before we get bitten to death. We gather up all the stuff and go inside. I give him the guided tour of this Englishman’s castle, and show him his room.
“It’s time we thought about something to eat. Do you want to go to the pub? Or have you had enough excitement for one day and prefer to eat here? I’m happy to cook something for you.”
“Can we stay here please? I don’t want to be anywhere noisy or busy after today.”
“No problem. You make yourself comfortable while I get started. Steak okay with you? I thought a bit of beef might be appropriate.”
I get the smile in response to my lame joke before he goes off to ‘wash and brush up’. When he returns, things are well underway, so I tell him where to find everything and ask him to set the table and get some drinks. It’s not long before we are sitting down, enjoying a nice flavourful piece of rump and a bottle of Rioja. He seems to be relaxed, so I think it’s time to find out a bit more about him.
I clear the plates to the sink. I will deal with them later.
“Let’s have a more comfortable seat. Bring your glass.”
I grab the rest of the wine and lead the way into the sitting room. He sits at one end of the couch and Duke jumps up to join him, nuzzling his head against Saulius’ thigh. I grunt at the dog. He knows he is not supposed to be on the furniture. I get a filthy look in reply, but he stays put, challenging me to insist. Saulius moves his hand and starts scratching the dog behind his ear. Duke shoots me a look of triumph; he knows that for me to move him now would spoil the mood. He’s right.
“So how did you come to be with those people? You obviously didn’t fit with them if they threw you in the river.”
“I came to London about four months ago to improve my English...”
“Very good it is, too.” He blushes at the compliment and moves his head to hide behind his long hair.
“Although I have managed to get a job, it’s only on the minimum wage and I am finding England expensive so I have been doing some other odd jobs to get a bit of extra money. I was in the Lithuanian community centre the other day where there are often some job advertisements. One of the people that I know there had heard about this job and said I was a good looking guy and that I should give it a try. To me it looked easy work and good money.”
“If you’re on minimum, I suppose £100 and an expenses paid day out away from London would seem a good deal.”
“They had come over from Lithuania to do a fashion shoot for one of the magazines over there but the male model fell ill when they got here and they needed a replacement quickly. The photographer liked my looks and asked me meet up with them this morning. So I did and he told me to see the bearded guy, Ivan, his fixer, before we set off, to give him my details for their records, insurance they said. I suppose that is when the trouble started -- when he looked at my ID card. My name is Saulius Kalvis, Paul Smith to you, but my middle name is Žydras.”
I give him a quizzical look.
“My parents are a bit hippy, it means light blue.”
“I can think of worse.”
“I can’t. It has come to be a slang term for gays.”
“So Ivan comes out with this phrase ‘queer by name, queer by nature’ and by the time we have got out of London they are all having a laugh at my expense.”
“Chucking you in the river seems a bit more than a laugh at your expense.”
I look across at him. He is sucking his lip. I wait for him to continue.
“You have to understand, Lithuania is a Catholic country, gays aren’t supposed to exist. Homophobia is normal.” He pauses again.
“So, what’s the problem? I presume there is a problem?” I gently ask.
“The problem is that I am gay. I don’t know how Ivan picked up on it but he did. Maybe I have got careless living over here. England is so much more tolerant. I don’t have to hide it so much unless I am around fellow Lithuanians. You haven’t got a problem with me being gay have you?” A worried look appears on his face.
“No worries. I’m gay too, but I’m too old to do more than help them out when they are busy.”
I get another smile. Was it for another lame joke or for my revelation?
“So they started taking the piss?”
“Yeah, and it got worse when we arrived here. They made me do all the running around and were finding fault with me all afternoon. What do you say? Bullying? Bullying me.”
“We noticed. That’s why Marjorie warned Bill, the policeman.”
“Eventually, when the photographer wanted shots with wet clothes, Ivan told me to jump in the river. But I told him I can’t swim. That’s when he said I was going to learn, and he picked me up and threw me in. I must have blacked out as I hit the water. The next thing I knew was when I came round on the river bank after you and Duke here dragged me out.” He patted Duke on the head.
“You were lucky. The river is still quite deep where the bottom was scoured out under where the arches of the old bridge were. But you could have been killed or badly injured had he thrown you over in the middle. The foundations of the central pier are still there. They often show above the surface when the river is low.”
We sit quietly for a few moments, digesting that thought, then that smile was back.
“I got payback when that cow kicked Ivan.”
“You saw that did you? You do realise that was no accident, don’t you?”
It’s my turn to get a quizzical look.
“That ‘accident’ was actually a superb demonstration of dog handling. I knew Dave and Fly were good but that was something else. Using whistles and calls, he used her to get the cows nervous and to split out the boss cow and get her wound up. He got her so bad tempered that she was ready to kick out at any suitable target. He made sure Ivan was that target by getting Fly to briefly stop in front of him. The performance wouldn’t have won prizes for elegance, as it didn’t look as though Dave was in control, but he was and he got the result he wanted. After those kicks Dave stopped whistling and you saw how quickly everything calmed down.”
