The Business

“Contracts Open,” “Contracts Closed,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 401.

Olivia Corley and Tierney Shave

In response to our interviews with tradesmen detailed elsewhere on this site, we decided to transform the answers that we received into two short stories of the kind we find in The British Workman (updated with elements of Naturalism) that run parallel to each other, exploring the various obstacles of manual workers and what it means personally to them, involving the dramatic elements of bankruptcy (which The Building World carefully detailed) and the sacrifice of their original aspirations. 

The parallel story to the following can be found here.

* * *

“The business is in your hands now.”

Ben’s eyes widened as those words left his father’s mouth, choking on his dinner.

“What do you mean, in my hands? You’re retiring?” He didn’t know that this dinner would lead to such an important event. Ben had thought that the family business would end up in his cousin’s hands. Ever since they were young Thomas had been more interested in learning the family trade than Ben had, always asking to look at their great-grandfather’s building manuals – or the “Bibles” as they called them. They contained everything a manual worker in the 1900’s could ever want, and the family had made sure they had been kept in sterling condition. But those “Bibles” contained nothing of what Ben desired.

“What about Thomas? I’m sure he’ll be thrilled! Plus, I heard he’s starting his own business now. He could even help advertise you.” Ben’s father commented, smiling.

“No, Dad, if I’m going to be picking it up, I might as well do it how we’ve always done it which is word of mouth. If I fall short from the business, then I’ll look into it.” Ben started to see the reality of it, as he finished chewing his last bit of food.

“The truth is, Ben, we’re going to be moving to Norfolk when your Mum and I officially retire. And, you know, this business is… well it’s not fit for Norfolk. It belongs here. It belongs in London. You’ve always had a knack for it. And look how far you’ve come. You’ll be fine, I’m sure of it.”

Ben’s father stood and walked over to get some more beer. There was a lot to think about, a lot to learn, a lot of discussions to have. 

Ben had never wanted to come into the family business, but he had no choice. He was the opposite of his bootlicking cousin and he prided himself on that. If you had sat Ben down when he was fourteen and told him that when he turned thirty, he and not his said bootlicking cousin would inherit the business, he would have laughed in your face. He used to be a big dreamer. When he was younger, he never thought about the real world and what it would hold. He never thought that he would be limited. As he got older, however, Ben was soon dropped from the comfort of his dreams into the harsh cold waters of reality. He soon came to realise that dreamers never prosper in a world of dog eat dog, and that dreams ran parallel to freedom. So, when the walls of reality drew closer and closer it became apparent to him that the days of dreaming and the days of achieving what he truly wanted were now behind him. In all of this, though, he had to think of his family. 

He took a longer route home. Life had been quite a journey for him and his wife. They had met when they were fourteen, and by the time they were sixteen, had their first child together. The pair went through several separations, but joined back together even stronger than before, putting Ben’s dreams on hold in the interests of his family. He didn’t want to be an ordinary labour-worker, spending his days driving around in his one-horse van. He didn’t want to have a large gut and go for breakfast with his workmates every Friday just because he could afford it. In short, he didn’t want to be his father. That was fourteen-year-old Ben’s worst nightmare, the nightmare that he had become. He had a vision of everything he wanted to achieve by the time he was thirty, and unfortunately being the town’s reliable handyman wasn’t one of them. He wanted to be a professional huntsman. Not just any huntsman. He wanted to be the huntsman. He wanted his trophies mounted on every wall in every house, to be awarded for his terrific skills. But this was his reality, the walls had closed in and he was now cornered. He had a family to take care of.

Ben pulled into his terrace and unlocked the front door. His wife was in the living room, asleep in his dressing gown. He walked past her and lit a cigarette, opening the back door. The noise awoke her.

“Hi, B. How was dinner?” She asked in a groggy voice. She had short, dark brown hair and wide, brown eyes which met his. He inhaled his cigarette and cleared his voice.

“Long story short, Mum and Dad are retiring and moving to Norfolk. Dad’s handing the business over to me,” he said, calmly, though inside his heart was racing.

