Saturday, August 8, 2015

LET’S DO LUNCH

AUGUST 2015

Hello: It’s hard to believe that I started this blog six years ago. Since then, I’ve posted about 60 stories, and many more people have started reading it. For their benefit, I plan to re-run several of the fiction pieces that readers seem to have liked most in the first couple of years.
So here’s the first story – “Let’s Do Lunch.”

Lynn and I welcome feedback at jonfer1@aol.com

Best wishes,

John Birch

              
                 LET’S DO LUNCH

She was reading a book when Frank came in.
“Who was it?” she asked, without looking up. “I didn’t recognize his voice.”
“Vogel.”
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.”
“Me?”
“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.

oo0oo




Monday, June 29, 2015

CHALK AND CHEESE


A light sprinkle of snow was falling on a January afternoon when I entered the officers’ mess for the first time. Inside, a man in uniform sat alone, as close as he could get to the black iron stove. He was reading a newspaper, and there was a tumbler of Scotch on the table beside him.

 At first he didn’t see me in the doorway, but then he looked up, eased himself out of his armchair, and came toward me smiling, his arm outstretched.

“You’ll be one of our new boys. Good to see you. I’m Richard Lindsay.”

We shook hands, and I introduced myself. He was a tall, elegant man, with a bronzed, aristocratic face, and his voice was pure BBC. I’d done my homework, and had read about Lindsay who, a few years earlier, had single-handedly halted a column of German Tiger tanks on a street at Nijmegen. He’d run ahead of his men, dodging a barrage of automatic fire, and wedged a grenade in the tracks of the leading tank, blowing them apart. For this and other exploits at the battle of Arnhem, he’d been awarded the Military Cross. I noted the MC’s distinctive blue on white stripe among the medal ribbons on his tunic.

            “They’ve put you in my company, Delta. You’ve only got a one-man reception committee, young man, but don’t take it personally.” He smiled again.“The whole damn unit’s been on leave ever since we came home from Hong Kong last month, but they’ll all be back tonight.”        Lindsay was a major in his late thirties. I was a few months short of twenty-one, and a subaltern. After years of training I was a second lieutenant joining my first infantry regiment. Subalterns, newly commissioned career officers straight from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, were jokingly known as the lowest form of Army life. Eager and smooth-cheeked, not yet tanned by the sun that was already setting on the British Empire, with our new uniforms innocent of medals, we stood out as the virgin soldiers we were among the leathery faces of the regiment’s post-World War II battle-tried veterans.

            Lindsay offered me a chair by the stove, the top of which, behind a safety rail, glowed red-hot. He reached for a small brass bell on the table and rang it, and a white-jacketed steward appeared in the doorway.

            “Rogers,” Lindsay said to the mess barman, “This is Mr. Edwards, and he’s just joined us.” He turned to me. “What would you like to drink?”

            I wasn’t used to drinking in the afternoon, and I’d hardly ever tasted whiskeya. “A beer would be fine, sir.” I said.

            The barman returned with a tankard of bitter on a tray and, I noted, another whiskey for Lindsay, who raised his glass to me.

            “Welcome to the regiment, Edwards. It’s a pity you’re seeing us for the first time in this bloody awful place, but we’ll be in decent quarters in Northern Ireland in a few weeks. You’ll soon settle down there.”

            It was indeed an awful place. Fresh from several years in Hong Kong, the Regiment was temporarily based in this condemned Royal Navy air station on a flat, snow-swept plain near the Lancashire town of Ormskirk, a few miles from Liverpool. Our parade ground was the camp’s abandoned airstrip, and the buildings were rusting Quonset huts. Normally, an officers’ mess resembles a London gentleman’s club, decorated with oil portraits of long-dead generals, engravings of battle scenes, and priceless antique silver. But our mess in this temporary base had the air of a long-neglected airport lounge, with boxy chairs arranged round the stove.

            In the hour that followed I warmed quickly to my first company commander. He seemed shrewd, witty and warm-hearted. He spoke modestly of his war experience, talking more about his wife and children and his days at Oxford where, when the war broke out in 1939, he’d just graduated with a degree in PPE -- politics, philosophy and economics. He inquired with what seemed to be genuine interest about my family and home, my school days and years of army training. I couldn’t help noticing that, without being asked, the barman seemed to bring Lindsay a fresh drink as soon as his glass was empty. But he remained lucid, though maybe a little more voluble.

Back in the mess that evening, more officers, returning from leave, had drifted into the room. By then, Lindsay, like the others, was dressed in the off-duty rig of the day, a regimental blazer, Tattersall check shirt with the green-and red-striped regimental tie, fawn cavalry twill trousers, and suede desert boots. Among the new arrivals were five other subalterns who, like me, were still in uniform. Four were career soldiers from Sandhurst, and the fifth was a newly commissioned National Serviceman, drafted into the service for eighteen months like the rest of his generation at that time. We newcomers were introduced with playful banter to everyone who entered, and made welcome. Naturally enough, we gravitated to our own little group of newcomers for much of the evening. Chris Stapleton, who’d been a friend of mine at the academy, and who’d arrived a day or two earlier, spoke to me in a quiet aside.