“Are you sure it was deliberate?”
“No doubt about it. Dave confirmed it when he said ‘Got the bastard’ as he passed us.”
“How did he know?”
“When he got out of his Land Rover to collect the cows, he must have seen you being thrown in. It would be just like Dave to test his skills to see if he could get revenge for you. And he could always blame it on the cows if challenged.”
“Pass on my thanks when you see him, please.”
I get up and refill our glasses. Duke watches me closely. He has been snuggling up to the boy all this time. I think he’s trying to make me jealous. Traitor. I return to my chair.
“So what will you do when you return to Lithuania?”
“I am signed up for a course in computing. My parents think it is marketable. I suppose they are right.”
“You don’t sound too keen. You want to do something else? What really interests you?”
“Given a free choice I would do something around estate management, agriculture or horticulture. Today, being here in the countryside has reminded me of that.”
I sense there is more to it than the choice of study course. “And?”
“I have found I like it here in England, I can be more open about myself. To tell you the truth I am dreading going back. It doesn’t feel like home anymore. Today has just confirmed that I don’t want to go.”
Duke changes his position, putting his head on Saulius’ thigh. Maybe he has picked up on the boy’s emotions. He does that to comfort me if I am feeling down or off-colour. I watch them for a minute or so, thinking about what I am about to say would mean.
“You don’t have to go you know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You are an EU citizen, you are allowed to come here to work or study. You might even be entitled to some help with fees, especially if you can show that you have paid National Insurance. You did get a National Insurance number before you started work, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I didn’t see the point as I wasn’t planning on being here more than a few months, but my employer insisted. Maybe he has done me a favour. But I still don’t see how that helps. I can’t afford to live in London while I study.”
“I never said you should stay in London. There aren’t any courses of the type you want to do in London...”
“There are plenty of computing courses in London.”
“But that’s not what you want to do, is it? There is a college down the road in the next town that specialises in the kind of thing you were suggesting you wanted to do. One of the best in the country.”
“Really?” His mood brightens then fades again. “Would I get a place? And where would I live?”
“The second is easy, you could stay here. I could do with the company. It’s only about five miles to the college. You could cycle or get a scooter or go on the bus. There is a stop on the main road and I think the buses run at suitable times. As for getting a place, we can look on the Internet about admissions, and possibly nip over there tomorrow to look round before I take you back to London.”
“That would be great, but are you sure you want me to stay with you? We’ve only just met.”
“I said I could do with the company, and you can help with those things I can’t manage on my own any more. You seem a nice young man and Duke likes you, which is a good sign. Just so there is no misunderstanding, you do not have to sleep with me. However I hope you won’t mind me admiring your good looks from time to time.”
That gets a smile, a blush and a duck of the head.
“If you are able, I would appreciate a contribution towards the food and the council tax. I will lose my single occupancy discount.”
“Thank you. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.” I stand up.
He pushes poor Duke off him and quickly comes over and gives me a hug. A long hug. I have never been a hugs person, but I could get used to this.
“I was going to suggest we go to the pub for a quick pint. Dave and John should be in by now and they should know something about the college. You can thank Dave while we are there.”
We walk up the road and find Dave and John in their usual corner, having a slow conversation about farming. The kind of conversation that is punctuated by long pauses. I introduce Saulius.
“Can I get you both a drink? Usual?” I get two nods in response. I go to the bar and return with three pints of bitter and one of scrumpy cider. I don’t know how John drinks that stuff, cloudy with apple pips floating about in it. Ruddy strong too.
“Thanks for the demo today, Dave. Truly impressive work. I don’t think Saulius could believe it when I told him it wasn’t an accident.”
“It was amazing! Thanks for getting my revenge for me.” The boy chips in.
“I was just telling John about it. I saw the big guy drop you in the river and reckoned that that was too much, even if you had deserved it for some reason. I thought it would be an interesting test of skill to see if I could get a cow to land one on him. It was, and it worked a treat. Fly seemed to catch on that I wanted the red cow on the outside, which made it easier. I was well pleased.”
“There are no flies on that dog.” I say, to a groan from the two farmers as they both flick a beer mat at me.
“No flies on the dog? I don’t understand”
“It’s your duff joke, you explain!” Dave says to me.
So I do, then I turn the conversation to the college and what I think Saulius is hoping for. It’s not long before I am reminded that beer is only rented and I have to make a visit to the gents. When I come back I hear John saying that he and Dave are not getting any younger and if the lad does get a place at the college he can have a job helping at the farm. They must think he looks like a good worker. I think I would agree.
