Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Looking out over that calm lake at dawn, with its fishing boats and flying cranes, I found it hard to believe that this beautiful place had been the scene of the most deadly industrial accident in history.
But months earlier, on a cold winter night in December 1984, an airborne blanket of poison gas fell over a sleeping city. By dawn, one thousand seven hundred fifty men, women and children were dead.
         The city was Bhopal, in northern India. By the time the case came to court nearly two years later, almost four thousand people had died, forty were totally disabled and more than two thousand six hundred others had lasting partial disability. The agricultural chemicals plant was owned by the giant and now defunct chemical firm Union Carbide.
         Carbide’s Connecticut headquarters acted quickly. Chairman Warren Anderson pledged his company’s moral commitment to the victims and their families, and flew to India within a day or two, accompanied by some technical experts and a medical aid team, only to be arrested and sent home by the Indian government. The US and Indian Carbide companies offered nearly two million dollars in immediate emergency relief, and afterward pledged more than twenty million more in funds and services. Carbide employees and retirees voluntarily raised more than one hundred twenty thousand dollars for the relief organizations working in Bhopal.
         But UCIL, the Indian company, was less quick off the mark. While it did much to provide relief for the victims’ families, and endured national ostracism with a brave face, it was almost as though its entirely Indian management had been paralyzed with shock. In particular, it had failed to tell its side of the story adequately.  This was why, about ten months after the tragedy, some colleagues and I met Warren Anderson at a working lunch at the company’s impressive Connecticut headquarters. He was seeking help for the local directors in Bombay. As a member of a New York corporate communications firm that advised Carbide, I was assigned to fly to India to develop and implement a countrywide program to explain the situation better to the public at large, to its twenty-three thousand Indian stockholders, and the communities where it had numerous plants, five operating divisions and nine thousand employees.
Although I’d worked all over the Pacific Rim, I’d never been to India before, but within two or three days of that first meeting with Anderson I was flying to Bombay, on a solo as-long-as-it-takes assignment.  On the weekend I arrived there was a meeting at my hotel, the Taj Palace, the one that was attacked and torched by terrorists a year or two ago. The meeting was attended by the Indian Carbide company’s board of directors and the managers of their thirteen facilities based all over India.
My chief contact was UCIL’s chief executive, Vijay Gokhale, a handsome, intelligent and civilized man who’d had the misfortune to be promoted CEO only two or three months before the Bhopal catastrophe. Within hours of landing I found myself giving, at Gokhale’s request, a ‘reassuring presentation’ to this discouraged audience.
Having met and talked with the worldwide managers in Danbury, and now to the earnest Indian directors that weekend, it seemed to me tragic and ironic that, in India and the many other countries where it operated, Carbide had always acted as a company that cared. A major player on the Indian sub-continent since the early 1900s, it looked after its employees and retirees well, and was a good neighbor in every country and city in which it had operations. Carbide’s people were convinced at the time, and its veterans still are, that the Bhopal disaster was caused by sabotage. How else, they asked, would it be possible to pour, at dead of night, as much as two hundred gallons of water into underground tanks of poisonous methyl isocyanate, in defiance of warning signs and color-coded faucets, causing gas to erupt and escape?  Since Anderson and his emergency experts were denied access to the Bhopal plant by the Indian Government, they could never carry out their hoped-for search for evidence.
But there was still an untold story to tell.  On the following Monday morning my new Carbide colleagues and I set to work. Over the next few weeks we produced a series of reports, each aimed at a special audience, describing what we were convinced had happened in Bhopal, the social, economic, human and other ramifications, and what action UCIL was now taking. While putting these together we trained the directors and other managers to handle interviews with newspaper reporters, and on radio and television. Oddly, what I remember most vividly of those long videotaped training sessions in a stuffy top-floor conference room was the constant squabbling and scrabbling of a flock of vultures that had settled on the flimsy iron roof directly above us.
When we were ready, we issued this new material to the media. There are no fewer than fourteen Indian languages, yet English is the lingo of government and business, and most educated Indians speak it well.  And since India is a true democracy, its media are unfettered and outspoken. While they were generally unsympathetic to Carbide after the disaster, and skeptical about the sabotage claim, the national and regional press, radio and TV gave fair space and airtime to the company’s opinions.
         Several times during the assignment, I made the four hundred fifty mile train journey between Bombay and Bhopal, to see the community and the victims and meet the few remaining Carbide managers there. It was a tough all-night journey alone. One night, after an abrupt stop, I woke and found myself staring down from the train window as two railroad workers, lit by searing arc-lights, carried a headless man away on a stretcher. He was presumably the hapless cause of the delay.
Because of the risk of a revenge attack, no one associated with Carbide was allowed to stay at any of the local hotels in Bhopal. Instead, I lodged at a company-owned guesthouse in a compound that included the company’s research laboratories, which were still operating near the now-locked and abandoned pesticide plant. The guesthouse and the laboratories were protected by dense barbed wire, patrolled day and night by armed security men with sub-machine guns. The buildings stood on the shore of a placid lake, across the water from the huge city mosque.
The job took two months. Before returning to New York I spent several days in Bhopal dealing with the overseas reporters who returned to India during the first anniversary of the disaster, to write about the city and the continuing plight of the casualties. At that time, angry crowds milled outside the barricades around the little guest house on the lake.
It was one of the toughest assignments in a career of almost forty years in corporate communications.  Fax machines and computers were uncommon even in the US at that time, and probablydidn’t exist in India. We wrestled with obsolete copying machines, typewriters and teleprinters that broke down almost daily. There were few telephone lines between Bhopal and the outside world, and those that were available were nearly fifty years old. Our telephone lines were also tapped, which made security difficult, as did the fact that the time in Bhopal was ten hours later than in Danbury and New York. Then there was the heat, the heartrending poverty, and the endless, pathetic begging on every street. Above all, there was the touching resignation of the people of India to their intolerable condition.  
         But, for all that, a movingly warm, almost affectionate relationship built up between us. These men -- and they were all men -- were in such desperate straits in a company that was now India’s public enemy. Several of them were awaiting criminal indictment, and they all so desperately needed help, encouragement and advice. When I left, they gave me a little memento, a bronze effigy of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. It has little intrinsic value, but it’s still one of my most cherished possessions.
I returned to India a year later for another two months. This time, among other things, my mission included handling local and foreign media relations when UCIL faced criminal trial by the Indian government. It was a strange, anachronistic ritual. The law, and all the trappings of the court, from the judge himself to the barristers and solicitors and their robes and wigs, were reminiscent of nothing more than Public Television’s Rumpole of the Bailey.  Yet there was nothing laughable about the prosecutors, and the cross-examinations, nor about the sentence. UCIL was found guilty and fined four hundred and seventy million dollars. Now, twenty-eight years later, individual proceedings against a handful of directors have yet to begin.
But the most distressing thing of all is that even now, in 2012, barely any of the money has so far reached the survivors of that now distant nightmare.      

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Kevin couldn’t stop glancing at the clock.  It was already 8:17, but they hadn’t come for him. This was Tuesday, wasn’t it?
Every Tuesday it was the same. Crowded in the stuffy homework room under dim yellow lights, they’d wait for the messenger to come over from the house. First, they’d hear his scrunching footsteps in the gravel on the parade ground outside. Then, when he entered, he’d evade all eyes in the hushed classroom, stoop to the prefect’s ear and whisper the names of those to be called.
            Kevin sat at his desk near the back of the room among some twenty-five others, bent over his history project.  The duty prefect, Michael Stafford, a much older boy than most of them, with a grave, acne-scarred face and bloodhound’s eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, sat facing them on a dais at the front, doing his own ‘prep,’ but keeping a wary eye on his underlings, alert for furtively passed written notes, or hissed conversations behind the backs of hands.
            Trying to concentrate, Kevin dipped his nib in the inkwell and wrote: “Hengist and Horsa were the leaders of the Jutes, who landed in England at Ebbsfleet, Kent, in AD 449. Horsa was killed in battle around AD 455, but Hengist, his brother, went on to rule South Britain . . .”
