Stories for independent reading
Theo had a choice between a drug that would save his sight and a drug that would keep him alive, so he chose not to goblind. He stopped the pills and started the injections — these required the implantation of an unpleasant and painful catheter just above his heart — and within a few days the clouds in his eyes started to clear up, he could see again. He remembered going into New York City to a show with his mother, when he was twelve and didn’t want to admit he needed glasses. “Can you read that?” she’d shouted, pointing to a Broadway marquee, and when he’d squinted, making out only one or two letters, she’d taken off her own glasses — harlequins with tiny rhinestones in the corners — and shoved them onto his face. The world came into focus, and he gasped, astonished at the precision around the edges of things, the legibility, the hard, sharp, colorful landscape. Sylvia had to squint through Fiddler on the Roof thatday, but for Theo, his face masked by his mother’s huge glasses, everything was as bright and vivid as a comic book. Even though people stared at him, and muttered things, Sylvia didn’t care, he could see.
Because he was dying again, Theo moved back to his mother’s house in New Jersey. The injections she took in stride — she’d seen her own mother through her dying, after all. Four times a day, with the equanimity of a nurse, she cleaned out the plastic tube implanted in his chest, inserted a sterilized hypodermic and slowly dripped the bag of sight-giving liquid into his veins. They endured this procedure silently, Sylvia sitting on the side of the hospital bed she’d rented for the duration of Theo’s stay — his life, he sometimes thought — watching reruns of I Love Lucy or the news, while he tried not to think about the hard piece of pipe stuck into him, even though it was a constant reminder of how wide and unswimmable the gulf was becoming between him and the ever-receding shoreline of the well. AndSylvia was intricately cheerful. Each day she urged him to go out with her somewhere — to the library, or the little museum with the dinosaur replicas he’d been fond of as a child — and when his thinness and the cane drew stares, she’d maneuver him around the people who were staring, determined to shield him from whatever they might say or do. It had been the same that afternoon so many years ago, when she’d pushed him through a lobbyful of curious and laughing faces, determined that nothing should interfere with thespectacle of his seeing. What a pair they must have made, a boy in ugly glasses and a mother daring the world to say a word about it!
This warm, breezy afternoon in May they were shopping for revenge. “Your cousin Howard’s engagement party is next month,” Sylvia explained in the car. “Avery nice girl from Livingston. I met her a few weeks ago, and really, she’s a superior person.”
“I’m glad,” Theo said. “Congratulate Howie for me.”
“Do you think you’ll be up to going to the party?”
“I’m not sure. Would it be okay for me just to give him a gift?”
“You already have. Alovely silver tray, if I say so myself. The thank-you note’s in the living room.”
“Mom,” Theo said, “why do you always have to — “
Sylvia honked her horn at a truck making an illegal left turn. “Better they should get something than no present at all, is what I say,” she said. “But now, the problem is, I have to give Howie something, to be from me, and it better be good. It better be very, very good.”
“Don’t you remember that cheap little nothing Bibi gave you for your graduation? It was disgusting.”
“I can’t remember what she gave me.”
“Of course you can’t. It was a tacky pen-and-pencil set. Not even a real leather box. So naturally, it stands to reason that I have to get something truly spectacular for Howard’s engagement. Something that will make Bibi blanch. Anyway, I think I’ve found just the thing, but I need your advice.”
“Advice? Well, when my old roommate Nick got married, I gave him a garlic press. It cost five dollars and reflected exactly how much I felt, at that moment, our friendship was worth.”
Sylvia laughed. “Clever. But my idea is much more brilliant, because it makes it possible for me to get back at Bibi and give Howard the nice gift he and his girl deserve.” She smiled, clearly pleased with herself. “Ah, you live and learn.”
“You live,” Theo said.
Sylvia blinked. “Well, look, here we are.” She pulled the car into a handicapped-parking place on Morris Avenue and got out to help Theo, but he was already hoisting himself up out of his seat, using the door handle for leverage, “I can manage myself,” he said with some irritation. Sylvia stepped back.
“Clearly one advantage to all this for you,” Theo said balancing on his cane, “is that it’s suddenly so much easier to get a parking place.”
“Oh Theo, please,” Sylvia said. “Look, here’s where we’re going.”
She leaned him into a gift shop filled with porcelain statuettes of Snow White and all seven of the dwarves, music boxes which, when you opened them, played The Shadow of Your Smile, complicated-smelling potpourris in purple wallpapered boxes, and stuffed snakes you were supposed to push up against drafty windows and doors.
“Mrs. Greenman,” said an expansive, gray-haired man in a cream-colored cardigan sweater, “Look who’s here, Archie, it’s Mrs. Greenman.”
Another man, this one thinner and balding, but dressed in an identical cardigan, peered out from the back of the shop. “Hello there!” he said, smiling. He looked at Theo, and his expression changed.
“Mr. Sherman, Mr. Baker. This is my son, Theo.”
“Hello,” Mr. Sherman and Mr. Baker said. They didn’t offer to shake hands.
“Are you here for that item we discussed last week?” Mr. Sherman asked.
“Yes,” Sylvia said. “I want advice from my son here.” She walked over to a large ridged crystal bowl, a very fifties sort of bowl, stalwart and square-jawed. “What do you think? Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Mom, to tell the truth, I think it’s kind of ugly.”
“Four hundred and twenty-five dollars,” Sylvia said admiringly. “You have to feel it.”
Then she picked up the big bowl and tossed it to Theo, like a football.
The gentlemen in the cardigan sweaters gasped and did not exhale. When Theo caught it, it sank his hands. His cane rattled as it hit the floor.
“That’s heavy,” Sylvia said, observing with satisfaction how the bowl had weighted Theo’s arms down. “And where crystal is concerned, heavy is impressive.”
She took the bowl back from him and carried it to the counter. Mr. Sherman was mopping his brow. Theo looked at the floor, still surprised not to see shards of glass around his feet.
Since no one else seemed to be volunteering, he bent over and picked up the cane.
“Four hundred and fifty-nine, with tax,” Mr. Sherman said, his voice still a bit shaky, and a look of relish came over Sylvia’s face as she pulled out her checkbook to pay. Behind the counter, Theo could see Mr. Baker put his hand on his forehead and cast his eyes to the ceiling.
