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Feather's Miscellany: The Ant And The Grasshopper

...There were rumours in Keighworth that he’d been sent down for some misdemeanour, but whatever the truth he left Cambridge early and travelled the world, living off his wits and his parents, till he settled to a dubious life in the south of France playing cards and the roulette tables in various casinos, borrowing money from friends and acquaintances unashamedly in that charming way of his when he was down on his luck – or returning home for a hand-out, when money was not forthcoming abroad...

Could black-sheep Philip have a surprise in store for his relatives? John Waddington-Feather tells a satisfying tale.

“Seth Duxbury & Son, Grocers. Founded 1895” read the sign in gold copperplate letters, which stood over the Victorian frontage of the old shop in Low Street for years in Keighworth. It was there right up to the time old Duxbury’s grandson, Tom, opened his super-market in the new town centre almost a century later. Everyone in Keighworth knew Duxbury’s and had shopped there at some time.

As a family grocery business it flourished. Seth and his son, Fred, worked hard to build up their business well into the 20th century. Hard work and hard saving were the keynotes to success in Keighworth and the Duxburys excelled at both. They didn’t stop when their business moved into brand-new premises after the centre of Keighworth was gutted and developed in the 1970s. New trade and new enterprise rose Phoenix-like from the debris of the old town centre, and the new shops made money hand over fist in those palmy days.

Seth died in 1926 and Fred took over the running of the firm. The new place was much larger than the old and had its own meat and delicatessen counter and other exotic innovations. Fred had a manager and employed fifteen assistants. He worked hard and he expected them to work hard, too.

Shortly after he returned from the war in 1918, Fred married Edith Baker, the daughter of a shoe-shop manager and they had two sons, Tom and Philip, who were as different as cheese and chalk. Perhaps that was due to their upbringing for Tom, the eldest by ten years, had gone straight into the family business from school in 1935, while Philip, spoiled rotten by his mother, had been sent to an expensive boarding school and then started university. I say ‘started’ because he never completed his degree.

There were rumours in Keighworth that he’d been sent down for some misdemeanour, but whatever the truth he left Cambridge early and travelled the world, living off his wits and his parents, till he settled to a dubious life in the south of France playing cards and the roulette tables in various casinos, borrowing money from friends and acquaintances unashamedly in that charming way of his when he was down on his luck – or returning home for a hand-out, when money was not forthcoming abroad. Meanwhile, his brother, Tom, had entered the family firm and was slogging away alongside their father.

You’d have thought Tom would have resented all this and sent him packing. You’d have thought he would have resented even more his brother being given a better education and the privilege which went with it. But he didn’t, and there was a reason. By the time Philip was born, the Duxburys were much better off than when Tom had come into the world.

Moreover, his mother Elsie had gone up the social ladder as the business flourished, moving steadily up from middle-crustia to upper-crustia. Once you had summat in Keighworth, you were summat and by the 1940s the Duxburys were doing very well. Fred had become a Freemason and left the Liberal Club for the Conservative Club, while Elsie was doing the rounds of the coffee morning set in town and had sent her younger son to a posh boarding-school.

Tom was called up at the beginning of the war and served as a gunner in the Western Desert in the 8th Army, one of Monty’s men. He had a tough war, coming up through Italy where he fought at Monte Casino, before ending up in Germany. When he was demobbed, he went back into the business, which he took over after his father’s death in 1972. He married Mabel Sutcliffe, the daughter of a dairy-man, and they had two daughters.

Now Mabel had no edge. She’d left the local secondary school at fourteen and did a year at commercial college before leaving to enter the office of her dad’s firm. She married Tom when she was twenty and then helped him run the family business. She was a hard-working woman, believing that life was for working hard with no frills. That way you made money. She’d no time for lah-di-dah people and her mother-in-law rather looked down on her. Elsie firmly believed Tom could have married better, could have married better. But he didn’t. He stayed the same throughout his life, a steady, dour, broad-spoken man with no edge who called a spade a bloody shovel.

With a husband like that, Mabel didn’t have much time for Philip. In her eyes he was a playboy, a sponger, a con-man like so many of his type who’d had a fancy education down south. She was furious with Philip after his parents died and he continued to touch his brother when strapped for cash. He had half shares in the business but did absolutely nothing to earn them.

Yet in spite of herself, Mabel secretly envied Philip. He was the opposite of this brother: polished, well spoken, good looking and a good talker. He’d been an officer in the cavalry during his National Service on ceremonial duty at Buckingham Palace and he mixed easily with gentry. On top of all that he certainly knew how to get round women. He had them round his little finger. Mabel may have grumbled like mad to her husband, but she lapped up Philip’s flattery and the presents her brought her from France. He also added sparkle to her otherwise dull life in Keighworth.

She once remarked to Tom that he and Philip were like the ant and the grasshopper in the old tale. There’d come a time when Tom would have something to live on comfortably, what he’d put by carefully in the bank in the good years. Philip having frittered his money away all his life would have nothing. It would be no use his coming to his brother for help then.

