Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Christmas to Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father. We sat - he, my mother, my brother David and I - amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in a modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.
        This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, a seaside resort, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.
        But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.
          David and I never really knew our parents. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.
          Nor had David and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at boarding school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.
          The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the one-pound notes and half-crowns and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.
          It was dark on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front.  The tide had turned, and now dragged on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.
          As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do like your new life, Johnny?"
          After nearly a decade as an officer in the British Army I was on my final leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service I'd had excitement in action, world travel, comradeship and the company of friends. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in a rented attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little wary of the future.
I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."
        "But are you happy?" she asked.
        "Happy enough," I said. "What about you?"
        My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.
        "No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."
        I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she still alive, I might have said "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.
      "What are you thinking?" she asked.
      By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.
      "I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"
      "Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before.  There we all were. Mother, five unmarried daughters and two sons in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed  . . ."
      "It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my voice.
      She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."'
      My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.
        "What are you two chatting about?" my father asked, smiling.
        My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”

          Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's words over and over in my mind, but I never told David.
          My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart.  And there was something else; he'd become almost miserly about money and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow.
          Every morning, at seven, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door.  A month or two later she knocked and there was no answer. She had to climb a ladder to the open bedroom window, and found him dead.
          Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission? Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden herself, to share her load?  She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.
        And nor did I.       


Friday, November 2, 2018

A Letter to Australia

Arbroath, Scotland.               

