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Off The Record

Author's Note

In 1877, the thirty-year old American genius, Thomas Edison, recited the nursery rhyme, Mary had a little lamb, into a mouthpiece attached to his new invention, a tinfoil covered cylinder he called a "phonograph". He finished the nursery rhyme, rotated the cylinder - and his own voice spoke back to him. Edison had invented recorded sound.

The early tinfoil phonographs had many limitations. The foil ripped easily and was impossible to copy. What could be copied - what, in fact, started the recorded music industry - was the gramophone and record, invented in 1887 by Emil Berliner. Berliner's gramophone records were simple to play, cheaper to make and much louder than Edison's cylinders.

Oddly enough, had Berliner's gramophones not been so spectacularly successful, tape recording might have become the norm much earlier. Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish inventor, made the first "tape" machine (he actually recorded onto fine wire) in the 1890's, but it was the gramophone, with its box, wind-up handle and horn, that became one of the iconic objects of the early Twentieth Century.

The gramophone was seized on by literally hundreds of manufacturers and it's virtually impossible to say how many different types, from the tiny Mikiphone, the size of a large pocket watch, to luxury models in lavishly-made wooden cabinets, were produced. It seemed impossible that anything could replace the gramophone in the home.

Then, in the early 1920's, came radio. Records, which were recorded by a refined version of the method Edison had worked out forty-odd years earlier, suddenly sounded flat, tired and outdated. To survive at all, gramophone manufacturers had to face the challenge and radically improve the sound. The challenge was met by electrical recording and reproduction and the race to produce a workable electrical recording system is what lies behind the story of Off The Record.

Chapter One

It was the summer of 1899 when Charles Otterbourne first came to Stoke Horam. Charles Otterbourne was thirty-six years old, an earnest, if rather humourless man, with a great deal of money and a strong philanthropic urge.

He walked through Horam Woods, crossed the stepping-stones over the river Lynn at the bottom of the valley and up the gentle slope to the unremarkable Hertfordshire hamlet of Stoke Horam. Neither the village, with its twenty-two agricultural labourers' cottages, or the green with its grazing geese pecking beneath the washing hung out to dry, had anything to detain him, so Charles continued up the slope to the Thirteenth Century and mercifully unrestored church of St Joseph of Arimathea.

The church itself made little appeal to him; Charles had strict Evangenlical views and found no pleasure in ancient stones, but the view from the churchyard changed his life.

St Joseph's stood on a knoll, some distance from Stoke Horam, commanding a view of hedged-in rolling fields of grain and pasture and stands of trees. An occasional line of smoke and a distant whoosh of steam marked out the line of the Eastern Counties Railway.

Sitting on that wind-swept gravestone, sandwiches from his knapsack uneaten in his hand, Charles Otterbourne had a vision. He had visited Thomas Edison's famous Invention Factory in New Jersey, a vast scientific complex of laboraties, factories and buildings. He couldn't do anything on that scale, of course, but he could do something. His own village supported by his own factory, could easily be connected to the world by a branch line to that railway. New century, new railways, new roads, new beginnings…

By 1924, Charles Otterbourne's transformation of Stoke Horam was so complete, it was difficult to remember life before he arrived.

Otterbourne's New Century Works produced scientific and optical instruments, typewriters, telephones, ditacting machines and gramophones but, perhaps dearer to Charles Otterbourne's heart than the factory, was the village.

The farm labourors' cottages (picturequese but insanitary) were hemmed in by Ideal Homes, complete with plumbing, gardens and - a stunning inovation - electricity from the Otterbourne generator. The tiny post office which, in Stoke Horam's previous incarnation, had also acted as a general store, tobacconists and sweet-shop, had expanded into separate establishments in a new parade of shops along the High Street and had been joined by a grocer's, a butcher's, an ironmongers, haberdasher's, a draper's and a fishmonger's.

There were allotments and a non-conformist chapel. There were tennis-courts, a sports field, a Workman's Insistute for lectures and concerts and the Otterbourne library. The library boasted a marble bust of Charles Otterbourne himself, complete with laurel leaves and an off-the-shoulder toga, erected, so the plaque underneath it said, by his grateful employees. If the gift of the bust was not quite as spontaneous as the plaque indicated, it was, nevertheless, sincere.

