It was when Squirrel Nutkin appeared at the October Board meeting that Mr Ramsay began to acquire his reputation for eccentricity. And that's putting it mildly. A mild mannered man like him, too. Never said a word, usually. Kept his contributions to meetings to shaking his head in disapproval. Let everybody walk all over him. Especially Mr Giles.
To be fair, there were people who said at the time that there was nothing wrong in wearing a glove puppet to a board meeting as such, but there were more who disagreed, and several who thought that Mr Ramsay was off his chump. The matter was hotly disputed in every one of the company's offices, on the shopfloor, in the canteen. Mr Ramsay was well-liked, even if everyone thought him ineffectual, so a lot of people stuck up for him, even if they thought the squirrel a bit odd. The one thing at which everybody drew the line, though, was his according the squirrel executive powers.
It happened during Mr Giles's monthly overlong summary of the company's financial position. Two factors, he was saying, were making the prospects for Ramsay & Co look bleak. These were:
1. the downturn in the ladies' hosiery market. Sales had, like the inferior products of the company's competitors, been slipping for years, and
2. the inefficiency of Ramsay & Co compared to its competitors.
The first of these factors spoke for itself, he said. There were simply fewer items of hosiery being sold, whether this was due to a new fashion for bare-leggedness due to the long hot summer combined with the undoubted increase in the uptake of feminine trouserings, or was a sign of continued recession was not for him to say. Ramsay & Co simply had to face the facts, whether they liked them or not, and accept what the market was telling them. Reality didn't always turn out the way people wanted it to.
The second factor, however, they could do something about. Ramsay & Co's costs were inordinately high compared to those of Ladylegs, for instance, who had been cutting back on staff over the last five years, reducing their workforce to one-fifth of its previous level. They were now
1. running a smooth, automated plant with high yield, minimum disruption and predictable throughput, and
2. (even if their reputation for quality was nowhere near that of Ramsay & Co) capitalising on the low overheads and were, in business terms, far healthier.
It was high time that Ramsay & Co got itself into a similar position, he said. The workforce had to be trimmed down, and modern plant had to be invested in. Mr Ramsay had to listen to what the market was telling him and continue modernising the business if it was to survive. Mr Giles had already implemented a number of changes that had had a beneficial effect, despite Mr Ramsay's reluctance to agree, but the firm had to go much, much further if it were to survive in today's increasingly competitive marketplace. Mr Giles was aware of Mr Ramsay's feelings on the matter of his staff, but he really felt that it was necessary to de-emphasise the idea of employer responsibility to staff in the company's ethos.
None of the Board members was surprised at what Mr Giles had to say. He had, after all, said it all before, many times, over the past several months. Mr Ramsay had, until now, always stubbornly resisted him - insisting that Ramsay & Co was a family business, was still the largest hosiery manufacturer in Scotland and the North of England, and had a duty of loyalty to its staff, some of whom had been with the company for thirty or forty years - until grudgingly allowing Mr Giles to make some of the changes he was arguing for.
This time, though, what happened was different from all the previous occasions similar things had taken place in two important respects:
1. Mr Giles was now demanding much more far-reaching action than he had ever done before. He was arguing for a major reduction in the workforce, knowing that Mr Ramsay had always forbidden this in the past.
2. Mr Ramsay had never before slowly produced a glove puppet from underneath the table. He had never had a squirrel sitting on his left hand during a presentation from any of the Board members, and he had never behaved as if nothing untoward was happening when it patently was. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and the other Board members sat shocked into rigid silence as Mr Giles droned on about overheads.
The only two pairs of eyes in the room focused in any way whatsoever on Mr Giles during his summation of the company's position were those of Mr Ramsay and the squirrel, both of whom were shaking their heads very slightly. Mr Ramsay was making the occasional tutting noise to indicate his lack of approval. Ms McCool, the Public Relations person, had her mouth wide open with surprise and was staring at the puppet.
The puppet noticed her attention, and turned his whole body - he couldn't move his head independently - to meet her gaze. His big black eyes seemed to be taking her in detail by detail, and she withered slightly under his scrutiny. He stared at her for more than a minute, then began a slow survey of the room and its occupants, turning slowly through 180 degrees. If something attracted his attention he would continue turning slowly past it then suddenly turn back, as if trying to take it by surprise, and stare at it intently for several seconds before resuming his slow arc.
