Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chapter 1

Nick Dowty huddled alone at his desk in the empty office surrounded by an army of ghosts. The clamour of unanswered phones bombarded his brain like shrapnel bouncing off a tin roof, constant reminders of the war of attrition he had been fighting for the last year. Below him the factory lay silent, no angry whine of machines tearing steel, no familiar judder from gantry cranes shifting ten ton blocks of solid metal onto the huge machining centres.

It was eleven o’ clock on a bright Tuesday morning in the middle of January but it felt like he’d been there all day. Time moves slowly – inexorably slowly – on Death Row. This was the seventeenth year he had ruled over his tiny empire from the safety of his familiar leather swivel chair. A long campaign, an abrupt defeat. Nick stared out with unseeing eyes over the snow-covered golf course. The bank manager was due at any moment.

Nick had spent the whole of the previous week trying to make sense of the December management accounts. Falling sales. High fixed costs. Rising raw material prices. Lack of working capital. There seemed to be no way out. They were in deep trouble and for the first time since he’d started the business he he’d been unable to conjure up a plausible strategy to keep the business alive.

The last strategic review they had conducted with the help of highly paid consultants had been implemented only two years previously. That solution – to lower prices and diversify from overdependence on one customer - hadn’t worked. Now the situation was even worse. The scale of the losses was such…their debts were so great… Things were so bad it was hard to think straight any more. All that was left was to throw himself upon the mercy of the bank. Nick closed his eyes. He was desperately tired but he hadn’t slept properly for weeks. There was no escape from the nightmare. He was like an ell skewered to a fishmonger’s slab. The more he squirmed and wriggled the more he tore himself apart. He felt like he was bleeding to death.
From below in reception he could hear the angry buzz from the steady stream of creditors demanding to be paid. Lorna was doing her best to placate them but Nick knew there was no cash to pay the debts. It was just a matter of time before they breached the company’s flimsy defences. Any minute now the electricity could be cut off and the building would grind to a complete halt. In the end even the phones would fall silent. Starved of cash, the oxygen of business, the company was dying. The bank was his last chance, he had nowhere else to turn. This meeting was going to provide the stage for the most important performance of his life. If the bank manager swallowed the flimsy story he was about to spin, his thin tale of distant hope and uncertain redemption, they still had a chance. Nick tried to shut out the noise of those bloody phones. The company didn’t have a job on the books, he’d fired half his staff, and yet still it was bedlam in here.

Starting a business really was like going to war, he thought to himself. Easy to start but almost impossible to stop. The creditors were the enemy, like religious fanatics, devoted followers of Mammon, they never gave up. The phones were like sniper fire, surrounding him, a non-stop bombardment, assaulting his senses, driving him mad. Nick would give anything for five minutes silence.

He was still slumped in his chair when Alan Tait, the senior business director from the bank, walked into the room, smiling self-consciously, his right hand extended in apparent friendship. Nick had dealt with him ever since he had founded the business. Over the years they had become professional friends.

“No chance of a game today,” Alan Tait said, nodding at the view through the picture window, avoiding eye contact.

Nick stood up and grasped the familiar limp, damp hand, suppressing a shudder. It was the kind of grip you would expect from an undertaker, or maybe a priest come to administer the last rites. “Not in this weather, Alan.”

“Sit down, Nick. You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me.”

Nick lowered himself back into his leather reclining chair and stared up at the bank manager who was standing by the window surveying the view he was about to repossess. It was the first time anyone had ever told Nick what to do in his own office, his own little kingdom.

“Still, the forecast is good,” continued the bank manager, smiling pleasantly, “The snow might have gone by tomorrow. Something to look forward to.”

Nick was looking forward to the future with as much pleasurable anticipation as he did when he leaned back in the dentist’s chair. “Maybe I’ll get a round in at the weekend. If I get time,” he muttered.

Alan Tait smiled in sympathy. “You look like you could do with a break.”