It seemed Sylvia had been looking a long time for something like this, something heavy enough to leave an impression, yet so fragile it could make you sorry.
They headed back out to the car.
“Where can we go now?” Sylvia asked, as she got in. “There must be someplace else to go.”
“Home,” Theo said. “It’s almost time for my medicine.”
“Really? Oh. All right.” She pulled on her seat belt, inserted the car key in the ignition and sat there.
For just a moment, but perceptibly her face broke. She squeezed her eyes shut so tight the blue shadow on the lids cracked. Almost as quickly she was back to normal again, and they were driving. “It’s getting hotter,” Sylvia said. “Shall I put on the air?”
“Sure,” Theo said. He was thinking about the bowl, or more specifically, about how surprising its weight had been, pulling his hands down. For a while now he’d been worried about his mother, worried about what damage his illness might secretly be doing to her that of course she would never admit. On the surface things seemed all right. She still broiled herself a skinned chicken breast for dinner every night, still swam a mile and a half a day, still kept used teabags wrapped in foil in the refrigerator. Yet she had also, at about three o’clock one morning, woken him up to tell him she was going to the twenty-four-hour supermarket, and was there anything he wanted. Then there was the gift shop. She had literally pitched that bowl toward him, pitched it like a ball, and as that great gleam of flight and potential regret came sailing his direction, it had occurred to him that she was trusting his two feeble hands, out of the whole world, to keep it from shattering. What was she trying to test? Was it his newly regained vision? Was it the assurance that he was there, alive, that he hadn’t yet slipped past all her caring, a little lost boy in rhinestone-studded glasses? There are certain things you’ve already done before youeventhink how to do them — a child pulled from in front of a car, for instance, or the bowl, which Theo was holding before he could even begin to calculate its brief trajectory. It had pulled his arms down, and from that apish posture he’d looked at his mother, who smiled broadly, as if, in the war between heaviness and shattering, he’d just helped her win some small but sustaining victory.
1. Why did the author call the story Gravity? What does he seem to communicate through it? Try to find as many meanings of the word as possible. See which of them are realized in the story.
2. Define the point of view of the narration. How does point of view help to reveal the complex relationship between the two main characters?
3. Sylvia is shopping for revenge. Why did Bibi’s present insult her? Explain the significance of the presents mentioned in the story and of the bowl that she tosses to Theo.
4. Agree or disagree with the following statements:
a) Sylvia is an example of a caring mother who does everything to help Theo to adapt himself to life.
b) Sylvia declared a war to the world to make up for her misfortunes. This war, however, is invisible for anyone but Sylvia, and the only victim of it is her son.
c) Sylvia and Theo support each other. They help each other to survive in this world.
d) Sylvia and Theo are like tired actors. They are no longer able to conceal their resentment.
Making My Father Read Revered Writings
In the fictions of Pierre de Lille-Sully is much that is exceedingly strange and marvellous. He must have been an animist, although he professed the Christian faith; for him even words have life and spirit of their own.
Unfortunately, I have a poor grasp of the beautiful French language. But in the year 19—, I came across a second hand book which immediately became one of my treasured possessions; it was a translation into English of de Lille-Sully’s short stories, under the title, Conversations with Upper Crust Bandits.
I was spellbound. One only knows such love for fiction when one is young. I dwelt in the stories. Many of them I read over and over. But not the last one in the book. For reasons I cannot explain fully, I was reluctant to read The Prince of Such Things. I knew little about literature, and devoured in the main what I regarded even then as trash; being unversed in finer things, I regarded the title of this last story as a bad one. It seemed to me dangerous, even a little deranged.
The Prince of Such Things... It is the responsibility of authors to give their stories a title which invites one in, or at least promises to make matters clear. Here, de Lille-Sully seemed to be neglecting his duty.
At this period, I was a retarded adolescent of fourteen, and very much under my parents’ thumb. My two sisters were high-spirited and joyous by nature. I felt myself to be the very opposite. My father’s first name was William. He had had me christened William too. As soon as I was old enough to feel the smart of it, I smarted that I had been given the same name as my father. I was diminished by it; did they think I had no separate existence?
Once alert to this injustice (as I saw it), I felt that everything in my father’s behaviour was calculated to deny me an individual existence. In the matter of clothes, for instance, he always selected what I should wear. The possibility never existed that he might consult me. And when I grew large and gawky, I was made to wear his cast-off jackets and trousers.
Evenings in our house were particularly oppressive. My sisters would not remain in the sitting-room. They went upstairs to their bedroom, giggling and whispering to themselves. I was constrained to remain below, to sit with my parents. Now I look back on those long evenings and nights with something like terror. So mentally imprisoned was I that it never occurred to me to go out, in case I should suffer a word of reprimand from my father.
The custom was that my parents sat on either side of a tall wood-burning stove. They had comfortable chairs of a forbiddingly antique design, inherited from my father’s family. I sat at a table nearby, on a hard-backed chair. At that table I read books or magazines, or drew in a callow way.
I should explain that my father would not allow television in our house. And for some reason — it may have been a superstitious reason for all I know — the radio had to be switched off at six-thirty.
Prompted by my sisters, I once dared to ask my father why we could not have television. He replied, “Because I say so.” And that was sufficient explanation in his eyes.
Always, it seemed I was in disgrace — “in his bad books”, as the saying goes. All through my childhood years, I yearned to be loved by him. It made me stupid. It made me mute. The whole evening could pass in silence until, at a gesture from my father, we would rise and go to our beds.
It was my mother’s way to sit almost immobile while the hours passed. Women are able to sit more still than men. She wore headphones, listening to music on her Walkman. The thin tintinnabulation, like a man whistling surreptitiously through his teeth, penetrated the deepest concentration I could muster.
My father sat on the other side of the stove to her. I do not recall their ever conversing. At seven-thirty each evening, my mother would rise and pour him a glass of akavit, for which he thanked her. Father made a habit of reading his newspaper to an inordinate degree. The frosty crackle of broadsheet pages as he turned them punctuated the hours. I never understood his method of reading. It was clear that, having stumped a few coins for his copy, he was determined to get his money’s worth. But the way in which my father searched back and forth among the pages suggested a man who possessed some cunning secret method of interpreting life’s events.
Such was the scene on the evening I decided at last to read de Lille-Sully’s story, The Prince of Such Things. I set my elbows on the polished table-top, one each side of the volume. I blocked my ears with my hands, in order to defend myself from the crackle of paper and the whistle of music. I began to read.
