Home > Creative Writing, Short Story > Holy Knight

Holy Knight

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It was Boxing Day, yet the chairman, along with a skeleton staff, had come to the office to work on the press release that he would issue early next month. On the screen in front of him was displayed the company’s latest sales report. It made depressing, if unsurprising, reading. Things were not looking good at all, though at least a small profit was forecast, which was more than was likely to be the case for his rivals. As welcome as this was, it was not going to prevent the huge number of redundancies that would be forthcoming in the New Year; redundancies which came on top of several store closures and associated job losses that he and his board had been forced to impose 6 months earlier.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, he felt certain that there was nothing that he could have done about it. He had anticipated the current recession long before it had occurred and had made every effort, to warn others about the dangers. Three years earlier when the economy was booming he had addressed the CBI Annual Conference and cautioned delegates of the irrational exuberance that was being displayed in the financial markets. Had the City, he asked, learned nothing from the cycle of boom and bust that all but the youngest must have experienced in the course of their careers?

He had been challenged with arguments about ‘paradigm shifts’ and ‘cutting edge financial instruments’ that would ensure that if the bull market did ever come to an end, it would result in a soft landing. That was the phrase that really got to him. The challenger, a financial journalist with more qualifications than experience but who nevertheless should have known better, had said ‘if’ the bull market ends. He had expected a roar of derisory laughter from the audience, but there was none, only a silence as his retort was awaited. He said the speaker sounded like some deluded Roman Emperor who had come to believe in his own immortality and talked in terms of ‘if I die’ rather than ‘when I die’. Someone else asked if he was putting his money where his mouth was. He replied that it was a matter of public record that he had begun selling his shares in Salesmart and that he would continue to do so in a measured and orderly fashion over the months and possibly years that followed. He did not, he insisted, want to upset the market nor do a disservice to other shareholders, his fellow directors and above all the company and its employees. As founder, CEO and Chairman, he had a considerable stake in Salesmart and any careless disposal of shares would not only prove costly but could result in serious damage to the company and possibly result in a hostile takeover. He had no intention of letting that happen. He fully expected the share price to improve as the bull market continued and the company prospered. But an end would come and he wanted to be prepared for it.

His departure from the podium was met with a polite but frosty round of applause. He was, after all, the country’s greatest and most respected retailer. But nobody, least of all the pillars of the British business establishment, wanted to be told that their current run of success had more to do with the inevitability of economic cycles than their own financial acumen. They, like the government, the financial media and in fact nearly the entire population of the country, were oblivious to their own hubris.

Well, he had been proved right. The boom had continued for another two years, during which time he had sold 90% of his shareholding at ever higher prices as his company’s profits increased dramatically. He had been mocked in the media by ‘teenage scribblers’ who had relished the fact that he had so badly misread the market. It made them look like Omahan sages in comparison. Then, just over a year ago, the markets had come crashing down. Banks failed, liquidity dried up, unemployment soared and ‘quantitative easing’ became the ‘phrase du jour’. The Salesmart’s share price plummeted, along with that of every other company on the FTSE Index. He could now buy back his entire holding for about 60% of what he had sold it for, though that knowledge gave him little satisfaction. What worried him most was the wellbeing of his employees. He was desperate to save as many jobs as was possible. But, as things stood, he was not even sure he could save his own; a job he had held for 43 years, since the day his father had died.

Wesley Lasales had been born and raised in Redhill, Surrey. His parents had got married against his paternal grandparents’ unstated but clearly implied wishes which stemmed from the fact that his mother had suffered polio as a young girl and was confined to a wheelchair. While they were not exactly cut-off completely, relationships had become very strained and Wesley’s parents were unwilling to live and work on the farm.

Thus it was that John Lasales and his new wife left East Anglia and headed south to begin their lives as a married couple. Having finished school at the outbreak of war, John had gone straight into the army. Shop-keeping was completely new to him and was certainly not something he had ever imagined that he would end up doing. However he reasoned that it would allow him to be with his wife who, though remarkably independent for one in her situation, did need to have someone close by on whom she could call for assistance were it necessary. Together they put long hours of tedious, but ultimately rewarding, effort into their new venture, a business they called Lasales’s Family Grocer.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Lasales senior had made a roaring success of the enterprise. Money was always tight and the family had to learn to live frugally. However, he did manage to grow it such that within a few years they had been able to move to larger and better premises. From the age of seven Wes worked in the shop, along with his parents and, eventually, his younger sister. He got to know the customers and what it was they wanted as well as many of their idiosyncrasies. He was blessed with an extremely pleasant disposition and he had a great capacity for hard work. The customers liked him and he liked them.

