Tuesday, February 9, 2016

IN THE DARK

This is the first story I ever published in a newspaper or periodical. Set in Britain, it appeared in the London Evening News early in the 1960s, but here I’ve re-set it in suburban New York.


IN THE DARK

Still in her bath robe, and cradling her coffee cup in both hands, Midge watched from the bedroom window as Guy drove out through the big iron gates to catch the 7:47 train.  He always left for the station at 7:30 sharp, and he never missed the train. One thing you could say about Guy was that he was predictable. While showering she remembered that today was his 43rd birthday. She’d said nothing about this when they made their routine embrace on the landing. And nor had he.
          Downstairs in the kitchen she shivered and turned up the thermostat, and outside in the leafless mid-December garden a rising, blustery wind drove hailstones against the windows. She made herself some toast and another cup of coffee.
Every day began like this now that the twins had left home and gone to college. The house was empty, and so were her days. She hated this house, though her friends and relatives always told her how beautiful it was, and how lucky she was to have it. It was a big isolated, stone place in a rambling garden, built in the 1880s near Bedford Hills by Guy’s family. She and Guy had moved in ten years ago, after her in-laws had retired to Florida. Her own parents and most people she knew said much the same about Guy as they did about the house She was lucky to have him. He was handsome, good-natured and successful, they said. With Guy, the twins and  Rock House, what more did she want?
Well, what did she want? She’s often asked herself that lately. They had financial security -- Guy was a senior partner at a well-regarded publishing house on Madison Avenue – they had attractive, mature, civilized children, and they were healthy. The real problem, she told herself, was that she was bored. Bored with her own lonely existence and, yes, she might as well admit it, bored with Guy. Once Fiona and Zoe were both happily settled at Brown, Midge had called her former boss at the law firm where she’d worked in Manhattan, and he’d told her she could have her old job any time she wanted. That had been six weeks ago; she’d rabbited on about it to her family and friends, but she hadn’t followed it up.
She pulled on her raincoat and darted out to retrieve the Times, which today lay on the gravel drive in a blue rainproof  bag. By eight o’clock she’d read what little of the paper interested her. So what was she going to do with herself today?  There was something demeaning about her present situation, she mused. People made jokes about stay-at-home wives, baking cookies, going to coffee klatches, watching soaps. Guy’s forgotten birthday nagged in back of her mind. She supposed she should have taken the initiative for a change and, after a little subterfuge with his secretary, surprised him by turning up at the office and picking up the check at somewhere pricey and romantic in Manhattan.  But it was too late for that. So while she wasn’t the cookie-baking type she could, as a sort of penance, make her husband an apple pie for his birthday dinner here at home.
          Every fall, Guy gathered apples from their own orchard and stored them in a dilapidated but dry fallout shelter at the bottom of the garden. The shelter, barely visible from the house, had been built sixty or seventy years ago by Guy’s eccentric grandfather, Edward McKenzie. Neighbors had jokingly called it ‘McKenzie’s Mausoleum.’  It was dark and cold down there, and there were spiders, and so Midge hardly ever went there, preferring to get her husband to bring apples up to the house whenever she needed them.
          But today, partly motivated by guilt, she dressed quickly and slipped on her raincoat again, took a basket and a powerful flashlight, and headed down the path to the shelter beyond the wet, wind-torn  hemlocks and maples. She realized along the way that she was whistling between her teeth, something she did as a little girl, but now only when she was apprehensive or uneasy. She turned on the flashlight as she descended the five brick steps, and the steel door opened easily on well-oiled hinges.  Before her, under a low, vaulted concrete roof, was a narrow walk space with, on either side and at the far end of the little chamber, double-tiered bunks  covered with wire mesh, whose mattresses had rotted and been removed decades ago.  Now, on their horizontal wire racks, neatly laid out so none of them touched each other, were rows and rows of apples; red and orange and yellow eating apples, and oversized green cookers, perfect for pies.
          So intent was Midge on finding the most succulent apples that she barely noticed the wind had become even more violent in the garden outside, and it was only when a gust caught the door and slammed it shut behind her that she let out a little cry. She turned, walking back to the doorway, her hand suddenly trembling, and focused her flashlight on the door. At first she didn’t register that there was no door knob on this side, only a little black hole in the gray steel panel that must moments ago have held some sort of shaft on which a knob would normally fit.  Wasn’t that how they worked? On her knees she scrabbled on the concrete floor for the missing knob, but found nothing.
         