“Really? Oh my!” She stood up abruptly. “How do you feel? Are you just going to focus on plumbing? How are you going to afford it?”

“Woman, please, don’t ask so many questions! God! I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing. I haven’t started thinking of the specifics, yet…” He laughed nervously and stretched, flicking some ash from his cigarette.

“Your gut is getting larger. Don’t stand like that, I don’t like seeing it. Stand up straight.” She commented, kissed his cheek and walked away. “Which book would you like me to read to you?”

“You choose, I’ll be there shortly. The kids all in bed?” Ben asked. She nodded and walked towards the bookshelf, pulling out Good Lady Ducayne by Mary Braddon. “I’ll save the new one for a later date. This is my favourite story currently. Don’t be too long.” She commented and walked into their bedroom. Ben thought about his four children, particularly his stepson. His stepson’s biological father was an electrician, and his stepson had been following in his footsteps as he would soon be starting his apprenticeship (learning and earning at the same time was something Ben had never seen before, yet it seemed effective) and it started to make him think. What if he decided to become a handyman in all different departments? That would reel more customers in, the more customers the better. He would be able to afford better materials, a reliable horse, and could afford the household bills on top of that if he worked hard enough. He rummaged through a couple of letters until he found it. The Building World. He began to skim the pages desperately, scratching his bald head with his cigarette intertwined in his fingers. He blew out the last of the smoke, put out his cigarette and locked the back door. Before he could research any specifics, Thomas walked in.

“Thomas? How did you get in? How are you!” Ben said.

“Oh, a lovely brunette let me in with a peculiar book in her hand. I heard Uncle John handed the business down to you.” Thomas remarked.

“Yeah, yeah… big jump.” Ben said, stroking his beard.

“It is. Reckon you can handle it, big boy?” Thomas chuckled.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Ben replied in defence. He knew what Thomas was trying to do. He was always so patronising, and Ben simply didn’t have time for it tonight. “Look, I’ll drop by your house sometime soon so we can have a proper chat. I really don’t want to wake my children.”

“Alright, Ben. Look, if you need me, I’m here. I’ve got plenty of experience handling a business!” Thomas commented.

“I know, thank you, Tom. Alright, ‘bye.”

What a bastard, having the cheek to come around at this hour offering help! Ben decided then and there he would prove to himself and Thomas that he could do this.

When Ben’s father visited the next day, he had a present for him. He pulled out a thick wodge of yellowing paper and placed it on the kitchen desktop.

“A little bird told me that you’re thinking of applying for an apprenticeship?” his Dad asked. Ben’s children were all sitting around them in the kitchen, colouring, reading and talking amongst themselves. Ben looked at them in awe.

“Yeah, I mean, it’ll make more money.” Ben cleared his throat. He was doing this for his children, for his wife. He needed to keep a roof over their head. His stepson stood closer to him and peeked at the magazine raising an eyebrow.

“Well, Ben, when you go to this apprenticeship, you will have to store everything up in here,” His father pointed to his head. “So, I wanted to show you this magazine. When you leave this apprenticeship, it will come in handy to give you tips and tricks that you’ll be able to apply to your work when you’re on the job, as well as in the ins and outs of how to run a business. This goes from budgeting your money, to invoices, to make sure that you do your job correctly. They come out weekly, only a penny, so collect every issue that you can. You will be on your own for a while, like I was, but once you get it up and running, you’ll be able to have enough to expand your business, to welcome new employees and teach them like I taught you. Maybe sunshine here can follow in your footsteps.” He looked down to his step-grandson and ruffled his hair. “The point, Ben, is that this is going to be difficult, and there is a reason we called these magazines ‘Bibles’. This lot has never left my side after all of these years.” 

Ben looked at the pile, astonished. He looked at his kids, his Mum, his wife and then his Dad. He nodded. “Tell me more Dad. I need some advice.”

The huntsman dreams were far gone for Ben. This was his goal now. This is where it would all start.

“The Business” 2 can be found here.