“Yeah. This business grinds you down all right. Firefighting the whole bloody time. I feel like I’ve been doing it all my life.”

“It’s been a tough year.”

“You’re not wrong there.”

Nick waited. He knew from innumerable similar meetings over the years that they would soon reach the limit of their ritual small talk. What happened next was what counted. He had done his best to prepare for the fight, drawing on all his experience to marshal his depleted defences. At least he could offer some genuine reasons for the grim numbers. Orders cancelled at the last minute. Cost overruns due to the increase in the price of steel. Contracts being switched to India and China by cost-conscious multi-national oil companies.

Despite the recent gloomy trading performance Nick had rehearsed his tale of an exciting future a thousand times in his head. Another new strategy. Even lower prices and higher volumes. More emphasis on marketing. Additional investment in new, cleverer machines. He sighed. The scenario was depressingly similar to many others he had recited over the years. Years when he had struggled to build up the company from nothing, to turn his dreams into reality. Sometimes he thought that it had only been his dogged faith in the future which had kept the company alive for so long.

Alan Tait sat down opposite Nick . He opened his briefcase and took out a buff-coloured folder. “I’ve studied your management accounts for December, Nick. As you rightly say in your commentary they’re pretty bad. Disastrous in fact. No cause for any optimism at all that I can see.”

“It’s the Chinese, Alan. There’s no way we can compete with their prices. We’ve tried to fight back by cutting overheads. We’ve cut them to the bone. It’s not enough. We need more investment. I’ve made the case in my Business Plan. Smart manufacturing is the only way we can compete against foreign labour costs.”

Alan Tait shook his head slowly. “You’re way too highly geared as it is, Nick. We can’t lend you more. You don’t see an upturn here in the North Sea?”

“They’re spending more but it’s all being made abroad.”

The bank manager nodded. “It’s the story of British manufacturing.”

“I should have seen it coming.”

“No one saw it coming, Nick. People never do. History teaches us nothing until it’s too late.”

Nick gazed out across the snowy blanket obliterating the familiar bumps and hollows of the golf course. He had battled so long to keep the business afloat. There was a time when he would have killed anyone who got in the way in order to survive. Not now. He had fought himself to a standstill. To his surprise he found himself feeling oddly detached from the fate of the company that had once been his whole life. If he had been a soldier he would now be lost behind enemy lines, reeling from acute battle fatigue, on the point of surrender. There was only so much a person could take, no matter how tough you thought you were.

“The signs were there for anyone who dared to look,” he said. “I should have seen what was happening. That was my job after all. What I couldn’t foresee was the speed with which the big oil companies would stop spending locally. Work from the North Sea has just dried up. Right now everyone’s hurting. None of our competitors have got a job in their workshops.”

“Unfortunately, their fate doesn’t do you much good.”

“No, I guess not. I’ve seen it bad before but not like this. It’s worse than ‘86. Much worse.”

“You wonder where it’s all going to end.”

“Yeah. The Chinese have eaten our lunch. Not just our industry either.”

“Whatever, Nick. Anyway, we need to get down to business.”

Nick swallowed and discovered that he was so tense his throat hurt. He could smell the bad news coming and it made him gag. This was the moment he had been dreading for weeks, years maybe. The day when your life falls apart. “Sure. I know this isn’t a social visit, much as I enjoy your company. What do you propose?” His mouth was so dry he could barely whisper the words.

The bank manager coughed. He looked embarrassed. Nick felt his insides turning to ice. Although he knew what was coming he still wasn’t prepared for the speed at which his world was collapsing.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to make it easier for the other man. “I know why you’re here alright, Alan.”

“The numbers say it all, Nick. The bank has already given you time to sort things out but you’re still overstretched. Your overdraft…it’s growing bigger every day.”


“Nick, prolonging the agony won’t do you any good. It certainly won’t help the bank.”

“You’ve helped in the past. You know…”

“Nick, you're not listening. The bank can’t let this situation go on any longer.”