It was still quite dark at six in the morning, and there was frost on the windows when he came downstairs.  He stirred the embers in the kitchen fireplace, crouching in his khaki greatcoat, and in minutes the fire was ablaze again, its light flickering on the low ceiling.
            A thin blanket of snow had fallen during the night.  In the yard outside, the old man filled the blackened kettle from the pump by the back door, and set it on the iron grid over the kitchen fire.
            When he carried her tea upstairs on the Chinese lacquer tray his wife lay in just the same position on the pillows.  Her face was gray and taut, and she gave him no sign of recognition.
            He put the tray on the table and sat beside her on the bed, poured the tea, and took her hands, warming them.
            "How d’you feel, then, Janet?"
            She smiled.  It was a detached, affectionate smile, but she said nothing.
            She left the tea untouched and lay still, her eyes fixed on the patchwork quilt.
            It was lighter now, but there was little to see in the room. The bed, a small night table and a narrow, painted closet.  On the table was a colored photograph of an auburn-haired young woman.  She stood in brilliant sunshine in front of a big, colonnaded gray stone building, dressed in a nurse’s uniform.
            The old man made some comment about the cold, but Janet made no reply.
            She’d never been like this before. He could tell she was fading, and inside him he knew she’d be gone before the day was over.
            Without shaving on this December morning, he dressed in clothes he had worn yesterday and the day before. Down in the kitchen he took a writing pad and a stub of pencil from the drawer in the table and wrote a brief letter.  The writing was clear, rounded and labored, and the words unlettered and elementary, but a blend of candor and affection compensated for whatever the note may have lacked in fluency.  It assumed what was now inevitable, gave a compassionately untruthful reassurance that there had been no pain, and added that there was no need to come all the way home to Scotland.
            He folded the letter and slipped it into his pocket.  It took more than thirty minutes to walk to the post office in the village.  On his way through the beech wood he heard the sharp crack of shotguns, and voices calling through the trees.
            He walked down the sweeping road to the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the park.  Beyond the gates, on the road to Invercairn, one or two cars passed, the sound of their wheels muffled by the snow.
            Across the fields, between the road and the river, pheasants strutted, their tails rigid, and hares froze as he passed.  At the water mill, icicles hung from the rotted woodwork of the wheel, like frozen stalactites.
            It was warm in the post office, with the sweet smell of kerosene.  Behind the counter, Lizzie McPhearson, post-mistress at Invercairn for more than forty years, was writing numbers in her ledger.
            "Hamish Jackson. Look at you squinting, man.  You've left your spectacles at home again!"
            “Aye, I have too, Lizzie. I think I’ll  forget my own head one day soon!”
            He drew his own and his wife's pension money and, stooping to read his shopping list, bought a few small items:  some tobacco, a new pencil, six envelopes, and an air-mail postage stamp.
            "How's Janet, Hamish?  Is she any better today?"
            "No. She's sleeping. That's all she does now,   sleeps."
            "Never you mind.  Winter's nearly half-way gone.  She'll soon be right as rain.  And Ian Lawson's the best doctor in Aberdeenshire . . ."
            The telephone rang, and Lizzie McPhearson was no longer with him.
            Hamish filled the envelope, addressed, sealed and stamped it, and mailed it in the red pillar box outside.
            Snow fell over the fields as he walked home.  Not far from the edge of the village the big black Rolls Royce from the castle drove past, traveling in the same direction.  He recognized McLeod, the chauffeur, who seemed not to notice him.  As it passed, a small girl waved from the rear window.
            When he reached the cottage Ian Lawson, the doctor, was waiting, his estate car parked in the yard outside the back door.  A black Labrador dog crouched on the passenger seat, its nose pressed to the windscreen.  It barked as the old man approached.  The two men shook hands, even though they were now meeting nearly every day.
            "Hello, Hamish, how is she?"
            "Nae so bad, doctor.  She slept all night again.  Hardly stirred.  They must’ve put something strong in them tablets."
            "They'll give her some rest, and take the pain away.  Shall we take a look at her?"
            Hamish led the doctor up the short, steep staircase, and paused at the door, uncertain of what they might find in the cold room.
            Janet was asleep.  He touched her arm and she opened her eyes.  Leaving her with the doctor he went down to the kitchen, putting on the kettle for the doctor to wash his hands.
            Through the kitchen window he could see the shooting party from the castle emerging from the wood -- four men, three women, some children, and a cluster of jumping dogs.  Several loaders walked behind them, their guns under their arms, their barrels broken.  Each carried a clutch of game birds.
            The black iron door bell jangled in the kitchen on its coiled spiral. Then, at the door stood a small boy, dressed in a blue Arran jersey, corduroys and boots.
            "Hello, Master Alexander."
            "Good morning, Jackson."  The child's manner and self-assurance were more those of a grown man than a boy of eight.
            The boy carried two cock pheasants, their limp necks tied together with coarse string.
            "Grandfather says would you like a brace of pheasants?  We shot them this morning."
            Hamish thanked the boy, taking them.
            "Grandfather says Mrs. Jackson’s dying.  Is she really going to die?"
            Hamish paused. "Aye, laddie.  I do believe she is."
            The boy did not reply.  Hamish looked down at him.  The child stepped back a few paces, his eyes fixed on the old man. Then he turned and ran back to the shooting party, who were by now half-way up the slope to the castle.  He was calling them excitedly, but Hamish could not hear the words.
            The doctor was upstairs for nearly an hour.  When he came down he did not, as he usually did, reach for his coat from the hook on the door.  Instead, he sat down by the fireplace.
            Hamish waited by the window, still in his Army coat, his hands deep in the pockets.
            "We've . . . we’ve done all we can, Hamish.  You were at the hospital during the operation, and here for the past few weeks.  You've seen it all.  We've talked about it often, haven’t we?  If she was younger there'd be some hope but, well, you're both in your eighties . . ."
            "She's going to die today, isn’t she?"
            “Well . . . yes, I think it’s likely.” He shook his head.  “I can’t be certain."
            The doctor rested both hands on the old man's shoulders.
            "I'm sorry, Hamish, but there's little we can do now."
            In the yard, the dog barked again as they appeared together.  The wheels spun on the snow-covered ground, and in seconds the car was gone.
            Throughout the afternoon Hamish sat by the kitchen fire.  From time to time he made hesitant visits to the upstairs room.  Each time she was in the same position with the same expression.  Her breathing was barely audible.  But there was a little warmth under the blankets.
            It was dark shortly after four in the afternoon.  He lit the lamp and put it on the kitchen table.  There were no more callers from the castle. Outside the window, an inch or two of snow had settled on the sill.
            At seven he went back to the room, but this time there was no breathing, and no warmth.  Her eyes were closed, and one arm seemed to reach toward the bedroom door.
            For a moment he sat beside her on the bed holding her outstretched hand, which he had done so many times during the past months, to comfort them both.
            He slipped under the covers, lying with one arm across her already colder body.  After months of broken, watchful nights he slept until mid-morning; waking to see the garden under heavy snow, still falling.

*  *  *

Melbourne, Australia.