Back in the warm kitchen the answering machine clicked on. “We can’t come to the phone right now . . .”   Midge’s voice. Then another. A man this time.
          “Midge Honey, it’s me. Guy . . . you there?”
          There was a pause while he waited for her to pick up.
“I guess you’re out. Look, Midgie, bad news. I’ve got to go away for a while . . . ten days, or even a bit longer. We’ve decided to bring Charles Hudson’s second book out four months earlier than we planned. We need to hit the stores with it while his first blockbuster’s still in everyone’s minds. Anyway, Charles wants me go to his place in Vancouver and edit the book with him. I’m going late this afternoon. He won’t deal with anyone else. Says he wants the organ-grinder, not the monkey. Cheeky bastard. I’m flattered, but it’s a pain in the butt; there’s too much going on here in New York.”
          Guy paused for breath. “Hey, things are really buzzing here. I’ll call later. Love you.”
Back in the apple store, Midge noticed that the flashlight batteries were fading, and in a minute or two the light was no more than a watery yellow glow. Still on her knees, she groped in shallow space between the rough concrete floor and the lower bunk. She simply had to find that doorknob. The light was even weaker now, but she let out a hysterical laugh as her hand closed over something small and round. She had it! Dragging it out from under the bunk she examined the object in the last of the light. A child’s ball, that must have lain there for nine or ten years. With a frustrated whine she hurled the ball back into the shadows.
          By now the flashlight was dead, and still on her knees in the blackness Midge began to cry, her body shaking, partly with fear, but also because of the cold in this dark underground place. Where was that doorknob?  Almost certainly it was farther into that narrow space under the bunk than she could reach? She rose to her feet and, with the hesitancy of a child waking in a dark, strange room, groped around her until, in a corner, she knocked something over. An old garden hoe. She poked its handle under the bunk, waving it to sweep out any other object that might be lying there, but there was nothing. Midge turned slowly and repeated the sweep under the other bunk, finding only the dried-up fur and little bones of some long-dead animal.
          Tears streamed down her face as she crouched on the bottom bunk. Maybe there hadn’t been any doorknob for years. Guy probably knew this, and had learned how to open the door from outside without pulling out the rod that would normally have had a knob at each end of it. He’d never had any reason to open or close the door from the inside, so had never got around to mending it.
          Unable to see her watch, she had no idea what the time was, but guessed it was not much later than nine o’clock. The day had hardly started. It would be nine or ten hours before Guy came home. And how much longer would it be before he realized she was down here?
          For an hour or two, to keep warm, she paced the little walkway between the bunks. Only a while ago she’d been in her comfortable kitchen. She’d had another day ahead in which to do as she pleased. She could have visited friends. She could have taken the train, lunched with a girlfriend in Manhattan, and spent the afternoon at that new show at the Met. 
Later, much later, it seemed, Midge kneeled on the floor and peered through the crack under the closed door. Was this snow blowing under the door? She slipped her fingers into its cold wetness and shivered. Why hadn’t she got around to zipping the winter lining into her raincoat?  
          And all this was happening on Guy’s birthday. For the first time she wondered how her husband had felt when she hadn’t given him a special hug on his birthday, or even a card. Well, she had bought him a gift, but she hadn’t even wrapped it when they’d got up this morning.
          What a pig she could be to Guy sometimes. They always did what she wanted to do. Went where she wanted to go. They drove up to her parents’ place at Martha’s Vineyard for Thanksgiving, or Christmas. They’d only flown to Florida to see Guy’s parents in Florida three times in the past ten years, because Midge always complained that she hated Florida.  When Guy found her down here tonight, and they were back together in their comfortable routine, she swore she’d do something about all this. It was the least she owed him. Why hadn’t this occurred to her before? She sat down on the lower bunk, cupping her face in her hands. She was surprised, when she thought about it, that Guy had put up with her indifference, her coolness. Yet he was still around after nineteen years with her. He was special, and deserved better.

With his papers in one briefcase, and his laptop in another, Guy threaded his way across the concourse at Grand Central and just caught the 2:46 train.  He didn’t have a lot of time. If the train arrived on schedule at 3:45 he’d have about fifteen minutes at home to pack his bags and make his peace with Midge before the car arrived to take him to the airport.
A light snow fell as he hurried along the station platform to the exit. The car slithered on the bends in the narrow roads outside the town. When he reached home, Midge’s Toyota was in the drive. Good, he hadn’t missed her. Inside the front door he called her name, but there was no answer. The lights were on in the kitchen, and the radio, its volume turned up, played a piano sonata.
          In the hallway Guy shouted upstairs. “Midge. You up there?”
          There was still no answer. It wasn’t a mystery, he assured himself. She’d probably slipped out with some visiting pal on an errand. Maybe they’d made a quick trip together in the friend’s car to the market. No problem. Upstairs he packed his washing gear and a few changes of casual clothes. Nothing fancy. He and old Charlie Hudson weren’t likely to be dining-out in style. If past experience was anything to go by they’d be working late every night on a diet of take-out Tex-Mex and Chinese. In the bathroom he took a piece of soap and drew a heart on the mirror. Under it he wrote Goodbye, XX.
          He was ready to go, but there was still no sign of Midge. The car had arrived, a sleek black Mercedes, driven by a man in a uniform cap, who took Guy’s bags and put them in the trunk.
“Damn!” Guy said under his breath as he climbed into the back seat. He’d forgotten to buy a bottle of Charlie’s favorite single malt Scotch at that liquor store on Lexington Avenue. You couldn’t get the stuff anywhere else. Oh well. He’d probably find something almost as good at the airport.
          “Let’s go,” he told the driver.
          But then an idea occurred to him just as the car passed through the iron gates.
“Hold on a second.” he said.
OK, he may have forgotten that special bottle of Scotch for his favorite author and client, but suddenly he  knew what he could do. Wasn’t Charlie always bragging about the apples in his garden, and how much bigger, juicer and sweeter they were in British Columbia than in New York State?
Well, he’d show the old devil what real apples looked and tasted like. Whistling cheerfully to himself, he pushed open the car door. His feet slithered in the snow as he ran down the side of the house and along the garden path to the derelict bomb shelter behind the hemlocks and maples.


