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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Wed Oct 04, 2017 9:53 pm

Chapter two – The Contract

 

            The following week was reasonably busy and Steve only occasionally checked his email for a reply to his submission. On Thursday the weather was unseasonably warm and Steve found himself in the office with a can of soft drink discussing the placement of a new greenhouse with Jimmy.

“If we build behind the potting shed there’s enough room for another medium size, climate control shed.”

“What do we do with all the stuff?” asked Jimmy.

“What stuff?” said Steve draining his can.

Jimmy paused and lobbed his empty can into the small bin. “Three points!” he exulted with both arms raised and then continued as if transported back to reality. “There are a whole lot of old pallets, fertilizer bags and pots back there. Haven’t you seen all that junk?”

“Oh, right,” said Steve as he remembered his habit of hiding stuff behind the shed thinking it may come in useful one day. “Order a dumpster and we’ll get it carted away.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“What?”

“That you’re finally going to clean that junk up.”

Steve stopped briefly, then with mock seriousness, “This is the new decisive me. I’m purposeful, I’ve got direction.”

Jimmy ignored Steve’s over dramatized claims, as he frequently did, so as not to encourage him. “You want me to do that now, or shall I stack it up first?”

“No, order the dumpster now and we’ll load as we clean. It’ll save time putting the stuff straight in.”

Jimmy was just about to pick up the phone when it rang. He made a wide eyed face, “Whoa that’s spooky,” he uttered using a gravel voice, trying to be humorous. Then picked up the phone and answered in the same raspy vein before correcting himself. “Sunset Nursery…er um sorry… Sunset Nursery, Jimmy speaking.” He listened for a few seconds and then held out the phone.

“It’s for you. I’ll make that call later.” And he left Steve to answer the phone.

 

Steven James?

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

Well Steven, we like your tender for vegetable cultures and I thought I’d contact you and sort a few things out.

“Well that’s great,” said Steve enthusiastically, feeling pleased with himself. “Why don’t you just email me the details and then I can give you a firm quote.”

I’d rather talk to you personally if you don’t mind.

“No, not at all, er when would you like to come around?” Steve gave a concerned glance around at the messy office wondering how much time he’d have to clean up.

Isn’t there a coffee shop not far from there?”

“Um there’s one about half a k up the road called ‘Inn for Coffee’ and there’s another one about 2 k up the road.”

“No, the first one... ‘Inn for Coffee’ …why don’t we meet there tomorrow at, say, eleven a.m. and we’ll talk over a coffee.”

“Okay, that sounds like a great idea,” said Steve, feeling relieved at not having to worry about cleaning up. Then suddenly, clarifying his thoughts, he blurted, “Wait! What’s your name? How will I know you?”

“My name’s Paul. I’ll be wearing a…” he paused momentarily, “a green tie.” Click. He’d hung up.

            He called Jodie. Her cheery voice responded to his call and she said she was happy to come in on Friday.

    Jodie explained that her Biology degree in plant genetics was almost complete, so she would be available for a bit more work in the short term.

“I’m just proofing my final paper. It will be good to get it finished and handed in.”

Steve was sure they would miss her invaluable contributions to the propagation side of the business when she left for more rewarding returns and said as much.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when you’re gone,” he offered and then thought to himself, ‘It was just as well that she was winding up her university studies for the year, since he was committed to his meeting with Paul, and he didn’t always want to fall back on Jimmy. After a short silence Jodie replied with a questioning inflection, “When I’m gone?”

“Well, I guess you’ll want a real job once you’re qualified.”

“Oh... yes,” was the uncertain response. Steve felt he was saying something wrong but proceeded, hoping to explain himself.

“I mean, I couldn’t afford to pay you what you’re worth.”

“I understand. I’ll see you Friday.”

Steve heard the connection close. “I think I missed something there,” he mused barely audibly.

                                    ....................................................

 

            Energising rays of deliciously warming, morning sunshine streamed through the window of the office and heated his back. It was Friday and Steve was mulling over his somewhat clandestine rendezvous. He had the same silly grin on his face that he got when his mind was entertaining the implausible or ridiculous when Jodie came in dressed casually in jeans, white sneakers and black tee-shirt.

            Jodie Brandon was twenty six and an extremely attractive girl with long dark hair and dancing bright blue eyes. She had been a friend of his family for a long time and Steve treated her as his little sister. Many times in his younger days their two families would spend Sunday afternoons together. Jodie had always been friends with Caz and, in the past, her sister Jamie would mostly follow them both around. As they got older the five children—John, Steve, Caz, Jodie and Jamie—would amuse themselves as the adults talked. In their teenage years it became more about the church youth group and Steve had gravitated towards Angela. Jodie had taken on some leadership responsibilities and thereafter, to his mind, she had faded into the background.