Perhaps in everyone’s young life comes a decisive moment, from which there is no turning back. A decision, I mean, not based on rational thought processes. I hope it is not so; for if it is, then we have no defence against it, and must endure what follows as best we can. The matter is a mystery to me, as are many features of existence. All I can say is that on that particular dreary evening I came upon one of those decisive moments.
The brilliance of The Prince of Such Things flooded into my mind. The words, the turns of phrase, the sentences, the paragraphs and their cumulation, unfolded an eloquently imaginative story. It was a study of ordinary life and yet also a fairy story. More than a fairy story, a legend of striking symbolism, exciting, agitating, and ravishing in its effect.
In a way, its basic proposition was ludicrous, for who could believe that ordinary people in a Parisian suburb had such powers. Yet the persuasiveness of the piece overcame any hint of implausibility. De Lille-Sully gave expression to an idea new to me at the age of fourteen, that the manner in which one thing can stand for another quite different — a sunrise for hope, let’s say — forms the basis of all symbolic thought, and hence of language.
I was swept along by his narrative, as branches are swept along by a river in flood. Never had I guessed that such process existed. Even the preceding stories in the book had left me unprepared for this magnificent outburst of de Lille-Sully’s imagination. I reached the final sentence exhausted as if by some powerful mental orgasm. My mind was full of wonder and inspiration. The sheer bravura of the story gave me courage.
The longing to share this experience was so great that without further thought, I turned to my father. Across the expanse of carpet separating us, I said, “Father, I have just read the most marvellous story anyone has ever written.”
“Oh, yes.” He spoke without raising his eyes from the newspaper.
“Read it yourself, and you’ll see.” I picked up my book and took it across to him. How did I feel at that moment? I suppose I felt that if we could share this enlightening experience the relationship between us might become more human, more humane... That we might be more like father and son. Transformed by the story, I felt only love for him as he condescended to put down his paper and accept the volume. He held it open just as he received it, asking what I wanted him to do.
“Read this story, father. The Prince of Such Things. ” I was conscious that I had not approached him to do anything for many years.
He sat upright in his chair, set his face grimly, and began to read. I stood beside him before retreating awkwardly to the table. There I made a pretence of picking up a pencil and drawing in an exercise book. All I did was scribble, while observing my parents. My mother had momentarily shown some interest in my action; or perhaps it was surprise. After a moment’s alertness, she retreated into her music, eyes focusing vaguely on a point above the stove. My father, meanwhile, concentratedly read the miraculous story. His eyes twitched from left to right and back, as if chasing the lines of print down the page. It was impossible to gather anything from his expression. No sign of enlightenment showed.
It took him, I would say, almost two hours to read de Lille-Sully’s story. I had not lingered over it for more than three-quarters of an hour. I could not tell if this meant he was a slow reader, or whether he was deliberately keeping me in suspense.
Finally, he had done. He closed the book. Without looking at me, he set the volume down on the right-hand side of his chair. He then picked up his newspaper, which he had dropped on the left-hand side of his chair, and resumed his scanning of its columns. He gave me no glance. He said not a word.
The mortification I experienced cannot be expressed. At the time I did nothing. Did not leave the room, did not retrieve the book, did not leave. I sat where I was.
Either he had regarded de Lille-Sully’s miraculous tale as beneath his contempt or — ah, but it took me many a year before the alternative came to me — he was unable to comprehend it.
As I have said, this evening wrought a decisive change in my life. Without volition, as I sat there looking away from my father, I found I had decided that I would become a writer.
1. Can we state that the narrator of the story is personified? Does he function as the author’s mouthpiece?
2. Compare how much the narrator lets us know about the actual facts of his life (his background, family relationships, etc.) and about the emotional experience he has got while reading fiction. Analyze the emotional charge of the lexis used for this purpose.
3. In what way do the author’s digressions help to outline the personality of the narrator and contribute to the message of the short-story?
4. What effect does the absence of dialogical speech between the characters produce?
5. Why do you think the readers are not given the account of the foil’s course of thinking, of forming an opinion, of appreciation? Is the choice of I-narration significant for grasping the main idea of the story? In what way?
Alan Austen, as nervous as a kitten, went up certain dark and creaky stairs in the neighborhood of Pell Street, and peered about for a long time on the dim landing before he found the name he wanted written obscurely on one of the doors.
He pushed open this door, as he had been told to do, and found himself in a tiny room, which contained no furniture but a plain kitchen table, a rocking-chair, and an ordinary chair. On one of the dirty buff-colored walls were a couple of shelves, containing in all perhaps a dozen bottles and jars.
An old man sat in the rocking-chair, reading a newspaper. Alan, without a word, handed him the card he had been given. “Sit down, Mr. Austen,” said the old man very politely. “I am glad to make your acquaintance.”
“Is it true,” asked Alan, “that you have a certain mixture that has — er — quite extraordinary effects?”
“My dear sir,” replied the old man, “my stock in trade is not very large — I don’t deal in laxatives and teething mixtures — but such as it is, it is varied. I think nothing I sell has effects which could be precisely described as ordinary.”
“Well, the fact is — “ began Alan.
“Here, for example,” interrupted the old man, reaching for a bottle from the shelf. “Here is a liquid as colorless as water, almost tasteless, quite imperceptible in coffee, milk, wine, or any other beverage. It is also quite imperceptible to any known method of autopsy.”
“Do you mean it is a poison?” cried Alan, very much horrified.
“Call it a glove-cleaner if you like,” said the old man indifferently. “Maybe it will clean gloves. I have never tried. One might call it a life-cleaner. Lives need cleaning sometimes.”
“I want nothing of that sort,” said Alan.
“Probably it is just as well,” said the old man.
“Do you know the price of this? For one teaspoonful, which is sufficient, I ask five thousand dollars. Never less. Not a penny less.”
“I hope all your mixtures are not as expensive,” said Alan apprehensively.
“Oh dear, no,” said the old man. “It would be no good charging that sort of price for a love potion, for example. Young people who need a love potion very seldom have five thousand dollars. Otherwise they would not need a love potion.”
“I am glad to hear that,” said Alan.
“I look at it like this,” said the old man. “Please a customer with one article, and he will come back when he needs another. Even if it is more costly. He will save up for it, if necessary.”