                                                oo0oo

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A NICE CUP OF TEA

When things go wrong in Britain -- I mean really wrong, like widespread floods, transport strikes, or a truly serious catastrophe, such as the defeat of Manchester United or whatever your favorite team may be at the annual soccer Cup Final -- we know exactly what to do. In addition to keeping calm and carrying on, we have a nice cup of tea.
          Somehow, tea’s much more significant to us Brits than coffee is to you Americans. It’s a pacifier, a cure for anxiety and depression, a panacea. The wisdom in any crisis in Britain is ‘have a nice cup of tea, and everything will be all right.’ No panic, no histrionics. So jolly sensible.
It has to be said that most UK visitors say about American tea exactly what American tourists say of British coffee, that it’s weak and tasteless and, well, a bit like brown bath water.
Both are true, actually. But it’s not surprising that the British revere tea in the way they do. Their history in the last few centuries has been steeped in the stuff. I’ll bet that when Sir Francis Drake saw the Spanish Armada hovering on the horizon at Plymouth, the last thing he thought of was finishing that silly game of bowls. No, he sat down on the grass and called for a nice cup of tea.
It’s s a ruddy certainty that Lord Cardigan, standing knee deep in dead and dying redcoats after the Charge of the Light Brigade, invited Lord Raglan to his tent for a cuppa. And don’t believe that Sydney Carlton, the upper-crust hero of “A Tale of Two Cities”, crouched beneath the guillotine, waffled on about it being a far, far better thing that he did. Of course not! He asked for, well, you know what he asked for. This is, as former prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said about something entirely different, “The British Way.”
          We have to admit grudgingly that the Chinese discovered tea first, along with fireworks, medicine, astronomy, gunpowder, and a lot of other things. It was around 5000 years ago that the emperor Shen Nung inadvertently made the first cup of tea. While he was sitting in his garden, some camellia leaves blew into a cup of boiling water. I’ve always wondered what he was doing sitting there with a cup of boiling water, but never mind. Anyway, he was intrigued by its fragrant aroma, and soon decreed that drinking tea prevented illness.
          Then the Japanese copied Shen Nung, copying being something they’ve always been rather good at. Like the Chinese, they lauded tea’s efficacy as a cure for aches and pains, including headache, depression and constipation. They made quite a cult out of it with their tea ceremony. They also had tea-tasting gatherings, much like wine devotees do today.
It was 4500 years more before tea -- er -- percolated into Europe. It came from China in relatively small quantities by way of the Silk Road, via Asia Minor. Because it was scarce it was also ruinously expensive, so that only the aristocracy could afford it. Marco Polo had called tea one of the “world’s wonders,” and it was the Dutch who, in 1606, really discovered what he was on about, did a deal with the Chinese, and established tea trading posts, followed quickly by the French.
The Brits, with their trading fleets such as the East India Company, were a year or two behind their European trading rivals, but then, as Eartha Kitt put it so pithily, “An Englishman needs time.” It was largely the British who, with the help of the Dutch and the French, reversed demand with supply, making tea affordable for everyone. Tea quickly became the favorite English drink (at least for the upper classes) and the first teashops opened in London.
By the 1700s the national fancy for tea provoked excessive taxes, and tea smuggling became as common and as lucrative a booty as brandy or rum. And it was these taxes that provoked a slight altercation about tea in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1773. But let’s not talk about that.
It was, of course, the British who invented the real tea parties, which have no connection whatever with that vulgar incident in Boston. Before tea first arrived, the British had two main meals: breakfast and dinner. Breakfast commonly consisted of bread, beef and a flagon of ale. Yes, they had beer for breakfast, and nobody thought this in the least uncouth. Dinner was a protracted, massive meal at the end of the day. So it’s not surprising that aristocrats such as Anna, Duchess of Bedford, had a “sinking feeling” toward the end of each afternoon at Belvoir Castle, and began to invite her friends to join her for an additional snack. She served little cakes, and “assorted sweetmeats.”” And what else? Tea, of course. It was made in a silver teapot down in the kitchen and carried up by a maid to the duchess, who presided over the fine china cups and saucers, surrounded by her twittering guests. Occasionally the hostess would top up the teapot from another, smaller one, kept hot over a small spirit lamp.
The tea they drank at these gatherings would have been green tea from China and, later, Empire-grown teas from India and Ceylon and, later still, Kenya and Malaya. And it was in the days of the Duchess of Bedford’s parties that the “proper way” to serve tea evolved. China tea, being so much more delicate than Indian, was (and probably still should be) drunk with nothing added, though it was not unheard of to add a little unrefined sugar. But for most Indian teas, which have more flavor, and much more tannin, a little cold milk was acceptable, providing it was poured into the cup first. Nobody has ever offered a rational explanation of why this is important, or whether it makes the slightest difference. The snobbiest way to drink Indian-style teas is with nothing more than a wafer-thin sliver of lemon.
The British think the American way of making and serving tea a little . . . how should I put this? Uncouth?  People in the upper echelons of society there still look on the tea bag as an abomination, even though their supermarkets are full of them. Though, if pressed, most of them would probably admit they’ve used them on occasion. But no, those who truly cherish Britain’s favorite beverage use fresh leaf tea that’s been kept in an airtight tin container, protecting it from light, moisture, heat and anything that may contaminate its flavor. Indeed, the most pernickety tea drinkers warn the rest of us not to keep a batch for more than three months.
If you’re interested in how to make a perfect cuppa – unlike the millions content to dunk a tea bag in a cold mug of luke-warm warm water for a minute or so – there are one or two other things you should know. To begin with, buy a good teapot. The absolute ideal will be made of sterling silver, but a good earthenware pot will be fine, providing you warm it well with hot water before you begin brewing. Make tea with only the best water, because water tainted with chlorine, lime or iron, can make the finest, priciest tea taste like ditch water. Don’t over-boil the water, because this will evaporate its oxygen, making your tea flat and lifeless. Real gurus will advise you to wait a few seconds before pouring the water into the pot. They say that using boiling water when it’s ‘rolling’ will bring out too much tannin, making the tea bitter.
I’ll never forget an old radio jingle from Radio Luxembourg in the late 30s. It went like this:
“I like a nice cup of tea for my breakfast,
and a nice cup of tea for my tea.
And when I go to bed,
there’s a lot to be said
for a nice cup of tea.”

