Ralph decided to try and make his first ‘real' date with Mary a bit special because he hoped that it would lead to more - not that he wanted simply to get her into bed, which he most definitely did, but that he wanted a long term relationship again and he knew that she was the kind of woman that he could trust. He booked a table at a small country pub he had found, for February 14th, Valentine's day and when he telephoned her to tell her she told him how much she was looking forward to the promised date. February 14th was a Thursday and it happened that the next time he was due to take her to the school was the following Saturday, the 16th. He was early for the date and waited outside with his engine turned off until another fifteen minutes had passed. They seemed to take forever but at long last he was able to ring her bell, and Mary opened the door. She had dressed fairly simply choosing a skirt and top with matching shoes and a handbag she had picked up that week in the local market because it matched her shoes. To Ralph she looked stunning. For his part he had got his only suit dry-cleaned and had purchased a new shirt and tie. His navy suit looked very smart and so did his crisp white shirt and pale blue tie. He only owned one pair of shoes and the shiny brown brogues were at odds with the rest of his outfit, but Mary didn't mind at all - it was the kind of thing to expect from Ralph and she had never seen him looking so smart before.
When they arrived at the pub which was only about fifteen minutes away from Mary's house she noticed it was by the side of a river and must be wonderful in the summer. It was a very olde worlde pub with whitewashed walls and black cross timbers of interesting twisted shapes. The roof was thatched with two large brick chimneys and blue smoke trailed upwards from both of them. She could just smell the wooden logs that were being burned inside. None of the misshapen windows looked the same, it was as though a child had painted a picture and then the picture had been built. When they lifted the latch of the solid oak door that hung on massive iron hinges fixed with big square headed blots, they entered a warm and snug pub that had low wood-beamed ceilings and a vast open fire. Shiny horse brasses were nailed up around the fire and along some of the beams. They found themselves a table and then Ralph went to the bar to get their drinks and to find out about their dinner booking. The landlord found his name straightaway while he poured a glass of lemonade for Ralph and a white wine for Mary. Ralph returned to their table with the drinks and two menus tucked under his arm.
They decided to eat at the table where they were rather than in the restaurant area of the pub. The meal was everything that Ralph had said it would be and they both enjoyed the food. Ralph refused to take an alcoholic drink at all, because he was driving, and Mary appreciated his attitude. She drank a glass or two more than she would have done usually but she was by no means drunk. The evening was a complete success as far as she was concerned. After coffee at the pub, Ralph drove her home, deliberately driving slowly to delay the end of his perfect date. When he reached her home again, this time he did lean across the seat to kiss her and she kissed him back too, but just the once. The guards were still up. This time Mary watched Ralph drive away from her window. It had been a nice night out and she looked forward to repeating the occasion.
Over the next few months the cold of winter gave way to Spring and Mary was seeing Ralph at least twice a week, as well as on her visits to the school. Daniel had been home once for a half term break but he soon grew bored without his friends and no longer fitted in at all with the local boys of his age. He never had really been a part of them because of his much greater maturity and intelligence so he ended up spending a week indoors. Mary liked having so much time to spend with him and had to take some time off from her job to look after him. On one of the days that week, Ralph had taken them all to see ‘The Tower of London' for the day and that day had been another special one on which Mary had almost felt as if it were a family outing. It hurt her a little but to know that Daniel really wanted to be back at school but she brushed that feeling aside so as not to spoil the week. Daniel and Ralph seemed to get on really well together which was another relief for Mary who was now thinking that her relationship might soon take the next step - for her the biggest step of all. Every the gentleman, Ralph had still only kissed her, often with great passion, but always she sensed him holding something back and not once had he sought to touch her other than to embrace. Twice now she had cooked a meal for Ralph in her home and had hinted about her doing the same at his house but one way or another he had evaded the idea and for a while she even started to have doubts about him. ‘Could he be lying to me', she thought once, ‘it is sometimes as if he has some deep dark secret that he does not want to share. I am sure that the stuff he told me about his wife was all true, so what on earth could be the problem ?' In the end she decided that it would do neither of them any good to worry about his reticence - everything would work out in the end if that is what was meant to happen.
