Thursday, 31 December 2009


Shlemeil. Shlmozel. Shmuck. The Yiddish language is full of evocative words. The last few translate mostly as dolts, or dunderheads. The Sh sound is sh-tupendous for getting a feeling out.

So it is with shmeissing. To shmeiss is a verb meaning to strike or hit. Being shmeissed is a unique way of relaxing, and was one of the shtupendous Christmas gifts from my wife to my son and me. No we were not really hit, at least with any force.

Shmeissing is the guy's answer to a spa treatment. It takes place (uniquely, as far as I can tell) in the presence of the world's only accredited shmeisser and huge Jewish bear of a man named Lee Balch, who works in (and not for) the Portchester Baths near Bayswater. Shmeissing is a kind of massage/soaking/steaming/poaching/cleaning/foot-soaking/skin scraping/cold shocking treatment which in the course of an hour will alter your mood. Favourably.

I have a feeling it could become addictive.

The Portchester Baths (plural) is an old Victorian bathhouse with a rabbit warren of various steam rooms, a sauna, hot rooms (a tepidarium-warm, a calderium-warmer,and  a laconicium-the hottest, not to be confused with the sauna), chaise longues, swimming pools, showers etc.--all designed to percolate your body and mind.  That wasn't the original intention. The original purpose was to provide people who had no hot water a chance to bathe (and do their laundry) once a week. The original ones had a fumigation room for delousing clothes and then one for delousing people before they began the process of getting clean. They had a laundry (the steam being useful for both treatments and cleaning) and the freshly deloused kit was returned to the user at the end of his visit. Such precautions are not necessary today, and no, you cannot get your shirts pressed.

You enter past a matronly woman in a guichet who charges you £22 for the privilege. I inquire after Lee, saying: "We're here to get shmeissed." She is in the main, non-committal, replying: "Inside. Downstairs. You'll find him."

Trying to break the ice, I ask her if she has ever been shmeissed. "It is a required taste," she malaprops, and directs us to a young guy who shows us the lockers which are scattered about in a huge room with an assortment of men of varying shapes and sizes (older and larger, I would venture to say) lounging about. The banter is definitely East End, and lest you have doubts about where this story is heading, this is definitely a guy hangout, not a gay one. The bathhouse has  men only days (Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday) and women only days (Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday AM), and Sunday afternoon is couples day. So it is with Shmeissing.

They issue you with two towels (immense, thick gauge, with that old school laundry smell which says: I can't wait to dry off with this baby). No skimping here. You also get a wrap, which you wrap around your waist, a bit like a Beckham-sari. We go downstairs, and Lee appears, also in a wrap and slippers/flip flops (probably a good idea to bring those, though we didn't).

He is, as advertised, an immense man, and the mind begins to envision being slammed by him with a wet sponge. Hmm.

No fear is necessary. He is very amiable and chatty, and takes us on a tour through the maze of rooms. He suggests we take a sauna first, and then a steam bath, and then we will start the treatment. The schmeissing room has two chairs and two buckets, and then a chair to the side for an onlooker (he does couples on Sundays). The bucket in front of the chair is filled with Epsom salts, and the other one holds the besom, or the big raffia sponge (think mop or an oversized loofah) which he will use to shmeiss. We do his bidding, and return. I go first while my son looks on.

You sit there with your feet in the Epsom bucket while Lee works you over with practiced hands, your neck and shoulders being rid of the various knots and aches. He is (but I repeat myself) a big strong man, and this is done with no modicum of force. It feels great, however.

Lee chats all the time, and when prompted, tells the history of the baths, and how his shmeissing career came about. There is a limit to how much information you can extract when he has your neck in his hands, but that is not the point of the exercise. The point is to relax you, and after an indeterminate period of time, you then adjourn to the steam room at the end of the shmeissing room.

It should be emphasized that shmeissing is not a private affair, hidden away in some treatment room where you might think Max Moseley-like antics are going on behind closed doors in some subterranean lair. Nope. If there are other customers in the steam room, there are other customers in the steam room. What the hey? Do they care? Apparently not.

You then lie down, and get a damned good scrubbing. Not a beating. The besom is used as one would use a mop. Slap.  Mop. Slap. Mop. You get turned over, basted and slapped in appropriate places (no, your nads are safe). He then rinses you off with a hose with cold, and I mean cold, water.

This prepares you for the next step, which is to exit and go into the ice cold plunge pool, which is accessible from both side with steps. Do I go down the steps, or plunge? I inquire. Why do you think they call it plunge? he responds. We both jump in.

I have jumped into the Baltic after a sauna, but that isn't a patch on this. My normal reaction would be to jump out of the water like a tempura shrimp, but he insists I put my head above water and count to 20, slowly. He (though benefitting from a lot do I put it? insulation) says that our body is a furnace, and will heat the water directly around us. Maybe so, but after the allotted time my bones ache and I get the hell out. He then suggests I slap my legs, which are numb.

We then adjourn back to the schmeissing room, where Toby has his turn. Because that room is nice and warm, you immediately begin to experience a sort of euphoria, which is at the same time a feeling of utter cleanliness and relaxation, as though all the bad shit in your system has dissipated into the air. He says it is the thyroxine which is produced naturally. He admits that his thyroid gland doesn't work, and thus he has no natural regulator of temperature in his body (thus explaining his portliness), and has to take it artificially.