What else can I say?

Cheers!

                                      oo0oo

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Little Boy Who Couldn't


The Sacred Heart School in Sittingbourne, a market town in southeast England, was mainly a girls’ high school, but boys -- though heavily outnumbered -- were allowed there until the age of eight. I was five, and the place seemed to be a huge sprawling castle, entirely hidden from the town by high flintstone walls. Its centerpiece was its chapel, a miniature cathedral with gray stone buttresses and a lofty spire like a sharpened pencil pointing into the sky. Inside, the air was heavy with incense and the smoke from burning votive candles, and there was a pervasive and, yes, fearful sense that a grave, gray bearded God did indeed loom in its shadowy nave.
        There was an echoing gymnasium with slippery polished floors, seemingly unvaultable vaulting horses, and unclimbable climbing ropes that reached way up into the rafters. This was where, with the hall filled with folding chairs, we’d gather later to rehearse and sing Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture to welcome visiting bishops, archbishops, and, from time to time, beaming missionaries from Africa.
        And then there were the gardens, with dense beds of vegetables and flower borders as far as the eye could see, tended by some lower rank of nuns than our black-veiled teachers. In blue working habits tied at the waist with string, and ungainly wooden clogs, they waded waist-high among the lupines and delphiniums, and stooped over the cabbages and carrots with their rakes and hoes. Here and there in quiet corners were little stone grottoes, with gaudy statues of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, St. Teresa, St. Francis  -- with a stone bird in his outstretched hand -- and poor Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows.
        Quarry-tiled corridors threaded through the school buildings, and around the kitchens and dining hall hung the permanent, sharp smell of boiling bones and cabbage soup. Up the uncarpeted stairs above lay a linoleum-floored reception room with hard, upright wooden chairs, massive sacred pictures and ceiling-high cases of holy books. Beyond this cold, forbidding place, behind a thick hopsack curtain hanging on wooden rings, was the no-go area of the nuns’ cells and the boarders’ bedrooms.
        Our classroom was mostly brown. The walls were brown, and so were the bare wood floors and ceiling. The gnarled oak desks with their little holes cut out for inkwells were brown, and the cracked varnish on the ancient wall maps had long turned golden. But the atlas of the world was predominantly red, covering Canada, most of Africa and Asia, Australia, New Zealand and countless islands in the Pacific and South Atlantic oceans. Red was the color of the British Empire, on which we were so often told that, literally, the sun never set.
I can remember the names and faces of several of my classmates, but none more vividly than Michael Cummings, a frail, pop-eyed, redheaded boy with freckles. Even though I never knew him well, Michael’s vulnerable face, and a three-word sentence he uttered one day in class, has haunted me ever since. Michael, we were told in whispers, had a weak heart, and because of this he always sat in the front row of the class in a wheelchair. Instead of a desk, there was a board across the chair’s arms, on which Michael could do his work.
        Michael made his indelible mark on my life at one of our early arithmetic lessons. The air in the stuffy room was heavy with concentration, and the only sound was the scraping of our slate pencils as we labored over the addition of single figures. Madame Ambrose, our only teacher, passed from desk to desk, looking down at our efforts over her gold-framed half-moon spectacles.
        When Madame Ambrose reached Michael’s chair, the little boy looked up into her severe face and let out a choked, anguished wail that I have never forgotten. It embodied desperation, fear and hopelessness.
        “I can’t do this!”   
        The boy burst into tears and no one could stop him. Madame Ambrose wheeled him out of the room and we heard his unhappy voice trailing far away down the corridors into the garden.
He came back next day, his eyes solemn and reproachful, but only a few months later he was gone. They told us he had died.
        Ever since, Michael’s cri de coeur has come back to me on occasions when life has threatened to become too burdensome. It returned during two long and temporarily crippling depressive illnesses decades ago, again with a wrenching divorce, and other crises of confidence that we all endure.
Little Michael was dealt a rotten hand from birth, and had an inadequate frame with which to defend himself.  I was hugely more fortunate. Even though, later, I might have said – not aloud but only in my head – “I can’t do this” during some of life’s most testing moments, I knew I’d had a fairer deal, and lucky enough to have the physical and emotional strength to face such challenges and overcome them.
But I do sometimes wonder how different my life might have been, and how I’d have coped with its problems, without that brief, involuntary lesson in life from Michael Cummings.