“So,” said Alan, “Do you really sell love potions?”
“If I did not sell love potions,” said the old man, reaching for another bottle, “I should not have mentioned the other matter to you. It is only when one is in a position to oblige that one can afford to be so confidential.”
“And these potions,” said Alan. “They are not just — just — er — “
“Oh, no,” said the old man. “Their effects are permanent, and extend far beyond casual impulse. But they include it. Bountifully, insistently. Everlastingly.”
“Dear me!” said Alan, attempting a look of scientific detachment. “How very interesting!”
“But consider the spiritual side,” said the old man.
“I do indeed,” said Alan.
“For indifference,” said the old man, “they substitute devotion. For scorn, adoration. Give one tiny measure of this to the young lady — its flavor is imperceptible in orange juice, soup, or cocktails — and however gay and giddy she is, she will change altogether. She will want nothing but solitude, and you.”
“I can hardly believe it,” said Alan. “She is so fond of parties.”
“She will not like them anymore,” said the old man. “She will be afraid of the pretty girls you may meet.”
“She will actually be jealous?” cried Alan in a rapture, “Of me?”
“Yes, she will want to be everything to you.”
“She is already. Only she doesn’t care about it.”
“She will, when she has taken this. She will care intensely. You will be her sole interest in life.”
“Wonderful!” cried Alan.
“She will want to know all you do,” said the old man. “All that has happened to you during the day. Every word of it. She will want to know what you are thinking about, why you smile suddenly, why you are looking sad.”
“That is love!” cried Alan.
“Yes,” said the old man. “How carefully she will look after you! She will never allow you to be tired, to sit in a draught, to neglect your food. If you an hour late, she will be terrified. She will think you are killed, or that some siren has caught you.”
“I can hardly imagine Diana like that!” cried Alan, overwhelmed with joy.
“You will not have to use your imagination,” said the old man. “And, by the way, since there are always sirens, if by any chance you should later on slip a little, you need not worry. She will forgive you, in the end. She will be terribly hurt, of course, but she will forgive you — in the end.”
“That will not happen,” said Alan fervently.
“Of course not,” said the old man. “But, if it did, you need not worry. She would never divorce you. Oh, no! And, of course, she herself will never give you the least, the very least, grounds for — uneasiness.”
“And how much,” said Alan, “is this wonderful mixture?”
“It is not as dear,” said the old man, “as the glove-cleaner, or life-cleaner, as I sometimes call it. No. That is five thousand dollars, never a penny less. One has to be older than you are, to indulge in that sort of thing. One has to save up for it.”
“But the love potion?” said Alan.
“Oh, that,” said the old man, opening the drawer m the kitchen table, and taking out a tiny, rather dirty-looking phial. “That is just a dollar.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” said Alan, watching him fill it.
“I like to oblige,” said the old man. “Then customers come back, later in life, when they are rather better off, and want more expensive things. Here you are. You will find it very effective.”
“Thank you again,” said Alan. “Good-by.”
“ Au revoir,” said the old man.
1. Look at the title of the story. What meanings of the word chaser do you know? Which meaning is relevant for the short story? Why?
2. Identify the story’s themes.
3. Regard the main character’s set of values (love, marriage, loyalty, etc.). Compare it with the old man’s opinion of married life and requited feeling. Why do you think the old man is sure Alan will come back for the poison sooner or later?
4. What tone is created in the story? Explain. Whose position does the author seem to share?
5. Which functions does the title carry out in this case? How does it link to the story’s concerns?
Cheap at Half the Price
Women are naturally superior to men, and Mrs. Consuela Rosenheim was no exception.
Victor Rosenheim, an American banker, was Consuela’s third husband, and the gossip columns on both sides of the Atlantic were suggesting that, like a chain smoker, the former Colombian model was already searching for her next spouse before she had extracted the last gasp from the old one. Her first two husbands — one an Arab, the other a Jew (Consuela showed no racial prejudice when it came to signing marriage contracts) — had not quite left her in a position that would guarantee her financial security once her natural beauty had faded. But two more divorce settlements would sort that out. With this in mind, Consuela estimated that she only had another five years before the final vow must be taken.
The Rosenheims flew into London from their home in New York — or, to be more accurate, from their homes in New York. Consuela had travelled to the airport by chauffeur-driven car from their mansion in the Hamptons, while her husband had been taken from his Wall Street office in a second chauffeur-driven car. They met up in the Concorde lounge at JFK. When they had landed at Heathrow another limousine transported them to the Ritz, where they were escorted to their usual suite without any suggestion of having to sign forms or book in.
The purpose of their trip was twofold. Mr. Rosenheim was hoping to take over a small merchant bank that had not benefited from the recession, while Mrs. Rosenheim intended to occupy her time looking for a suitable birthday present — for herself. Despite considerable research I have been unable to discover exactly which birthday Consuela would officially be celebrating.
After a sleepless night induced by jetlag, Victor Rosenheim was whisked away to an early-morning meeting in the City, while Consuela remained in bed toying with her breakfast. She managed one piece of thin toast and a stab at a boiled egg.
Once the breakfast tray had been removed, Consuela made a couple of phone calls to confirm luncheon dates for the two days she would be in London. She then disappeared into the bathroom.
Fifty minutes later she emerged from her suite dressed in a pink Olaganie suit with a dark blue collar, her fair hair bouncing on her shoulders. Few of the men she passed between the elevator and the revolving doors failed to turn their heads, so Consuela judged that the previous fifty minutes had not been wasted. She stepped out of the hotel and into the morning sun to begin her search for the birthday present.
Consuela began her quest in New Bond Street. As in the past, she had no intention of straying more than a few blocks north, south, east or west from that comforting landmark, while a chauffeur-driven car hovered a few yards behind her.
She spent some time in Asprey’s considering the latest slimline watches, a gold statue of a tiger with jade eyes, and a Faberge egg, before moving on to Cartier, where she dismissed a crested silver salver, a platinum watch and a Louis XIV long-case clock. From there she walked another few yards to Tiffany’s, which, despite a determined salesman who showed her almost everything the shop had to offer, she still left empty-handed.
Consuela stood on the pavement and checked her watch. It was 12.52, and she had to accept that it had been a fruitless morning. She instructed her chauffeur to drive her to Harry’s Bar, where she found Mrs. Stavros Kleanthis waiting for her at their usual table. Consuela greeted her friend with a kiss on both cheeks, and took the seat opposite her.