I have no such problem, apparently, but I am here to tell you the euphoria you feel is worth much more than the £25 you will part with.

While Toby goes in for his shmeissing I stick my feet back in the Epsom salts, and feel, not to put too fine a point on it, content.

Or as happy as a pig in shit, as I say to Lee when he emerges.

You are under no obligation to leave after your shmeissing. Stick around. Have a nap. Go in the hot rooms. Take another sauna. Whatever. I pay Lee. Cash.

We emerge into another grey drizzly London day with a spring in our step, in stark contrast to the shivering, shuffling masses. We have the feeling that we know something they don't, and we have been well and truly shmeissed. How about that?

If you want to experience this , and in the kindest possible way, you would be a shmuck not to, then here are the details.

Porchester Spa, Queensway, W2 ( 020 7792 3980) Opening hours: 10am- 10pm Men's days : Monday, Wednesday, Saturday Women's days : Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday morning Couples: Sunday afternoon 

Lee's details are: tel: 07973 218211
His website is:

Sunday, 27 December 2009



Never a good time, but the best time for doubt. In the middle of the night, the barely active mind can sift through the unconscious and dredge up a thousand excuses for failure, details that might go wrong, regrets for things done or left undone,  worries about the future or dreams that may never happen.

It is a time to glance over at the clock, and groan. There is almost nothing good about 4AM.


Sometimes in the midst of the miasma of self examination, an insight can be had.

Sometimes a pattern can be discerned through the fog of semi-consciousness. Sometimes a eureka moment can pierce through the gloom, a pinpoint of light from off in the distance.

Of course. It is so simple. So obvious. The word doubt itself.

It is an anagram. 

Rearrange the letters.


Doubt is doing, but doing at half speed. Not being fully engaged.  Looking while leaping. Being a spectator in your own scene. Letting fear rule. Stopping nature but added a comma where there should be a full stop. Second guessing. Thinking about the past instead of the present. Doubt, is doing, but with an unnecessary addendum. 

Doubt is doomed to failure. 
Want to know what a champion thinks of doubt? Martina Navratilova, when asked what made a champion, said total commitment. Prompted to clarify, she said, it's like with ham and eggs. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Undoubtedly. Totally. Unequivocally. No but.

That is why Nike uses as its slogan Just do it. Do without asking why. Get to the point where you trust yourself totally, where your mind, heart, body and soul meld into one, where you strip off the But from Do, leaving the essence of your being.

Forget the voice inside your head at 4AM, and get some rest for a new day.

Don't doubt. Do.

Friday, 25 December 2009


What did you see when you read this title?  

Did you think that this is an impossibility, that all lives are full of problems, and to think otherwise is naive and deluded? 

Or did you notice that the real intended meaning lies hidden amongst the letters?

Read it again. The capital letters only this time.

For hidden beneath the problems which are inevitably a part of the human condition, of trying to exist in the temporal, physical, and spiritual world at the same time, is poetry. 

A life without PrOblEMS is no life at all.

And that is what makes us human.

You can't define poetry. You can't just summon up poetry unless there is a reason, and usually that reason is a feeling...a moment of pain or pleasure or insight or appreciation.

A word.
An image.
An emotion.
A frustration.
A contradiction.

You cannot describe poetry, just like you cannot describe love. It just is.

I have loved hours at sea, grey cities
The fragile secret of a flower
Music, the making of a poem
That gave me heaven for an hour
First stars above a snowy hill,
Voices of people kindly and wise
And the great look of love, long hidden,
Found at last in meeting eyes.

Sara Teasdale

I don't know Sara Teasdale from Adam. But I do understand her....somehow....for in a few words, she gave me heaven for an hour.

I have no idea why she wrote this, or when. I do not know if she was beautiful, or old or young....whether she had a happy and complete life or one that was full of regrets, of chances not taken, of hours of pain alleviated only by few sublime moments. I only know that she can feel, and that she can tell others about it. I know that she can tap into my spirit, if only briefly.

We leave little behind us in life. A few friends. A family if we are lucky. Memories that quickly die. We can leave words however, and the right words can live on forever. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


So much of English...I mean the real English spoken in England, is delivered in code. The language is a very subtle dance using coded signals that may mean precisely the opposite of what they seem. The typical British person wants, at all costs, to avoid controversy, confrontation, or commentary, at least in person face to face. In groups, this subtlety is dropped and a pack-of-hyenas mentality takes over as hapless prey is ripped to bits (not surprising from the country that brought you Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament or Lord of the Flies). I am also not talking about the media, for the media is the most open, clever and vicious in the world, and can get away with the most amazingly scurrilous headlines or commentary which in most places would be considered libelous. This in spite of the fact that the UK is the libel capital of the universe. Nor am I talking about the hooligan element. They are just as in-your-face as your basic gangsta rapper.

I am talking about the way sentences are constructed in person, face to face, mano a mano. Have no idea what this means? Humour me.

Let's start with some prefaces to sentences which one hears daily.

With the greatest of respect...
I hear what you're saying...
At the end of the day....
To be fair....
Without putting too fine a point on it...
I think we can agree....