oo0oo

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A TASTE OF SHERRI



SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER, 2015.

Hello: It’s hard to believe that I started this blog six years ago. Since then I’ve posted several dozen stories, and many more people have started reading them. For their benefit, I'm re running several of the fiction pieces that readers seem to have liked most in the first couple of years. So here’s the second story – “A TASTE OF SHERRI.” 

Send me feedback at jonfer1@aol.com

      John Birch


LONDON, 1960

"You’ll like Sherri, “Patrick said, “she's amazing. "
Nigel smiled. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?  I saw that picture of her in Advertiser’s Weekly last week. She’s just won something, hasn’t she?”
Patrick cocked an eyebrow.  “Won something? Where have you been, kid? She’s just won the Gold Marconi for best TV commercials.”
Nigel liked his boss, an earthy Aussie who’d been news editor of the Sydney Morning Herald back home before a long, successful stint as a big wheel on the foreign desk of the Daily Express. Nigel had been a trainee at Patrick McClusky’s public relations firm since his boss left newspapers to set up his own PR shop two years earlier. He’d taught Nigel a lot in that time, and it seemed this was to be his first day as a fully-fledged account executive.
“So what’s my role ?” Nigel asked.
“Your role? You’re it, mate. It’ll be your own show. Go meet her, chat her up, write the pitch and manage the account. It’s ideal for your first solo flight?”
This would be a cake walk compared with some of the big name accounts on which Nigel had been helping his more experienced colleagues – BP, Guinness, Seiko, The London Tourist Board. And they were going to let him run this one on his own.
“Any stuff on file about her?” he asked.
“Yeah, lots.” Patrick pushed a wad of paper across the desk. “I spent an hour with her last week. I’ve had it typed up, plus a few clippings from Ad Weekly and some other trades. You’ll know all you need to know before you see her.”
Nigel stood up to leave. “Thanks, Patrick, I appreciate it.”
“You’re a good bloke, Nige, and you do great work. And  you’re a lucky young bastard. That woman’s a peach!”
Back in his office his neighbor, Trish, asked “What was that all about?”
“New biz prospect. Woman called Sherri Beresford. She directs TV commercials  . . . wants to be famous.”
“Sherri, Beresford, eh? Who’s taking it on?”
“Me,” Nigel said with a little surge of pride.
Tricia screwed up her face. “My! Aren’t you the lucky one?  I’d have thought that woman was getting enough publicity without any help from us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t you read the gossip columns, the scandal sheets in the tabloids. She’s quite a girl if it’s all true – sort of a cross between Joan Collins and Mata Hari.”
Nigel laughed. “You’re in the PR business, Trish! and you’re saying ‘it must be true, it’s in the papers’? Get real!”
He opened the first folder and began reading. Patrick had done his homework. He’d looked up Sherri Beresford in several sources, even Who’s Who. She was born in 1920, which would make her forty. She was raised in a small coal-mining town near Newcastle. Just before the War she’d been a fashion model in London, and was an aircraft-woman in the 40s.  While in the WRAF she met Air Vice Marshall Sir Humphrey Beresford, and they were married in 1946. Her husband was her senior by eighteen years. There were no children, and a news clip from the News of the World and weeklies of that ilk hinted that the marriage hadn’t entirely been made in heaven.
Patrick’s typewritten note explained that Sherri had broken new ground making commercials. They showed ‘real’ people, played by known TV and film actors, rather than the usual unknown hams playing housewives gushing about shampoos, cake mixes and vacuum cleaners.  The products’ sales had soared. Now she was about to set up Beresford Productions, and needed the help of PR professionals.
Nigel called Sherri Beresford. An elderly man answered the phone. He didn’t sound like Sir Humphrey, but some kind of servant.
“Whom shall I say is calling, sir?”
“Nigel Baxter, McClusky Communications.”
It was a while before Nigel heard the languid click of heels on marble.
“Hello.”
“Lady Beresford?”
“This is she.”
“I’m Nigel Beresford, Patrick McClusky’s colleague.”
“Oh! Mr. Baxter, I thought the butler said it was someone else. Yes, this is Sherri Beresford. Mr. McClusky’s told me so much about you!  In fact he’s full of praise for you.”
Nigel swallowed. He hadn’t expected such instant cordiality.
“That very kind of him,” he said, “I’m calling to make an appointment for our first meeting.”
 Her voice had a smoky resonance.  “Splendid. Well now, let’s see. I’ve got an appointment at the Film Producer’s Guild all afternoon today. I’d ask you for dinner tonight but I’m going to a party. What a pity!  How about first thing tomorrow morning?”
“That’ll be fine, Lady Beresford. Would nine o’clock suit you?”
“Perfect. Mr. McClusky also says you’re really handsome. I can’t wait to meet you!”
         