Nick noted how the conversation had taken an impersonal turn. The bank manager was already distancing himself from the bad news about to follow. He smiled wryly to himself. The games these people played. They made the rules. You couldn’t win.

“I’ve always been overstretched, Alan. That’s the nature of this industry. Those machines out there in the workshop cost a small fortune. This is a capital intensive business. When the customer gets busy you’ve got to put in extra capacity if you want to stay on the merry-go-round with them. If you don’t they’ll go elsewhere. The irony is the more successful we are the deeper in debt I get. Now the merry-go-round has suddenly stopped spinning.”

A flicker of irritation darted across the bank manager’s eyes. “I don’t want to get into a debate with you, Nick.” Clearly they were no longer old friends. No longer even equals. “This has gone beyond my level. The guys in head office are deeply uncomfortable with the extent of your borrowing. They want to get as much of their capital back as they can while there’s still some residual value left in those machines.”

“They’re worried about the machines?”

“They’re your main assets.”

“And the people? Are they worried about the people who are going to be thrown onto the scrapheap? What about them?”

The bank manager shrugged. “They’ll find other jobs. Maybe they can re-train as plumbers or electricians. There’s a skill shortage in this country even if we don’t have any manufacturing industries left. Do the jobs the Poles used to do. They’ll probably be better off in the end.”

Nick clenched his fists and glared at the bank manager. “That’s so short-sighted. In six months time it will all be different, Alan, I promise you. This is a great little company we’ve built up. That hasn’t changed just because we’ve had a couple of bad months. As soon as they start looking for oil again in the North Sea we’ll be making money hand over fist. You’ll even be asking me out to lunch again.”

Alan Tait didn’t smile. “It’s too much of a risk, Nick. Who can say where the price of oil will be in six months time? If Japan falls back into recession and China cools down it could quite possibly go lower. If the Chancellor slaps on another windfall tax. Who knows? I’m sorry, I really am. The truth is the bank isn’t in the risk business. Unfortunately you are, and it hasn’t worked out. Anyway, it’s too late. The decision has already been taken.”

Nick had been determined to stay cool but the dam holding back his emotions finally burst. “Jesus, Alan, what kind of a risk is it for the bank? Like you say I’m the one taking all the risk. I’m the one who’s borrowed all the bloody money. The bank’s got me by the fucking balls. I’ve put my house on the line for the bank. I’ve given personal guarantees, signed away my life. That’s proof of how much faith I’ve got in the business. I’ve put my fucking neck on the line even though there’s a fucking train hurtling towards me.”

“I know all that…”

“It’s not just me either. We’ve got some great people here. A fantastic team. I’m proud to work with them, they’re like my family. Even so I’ve made cutbacks. Last week I paid off six people. Six of my friends. I’ve slashed our capital spending. We’ve all taken a pay cut. I’ve even put one of the big machines up for sale. With any luck that’ll bring in three hundred grand. I’ve already taken all the tough decisions. All I need now is a bit more time and this will all work itself out.”

The bank manager was unmoved. “I’m sorry, Nick. Like I said the time for action is past. You’ve been in the Last Chance Saloon for too long.”

Nick was getting desperate. “That’s it? After all these years? That’s it?”

The bank manager didn’t move.

“Please, Alan,” Nick pleaded.

“Nick, I’ve just told you it’s too late for all this. I warned you six months ago. You should have acted tough then.” He glanced at his watch. “I told you this would happen if you breached your loan covenants. The liquidators will be here shortly.”


“Within an hour.”

Nick gasped in shock. “Not the receivers? You’re not even going to keep the business going while you look for a buyer?”

“It’s not worth the effort. They want to flog off those machines for whatever they can get and cut their losses. Look, it’s not just you. You can’t push water uphill. Manufacturing in this country is dying on its feet. Everyone else is in the same boat. If you want my opinion the whole bloody country’s going to the dogs. The bank wants to sell off the assets for whatever it can get and wrap things up as quickly as possible. Don’t waste your energy trying to fight them.”