An innovation Charles Otterbourne had not planned was the War Memorial, listing, among the dead, his two sons, Alfred and Robert. A tombstone in the chapel graveyard covered the grave of his wife, Edith, who had died soon after her sons.

If life in Stoke Horam under Charles Otterbourne's benevolent rule had a fault it was, perhaps, that all this undoubted well-being came at the expense of a certain amount of liberty. Charles Otterbourne saw this as a virtue, not a failing. People needed to be organized. He applied this rule impartially to his own family and his employees alike.

When his daughter, Molly, had shown a worrying interest in an unsuitable man (Justin Verewood, a workshy Bloomsbury poet) he had organized her marriage by forbidding Verewood and heavily approving of Stephen Lewis, a fair-haired, grey-eyed, intelligent man with an engaging smile and a wicked sense of humour. Mr Otterbourne, who hadn't registered the smile and was oblivious to humour, only knew that Captain Lewis, lately of the Queen's Royal West Surrey's, had an outstanding war record and good grasp of business. The marriage was, of course, a success. Molly said as much when he asked her.

One common feature of English village life - the local pub - was missing. Charles Otterbourne had, very early on, identified betting and alcohol as twin evils. Drink and any form of gambling earned instant dismissal. There was no redress. For those workers who did conform to his philanthropic tyranny, there was a well-paid job, a decent home, a doctor on call and provision, in the form of the compulsory pension-fund, for their old age.

The pension fund. Hugo Ragnall, Charles Otterbourne's secretary, looked uneasily at the eggs and bacon on his plate. Why on earth he had taken eggs and bacon from the dishes on the sideboard, he didn't know. Habit, he presumed. Fried bread, too, he realised with a twist of revulsion. The smell made his stomach churn and he abruptly pushed his plate away.

"Are you all right, Hugo?" asked Molly. "You don't seem quite yourself this morning."

Not quite himself? That wasn't a surprise. She doesn't know about the pension fund. "I'm fine," he lied, forcing himself to drink his coffee. Molly heard the break in his voice and her puzzled look changed to concern.

She was a kindly soul, thought Ragnall, seeing the look. His heart sank as he thought of Molly. She would be caught up in the whole stinking mess and there was absolutely nothing he could do. "I didn't sleep very well last night," he said, knowing he had to respond somehow or other.

And that was true. It had been past one o'clock before he had finished work last night and what he found hadn't made for a restful night.

Steve Lewis, Molly's husband, rustled the newspaper. "That's too bad," he remarked over the top of the Daily Telegraph. "Mr Otterbourne wants you to enthuse to this Dunbar chap today. Tell him how wonderful we are and all that sort of thing. I still think Dunbar's someone to treat with caution," he added.

Oh, good God! Ragnall had forgotten about Dunbar. It could have been the war or increased taxes or cheap foreign imports or simply the fact that philanthropy on a grand scale cost far more than it used to, but the stark fact was that Otterbourne's New Century products weren't the money-spinners they once were. They needed to expand and Charles Otterbourne had approached Andrew Dunbar, a gramophone manufacturer from Falkirk, with useful connections in Scotland and the north of England. It made good commercial sense for the two companies to come together and Dunbar, as far as Ragnall could make out, was interested. The price he had quoted though was pretty hefty, far more than the size of his firm justified. He had, to summarize his letter, something up his sleeve, something that would change the whole future of recorded sound. Steve's advice had been to look elsewhere. Dunbar, he said, had a reputation as a very tough customer indeed.

Charles Otterbourne was intrigued, however, and asked for more details. The something up Dunbar's sleeve turned out to be Professor Alan Carrington.

And that, tantalizingly, was as much information as Andrew Dunbar was willing to commit to a letter. He was arriving that morning, complete with Professor Carrington and the Professor's son, Gerard.

"Professor Carrington?" Steve Lewis had said with interest, when he had been told of the proposed visit. "Dunbar may be onto something after all. Professor Carrington's a relative of mine. Our families quarrelled years ago, so I've never actually met him, but he's something fairly fruity in the science line. As far as I can gather, the Professor's a genius, or next door to it, at any rate. I've run across his son, Gerry, a few times. He's a scientific type too, but quite human. I don't know what either of them are doing, tied up with a second-rate outfit like Dunbar's."