Next morning, Nigel took a cab to Lady Beresford’s house in Eaton Square and arrived sharp at nine. It was an imposing and meticulously kept place. Up in a big second floor window, a slim woman in pink looked out over the gardens in the middle of the square, and seemed not to notice him when he paid the driver and headed for the door.
Inside, the butler led him up a sweeping marble staircase. On the landing was a tall, ornate double door. The butler knocked lightly.
“Come!”
“Mr. Baxter, Ma’am.”
Nigel walked in, and heard the door click shut behind him.
He couldn’t have guessed what Lady Beresford might have been wearing, but it certainly wouldn’t have been what he now saw.
As far ago as his schooldays at Eton, Nigel had known he could be rendered speechless and almost hypnotized by a beautiful girl. He remembered how, on occasions, he’d been in a state of shock at a party or a debutante ball.
But Sherri Beresford was no girl. She glided towards him in a robe of pink silk that was only loosely tied round her slim waist by a woven gold cord. Under the robe she wore a full length, all but transparent nightdress.
“Good morning Nigel,” she said.
Nigel had seen scores of beautiful girls and women in his twenty-four years, first during vacations from his boarding school, then at Oxford, and in his first two years at McClusky’s. But Sherri Beresford eclipsed them all.  Although she was seventeen years his senior – or maybe because of it – he was mesmerized.  It wasn’t just her liquid blue eyes, her leonine head of auburn hair and her uninhibitedly displayed bosom, but a combination of these and other things. When she smiled, her full lips had the slightest hint of lasciviousness, and her sheer sophistication and self-confidence totally disarmed him.
Gently she took his hand, leading him into the big room. “You must forgive me for being dressed like this,” she said, “I overslept. I was at a dinner party last night, and didn’t get to bed until past three.”
Nigel mumbled something inaudible about it not mattering.
The room was lavishly furnished in French Empire style, and what looked like a portrait by Gainsborough hung over a huge marble fireplace. A movie screen and a projector had been set up.
While a maid poured coffee, Nigel managed to recover his composure.
“So you’re going to show me your commercials, Lady Beresford,” he began, but she interrupted him.
“No, no! Please just call me Sherri, Nigel.”
“Oh, right – er – Sherri. Let’s see the films first. Then we’ll talk about your plans, and what you hope we can do for you. We’ll agree some objectives. Then, in the next day or two we’ll send you a formal proposal.”
“Fine,” Sherri said. She pressed a bell push, and within seconds a manservant appeared through a side door.
“This is Perkins,” she said. “He knows how to work this projecting machine thing, don’t you, Perkins?”
“Indeed, Ma’am.”
She eased herself into a love seat next to the projector and, smiling, patted the narrow space next to her. “Now, come here and sit by me, and we’ll go to the pictures!”
Nigel took his seat beside her, sensing the growing warmth of her thigh against his, and inhaling her heavy perfume. She may have been forty, Nigel thought, but even as close as this she was ravishing.  The lights went down and, with the heavy drapes that Perkins had drawn over the tall windows, they were momentarily in darkness.
“Isn’t this fun?” she whispered. She elbowed him with a breathy little giggle, and her lips were so close to his ear that it made him shiver.
There were three short films, each produced for a different client. They were little masterpieces, quite unlike anything he’d ever seen before. There was no hard sell, the photography was startlingly imaginative, and the characters convincing.
The lights went up. Sherri turned and gazed into his eyes.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked.
“They’re unique,” Nigel said. “I’m not surprised you won this year’s Marconi.”
“Thank you!” She rested a warm hand on his knee, and squeezed it lightly.
Disturbed by Sherri’s apparent inability to stop touching him, he repositioned himself on a couch next to her, but within minutes she had slipped beside him again. For the next hour they talked, and the elements of an action plan began to form in his head, so that when Sherri said, “Do you already have a rough idea of what you can do for me?” he was ready.
“Well, there’s no doubt your key audience must be creatives in advertising agencies across the country,” Nigel began. “The strategy will be about finding events and opportunities to show your work.”
Sherri’s eyes had been so fixed on his that he wasn’t sure she was listening. But then she asked, “So how will you do that?
“Well, my colleagues and I must thrash that out, but there’ll be several ways. One would be by helping you write regular features about making commercials, and we’d place them in leading advertising trade weeklies and monthlies. But above all – ”  Nigel felt the blood rush to his face, “ – since you’re, well, such a magnetic and attractive personality, we’d find you audiences to address at events such as the annual convention of the Advertising Association and other national and regional get-togethers.  But there are a lot of other things we can do.”
Sherri took his hand and intertwined her fingers with his.
 “What a sweet thing to say! Do you really find me magnetic and attractive?” But he was lost for words, and cursed himself for having been so fulsome.
When the meeting was over, she led him down the marble staircase to the front door, her arm locked in his.
“You know, Nigel,” she said, almost in a whisper, “I think we’re going to become really good friends.”
Back in his office, Nigel wrote a proposal, calculated a budget, checked it with Patrick, and sent it by messenger to Sherri Beresford.
She called him first thing next morning. “I’m on, Nigel, dear,” she said. “You’ve done a lovely job. But then I knew you would. Let’s start right away. Listen, I’ve got a question for you.”
“Go ahead,” Nigel said.
“I see you recommend a day’s training in public speaking,” she said. “Well, I’m making a big presentation at the Northern Focus conference next week on Wednesday. Pretty well every significant advertising agency in the North and Midlands will be there.  Can you set up your training session this week?”
“No problem, all we need is six clear hours and a big room. Can you keep all day Friday free?”
“Yes,” she said, “if I move a few other dates around. By the way, my session’s at ten in the morning, so I’m staying up in York for the convention. I’d be lost if you weren’t there to encourage me. Please say you’ll come, and will you book rooms for us on the Tuesday night at the Royal York?”
On Friday, the training session – run by an outside specialist – went well. Sherri was a natural. She was articulate and relaxed, and handled her slides like a veteran. The trainer called in a dozen of Nigel’s colleagues, and they barraged her with tricky questions. Her responses were masterful, and she seemed ready for anything. During the following Monday and Tuesday not many hours passed without her calling him for the lamest of reasons, and Nigel asked himself whether most of her calls were remotely necessary.