Mr Giles didn't notice for six or seven minutes. He was quite used to there being a deathly hush when he was speaking at Board meetings. Not many people could readily understand his figures and projections, so they usually had to pay very close attention to what he was saying.
Not today, though. People were staring at the squirrel. It wasn't until Mr Giles paused in his disquisition to say 'if you could just bear with me a moment, I have a chart here which illustrates the extent to which we' that he looked up and noticed
1. that he was not the centre of attention, and
2. that there was a squirrel at the table.
He was speechless. He forgot all about the chart illustrating the extent to which we, and all about the bleak financial position he had been so concerned about milliseconds ago. He rocked back on his heels and said 'squirrel' before staggering back seven or eight paces until the backs of his knees connected with a grey plastic chair and he slumped down into it heavily.
'Thank you, John,' said Mr Ramsay. 'That was, as usual, very informative, and I'm sure that we all found it very interesting, if rather worrisome.'
There was a pause. Everything was very quiet, like people were under some sort of spell. The effect was disrupted by Mr Ramsay, who bent down to his left, towards the squirrel. The squirrel reached up to whisper into his ear.
'What's that, Squirrel Nutkin?' said Mr Ramsay.
The squirrel whispered again.
'Oh, I don't know if I agree' said Mr Ramsay. 'You may be quite right, but I think 'Sheer bloody incompetence' is overstating it somewhat. I do agree, though, that there are going to have to be some changes.'
There was another pause. It was, if anything, more intense than the previous one. There was what might have been called an 'air' about the room. Of expectancy.
After ninety seconds of eternity, Mr Ramsay spoke again. 'We think,' he said, 'that is, Squirrel Nutkin and I think, that it's time there was a new hand on the tiller. There won't be any more Board meetings for a while. Squirrel Nutkin and I are going to take over most aspects of the running of the company, though I do expect to be calling on you for advice. I'm appointing Squirrel Nutkin Managing Director, and I shall become a fully active chairman with executive powers and ultimate responsibility. I shall, however, be leaving the day-to-day decisions to my colleague.'
He looked down at the squirrel, smiled at it, and nodded. It nodded back, then turned to face the former Board members. Mr Ramsay continued.
'I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for all the sterling work you have done on behalf of the company over the years, and would like to say that none of you should feel in any way threatened by the decisions that have been made here today. None of you will lose your position - I look upon you all as members of the Ramsay & Co family, very valuable members, sons and daughters.'
Mr Ramsay appeared to become almost tearful as he said this, but he regained his composure in a moment.
'Well,' he said, 'I don't think there will be any further business for this meeting today, or, indeed, for the foreseeable future, so why don't you all take the rest of the afternoon off.'
The others could sense that Mr Giles was definitely thinking of saying something, of questioning Mr Ramsay's actions, but they all knew it was futile, even Mr Giles. There was nothing anybody could do. Mr Ramsay owned the company. If he wanted to appoint a puppet managing director he was perfectly entitled to do so. The fact that he had in the past left the running of the company to the Board was neither here nor there. He had no shareholders to answer to - his family had built the company up and had kept it going, unusually, by re-investing their profits in the business instead of lining their own pockets. Mr Ramsay had sole control, even if he hadn't exercised it until now. The Board had just been one of his inventions, just a management tool, just there to save him from doing any actual work, to save him from having to make decisions. He was quite at liberty to dispense with it.
Mr Giles was furious when the redundancy notice came in the post the next day. It talked of the many many months of valuable service he had put in since he had been taken on at the Board's recommendation. The Board, it said, had felt that it had needed an injection of business acumen, and had seen in Mr Giles an excellent source of these skills. However, it continued, circumstances had now changed, and it was now felt necessary to de-emphasise the importance of commercial nous. Mr Giles recognised this phrase, and bristled with resentment at the sarcasm. The letter concluded by saying that the company would be more than willing to provide him with excellent references, should he wish to apply for another position elsewhere. It was signed 'Yours sincerely, S Nutkin, Managing Director.'
He tore the letter into shreds, thought better of it and taped it back together. He took it into the office to confront Mr Ramsay with it.
