The Way We Lied

Alex was used to seeing him leave the house early. He was normally up and out before she had even had her first cup of coffee. So she was surprised to see him still sitting in the kitchen when she came down at 8.
“Thought you’d be gone by now darling,” she said, yawning and switching on the kettle.
“Don’t need to rush today,” he muttered, engrossed in the Financial Times. He had not told her about the auction. He saw no need. He was not buying something she would like. If he did tell her, she might want to come with him. She might distract him. She might want to bid for something else. Best to keep quiet. Need to know basis. Best tactic.
“Oh well, have a good day, I’m going off for my shower now.” She kissed his head and shuffled away in her beaded slippers, carrying a cup of coffee and a plate of toast.
Then the twins appeared with Amelie. They were washed and dressed and chattering. Amelie was beautifully organised as well as being beautiful. Charles often thought that Alex must be very confident of her status to employ such an attractive and amenable au pair.
“Good morning Lily, hello Daisy. What are you having for breakfast this morning? Coco Pops is it? No? Lots of Weetabix eh?”
He left them scraping their spoons in their bowls and disappeared into his study to check emails. He could afford to be late into the office, but he did not like to be out of touch for too long. Never take your eye off the ball was his motto. Still, if the sale progressed quickly he could be in by 12 at the latest. No lunch scheduled for today, so he could still put in six or so hours of solid work.
He left the house well before the sale started and congratulated himself when he saw how quickly the parking area was filling up. A small marquee had been erected outside Grayswell Manor, offering welcome cups of hot coffee to the bidders on this bright but chilly late October morning. Charles sipped and surveyed the growing crowd. Hard to know whether they were here for the early lots or staying the course. Mixed bag too. Quite a few business types in dark coats with cashmere scarves up to their chins, plus a dash of rougher sorts in leather and sheepskin, their collars brushing against the odd gold earring. A few blondes in expensive suede were scattered around in the melee.

to be continued May 1

Ship’s Cat

Potkin Ship's Cat SThey raced back towards the river, still well ahead of the few barges that had not turned back in the storm or retired with broken gear. As they crossed the finish line the little brass canon was fired on the committee boat and Potkin could see Heartsease Finbow and the tortishell cat from the Rotting Hulk Tavern jumping, waving and cheering wildly on a nearby oyster smack.

By the time they got back to Maldon Hythe there was pandemonium. Ships were facing in all directions with hairy matelots  heaving on shore lines, brawny seafarers fending off with long boathooks called hitchers and the less competent tasked with holding car tyre fenders between colliding hulls. Everyone was shouting and more boats were arriving every moment, at speed, throwing lines ashore or dropping anchor to swing round. The whole fleet was trying to tie up at the same time. A crowd of landsmen ashore was enjoying the spectacle.

As each vessel was secured gangplanks were thrown out and the jostling, noisy multitude of seafarers headed for the Rotting Hulk Inn. With Centaur made fast her crew also took off towards the alehouse. When Rich opened the hostelry door it was so crowded within that people fell out and the babbling cacophony hit them like a shock wave. He and Potkin pushed through to the bar. Everyone was laughing and clapping each other on the back.

After a while a bell rang out and all fell silent. The commodore of the local yacht club gave a speech and the Lord Mayor presented prizes. Centaur won a cup for the first boat home and Indomitable received one for being first across the line at the start, her skipper being far too wily to have been distracted by Absalom Rowbottom’s dirty tricks. Other boats received prizes for second and third place and everyone got a wooden shield for taking part. Then the commodore said, “And finally we have a special prize for outstanding seamanship.” He held up the award, a huge stuffed turbot in a glass case. A brass plaque read:

Seamanship Prize

Awarded to POTKIN

Ship’s cat

Everyone cheered and threw their hats into the air. All of Centaur’s crew wanted to congratulate Potkin.

With the prize giving at an end the ships’ crews gathered in a back room for the match supper. There was steak and kidney pudding, jelly and party hats for all. Moses Smith toasted the skipper and Potkin. Then Absalom Rowbottom had their winner’s cup filled with an alcoholic cocktail of rum and whiskey, beer and pop, and passed it round the crew. When he got to Potkin he said:

“Well done. We were lucky you came along.”

After the meal there was dancing and music. A gnarled and ancient barge skipper, relic of the days in trade, was lofted onto the table and Heartsease Finbow sprang up beside him. They launched enthusiastically into a song about a sailor called Barnacle Bill.

“Whose that knocking at my door?” she squealed in a forced falsetto.

“It’s only me from over the sea I’m Barnacle Bill the sailor.” Everyone ranted and roared and joined in the chorus.

Late that night the crews drifted back to their ships and turned in. Rick and Potkin went to their cabin.

“Well,” said Rick, “You’re a real sailor now.”

Potkin climbed wearily into his hammock and curled up. Happily he purred himself to sleep, where he dreamed of desert islands in a turquoise sea, flying fish and albatrosses. It was the dream of a true ship’s cat.

The Way We Lied

But when he stood in front of the painting, he found it difficult to assess his rivals. Were they planning to buy it as an investment or were they compelled to buy because they could not resist its powerful message? Charles did not think of himself as an art man. He knew his furniture, could spot a George III piece easily enough, but paintings, well they were background. Patina, dovetail joints, original handles, they were all tangible and down to earth and could be learnt. But with paintings, you really had to know your stuff. Or did you just ask yourself how it made you feel inside, in your guts?
He looked at the portrait and absorbed it with his eyes and his skin. Every stroke, every line told him how this almost skeletal man, holding his crust of bread, felt. There was pain and desperation, but there was also beauty. And he could feel the artist speaking to him of compassion for his subject and for the whole of humanity. It was something he could not recall ever having felt before. And as he looked, his desire to possess this painting grew intense. He did not want it for Alex, it definitely was not her kind of thing. He wanted it for himself. He wanted to look at it every day until he understood exactly what it had to tell him.
All thoughts of whether it was a good investment were disappearing from his mind. It was estimated at £12,000 to £15,000, with a reserve of £11,500, but he knew it might go for three or four times as much. However that seemed irrelevant when he thought how he might feel if he never saw it again. Got to get it. Bloody well got to make sure. He felt that if it disappeared into the hands of another buyer he would think about it for the rest of his life.
He dragged himself away reluctantly, looking back once more as he left the room. The pink cheeked agent was still on duty in the hall. “Good night, sir,” he said jovially. “Shall we be seeing you tomorrow?”
Charles hesitated. “I left a bid yesterday, but I think I’d rather be here in person if possible. Do you think you might be able to give me some idea when my particular lot might come up?”
“Depends what it is. But I should be able to make an educated guess.”
As it happened, the paintings were all due to be tackled first thing. Charles left feeling very satisfied. Another good day’s work. He would be there tomorrow and he felt sure he would soon be the new owner of the Grozny portrait.

to be continued April 28

The Way We Lied

At the end of the day, Charles congratulated himself on a good day’s work. Productive meetings, worthwhile contacts. Good use of his time. The following day however, was less successful. Just as he was coming to the end of a most unsatisfying lunch with his retail client, a message came through from Nancy telling him his new business meeting that afternoon had been cancelled.
“Bugger them,” he announced to her as he returned to the office. “I’m going to call it a day. Just this once I’m going to push off early.”
It was unlike Charles to leave before six. He did not spin work out, like some who dreaded returning to their homes and families, but he did always feel he should be diligent and put in a full day. As he sat back in his seat on the train, Evening Standard in hand, he felt a slight pang of guilt. Would Alex still welcome him if he returned before the customary hour? Then he remembered the auction and the details Nancy had given him yesterday. Even though he had already left a bid, there was still time to see the painting before the sale. Tonight the auction house was holding a special late evening viewing. Best to check it out, shouldn’t blow a few grand without making doubly sure.
There were only a few cars parked outside Grayswell Manor when he drove up from the station. It was dusk, but the last of the red autumn sun was low behind a fringe of trees, adding drama to his arrival. The house glimmered with lights and he was greeted with the offer of a glass of wine as he entered. He was not tempted to see all the many lots listed in the catalogue, so he just asked for directions to the Grozny.
“Aah, yes sir, you’re interested are you?” said the plump smooth agent, buttoned up in his double-breasted camel coat. “We’ve had several clients making a bee-line for that particular lot.”
Charles was nonchalant. He was never rattled by rumours of competition in business or away from the office. He was accustomed to getting what he wanted. That applied to his marriage, his houses and his work. Size up the opposition and let ‘em have it, was his motto. It worked in rugby and it worked off the field too.

to be continued April 25

All Is Lost

Aloft S(Now, this chapter is REALLY technical in places, unless you are a sailor. But it is also dead exciting, so try and stick with it if you get a bit lost. I skipped over the jargonny bits, and it was still good.)

Absalom Rowbottom rounded the outer mark skilfully close to the buoy and Centaur hardened up onto the wind. The gale seemed to blow even harder and screamed through the rigging. Centaur heeled further with a loud, long creak, foaming sea rushing past the gun’als and the le’ward shrouds swaying slackly. With each pounding into the short, steep seas of a wind over tide the hull shuddered along its entire length.

Potkin stood awkwardly on the tilting deck with a huge grin on his face and water streaming along his whiskers to fly as arcing droplets off the ends. With a loud crack the mighty leeboard took the weight of the surging vessel, the churning sky seemed to be joining in the race. And then there was a groan, and a bit of a twang.

Watched from the deck the topmast began to bend into an alarming S-shape.

“Drop the tops’l!” shouted the skipper, “Or we’ll lose the mast.”

Rick cast off the topsail halyard, which writhed through the air as it came free. The sail dropped a couple of feet and jammed.

“Bother!” shouted the skipper in an anxious tone pitched considerably higher than his norm. He threw his top hat on the deck and jumped on it.

“Someone has to go aloft, or all is lost.”

Rick looked up. The mate looked up. The crew looked up at the flapping sail their eyes wide and staring, their faces pale. No one moved.

Was it the spectral voice of his pirate ancestor whispering in his ear? Somehow Potkin knew what had to be done and that it had to be done quickly. Leaping for the mast he dug his claws into the pine and began to scramble upwards.   He gripped tightly and hugged close to the luff of the main sail for protection as the spray-laden wind plucked his fur out into stiff, saline saturated spikes. He eased his way cautiously around the iron crosstrees and scampered up the topmast using the topsail hoops as a ladder. Reaching the masthead he paused for just a moment and then flung himself out towards the headstick. There was a brief aerial plummet before he crashed into the spar and clung onto the head of the sail with every tooth, claw and sinew he possessed. The spar jerked, shuddered and the jammed rope came free. The tops’l came rattling down the mast with Potkin still firmly attached and came to rest in the crosstrees, the tangle of rope canvas and cat in a flapping bunch of buggers still high above the deck. Once everything stopped crashing about him Potkin was hanging, shivering and caked in sail dressing, that noxious concoction, beloved of East Coast sailors, of fish oil, red ochre and secret, less savoury ingredients. At least he was now waterproof. Throughout this heroic adventure Rick had been climbing the ratlines towards him. On reaching the crosstrees he lifted Potkin across his shoulders and brought him carefully down to safety.In the Rigging S

(Now I know that many of you are, at this stage, totally bemused, so here goes with a bit of nautical explanation:

The headstick is a bit of wood [spar] tied along the top, or head of the topsail. The halyard is a rope passing through a pulley at the top of the mast and tied to the headstick to pull the sail up [haul yard… see?]. The luff [front] of the topsail is tied to hoops that go round the topmast and allow it to slide up and down. Easy, isn’t it? Oh, and my Dad swears that ‘bunch of buggers’ is a legitimate technical term.)

Potkin had acted too quickly to be scared, but once he was safely back on deck he began to quiver with fear and excitement. The crew stood round him and cheered whilst the skipper turned his battered topper gloomily in his weathered hands. With danger passed however, the race was far from done.

Soon everyone was back at his post. Sailors showed Potkin the tasks that they were carrying out and explained why and gave him little jobs to do. He was too small to wind leeboard winches, but felt he was really getting the hang of this tailing business.