            “See this chap Lindsay?”

            “Yes,” I said. “He’s my new company commander. I met him this afternoon. What about him?”

            “Everyone’s waiting to see how he gets on with Fred Creech, the new colonel. Seems Creech was in the ranks, a non-commissioned officer of some sort near the end of the War when Lindsay was a captain. Seems they just couldn’t get on for some reason. Hated each other’s guts. Creech had been commissioned in the field, and he’s been away in a staff job for the past few years. When they were both captains in Aden or somewhere they had some kind of brawl, and they haven’t spoken to each other since.”

            “How do you know this?” I asked.

            “A couple of platoon commanders from Delta Company took me out on a pub-crawl last night, and they told me. Apparently some of Creech’s former mates in the sergeants’ mess are laying bets on how long they’ll manage to serve together this time without some sort of dust-up.”

            “Why don’t they get on?” I asked.

            “Well, it’s probably a class thing. They say Creech is a good soldier, but a crude bugger. Rough as guts. Drinks a lot and uses dirty language. Gutsy as hell, of course, and got himself a Military Medal in Normandy.  Dick Lindsay comes from money. Big, county family, Eton, Oxford and all that. They’re as different as chalk is from cheese.”

            Just before dinner, Colonel Creech arrived in the mess, followed by his second-in-command and the adjutant, Mike Watson. Those who were seated stood up when he entered, and everyone turned toward the door. Creech filled the doorway, a burly man, tall, maybe forty, with a Rugby front row forward’s shoulders and a bent, boxer’s nose that, with his brush-cut red hair, made him look the fighter he was. Watson led him round the room introducing him. Only a few of the more senior men, including the rifle company commanders, majors, seemed to have met Creech. He paused with them first, and I couldn’t help noticing, as must everyone else, that while he chatted and joked with two of them, but said nothing at all to Lindsay.

            When he reached me, Creech shook my hand warmly. “Pleased to meet you, laddie. I knew your cousin, Dennis Edwards. Served with ‘im in Europe. Fuckin’ good officer. If you’re ‘alf as good as ‘im you’ll do all right.”  He gave me a playful poke in the ribs that made me step back a pace.    

            Dinner was informal on that Sunday night. Everyone sat where they chose except the new subalterns, who were allotted seats next to a veteran major.

             After the meal, Chris Stapleton came over to me. “We’re going to look around the town. Someone’s going to organize a car. Want to come?”

            Ormskirk seemed a depressing place. Its narrow streets were under an inch of gray snow, and every other building seemed to be a pub. Since officers were discouraged from frequenting bars used by the troops, we toured the marginally classier places that called themselves hotels, where a pint of bitter cost a few pennies more.  We talked with the affable locals and played a game of darts and, shortly before ten the barmaid called for last orders.  She pulled us a final pint for the road, and signaled the closure of the bar by throwing a wet cloth over the beer handles, and turning out some of the lights.

            We gathered in the street outside. “It’s too early to go to bed,” someone said.

            “Tell you what, then,” Chris said. “The bar will still be open at the mess.  Let’s go home and have a beer and a game of snooker.”

            It was pleasantly warm back in the mess. When we trooped through the lounge to the billiards room, the colonel, Mike Watson, Dick Lindsay and two or three other senior officers were talking animatedly around the stove.       

             It was around eleven when I first heard a raised, angry voice through the open door. Creech’s voice. The four of us stopped playing and listened. Watson was saying to his superiors, “Enough of this. Now cut it out, both of you!”

            Stapleton and I stood in the doorway. The veterans around the stove were too engrossed to notice us there. Creech rose unsteadily to his feet, grasping the black iron rail around the stove, and with his back to us, leaned down and pressed his face close to Lindsay, shouting something unintelligible that sounded belligerent.

            But I did hear Lindsay’s reply. “Come outside and repeat that, you mean-minded oaf.”

            The two men lumbered out of the room, leaving the others silent in their chairs. One of the majors turned to Watson, “Mike, you’d better go out and keep an eye on those two.”

            Watson, a captain, followed them out into the dark. A minute or two later, dumfounded by how this day had turned out, we agreed this was the right moment to leave. We’d expected that joining our regiment would be a proud climax to the years of training. I happened to be the first to go through the door as we filed through it into the cold air outside.

As I led the way onto the icy steps outside the mess, I witnessed a violent sequence that has been etched into my memory for the past sixty-five years. Lindsay, crouched in a defensive stance in front of Creech, suddenly straightened up and, with a grunt like a tennis champion making a punishing serve, put all his weight behind a massive blow to the side of his commanding officer’s head.  Momentarily, Creech lost his balance, slipped, and fell heavily on the ice. No one moved for a few seconds. Creech made a vain attempt to scramble to his feet, and I remember this big, ungainly man, suddenly sober, saying in an unexpectedly pained, aggrieved voice “You’ve broken my leg!”