But fate can be cruel and stand life on its head. Things began to go pear-shaped for Mabel and Tom. They’d hoped their daughters would go into the business and help their father now that he was getting on. He worked long hours and took few holidays. But his daughters married men they’d met at university and left the area. Mabel’s friends had always said they would. If you educated daughters they moved away and Tom and Mabel were left running their super-market by themselves.

Then it happened. The bank in which Tom had invested his life’s savings collapsed and with it went his pension. Worse still, a fire broke out in the super-market and burnt it to the ground. They had to move to a run-down building where business steadily declined. In time they were declared bankrupt and were penniless.

Just when they were at rock bottom, Philip appeared on the scene, short of cash as usual. His money from the family business had long dried up and he’d come to size up the situation. When he saw Tom and Mabel he was shocked. They’d both aged and looked drawn, shrunken into themselves. All the old self-assurance had gone and they were completely crushed.

When she saw Philip, all dolled up and driving an expensive car, Mabel couldn’t contain herself. She released years of pent up anger. “There’s nothing you can do to help,” she said, spitting venom. “You’ve never chipped in all your life. You were always a taker, a parasite.” And she went on and on till she broke down crying.

Philip said nothing, simply soaking it all up. There was more to come once she’d recovered. Years of resentment came pouring out, but he still said nothing. Yet before he left he made a promise. “In spite of what you’ve said, my dear, I’m still your brother-in-law, Mabel, and always will be.” Then he added, "I’ll see you’re right.”

Tom looked up glumly. “Nay, Philip, but how can you help? You’ve no qualifications, no trade, no nowt.”

Philip wasn’t the least fazed. He threw back one of his dazzling smiles and said enigmatically. “You’ll see, my dear boy. You’ll see.” Then he left.

The next day he returned to his old haunts in France and they heard nothing from him for some time. They were too busy sorting out the mess they were in to contact him and what was the use anyhow? True to form, he’d left them in their hour of need and as time went by they began to think they’d heard the last of him.

Then right out of the blue he phoned them one night and said he was married. He was sorry he hadn’t been able to invite them, but it had been a hurried affair. That was all. Then again, nothing more for months.

One day Tom was summoned to the bank. It would be an understatement to say he was surprised. He was downright gob-smacked. A large sum of money had been paid into his account, clearing all his debts. More than that, another large sum of money had been invested in a special account to replace his old pension fund which had gone down the drain when his previous bank failed. All his and Mabel’s worries evaporated overnight.

The bank manager couldn’t tell him who his benefactor was for the transactions had been done through an agent in London. The manager had no idea for the agent wouldn’t say. It was a complete mystery – till Philip showed up later that year.

Unannounced, he drove up to the door as ever in an expensive, snazzy sports car dressed immaculately in a bespoke hacking jacket from his London tailors and sporting a red carnation in his buttonhole. The perfect gent.

He apologised for not letting them know he was coming, but said he didn’t want to put them out and had booked in at the most expensive hotel in Keighworth, where he wanted them to join him there for dinner that night.

“Who’s paying?” asked Mabel.

The dazzling smile lit up his face. “Why, me, of course, my dear,” he answered brightly. “In fact, everything’s on the house. I’ve bought the place!”

He said nothing more but drove off leaving them bewildered, but they duly turned up at the Regent Hotel for dinner that night, where they were wined and dined right royally. The waiters danced around them all night and it was very noticeable how obsequious they were with Philip. They couldn’t do enough for him.

And it was over dinner he explained everything. When he’d left them almost a year before, he’d returned to his old way of life – and his paramours. Among them was a childless, elderly widow of a multi-millionaire who was utterly bewitched by Philip. She worshipped the ground he walked on and he knew it. He’d had her eating out of his hand for years, and shortly after he’d returned from England she wed him, though almost old enough to be his mother.

Alas, the marriage didn’t last long for she died suddenly over a game of cards with her cronies one afternoon and Philip became a multi-millionaire overnight, with a yacht on the Med, a luxury apartment in Monte Carlo and another in London.

“But with all that,” said Mabel in a very small voice, “what brought you back to Keighworth? What made you buy this place?”

For a moment Philip looked serious. “Quite simply homesickness, my dear,” he replied. “It’s the only place where I ever felt I had roots; the place I used to come back to during the holidays at school or on leave from the army; the place where ma and pa and you two and your family were; the place where I could always pick up a few quid when I needed them” he added roguishly. He looked affectionately across at his brother and sister-in-law. “After all, dear Tom, blood is thicker than water as you’ve so kindly demonstrated all these years. All I’ve done is repay you. And as for this place, I bought it to stay here whenever I come home. I can’t go on sponging on you good people, can I?”

Philip took a long sip of port from his glass before adding seriously, “You know, there’ll come a time when I’ll be too old to go gadding off and I’d rather end my days here than anywhere else. I’m going to install a games room, complete with roulette and cards. I can’t lose, can I? It’s all mine and the winnings that’ll accrue when the gaming suite is opened. I’ve already applied for a licence. So, “he concluded raising his glass, “here’s to a happy retirement for all of us!”

They raised their glasses to toast each other and Mabel never grumbled about her brother-in-law again. Some grasshoppers, it seemed, survive the winter when some ants don’t.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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