Although his father clearly wanted him to join the business after he left school, he never actually said as much. Rather, he encouraged Wes to go to university to study economics with a view to working in the City. Redhill was, after all, in the heart of the stockbroker belt and the Lasales came into regular contact with many people who were considerably more affluent than they, though without necessarily displaying any observable talents by way of justification.

Everything changed the day that Wes received confirmation of his acceptance into Cambridge. His father was standing on the pavement outside the shop discussing with a sign-writer the new design for the shop front. As Wes approached with his exciting news, his father took a step back to get a better look. In doing so, he misjudged the edge of the pavement and fell backwards into the path of an oncoming car. He was killed instantly.

Wes’s dreams of going to university came to an end with corresponding suddenness. There was no question of his leaving the shop. His mother would not be able to cope on her own and his sister was still at school. It would be up to him assist his invalid mother and to bring home the proverbial bacon.

His long years of apprenticeship had served him in good stead and he recognised that while the business was not making great profits, there was a tremendous amount of goodwill that had been created by his parents over the past twenty years. If he wanted to break away from the life of drudgery experienced by his father he would need to capitalise on his assets.

Ironically, it was the driver of the car that had struck his father that who provided him with the initial leg-up on his way to building a retail empire. Mr Turnbull, a merchant banker, had been full of remorse following the accident, though there was never any question that he was to blame. Having learned the family’s situation he made frequent visits to the shop to make sure that they were coping, financially and emotionally. He encouraged Wes’s ambitions and urged him to look beyond his immediate horizons and consider opening another store; not straight away, but once he had fully learned a few important lessons. Mr Turnbull advised him to read the retail and financial press with a view to gaining knowledge of new technologies and methods of doing business. There was a great deal to be gained from the experience of others. By employing extra staff, Wes would have more time to become proficient at book keeping, investigate new products, find new suppliers and research the latest retail trends. Following the older man’s advice, he began placing advertisements in the local paper that offered certain essential goods at bargain prices to attract new shoppers. Mr Turnbull referred to these as, loss leaders.

Shortly after his 22nd birthday, Wes and Mr Turnbull went to the bank to see about a loan in order to open a second shop in the neighbouring town of Reigate. Under the guidance of his mentor, Wes was able to present a strong business plan which met with the approval of the bank manager. It probably helped that the merchant banker and the retail banker belonged to the same golf club. Wes was advised that as there would be more than one store, hopefully many more, he should give some thought to a name change, one that reflected a more professional, less parochial approach. As a result of his studying industry trends, he conceived the name Salesmart. He had in mind the American retailer Sam Walton whose WalMart chain was growing at a rapid rate. Wes enjoyed the pun on his own family name.

Sir Wesley, as he eventually became, smiled as he recalled that when in 1985, he took the company public, he announced to the press how proud he was to see the company that bore his name trading on the London Stock Exchange. One reporter immediately asked a question, addressing him as Mr Salesmart. The joke provided some useful publicity helping the press-release to achieve more coverage than might otherwise have been the case. In those days, all publicity was good publicity.

Today, Salesmart was the third largest retailer in the United Kingdom and, despite the recession, it was likely to become the largest fairly soon. But again, that was small comfort for Sir Wesley. The title would come about as result of job losses by his competitors rather than his own company’s expansion. Though he had done his best, he felt horribly guilty about the welfare of those who depended on his leadership. His guilt was only increased by the fact that his own fortune had grown while others had seen their investments vastly depleted.

Lost in his thoughts, Sir Wesley got up and paced around his expansive office. He stopped to gaze out of the vast window that looked out over Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. Far below he could see a few ant-like pedestrians walking the streets; the last stragglers, clutching umbrellas and shopping, going home for the night. It was snowing gently now as had been forecast. In the dim streetlight, he could barely make out one man he knew, standing outside the Underground station, packing away his copies of the Big Issue before he too would disappear into the darkness below.