            Since she had started working with him he had admired the way she encouraged Jimmy to visit their church, but he sometimes resented her half serious scolding when work had intruded on his Sundays. The fact that she was much pursued by hopeful suitors completely escaped his attention. In truth, he hadn’t really noticed that she’d grown up; which says something about the distractions he’d had over the previous years. There was his preoccupation with his studies, his unrequited affection for Angela and his almost obsessive involvement with the business.

            She paused at the doorway and tilted her head inquisitively. He still had the grin.

“What’s so funny?”

“What, oh sorry, I was just thinking about meeting a green tie instead of a red carnation.”

“What?”

 Steve looked at Jodie’s nonplussed response. An expression which quickly changed from ‘What the...’ to ‘You dope...’ when it dawned on her that he was using a typically abstract tone.

“Sorry, I was thinking about a business meeting I’m having this morning.”

“You mean the meeting. Jimmy told me you were all excited about a vegetable culture deal. Do you know what they want?”

“Not exactly, but a fair idea… just a list of specifications for hardiness and resistance and high density foliage, and they have a very short timeline to work with. We probably need about 200 trays. So if you get any time today, there are a whole lot of dishes and nutrients to prepare.” Steve watched as Jodie started making a coffee.

“Do you want one?” she asked.

“No thanks. I’m going out for coffee.” Jodie raised her eyebrows as if in shock.

“You’re going out for coffee!”

“With the man in the green tie…” Steve smiled and left the office pleased with the level of intrigue he had created.

            He drove off in his old Toyota and a few minutes later pulled up outside the quaint ‘Inn for Coffee’, which seemed to want to convey a ‘Ye Olde World’ charm. Brick paving fronted the café, and some tables under umbrellas and a large plane tree added to the trendy setting. A light breeze rustled the new leaves of the tree and feathered his face pleasantly.

            The bell jingled metallically as he entered and a number of customers glanced up at the intruder who would dare disturb their quiet caffeinated bliss. At first Steve thought he had preceded his ‘green tie’ appointment. He was about to sit at a vacant table, when his eyes became more accustomed to the comparatively weak lighting and he noticed a table near the rear of the café. Paul was looking intently at him as if sizing him up. The green tie was a noticeable lime green, but everything else about Paul was quite unremarkable. He was average height and weight with wispy blond hair starting to bald on top. Yet his face was almost juvenile, with a certain youthfulness and positive energy. Steve made his way to the back, “Paul?” he inquired uncertainly. Paul stood up confidently and held out his hand.

            “You must be Steve.” They shook. “Sit down and we’ll order and then we’ll get down to business,” he continued in an unmistakeable American accent. 

Steve noted the casual pale shirt and tan slacks along with a subdued academic quality about him. Steve ordered a cappuccino and appropriately sweetened it to his taste, while Paul was content with a flat white, unadulterated. They made small talk as they waited for their orders.

“So how did you get involved in plant cultures?” Paul ventured.

Steve briefly explained his education and qualifications. Soon however, the company being so affable, he found himself explaining about his early high ideals and the inheritance of the plant nursery business. Paul listened politely and Steve suddenly stopped. “I’m sorry Paul. You don’t want to hear my life story.”

“No, I don’t mind. It’s nice to know you actually enjoy what you do… bit of background never hurt a business deal you know.” Steve acknowledged the comment with a nod as their drinks arrived.

 

“Tell me, what can I do for you?” began Steve.

“Well, basically I need a fairly broad range of plants…” he fumbled in a small satchel and pulled out two sheets of neatly typed and tabulated lists. “They’re all on here,” he said handing over the sheets. While Steve perused the lists, Paul continued, “We’re interested in high foliage vegetables with reasonable productivity. And these need to be supplied as cell cultures to minimize storage and ease transportation.” He waited as Steve studied the list and then took out a pen. “Can I write on this?” he queried Paul with an upward glance.

“Sure, I have another hard copy at the office. That’s yours. I can email the list for your use if you like.”

“So, I take it this is not for local use,” Steve observed as he marked some potato variety on the list. Paul didn’t respond to the question as Steve made eye contact, instead he changed the direction of the conversation.

“We’d like to pay a reasonable portion of the tender fee up front to show our good faith.” He again felt around his satchel and produced a substantial cheque. As he handed it to Steve he commented, “Don’t worry, we’ve done our research. We believe we can trust you to complete the order as required. But I need you to sign this receipt,” he added while pushing across what looked like a well-used docket book.

            After briefly reading and signing the page Steve carefully folded the cheque and put it in a compartment in his wallet.

“Well, I appreciate your trust, Paul, as you could probably guess, I will sub contract a number of these plants, so a healthy bank balance makes all that a lot easier.”

After marking off one final plant variety, Steve sipped at his cappuccino and peered over his cup at Paul.

“So what is the main thrust of your work Paul?”

Paul seemed to compose himself and gave a very studied reply.

“Well, we need large amounts of identical plants to ratify our research. It’s quite academic of course, but it will involve a close monitoring of nutrient input and CO2 conversion.” He gave a slightly forced laugh, “You know how important it is to establish the integrity and reliability of your research results.”