I think we can agree that all of these starts to sentences are no more than preparatory jabs designed to soften up the belly before delivering body shots which are in fact the opposite to what they sound like they mean. The real meaning of these are hidden in the subtext, and woe betide the gullible foreigner who takes them at face value.

Herewith a primer:


With the greatest of respect…
I have little or no respect for you (ie. you're shite and you know you are)

I hear what you're saying...
I have no idea what you are saying and in any case it matters not a whit since I am right

At the end of the day…
A meaningless phrase, having nothing to with the day, or indeed the end of it. Used as filler.

To be fair....
This is my opinion, and fairness has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Also used a filler

Without putting too fine a point on it...
There is no point, even down to a nanometer, fine enough to underline how I am right and you are wrong, or otherwise put, you're shite and you know you are

I think we can agree....
I think I can agree, what you think doesn't enter into it, and anyway, you're shite and you know you are

The Japanese are well known for sucking their teeth, nodding their head, saying Yes, and meaning Yes, that question is difficult....Yes, I heard you and may or may not do what you want or have asked me, when they really mean: you're shite and you know you are. The English are the same. It is just a different form of subtlety.

We are all human, after all.


I once was in Athens, and asked a taxi driver why he thought that the Parthenon had stood for more than two thousand years. An amateur architect, he said because of two things: balance and simplicity. 
That got me to thinking. What makes a successful design, or indeed any successful venture?

The answer is in the simplicity of the design, the clarity of purpose, the attention to detail, and most importantly, balance.

A strong venture is a like a strong building and should be approached as such.

What are the characteristics of strong performance?

A strong foundation based on a strong PRINCIPLE, a clear PURPOSE, and an unselfish PRIDE in work and achievement.

A balanced approach to the seven pillars which support the structure of any enterprise:

  • The People who are the central support to a company--including employees, customers, suppliers,  family, and friends.
  • A commitment to the continuous development  of Products which will stand the test of the harshest critics and inspire loyalty from their biggest fans and which form the cornerstone of any company
  • An attention to the components which make up Profit-- the generation of sales, the control of costs, the strength of capital structure and financing
  • Investment in Plant -- the working environment, the technology, and the infrastructure which enable employees to extract the maximum productivity and pleasure from the work that they do.
  • Process which is continually refined to simplify development, production and delivery of products and takes into account both the internal and external needs and desires of the company, its employees, its customers,  and the environment
  • Systematic Planning for the future which is structured but dynamic, which tries to anticipate but can respond to a sudden change in market realities
  • A clear-headed and consistent approach to Problems which inevitably crop up--whether or not they stem from internal failings or external forces--and which demonstrate an honest and decisive path towards their resolution

Is this a recipe for success? Well maybe not, because luck and timing also play their part. But if these elements are not considered in their turn as part of a whole venture, the venture is doomed to failure. Forget one key element- a lack of capital, treating your employees or customers badly, not planning, ignoring problems, not investing in plant, abandoning long term principles in favour of short term gain,not taking pride in your work or indeed not recognising the pride that others take in theirs, forgetting the purpose of the whole enterprise...and the whole thing goes down the tubes.

A very bright accountant once said to me: Ce qui se concoit bien, s'annonce clairement. That which is well conceived can be clearly explained.

Construct things with the same aforethought as the people who built the Parthenon, and you have a chance, a small chance, of success. Forget balance and simplicity, and the importance that the foundation and each pillar plays in supporting the infrastructure of performance, and the structure will crumble eventually.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


I have survived in large corporations. Or not. Well, to be honest, the corporations (large banks) haven't survived (not my fault really, a global trend if you haven't noticed). In the past this used to be a surprise. At least it was to me. Now, however, in post Credit Crunch purgatory, it is a surprise if they DO survive.

Anyway, over the years I have come up with some observations about the process of survival, and have distilled it to the following four short sentences.

Get up.
Show up.
Put up.
Shut up.

Sad but true. I have also been, both as a boss and an underling (where I find myself again), a keen observer of human nature. I have decided that in the main, modern corporations don't really give a rat's ass about management, despite what the self-help books may say. Jacques Cousteau, the famous french oceanographer, once said: "Dans la mer, il n'y a pas de cruauté, seulement l'angoisse de survivre."   In the sea, there is no cruelty, only the terror of survival.

So it is in corporate life. There is always a bigger shark in the pool, or if you are the shark, then the hunter pack of shareholders, the press, or the market, which is faceless, emotionless, and brutal.

The large corporation is staffed by the silent majority, who have learned that the path of least resistance is the answer to survival in the pool. So much of corporate life is about how you are perceived, and a performance loop is created (see above) which can be a virtuous or vicious circle. Most people can't be arsed, and thus sleepwalk through the process, trying not to rock the boat, anesthetising their feelings with drink, iPods, or a collective shrug of shoulders (the yeah-whatever syndrome).   If for one moment, a boss, preoccupied with his own battles above him, took a minute to consider how to enter into the performance loop of each employee, then people might be happier and more productive.

But the world is not like that now. Longevity counts for nothing. You want loyalty, go get a cocker spaniel, said a boss in Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, itself swallowed by Travellers which was merged with Smith Barney and then Citibank and then almost imploded before being merged with the US government. This is merely symptomatic of an attention deficit disorder planet with the memory of a flea and the morals of a whore, or a general impermanence and lack of values.

