Wheeling and dealing down on the farm
A sample read from The Scapegoat by Peter Blakeborough
Cambridge, New Zealand, 1905
Back at the farm Cedric Asker called on Ambrose McHugh again.
‘Willis says it’s still a marginal deal for me to buy your farm, but I’ll get a final answer early next week.’
‘A few more days won’t make any difference, Cedric.’
‘There is something else you should know, Mr. McHugh.’
‘There may be an opportunity to buy something else that won’t be such a large commitment for us.’
‘I appreciate you telling me that. But it makes no difference to me, Cedric. You should consider all options and take professional advice.’
‘Thank you, sir. It’s a carrying business that’s about to go into liquidation because the owner is in poor health.’
‘If its Albert Hooper’s carrying business, you’ll get it dirt cheap, and as for poor health, it’s really just a case of too much grog. It could be a good buy.’
On the Tuesday morning Cedric and Granny Ruby Asker sat in the bank manager’s office again.
‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that the bank will not be in a position to advance any money for the purchase of Mr. McHugh’s property. It’s outside the bank’s criteria,’ Willis hesitated for a moment. ‘Unfortunately, the bank has not been able to grant any more time for Albert Hooper to meet his obligations. We have already taken possession of his business and assets in the name of the bank. A creditors meeting was held yesterday. The Hooper’s have already moved out and the bank is now able to negotiate a sale, if you’re still interested.’
‘Yes. I’m still interested.’
‘Is there anyone else that you would like to assist you while we do an inspection and draw up a sale and purchase contract?’
‘Yes. Mr. Buckland and Mr. Freeman. We have already met Mr. Buckland and we’re told he’s a very good lawyer. Mr. McHugh recommended Mr. Freeman as a good accountant.’
‘You understand, of course, Cambridge is a small town and, often as not, the parties end up sharing the same professional advisers. Buckland and Freeman have been representing Mr. Hooper, but I shouldn’t let that bother you. I know that both are absolutely trustworthy gentlemen. That's the way we often do business here.’
‘Yes. I understand.’
Later that morning they all met at Hooper’s former property on Laurent Road. Willis showed them through the three-bedroom weatherboard house, which still had the Hooper’s furniture. Outside he pointed out the boundaries, horses and the wagon that had been used in the carrying business. Then he explained how the liquidation would proceed.
‘Now, gentlemen, and ah, Mrs. Asker, as liquidator, I have certain powers and responsibilities. First, the bank is the only secured creditor and gets paid in full before the unsecured creditors receive anything. In the event that all creditors can be satisfied then the former owner will be entitled to whatever remains. However, in this case, it is unlikely that there will be anything left for the previous owner, not even the furniture.’
Cedric caught the look of horror on Ruby’s face. He knew instantly what she was thinking. These professional wolves would not only put a man into bankruptcy, without batting an eyelid, but they would just as readily strip him of his dignity and last stick of worn-out furniture. If Cedric and Ruby wanted the Hoopers to get their furniture back the creditors and the liquidator would expect them to pay more to take over the business. Was there another way that the Hoopers could retrieve something?
The bank manager continued with his discourse.
‘The amount outstanding to the bank is one hundred and forty-seven pounds. The unsecured creditors are owed forty-two pounds, making a total of one hundred and eighty-nine pounds. The assets have been valued as follows. Ten acres of level pastureland at five pounds per acre is fifty pounds. A three bedroom, ten-year-old house is seventy-five pounds. Then there is one carrier’s wagon, seven years old, at twelve pounds; six horses at five pounds each is thirty pounds, and finally, the items of furniture, as listed, ten pounds. That totals one hundred and seventy-seven pounds, which leaves a deficit of twelve pounds to be shared by the unsecured creditors.’
Willis gave a little cough to clear his throat.
‘Unfortunately, if these assets are sold at their current market value there will be nothing left for the Hoopers. I have not included a goodwill figure because, since the business is no longer operating, that is entirely at the discretion of the purchaser. However, in all honesty, I must point out to Mr. Asker that Hooper’s former competitors will be lining up down at the branch line to deliver to his former clients.’
Buckland and Freeman quietly nodded their agreement.
‘Well, it’s over to you, Mr. Asker. If you are prepared to pay a hundred and seventy-seven pounds it can be all yours with immediate possession. With your own contribution from your savings, plus the contribution from Mrs. Asker senior, the bank will approve a mortgage to cover the balance.’
Cedric scratched his ear thoughtfully as he studied the figures again.
‘The ten acres of land seems to be priced a bit high for land that’s not doing anything other than grazing a few horses. It’s not producing any crops, fruit, or vegetables, other than for the house. The fences are run-down. It’s not worth five pounds an acre. The house hasn’t been decorated, or painted, since new. It needs substantial expenditure. The wagon is on its last legs and will need replacing quite soon. My offer, Mr. Willis, is a hundred and fifty pounds.’
Willis was taken aback and it showed immediately in his face.
‘Mr. Asker, I admire your pluck. But your offer cannot be taken seriously. Have you considered the position of the unsecured creditors, and that of the Hoopers?’
‘Yes, sir. I have. I believe the unsecured creditors have contributed to Hooper’s downfall in no small way. Take the general store. The Hoopers have purchased more than essentials on credit. There are many items they could have done without. And this one here, the publican, he sold them liquor on credit, month after month. What kind of man would do that?’
‘I agree with your moral sentiments, Mr. Asker. You’re exactly right. But, as liquidator, I’m obliged to consider only the legal situation. The claims of the unsecured creditors are legitimate.’
‘Yes. They are legitimate claims,’ Buckland confirmed.
‘What about the valuation, Bruce?’ Willis turned to the accountant.
‘I think Mr. Asker is very close to the mark, Alf.’
The bank manager looked quickly around the faces that were waiting for him to break the impasse.
‘Alright. Can we settle at one sixty-five?’
Cedric shook his head slowly and Ruby spoke for the first time.
‘One fifty-seven pounds, Mr. Willis. Take it or leave it.’
Willis thoughtfully scratched his balding head.
‘I’m sorry. I can’t sell for less than one sixty-five,’ he said firmly.
With equal firmness, and a poker face, Cedric created a lie.
‘Well, you can’t sell for more than one fifty-seven. You see Granny Ruby… I mean Mrs. Asker, has already told me that she would withdraw her support if the price was more than one fifty-seven and I respect her wisdom and considerable business experience.’
Willis stared at the papers in front of him for a moment in silence.
‘Well, we do have to sell,’ he said at last. ‘Alright, we’ll settle at one fifty-seven pounds. Congratulations, Mr. Asker, and Mrs. Asker. You’ve done very well indeed and I wish you every success. Now let’s all go back to the bank where we can get everything signed up.’
As their carriage moved along Laurent Road Cedric casually turned the conversation to the former owners.
‘Incidentally, where are the Hooper’s staying now?’
‘I believe they are with relatives in Victoria Street,’ Willis volunteered.
‘That’s right,’ Buckland confirmed. ‘From memory, I think it’s about number five.’
After the formalities had been completed Cedric and Ruby walked back to their new property.
‘Was there a reason, son, why you wanted ten quid off the price?’
‘No. We got twenty quid off the price, didn’t we?’
‘But wasn’t it ten quid that you really wanted?’
‘Was it?’ he said with a grin.
When they reached the property he immediately harnessed the horses to the wagon and drove them to the front door of the house. He loaded the Hooper’s furniture onto the wagon and set out for Victoria Street. From the gate he called to Ruby.
‘Even a liquor shicker should be able to sleep it off in comfort.’
Ruby smiled as she waved to him. He was such a good young man, and so different to the beast that fathered him.
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