The end of Spring brought a much bigger problem for Mary to ponder. She still had no idea how Ralph lived or how hard he had struggled to save for a home, which was quite a tidy sum by then. She also had no idea that he was using his hard earned savings to help expenses when they went out. So many times she had to insist on paying her way and so many times he had reluctantly accepted but she could see he was uncomfortable with ‘going Dutch'. In the first week of July Ralph really surprised her by asking her if she would like to take a break with him, for a week in August. At first she was thrilled by the idea until she thought about it. She worried how Daniel would react, she worried if she was really for the next step that seemed inevitable if they went on holiday together - although on that score she totally underestimated Ralph, yet again. What should she do ? In the end her mind was more or less made up for her, as she discovered on her next visit to the school.
Summer transformed Ashwood. Everything was lush and green again, the gardens were in full bloom and the river babbled its clear waters underneath the bridge behind the woods. The outside of the Manor House had been given a fresh coat of paint and the first temporary heli-pad had been replaced with a splendid new one, installed by contractors. The driveway to the house was a tunnel of green where the trees on either side entwined their higher branches around each other as if embracing. When the car emerged from the drive to the large area at the front of the house, Daniel and Jonathon were waiting as she knew they would be, but there was a man standing there with them whom she had never seen before. A helicopter sat on the heli-pad, but she had not really paid it any attention. She got out of the car and then she noticed how very well dressed, and how very handsome, the man standing with the boys was.
"Mrs Preston ?", he said, his voice silky smooth. "Good morning. My name is Paul Steele, I am Jonathon's father."
"Oh, oh hello Mister Steele. How nice to meet you", was all she could manage as she shook his outstretched hand.
"Paul, please Mrs Preston", he insisted with a warm smile.
"Then you must call me Mary", she replied, returning the smile, which dazzled him.
"Were it not for young Daniel her I might not have a son".
Daniel coloured as Jonathon's father referred to the near accident again, something long gone and forgotten as far as he was concerned. Except that he was wrong. When he had asked for a ride in the helicopter, that had not been forgotten.
"Yes, I am very proud of him", she said.
"The thing is, I have waited to catch you I am afraid. I have an idea and I wanted to ask you about it."
"An idea ? That sounds very mysterious".
"My wife and I and Jonathon, usually take a break in August and we thought it might be nice for both the boys if Daniel joined us, but I have to ask you first, of course. What do you think ?"
This was the first that Daniel had heard of the idea and he had been wondering why Jonathon's father had come on this particular day. He had been a few times already this year but the reason for his visits was another tiny secret that Jonathon thought best kept. Hearing about the idea of a holiday with Jonathon was too much for him, and the small boy that was still in there somewhere, took over.
"Oh mum! Oh can I ? Please ?", he begged her.
"What week would that be?", asked Mary.
Mister Steele looked surprised for a second, "Week ? All of it", he said.
"The whole of August, but the cost...I could never afford it...I...", she said, shocked. Do people take whole months off ?
"He will be our guest, one more boy makes no difference, especially when I think about what I so nearly caused with my stupidity", he said seriously, "so what do you say, Mary ? My treat ? "
"Mum! Pleeeeese", implored Daniel.
Mary felt guilty now because it solved her dilemma too. Daniel was to be home for the summer and she was sure that Ralph wanted the two of them to go away, and so did she. In the end she decided the best thing was to please everybody and when she said, "Well, if you are sure that he will not be any extra trouble....", and Daniel whooped for joy.
"That's settled then. I will pick up the boys on August 1st, its a Friday, and we will be gone for the month. It was a delight to meet you Mary, but now I must get back to London, so if you will excuse me", he said and walked back over the grass to the heli-pad. Daniel turned to Jonathon now who had remained silent but was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"Did you know about that ?", he asked.
"Yes, dad asked me if I would like it so we kept it a secret in case your mum wouldn't let you come."
"Daniel, there is something I need to talk to you about for a minute", said Mary, "sorry Jonathon, I won't be long", she said and led Daniel a short way away, out of earshot.
"Something else has happened with me and Ralph", she began awkwardly, awkward to be having this kind of conversation with her (almost) ten year old son. She had only just realised that her agreement also meant that Daniel would be on holiday for his birthday but it was much too late to do anything about that. "The thing is darling, Ralph wants to take me away on holiday in August too, and I wondered how you might feel about it."
"I like Ralph mum. Will you send me a picture postcard ?"
She ruffled his hair, "of course I will, but you must send me one too, from wherever it is you go."
"You know I will mum. Do you think that Ralph might be my dad one day ?".
A lump caught in her throat at the simple but so innocent question. She was so glad that the child was still there, somewhere deep inside, so sad when she realised that he missed the father he had never known.
"Who knows", was all she manage, "would you like that ?"
"Yes mum. It would be nice to have a dad, and I like Ralph."
"Then we will just have to wait and see what happens because things are never simple".
"Where are you going with Ralph ?"
She laughed, " I don't know, I haven't told him I would go yet, but I will now."
When Mary went back to the car and told Ralph that yes, she would love to go on holiday with him there was a second ‘whoop for joy' only this time it was Ralph.
"I was so hoping you would say yes", he said, "that I already made the booking and I even managed to get the travel agent to guarantee us two rooms on the same floor !"
"I think you need to see if you can make some changes then", said Mary without hesitation.
"Why? Don't you like Spain ?"
"I've never been. I've never been abroad at all. I'll have to get a passport as quick as I can, and I better get one for Jonathon although I have no idea where he will be off to."
"So what's wrong?", asked Ralph, puzzled.
"The rooms. We only need the one don't we ?"
He looked at her for a few seconds and then said, "are you sure about this ? I don't want to rush you or take advantage or anything..."
"Oh Ralph, ever the gentleman. We have been seeing each other for nearly a year now. Yes, I'm quite sure."
"I'll do it first thing in the morning", he said with a broad grin.
Daniel could have had no idea of what was going to happen during that August of 1980.
His mother had wisely obtained a passport for her son and it was now packed in his bag. He still had no idea about the coming month although Jonathon seemed to have a permanent grin. As expected, the helicopter arrived only this time Daniel, as excited as only a ten year old can be was one of the two boys walking to the heli-pad. His first surprise was immediate. They climbed on board and Jonathon dropped into the seat by his father. Daniel fastened the seat harness as he was told to do, sitting in the seats behind. Jonathon had put a headset on with the familiarity of somebody who has done it a hundred times over.
"Want to take us up son ?", said his dad, and to Daniel's astonishment his best friend Jonathon flipped a couple of switches, moved a thing that was a little bit like a car steering wheel in a long stick, and the helicopter lifted into the air.
"I didn't know you could fly this!", he shouted. His father turned back and told Daniel to put on the headset that was laying on the seat nest to him because then he could speak to Jonathon. ""I said I didn't know you could fly this", he repeated into his microphone.
Jonathon's laughter came back, "I thought I might surprise you! I am only allowed to fly in certain places with my dad, but I hope to get a licence by the time I am sixteen. How does it feel ?"
"Weird. It feels like I left my tummy behind."
"But you don't feel sick or anything ?"
"Are you kidding ? Where are we going now ?"
"Not a very long ride this time, to an airfield about ten minutes away."
"Does my mum know where we are going ?"
"I sent her a letter with some addresses and phone numbers", cut in Jonathon's father over the intercom.
"She never told me", replied Daniel.
"I know, its all supposed to be a mystery tour for you so just enjoy it", said Mister Steele.
It seemed that only a few minutes had passed when Jonathon gave control back to his father who brought them down to land on another big letter ‘H'. Daniel wondered where on earth they could be going next. "Leave the bags", said Jonathon's father, "they will be taken care of", so he did as he was told and got out of the machine, following him. They did not walk very far, just across the field to another aircraft. Daniel recognised it from his Aircraft book as a ‘Lear Jet', executive private aeroplane. As they approached the side door opened and some steps unfolded. Jonathon's father led the way up the steps and into the aircraft, and Daniel followed with his mouth still gaping open.
The inside was like nothing he had ever seen before, except in his book. Deep leather armchairs with seat belts. A thick pile carpet and shiny chrome fittings, and sitting in one of the seats a blonde lady wearing sunglasses who looked more like a film star than who she really was, Jonathon's mother. Everything she wore was expensive but in perfect taste (although at his age Daniel could be no judge). She sat with elegance and poise but as soon as they entered she took off her glasses to reveal deep blue eyes, and Daniel thought she was beautiful. "I am so pleased to see you at last Daniel", she said softly.
"Are you Mrs Steele ?", asked Daniel very nervously.
"Yes, Jonathon's mother but you mustn't call me that. My name is Alexandra so please call me Alex."
"I must thank you for doing this Mrs Steele..uh...Alex. Its amazing".
"Not at all. I think you and Jonathon will have a grand time together, and but for you...."
"Oh that", he said blushing and knowing what she meant, " it was only luck really".
"Nonsense. You saved my son's life. But I won't embarrass you by going on because I know you hate it - Jonathon told me. Now, are you Dan or Daniel?"
"My mum calls me Daniel but I prefer Dan."
"Then you shall be Dan."
Just then a small door at front of the plane opened and a uniformed man who Daniel knew was the pilot, stepped into the cabin. He addressed Jonathon's father and there was another surprise for Daniel in a day of never ending surprises. "My Lord, we are cleared for take off".
"Okay, we're all ready. Let's go", he replied.
As the aircraft taxied to its take off position Daniel turned to his friend and said "why did the pilot call your dad, My Lord", although he thought he knew the answer.
"Oh that. Well yes, dad is a ‘Lord' but he doesn't use the title much."
"So your mum is a Lady then ?"
"Yep", nodded Jonathon.
"So what does that make you ?", asked Daniel pressing the point.
"Your friend", replied Jonathon and that was good enough for Daniel.
The take-off was another new experience for Daniel who was beginning to think that nothing else could possibly happen to him, but he was completely wrong with that assumption. How Jonathan had managed to hide so much from him he had no idea, but the more he thought about it, the more he realised that it wasn't that Jonathon had kept it all from him, it was that the things they talked about simply didn't enter this world. Jonathon of course was completely at ease but every single event was new to Daniel, like the fact that if he wanted a drink a white uniformed steward would bring him anything he wished for. The Lear climbed up into the blue sky and the Pilot set the heading due South. Flying over the English Channel the weather was still clear and Daniel looked down on ships so tiny he could just see then on the sea below. They reached the French coast and carried on with the southerly heading. The aircraft was a little lower now and the fields below looked like a patchwork quilt. Although it seemed to pass by in a minute to Daniel, the flight time to Nice was just over two hours and they touched down without so much as a bump.
Once again they ignored all luggage and Daniel was beginning to understand that details like that were no longer his problem, that somebody else took care of all that. The steps of the aircraft were lowered once more and they stepped out. This time Daniel hardly missed a step when he saw the luxurious Mercedes waiting to collect them. They got in and the car whisked them away from the airport. Passport formalities and luggage were all taken care of. The limousine wove its way though the busy traffic and Daniel looked out of the darkened window. He saw dozens of Mercedes, counted ten Rolls Royces before he gave that up, and five Ferraris too. BMWs it seemed were everywhere. He had never seen so many expensive cars at once and here they were just, well so common. The car seemed to be heading towards the sea and Daniel soon discovered that he was right when it turned into the harbour.
They came to a stop at a short jetty. Moored alongside was a boat. Daniel knew nothing about boats so all he could see was that this was no ordinary boat, but then looking around the harbour he could see that there were no ordinary boats. The one moored here was long ( it as 100 feet long) but average compared to any of the others he could see. He later found out that it was built by somebody named ‘Carlo Riva', but that meant nothing to Daniel. The inside of the boat was more luxury, wood panelling, leather and chrome. There was a bedroom for everybody only they were called berths, he was told, and a crew who sailed the ship and waited on the family. This was Jonathon's world away from the school. The first thing that everybody did when they were on board was to slip on some special shoes that they called ‘deck shoes', but he had nothing. However, when he was shown to his berth there was a pair in his size, placed by the bed. It seemed that every detail had been thought of.
