Sunday, May 8, 2016

A NATION OF GARDENERS

Napoleon labeled the English “a nation of shopkeepers.”  But he was wrong – we Brits are a nation of gardeners. Gardening’s in our blood, we love it and we’re good at it. Ask any group of Americans which nation they associate with gardening, and more often than not the English and the Italians will be way up there in the poll.
True, I may be a trifle biased about the Italians. I’ve seen their gardens, and they’re nice enough, so include them if you must, but they don’t quite match up to the Brits’. The Italian talent’s limited to gardens in the villas and palazzos of the wealthy, while in England the passion transcends wealth, class and social status, which I have to admit is a paradox in the world’s most snobbish and class-conscious country.
There are several reasons why we rate so highly in the gardening stakes. The first is that it rains a lot, and this is what makes the British Isles and Ireland so startlingly green, lending a chocolate-box beauty to even the humblest back yard, and making village cricket pitches look like pool tables. Perhaps this is God’s compensation for dealing them some of the world’s most depressing weather.
Two other reasons are history and good soil. The British have been on their knees and up to their elbows in rich brown earth, sowing and planting and weeding their plots for at least two thousand years. The Romans, originators of the Italian garden, knew a thing or two about horticulture, recognized good soil when they saw it, and so became the founders of an ancient tradition in Britain. This was later nurtured by the lords of the manor and the aristocracy, and perfected by such gardening giants as ‘Capability’ Brown, once a gardener’s boy who, in the mid-1700s, rose to become the greatest landscape gardener of all time. It was he who created what the world chooses to call ‘The English Garden.’
So what’s all the fuss about? What is a typical English garden, and  exactly what distinguishes it from those of other countries? Primarily it’s the antithesis of  the great formal, geometric gardens at the Palace of Versailles, or the lavish and incredibly beautiful spreads of the great Russians, Peter and, later, Catherine the Great near the Neva river in St. Petersburg. To begin with, there are no straight lines in the English garden, no neat rows or circles of identical plants, no disciplined box-tree hedgerows, and no rigid pathways. If you like, it’s the art of deliberately creating a disorder that is at the same time orderly -- a natural but deliberately balanced contrast of ying and yang.
If that’s too esoteric, here’s Dan Pearson, a London gardener quoted in an article in The New Yorker, who describes the English garden style with crystal clarity. He calls it “a juxtaposition of formality and informality . . . a controlled chaos, all tumbly and jumbly, where one plant is spilling and spraying over into the next.”  
In the same article Vita Sackville-West, author, poet, wife of writer Harold Nicholson and Virginia Wolff’s lover (and also, for decades, the gardening editor of Britain’s Sunday Times) explained the difference in just ten words when writing years ago about her own famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle. “If roses stray over the path,” she said, “the visitor must duck.”
The British are pretty good at grass, too. As the originators of tennis, cricket and soccer, they became masters of growing the perfect lawn, which is evident not only in sports fields all over the country, but also in city parks and on village greens, and in every dwelling place from hundreds of stately manors and mansions to millions of modest suburban homes. You’ll find none of that bright-green plastic stuff on the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, or at the stadiums of top-class soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United.
It should be said that gardening’s a great deal tougher in America, and even the most passionate and persistent American garden-lovers are up against natural forces about which their British counterparts know nothing. To begin with, there’s hardly a single four-footed species of plant-eating predator in England. True, there are wild deer in the national parks from the Lake District in the north to Salisbury Plain in the south, but they’re nowhere near as numerous or as voracious as their once-colonial brothers and sisters. They don’t sneak around the suburbs and open countryside by night and in broad daylight, gobbling up every new seedling and emerging shoot, or munching on hibernating flowering shrubs and newly-planted trees. The only groundhogs the English have ever seen were in a silly movie with Bill Murray, while rabbits have never proliferated in England since an outbreak of myxomatosis years ago. As if all this weren’t enough, American gardeners fight a perennial battle with the weather. It’s either too hot , too dry or too cold. Real droughts are commonplace over here, but rare in England.
There’s a story about an American tourist who stood amazed at the lushness and perfection of the lawns at King’s College, Cambridge. An aged gardener stood nearby, leaning on a fence, and the visitor turned to him.
“Gee, that’s mighty fine grass you got there, sir! I never saw anything like it. How do you do it?”
The old man took his hat off and scratched his head.
“Well,” he said, “There ain’t much to it, really. First you rakes it well and puts down some seed. Then you spreads ‘orse manure and bone meal on it, and waits for a bit of rain. Then you rolls it . . .”
“And then what?” the visitor asked.
“Well, it’s easy after that. You just  go on rollin’ it an’ rakin’ it every day for four or five hundred years.”
And that says it all.