Trevor Nixon had worked as a junior manager at the Salesmart flagship store in Kensington until he had been laid off half a year ago. The redundancy notice came several months after his wife had announced her second pregnancy. Sir Wes seldom took the tube, but on the occasions he had, Trevor had never shown any sign of recrimination or resentment. He always greeted him politely with a smile and an offer of his magazine. Sir Wesley thought that he must find it hard to sell many copies in this environment. With so many people having lost their jobs, very few had cash to spare on non essentials. He must be desperate to be out working on the day after Christmas. Lasales thought of the cold, gloomy Christmas day the young family must have endured; few gifts and little to eat and drink on what was supposed to be the happiest day of the year. Ahead lay only the prospect of long a long winter.

An idea suddenly occurred to him. He went back to his desk and picked up the phone. It was late but there would still be someone in Human Resources.

“HR, Trisha speaking”

“Good evening Trisha, this is Wesley Lasales here, could you do me a favour.”

“Yes of course, Sir Wesley, how can I help?”

“Please will you find the address for Trevor Nixon who used to work at the Kensington store. He was laid off in June this year.”

“No problem sir, I will have that for you in a second. Here we go. His address is 28c, Southsea Road, Romford in Essex.”

“Thank you Trisha, good night!”

He dialled another number.

“Carl, please will you go to Salesmart and pick up one of the Supersize Christmas Hampers from the manager’s office. I will call Ted Williams now and make sure that it is there waiting for you. When you get back, give me a call and I will meet you in the car park.”

“Very good, Sir, I should be back in about 30 minutes”.

Carl, had only been Lasales’s chauffeur for a couple of years, having taken over from his father, Klaus, who had come over from Czechoslovakia after the Spring Uprising of 1968. Klaus had joined Salesmart as a lorry driver. He became Sir Wesley’s personal driver when the company went public. Though still young and inexperienced, Carl was as enthusiastic and as loyal as any man can be to his employer.

As he climbed into the sleek, black Mercedes, Lasales said,

“I am afraid we are not going home yet, Carl. Please set the GPS for 28c Southsea Road, Romford. We have to deliver this hamper to a friend.”

“Of course, sir. It might take a couple of hours in this weather. The snow is beginning to settle on the ground and the traffic will be very slow.”

“Sorry to keep you from your family, on such a miserable evening, I will make up for it.”

“Please don’t mention it, Sir Wesley. It is for a good cause, I am sure.”

The traffic was indeed slow and the snow got heavier and heavier. But Carl handled the car well and they made steady progress.

“It is only another 3 miles to go now, so we should be there soon”

No sooner had Carl finished speaking than the car in front stopped. They waited a few minutes, but there was no movement.

“Can you see what the hold up is?” asked Lasales.

“Let me get out and take a look”, said Carl.

After 10 minutes he returned.

“There has been a burst water main at the intersection ahead. The roads are covered in ice. It’s chaos. The police are not allowing anybody into the area until the gritting lorry has been past. They say there have been too many accidents. By the looks of things, we could be here for a long while”

“That is a nuisance. In that case, we will have to walk. You had better park the car on the side of the road. Hopefully we will be spared the wheel clampers. Don’t forget the GPS”

Carl parked the car and he and his employer got out.

The snow on the pavement was several inches deep. Lasales had been shooting the weekend before and his wellingtons were in the boot of the car. Carl only had his leather-soled work shoes which were entirely unsuitable for the conditions.

“I will carry the hamper and you lead us in the right direction.”

Carl advanced unsteadily through the snow while Lasales followed behind regretting somewhat that he had ordered the Supersize hamper rather than the Standard size.

Progress was hindered by the poor conditions. Every so often, Carl stopped to shake his feet.

“Are you ok Carl?”

“My feet are getting very cold and wet, sir. The snow is getting into my shoes. I am not sure how much further I can go on like this.”

“You poor fellow. Tell you what. Let me go ahead and you follow behind. My foot prints are bigger than yours. If you walk in them, the snow won’t get in your shoes.”

They walked on again; the taller man ahead, striding into the night with the hamper in his arms while his shorter companion followed behind. Though an icy wind was blowing and the snow was falling more heavily than ever, Carl felt an inner strength as a warm glow rose  up from his feet and spread throughout his body.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: