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.”
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John BirchLONDON, 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.
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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?