The Way We Lied

Charles
1

Charles was not very good with women. That is, he was good at getting women, but not very good at keeping them happy. His first wife, Georgina, had been dissatisfied even before Alex had come to work at the agency as a PA. He hadn’t meant to make Georgina want a divorce, but Alex had been such fun in those days, before they married, before the twins.
He knew Alex was annoyed with him or at least impatient with him and had been for a few weeks now. There had been numerous new business meetings and urgent conferences recently, so he had not been able to take her out for a quiet dinner for some time. He felt he needed to keep her sweet; after all, she ran the house beautifully and always looked wonderful. He could do without any ructions.
He had noticed the sale catalogue when he grabbed a coffee first thing this morning before driving to the station to catch the early train to London. Alex was always trying to find stuff for the house at auctions. It kept her happy. Perhaps he should suggest she got herself something at this country house sale. No, better idea, perhaps he should get something for her himself. Little surprise. That would do the trick. Perk her up a bit. Keep her sweet.
He put Nancy, his faithful PA, onto doing some online research about the auction as soon as he got into the office. Bloody useful the internet. That and a good PA usually solved most problems. Nancy always looked the part in her pencil skirts and tightly belted shirts, but more importantly she was bright and efficient.
She came in with more coffee. “I’ve sent you the link to the auction house Charles. So do you want to take a look now?”
They scrolled through the entries together. Charles always valued a second opinion, particularly where presents for Alex were concerned. Plus Nancy smelt great, leaning over his shoulder.
“Mmm, Arpege is it?”
“No, Chanel No 5. Concentrate, Charles.”
He hovered over the ceramics, then found the art section. “Okay. What about a painting? Alex’s always saying she wants a few more.” He pointed to a formal still life of a glass bowl of fruit and blowsy flowers. “This one’s alright isn’t it?”
Nancy sighed. “It’s ok I suppose, a bit stuffy though. I think this one is much more interesting, if a little depressing.” She indicated a dark portrait of a lean man.
“Stefan. You’re right. I like the look of that. Not sure it’s quite Alex’s idea of art though. Still, could be worth a punt. Find out more about the artist, will you. Don’t want to go throwing money away.”
As Nancy disappeared to do more research before the first meeting of the day, Charles continued gazing at the computer screen. This painting spoke to him. It wasn’t Alex’s style, that he was sure of, but he was drawn to it himself. He had never heard of the artist, but the guide price suggested that it was someone of note. Maybe he’d forget about buying Alex a painting. Perhaps a weekend away would do the trick. Could be a darn sight cheaper too.
However he could not completely dismiss the idea of bidding for the portrait. He decided he would wait for further information from Nancy, then consider leaving a bid with the auction house. He would have preferred to have seen the picture in situ, not just on screen, but with a packed schedule of meetings lined up for the day there didn’t seem to be a chance. Plus he was having lunch with David Harper today at the House and there was no way he wanted to cancel that. David was a member of the All Party Retail Group as well as deputy leader, so he was an important contact for the agency’s biggest clients. Charles also wanted to get close to David and the opportunity to gain the party’s election campaign. They stood a good chance as David was an ex-media man and understood just what a good advertising agency could contribute in terms of strategy and ideas.

to be continued April 21

The Way We Lied

Charles’s Millennium Letter

Sometimes it is so hard to stay silent. Sometimes I want to tell everyone, tell the whole world why I really sold the business and embarked on a totally new career. But I doubt if anyone would ever believe me if I told them that one woman could have so much influence over me. Alex would never understand and that would only make things more difficult than they already are.
I still love Alex, of course I do; she is beautiful and desirable, but she would never be able to help me expand my horizons the way Mary has. And Alex cannot comprehend the pure love someone can have for another human being. She only understands physical love, so she would not condone this simple love of Mary and all she has helped me to achieve.
Oh Mary where are you? Why aren’t you here so I can tell you that I have done even more than you asked? I wish I could share my new career, my rebirth with you. I am glad I have taken this enormous step. It feels so right and already I know that it is going to be so much more rewarding than my old life. I feel sure you would approve.
But if only I could see your face and see you smile when I told you. I long for your approval. Come back. Please come back one day and tell me I have done the right thing. I have made all these sacrifices because of you.

to be continued April 18