Six days later, on Christmas Eve, radio station 3XY forecast 90 degrees.  Dressed in her uniform, Sister Christie Jackson steeped out into the already hot Australian summer sun and unlocked her mail box in Glenhuntly Road, Melbourne.
            There were three Christmas cards, a Telecom reminder and a letter postmarked Invercairn, Scotland.
            Her father rarely wrote, but she always looked forward to his letter at Christmas, in time for Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year.
            Standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a # 67 tram, she opened the envelope. On a sheet of yellow ruled notepaper, the writing was clear, rounded and labored.
            But there was no letter; not the usual end-of-year family news. There was nothing in the envelope but a hastily-written shopping list, in pencil:
            pension, stamp, envelops, tobaco, pencil.
            Standing among strangers at the tram stop, Christie Jackson laughed aloud.
            "Oh, Dad," she said.  "You silly old fool!  You forgot your spectacles again!"
            Still laughing, she stepped down from the tram at Prince Henry's Hospital, screwed up the note, and tossed it into a nearby trash bin.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Man's Gotta Do ...

Devon rhymes with heaven, and for good reason. It’s all green grass, chocolate-box cottages and fishermen’s coves, wedged between three equally beautiful counties: Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Together, these make up the farthest corner of England -- a paradisical peninsula jutting into the Celtic Sea, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
When an Englishman thinks of Devonshire, cider and clotted cream come to mind, and wild Exmoor, where buzzards swoop overhead, and red deer and wild ponies roam free. So the very last thing anyone would associate with Devon would be the Stafford Furniture Company, Limited.
In the 1970s, the town council of Barnstaple voted quietly for the creation of an industrial park to be tucked in a woody area on the edge of the town. This, they claimed, would result in jobs, and in increased business and tax income. It would be good for Barnstaple. The local weekly paper gave the story supportive splash headlines, and not a letter was written to the editor; and not a voice raised in protest. Barnstaple’s people weren’t like that. Not at that point, anyway.
Barnstaple’s elders kept a wary eye on the kinds of plant that set up shop in their industrial park. The newcomers tended to be environmentally friendly -- which was not a phrase much used in England at that time. There was a manufacturer of duvets, for whom an environmental crisis could be nothing more serious than a cloud of goose feathers accidentally leaked into the atmosphere. There were two household furniture factories that made couches and armchairs out of local oak and imported hardwoods. Another made window shades, and others produced balls of twine, cardboard boxes, and a brand of confectionery similar to Twinkies.
And then along came Jack Stafford, a tall, lean man in his early thirties who had bushy black eyebrows, and who, had he chosen to be an actor, would have made a perfect hero in a Bronte or Dickens movie. Jack was a furniture designer who had recently won several awards from Britain’s prestigious Design Council. However, his furniture was not comfy couches and chairs for peoples’ homes. His business was contract furniture, and his specialty was stacking chairs, for use in conference rooms, hospitals and other public places. He’d been so successful that his firm had recently been bought by the Thomas Tilling Group, a thriving conglomerate active in everything from life insurance and laboratory glassware to engineering. Stafford’s small workshop, in the county of Norfolk, could no longer cope with the demand, and Tilling agreed to invest in a new plant elsewhere.
When Stafford’s planning application reached the town council, the burghers of Barnstaple read it with care. They looked at artfully lit photographs of his award-winning chairs, and another that showed his impressive gold-plated trophy from the Design Council. The recent acquisition by the respected Thomas Tilling Group was noted, and the application was accepted.
At that time, I was a public relations consultant to several Tilling Group companies, including Stafford Furniture. Jack Stafford and I drove down to Devon to see how the new building, on a site on the edge of Barnstaple Bay, was progressing. For me, the main aim of this trip was to gather enough information to write a proposal for organizing and publicizing the official opening of the plant about a year later.
At one point we passed a rectangular building, out of which several pipes snaked toward the bay.
“What’s that going to be?” I asked.
“That? Oh, it’ll be the water treatment plant.”
“What’s it going to treat, exactly?”
Jack seemed unconcerned. “It takes the gunk out of the water we use in the chrome plating process.”
“What kind of gunk?”
“Chromium and cadmium. They’re deadly poisons, of course. We use them to put the chrome on the chairs. The treatment plant will filter it out, so by the time it gets into the bay it’ll be as clean as a whistle.”
That sounded okay to me, and my mind switched elsewhere.
The plant began what they called ‘pilot production’ about three months before the official opening ceremony planned for April 1971. A few days after the first shiny chrome-plated chairs came off the assembly line, Jack Stafford called me in my office in London.
“Bit of a fuss going on in Devon, John,” he said.
“Really? “I said.
“There are people demonstrating at the gate.”
Demonstrating? What about?”
“Some of the townspeople are in a bit of a tizzy about the plating plant. They’ve heard about the chrome and cadmium. They think our treated water could kill the fish in the bay and find its way into the town’s water supply.”
“What’s your reaction to that?” I asked.
“It’s piffle,” he said. “Absolute bosh! That water’s as pure as the driven snow. A baby could drink it."
In a day or so we’d fixed a press conference, at which the plant manager and I met the demonstrators and the local media. Armed with documents from the firm of consultants certifying the purity of the water, we took reporters on a guided tour of the plant. On the next day the noisy, banner-waving crowd was gone from the factory gates and, later in the week, stories appeared in the local paper and broadcast media assuring Barnstaple’s citizens that they had nothing to fear.