Everyone knows that we need little to survive, but spend a lot of our time fighting for the excess that never really makes us happy. Sad but true.

But most of us, when faced with the deep pile of caca which is the daily grind, just learn to keep our head down and stare straight ahead, and hope the baying hounds of greed don't notice. Survival, but at a price, requiring the guile of a fox.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


For a little over a year, I have been writing a weekly market update at work, a commentary on world markets, centering mostly on the UK. Check them out.  

Santander Weekly Market Update

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Magic 100%

I went to a seminar over the weekend- a team building exercise given by a professor and former hostage negotiator, George Kohlrieser. I learned a lot about how to approach people (something I almost never had reflected upon), and a little about some of the weaknesses (call them character traits) that I have which may prevent me from winning as much as I would like. Then I returned home, and got an email this AM from a friend which put a different spin on the whole thing.

First the seminar. There were about 50 or so people. Multicultural, multilingual, varying ages. All were bankers, but upon closer examination some had unusual backgrounds. A national ballroom dancing champion. Marathoners. Musicians. Someone who wanted to run a hotel, or be a chef. Working mothers.

The point of the exercise was to understand a bit more how you interact with people, your colleagues and customers, within the organisation and outside. This was done with a mix of a lecture, slides, some videos, discussion, and role plays.

If I had to sum up what I learn it would be the following:

1. Listen.  MY BAD
2. Remember the question. MY BAD
3. Think before you speak. MY BAD
4. Stick to 4 sentences. MY BAD 
5. Cut to the chase.
6. Find common ground with whomever you are engaging with.
7. Learn to control your emotions.

and something which, oddly enough, was not mentioned but is perhaps one of the most important factors in all interpersonal relationships:

8. Laugh at yourself. MY GOOD

I used to come up with all sorts of what might charitably be called psycho-babble when I ran a company, trying to distill many ideas into simple thoughts, and a lot of those ideas resonated within me while I thought what I learned at this seminar. In fact, the exercise dredged up a lot of feelings and thoughts which had long been submerged.

Then I returned home and got the following email. I'll call it the Magic 100%, and it is mathematical proof of what we were talking about.....perhaps in a cynical way. Unfortunate, my friend Liam Leckie who sent it to me did not attribute it to anybody, so I cannot give credit where credit is due. So kudos to the anonymous cynic. 


What Makes 100%? What does it mean to give MORE than 100%? Ever wonder about those people who say they are giving more than 100%? We have all been to those meetings where someone wants you to give over 100%. How about achieving 103%? What makes up 100% in life?

Here's a little mathematical formula that might help you answer these questions:
is represented as:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 (%).

H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K  =
8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11 = 98%

K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E  =
11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5 = 96%


A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E  =
1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5 = 100%

B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T =
2+21+12+12+19+8+9+20 = 103%

AND, perhaps most surprisingly.
A-S-S-K-I-S-S-I-N-G =
1+19+19+11+9+19+19+9+14+7 = 118%

So, one can conclude with mathematical certainty, that while

Hard Work and Knowledge will get you close, and
Attitude will get you there...
It's the
Bullshit and Ass Kissing
that will put you over the top.

Har har har. Good one, eh?

This is certainly the attitude of many of the footsoldiers who have to put up with the pronouncements of the generals who are far from the action and don't understand what is needed every day to achieve the results the generals want. I am not sure whether George would have approved of this (hostage negotiation not really being a laughing matter) but what the hey?

But back to the team concept.

I remember a situation in the company I ran where selfish and irresponsible behavior had threatened the makeup of the team, and I wrote the following. As I said it resonated within me listening to the people speak at this seminar (as time goes on we forget even the things we said or did), and I went back and read what I wrote those many years ago and found it just as applicable today, tomorrow or whenever.

T is for Talent and Trust

E is for Enthusiasm and Empathy

A is for Attitude and Appreciation

M is for Motivation and Membership.

Every individual on the team must HAVE the Talent to make a difference, the Enthusiasm to make it happen, the Attitude to overcome obstacles, and the Motivation to persevere, and every individual must FEEL a Trust in his teammates that they can be counted on and will deliver, Empathy for their situation, their point of view and their weaknesses, Appreciation for their accomplishments, and a feeling of Membership no matter how great or seemingly insignificant the role.

A Team is never eternal; it is a holy creation of the Moment.
So thanks to George for giving my psyche a nudge, and to some of the exceptional people (like Daniel and Charles and many others) whom I met there.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009



The afternoon sun plays tricks on the mind, creating an imaginary mousehole on a colourful italian terrace in Sardegna From GalleryDEricPettigrew


We are all trapped in a bubble of gas in a barren universe From GalleryDEricPettigrew