Nick stood there shaking with anger, absorbing the bitter news through his skin, as if he had been drenched in cold water. He shook his head. “It’s a criminal waste and you bloody know it, Alan.”

“I’m sorry, Nick, I really am.”

“You know what really pisses me off? I came so close, that’s what. I nearly made it. One more contract and I would have been right up there with the best of them. One more contract and you would still be licking my arse.”

“But I’m not, am I Nick?”

Nick sighed. He knew it wasn’t the bank manager’s fault. Alan was a man whose advice and opinions he had come to respect over the years. He was only the messenger. Come to that, maybe this disaster wasn’t even the bank’s fault. The world was changing. George Bush’s war on terror. Al Quaeda. China booming. The Russian oligarchs. Who knew what was going on in the world?. A butterfly flapped its wings in Saudi Arabia and the price of oil was all over the place. You couldn’t build a secure future on chaos.

“Don’t be sorry, Alan. I was expecting it. Most small businesses are only a few months away from failure, even the successful ones. A couple of months of losses and suddenly you’re staring into the abyss. It’s the game we’re in. I knew the risk I was taking running my own company. I don’t blame you.”

The bank manager stood up and walked towards the door. He looked genuinely unhappy at the turn of events. “It’s always sad when something like this happens to a well-run company like yours, Nick. Especially when it’s due to circumstances beyond your control.” The bank manager seemed reluctant to leave, as if fascinated by the sight of a still-twitching corpse.

“What will you do now?”

Nick gazed blankly out of the window. “Me? I don’t know. Get a job I guess. If anyone will employ me at my age. Maybe if I can persuade Maureen to leave her teaching job we can sell the house and make a fresh start somewhere else. Go abroad perhaps. Somewhere where they still make things.”

The bank manager coughed. He peered down at his feet, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “About the house, Nick. Don’t forget you put it up as security for all those loans. Now you’ve breached your loan covenants it belongs to the bank. It’s no longer yours to sell.”
Nick felt himself go white and his heart seemed to stop beating. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It couldn’t be true. “They’re going to call in my guarantee? I thought that was just a token gesture. A bit of paper.”

“They’ll let you stay there for a bit of course. Maybe a couple of months. Maybe as long as six. Depends on the courts and how busy they are. But after that they’ll want vacant possession so they can put the house on the market. I know it seems harsh but that was the deal you agreed at the start of all this.”

Nick reeled as his world tipped sideways. “Jesus. I never thought they’d do that to me. How am I going to tell Maureen? She loves that house. This’ll kill her. You can’t do it, Alan.”
“The rules of the game, Alan. I’m sorry but if things had turned out differently you’d be thanking me right now for lending you all that money.”

Nick glared at the bank manager, a man he’d once considered a friend. The confirmation that their home – Maureen’s pride and joy – no longer belonged to him was the bitterest outcome of all. He cursed himself for the cavalier way he had gambled with the family home, an act of incredible folly based upon his hubristic faith in his own ability. He’d gambled everything on making a success of the business. Having lost the battle to save his company his whole world was about to be plunged into turmoil, a civil war with horrific untold consequences. “I can’t wait to tell Maureen,” he said dryly.

“I’m afraid that’s not all.”

Nick stared at him in disbelief. “What else?”

“You’ve given personal guarantees as well.”

“But I haven’t any money. Everything I have is tied up in the business. Jesus, they can’t get blood out of a stone.”

“They’ll take it out of your unemployment benefit if they have to. And Maureen’s still working, isn’t she? She’s a joint signatory. They’ll go after her too. And if you get another job they’ll take the repayments out of your wages. They’re going to be on your back for a long time.”
Nick ground his teeth in suppressed rage. “I’ll fight them.”

“You can’t win, Nick. They’ll sequestrate you. That means everything. They won’t show any mercy.”