The lease runs out on Saulius’ beer and as he leaves the room the mood of the other two becomes serious.
“He’s a good looking kid, even we can see that. You’re not planning on being a dirty old man are you?”
“Bugger off! What do you take me for? I can’t deny he is easy on the eye, but I am not after anything else. I’ve already got Marjorie on my case and now you two.” I don’t say that I haven’t got the stamina to do anything anyway.
“I am sorry we doubted you, but we felt we had to ask. You did look like the cat that got the cream when you came in.”
“Fair do , I suppose.” They can tell I am a bit miffed.
“He’s coming back.”
I look up and he gives us the smile and my mood lightens again. John sees we have finished our beers.
“You had better go and get on the Internet. I know closing date for applications at the college is any time soon.”
We say goodnight and go back to my house. I fire up the computer and we surf for the college. He likes what we find and we see there is an open day tomorrow. How’s that for timing? We will go there tomorrow before I take him back to London. It’s going to be a long day. I say it’s time for bed and shut the computer down. Before we go to our separate rooms I get another hug.
“Thanks. Thanks for everything,” he says.
The next morning I get yet another hug when he comes down to breakfast. This could be habit forming!
We head off to the college. We are both impressed. They must have been impressed with Saulius, too. After a bit of time looking up the equivalent status of his Lithuanian exams and some other admin, they offer him a place. He doesn’t even need to present his certificates at they have managed to get some confirmation on-line. There are fees to pay, so when he is not looking I hand them my credit card and get that dealt with. I’ll tell him it’s a bond for his good behaviour so he doesn’t get too upset that I have paid it for him.
Later, as we drive towards the capital I ask him if he has to give notice at his job and at the place where he is staying. I explain that I am not sure he should stay in London in case there are any repercussions from yesterday.
That gets him worried. The landlady at his digs is Lithuanian. He is paid up to the end of the month but if she has heard anything, she might want him out. Most of the other lodgers are Lithuanian as well. I ask him how many others, and quiz him about the facilities. I suggest we had better go there first. I had intended to drop him at the nearest Underground station, but now I am worried for him myself.
We drive round to the East End and find his digs. Will I go in with him? I nod, although I am not sure it is a good idea. Before we leave the car, I send a quick text to Marjorie. I think someone should know where we are, and I want some information.
We are not in through the front door before she appears. A little woman with a look in her eye that tells you she would make a Blackpool landlady seem like a pussy cat. She starts on him; I can tell she must have heard and wants him out.
When she stops to draw breath he tells me he has five minutes to get his stuff and get out. We go to fetch his gear from his room. Three share the room; fortunately the others are out. There isn’t much so we do it in one trip, leaving his corner of the room neat and tidy. I feel my phone buzz and check the text. It’s the phone number I wanted.
She is there waiting for us.
Saulius goes to hand over the keys, but before she can take them, I close my hand around them and take them myself.
“Since you are chucking him out, what about a refund on his unexpired rent, and on the bond he gave you when he came?”
She looks blankly at me until Saulius translates, but I could tell she knew what I meant. I don’t wait for him to translate the torrent of abuse that follows.
“Have you registered this as a ‘House in Multiple Occupation’? May I see the Registration and your insurance? And I don’t see any of the fire doors you should have.” Her face drains of colour. Yes, you do understand don’t you!
“How about £500 -- 100 for the rent, 350 for the bond, and 50 for the inconvenience of having to find somewhere else? “
I put a finger to my lips and muse aloud, “I wonder... what’s the fine for unregistered properties? Now where did I put the phone number for the council?”
I pull out my mobile.
“Ah. Here it is? Shall I dial it?” I press the button to select the number, the next time it will start to dial.
A hand goes into a fold in her skirt and I can see it rummaging around, before it draws out a roll of notes. She pulls out ten fifties. I shake my head. I want twenties and tens. She deals again and I put my phone away to count what she hands to me. The notes look okay and the roll looked mixed and used so I am prepared to take the risk they are genuine.
“Thank you ma’am, so nice to meet you.”
I hand over the keys and we go out to the car, relieved to find it still there. I get us out of the street before taking a breath.
“Now for your work. Do you think we should go straight there? Is it a British company?”
Before he can answer, his mobile rings. I am surprised it is working if it fell in the river. Maybe he didn’t have it on him at the time.
He looks at the number. “Work.”
“Put them on speaker.”
I see a place to park and pull over.
“Hi, Saulius here.”
I find something to write on and with.
“Shift manager here. You were supposed to be in yesterday and today. We can’t have you not turning in when you are supposed to. We are going to have to let you go.”
An English voice, good. I scribble a note.
“It is supposed to be my break days, yesterday and today. You knew I wasn’t going to be in, and you never asked me to come in, or tried to contact me yesterday... What about my pay? I have last week’s to pick up?”
He can read my writing.