Mrs. Kleanthis, this wife of a not unknown shipowner — the Greeks preferring one wife and several liaisons — had for the last few minutes been concentrating her attention on the menu to be sure that the restaurant served the few dishes that her latest diet would permit. Between them, the two women had read every book that had reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list which included the words ‘youth’, ‘orgasm’, ‘slimming’, ‘fitness’ or ‘immortality’ in its title.
“How’s Victor?” asked Maria, once she and Consuela had ordered their meals.
Consuela paused to consider her response, and decided on the truth.
“Fast reaching his sell-by date,” she replied. “And Stavros?”
“Well, past his, I’m afraid,” said Maria. “But as I have neither your looks nor your figure, not to mention the fact that I have three teenage children, I don’t suppose I’ll be returning to the market to select the latest brand.”
Consuela smiled as a salade nicoise was placed in front of her.
“So, what brings you to London — other than to have lunch with an old friend?” asked Maria.
“Victor has his eye on another bank,” replied Consuela, as if she were discussing a child who collected stamps. “And I am in search of a suitable birthday present.”
“And what are you expecting Victor to come up with this time?” asked Maria. “A house in the country? A thoroughbred racehorse? Or perhaps your own Lear jet?”
“None of the above,” said Consuela, placing her fork by the half-finished salad. “I need something that can’t be bargained over as a future date, so my gift must be one that any court, in any state, will acknowledge is unquestionably mine.”
“Have you found anything appropriate yet?” asked Maria.
“Not yet,” admitted Consuela. “Asprey’s yielded nothing of interest, Cartier’s cupboard was almost bare, and the only attractive thing in Tiffany’s was the salesman, who was undoubtedly penniless. I shall have to continue my search this afternoon.”
The salad plates were deftly removed by a waiter whom Maria considered far too young and far too thin. Another waiter with the same problem poured them both a cup of fresh decaffeinated coffee. Consuela refused the proffered cream and sugar, though her companion was not so quite disciplined.
The two ladies grumbled on about the sacrifices they were having to make because of the recession until they were the only diners left in the room. At this point a fatter waiter presented them with the bill — an extraordinarily long ledger considering that neither of them had ordered a second course, or had requested more than Evian from the wine waiter.
On the pavement of South Adley Street they kissed again on both cheeks before going their separate ways, one to the east and the other to the west.
Consuela climbed into the back of her chauffeur-driven car in order to be returned to New Bond Street, a distance of no more than half a mile.
Once she was back on familiar territory, she began to work her way steadily down the other side of the street, stopping at Bentley’s, where it appeared that they hadn’t sold anything since last year, and moving rapidly on to Adler, who seemed to be suffering from much the same problem. She cursed the recession once again, and blamed it all on Bill Clinton, who Victor had assured her was the cause of most of the world’s current problems.
Consuela was beginning to despair of finding anything worthwhile in Bond Street, and reluctantly began her journey back towards the Ritz, feeling she might even have to consider an expedition to Knightsbridge the following day, when she came to a sudden halt outside the House of Graff. Consuela could not recall the shop from her last visit to London some six months before, and as she knew Bond Street better than she had ever known any of her three husbands, she concluded that it must be a new establishment.
She gazed at the stunning gems in their magnificent settings, heavily protected behind the bulletproof windows. When she reached the third window her mouth opened wide, like a newborn chick demanding to be fed. From that moment she knew that no further excursions would be necessary, for there, hanging round a slender marble neck, was a peerless diamond and ruby necklace. She felt that she had seen the magnificent piece of jewellery somewhere before, but she quickly dismissed the thought from her mind, and continued to study the exquisitely set rubies surrounded by perfectly cut diamonds, making up a necklace of unparralled beauty. Without giving a moment’s thought to how much the object might cost, Consuela walked slowly towards the thick glass door at the entrance to the shop, and pressed a discreet ivory button on the wall. The House of Graff obviously had no interest in passing trade.
The door was unlocked by the security officer who needed no more than a glance at Mrs. Rosenheim to know that he should usher her quickly through to the inner portals, where a second door was opened and Consuela came face to face with a tall, imposing man in a long black coat and pinstriped trousers.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said, bowing slightly. Consuela noticed that he surreptitiously admired her rings as he did so. “Can I be of assistance?”
Although the room was full of treasures that might in normal circumstances have deserved hours of her attention, Consuela’s mind was focused on only one object.
“Yes. I would like to study more closely the diamond and ruby necklace on display in the third window.”
“Certainly, madam,” the manager replied, pulling back a chair for his customer. He nodded almost imperceptibly to an assistant, who silently walked over to the window, unlocked a little door and extracted the necklace. The manager slipped behind the counter and pressed a concealed button. Four floors above, a slight burr sounded in the private office of Mr. Laurence Graff, warning the proprietor that a customer had enquired after a particularly expensive item, and that he might wish to deal with them personally.
Laurence Graff glanced up at the television screen on the wall to his left, which showed him what was taking place on the ground floor.
“Ah,” he said, once he saw the lady in the pink suit seated at the Louis XIV table. “Mrs. Consuela Rosenheim, if I’m not mistaken.” Just as the Speaker of the House of Commons can identify every one of its 650 members, so Laurence Graff recognized the 650 customers who mignt be able to afford the most extravagant of his treasures. He quickly stepped from behind his desk, walked out of his office and took the waiting lift to the ground floor.
Meanwhile, the manager had laid out a black velvet cloth on the table in front of Mrs. Rosenheim, and the assistant placed the necklace delicately on top of it. Consuela stared down at the object of her desire, mesmerized.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Rosenheim,” said Laurence Graff as he stepped out of the lift and walked across the thick pile carpet towards his would-be customer. “How nice to see you again.”
He had in truth only seen her once before — at a shoulder-to-shoulder cocktail party in Manhattan. But after that, he could have spotted her at a hundred paces on a moving escalator.
“Good afternoon, Mr…” Consuela hesitated, feeling unsure of herself for the first time that day.
“Laurence Graff,” he said, offering his hand. “We met at Sotheby Parke Benett last year — a charity function in aid of the Red Cross, if I remember correctly.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Rosenheim, unable to recall him, on the occasion.