There was to be another one of those pivotal moments, an event that sticks with a person all their life. For Daniel the next moment was one that eventually would make him a legend. Everybody was up on deck now. Jonathon was wearing a baseball cap and so was his father, whilst Alex was wearing a floppy sun hat that looked a lot more expensive than just a mere assembly of straw and cotton. When Daniel joined them, Jonathon's father said that they had better find him a hat too, to protect his head from the sun. Jonathon took him back into the cabin an opened a trunk which seemed to be full odds and ends, and a number of different hats. Daniel had great fun trying them all on but there was one he really liked more than any of the others. It was a bit big for him but he didn't mind that at all, and he reappeared on deck wearing a white Fedora with a broad red band around it. At that moment he created a persona that would one day shake the world, an image that would become as much an icon as IBM, Microsoft, Wallmart, or The Ford motor company.
"You look very splendid young Dan", said Paul. "I forgot to ask you. You can swim, I take it ?"
Daniel coloured slightly, now embarrassed again, " well no Mr Steele, I can't", he almost mumbled with his eyes downcast. Paul Steele was a man who whilst careful to attend to the business interests that through the centuries his lineage could be traced to the root of his vast fortune, also made time for his family. Not a minute snatched here and there on a whim but real time with his wife and son. The only reason that Jonathon was at the boarding school was because of his son's genius - the only factor that determined a pupil's entry. Because of the time he spent with his growing son he was as able to relate to a child as he was to an intransigent head of state, of whom he had met many. "Not to worry Dan" he said as cheerily as he could, "but we can't have you falling overboard and getting yourself marooned on some desert island so it might be best if you wear a life jacket when you are on deck. There is one in that locker" he added, pointing to a small cabinet.
It was so smooth as to be almost indiscernible, but Daniel felt the so slight movement as the boat began to move. The sea was very calm with only a slight swell and the boat hardly rocked at all. For a while Daniel hung onto the guard rails as he moved gingerly around the deck with Jonathon, whose feet seemed to be glued to the teak boarding. Eventually Daniel got the knack of using his knees to compensate for the boat's slight pitch and yaw, and begun to take a few steps without grabbing for the rail.
"There you go Dan!", exclaimed Jonathon, "you have your sea legs now".
Daniel liked being up at the front of the boat best, which he soon learnt was called the ‘prow'. ‘It was odd', he thought, ‘how all the usual terms changed on a boat', but with his remarkable memory each new term was easily handled and he found himself raiding the galley for an ice-cream, finding where the head was when he needed the lavatory, and going astern to the cabin section. Standing as far forward as he could with the cool wind rushing into his face was, he concluded, the most amazing sensation in the world.
For the start of the month long holiday the boat was ‘port-hopping' along the French Rivera. They cruise into Monte Carlo which was almost next door, and then on to San Remo, always sailing along within clear view of the golden simmering beaches. Daniel noticed that whenever they stopped, the boat drew admiring glances and he realised that it was quite an impressive craft. Its twin diesels had been almost ticking over as they chugged sedately along the coast. Daniel was treated to views that often made him just stand and gape, his need to grab a hand rail long past. He learned that extra care had to be taken when on deck but he happily dodged up and down the side of the long boat when a new vista came closer. The sea was a fabulous deep shade of blue and the wake that the boat left looked as though they were sprinkling the surface with showers of diamonds that sparkled where they caught the sunlight.
Just past San Remo the boat turned away from the coastline, heading out to sea. The powerful engines rose a note as they began to push the craft forwards with much more urgency. Daniel asked where they were going and Jonathon said they were heading for and Island named Corsica, where they would anchor for the night. It took them a couple of hours to reach a wonderful deserted inlet on the Corsican coast. The cove was so hidden as to be a secret if you did not know where to look, and that was just as well since it also had a long history of smuggling, and its history was still being written for that activity. The boat sailed into the cove and dropped anchor not more than one hundred feet from the beach. Looking over the side, Daniel could see deep into the clear waters and watched shoals of colourful fish that darted in and out of underwater plants. Paul had a small powerboat lowered into the water so that they could go ashore and explore the golden sands. Jonathon and Daniel wanted to explore the rock pools and the caves.
Daniel was startled by a big splash as Jonathon's mother dived from the boat, into the sea, closely followed by his father. Normally Jonathon would have followed them and they would have a race to the beach, but this time he didn't want Daniel to feel left out and so the two of them got into the powerboat. When Jonathon fired up the outboard motor and then piloted them to shore Daniel was not surprised in the least, he was way past surprises now, or so he thought.