Leonard Pearson did his best to hide the doubt he felt. Robert could not seriously be considering buying this place. Run down was the best one could say about it. Both the greenhouses were in serious need of maintenance and re-painting. The irrigation equipment, the ventilation system, the tractor and other equipment, all were singing their swan-song, and he couldn't even begin to guess at the state of the electricity supply.
Even the nearby three-storey dwelling house was showing the signs of age. The outside walls were flaky and needed re-pointing, and the window frames and eaves were nearly devoid of paint. Inside was not much better, with faded paint, and wallpaper curling away from the walls at top and bottom.
Robert had qualified as a horticulturalist several of years ago. During the summer vacations he had come to this smallholding to gain som work experience in his chosen profession, but after qualifying had worked at other sites on a project basis. He had maintained contact with Walter Thompson, the owner of this smallholding. Walter was old, well into his sixties, and had suffered from ill health the last year, and the one full-time employee, Susanne Fielding, had done nearly all the work, but without the authority to take rational decisions. Now Walter wanted to retire, and had offered to sell the business as a going concern to Robert.
It was then that Robert had called Leonard and asked him to come to Stoke Fercroft and take a good look at the situation with him, and give his advice.
Everything he saw screamed at Leonard to say no; that his brother should not touch the place with a barge-pole, let alone a spade. But he knew Robert was interested, and he owed it to his brother to find out more about his plans. And Robert had not yet talked about the price old Walter was asking.
"Okay," he said at last. "Let's go somewhere and take a look at the details."
"Right ho," replied his brother. "Susanne's making us dinner and I'd like her to take part in the discussion. We've talked about the possibility of making it a joint venture."
"Is she also qualified?"
"Yes. And she's been working here for four years now. She's been interested in the place for some time. She knew Walter was getting ready to sell, and we've talked about it several times."
Great, thought Leonard. So it's not just Robert I have to dissuade. It's this Susanne as well. He wondered whether there was anything else between the two of them, other than the idea of going into business together.
"Fine," he lied. "Let's go to Susanne's and have a talk. Where does she live?"
"She lives in Foxton - that's about ten kilometres from here. It's just a little village, but there's an agricultural supply company there that's run by her father and mother. She lives in a little cottage on their property."
Robert took out his cellphone to warn her that they were on their way, and the brothers set off in his car. When they arrived Leonard was introduced to Susanne, an attractive woman with white-blonde hair, of an age with himself and Robert. They found that Susanne's parents, Harold and Ella, were also invited and the five of them seated themselves round the table. Susanne had made a casserole, and Leonard admitted to himself that, even if the weekend promised nothing else, at least the meal made the trip worth while.
Over the meal the three 'outsiders', Harold, Ella and Leonard, questioned Susanne and Robert about the details of the property, and their plans for it, and Harold and Ella also asked Robert about his career to date.
"What do the accounts look like?" asked Harold finally, and Susanne handed all three of them a summary of the last five years' accounts. They studied them, for a few minutes.
"What's Walter's asking price?" asked Harold.
"And how about the terms?" asked Leonard.
"He'd like a relatively small sum up front," answered Robert. "And the rest he'd take as a sort of pension - a monthly sum, period not yet specified."
Harold was not impressed.
"Looking at these accounts, the place generates enough to pay your wages, Susanne, and some kind of a salary for Walter. That would presumably go to pay his pension instead, so there'd be next to nothing over to pay you a wage, Robert."
"That's true," said Robert. "But he's not been making full use of his assets. The total property is about ten hectares, of which only about one is needed for the house and greenhouses. That leaves nine hectares which could be rented out to one of the local farmers."
"And Walter has sold everything via local shops, sometimes even wholesalers," added Susanne. "We intend to build a farm shop which would increase the income from produce sold there. Practically double it, if not more."
Leonard asked about a surveyor's report. One was at hand, and more promising than he had expected. The building structure of the house was in good condition, even if the wallpaper and paint left much to be desired. The report did not hide the fact that the greenhouses needed immediate maintenance.