For the next few months all was quiet. Then, one day in the spring, Jack Stafford and his board of directors converged on the town’s best hotel in readiness for the opening ceremony. Later in the day came Sir Geoffrey Eley, the chairman of the Thomas Tilling Group and others of his ilk, together with Jeremy Thorpe, the popular Member of Parliament for Devon North. With my press releases, photographs, lists of invitees, name tabs and other PR paraphernalia after weeks of preparatory work, I was there checking and counter-checking, phoning and fussing.
That evening, as we all relaxed in the hotel bar enjoying pre-dinner drinks, I heard what seemed to be raised voices in the street outside the hotel. I looked out the window, where about thirty people were gathering, unfurling banners on which the word ‘Poison’seemed to be prominent.
“They’re back,” I whispered to Jack.
“Who are?”
“The demonstrators.”
Stafford and I slipped out of the bar and into the street, where a slightly belligerent man with a red, round face asked me, “Is that Stafford bloke in there?”
Stafford strolled up to the man, for all the world like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. But he held out his hand. “How do you do,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
 “Well, you can shut down that bloody factory for a start!” the man said.
An argument began about the efficacy of the water treatment plant, at the end of which Stafford said, “Listen, my good man, I thought we cleared this up once and for all last year. Tell me, what do we have to do to convince you this water’s perfectly safe?”
The man thought for a moment, and his colleagues craned to hear his answer.
“There’s only one thing,” he said. “If you can get one of them high-ups to drink some of that water himself, in front of the newspapers and that. Then we’ll believe ya’”
“Bargain,” said Stafford, and they shook hands again.
Who’d impress them most, Jack and I wondered. We doubted Sir Geoffrey Eley would do it. Who better, we agreed, than their own, likeable Member of Parliament?
Back in the bar I sidled up to Jeremy Thorpe and put the question to him.
With a sly grin he said. “Why not? But there’s one condition.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“That you drink it first,” said the grinning MP for Devon North.

In the morning I slipped out and bought an elegant crystal goblet from the nearby Dartington Glass Works, and half an hour later, the Right Honorable Jeremy Thorpe, Jack Stafford, a foreman and I stood together, alone, around a faucet in the water treatment plant.
The water ran clear and clean. I raised the goblet to my lips. It was flat, and utterly tasteless. I then filled more glasses and passed them to the others.
“Not a vintage year, I ‘d say,” Thorpe said dryly.

Three hours later the town band played, Sir Geoffrey Eley cut the ceremonial tape, and the VIP party meandered through the plant under the watchful eyes of the reporters and TV cameras. At the water treatment plant, true to his word, Jeremy Thorpe drank a convincing amount of the water. Then, inviting an unbiased witness to join him, he poured himself another glass, carried it to the front of the building, raised his goblet to the crowd, and downed the entire contents. Smiling broadly, the Right Honorable Member made a little bow.
The demonstrators had watched silently among the public on their tiered benches, waiting for the show, their banners furled but ready. Slowly, a ripple of applause from the audience swelled into cheers.
And we never heard from them again.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Aftermath 9/11

This month, September, marks the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  A day or two later, Lynn and I were staying at the house of friends in Ojai, California when, sitting alone, I read an account of the aftermath in the New York Times.

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:

Aftermath 9/11

Ojai, California
September 14, 2001

Here, all around me, is a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond the redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in;
species that I’ve never seen before.
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes
and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach
of  water pipes and hoses,
are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents,
and part-dismembered, unattended cacti. 

Above the borders, bees dart 
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper,
swirl and rise and fall. 

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog,
no distant drone of planes or traffic,
or the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap,
the Sunday paper shows an anguished and
chaotic scene two thousand miles away.
A photo shows the silhouetted,
criss-cross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands,
become a starker and more telling monument
than any man-made memorial. 
And on another page, portraits of two
dozen wanted men, their faces
grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition
of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault
– are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims,
their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears
some eulogistic paragraph:
the scoutmaster; a man called Yang,
who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who
loved the stage, Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan
who lived for sport.