Monday, April 4, 2016

NOT FOR SISSIES

Ye gods! I’ll be 85 in April. I’m an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. You wouldn’t look at me twice in the street and, if you were going to ask a passer-by for directions, you surely wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d look for someone who looked more approachable and genial; more user-friendly, as they say these days.
It’s not that I look menacing or anything, but that, with my face in repose, advancing age – okay, let’s be honest, advanced age -- has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m kind to babies and small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
They say that growing old’s not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
Time happened, that’s what. Okay, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I (yes, there are still one or two) have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?
My wonderful wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the photos in my passport and driver’s license.
“Why didn’t you smile?” she says. “I was smiling,” I tell her.
I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, with a string of numbers hung on a board around my neck.
My late mother-in-law, Erma, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and inanimate things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value. Instead, search for the beauty within.
She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, you Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood. 
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like fa├žade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I  published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the protagonist (yes, they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his rented car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
King Duncan, in Macbeth, knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Go on, smile at him, he might be me.

oo0oo





Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mr. SPARKS


When I published the bio piece “Mr. Sparks” for a month last year it had a much more appreciative reception than usual. So I’ve decided to run it again for the rest of March for anyone who may have missed it. Here it is again.  JB.


Mr. Sparks

In England in 1942, when I was eleven and my brother David was almost fifteen, we lived in a house on a hill in the county of Kent. The hill, Stockers Hill was a steep, woody,  curving road that led out of a valley of apple orchards and vegetable fields to Rodmersham, with its neatly mowed village green, its towering, white clapper-boarded windmill, and a circle of trim cottages with diamond-paned windows that seemed to peer out myopically from under thatched eaves.
Half way up the hill,  just before its steepest point, and across the road from our garden gate, there was an oak park bench in an alcove scooped out of a chalky bank, where pedestrians trudging up to the hill to the village could sit and recover their breath before laboring to the top.
A high hawthorn hedge, maybe seven or eight feet high, hid the bench from our house, so that any occupants could only be spied from only one place, David’s bedroom window. They must have thought themselves invisible, for it was from that window, through slightly parted curtains, that my brother and I once stood speechless while we witnessed the true facts of life, athletically demonstrated on a hot August afternoon by a uniformed American airman and a local girl.
But there was another, more frequent occupant of that bench, an old man whose ancient hairy face is engraved even more vividly in my memory than those of passing lovers. We heard him before we ever saw him, and for a day of two knew him only by his high-pitched, phlegmy cough. My parents listened, sitting in deck-chairs on the lawn, and my mother, looking up from her book, murmured, “There’s a heavy smoker for you!”  But my father, who’d fought and been wounded in the trenches in World War I, said, “No, that’s a war gas victim if ever I heard one.”
On those first few days we listened to the stranger’s cough as he rose from the bench and struggled on up the hill, the sound fading into the trees as he rounded the bend. Then, one day, we heard him through the hawthorn hedge and, slipping upstairs, David and I stared out through the open bedroom window. Lounging on the bench, with his long legs stretched out, and his feet on the curb, a very old man in patched, ragged clothes leaned back with his bearded face turned up to the sun.
And then we saw my mother open the garden gate. What was she going to say to this old man? She walked across the road to where the stranger lolled in the sunshine. His eyes were shut; he might even have been asleep.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” my mother asked.
Evidently, he wasn’t asleep. His face lit up, and he eased himself painfully into an upright position.
