Very sorry about this long delay! I'm struggling a bit with this story but hopefully this chapter will be worth the wait.
Charlie was so happy to be able to try out his new toboggan on Ice Cream Mountain, especially as winter in the outside world was months away. He pulled it up the solid, hard packed heap of ice cream, taking it slowly so that Zed and his friends could catch up with him. Little Zam was begging them all for a turn and eventually Charlie agreed that they could slide down together, which made him very happy. Some of the group were already at the top, urging them to hurry up. Once Charlie had joined them, he waved to his Grandpa Joe who was sitting in the viewing window with Mr Wonka.
With Zam safely in his lap he launched the toboggan down the mountain, which was actually a hill at the foot of the main mountain, hoping his grandpa wasn't too worried about him. He was glad that the consistency was just right to propel them quickly downhill.
Up at the window, Joe's heart was in his mouth as the two of them collided with a bank of snow, sending them flying but he smiled as they lay there in the snow, laughing happily. Zam seemed willing to do it all again and Charlie took his hand to lead him back up to the top as their friends got themselves into position for their own descents. He could not help but think of the similar things he did at that age, all those years ago. Tom had loved the winter too, although they had always worried about his asthma when he was playing outside and Josephine had always insisted on putting that red scarf of his on him beforehand. Esther had donated that scarf to a local charity after his passing, when they had finally summoned the strength to go through his things and give at least some of them away,
Watching them all at play, it dawned on Joe that Charlie would be their boss some day. He wondered if playing with them like this would make it awkward or if it would help them all get along. It was typical of Charlie to want to get to know them all informally. He didn't think his grandson would be the kind of boss to lord it over everyone, as some did, but it made him wonder what he would be like as the head of this crazy yet wonderful place. And as he thought about it a melancholy came over him, as it often did these days. Shaking the thoughts away he got up to leave but Mr Wonka spoke up.
"Everything all right, Mr Bucket?"
He sat back down again, putting his walking stick to one side. "Everything's fine. Can't sit here all day, Esther needs help in the garden and with Georgina and there's a grocery order arriving today."
"Well, good to see you're helping out."
Joe couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What, you think I don't help out? What do you think I've been doing, ever since that little speech you gave me? That's what you wanted, isn't it?"
Joe wondered if Charlie was watching but they all seemed to be engrossed in their sledding. He didn't want him to see this but he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Did that man still think he could run all their lives, just because he had given them somewhere nice to live? Muttering angrily to himself, he left as quickly as possible but Mr Wonka followed him out into the corridor.
"I'm sorry Mr Bucket, that was very forward of me. Of course you help your family; I've seen that, remember?"
Joe stopped by a door with a picture of an ice cream wafer on it. Taking a deep breath he closed his eyes and collected himself. He could not keep doing this. For Charlie's sake he had to stay calm and sort this out, once and for all.
"No, I'm sorry," he managed to say after a while. He sighed and turned around to face Mr Wonka, who was leaning on his cane with both hands, watching him silently. "You shouldn't take any notice of me, Mr Wonka. I'm just old and grumpy. My wife says I could start a fight in an empty room."
"Yes, well, I tend to shout first and think later. You know that already, of course."
Mr Wonka pointed his cane in the direction of the platform. "Shall we go back in and see what they're up to? I have a few more minutes before I need to be somewhere else. "
"I wasn't making excuses just now: I really do need to go home and do a few things."
"Of course. Well, I'll walk that far with you, if that's all right. There are plenty of adults in charge so I can't see that they'll come to much harm. "
Joe shrugged and followed Mr Wonka down the stairs, through the labyrinth of corridors that was slowly becoming easier to memorise. In a way he was glad they were on their own as there was a lot for them to talk about. The last eighteen months had been remarkable and he knew he must seem very ungrateful to their eccentric but kind benefactor.
"You remember that first day we all came here, after the tour, and I told you I was keeping an eye on you? Well, I did, or as best I could anyway. And it turns out you've been brilliant, to all of us. They always look forward to you coming over and of course, Charlie thinks the world of you. That tour was a bit of a shock, not to mention that business in the office, but I can see now what you were doing and you've made up for it a hundred times over since then. Maybe… I hate to admit this but maybe I don't need to watch you any more."
Mr Wonka was quiet for a while. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you," he said, making Joe stop in his tracks.
"What would you have done with that gobstopper?"
"Gobstopper? Oh, you mean the-"
"You know what I mean. If Charlie hadn't given it back. Would you have left and sold it to Slugworth?
"Slugworth didn't exist."
"Oh he does, he's just not Mr Wilkinson, although there seems to be a slight resemblance between them, strangely enough. Would you have at least tried to find him and give him what he wanted?"
They were outside by now, just around the corner from the familiar, beloved Square. Joe could not look his companion in the eye but knew he couldn't put off a reply for too long.
"I was so angry that afternoon, angry at what you had done to Charlie. And if it had been up to me, well, yes, I would have gladly sold that thing. But my grandson is a more forgiving person than I am and if he had told me not to sell it… well, I wouldn't have done, I'm pretty sure of that. Still, I'm glad we never had to find out. If Mr Wilkinson really had been Slugworth or some other competitor…well, goodness knows what that would have done to your sales. I'm not sure I would have forgiven myself in the long term. You know, you might not believe this but I've always been an admirer of yours, right from the start."
It was a warm day and they paused in front of the fountain, which was in full flow. When Mr Wonka reached into his pocket Joe presumed it was yet another bag of candy but in fact it was an Everlasting Gobstopper. He held it out to Joe on the palm of his hand, one eyebrow raised.
"You honestly think you could fit one of these in your mouth?" He grinned and Joe let out a groan. How could he not have seen this?
"You mean- they're not even a real product? You were never going to sell them?"
"Aside from the size and shape, why would I want children to only eat one piece of candy for an indefinite period? How will they be able to try all my other products? Anyway, I'm not even sure they last forever. I'd have to go on testing them forever, wouldn't I?"
Joe had to sit down all of a sudden. He took the gobstopper and turned it over in his hand. No, he really would not like to try and eat that. "You waited all this time to tell me this?" he asked, a little testily.
"Oh, I had a lot more on my mind than that. Getting you all settled in, running this place. But yes, I did hope to ask you about it at some point, once I knew you a little better." He swept off his hat and sat on the opposite bench.
Joe glared at the gobstopper in his hand before slamming it roughly on to the bench beside him. "Always have to be the one in charge, don't you, the one who controls everything. Are we just puppets for your amusement?"
"Of course not! Nothing could be further from the truth. You must know by now that I'm fond of all of you." He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. "I know it's been hard for you. I didn't realise at first, you see. But I've been watching you and your family, just like you've been watching me, and I've seen how fond you are of each other and all the memories you have. Moving here was a big change for you, I accept that, and I know you've struggled in particular."
Joe squirmed a little. He was not interested in this modern obsession with expressing your feelings and certainly not with Willy Wonka. But he stayed quiet.
"You were brought into the world of a vain, egotistical chocolatier who was far too used to having his own way, surrounded by grateful Oompa-Loompas and loved by millions who never met him. Do you know what I like about you Mr Bucket?"
Joe shook his head, his eyes focussed on an upper level where the Wonkavator was hurtling along, heading for some distant room.
"You don't put me on a pedestal. Lots of people do, but not you. I like that. I really do. And for that reason I very much hope you will not stop keeping an eye on me because I need your honesty and always will."
Joe was lost for words. He sat silently as Mr Wonka patted him on the shoulder and slipped away, until he suddenly remembered his list of chores and made his way across the Square as quickly as he could.