As regards these greenhouses, the growing season was now over, and they could use the autumn and quite possibly a good bit of the winter in painting and, where essential, repairing the two existing greenhouses, but their plan was to buy two additional ones from a bankruptcy sale.
"That'll put an extra load on the irrigation and ventilation systems which they might not be able to take," Leonard pointed out.
"True, but we have a good idea of how much new equipment would cost, and it's not prohibitive," said Susanne. "Although we hope the current equipment will last another year."
"How about labour?" asked Harold. "Can the two of you cope with four greenhouses?"
"Probably not, but Walter has had a part-timer, Johanna Walters, who lives in the village. We could certainly use her."
Their preparedness, together with their plans, put a whole new complexion on the deal. Harold and Ella glanced at each other.
"Well, I'm much more favourably inclined to the project now than I was when we went over the place," said Harold. "It's still a bit of a gamble, but you deserve some luck.
"I agree," said Leonard. "What are you going to need in the way of finance?"
The five of them helped to put together a list of all expected expenditure. The total was a substantial sum. Robert and Susanne each wrote down their savings and the total was subtracted from their list.
"We'd better see whether the government or the local council has any funds for new starters," said Robert. "Then there are the banks."
"Leave the banks out of things as long as you can," advised Harold. "Let's see how we can cope, especially if it's not all wanted at once."
"I'd like to help, too," said Leonard. "Though I won't be able to match you," he went on, looking at Harold. "And I've got another suggestion. I'll be your pro bono computer nerd. But instead of being paid, I'd like to have my own room in the house. I might not come out every weekend, but it would be nice to have my own 'country place' that I can visit when I feel like it."
Robert looked at Susanne.
"I've no objection to that, if you can put up with him," she said.
"Then it's a deal."
And so it was settled, and Robert and Susanne drew up papers to form a limited liability company, and all the other paraphenalia which the authorities need, and within a month Robert had moved into the house, and work had begun on greenhouse maintenance.
Work proceded well. Before the end of October they had replaced the rotten wood in the greenhouses, and Susanne had completed the repainting of one greenhouse and had started on the second. They had also called in a local builder who had prepared the foundations for the two new greenhouses.
On his visits Leonard had fairly quickly decorated a room on the third floor, and furnished it with help from IKEA, and he had done the same thing with the bathroom on the same floor. He also used these visits to keep abreast of developments. He was not the only one to use dinner time to learn about their progress. Harold and Ella also visited occasionally for the same purpose.
In addition to his work on the electronics side of running a market garden, and somewhat to his own surprise, Leonard quickly became a competent carpenter, to say nothing of his work as painter and decorator and bricklayer's assistant. They called in a local builder who taught them the rudiments of pointing and came to inspect their work from time to time, and give advice on the exterior painting and where they needed to replace woodwork.
As autumn turned into winter and winter, in its turn, to early spring he began to find other things to do around the place, for truth to tell, before he had discovered computers in his early teens, and turned into something of a nerd, Leonard's first interest had been gardening, and the last summer of this interest he had provided the family with enough potatoes, carrots, lettuces and other vegetables to see them most of the way through the following winter.
By coincidence, just as he was moving from the garden to the computer room, his brother, Robert, was also changing, from sports enthusiast to gardener, and this was the birth of his career in horticulture. In effect, Robert took over Leonard's plant pots and equipment.
So now, when the computer systems needed no tweeking, and he felt like a rest from carpentry, decorating and pointing Leonard was quite happy to spend some time in the greenhouses he had hitherto spent much of his free time upgrading, and Robert or Susanne would usually find him doing some repotting or weeding. Indeed, his input on the gardening side, even though it only encompassed the weekends, became more and more important.
In this way winter passed, the two new greenhouses were delivered and erected, and work began on preparing the coming season's production. It was in late February that Leonard arrived early for the weekend. He had accumulated a good deal of flexitime at work, and decided to take Friday and Monday off, and make it a long weekend, and he drove out on the Thursday evening.