            Outside, wind-driven rain beat on the classroom windows, but Kevin still heard the approaching footsteps on the gravel, and tensed when the messenger entered. The whispered conversation was longer than usual, and Stafford was making a penciled note of the names.
            A minute or two passed after the messenger left the room.  Wasn’t Stafford going to call anyone?  But when he did look up and speak it was not Kevin’s surname he called, but someone else’s.
            David Griffiths, known as ‘Scruffy,’ looked up, an unkempt, curly-headed boy with a distinct Welsh accent, who always looked as though he slept in his crumpled school uniform.
 “Yes, Stafford?”
            “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
            Friends exchanged amused glances, and exaggerated coughing broke out around the room.  Scruffy, always in trouble, was called to Mr. Evans’ study on several Tuesday nights each term. The misdemeanors for which he was about to receive four strokes of the cane would, everyone in the room knew, be much the same as they always had been: thirty minutes detention for an untidy locker; another thirty for an unlaced shoe at morning chapel; another for forgetting to bring his French dictionary. For Scruffy Griffiths, like everyone else, an accumulation of ninety or more minutes of detention in a single week meant a beating. Punishments of six strokes were kept for more venal sins: a lie; a swear word, or damage to school property. 
            Scruffy stood up with a sudden jerky movement, his chair making a harsh scraping sound as he pushed it back on the wood-block floor. So Kevin wasn’t going to be first? Somehow that made the ordeal harder to bear. He’d now have to wait, pondering what was to come while the other boy walked over to Mr. Evans’ house, took what was coming to him, and returned to the classroom. If he knew Scruffy, he’d be blubbering when he came back and took his seat. 
Kevin listened as Griffiths’s unhurried footsteps passed the window. Then nearly ten minutes dragged by. When he returned he wasn’t crying after all, though his eyes were swollen and his face flushed.
            On the dais, Stafford consulted the scribbled note beside him.         
            Kevin swallowed. “Yes, Stafford?”
            “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
              There were a few wry grins around the homework room, but otherwise there was less reaction than when Griffiths had been summoned. Unlike Scruffy, Kevin was not the butt of the jokes and jibes the Welsh boy endured. Kevin rarely if ever found the legs of his pajama pants tied in knots in the dormitory, his bicycle tires deflated, or his toothbrush clogged with carbolic soap.
            Out in the corridor, passing empty, darkened classrooms, he stepped into the wind outside, pulling up his collar against the rain. At the bottom of the parade ground, across the street behind tall, dim street lamps, stood Crowden House, Mr. Evans’ house, with its high, leaded gable windows. The building was totally dark, and yet the front door was wide open.  But Kevin was not allowed to enter through this door, because it was only for the use of Mr.Evans and his monitors, and visiting parents.  Kevin and others, the hoi polloi of Crowden House, went in and out of the building only by its back door. He climbed the stone steps and through the shadowy changing rooms, with their overloaded clothes hooks, draped with muddy Rugby shirts and shorts and grubby towels, past the boot lockers, the echoing white-tiled bath and shower rooms, to Mr. Evans’ oak study door.
            Kevin knocked. There was a chink of light under the door. Beyond it he heard Evans cough. A smoker’s cough.
            The housemaster’s study reeked of pipe tobacco. Evans sat upright, reading a book in a shiny brown leather armchair in front of a hissing gas stove, seeming not to notice Kevin’s entrance.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
            Evans looked up feigning surprise, and eased himself out of his chair. He was an immensely tall man with drooping shoulders, an ivory white face, a beaky nose and mournful eyes. In the school library there was a life-sized marble bust of a lesser Roman emperor that bore a remarkable resemblance to him.
“Yes, Fitzgerald. I did indeed. And I expect you can imagine why.”
            Kevin shrugged. “No Sir. I can’t,” he said.
            “I think you can, boy. Reflect on it.”
            Kevin reflected.
            “It’s . . . is it because I’ve gone over ninety minutes this week, sir?”
            “Precisely. And what does that mean to you and me, Fitzgerald?”
            “That you’re going to beat me, Sir.”