“That’d be ever so nice, Mum,” he said. “Thank you kindly.”
It’s not unusual for British people to offer boiling hot tea on a summer’s day, even one as sweltering as that August afternoon. In, fact, there’s a widely held belief that it actually cools you down.  Back in the house, Mother put the kettle on the hob, and rummaged in the back of a closet to find a large, one-of-a-kind china teacup and saucer. On a plate that didn’t even closely match the cup she put several raisin cookies, a small jug of milk, and a few cubes of sugar.
My mother carried a tray to the old man on his bench who, rising, walked a pace or two to meet us.
“That’s proper kind of ya’, Mum,” he wheezed and, taking the tray, he put it on the ground in front of him.
She stood looking at him, which seemed not to disturb him at all.
“Where do you live?” my mother asked.
He didn’t answer her for a while, but leaned down to the tray at his feet with some difficulty, poured some milk into the tea, and stirred in four lumps of sugar. Then he leaned back on his bench, raised the cup to us as though making a silent toast, and took a sip.
The old man beamed. “Now that’s what I call a nice cup of tea.”
He put the cup down on the bench beside him. “I haven’t got no home, really, Mum,” he said. “I’m what they call ‘on the road,’ see? But in the summer time I ‘ave a place I go on the other side of Rodmersham.”
Later, we pondered on where he might take shelter in the winter time, when icy North Easters from Scandinavia swept over the flat, bare counties of Suffolk and Essex and across the wide River Medway a mile or two away. Nor did we know where he went down the hill every morning. And it was a while before we discovered where his ‘place’ was on the other side of the village.
One day soon after we met him, I asked the old man his name.
“Sparks, sonny,” he said, “Why don’t you just call me Mr. Sparks.”
“And how old are you, Mr. Sparks?” my brother asked, unaware that it was impolite to ask this of a perfect stranger.
The old man’s pale blue eyes twinkled. “Now that, young man,” he said with a little chuckle, “would be tellin’.”  
Mr. Sparks became a regular part of our lives. Every day, before he continued on up the hill, he carried his tea tray back across the road and laid it on the ground by the garden gate, and we always heard his loud coughing through the hedge when he came back the next afternoon. My father, normally the kindest man, even wondered aloud one day whether some of Mr. Sparks’s coughing wasn’t a subtle way of saying, “Listen, here I am, ready for my cup of tea.”
August passed, and we slipped into a long Indian summer, with cool September mornings and sultry afternoons that lasted into early October. Every afternoon, Mr. Sparks passed by for his cup of tea, and we grew to know him a little better. David and I would sit on either side of him on his bench, listening to the old man’s adventures. We heard tales, in his high, piping voice, of the Zulus and pigmies in South Africa, and the giant Hausa warriors on the river Niger in West Africa. There were horrible accounts of maggots in sea biscuits aboard the troop ships to India, and the agonies of frost bite at the Battle of Balaklava, during the Crimean War. Once we asked him whether he had ever married, or had children, but about this he was vague and evasive.
The first frosts came in October and then, one chilly November afternoon, Mr. Sparks’s bench was empty. A week passed, and another, but still he didn’t come. Should we notify someone and, if so, whom? After all, he’d admitted he was ‘on the road,’ which was a kinder, more friendly way of saying he was a hobo, tramp, or vagrant.  Mother suggested he’d moved south to the Sussex or Hampshire coast, where the winters are a little milder.
It was nearly Christmas when we learned more about him. There was early snow in the garden outside, and my father was reading the local paper. At the bottom of a page there was an item that ran for little more than an inch or two, telling how Ronald Sparks, aged about 80 years, a former corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been found dead after sleeping in the warmth of a lime kiln outside the village of Rodmersham. He was, the coroner said, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide gas that hung over the kilns on cold nights. The cause of death, the report said, was ‘not uncommon.’
Lately, now in the mid-80s myself, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Sparks and his stories about army life. Could he really have fought in the Crimean War? It took no time with an encyclopedia, many decades before Google,  to find that the war ended in 1856. Even if he’d been a drummer boy at that time, he’d have been more than a hundred years old on that cold December night in 1942. 
          So it wasn’t true. It saddens me that I doubted that grand old soldier.
          I wish I’d never looked it up.



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