Stephen had a pub lunch before making his way back to the shop. He arrived at 2:00pm to hear riotous laughter emanating from the workshop.
'It's been like that all morning,' said Carole with a shake of her head. 'Mel and Mark have really hit it off.'
'As long as the work's getting done.'
Stephen walked into the workshop, the laughter ceased immediately.
'Afternoon, Boss,' said Mel as she wiped her eyes.
'Sounds like I've missed a good joke,' said Stephen.
'Not really,' said Mel. 'Mark was just telling me about the time he lost his shorts at the swimming pool.'
'It's happened to most men at some stage in their lives. The baggier the shorts the easier they come off when you hit the water.'
'Mark's came off half way between the diving board and the pool.' Mel began to laugh again. 'He hit the water as he was trying to pull them up.'
'Now that is different,' admitted Stephen. He picked up the completed job sheets and switched on the kettle.
'Wow, I'm impressed. Three PCs built in a morning, that's good going, Mark.'
'There's no software on them and they haven't been tested yet. I'll do that this afternoon.'
'I'm still impressed. How are the repairs going, Mel?'
'One done today so far. I'm doing the hard disk replacement now.'
'Productivity is up, the staff are happy; I think I deserve a pay rise myself,' said Stephen.
'Get in the queue,' said Mel. 'I'm next in line.'
Paul stuck his head round the workshop door.
'Can you spare a minute, Stephen?'
'My staff are working so well, I can spare two.'
Stephen picked up his coffee cup, followed Paul into the office and sat down at his desk.
'Ben,' said Paul.
'Ah, our sponsored, waif and stray. Has anyone heard from him yet?'
'Not quite. I did see him at a car boot sale on Sunday though.'
'Car boot, Ben? Doesn't sound like his thing, what was he looking for?'
'He was selling; software and computer parts.'
Stephen frowned and leaned forward.
'He didn't spot me, he was busy in the back of a van, so I was able to get a glimpse at what he was selling. It was all second hand by the looks of it, at least nothing was in packaging. The software was all copied stuff. He'll be in trouble if the police ever check it out.'
'Ah, so none of it was from here, I was beginning to worry then. What are we going to do about him?'
'Final warning?' suggested Paul.
'Yes, I think so, I'll get Carole to type it out and post it to him, make it formal.'
'It's a shame,' said Paul. 'When he puts his mind to it he's a very good technician and we could use his talents at the moment.'
'Mark is getting more done in his lunch break than Ben managed in an afternoon,' said Stephen. 'I'd like you to take him out to Blackstocks on Thursday, see how capable he is. If we end up trading Ben in for him, I think we'll get a good deal.'
Stephen signed off some invoices and asked Carole to write to Ben.
'It's his last, last chance, Carole, I really don't know what he's playing at.'
'I'll make sure there's no confusion. I'll spell it out in plain and simple terms.'
Stephen made his way back to the store room, picked out the parts he needed to put together a new computer and carried them back to the workshop. Mel and Mark were discussing the latest chart music.
'Can we have some tunes on, Boss?' asked Mel.
'Yes, providing it's 1970's rock. Stick the Rolling Stones on.'
'We were thinking more along the lines of Lady Gaga,' said Mel.
'Come on, Boss, you're not that old. You know who she is.'
'I haven't the faintest idea,' said Stephen, seriously. 'Madam who?'
'Gaga and it's Lady, not Madam.'
'I think I'd go gaga if I had to listen to it,' laughed Stephen. 'You can put some classical on if you like?'
'I think we'll pass,' sulked Mel. 'You really ought to get with it, Boss. You'll get old before your time.'
Stephen bent his back and hobbled to his bench.
'I'm old before my time,' he croaked.
'I had a bit of a listen to my mum's record collection over the weekend,' said Mark. 'It's not as bad as I thought it would be. Deep Purple are pretty cool actually.'
'Stop sucking up to the boss,' demanded Mel.
'Your mum has very good taste,' said Stephen. 'You'll have to tell her to pop in one day. I'd like to meet her.'
Mark looked at the floor and said nothing.
'I'd like you to go out with Paul on Thursday, Mark. He'll take you over to Blackstocks and show you what's involved.'
'That's so unfair,' said Mel. 'How come I never get to go out?'
'Because we need to know what Mark can do, Mel. We need to check out his attributes.'
Mel crossed her long legs and leaned back in her chair.
'It's still not fair, I've got attributes too.'
'Yes, we've seen them,' Stephen pointed to her legs. 'They are very nice too.'
'I could report you for sexual harassment,' sniffed Mel. 'But I'm still waiting to be harassed.'
The afternoon passed quickly, Mark loaded software onto the new computers while Stephen built another. Mel finished her job and set the test software running. Paul returned at 5:00pm with a message from the manager at Blackstocks.