“So I’ll be bankrupt?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Nick turned and stared again over the frigidly beautiful white undulations of the empty golf course. It was a landscape devoid of life and hope. “It’s a hell of a price to pay for trying to make something of myself. Trying to provide for my family.”

“You have to face the consequences of your actions, Nick. You gambled and lost. Look, don’t quote me, but my advice is to get yourself a good lawyer.”

Nick shook his head in disbelief. When he spoke again he couldn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice. “Twenty years ago I started with nothing and that’s exactly what I’ve ended up with. No, less than nothing. A mountain of debt which I’ll be paying off for the rest of my life.” He groaned. “To think I could have been a fucking teacher or a civil servant or something working for the state. An ordinary guy without any kind of ambition whatsoever. Instead I took a chance and ended up a fucking idiot. A bankrupt fucking idiot at that.”

The bank manager shrugged. “I’ve got to go. Take care, Nick, I hope it all works out for you in the end.” He turned and walked briskly out of the office. Their friendship was over.

Nick turned back to the window and stared out for the last time at the familiar view. Everything looked so serene in the winter sunshine. Beautiful but bleak with no trace of life of any kind. It could have been the surface of the Moon. Closing his eyes he leaned back in the swivel chair. He had never felt so tired before and yet at the same time he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. For the first time in years someone else had made a decision for him. At long last he didn’t have to think for himself, didn’t have the future of his business and everyone connected with it depending on him calling the right shots.

It was like being a kid again. No responsibilities. The world was a scary place but there was always somewhere to hide. Upstairs under the bed. Behind the curtains. Holding your dad’s hand when you went down to the shops. Feeling safe. With the death of his dream his adult world had vanished, for a short time at least.

It wasn’t going to be easy to start a new life at his age but in a funny sort of way he found himself looking forward to the challenge. Starting off with a blank canvas. His metamorphosis could even be a lot of fun. He was still young at heart, had more energy and drive than many people half his age. Then there was all that hard-won commercial knowledge, wisdom even, that he had accumulated over the years. That had to be worth something. All he needed was to find someone to give him another chance. He was certain he could make a go of things second time around even if it meant working for someone else.

First though, before he could start thinking about himself, he had to tell the remnants of his staff the bad news. Nick picked up the phone and asked Alex Robertson, his workshop foreman, to come up at once.

“Bad news, Alex.”

Alex Robertson was in his sixties with a hard, expressionless face hewn out of the granite of bitter experience. He’d learnt his trade in the shipyards on the Clyde and later with Rolls Royce making Spey jet engines at Prestwick. They’d worked together for over eight years through good times and bad. “What’s up?” the old man demanded gruffly.

“It’s the bank.”
“Oh, aye. What do those buggers want from you now? Dae they nae ken ye canny get blood from a stane.”

“They’ve pulled the plug on us.”

The old man grimaced. “Ah. Some thought it was close right enough. Can you not fight them? Tell them things will pick up.”

“I’ve been telling them that for months. They don’t believe me any more.” Nick sighed.

“Maybe they’re right.”

“The bastards.”

“I’m sorry.”
The old man shrugged. “I was kind of expecting it to tell you the truth. We all were. The factory floor is like a graveyard down there. There’s not a job in the shop. How long have we got?”

Nick winced. “They’re closing the place immediately. I knew they might withdraw their support but it’s still a shock.”

The old man shook his head in sympathy. “Aye well, shit happens.”

“It’s the guys out there in the workshop I feel sorry for.”

“I wouldnae worry about them. They’re always screaming out for skilled men. They’ll be all right.”

“I guess. What about you? What will you do?”

“Me? Och, I need a break anyway. I’ll take the wife off to Tenerife for a few months till the winter’s past. After that? Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job collecting trolleys in a supermarket.”

Nick felt a twinge of envy. This was real freedom. “I’ll see you there.”