Alone on the train to York, he was deeply disturbed, and couldn’t get Sherri out of his mind. The relationship was getting far too intimate.  He found her alluring, and tantalizingly seductive, and had to admit that she was the most entrancing woman he’d ever met. However, she was married, and more importantly, so was he. Lisa, his wife of just a year, was in her third trimester with their first child, and he suddenly felt deeply ashamed that, if only in his mind, he’d just compared Lisa less favorably with this woman.
But then, hadn’t his behavior been beyond reproach? He’d never once responded to her blandishments. Also troubling him was the question of professional ethics. Think of the shame, the dishonor, of committing adultery with a client!  Lisa’s pregnancy had been an endangered one for several months, and his physical frustration was by now barely tolerable. Whatever the provocation, he told himself, he must never let anything happen. He’d taken the first preventive step when Sherri had called to suggest her chauffeur should drive them both to York in her car, and she’d seemed quite upset when he’d concocted a plausible excuse to take the train instead.
It was still light when he checked in at the hotel, an hour before Sherri said she planned to arrive.
“The name’s Baxter,” he told the receptionist. “Nigel Baxter, and there’s a reservation for me and my client, Lady Beresford.”
“Oh yes,” Mr. Baxter, we’ve got you both here. Actually, Lady Beresford called us only this morning.”
“She did?”
“Yes, she asked for adjoining rooms. She said you’d be doing some homework together tonight. Something like that. Anyway, you’re in 702, and she’ll be in 704.”
My God, he thought, she’s closing in.
In his room, Nigel turned on the television, hoping for some distraction from his growing anxiety about Sherri Beresford’s impending arrival. But nothing could hold his attention, and he turned it off.
Now he was certain of her intentions. Hour by hour since they’d met,  she’d deliberately wound up the tension. It had been an insidious step-by-step process, beginning with a harmless touch of the hand that later became a more prolonged fondling, leading to stroking and more intimate gestures. Her body language had changed, too, with that breathy whispering in his ear, the steady, searching gaze of her blue eyes, and her ability to position her body and face enticingly close to his, making his heart pound and his blood flow faster.
So now she’d arranged adjoining rooms? What else could he deduce than that she was hell bent on enticing him into her bed?  Good God. He was shocked that, while his first thoughts were about his young wife and their unborn child, the prospect of making love to this beguiling woman both thrilled and terrified him.
There, bolted on his side, was the connecting door, and he had a sudden, uncontrollable urge to see what was beyond it. With the slow-motion care of a cat burglar he slid back the brass bolt and drew the door open. Inside was another door, with no bolt on his side. He took a deep breath and turned the knob, but it didn’t budge.  
He jumped when the phone rang, quickly closed his door and bolted it.
“Nigel, darling. It’s me.”
“Hello, how was your drive up?”
“Fine, but I’m thirsty. Come down to the bar and buy me a drink.”
“Good idea. I’ll be down in a couple of minutes.”
He checked his hair in the bathroom mirror. Then, for reasons he couldn’t have explained to himself, he brushed his teeth and put on a dab of the expensive after-shave that, he reminded himself, was a gift from his wife. In the elevator he realized that he was humming a tune to himself, something he only did when he was nervous, excited or on edge.
She was perched on a bar stool, and when he had eased himself onto another beside her, she leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Oooh! You smell delicious,” she said. “I’ve been dying to see you. I’m afraid I’ve already got myself a drink. This is a martini – it’s good. Why don’t you have one?”
Anxious to stay in control of himself,  Nigel ordered a glass of wine. Sherri was in a short black dress, with a single string of pearls. Her neckline was invitingly low. He raised his glass and touched hers. “To success,” he said, and added, “Not that you need any, of course. You’ll be just fine.”
Sherri put down her drink, leaned over and laid her hands on his thighs. “Oh, but I do need it. I’m petrified. I’m going to lean on you heavily for moral support.”
Nigel had begun asking the barman to keep a table for dinner in the restaurant when Sherri announced that she had a better idea.
“I know the sweetest little place in a village a few miles down the road. You’ll just love it.  Actually, I’ve asked my chauffeur to get us a table there. He’ll be outside at 7:45.”
The restaurant was in a 14th Century inn called The Stag at Bay, and they were led up to a quiet room with only a few other diners. When their main course arrived, Nigel noted that, while Sherri had drunk two martinis back at the hotel, she’d had two more here.
The meal was exquisite, and they talked together for more than two hours. During that time, Nigel and Sherri shared a bottle of Pinot Noir, some vintage port, their life stories and a few of their innermost thoughts. During the drive back to the hotel, Sherri, sitting very close to him, laid her head on his shoulder, took his hand in her lap, and said absolutely nothing. Nigel couldn’t help wondering whether the chauffeur could see them in his mirror.
In the elevator to the seventh floor she put both arms round his waist and pressed her body against his. “Why don’t you come in for a nightcap?” she whispered, “We can raid my mini-bar.”
Taking his face in both hands, she kissed him on the mouth with moist, parted lips. Nigel was dumbfounded, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of desire. Then they were at her door, and he had still not mustered a reply. Now her face was earnest, her eyes pleading.
“Please, Nigel, dear! You’ll never regret it, I swear.”
This was the moment of decision. He reached out to her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes. 
“Sherri,” he said. “You’re the most enthralling woman, and I’m, well, flattered. But, forgive me,  I . . . I  just can’t bring myself to do this.”
In a few seconds she had become a different person. The curl of her lips made her ugly, and he hadn’t seen this expression on her face before.
“I can’t believe this. Are you a man, or what? How can you do this to me?”
“We’re married, Sherri – we’re both married! And, damn it, you’re my client. How could I possibly – ”
“ No, you listen to me, who the hell would ever  know, for Chrissake?”
She had put the key in the door and now turned it. In a second she was gone.