Mr. Graff bowed reverently towards the diamond and ruby necklace.
“The Kanemarra heirloom,” he purred, then paused, before taking the manager’s place at the table. Fashioned in 1936 by Silvio di Larchi,” he continued. “All the rubies were extracted from a single mine in Burma, over a period of twenty years. The diamonds were purchased from De Beers by an Egyptian merchant who, after the necklace had been made up for him, offered the unique piece to King Farouk — for services rendered. When the monarch married Princess Farida he presented it to her on their wedding day, and she in return bore him four heirs, none of whom, alas, was destined to succeed to the throne.”
Graff looked up from one object of beauty and gazed on another.
“Since then it has passed through several hands before arriving at the House of Graff,” continued the proprietor. “Its most recent owner was an actress, whose husband’s oil wells unfortunately dried up.”
The flicker of a smile crossed the face of Consuela Rosenheim as she finally recalled where she had previously seen the necklace.
“Quite magnificent,” she said, giving it one final look. “I will be back,” she added as she rose from her chair. Graff accompanied her to the door. Nine out of ten customers who make such a claim have no intention of returning, but he could always sense the tenth.
“May I ask the price?” Consuela asked indifferently as he held the door open for her.
“One million pounds, madam,” Graff replied, as casually as if she had enquired about the cost of a plastic keyring at a seaside gift shop.
Once she had reached the pavement, Consuela dismissed her chauffeur. Her mind was now working at a speed that would have impressed her husband. She slipped across the road, calling first at The White House, then Yves Saint Laurent, and finally at Chanel, emerging some two hours later with all the weapons she required for the battle that lay ahead. She did not arrive back at her suite at the Ritz until a few minutes before six.
Consuela was relieved to find that her husband had not yet returned from the bank. She used the time to take a long bath, and to contemplate how the trap should be set. Once she was dry and powdered, she dabbed a suggestion of a new scent on her neck, then slipped into some of her newly acquired clothes.
She was checking herself once again in the full-length mirror when Victor entered the room. He stopped on the spot, dropping his briefcase on the carpet. Consuela turned to face him.
“You look stunning,” he declared, with the same look of desire she had lavished on the Kanemarra heirloom a few hours before.
“Thank you, darling,” she replied. “And how did your day go?”
“A triumph. The takeover has been agreed, and at half the price it would it would have cost me only a year ago.”
Consuela smiled. An unexpected bonus.
“Those of us who are still in possession of cash need have no fear of the recession,” Victor added with satisfaction.
Over a quiet supper in the Ritz’s dining room, Victor described to his wife in great detail what had taken place at the bank that day. During the occasional break in this monologue Consuela indulged her husband by remarking “How clever of you, Victor,” “How amazing”, “How you managed it I will never understand.” When he finally ordered a large brandy, lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair, she began to run her elegantly stockinged right foot gently along the inside of his thigh. For the first time that evening, Victor stopped thinking about the takeover.
As they left the dining room and strolled towards the lift, Victor placed an arm around his wife’s slim waist. By the time the lift had reached the sixth floor he had already taken off his jacket, and his hand had slipped a few inches further down. Consuela giggled. Long before they had reached the door of their suite he had begun tugging off his tie.
When they entered the room, Consuela placed the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the outside doorknob. For the next few minutes Victor was transfixed to the spot as he watched his slim wife slowly remove each garment she had purchased that afternoon. He quickly pulled off his own clothes and wished once again that he had carried out his New Year’s resolution.
Forty minutes later Victor lay exhausted on the bed. After a few moments of sighing, he began to snore. Consuela pulled the sheet over their naked bodies, but her eyes remained wide open. She was already going over the next step in her plan.
Victor awoke the following morning to discover his wife’s hand gently stroking the inside of his leg. He rolled over to face her, the memory of the previous night still vivid in his mind. They made love a second time, something they had not done for as long as he could recall.
It was not until he stepped out of the shower that Victor remembered it was his wife’s birthday, and that he had promised to spend the morning with her selecting a gift. He only hoped that her eye had already settled on something she wanted, as he needed to spend most of the day closeted in the City with his lawyers, going over the offer document line by line.
“Happy birthday, darling,” he said as he padded back into the bedroom. “By the way, did you have any luck finding a present?” he added as he scanned the front page of the Financial Times which was already speculating on the possible takeover, describing it as a coup. A smile of satisfaction appeared on Victor’s face for the second time that morning.
“Yes, my darling,” Consuela replied. “I did come across one little bauble that I rather liked. I just hope it isn’t too expensive.”
“And how much is this ‘little bauble’?” Victor asked. Consuela turned to face him. She was wearing only two garments, both of them black, and both of them remarkably skimpy.
Victor started to wonder if he still had the time, but then he remembered the lawyers, who had been up all night and would be waiting patiently for him at the bank.
“I didn’t ask the price,” Consuela replied. “You’re so much cleverer than I am at that sort of thing,” she added, as she slipped into a navy silk blouse.
Victor glanced at his watch. “How far away is it?” he asked.
“Just across the road, in Bond Street, my darling,” Consuela replied. “I shouldn’t have to delay you for too long.” She knew exactly what was going through her husband’s mind.
“Good. Then let’s go and look at this little bauble without delay,” he said as he did up the buttons on his shirt.
While Victor finished dressing, Consuela, with the help of the Financial Times, skillfully guided the conversation back to his triumph of the previous day. She listened once more to the details of the takeover as they left the hotel and strolled up Bond Street together arm in arm.
“Probably saved myself several million,” he told her yet again. Consuela smiled as she led him to the door of the House of Graff.
“Several million?” she gasped. “How clever you are, Victor.”
The security guard quickly opened the door, and this time Consuela found that Mr. Graff was already standing by the table waiting for her. He bowed low, then turned to Victor. “May I offer my congratulations on your brilliant coup, Mr. Rosenheim.” Victor smiled. “How may I help you?”
“My husband would like to see the Kanemarra heirloom,” said Consuela, before Victor had a chance to reply.
“Of course, madam,” said the proprietor. He stepped behind the table and spread out the black velvet cloth. Once again the assistant removed the magnificent necklace from its stand in the third window, and carefully laid it out on the center of the velvet cloth to show the jewels to their best advantage. Mr.Graff was about to embark on the pieces history, when Victor simply said, “How much is it?”
Mr. Graff raised his head. “This is no ordinary piece of jewellery. I feel…”
“How much?” repeated Victor.
“Its provenance alone warrants…”
“The sheer beauty, not to mention the craftsmanship involved…”
“How much?” asked Victor, his voice now rising.
“… the word unique would not be inappropriate.”
“You may be right, but I still need to know how much it’s going to cost me,” said Victor, who was beginning to sound exasperated.
“One million pounds, sir,” Graff said in an even tone, aware that he could not risk another superlative.
“I’ll settle at half a million, no more,” came back the immediate reply.
“I am sorry to say, sir,” said Graff, “that with this particular piece, there’s no room for bargaining.”
“There’s always room for bargaining, whatever one is selling,” said Victor. “I repeat my offer. Half a million.”
“I fear that in this case, sir…”
“I feel confident that you’ll see things my way, given time,” said Victor. “But I don’t have that much time to spare this morning, so I’ll write out a cheque for half a million, and leave you to decide whether you wish to cash it or not.”
“I fear you are wasting your time, sir,” said Graff. “I cannot let the Kanemarra heirloom go for less than one million.”
Victor took out a chequebook from his inside pocket, unscrewed the top of his fountain pen, and wrote out the words ‘Five Hundred Thousand Pounds Only’ below the name of the bank that bore his name. His wife took a discreet pace backwards.
Graff was about to repeat his previous comment, when he glanced up, and observed Mrs. Risenheim silently pleading with him to accept the cheque.
A look of curiosity came over his face as Consuela continued her urgent mime.
Victor tore out the cheque and left it on the table. “I’ll give you twenty four hours to decide,” he said. “We return to New York tomorrow morning — with or without the Kanemarra heirloom. It’s your decision.”
Graff left the cheque on the table as he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Rosenheim to the front door and bowed them out onto Bond Street.
“You were brilliant, my darling,” said Consuela as the chauffeur opened the car door for his master.
“The bank,” Rosenheim instructed as he fell into the back seat. “you’ll have your little bauble, Consuela. He’ll cash the cheque before the twenty four hours are up, of that I’m sure.” The chauffeur closed the back door, and the window purred down as Victor added with a smile, “Happy birthday, darling.”
Consuela returned his smile, and blew him a kiss as the car pulled out into the traffic and edged its way towards Piccadilly. The morning had not turned out quite as she had planned, because she felt unable to agree with her husband’s judgement — but then, she still had twenty-four hours to play with.
Consuela returned to the suite at the Ritz, undressed, took a shower, opened another bottle of perfume, and slowly began to change into the second outfit she had purchased the previous day. Before she left the room she turned to the commodities section of the Financial Times, and checked the price of green coffee.
She emerged from the Arlington Street entrance of the Ritz wearing a double-breasted navy blue Yves Saint Laurent suit and a wide-brimmed red and white hat. Ignoring her chauffeur, she hailed a taxi, instructing the driver to take her to a small, discreet hotel in Knightsbridge. Fifteen minutes later she entered the foyer with her head bowed, and after giving the name of her host to the manager, was accompanied to a suite on the fourth floor. Her luncheon companion stood as she entered the room, walked forward, kissed her on both cheeks and wished her a happy birthday.
After an intimate lunch, and an even more intimate hour spent in the adjoining room, Consuela’s companion listened to her request and, having first checked his watch, agreed to accompany her to Mayfair. He didn’t mention to her that he would have to be back in his office by four o’clock to take an important call from South America. Since the downfall of the Brazilian president, coffee prices had gone through the roof.
As the car traveled down Brompton Road, Consuela’s companion telephoned to check the latest spot price of green coffee in New York (only her skill in bed managed to stop him from calling earlier). He was pleased to learn that it was up another two cents, but not as pleased as she was. Eleven minutes later, the car deposited them outside the House of Graff.
When they entered the shop together arm in arm, Mr. Graff didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Carvalho,” he said. “I do hope that your estates yielded an abundant crop this year.”
Mr. Carvalho smiled and replied, “I cannot complain.”
“And how may I assist you?” enquired the proprietor.
“We would like to see the diamond necklace in the third window,” said Consuela, without a moment’s hesitation.
“Of course, madam,” said Graff, as if he were addressing a complete stranger.
Once again the black velvet cloth was laid out on the table, and once again the assistant placed the Kanemarra heirloom in its center.
This time Mr. Graff was allowed to relate its history, before Carvalho politely enquired after the price.
“One million pounds,” said Graff.
After a moment’s hesitation, Carvalho said, “I’m willing to pay half a million.”
“This is no ordinary piece of jewellery,” replied the proprietor. “I feel…”
“Possibly not, but half a million is my best offer,” said Carvalho.
“The sheer beauty, not to mention the craftsmanship involved…”
“Nevertheless, I am not willing to go above half a million.”
“… the word unique would not be inappropriate.”
“Half a million, and no more,” insisted Carvalho.
“I am sorry to say, sir,” said Graff, “that with this particular piece there no room for bargaining.”
“There’s always room for bargaining, whatever one is selling,” the coffee grower insisted.
“I fear that is not true in this case, sir. You see…”
“I suspect you will come to your senses in time,” said Carvalho. “But, regrettably I do not have any time to spare this afternoon. I will write out a cheque for half a million pounds, and leave you to decide whether you wish to cash it.”
Carvalho took a chequebook from his inside pocket, unscrewed the top of his fountain pen, and wrote out the words ‘Five Hundred Thousand Only’. Consuela looked silently on.
Carvalho tore out the cheque, and left it on the counter.
“I’ll give you twenty-four hours to decide. I leave for Chicago on the early evening flight tomorrow. If the cheque has not been presented by the time I reach my office …”
Graff bowed his head slightly, and left the cheque on the table. He accompanied them to the door, and bowed again when they stepped out onto the pavement.
“You were brilliant, my darling,” said Consuela as the chauffeur opened the car door for his employer.
“The Exchange,” said Carvalho. Turning back to face his mistress, he added, “You’ll have your necklace before the day is out, of that I’m certain, my darling.”
Consuela smiled and waved as the car disappeared in the direction of Piccadilly, and on this occasion she felt able to agree with her lover’s judgement. Once the car had turned the corner, she slipped back into the house of Graff.
The proprietor smiled, and handed over the smartly wrapped gift. He bowed low and simply said, “Happy birthday, Mrs. Rosenheim.”
1. Point out the instances of the author’s direct characterization of the heroine. Do you agree with the author?
2. Is self-characterization present in the short story? Do you think the main character has a common-sense view of herself?
3. Is the manner the main character treats and speaks of other people suggestive of her own disposition? In what way?
4. Do the heroine’s words contradict her actions? Find examples in the text and decide if they contribute to the creation of the image.
5. Would you regard the main character as a positive or a negative one? What is in your opinion the author’s attitude to the heroine? Do you approve of her life-philosophy?
Art for Heart’s Sake
“Here, take your pineapple juice,” gently persuaded Koppel, the male nurse.
“Nope!” grunted Collis P. Ellsworth.
“But it’s good for you, sir.”
“It’s doctor’s orders.”
Koppel heard the front door bell and was glad to leave the room. He found Doctor Caswell in the hall downstairs. “I can’t do a thing with him,” he told the doctor. “He won’t take his pineapple juice. He doesn’t want me to read to him. He hates the radio. He doesn’t like anything!”
Doctor Caswell received the information with his usual professional calm. He had done some constructive thinking since his last visit. This was no ordinary case. The old gentleman was in pretty good shape for a man of seventy-six. But he had to be kept from buying things. He had suffered his last heart attack after his disastrous purchase of that jerkwater railroad out in Iowa. All his purchases of recent years had to be liquidated at a great sacrifice both to his health and his pocketbook.
The doctor drew up a chair and sat down close to the old man. “I’ve got a proposition for you,” he said quietly.
Old Ellsworth looked suspiciously over his spectacles.
“How’d you like to take up art?” The doctor had his stethoscope ready in case the abruptness of the suggestion proved too much for the patient’s heart.
But the old gentleman’s answer was a vigorous “Rot!”
“I don’t mean seriously,” said the doctor, relieved thatdisaster had been averted. “Just fool around with chalk and crayons. It’ll be fun.”
“All right.” The doctor stood up. “I just suggested it, that’s all.”
“But, Caswell, how do I start playing with the chalk — that is, if I’m foolish enough to start?”
“I’ve thought of that, too. I can get a student from one or the art schools to come here once a week and show you.”
Doctor Caswell went to his friend, Judson Livingston, head of the Atlantic Art Institute, and explained the situation. Livingston had just the young man — Frank Swain, eighteen years old and a promising student. He needed the money. Ran an elevator at night to pay tuition. How much would he get? Five dollars a visit. Fine.
Next afternoon young Swain was shown into the big living room. Collis P. Ellsworth looked at him appraisingly.
“Sir, I’m not an artist yet,” answered the young man.
Swain arranged some paper and crayons on the table. “Let’s try and draw that vase over there on the mantelpiece,” he suggested. “Try it, Mister Ellsworth, please.”
“Umph!” The old man took a piece of crayon in a shaky hand and made a scrawl. He made another scrawl and connected the two with a couple of crude lines. “There it is, young man,” he snapped with a grunt of satisfaction. “Such foolishness. Poppycock!”
Frank Swain was patient. He needed the five dollars. “If you want to draw you will have to look at what you’re drawing, sir.”
Old Ellsworth squinted and looked. “By gum, it’s kinda pretty, I never noticed it before.”
When the art student came the following week there was a drawing on the table that had a slight resemblance to the vase.
The wrinkles deepened at the corners of the old gentleman’s eyes as he asked elfishly, “Well, what do you think of it?”
“Not bad, sir,” answered Swain. “But it s a bit lopsided.”
“By gum,” Old Ellsworth chuckled. “I see. The halves don’t match.” He added a few lines with a palsied hand and colored the open spaces blue like a child playing with a picture book. Then he looked towards the door. “Listen, young man,” he whispered, “I want to ask you something before old pineapple juice comes back.”
“Yes, sir,” responded Swain respectively.
“I was thinking could you spare the time to come twice a week or perhaps three times?”
“Sure, Mister Ellsworth.”
“Good. Let’s make it Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Four o’clock.”
As the weeks went by Swain’s visits grew more frequent. He brought the old man a box of water-colors and some tubes of oils.
When Doctor Caswell called Ellsworth would talk about the graceful lines of the andirons. He would dwell on the rich variety of color in a bowl of fruit. He proudly displayed the variegated smears of paint on his heavy silk dressing gown. He would not allow his valet to send it to the cleaner’s. He wanted to show the doctor how hard he’d been working.
The treatment was working perfectly. No more trips downtown to become involved in purchases of enterprises of doubtful solvency.
The doctor thought it safe to allow Ellsworth to visit the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art and other exhibits with Swain. An entirely new world opened in its charming mysteries. The old man displayed an insatiable curiosity about the galleries and the painters who exhibited in them. How were the galleries run? Who selected the canvases for the exhibitions? An idea was forming in his brain.
When the late spring sun began to cloak the fields and gardens with color, Ellsworth executed a god-awful smudge which he called “Trees Dressed in White”. Then he made a startling announcement. He was going to exhibit it in the Summer show at the Lathrop Gallery!
For the Summer show at the Lathrop Gallery was the biggest art exhibit of the year in quality, if not in size. The lifetime dream of every mature artist in the United States was a Lathrop prize. Upon this distinguished group Ellsworth was going to foist his “Trees Dressed in White”, which resembled a gob of salad dressing thrown violently up against the side of a house!
“If the papers get hold of this, Mister Ellsworth will become a laughing-stock. We’ve got to stop him,” groaned Koppel.
“No,” admonished the doctor. “We can’t interfere with him now and take a chance of spoiling all the good work that we’ve accomplished.”
To the utter astonishment of all three — and especially Swain — “Trees Dressed in White” was accepted for the Lathrop show.
Fortunately, the painting was hung in an inconspicuous place where it could not excite any noticeable comment. Young Swain sneaked into the Gallery one afternoon and blushed to the top of his ears when he saw “Trees Dressed in White”, a loud, raucous splash on the wall. As two giggling students stopped before the strange anomaly Swain fled in terror. He could not bear to hear what they had to say.
During the course of the exhibition the old man kept on taking his lessons, seldom mentioning his entry in the exhibit. He was unusually cheerful.
Two days before the close of the exhibition a special messenger brought a long official-looking envelope
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