            Lindsay said nothing. He stood, swaying a little, his arms now at his sides, looking down at Creech while adjutant Mike Watson took charge. We should probably have left Creech where he was until an ambulance arrived but, eager to keep the incident out of sight, Watson recruited my help in hauling the colonel back into the mess, and called the battalion’s medical officer.

            A while later, when an ambulance had taken Creech to the local hospital, Watson, one of the majors who was Creech’s second-in-command and I met back in the mess alone. By then Lindsay was under escort in his quarters with the regulation two officers of equal rank, and had been charged with striking a superior officer.

            Watson turned to me. “You and I will have to give evidence, Edwards. We’re the only people who actually saw him do it.”

            “What’ll happen to Major Lindsay?” I asked.

            “He’ll be court-marshaled and cashiered,” Watson said. “It’ll be an open and shut case, no doubt about it.”

I had some sleepless nights after that evening. Under oath, I gave a truthful account of what I’d witnessed. Lindsay’s self-destructive act had taken only a few impetuous seconds, and it took me fewer than five minutes at the initial summary of evidence, and later at the court marshal in Liverpool, to tell the story that, together with Watson’s evidence, brought Lindsay’s distinguished career to an abrupt end.

Lindsay looked me in the eye as I stepped down from the witness stand, but there was no hint of malice or reproach.

* * *

           

Ten years later, bored with the emptiness of peacetime life in the Army, I’d left the service as a captain, and was moving up the ladder in the London office of an Australian public relations firm. I’d begun to realize that, while I was strong enough on leadership and administration, I needed to know more about managing money.  As a first step, I signed up for a course in economics.

            I was sitting a few rows from the front of the auditorium on the first night of the course when the lecturer entered, a professor from the University of London. He held up his hand to quieten his audience, and began by defining an economist as ‘someone who doesn’t have enough personality to become an accountant,’ which relaxed the audience and made them smile.

 “Let me introduce myself, he said. “My name’s Dick Lindsay.”   

The wit and warmth were still there, but he was much thinner; even gaunt, and looked more than a decade older. He took a few minutes to recognize me, and when he did he paused momentarily, smiled and raised his hand in recognition without losing the pace of his presentation.

But I found it hard to concentrate, wondering what we could possibly say to each other when we spoke later, as we inevitably would. It was a reasonable concern. I was, after all, an unwilling, unwitting catalyst in his dishonorable discharge.

I needn’t have been anxious. During a brief coffee break Lindsay came over and shook my hand warmly.

            “I’d heard you left the service,” he said. “How’s life treating you?”

            “Pretty good,” I said, “and you?”

            “It was hard at first.” Lindsay said, “But a lot tougher for Angela and the kids. Families get the sticky end of the spoon when something like that happens.”

            He put his hand on my shoulder. “You know, I always hoped we’d run into each other again. Where are you going when this is over?”

            I shrugged. “Nowhere special.”

            “Then let’s have a drink later. I know a place not far from here.”

            The rest of Lindsay’s lecture went well. He was entertaining and authoritative, and the class quickly warmed to him. This was clearly something at which he excelled, and which he enjoyed.

           

The wine bar, in the Strand just off Trafalgar Square, was almost deserted.

            “What can I get you?” I asked.

            “Just a dry ginger for me,” he said. “But you go ahead.”

            When I returned from the bar with our drinks there was an awkward pause.

“There’s . . . there’s something I want to say --” I said.

 But he stopped me. “I know what you’re going to say. Listen, you did what you had to do. You were under oath, and had no choice. I’d have done the same thing. Actually, I’ve got something to tell you. It’s I who want to thank you.”

“Thank me. Why?”

            “Don’t you see? You’re the person who changed my life. The truth is that, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was in a nose-dive. I’d had a good war – if there is such a thing. I’d been decorated. But after the war there was nothing left for me. I was drinking too much, and Angela hated being an army wife. In a year or two my girls would have been off to a boarding school while Angela and I trailed from one dreary overseas posting to the next. Long before now I’d have been divorced, and a lonely drunk. So, thank you.”

Was there any point in laboring this?

We clinked glasses.

 

            Dick Lindsay died a decade or two ago at his home in Staffordshire. He was 83.  A month or so later I received a parcel in the mail, with a hand-written note from his wife:

 

“Dear Nigel: Dick died on Thursday 27th August. He always told me he wanted you to have this. I know you’ll take good  care of it.

 With best wishes, Angela Lindsay.”

 

Inside was a small dark blue leather-bound book. At first I thought it was a bible, but it was a day-by-day guide published by Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled ‘One Day At A Time.’

 

         On the flysheet Lindsay had written a note:

           

             “To Nigel Edwards:

I want you to have this little book. It’s something to live by, and has helped me live the rest of my life. Read it. It will dissuade you from dwelling on past errors and regrets, and help you visualize the future as no more than a series of new days, each offering fresh opportunities for self-realization and growth.

 

Remember this. Today is just a small, manageable segment of time during which your difficulties don’t have to overwhelm you. Knowing this will lift the heavy weight of the past from your heart and mind, and show you how to face the uncertainties of the future.

 

Affectionately,

 

Richard Lindsay.”

 

                     End