Hundreds of such pictures have appeared
and there’ll be thousands more.
Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look
in their last fear-frozen moments? 

Meanwhile, the nation reels, 
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
and speaking of revenge, and war.
And after this carnage, dare I demand:
where is God, all-knowing, just and merciful? 

John Birch

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


She was reading a book when Frank came in.
“Who was it?” she asked, without looking up. “I didn’t recognize his voice.”
She made a face. “Burt Vogel? That crook? You haven’t heard from him for years, what did he say?”
“Wants me to go in to New York and have lunch with him next Tuesday. He’s got a problem, needs advice.”
“What sort of advice?”
“He didn’t say.”
“You should’ve asked him,” she said.” And why are you grinning? What’s so damn funny?”
“Well, don’t you think it’s weird? He could hardly wait to see me out the door on my sixty-fifth birthday, and now he wants my advice!”
“And you’re going, I suppose,” she said.
“Sure I am. Why not?”
“Because the man’s a user, that’s why. You owe him squat.”
She’d been like this for quite a while, with her snarky put-downs, like a big sister to a kid brother. Lately she’d actually seemed to dislike him, and it made him uneasy. Frank didn’t tell her he was flattered by the invitation. Nor did he say that for years he’d felt ignored and shut out by Vogel, who’d never once called or written since he retired. This trip back to the office might be a chance to re-connect, to make up. Reconcile, was that the right word?
“I only want to see how much the place has changed, see a few friendly faces maybe, have a free lunch with Vogel’s new colleagues.”
She raised one eyebrow in that way she did. “Come on, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, remember? You’ve forgotten what the guy’s like. He wants something – want to bet?”
“Well, I’m going anyway.”
She seemed not to have heard him, with her head back in her book. She’d always been a big reader. In the last few months she’d been reading two or three books a week from the library in Ossining. Frank wasn’t much of a reader himself, though before he retired he’d told everyone he couldn’t wait to catch up with his reading. But somehow he’d never got around to it. One day he would.
She snapped her book shut and frowned up at him. “You’ll have to wear a suit and tie, you know. You haven’t done that for years, not since your mom’s funeral.”
“They don’t dress up these days,” Frank said. “Not unless they’re meeting a client. But you could be right; he has visitors all the time. Maybe I should dress up a bit.”
“I can’t believe this,” she said. “You’ve been out of that place for ages. You always said you hated it . . . couldn’t wait to retire. You know what? I think you’re still scared of that jerk.”

Frank had been in his workshop in the basement when Vogel called, making a love seat for the yard. He spent more and more time down there on projects for the grandchildren, a rocking horse, a see-saw, a couple of doll-houses, a dog kennel. He was most at ease here. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted. His wife knew nothing about woodwork, so she didn’t criticize him.
He always ignored the phone when it rang on his downstairs, but she’d yelled down to him.
“Pick it up will you?”   
Vogel’s voice was friendly, almost affectionate. He said something about staffing problems. Could it possibly be that he wanted him to come back? Had he realized over the years what a contribution his older, more experienced colleague had made . . . could still make? If that was it, he’d do it like a shot.
She was wrong about his hating the place. Maybe he’d complained sometimes, but over the past few years he’d yearned for the familiar routine, the challenges, the friendships. He’d even enjoyed the daily commute in the train, when he could read the paper or take a nap if he liked. True, he’d be seventy-four in a couple of months, but he had experience, more than the lot of them put together. He’d be back in the swing of it in no time.