Lewis folded up his newspaper, scraped his chair back, and felt in his pocket for his pipe.

"Not in here, Steve," pleaded Molly. "It makes the room smell so."

Lewis laughed. "All right." He inclined his head towards Ragnall. "D'you fancy a pipe outside, old man?"

Ragnall stood up, grateful for a chance to escape the breakfast table. The two men walked out onto the terrace and down the steps into the garden.

"What's wrong?" asked Lewis quietly, taking out his tobacco pouch. "You look done in." He hesitated. "You haven't come unstuck on the horses again, have you? You needn't worry, Ragnall. I'll see you're all right. You know I'll always give you a hand."

Ragnall very nearly smiled. "No, it's nothing like that. It's damn good of you though, Lewis. I do appreciate your help, but it's nothing to do with horses or cards or anything like that." He swallowed. "It's a lot more serious than that."

Steve Lewis's eyebrows shot up. "More serious? What the devil is it?"

"I can't tell you here," said Ragnall with a glance back at the house. "Let's get further away."

Lewis looked surprised but said nothing until they reached the sundial. Ragnall took a deep breath and, gripping the bowl of the sundial, braced his arms. This was going to be hard.

"Do you like Mr Otterbourne?" he asked eventually.

Lewis looked startled. "Of course I do." He glanced towards the house. It was solid Edwardian building, long, low and comfortable in the sunshine. Ranged along the terrace, which ran the length of the house, were french windows, opening onto the various rooms. The room at the end was Charles Otterbourne's study and, brief against the glass, a dark movement showed them Charles Otterbourne himself. "Besides that you'd be onto a hiding to nothing if you started finding fault with the man." There was a cynical twist in his voice. "The marble bust of him in the library was erected, so the plaque says, by his grateful employees. That tells you something. He's universally beloved."

"Why?" asked Ragnall quietly.

"Why?" Steve Lewis raised his eyebrows again. "You know as well as I do."

"Just tell me."

"You're being very mysterious about this, Ragnall," Lewis complained. He shrugged. "All right, since you insist." He put a match to his pipe. "He's a good man." Ragnall's silence invited further comment. "Okay, I admit it. I find him a bit hard to take sometimes. He knows what's good for us and makes sure we get it, good and strong, but I'll say this for him. He practices what he preaches."

"Are you sure?"

Lewis looked puzzled. "Yes."

It was no wonder Lewis looked puzzled, thought Ragnall. He drew a deep, juddering breath. "He's a crook."

"He's a what?"

Ragnall swallowed. "I've been going through the accounts." He ran his hand through his hair. "I've been meaning to sort them out them for months. That old dodderer who was here before me left things in a dickens of a mess. I don't think they've ever been properly tackled."

"What's the problem?"

"It's the pension fund," said Ragnall wearily. "I don't know how to tell you, but it's a fact. I know the company's gone through a rough patch, which probably explains it, but Mr Otterbourne has been taking money from the pension fund."

There was a moment's shocked silence. Steve Lewis froze, his eyes wide, then swallowed a mouthful of smoke the wrong way and broke out in a fusillade of coughing. "You old devil," he said, gasping for breath. "You had me going for a moment there. You looked so damn serious I nearly believed you."

"It's true."

"Drop it, won't you?" said Lewis, glancing uneasily round the garden. "I know you're pulling my leg but it's not really very funny, you know."

Hugo Ragnall sighed deeply. "I'm serious. The pension fund isn't Mr Otterbourne's money. Everyone who's ever worked here has contributed to it and the fund is virtually empty. There's enough in it to pay the weekly outgoings, but that's it. The capital behind it, the capital built up over years, has vanished."

"You must be mistaken."

"I'm not!" Ragnall lowered his voice urgently. "I tell you, Mr Otterbourne's embezzled the funds. His signature's on the cheques. I believed in him, you know?" he said bitterly. "And he's nothing but a hypocrite. A damned, white-haired, pompous old hypocrite."

Lewis was pale. He was obviously finding it hard to speak. "It's unbelievable," he said eventually. "Have you said anything to him? What's his explanation?"

Ragnall looked horribly uncomfortable. "I don't know. I took the accounts into the study before breakfast. I said there was a matter I needed to discuss but I simply couldn't bring myself to speak. He was sitting there, looking - oh, looking so blinking saintly - that I just couldn't find the words. He said, "Ah, Ragnall, the accounts," and that was more or less it."