When Nigel woke the next morning, his mind flooded with dread at the memory of the night before. Downstairs at breakfast, Sherri Beresford was coolly formal, and he soon realized that he’d be the only initiator of any words between them in the morning ahead. Neither spoke in the car on their way across the city to the conference center. Sherri’s speech at the conference was electrifying and inspiring, and closed to thunderous applause. In the afternoon they parted with an awkward, wordless handshake.
Nigel was back at his desk in London around four that afternoon when the intercom buzzed. 
It was Patrick McCluskey’s voice. “Busy, Nige?"
"I’ll be right in.”
Patrick was at his desk, his shirt sleeves rolled up, drinking his third cup of tea since lunch, and lighting his umpteenth cigarette.
"Have a chair, sport."
Patrick wasn’t his usual cheery self. Something was clearly up.
"How's the Beresford thing going?"  he asked.
There seemed no point in pretending. “Not good, Patrick. In fact it’s a bloody catastrophe.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow, “What’s up, then?”
“You may find this hard to believe,” Nigel said, “but she’s got the hots for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s a vamp, Patrick, a femme fatale.  I’m not kidding. She can’t keep her hands off me, and she actually propositioned me in York last night.”
Patrick didn't respond, leaned back in his chair and heaved his feet up on his desk.
"Listen, kid . . ." He paused, gathering his words.  "You won't like this, but I won't give you any bullshit. She called me an hour ago. She wants you off the account."
"For what reason?"
"Don't take it too hard, Nige. She said you don’t have enough experience for the job.”
Nigel smiled wryly.  Experience, was it?  He knew the sort of experience she'd found him lacking.  It was tough, but he'd let it go, and good luck to the next poor devil.
As Nigel rose to leave, Patrick said, "Cheer up, mate.  These things happen.  You've got a good bunch of other accounts to work on, and you do a bloody good job.  Forget about it."
At the door, Nigel turned back. "So who’ll take the account over?"
McCluskey shrugged. "Good question. I'm wondering about that.”
"How about Trish?" Nigel asked, “maybe she could handle it.”
"Well, yeah, a woman might work, but, you know . . . “ He paused. “I think I might give this account some attention myself."
A sly smile appeared on Patrick’s face. And could that have been a sly wink?


oo0oo

Saturday, August 8, 2015

LET’S DO LUNCH

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER, 2015.

Hello: It’s hard to believe that I started this blog six years ago. Since then I’ve posted several dozen stories, and many more people have started reading them. For their benefit, I'm re-running several of the fiction pieces that readers seem to have liked most in the first couple of years.  So here’s the second story – “A TASTE OF SHERRI.” You’ll find the first one, “Let’s Do  Lunch,” at the end of this story.

Send me feedback at jonfer1@aol.com


      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