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U3A Writing: Brenda's Story

Robin Hillard tells a choice tale of friction within a family business.

Brenda stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door. 'No-one asked me,' she told the startled cat. 'I should have been consulted before they changed the plan.'

She could still hear her son's reasonable tone when she confronted him. 'But Mum, we need the larger doors.'

It was true. The original doors would not be wide enough for the big carpet rolls. Everything had to be bigger in the new warehouse. Large orders. Schools. Offices. Acres of floor covering.

'There's more profit in the big orders,'' Graham said, when he proposed the move, and her husband agreed. She could have shaken them both.

She liked the smaller customers. She enjoyed selling to the homemakers: young people setting up house, and older couples, their family grown, who were splashing out on something new and wanted to discuss their choice.

Where was her place in the changing firm?

'We still need you, Mum,' Graham said. 'Even after we move, there is still the office work.'

She did not want to manage the office. Yes, she'd done it in the early days, when they could not afford administrative help, but it was the selling she loved. She enjoyed visiting people in their homes, helping them choose floor coverings, light fittings, curtains...

They always intended Graham to join the firm.

'Join,' she shouted at the cat. 'Not take it over.' Tab was licking a paw before cleaning behind her ear. She'd had a busy night, defending her backyard from the new cat next door. 'You stick up for your rights.' Brenda said and Tab went on washing her ears.

Graham had studied Economics and Business Management, and worked part time in the family firm. She should have seen the problem then: he had never been keen on the domestic side, the small orders.

In fact, he had not wanted to join the firm. After getting his degree, he decided he needed more experience and he'd not done badly making his own way. When Stephen had been ready to slow down - not retire, he explained, slow down - Graham was reluctant to leave his well paid job. 'I'm pretty much cock-of-the-walk where I am,' he said. 'Millsy's even talking partnership.'

So Stephen offered him the extra shares, transferred into his name. Full partnership. Cock of the walk.

Brenda had not minded at the time, she never thought about any dispute. She knew her 'little bits' were important to the firm: they might not make much money but they brought in customers. 'Shut out the competition,' Stephen said when people bypassed cheaper firms because she offered extra services. Services their new, big customers did not need.

Brenda heard the men arriving home, talking in low voices as Graham gave his version of the day's events. She had to admit he was right. The doors on the plan had not been wide enough, so there was no real need for him to consult her or his father about the change.

But small as the incident was, it underscored the direction their business was taking. Was there still a place for the things she enjoyed - lamps and curtains, special carpeting? 'Space is expensive,' Graham would say, as if her 'extras' were a luxury.

Tab was scratching at the window. Brenda opened it and watched her leap onto a jacaranda branch and climb down to the lawn for her evening patrol. Cats don't get married, have partners for life, or bring their adult children home. Cats don't put up with conditions they don't like. If they can't shape a place to suit themselves, they take off.

Take off! Stephen would be happy to retire, play golf, travel. Was that what she wanted? No. She still enjoyed her work too much.

Stephen had always been good on the wholesale side - their product was first rate - but when it came to selling, she was the one with flair. Now Graham had changed the shape of the firm. 'Things are different now!' he said. 'We're in the major league.'

Stephen was proud of his boy but where did that leave her? Her husband might be ready to slow down but she was not.

She stayed at her window, watching the cat. Tab was prowling the perimeter of the fence, but she did not go next-door. Instead she moved across the lawn, and squeezed through the hedge to the yard at the back, where an elderly dog enjoyed the last of the sun. Towser was no threat. If the cat brushed against him he might raise his head or he might not bother. Lately Tab had started sharing Towser's lawn, extending her territory. Extending...Suddenly Brenda knew what she would do.

She'd done some heavy bargaining in her day. With customers. When money mattered more than it did now and the books barely balanced at the end of the month. When it came to negotiation, Graham would not have it all his way.

She could hear him in the kitchen with Stephen, starting the evening meal. After changing her slacks, she put on a freshly ironed shirt and a little, carefully applied make-up. She was ready to face the men.

They were both in the kitchen. Stephen was trimming the steak while Graham tipped potatoes into a pan. She smiled at them, as if this had been an ordinary day, and started preparing a salad.

Later, as they enjoyed their steak she guided the conversation to the new warehouse.

'You're right about the doors, Graham,' she said. A slight relaxation betrayed her son's relief. He had known the disagreement was critical, and that a line had been drawn, a line as definitive as the fence that separates two cats. The warehouse was his territory now, to be shared with Stephen, who was as ready to retire as Towser was to sleep. No challenge there.

She underscored the victory. 'With these new premises, and the customers, you don't really need domestic stuff.'

Her husband nodded and wiped his plate with the last of his roll; he thought the argument was settled at last. But Graham waited, suddenly wary. He knew his mother too well not to recognise her tone.

'In fact,' Brenda said, as she took some more salad, 'I'm thinking of moving to new premises, taking my domestic bits into town, to catch the shopping crowd.'

She cut a small piece of tomato, and added it to the lettuce on her fork while the men debated her idea.

'... hardly worth the bother...'

'... businesswise not sound...'

'... extra overhead...'

'Maybe later, love,' Stephen spoke as the wise husband, and Graham left his father to find the words. 'We're pretty stretched at the moment...with the new premises. Can't really afford another place.'

'I think I can,' Brenda put down her fork, and looked directly at Graham. 'We've always worked as a team, your father and I. That's why we've been so happy over the years. But now, we want different things. I know he's ready to retire. I'm not. Perhaps its time we went our separate ways.'

They looked at her. Aghast.

'If we split up,' she said cheerfully, 'I'm sure I'll get a decent settlement.'

Stephen spluttered over his wine. She did not mean...she was upset...after all these years...she'd done a sterling job...change...

Brenda let him talk himself out, but she watched Graham. Her son. He could drive a hard bargain - and so could she. They were two of a kind. He was waiting to see what she wanted.

'I like the decorator bits, helping people set up their homes,' she said quietly, I'm not ready to give it up.'

There was silence while the men absorbed her argument. Graham wanted big profits, and so he should, at this stage of his life. One day he would be very rich but it would not be at the price of her dreams.

With Stephen's work and her sales skill they'd built the family firm. Maybe she could take it easy now - but not with golf, gardening or holidays. She could run the kind of business she enjoyed.

She stroked Stephen's arm, 'Don't worry, darling,' she said. 'Once I've got my little shop set up, we can get married again.'

This time it was Graham who choked into his wine.

'Okay, Mum,' he said. 'You win. The firm will set you up in your own place, in the centre of town.'

Soon he would see what a good solution it was. He could run the factory his own way, while his father had plenty of time for golf and she spent her days doing the work she enjoyed.

She poured herself another glass of wine. 'Here's to us all,' she said.

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