On Friday morning he was out early On the way to the little office in one corner of a greenhouse he passed an empty table, and saw a pair of hands lifting small plantpots containing basil from somewhere behind and placing them on the table. He noticed a head of brown hair pulled into a pony tail, and went round to see who was working there. He found a young woman squatting beside a carton of plants.
"Ah, you must be Johanna," he said.
"That's right. And who are you?"
"Leonard, Robert's brother."
"Oh, so it's you who has fixed up the computer systems," said the woman, and uncoiled herself from the floor. This was the only word Leonard could think of to describe the effect, for she proved to be extremely tall, far taller than Leonard's one hundred and seventy five centimetres, and probably nearer two metres. She held out her hand to be shaken. Leonard found that his mouth was open and managed to close it.
"That's right," he said.
"I hope you don't mind, but I've made a few adjustments," said Johanna. "Brings them more into line with our setup."
"Ah, that explains it."
"I'd noticed some changes on previous visits," said Leonard. "But since they seemed to be okay I didn't do anything about it. Are you interested in computers?"
"As tools, not as toys."
And this was his introduction to the final member of the staff of the market garden, who had happily changed her status from part-timer to full time employee.
It was in early April that Leonard had received a call from his brother asking him to confirm that he was coming to vist that coming weekend. He duly arrived on the Friday evening, to find glum faces on Robert and Susanne, and heard that Harold and Ella were coming over for dinner. There was to be a council of war.
Once again Susanne had excelled herself in the kitchen, and the five of them sat around the kitchen table with a simmering casserole before them and a couple of bottles of wine which Leonard had brought with him. It was not until the meal was over and the five were drinking coffee or tea that the council began. It was a question of money.
"As we told you right at the beginning, when we were still planning to start up, we decided to go for broke and fill all four greenhouses," began Susanne. "What we hadn't counted on was the cost of erecting the two new greenhouses, and we thought we'd be able to pay for them in instalments."
"Since we bought them at a bankruptcy sale, the full price had to be paid up front," explained Robert. "And the builder, electrician and plumber all had higher costs than we had reckoned with for the foundations and for connecting them to our existing systems."
"How is the equipment holding up now it's running four greenhouses instead of two?" asked Leonard.
"It's holding," replied Robert. "But we're fairly certain we'll need to replace at least some of it next winter."
"We've bought material to fill all four greenhouses, some of which has to be paid at the coming month-end, and we have instalments to pay to all the artisans we've used. Walter has to receive his pension, of course, and Johanna is now working full time, and her salary has more than doubled."
"So what exactly is your problem?" asked Harold.
"We've heavy payments every month throughout the summer," answered Susanne, but we don't start generating income in any degree until June at the earliest."
"How about your own salaries?"
"We're living on the absolute minimum," said Robert. "And Susanne sold her car and we bought a pick-up instead."
"So how much do you need and for how long?" asked Leonard.
They named a figure which made him blink.
"And we'll need it for at least a year, and possibly even longer," said Susanne.
Everyone looked at Harold, who had been the big investor to date, but he looked glum.
"You've caught me at the beginning of our busy season," he said. "All our larger customers are right in the middle of their expansion season, just like yourselves, and all of them expect long credit."
"What's the absolute minimum you need immediately?" asked Ella.
"We don't need anything immediately," said Susanne. "But come month-end ..." She hesitated and then mentioned a sum. "And we'll have to roll that over and increase it at the following month end."
"I'll see what I can do, but it's going to be very difficult," said Harold finally.
The outcome of the discussion put something of a damper on the rest of the weekend, and Leonard was quite relieved when Sunday evening arrived and he could take his leave. He had seen how hard his brother and Susanne had worked to make a success of their enterprise, and he had also seen that they had passed up on salary as much as they had been able. He did not want their efforts to be in vain but had no idea what he could do to change things.
The following week he was busy, both at work and privately, and passed up on travelling to the market garden. Robert mentioned his concern to Susanne.
"It's not like him," he said. "And coming so soon after last week's discussions, it makes me wonder. Is he leaving the sinking ship?"