Lewis put his hand to his mouth. "We'll have to talk to him this evening," he said after a while. "Both of us. We can't do anything before then, not with Dunbar and the Carringtons coming."

Ragnall winced. "No, we can't. If he could pay it back, then perhaps it'll be all right, but there's nearly seventeen thousand pounds missing and I know he hasn't got that sort of money spare. The firm's in a bad way, Lewis. Since the war, it's hardly broken even. It looks prosperous, but it isn't." He was silent for a few moments. "I don't know how I'm going to get through today. I can't bear the thought of facing him with this hanging over us."

Lewis sank his hands in his pockets. "It's tough, isn't it?" he said after a pause. "I wish I could disappear for the day. You too, of course. You haven't any ideas, have you?"

"There's always your Uncle Maurice," said Ragnall slowly.

Lewis snapped his fingers. "That's it! Uncle Maurice! Of course! He's still ill, ill enough to warrant a visit." He looked up with a relieved smile. "Well done. I'll think of something for you." Lewis glanced towards the study. "I'll have to tell Mr Otterbourne what we're doing. Go round to the garage and get into the car. I'll drop you off at the station."

Lewis went up the steps into the study. Charles Otterbourne looked up as he came into the room. "Ah, there you are, Stephen. I've been studying an article by Professor Carrington." He tapped the papers on the desk in front of him. "Did I understand you to say the Professor is a relation of yours?"

"Yes, that's right," said Lewis. His glance slid across the room to where the accounts lay in a manila file on the table. Did Charles Otterbourne have the slightest idea of what they contained? "As I said before, I've never actually met him. There was a family disagreement, you understand?" His voice was deliberately casual. "I've run across his son, Gerry, a few times. According to Gerry, the Professor is nothing short of a genius. Apparently he's a real absent-minded scientist and has the dickens of a temper."

Mr Otterbourne looked startled. "That sounds rather alarming. I trust we will get on well enough. Mr Dunbar hasn't given me any details of Professor Carrington's work in his letter, but says I am bound to be interested." He obviously didn't have an inkling of the bombshell contained in that manila folder. "I was going to send the car to the station but perhaps you would like to meet them instead."

Lewis tried to look stricken. "I'm sorry, sir, but I won't be here. I've had a letter from my Uncle Maurice's housekeeper. Apparently his chest is very bad again and I thought I'd run down and see him."

Mr Otterbourne was clearly put out. "That is very inconvenient, Stephen."

"Oh, I don't know, sir," said Lewis easily. "After all, you don't really need me and poor old Uncle Maurice is pretty ill, you know."

Charles Otterbourne's lips thinned. "As you wish." He turned his head dismissively. "Ask Ragnall to come here."

His tone, the autocratic tone of a monarch dispensing with his subjects, suddenly irritated Lewis. "Ragnall's out for the day, too, I'm afraid." Mr Otterbourne looked downright affronted. "He seemed very seedy at breakfast," Lewis explained rapidly. "Molly was concerned about him. He told me he'd slept very badly and thought he might be coming down with something. I thought of packing him off to bed, but he said he'd rather not. I didn't think he was in any fit condition to talk to either Mr Dunbar or the Carringtons, so I asked him to go along to Stansfield's, the timber people. He's already left."

Mr Otterbourne drew himself up. "I should have been consulted first. You have overstepped your authority, Stephen. In future I would ask you to remember that Ragnall is not here to come and go at your say-so." He frowned. "Stansfield's? We've not dealt with them before."

"No, but their quote was substantially lower than White and Milwood's."

Charles Otterbourne steepled his fingers together. "Quality needs to be paid for. That is one of my guiding principles. We cannot cut corners. You say Ragnall has actually left?"

"Yes, sir," Lewis said. "You wouldn't have wanted him around today. He was really under the weather."

"I would have liked to have judged that for myself. I am not at all pleased." He frowned at Lewis over the top of his pince-nez. "If you are going to see your uncle, you'd better be off. Do you intend to return this evening?"

"Oh yes," said Lewis, involuntarily glancing once more towards the folder. He swallowed. "I don't think I've got any choice."

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