They both laughed. The old man frowned, looking grim again. “Seriously, what about yourself,
Nick? What does this mean for you?”

Nick thought for a moment. “Good question. I’ve got all this shit with personal guarantees and stuff. Then there’s the house which I put up for security. I just never believed it would come to this. I really don’t know what the future holds to tell you the truth.”

“Sounds like your arse is oot the windae and the crows are pecking at it.”

Despite himself Nick smiled. The old guy had a quaint way of putting things into perspective. “You could say that.”

“How has Maureen taken it?”

Nick tensed. He never discussed business with his wife, tried to shield her from the pressures. She knew things had been difficult lately but this development was going to come as a major shock. He dreaded the thought of breaking the news to her. “She doesn’t know yet.”

The old man winced. “Ouch. This’ll come as a bit of a shock then.”

"That’s putting it mildly. I’m worried sick about what she’s going to think.”

“Aye, it’s tough on her right enough.”

Nick bit his lip. Telling her would be the hardest thing he had ever done. He felt sick at the thought. “You better go and call the men together,” he said in a hollow voice.



“I’m nae much given to speeches as ye ken but…weel, I jist want tae say you’re the best boss I’ve ever worked for, and I’ve worked for a few in ma time. You dinna deserve this.”
Nick felt a lump forming in his throat. Alex was a hard man who’d had a hard life. He did not hand out compliments – or condolences - lightly. “Thanks, Alex, it’s much appreciated. Okay, before I burst into tears you better get everyone together.”

The old man went off to assemble the staff in the canteen. Nick stood up and looked around the office for the last time. The place had often felt like a prison in the past as he battled to keep the business afloat but he would still miss it. He crossed to the mirror in the corner and patted his hair and straightened his tie, shocked to see how much older he looked. His eyes seemed so dull, he looked utterly defeated. There was a lump in his throat. The phone rang and he picked it up.

“Hi, dear. Are you free to talk?”

It was Maureen. She almost never phoned him at work. He wondered if she’d somehow heard the bad news already. “Hi. What’s up?”

“Nothing’s up. I’m just phoning to remind you about tonight.”


“The dinner party. I knew you’d forget. The Murrays and the Binneys, remember. I invited them months ago. I’ve got a rack of lamb from the butcher’s. You said you’d pick up some nice wine on your way back.”

Nick groaned. That was all he needed. Forced to perform in front of his wife’s oh-so-successful friends. Keeping up the pretence when all he wanted to do was crawl under a stone and hide. Not to mention the expense. Spending money they no longer had.

“Nick, are you still there?”

“Sorry. Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m tired, that’s all. I’m having a tough day.”

“You will remember the wine, won’t you?”

“Yes.” He wondered how he was going to pay for it. He’d have to chance his arm with one of his credit cards. With any luck his Visa card might allow him to go even further over his limit. Just long enough for him to get out of the off-licence with a bottle or two of half-decent red - like a bank robber making his getaway.

“And you won’t be late.”

“No.” He’d be early in fact. There was nothing for him here any longer.

“Okay. Well. See you soon.”

“Maureen…” Maybe this was the right moment to tell her the bad news. Get it over with.

“What is it, Nick?”


“Are you all right, Nick? You sound very strange. Croaky. Are you getting a cold or something?”

“I expect so. My throat is sore.”

“Wrap up well in that case. Wear that scarf I bought you.”


“And, Nick?”


“Cheer up, will you? These parties are hard enough as it is.”

“I don’t know why we bother.”

“Because it’s our turn, that’s why. With our friends. Don’t be so antisocial.”

“All right. Sorry. See you later.”

He put down the phone and tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. It was the middle of January, they were only half way through another tough winter. The office seemed cold, as if they had already turned off the central heating. He started shivering. It wasn’t just the cold though. He was scared. More scared than he had ever been before. Sometimes in life, despite being surrounded by people, you find yourself alone. Like when you’re sitting in that dentist’s chair. Or going bust. Or slowly dying.