'They want a couple of the new machines this week if we can manage it. If they're ready, Mark and I can network them into the system on Thursday.'
'Two of them are ready now,' said Mark. I'll have another loaded and tested by lunchtime tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to setting them up.'
Stephen locked up the shop on the stroke of 5:30. He called to Mark as he set the alarm.
'Want a lift home, Mark?'
'No, it's ok thanks, Mel's buying me a drink at the Dragon. There's a live band on, fancy joining us?'
'No he doesn't,' hissed Mel. 'He's far too busy, aren't you, Boss?'
'Actually I am. I'm going to have a quick run through the park, then I have a meeting to attend at the Writers Club.'
Stephen climbed into his car, fired up the ignition and hit the switch to open the window, Queen blared out from the speakers.
'Ugh,' said Mel. 'What a racket.'
Stephen put the car into gear and reversed onto the road.
'Radio Gaga,' he called to Mel. ' Beats the lady, any day of the week.'
Back at his flat, Stephen changed into shorts and a t-shirt, went through a quick warm-up routine, then jogged his way through the estate to the gates of the country park.
The park was vast, covering some 200 acres with over six miles of footpaths. It had been built on land previously owned by the Ministry of Defence. Some of the older residents believed that explosives, buried on the site after the war, had never been removed.
The park was divided into 'trails' and each one was designated a colour. The paths were marked by a series of coloured posts, the red trail was the longest at just over four miles. Stephen checked his watch and decided that because time was an issue, the yellow trail of just under two miles would suffice.
The park was usually busy no matter what the weather. Runners, cyclists and dog walkers all used the facility and at times the narrow footpaths could get quite congested.
Stephen ran through the flat grasslands at the entrance to the park, turned right and made his way through a wooded area before reaching a slight incline. Twice he had to evade yapping, off lead, dogs by veering away from the path into the longer grass. At the top of the incline the park opened up.. The view was spectacular, on a good day the rolling hills of Middlewich, some ten miles away were clearly visible.
Stephen checked his watch and lengthened his stride as he descended the slope and ran alongside a small brook that cut through the meadow. After two hundred yards he negotiated a narrow plank bridge and began to climb a steep hill that marked the half way mark on the trail. At the top, open to the elements, was an gnarled old oak with a wooden bench underneath. Two figures were sat on the seat, one of them waved to him as he approached.
'Hello, Stephen, this is a pleasant surprise.'
'Hello, Mary, hello Mick,' panted Stephen. 'It's a beautiful day isn't it?'
'Are you stalking us?' asked Mick.
Stephen stopped and bent forward slightly as he gulped air into his lungs.
'That hill doesn't get any easier.'
'We struggle to walk up it these days,' said Mary. 'We tend to come up the other side, it's a longer walk but less steep.'
'Do you come up here a lot then? I haven't bumped into you before.'
'That's because you didn't know us before,' said Mary. 'We're up here most days, aren't we Mick?'
Mick grunted in agreement.
'We've been coming up here for three or four years now,' he admitted.
'It's a lovely view,' said Mary. 'You can see for miles from up here. It's a nice place to sit and think.'
'Not much cover if the rain comes, though,' said Stephen. 'The weather can turn so quickly up here, the park should have its own weather forecast.'
'I worked here for a while in the sixties,' said Mick. 'The weather was better back then.'
'You're always moaning, Mick,' chided Mary. She turned to Stephen. 'Do you do this a lot then, running?'
'Not as much as I should, I like to keep fit.'
'You don't look very fit to me,' said Mick. 'You looked buggered as you came over the top there.'
Mary looked Stephen up and down, her eyes narrowed.
'He looks very fit to me.'
'Oh, stop flirting, Mary,' said Mick.
Mary winked at Stephen and turned to Mick.
'Age should not make one unappreciative, Mick. I may not be in the first flush of youth but I know a nice, firm backside when I see one.'
Mick was horrified.
'This backside had better get a move on or it will be late for the writers club meeting tonight.'
'Ah, yes, there's a special committee meeting isn't there; to allow the younger element to air their views?'
'Apparently so, I was invited this morning by all accounts, I haven't read the email invitation yet.'
'The club's all right as it is,' said Mick. 'There's no point in making changes for changes sake.'
'We are a little staid, Mick,' said Mary. 'A little too set in our ways. There's a whole new generation of writers coming through, they deserve a say in how things are done, it's there club too.'
'I can see it now,' moaned Mick. 'Text talk novels, wonderful.'
'Oh shush,' said Mary. 'It's time to move on. Good luck with the meeting, Stephen. I've already forwarded my views to the committee.'
Stephen ran on the spot to get his muscles loosened up.
'See you next time, I'll make sure I run this way in future.'
'Don't put yourself out,' muttered Mick.