Under Two Shires Oak

Illustration by Michael Thomas.

Episode 17

“IT’S just the ups and downs of business, my dear. Everything’s fine.” Francesca’s father smiled from behind his desk.

She didn’t believe him for a second. His appearance, for a start. Hunched shoulders, a grey face – where was the straight-backed, assured figure she’d always known?

He had been on the telephone when she’d arrived. His secretary had claimed Marianne to fuss over, and waiting by the closed door of his office for him to finish, Francesca had passed the time looking at plans for a new development. It was so different from anything Oliver designed. And there was something else, too. She was excited at her sudden realisation and had wanted to share it, so she’d gone closer to the door to see if the call had finished. He was still speaking, and from what she caught, she suspected it was to the bank.

Things did not sound “fine”.

She said so to him.

“But I know what’s going wrong,” she added. “People want houses that are more decorative. If you’re paying, say, two thousand pounds, you want something special.”

“You sound like that husband of yours,” he said as a dark-haired woman came in. “Ah, here’s coffee.”

After that he wouldn’t be drawn back into business talk.

Francesca wasn’t deterred. She would make him listen to her. As for sounding like her husband, well, his firm was starting to do well, unlike her father’s.

“I often think about the village.” Nodding at her necklace, her father interrupted her thoughts. “I know many blamed me for the explosion at the pit.”

“It was an accident, Dad.”

“I couldn’t prevent the pit closure, either.” He shook his head. “All those men losing their jobs . . . I pray I don’t have to do that again.”

He didn’t often speak of the pit disaster, and Francesca was touched by seeing this other side of him. She gave him a hug.

“You won’t have to, Dad,” she whispered determinedly.

*  *  *  *

That evening, waiting for Oliver, Francesca wrote a quick letter to Evie, telling her all about her worries and asking how she was. Then she reread the letter from Grace but, still unsure how to reply, she returned her thoughts to her father. She remained convinced that his houses weren’t selling because, now things were improving, people wanted something fancier.

When Oliver came in, she asked his opinion.

“The market has changed,” he agreed. “Those firms doing well are producing more imaginative properties. Why?”

“Just something I was thinking about.” Francesca smiled enigmatically.

By next morning, she believed she had the answer.

“No.” Oliver shook his head as she approached him.

“But what my father’s designs need is oomph, and yours have that!”

“I am not going to work for your father!”

Then she was talking to herself. Oliver was out the door, disappearing on to the road.

She was hurrying after him, hurt at not being listened to, when a cry halted her. Marianne had come crawling after her and tumbled down a step.

She soothed the child, calming herself, too, in doing so. Later, rethinking the matter with less emotion, she decided it would be the same if she approached her father. There was no chance he would share the running of his business with Oliver, any more than Oliver would join it, though she remained certain that would be its saviour.

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