            Mr. Evans smiled. But the smile was only on his thin lips. There was no warmth or friendliness in his sad eyes.
            “Exactly right.” Evans opened a closet door beside the fireplace that seemed to overflow with sports equipment. A golf bag, cricket bats, tennis racquets, hockey sticks. Reaching in behind these he drew out a long, thin bamboo cane.
“Alright, then,” Evans said, “I’ll meet you in the common room. You’ll find the chair down there somewhere.”
            Outside the housemaster’s door, Kevin groped his way along the darkened corridor. In the common room he switched on the lights and gazed round the big, dingy hall. On two unvarnished wood tables lay the disordered remains of the day’s newspapers. Around the room, against the walls, stood some forty upright wooden chairs. At the far end was a worn billiards table.
            And in the middle of the common room, standing alone was a single chair quite different from the others. It had a circular plywood seat on four spindly legs, and it’s back was made of two pieces of brown-varnished doweling, secured to the seat in an inverted U-shape. 
            “Well, we’ve been here a few times before together, haven’t we Fitzgerald?” said Evans, standing in the doorway.
Kevin stood by the chair, with one hand resting on the curve of its back. “Yes.”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s better. Now take your position, if you will.” He closed the door behind him.
Kevin knew what he had to do. Turning his back to Evans, he faced the chair, grasped its seat with both hands, lowered his head and locked his neck under its curved cane back. Behind him, Evans made swishing practice strokes in the air with his cane with the nonchalance of a Sunday morning golfer.
Bent over in this strained position, Kevin’s back hurt. Why didn’t the bastard get on with it?
“Are you ready, boy?”
“Ready, sir.”
Kevin tightened his buttocks, bit his lip and held his breath. But Evans seemed not to be ready. Kevin could hear him pacing the floor behind him, and involuntarily relaxed a little.
Facing the floor, his head clamped under the chair back, Kevin looked down at the linoleum two feet below. What was that by the leg of the chair? An old sneaker. What was that doing here?
It was at that moment, while Kevin was off-guard and his muscles not tightened in readiness, that the first stroke fell. It cut across both buttocks, perfectly parallel. It didn’t hurt so much as it numbed him. This wasn’t too bad, he thought. He could take this.
            Evans has stepped back a few paces, and as he did so made a few more switches in the air. Nothing happened for a few moments and Kevin lowered his head a little, withdrew it from the chair back, and half turned to look at his housemaster. Evans was standing maybe eight feet behind him, immobile, the cane lowered in his right hand. His eyes seemed to be on Kevin’s buttocks, and he’d have been hard-pressed to interpret the distracted look in the man’s eyes.
“Look to your front,” Evans snapped.
            Kevin took a firmer grasp on the chair seat and squeezed the cheeks of his bottom together as tightly as he could. He heard the little run as Evans approached and the second stroke came slashing in. His body jerked upward with pain, jolting the back of his head against its wooden restraint. Tears welled into his eyes. He braced himself for the third stroke, and it came quickly, this time at a sharp slashing angle to the first two strokes. His feet twisted and his toes curled downward in reaction to the pain. One more, only one more.
            There was another long pause. He could hear Evans walking farther away this time, making little wheezing, breathless sounds between his teeth. Kevin tensed again, and heard the four quickening paces as he braced every muscle in his body, his head stiff-necked, twisting sideways, his jaw locked.
            So great was the force of the fourth, final stroke that Kevin stumbled forward a pace, his head still locked. He stood upright, lifting the chair off the floor, and raised it a little to disentangle his head. Then he lowered it to the ground and turned toward his housemaster.
            By now his eyes were so full of tears that he could barely see Evans. He wiped his eyes with a sleeve of his shirt. Evans said nothing.   
            “Can I go now, sir?”
Evens looked down. “The question’s not whether you can go, Fitzgerald. It’s whether you may go.”
“May I go, sir?”
“Indeed you may.”
Kevin made for the door.
Kevin turned. “Sir?”
“Good man. Well taken.”  He was smiling. The man was smiling!
“Thank you. Sir.”