Only colours catch the eye in the glare of the sun From GalleryDEricPettigrew


From GalleryDEricPettigrew


A horse obligingly poses on an early morning walk From GalleryDEricPettigrew

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

BINARY CODE Chapter 20 A False Talisman

"You remember the time we almost hit the submarine?" I was asking Dewey as we crossed the Cooper River Bridge heading towards Mt. Pleasant and Sullivan's Island. "What was that, dear?" asked Dewey's wife Elisabeth. "You've never told me this one." "In fact it was the same threesome," said Dewey. He looked through the rear view mirror at Tess, who was in the back seat of the minivan along with Elizabeth. His three kids were in the back seat of the Toyota, two rambunctious boys and a little sister momentarily distracted by their books. "Where was Stokely that time?" he asked, not directing his question particularly. "That was the summer he was in Europe, wasn't it Tess?" I offered up. "I think so," answered Tess. "So what happened?" Elisabeth was insistent, used to our detours and sidetracks. I started. "It was August, really hot and hazy, and we decided to go on a sail on Dewey's Hobie from Sullivan's Island all the way into the harbor. We were out there somewhere near Sumter, and ahead of us in the haze I saw what I took to be an island with a flag flying from a narrow building on it. You know how sometimes the sky is blue but around the water it's foggy?" I was turned halfway in the front seat, talking directly to her. She nodded. "Anyway, it was the first time I had been sailing in the harbor, and I didn't really know if there was another island in it or not. I had only heard of Fort Sumter." "I was at the bow and Tess and Dewey were astern, talking to each other. I called back at Dewey. What's the name of that island?" ‘"Island?" he yelled back. Dewey chimed in. "Some island. I looked up and saw this Skipjack class sub bearing down at us. They were still a couple of hundred yards off, but they were steaming straight for us, and us for them. There wasn't a lot of wind, and by the time we headed off they were close enough to yell at. There were a few of them in the conning tower waving their hands like crazy and yelling at us, "Assholes!" or something like that." We laughed with the luxury of those safely recalling the folly of youth. Out on Sullivan’s island at Dewey’s family house, things hadn’t really changed that much since we were teenagers. Of course now there were several rows of houses and not a spare lot in sight, but a lot of the old clapboard houses which I remembered from my youth had escaped the ravages of the hurricane which blasted the coast several years before. His house had been in his family for years, passed on through three generations to him when the elder Mr. Ravanel died several years back. We sat on the porch, looking out at the waves and sipping margaritas while the kids played inside. Dewey read through the Shareholder’s Agreement and what Tess and I had written about our talks with Mary and our theory about MacEnzie and his friend Doctor Riley. Dewey reacted like the calm, reasoning lawyer he was. He had his fingers pressed together under his chin, his lips pursed in thought. “Well?” I asked him. “ And you want me to tell you what to do...or what can be done.” “It would help us...decide which way to go.” I said, looking over at Tess as our eyes met in confirmation . Dewey spoke slowly and deliberately. “What does Stokely think about all this? It will have an effect on your whole family.” Again our eyes met, and Tess spoke up. “Uh...we haven’t told him...” she said, “....yet.” Dewey’s eyebrows arched and he ran his tongue over his lips slowly as he realised that the two of us were in on more than just this discovery. “Oh.” he said, letting this fact float in the salt air, carried by the bouyancy of the sound of waves crashing in on the beach. “I see.” “Well, let me put it this way,” he continued. “There is a statute of limitations which runs out after forty years. What is more, all the people involved are long since dead, and proving anything will be best. “ “What about the Shareholder’s Agreement?” I interjected. “Doesn’t that give us...I mean Helmut’s heirs, some sort of leverage?” I caught myself trespassing on territory that wasn’t mine, and looked over at Tess, who seemed not to mind. “Don’t you think it’s possible that Tess’s family still has rights to the ownership of UBI? Especially since perhaps MacKenzie killed their great grandfather just to take away what was rightfully his? Isn’t there some way legally to get back at them?” Dewey looked skeptical. “What are you trying to accomplish?” he asked. “Take over UBI? Become multibillionaires?” Tess spoke up. “Justice, Dewey. The assholes always seem to get ahead in this world. Wouldn’t it be nice if they don’t get away with it for once?” Dewey shook his head. “That particular asshole seems to have gotten away with it quite nicely. He’s long dead and I bet he died rich and happy. Even his family no longer owns the company. I’ve got shares in UBI for Chrissakes. So do you probably, and practically every fund manager and Belgian dentist. Don’t you think this might just be like tilting at windmills a bit?” He looked at us, expecting a reply. The waves crashed in the background, a steady syncopation accompanying a silence that gave him his answer. Tess and I said nothing but just looked at him and then at each other, realising without speaking that we were serious. “Well,” he said finally. “Who would have thunk it fifteen years ago? We were just kids then, weren’t we?” He shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with his role as arbiter in a struggle between his friends and an as yet anonymous foe. “ It was all such a lark back then. Everything was. We never played for keeps.” I realised suddenly that he had quietly been knocking back margeritas twice as fast as the rest of us, and that the calm steady voice of the lawyer masked a tiredness, perhaps the tiredness of upholding a perfect and unsullied life. “What do you want me to do?” he sighed at last. “Can you look into it?” I asked. “Can you see if there is a legal basis for a claim against MacKenzie’s heirs? You’ve got the Shareholder’s Agreement and we have Mary as a witness... even if it will be difficult to prove.” Dewey had a pained expression on his face. He looked over to his wife for guidance. Her words surprise him. “Why not, Dewey? What have you got to lose? At least this beats defending big corporations against product liability suits.” “Okay,” he said finally. “We should tell Stokely though. When is he coming back?” The Brains Trust had never really been disbanded, I thought to myself. There was still a leader of the band, and nothing would ever change that. Not even growing up. Tess spoke in a tone that only a sibling could produce. “Stokely’s in Asia until next week,” she said. Dewey grunted non-committedly. “Why don’t you do a little research before then? “she asked. “That way we’ll know whether it’s worth pursuing at all before we tell him.” This was unassailable feminine logic at its best. “Okay,” he said. “Monday. Monday I’ll look into it... Who knows?” he added. “Stranger things have happened.” Dewey suddenly raised his margerita and said with mock seriousness: “To victory over injustice, villains, and....” He left the sentence unfinished. “And what?” I asked. He reached forward, lightly tapping the glass five times on the table. “Best of luck to you all in this quixotic quest!” He tapped four times more. On the final tap he brought the glass down too hard, cracking it in the process. The snap code had been resurrected from the dead. “And UBI!” Tess broke in, still proficient at the code after all those years. I looked at the glass. The crack ran down from the crusty remains of the salt around the rim, stopping at the frontier of the heavy base. The opaque yellow liquid stayed in, peering out through a curved lens on the verge of bursting. “To victory over UBI!” I repeated, clicking first Tess’s and Elisabeth’s glasses, and then touching Dewey’s ever so gently. He didn’t notice the crack as he picked it up. “Careful,” I said. “Go softly.” “Yeah, softly.” Dewey drained the glass and slammed it down on the table. This time the crack didn’t hold and a triangular piece fell out, leaving behind a jagged edge which sliced the meaty base of his thumb. “Damn,” he said. “Damn.” He dabbed at the blood with a napkin. The triangular wedge of glass had falled inward to the bottom of the glass with its most acute angles pointing like an arrow at me. I bent down to pick it up, and the thought that went through my mind was that this was a bad omen, a false talisman pointing its bad luck in my direction. This thought followed me out to the kitchen, lodging itself in the pit of my stomach while I disposed of the glass. There it remained, a warning that went acknowledged but unheeded.