"Come on," she replied. "We're not sunk yet. What did he say when he phoned?"
"He merely said he'd been very busy, and needed a relaxing weekend. But all the same..."
"I thought he did his relaxing here, repotting hundreds of tomato plants," he finished and she laughed, and her laughter sparked his own.
Time moved inexorably forwards towards the month end, and the two owners were beginning to worry about which bills they could postpone. They were seated over elevenses one Monday morning when the post arrived. They divided it and each began to read a share. Suddenly Robert gasped.
"Read this," he said, and passed a letter to Susanne.
It was on the formal stationery of a solicitor's office, and Susanne felt a tightening of her throat before she began reading. When she was finished, she, too, gave a gasp.
"Does this say what I think it does?" she asked.
"I think so."
"Someone wants to lend us money for a period of at least two years, extensible if necessary, at an interest rate of two percent over bank rate."
"That's what I read, too."
"Who would do that?"
"Someone who knows us."
"...and knows that we're strapped for cash. But I thought only we and our families knew that."
"And the accountant. It was she who warned us to start looking for extra finance and caused us to hold that meeting with your parents," said Robert.
"Do you think she has some wealthy clients and has been talking to them?"
"Dunno. We can ask her."
They rang their accountant who denied all responsibility for the letter.
"However," she said, "I do have some clients with money sitting idle. It's a good idea. Would you like me to try them?"
"Not at the moment, thanks," said Susanne, who was holding the telephone. "First we need to know who lies behind this letter."
"Why don't you phone the firm and ask?"
They did so, but the solicitor with whom they spoke would not release the name of his client.
"However," he went on, "I don't think you need to worry about either my client's credentials nor that there may be some catch involved."
"Are you saying that you would accept this offer if you were in our shoes?" asked Robert.
"Well, I don't know too much about your business," said the solicitor. "But if the sums involved are adequate to give you the security you need, then I would advise you to accept."
It did not take Robert and Susanne long to come to a decision, but they checked first with Harold, and Robert called Leonard, who asked whether they had any idea who was behind the offer, and for the rest had no comment other than that this appeared to be their salvation. They signed the papers the following day, and before the week was out the money was in their bank.
This event marked a turning point in their business. The following month they marked an upturn in sales, which progressed throughout the entire summer, and their plan of selling from an on-site shop proved to be even more popular and generate even higher returns than they had forecast. Susanne had had the bright idea of placing benches, chairs and tables outside the shop, and adding coffee, tea and a very limited selection of cakes to the stock for sale, and it became a weekly jaunt for the local gardeners and their families to come to the market garden, buy a plant or two, or some vegetables, and stop for a coffee and cake, and chat to like-minded.
In October Susanne and Robert invited Harold, Ella, Leonard and Johanna to a celebration. The summer and autumn had been a tremendous success and they were in the position to be able to pay back half of the loan they had received from their unknown financier. Harold advised against this, and Leonard agreed.
"Keep it for a year or two longer," he said. "You've got some shakey equipment which will need replacing, maybe at short notice. It's not costing you a lot of money. What was it? Two percent over bank rate? Hang onto it for a while longer, just in case."
And hang on to it they decided to do.
"We have something else to celebrate, too," began Robert. "We've decided to get married."
Congratulations were the order of the evening, and again a couple of months later, when they finally tied the knot. During the following winter they began replacing the machinery, and added a fifth greenhouse, and the following July, they were already on their way to a second successful year. They still had no idea of the identity of their benefactor, but that autumn, when they were getting ready to repay the capital sum, they received a second letter from the solicitor, advising them that his client had no immediate need for the money, and suggesting an extension of a further year on the same terms.
"I do hope we find out who he is," said Robert as he signed the papers.
"Whoever he is, he saved our bacon," said Susanne.
"Who said it was a he?" asked Leonard, and the others had no answer.
And so began the career of Robert and Susanne Pearson at their market garden, and no-one at that time knew the identity of their unknown benefactor. But they and their company were to play a significant role in the future life of Robert's brother, Leonard.