            Outside, in the darkness of the changing rooms, he loosened his belt and slipped his hand down the inside of the back of his undershorts. He felt the four tender lines, not yet swollen into weals and, where the strokes had crossed, the smallest sticky trace of blood on his fingertips. He withdrew his hand, sucking the rich, iron-tasting blood from his fingertips.
            On his way back to the classroom, on the edge of the parade ground, he passed the lighted red telephone booth on the sidewalk. Feeling in his pocket he took out a florin, hauled open the heavy door, slipped inside and dropped the coin into the slot. He dialed his parents’ number.
            They often had dinner parties on Tuesday nights, but he was sure they wouldn’t mind. He thought of his mother and father at either end of the table in the warm, dark paneled dining room, their faces and those of their guests lit by the three candelabra. 
            It was cold in the phone booth, and there was a smell of stale tobacco smoke. His mother answered the phone. He’d hoped she would.
“Faversham 783”
“Hello, Mummy.”
“Oh, It’s my birthday boy. Happy birthday, Kevin, dear. Did you have a nice day?”
            “Not bad.”
            In the background he heard a roar of laughter, and his mother said, “I can’t talk too long Kevin. We have people to dinner.”
            “That’s all right,” the boy said.
            “Oh, by the way,” his mother said, “I’m afraid your card and present will be a day or two late. I only remembered to post them this morning. But don’t worry; it’s on the way. Really.”
            “That’s okay. It’s doesn’t matter. I expect it’ll come tomorrow.”
            There was a pause, then his mother said: “Well, I must go now, dear. Daddy sends his love, too. You’re all right then, are you?
            “Yes, Mummy, I’m fine.”
            “That’s all right then. Kiss kiss.”
            “Mummy, I . . .”
            “What’s that, dear?”
            Was there any point? “Nothing, Mummy. It’s nothing.”
            “Bye then.”
            A hundred and thirty miles away the line went dead.
            He was limping a little, and it hurt, but it would soon be all right again. Everything worked out all right in the end.
            In the classroom, waiting his return, they heard his footsteps on the gravel.



Sunday, May 27, 2012


London 1961

"You’ll like Sherri," Patrick said, “she's a real looker."
Nigel smiled. “Stunning, I saw that picture of her in Advertiser’s Weekly a couple of days ago after she won a Marconi for the best TV commercials."
 "Yeah, she produced and directed 'em. That’s what she does." Patrick gestured to a chair. "Sit down for a minute, will you?”
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 in London. 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 this was to be his first day as a full-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 an ideal little account 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 – Shell, 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?” Nigel 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. Read those and 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 I’ll tell you this, you’re a lucky bastard. That woman’s a peach!”
Back in his office, Nigel's neighbor, Trish, asked “What did Pat want?”
“New biz prospect. Woman called Sherri Beresford. She directs TV commercials  . . . wants to be famous.”
“Sherri, Beresford, eh? Jeez, who’s taking that 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 then joined-up as 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 notes revealed that Sherri had broken new ground making commercials. They featured popular TV and film actors, rather than unknown hams playing housewives gushing about shampoos, cake mixes and vacuum cleaners.  The client’s 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, from McClusky Communications.”
It was a while before Nigel heard the languid click of heels on marble.
“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’s 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 awfully 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.
“Mr. Baxter, Ma’am.”
Nigel walked in, and heard the door click shut behind him.
He couldn’t have guessed what Lady Beresford might be wearing, but it certainly wouldn’t have expected what he now saw.
As far ago as his schooldays at Harrow, 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  parties and debutante balls.
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.
“Hello, 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 nearly twenty 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, you see? 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.
“Oh, so you’re going to show me your commercials, Lady Beresford,” he began, but she interrupted him.
“No, no, Nigel! Please just call me Sherri.”
“Oh, right – um – 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 written 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. Each was a little masterpiece, 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 nearby couch, 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 you and 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, exactly?
“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 how you make 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’s 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 not just committing adultery, but 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 even 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 was the connecting door, bolted on his side, 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 have known, 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 that Nigel couldn’t quite interpret. And could that have been a sly wink?

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