BINARY CODE Chapter 19 The Theoretical House

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Proving a theory is like building a house. If the foundation of logic is solid, the frame of analysis sound, and the angles of support symmetric, then hanging the doors and windows and walls of proof on the skeleton of supposition is merely a question of application. We were sitting in the Richmond Airport. I was going to catch a plane back to New York, and Tess was heading back south to North Carolina. She held my hand easily, naturally, as if we had been this close our whole lives. The silence between us carried just as much weight as words. "What are you going to do?" she asked. This was a question with a thousand and one meanings and twice as many answers. "What do you mean? Today? Next week? Over the long term? About us?" I said it good naturedly, and she took it the same way. She smiled. "It wasn't a loaded question. Start with today..." "Today..." I said. "Today I am going to figure out a way to get back to see you. That means thinking about everything else in my life ..." She picked her head off my shoulder and looked straight through my eyes. "And yours..." I added. "You know, Evan. You don't have to hurry into anything. I'm not going anywhere." I knew what she meant by that. "Neither am I, Tess," I said. We sat in silence, watching people move by at different speeds and with differing degrees of care on their faces. An airport is a good place to view the full gamut of human emotions. In the anonymity of transience people let down their guards. "What about our mystery?" she said. I looked around as people milled back and forth, oblivious to us or to what we were talking about. "It all revolves around the doctor. I think he's the key. Without his complicity my idea makes no sense. Since he obviously wasn't from around Matthews, it's probably going to be easier to find him out about him in New York." I squeezed her hand. "Power, money, and pride. It's all there, Tess. People haven't really changed much over the years. They still do bad things for stupid reasons. And a lot of times they get away with it." The plane was called, cutting short our conversation. I looked at Tess and one of those seemingly incongruous thoughts passed through my head. "Isn't it strange?" I asked her. "What?" "I calculated it once. When you're forty years old, you've lived over 21 million minutes. Yet out of all that time, there are really only so few that count for anything, so few that have any bearing on the direction you take in life, and only two that start you off or end it all." "Oh, that sounds ominous," she said. "No, I didn't mean it like that. I meant these past few days. They were important moments...a new beginning, Tess. We're going on a trip...and I wonder where we'll end up." "As long as we're together," she said. Suddenly a sad smile creased her face. I nodded with my eyelashes. I kissed her and held her tightly, her body a perfect fit against mine. "I'll call you tonight," I said, and as I entered the tunnel at the gate I looked back at her, her shoulders sloping towards the floor, her arm half-raised in an attentuated girl scout salute, a fake pout on her face masking the sadness we both felt. I slept on the plane. When I awoke the lights of Manhattan were ambling past as we banked towards LaGuardia. My mind raced back to earlier that day at Valhalla, when the two of us were trying to eke out a few last moments on the hammock. It's just like God, I had thought to myself. Every so often he lets us all climb out of the valleys of despair, but he makes sure that the slog up the mountain is long and hard. And when we get to the peak, we can't stay there too long. The air is too rarefied, and even though the view stretches endlessly before us, it's an illusion. We'll have the memory, but already we have to start the descent just to survive. My mind and heart were hiving off in two directions like jet fighters at some airshow. Had Tess been there, perhaps I would have ignored my mind and just followed the whims of my heart. Back alone in the chill of the Northeast however, the warm hand of my curiosity was leading me, and I pressed forward to confirm the theory quietly percolating in my subconscious. My phone call to Tess that night was long and frustrating, the magic of technology making her voice seem right next to me, dangling the false closeness maddeningly out of reach. The next night's call was different. "Guess where I've been today?" I began. "Where?" she humoured me. "I went up to New Haven to the Medical School to look through the AMA files they have there..." There was an excited tone in my voice. "And?" Tess was impatient. "Doctor Riley was pretty famous himself. There's a wing of the hospital named after him." "A wing? Which hospital?" "The Yale Hospital. I visited it myself. There's more..." I was being cruel. "Guess what kind of wing?" Tess was losing patience. "Go on, Evan. Tell me." "The Malcolm Riley Cardiology