When Frank dressed in his room on Tuesday morning his collar was a little tight, and so was the waistband of his pants. But then he put on his red suspenders and the jacket of his charcoal suit and made a rare trip into his wife’s bedroom, standing for a full minute in front of the mirror. He smiled to himself. Not bad.
Nowadays, on the few occasions when they went to the city, they drove, parking the car in a fenced lot in the mid-50s, off the West Side Highway. But today he took the train from Croton-Harmon, fearful that there might be some traffic delay.
He left home a few minutes later than he’d planned, and it wasn’t until he came off Route 9 and was approaching the permit-holders’ lot that it struck him – he didn’t have a permit anymore. Hadn’t done for years. He searched for a meter, and glanced at his watch while he circled the adjacent lot. He had about four minutes, and there were no empty spaces. Soon he was driving farther and farther away from the stairway up to the station until he found a vacant meter on the farthest edge of the park. To pay, he’d have to run a good hundred yards back to the attendant’s hut, and another couple of hundred from there to the steps.
He locked the car, started to jog toward the hut and was already out of breath by the time he reached it. He almost threw the bills at the attendant and turned to lollop down the paved road past the taxi rank toward the station. Panting, with his mouth hanging open, he labored up the steep staircase. At the top he leaned against the window by the ticket booth only to see that the 10:06 was approaching Platform 2. He snatched his ticket from the agent and, wheezing now, stumbled down the other stairway to the platform, steadying himself on the hand-rail, and with a final effort leaped into the car only seconds before the doors closed. He heaved in great gulps of air and flopped back in his seat, his head lolling.
Through the window to his right the Hudson glided by. He’d brought the Times from home, but was too tense and unsettled to read. His mind was a blank while he recovered his breath and composure. He gazed out at the passing jumble of sheds and warehouses, rusting, neglected machinery, and then the Tappan Zee Bridge and later, as the line drew farther away from the river, dense trees and sudden glimpses of tidy villages with half-empty streets.
The train stopped only at 125th Street. After that it was minutes before it rumbled through the shadowy underground passages on the last few hundred yards of track outside Grand Central, the lights in the car flashing on and off. People were already standing up, reaching for their coats. When the train drew into the platform a sudden attack of fear gripped him in the chest. This wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t possibly go back to that place. He’d be an anachronism, a dinosaur. Vogel was nearly thirty years his junior, while most of the staff would be less than half his age. The daily routines had changed since he was in business. Communications were hugely more electronic. He’d never used a cell phone and knew nothing about things like hand-held computers, networking and video conferencing that his young neighbors talked about incessantly. There’d be new buzzwords, unfamiliar jargon. How could he hope to catch up?
But after he walked up the slope through the archway and came out into the airy concourse he felt much better. He gazed up into the renovated galaxy in the ceiling, awed by the transfiguration that had taken place since he was last here. It was almost like a spiritual awakening. Now, in contrast with the clutter of scaffolding he remembered, the ear-shattering machine-gun fire of jackhammers and pneumatic drills, it seemed in a way like some consecrated place, with its polished marble walls and lofty majestic windows. A cathedral, even.
He was in perfect time. More relaxed now, he emerged from the station onto the wet sidewalk of 42nd Street under a black, overcast sky, heading up to Madison Avenue and down the few blocks to the office. There were new faces behind the security desk in the echoing entrance hall. Half a dozen years ago they hailed him by name with a grin of recognition. Today there was only a mumbled request to sign the register.
Alone in the elevator he smoothed his hair and straightened his tie. Things had changed on the 46th floor. Gone was the Regency wallpaper he’d chosen, in harmony with a reproduction Louis XVI reception desk with its matching chairs. The style was now minimalist. A young woman seated behind a cantilevered steel and glass table smiled up at him. A tiny black bud microphone like an astronaut’s seemed to hover near her lips.
She beamed at him. “You’ll be Mr. Bradford, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’m seeing Mr. Vogel at eleven.”
“He’s expecting you.”  She touched a button. “Mr. Bradford’s here to see Burt . . .”
The receptionist seemed to be listening for a few seconds and then turned to him.
“He’ll be a minute or two.”
The minute or two passed and the young woman turned to him again and smiled. “I’m afraid Burt’s, like, behind schedule. His assistant axed me if you’d mind waiting for a few moments. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