“So you’ll have sealed units.” Paul nodded warily. “And are you using lamps to establish energy input?” Steve was probing.

“Both. We want to do a comparative with natural lighting as well. You see…” and then Paul suddenly pulled himself up realising he was enthusing too much. “But I won’t bore you with any more technical details.”

            Paul took a long sip of his coffee. It was apparent to Steve that he was being very guarded about the purpose and use of the plant products they had negotiated. Of course this was not uncommon among researchers who were often very protective of any developmental work. In fact, with many scientists, security was usually a key consideration until after publication. Their main aim was to avoid being trumped by some competitor and be first to obtain commercial patents, or at least intellectual ownership of some process.

            After a few moments of quiet reflection on what had passed between them Paul spoke.

“Steve, it’s really important that you can meet these delivery dates. You’ll contact me if there is any problem won’t you?”

“Yes, certainly, but I don’t foresee any problems. We have many of these in stock ready to do the tissue cell propagation. I’ll probably start on it right away, and we have enough time to verify the viability of the cultures.” Steve tried to alleviate any fears Paul might have and suddenly felt he’d been too effusive. ‘Why didn’t I just say Yeah that won’t be a problem,’ Steve thought to himself. And then obscurely added, ‘Me thinks he protesteth too much,’ as he became aware that Paul was reiterating something.

“So Sunday the 12th is right for delivery?” Paul looked at Steve.

Suddenly Steve hesitated. “Is the 12th a Sunday?”

“Is that a problem? It has to be on time!”  Paul seemed to be about to rise and amplify the point when he regathered himself and settled a little, though still strained in an attentive lean.

“Well, it’s strange I know, but we’re one of the few plant nurseries not usually open on Sundays. Would it be a problem if I delivered on Saturday the 11th? I mean, I could do it on the Sunday if necessary.”

            Paul relaxed noticeably and responded with a smile. “No, no, I understand. I’m Southern Baptist myself, no, Saturday is fine.” Paul held up his hand in deference and Steve felt a little more congenial toward him as he explained.

“Well it is my custom to attend church, but my father felt more strongly about it than I do, so I guess I just do what he did in respect,” Steve tailed off, thinking that of late he had been quite irregular. He knew ‘his custom’ was, in truth, mostly about appearances. People he knew expected him to do the ‘right thing’ and so he did, without any real convictions about what he believed. It was just more comfortable to be with familiar friends.

“No, it’s fine. In fact it’s good,” Paul affirmed. “I used to regard Sundays more than I do these days, so I understand how important it can be. We should talk about it one day.  Be great just to discuss something apart from the temporary and material. You know,” he tilted his head, “spiritual… It’s a sure thing I don’t get the chance much these days. My dad used to say, ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’  I think it’s a verse…” thinking for a second he then added, “I’m glad you believe…I need to be reminded about what’s important.” He stared blankly just briefly as his thoughts drifted off on a tangent, before reconcentrating on the task at hand. He went on, “Anyway, it just means you have one less day.”

            They finished their coffees with Paul giving a brief history of some of his time in Texas and both relating more as friends than business acquaintances. Almost abruptly, it seemed as if he had just realised the time, Paul stood up, put five dollars from his wallet on the table, and then held out his hand. He gave Steve a firm shake. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you Steven, as they say. I’ll be in touch to see how things are going.” He smiled and left the café.

            Steve suddenly thought about this strange meeting and felt at a distinct disadvantage. He quickly deposited his own five dollars on the table as the waitress moved towards him with a tray. He folded and pocketed the sheets of paper and strode out of the shop. Paul was just driving away in a late model Ford, giving a small salute as he left. Steve jumped in his car and headed off in the same direction. His interest had been so stirred that instead of going back to Sunset Nursery, he followed Paul as inconspicuously as he could. It wasn’t long before he saw Paul’s car turning left into the highway ahead.

            Steve mused on what had instigated this pursuit of his. He replayed the events in his head muttering, “What are you up to Paul?” He recalled Paul providing some obscure comments about his research needing pure identical strains of plants. How his demeanour was one of someone trying to conceal a high level of excitement about what he was doing. His failure to sound matter of fact when confirming and then emphasizing the importance of adhering to the arranged schedule was also a little ‘over the top’ for a ‘normal’ business arrangement.

            Now on the highway Steve remained about one hundred metres behind the Ford, a little disquieted at the recollection of his words, “I’m glad you believe…the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” He was now even more aware of the charade he was playing to his family and friends. What did he believe? What was he committed to? He accelerated to get through a set of traffic lights and went past just as the amber turned red. His foot over compensated on the brakes as he rapidly converged on Paul’s turning vehicle. The wheels locked momentarily sounding a tell-tale squeal, before Steve was aware enough to pump the brake and allow a smoother deceleration. He hoped Paul hadn’t been alerted to his indiscretion, as he considered the difficulty of explaining his current actions. Beyond this hope, he was even more thankful that he wasn’t driving the work van which was labelled ‘Sunset Nursery’.
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