Wing." "Cardiology..." Tess exhaled. "It gets better. Guess where the funds came from to build it?" She was ahead of me. "UBI." "You got it. Every year until he died in 1936." "Jesus." Tess exclaimed. "I also found out his specialty in the journals," I continued. "He was one of the pioneers of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. He was the first person to use adrenalin to restart hearts. This guy was a clockmaker, Tess. He could start or stop the ticker at his whim. He would know if it were a heart attack, or more importantly, how to make it look like one. And who was going to argue with him in a small county hospital in Gloucester?" There was a stunned silence at the other end of the phone. What had seemed a theory suddenly seemed to make sense. "Faust." Tess seemed to spit out the word. "What?" I hadn't heard what she said. "Making a deal with the devil," she said bitterly. "The bastards." "Can we prove anything?" There was firm resolve in her voice. "Proving a murder eighty years on when the murderers are long since dead will be next to impossible and useless anyway. But it doesn't matter anyway." "What do you mean?" Tess asked, quick to respond. "We have ammunition, or rather your family has ammunition. We may not be able to get back at MacEnzie or his pal, but we can hit his family where it hurts. The Shareholder's Agreement, Tess. It's real alright, and we have Mary who can back it up with what she said about your great-grandfather's words to MacEnzie. We are partners again. Again. The agreement at 1819 is valid. Valid enough to make MacEnzie want to kill old Helmut." "So you think that was the main reason?" "An inventor starts a company with a businessman. The company does well. The businessman sees the possibilities way beyond their initial success. Big isn't bad, he thinks. He buys out the inventor, but he realises when the inventor's gone that he still needs his expertise. He brings him back again, but this time the inventor has wised up. He wants more of a say in the business side. Big egos clash. Something has to give, and the businessman is ruthless enough to win out and get rid of the old thorn in his side." I let that sink in, and then pressed on. "He's smart enough to get away with it, and he eases his conscience by giving some of the blood money for good deeds and by enshrining his dead partner as an icon of the twentieth century. And when nobody ever produces the missing shareholder's agreement, a myth is born. The company grows up around a doctored history, and bad deeds are erased." There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the phone. Something between a gasp and a sigh. "Oh me....."she said. "I think you're right." The enormity of it all filtered through the silence on the line. "What are we going to do?" she continued. "We know a lawyer, right?" I offered. "I'll call Dewey and get his opinion..." and then thinking ahead, I added: "Do you think you can go to 1819 and meet me in Charleston by this weekend?" "What should I tell the others? My parents? Stokely?" My brain was suddenly spinning. Between the two of us, a theory was only a theory. Brought out into the open, it would become set in concrete, either as truth or as the ramblings of an active imagination. It would have far reaching implications, both for us and for the family. We were about to cross our own little Rubicon, and rightly or wrongly, I preferred that we do it alone. "When does Stokely return?" Oddly enough, this was the first time we had talked of Stokely since going to Valhalla. "Not until next week," she replied. "Do we wait?" "What do you think?" she came back, the ball in my court. "I don't think either of us want to tell him over the phone with him in Asia, do you? He won't be able to do anything from there, will he?" "No." "And do you want to tell your parents or the others? It is still a theory." "Just us then." "Just us." As simple as that, a club had been created, a secret club with only two members. Perhaps it was the wrong thing to do. Perhaps in retrospect we should have co-opted the others, especially Stokely, by bringing them in at the beginning. I after all, was an outsider. I had nothing to gain. I just wanted to be with Tess. In any case, it was set. I called Dewey, and told him that the two of us were going to be in Charleston for the weekend. He sounded bemused that we were coming as a pair, but was as hospitable as ever, suggesting we all stay out at their house on Sullivan's Island. I didn't tell him anything. Tess and I agreed that we should collect our thoughts by each of us writing down independently what we had done from finding the agreement to our conversation with Mary. That way we would be sure to have a story to tell Dewey that was organised and as close to the truth as our memories would allow. Tess agreed to fly first to Washington, make a copy of the Shareholder's Agreement, and meet me Saturday morning in Charleston. We had built our theoretical house. Now we would live in it.