“You are absent without leave, so you can pick up last week’s but any pay for this week will be forfeit.”
I decide it’s time to show my hand.
“I think you should know you are on speaker phone. I am advising Saulius on another matter, but perhaps you would like to think about what you have just said.”
I hear a curse down the line.
“I understood that he was supposed to be off work today, that is why he is with me now and didn’t make an appointment to see me some other time.
“If you want to pay him off for some reason, that’s fine. He’s not been there long enough to be entitled to redundancy, but don’t do him out of what he is due by trying to claim he is at fault when you know otherwise.”
There is no response, but I can tell he is still there.
“You wouldn’t be acting under pressure from some of the other workers, like fellow Lithuanians, would you? Because that would be unfair dismissal, no matter how short a time he has been there. That could get expensive.”
I hear a swallow, but still no reply.
“I am sure the lawyers would love to run that kind of case, but you and I know nobody wins in those situations -- well except the lawyers, they’re always quids in.”
“You’re bloody right there. We had a case five years ago; cost us a fortune in time and money, even though we won. Would have been cheaper to pay the guy off.”
Ah, good, he is on our wavelength now. I write another note.
“So, are we agreed Saulius is being laid off as redundant? There is no redundancy cost to you.”
I read the note I get back from Saulius.
“He tells me he has been with you thirteen weeks and has only had normal breaks, no holidays. Do you agree?
“I’ll check, but I think you’re right. I suppose that means we have to pay him holiday pay as well.”
“Afraid so. One point four weeks by my reckoning. Agreed?”
“How soon can he collect what he is due? And his P45 for the tax?”
“Give us an hour. It will be an estimate but should be within a couple of quid. The P45 we will have to send on to you.”
“Fine, we’ll see you in about an hour, and I will leave you details of where to send the P45. I think you realise he is no longer at the address you have on file, so please do not send it there.”
It’s getting late and the rush hour traffic has started to build up. It takes us most of the hour to get to the place and park. Hopefully it should have cleared a bit by the time we are ready to leave.
Everything is ready when we get there. The money looks right and they have given us a breakdown of how they arrived at the total. They even remembered to put something in for ‘lieu of notice’. There is a receipt to sign and a release letter showing he has been laid off. The manager comes out and shakes our hands, saying he is sorry to see Saulius leave as he was a good worker, but he thought we understood the position he was in. I leave my solicitor’s address as contact. I must remember to mention it to them in the morning.
We finally make it home just before midnight. We stopped on the way for something to eat. It has been a long day, but on the whole a successful one. I think we could both do with a nightcap, so I break out the brandy, the best stuff as I think this a time for something special. We sit together on the couch and I offer a toast to the new chapter in his life, and mine too. He pulls us into a hug and gives me a chaste kiss on the cheek. I feel myself blush.
“Thanks for today. I wouldn’t have managed without you.”
We go to our rooms. I find Duke asleep on my bed. Cheeky sod. I’m surprised we didn’t wake him when we came in. He’s been with Marjorie all day. She would have dropped him off about ten. As I get into bed he stirs and guiltily climbs down. I pat him on the head.
“Good boy. Thank you for finding a fairy at the bottom of my garden.”
It has been four years now.
We never heard any more about the incident on the bridge or its aftermath. But it was a long time before we stopped looking at camper vans with suspicion, especially those with LT plates.
He never heard from his family either. Sod them.
He is leaving us today. He has finished his course and got a first class degree. We will miss him.
He won’t be there to help on John’s farm and nobody in the family is interested in taking it on. So with prices falling again John has decided to get out of milk and has sold the cows. John thinks that Dave and he can manage the rest of the farm until Dave wants to retire, then he’ll sell up and retire himself. John’s wife thinks it will kill him if he stops.
Dave has taught him how to train and run a working dog. They make a good team and have even won a few local competitions.
Duke and I, Marjorie too, will find out that he has been doing more for us as we get older than we have realised.
He has been like a son to me and I shall miss him so.
I shall miss our daily hugs, but I have behaved myself and just admired the view. That’s not to say we never shared a bed when one or other of us needed comforting through some trauma, but we were always chaste. So John and Dave lost a bet they had with Marjorie.
He has taken a job on an estate in North Yorkshire. He worked there for a placement last year, and he loved it. I think he might love more than the place because his phone bill has been a lot higher since he got back, and he has had the odd weekend away.
I am happy for him and tell him to come and see us or call us whenever he wants. And if he finds a partner, to bring him too. He says he will. He may do for a while, but I know life will get in the way sooner or later.
But now I just wish he would hurry up and go. Who said parting is such sweet sorrow? It feels more like death’s bitter tear.
He gives me one last hug. I wish him well.
Turn, go and let me have my grieving where you cannot see.
Saulius was written when the UK was still part of the European Union.
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