When he got to the outer office, and spoke to Miss Paterson, he was told that Mr Ramsay wasn't there.
'How can he not be here,' Mr Giles said. 'He's supposed to be running the company.'
'Mr Nutkin is here,' said Miss Paterson.
'What?' Mr Giles realised he was shouting and made a conscious effort to calm himself.
'I have been told to tell you that Mr Nutkin is here,' said Miss Paterson, though she said it in a soothing manner, as if she had a degree of sympathy for him.
'This is ridiculous,' he said, and stormed into the office. It was darkened. Under the only lamp in the room sat the squirrel, writing a memo. It seemed larger than it had done at the board meeting, and slightly more animated. More alive.
It looked up.
'Ah, come in, John,' it said. 'I've been expecting you. This will be about the letter, I expect. Have a seat.' Its voice was strangely disembodied. Echoing. Ethereal, like the Voice of God emanating from on high.
Mr Giles was taken aback to be addressed by the squirrel, but quickly overcame his shock. He swallowed hard and said, more, shouted, 'I will not bloody have a seat. I'm going to come round there, I'm going to wrench that puppet off your hand and I'm going to kick your arse, Ramsay, you sorry bastard.'
'Language,' said the squirrel, turning round to follow Mr Giles's progress round the desk. 'I think you're in for a bit of a surprise.'
Mr Giles was, indeed, surprised on reaching the other side of the desk. He had expected to find Mr Ramsay crouched behind the desk with his hand working the squirrel, his hind quarters protruding. What he actually found was just a chair, with some sort of tray resting between its arms. The squirrel was sitting on this, on its own, unsupported. It had its back legs crossed, left over right.
For the second time in two days, Mr Giles staggered back, speechless.
'Sit down,' the squirrel said.
Mr Giles did, staggering back and sinking heavily into the simulation leather chair behind him. It made a soft pththth noise.
'I'm not a glove puppet,' the squirrel said. 'I'm a sort of industrial hit man. I've been hired to do someone else's dirty work. Between you and me, Ramsay could never stand you, but was too frightened to say anything. He hired me to get rid of you. It was either that or have you killed, and that's not really his style.'
There was a silence as Mr Giles took this in. 'I don't understand,' he said. 'A squirrel. A puppet. I thought I was doing a good job. For the firm,' he said, hesitantly, shaking his head and rubbing the bridge of his nose.
'That's as maybe,' said the squirrel, 'but Ramsay's a sentimental old fool. He wasn't going to let you lay off most of the staff. It may not make any sense, commercially, but he thinks he's got responsibilities to them. You see now why you had to go.'
'I never thought he'd have the guts,' said Mr Giles. 'I can't believe I'm talking to a squirrel.'
'Indeed,' said the squirrel. 'But you are talking to a squirrel. You can see me, I'm talking to you. You've got to face facts, John.'
'But why?' said Mr Giles.
'Why what?' said the squirrel.
'All this,' Mr Giles said. He made an expansive sweep with his arm. 'You, my job. You're a squirrel, for God's sake.'
'Granted,' said the squirrel. 'I am a squirrel, but I have certain qualities. Qualities that Mr Ramsay found he was in need of. You were quite right about him. He hasn't got guts, certainly not the guts to get rid of you, that's why he needed me.' The squirrel's eye seemed to glint, malevolently. There was, Mr Giles thought, more than a hint of menace about it. It continued speaking. 'Still,' it said, 'you won't have too much trouble finding another position, I imagine. There are plenty of opportunities out there for a man with your aggressive marketing skills.'
'It's not going to be easy,' said Mr Giles.
'Indeed,' said the squirrel. 'But you have to face facts, John. See this as a challenge, an opportunity, not as a problem. Well, good luck, and close the door behind you on the way out. Thanks.'
The squirrel resumed its memo-writing.
Mr Giles got up and headed for the door, befuddled, defeated, turning back to peer into the gloom surrounding the squirrel. Odd. Obviously. Fired by a talking squirrel. Very odd. Still, there was nothing he could do about it. He shrugged his shoulders and was about to step through the door, but the squirrel had one more thing to say.
'There's more than one kind of puppet, John,' it called out after him.
He didn't look back.