He thanked her, but declined. These days he was careful not to drink much coffee or tea, since he tended to have problems finding a bathroom when he was away from home. He’d be embarrassed if he had to leave the room while he was talking to Burt Vogel.
There were papers and magazines on the coffee table, but he was still too much on edge to read them. Instead, he stood up, hands in pockets, and paced about the reception area.
Frank looked up at eight spotlight clocks on the wall, marked New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Sydney. They hadn’t been there in his day. It had always been Burt’s ambition to have a network of wholly owned offices, and it looked as though he was getting there. When Frank retired, the name of the firm had been Focus Public Relations, but now it was Focus Worldwide in ultramarine neon. On another wall were framed awards and, in showcases, Oscar-like trophies, including a cluster of Silver Anvils and some awards he didn’t recognize.
Presently a handsome gray-haired woman in a black pants suit appeared through a glass door and shook his hand, introducing herself as Suzanne, Vogel’s assistant.
“I’m really sorry for the delay, Mr. Bradford. Burt’s been having a bad day, but he’ll be out very soon.”
He sat down again. The clock marked New York said twenty after eleven. The receptionist caught his eye and smiled at him reassuringly, showing faultless, seemingly incandescent teeth.
“What happened to Alisha Brown?” he asked her.
“Alisha? Oh, she left way back. She’s had three babies . . . brought them all in here a few days ago. Cute kids.”
“So you took her place?”
The young woman laughed.  “No way! There were two other girls after her. I’ve only been here a few months.”
“Like it?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Sure, like, it’s a job. Know what I’m saying?”
Frank sat down again, and waited.
What the hell was Vogel up to? A few more minutes passed, and then the glass doors burst open. Burt Vogel stood, his arms raised in greeting.
“Frank Bradford, you old bastard! Good to see ya’!”
Vogel hadn’t changed much. The crew cut, the shifty eyes, the oddly pointy face. No wonder the staff called him ‘The Ferret.’ He wore what Frank’s younger neighbors in Westchester would have called casual chic – an open neck under a Polo sweater, tailored chinos and loafers. He bounded forward and grasped Frank firmly by both shoulders, and Frank couldn’t help wondering whether Vogel was about to kiss him.
“Dunno what you’re doin’ to keep so trim, Frankie, but keep doin’ it. You're’ lookin' great! Come on in.”  
They settled in armchairs, facing each other in a corner of Vogel’s office.
“So how’s business?” Frank asked.
“Pretty damn good. Mind you, it’s very different now.”
“How come?”
“We, like, changed course a couple of times. No more of that consumer crap. Not much corporate, neither. We’re really into healthcare and pharma these days. A lot of product and issue-oriented public affairs stuff.”
There it was, the jargon. Well, he could cope with that.
“We – that is, you – were moving into hi-tech,” Frank said, “What happened to all that? It was big.”
Did he imagine it, or did Vogel flinch?
“Most of that went down the drain last year. All those freakin’ dot-coms. Yeah, that hit us pretty hard. We had to let quite a few people go. You probably heard about that.”
Frank said no, he hadn’t heard.
“Bad scene,” Vogel said.
Frank wondered when he’d get to the point. But then Vogel changed the subject. “It’s a long time,” he said. “Remind me. How long is it since you retired?”
“Nearly nine years.”
Vogel whistled. “Enjoyin’ it?”
“Most of the time, I guess.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
Frank had decided he wouldn’t tell Vogel he'd give anything to be back at his desk. Not yet, anyway. He’d mind what he said, with no hint of the aimlessness of his life at home, his wife’s abusiveness, his bad back, the prostate thing, memory lapses.
“Well, I confess I get a little bit restless up there,” he said. “I don’t get quite enough to keep my mind active and, well, I do rather miss the old days at Focus.”
“Don’t think we haven’t missed you too, Frankie,” Vogel said. “They don’t make ‘em like you anymore, ol’ pal.” He paused, leaned forward and patted Frank on the knee. “I’ll be honest, if we have a problem here it’s finding senior people with the skills you brought to the place – energy, creativity, loyalty, integrity. Trouble is, everyone’s been promoted too goddamn fast. It’s the Peter Principle run amok. They’ve no real experience, you see. No precedents to apply to other clients’ problems. What we need is more experienced people.”
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
Vogel’s face brightened. “Yeah, kind of. You guessed it. I was broodin’ over this at home last week and I had an idea. In fact I nearly called you.”
He was sure of it. Burt Vogel was going to ask him for help. Maybe full-time, or as a consultant. Frank’s tension of the last hour or two had dissolved and given way to a surge of self-assurance.
“Tell me more about your idea.”
Vogel leaned back in his chair. “Ok, listen. I’ll cut the bullshit. Fact is, we’ve lost a whole bunch of good people. A lot of them have done well and moved up the totem pole. Here’s the idea – how about we hatch a plan to win ‘em back?”
“How?” Frank asked.
“Good question. S’pose we had a party,” Vogel said, “in a cool night spot we’d take over for the night. We’d ask the lot of ‘em, knowing the ones who hate our guts wouldn’t turn up anyway.”
“I get it,” Frank said, “you’d finish up with Focus alumni at every level who still had a residual good feeling about us.”
“Right!” Vogel said. “There’ll be a few who are just plain curious, but what the hell? We’ll give ‘em all a great time, lots to eat and drink, disco and stuff. Hey, we could screen some great nostalgic video, too!”
“And then, I guess, you’ll say a few well-chosen words.”
Vogel shook his head. “Nah! They’ll see what we’re up to – I’ll just make it a quickie. The real recruiting bit comes after everyone’s gone home, see?  We’ll make our people really work the room, sure. But, a few days after the party’s over we’ll sit round the table and compare notes. Then we can draw up a list of people and approach ‘em one-on-one. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. Geddit?”
“Sounds great,” Frank said.  “So what’s the next step?”
Vogel grinned. “Aha! This is where you come in.”
“Yeah. Think about it, old buddy. Who knows more than you about the history of this outfit?”
Wasn’t it a certainty by now? In a minute or two Vogel was going to invite him to run his recruiting beano. Wasn’t planning and running events one of his specialties?  It would be worth a few grand. And, as well as that, he’d get a foot back in the door at Focus. Why didn’t Vogel just come out with it and pop the question?
“Ok, Burt, tell me what you want me to do?”
Vogel was talking faster. “You were here for nearly 30 years, and you’re a good judge of character. I bet you could put together a list of workmates as long as your arm,” he said, “and what I’d really like is a list like that, underlining the names of the ones you personally think were hot operators, real pro’s. Would you do that for me?”
Was this all? Just making a measly list of names of former employees to ask to a damn party? Couldn’t he have asked for this in a five-minute phone call, instead of dragging him all the way into New York?
He wanted to say ‘No! Stick it, I owe you nothing. Find some other poor stiff you’ve unloaded a few days after his sixty-fifth birthday.’
But he didn’t. He said, “Glad to,” and hated himself for it.
“Jeez, you're a real pal,” Vogel said, “I knew you’d do it!”  Then he added, “When would be a good time of the year to do it?”
“To do what?”
“The party, of course.”
“Let me think about that,” Frank said.
Vogel’s secretary stood in the doorway and caught her boss’s eye.
“What's up, Suze?” Vogel asked.
Suzanne made a barely perceptible hitch of her head that said, ‘can we talk?’
Vogel excused himself and joined her in the doorway. A whispered conversation followed, at the end of which Frank distinctly heard Vogel say "No problem, tell ‘em I'll be there.”
Vogel sat down again.
“Shit! Gotta problem, Frankie . . . client in real trouble . . . wants me right now in his office on Fifth. Some kind of flap at the FDA.”
He patted Frank’s knee again. “I’m real sorry, I hoped we could have a good lunch at Giovanni’s. Just you and me together, so we could catch up a bit.”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey, tell you what, let's do lunch some other time. Give Suze a call and she'll fix it up. Ok?”
Vogel was pulling on his raincoat and heading for the door, calling instructions to Suzanne. His mind was clearly somewhere else. Seconds later he was gone, leaving Frank stunned, standing in the middle of the room.
He didn’t fix the lunch date with Suzanne, who was all over him with apologies. Instead he nodded a friendly enough goodbye and sat down for a minute or two in the reception area, where the nice young woman had gone to lunch and been replaced by someone else. He had to admit it; he’d been a ninny. It was all a big mistake. His wife had been right about Vogel, he was a user and a jerk, and of course Frank had always known that stuff about free lunches.
But what to do now?  He weighed his options. The first was to have a bite at Grand Central and go home to face a battery of monologues peppered with sneery questions like ‘well, what did I tell you?’ – or ‘why don’t you listen to me?’ But when the second option slipped into his mind he couldn’t suppress a little chuckle, though the stand-in receptionist didn’t seem to notice. He’d play hooky – have a few hours on the loose in Manhattan! There might be no free lunches but there were certainly free afternoons. Hell, he was retired wasn’t he? He’d go to a movie at two o’clock in the afternoon – take in one of the great independent pictures they never showed at their glitzy, plastic MovieMax at home.
Frank opened his newspaper and searched the listings in the Arts section. This was going to be fun! He’d buy himself a damn great bag of popcorn drenched in butter without her nagging him about cholesterol. Why hadn’t he treated himself to a day in the city before, letting his hair down, meeting old pals? A whole new way of life was opening up to him.
Sure, he’d dredge up some names of former colleagues for Vogel’s dumb list. But it would also be a great way to start checking out a list of long lost buddies.
With his umbrella ready, he pushed through the glass doors onto 40th Street, but when he stood on the sidewalk he peered up into the afternoon sky.
The clouds were clearing, and the sun was coming out.