BINARY CODE-Chapter 18 The Ashes of The Past

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Of course you cannot help but compare. Life is a progression between the two powerful poles of desire and memory. With each passing day the desire of youth, fueled by the fearsome attraction of the unknown, is gradually replaced by memories of the known, until eventually all you are left with are memories of desires, frustrated or fulfilled. It is a process as inevitable as the sunrise. You can never replicate the freshness of the first time you saw the turquoise blue of the waters around a Bahamian cay or the silent wonderous magic of the child's first snowfall. Instead the mind uses all experience to create a mosaic of new sensations which have the weight of comparison behind them. Tess was still asleep next to me as the sun streamed through the window. The covers had fallen open and one of her breasts lay exposed to the chill of the morning, her nipple dotted with goosebumps from the cold air. I looked at her in repose, her lips relaxed, the darkness of her eyebrows a horizontal line dividing a face that was both long and full. Suddenly I felt an surge of desire overcome me in waves that coursed through my body, a complicated interplay between emotion and reason as the magical machinery of memory and desire kicked into gear. I reached under the covers and slowly traced a line down from her breasts, feeling the muscles of her abdomen tighten. Her skin grow taut as my fingers approached like attacking soldiers sneaking up on a hillock covered with gorse. She stirred and I bent down to suck her nipple, feeling the initial cold stiffness grow warm and soft, then stiffen again as I drew a circle around it with my tongue. She let out a moan and I moved to quieten it with my lips. I felt her body turn towards mine, her legs opening slowly, a drawbridge to allow me passage through into a warm bottomless lake. "Oh dear," she murmured quietly as her eyes came open. "That was a nice way to be woken up." The word intimate has many meanings. As a verb it can mean to hint or suggest. It can also mean to proclaim. Dressed as an adjective, it can mean close, secret, or sometimes even essential. To become intimate with someone is to combine all these definitions, to shed the external skin that we all have and to enter into a hidden internal world--physical, mental, and spiritual--a world where secrets previously hinted at are confirmed or denied, where barriers are breached, where two people surrender themselves to each other willingly. We were on different ground now. It was as though a trapdoor had swung open from the world we had inhabited all our lives and deposited us in a brand new world, one which looked the same but was somehow very different. Was being with Tess different than Lydia? It is like asking if the blue sky is always blue. I read once that we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are. Everything depends on your point of view, your place along the timeline of your life. I fell in love with Lydia almost immediately, yet it was a long time before I went out with her. Nonetheless, somehow that initial feeling remained constant, topped up from time to time, but never really exceeding the incredible surge of electricity I felt that first time in the attic at Valhalla. I didn't think it possible, but somehow we managed to keep up the same powerful flow through the years, and I never ever will forget the jolt I used to feel every time I heard her voice say my name, as I felt somehow honoured by God to be addressed by her. Was Tess similar? We were friends for the longest time. It was only after Lydia's death that my feelings for her began to grow in small increments, rising imperceptibly like the level of a tidal pool, not noticeable until I was surrounded by deep water. Comparing the two was impossible and not fair, since they were both different just as I was different. As I lay there, smelling the sweet cleanness of Tess's hair and feeling her body next to mine, I reflected on the two of us, veterans of some long campaign. I felt the strange mixture of contentment and relief tinged with guilt which comes with being a survivor. "Would you like soft-shelled crabs for breakfast?" I asked. "Oh yes, please," she said, wrapping herself around me and kissing my ear. There was a silence in the room, interrupted only by the sound of our breathing. "Thank you," she whispered softly and slowly, her mouth pressed against my ear. I knew it had nothing to do with my offer of breakfast. I looked at her and rubbed my nose against her cheek. "Tess." I said, and kissed her again. The cold floor was a shock to the system, but the day was bright with that newly minted look of spring. The leaves were just at the point of adolescence, changing from the yellow green of new growth into a darker green slightly more care-worn. "What shall we do today?" she asked. I think back now on that moment, and I somehow wish I had said something different, that I had left well enough alone and suggested that we take a walk or a sail or make love again all day or do anything but continue to poke around the ashes of the past. It would have been simpler, and who knows what might have happened. But I didn't, and to this day despite my regret I don't know why I didn't. What I did say was: "Why don't we go visit Mary and Jake again?" A flicker of disappointment, the most miniscule trace, flashed across Tess's face, but she said "Okay," and the day's concrete mold began to set, a footprint that I wish somehow had headed off in a different direction. We called them before going, speaking first to Jake, who despite the early hour sounded as though he had already been drinking something stronger than orange juice. He passed the phone over to Mary, who seemed to have retraced the few friendly steps she had made toward us and was non-committal at best, if not downright unfriendly. We were in no hurry and said we would be over in the afternoon. We spent the morning moseying around Valhalla, cooking a first class breakfast and revelling in what for us was a world with only the two of us in it. We were sitting out on the dock by the boathouse looking out towards the buoys in the distance where only six months earlier we had scattered Lydia's ashes together. What could have been awkward seemed like a natural progression. "You know, life is strange, isn't it?" Tess suddenly said to me, her head leaning on my shoulder. "I used to dream when I was young that we would be doing this, you and I, only I thought we would be doing this twenty years ago. When you got married, I gave up ever thinking it would happen and even when Lydia was killed I never thought..." Her words tailed off as she struggled with what to say. "I hope you don't think that I am gloating that things turned out this way." I hugged her. "Tess," I sighed. "One thing I've learned in life is that we have no control over the big things and only marginal control over the small things. So you have to be grateful when the big things go your way." I paused and looked at her. "And this is a big thing." By the cusp of the afternoon, the sun had warmed up the air sufficiently to take a swim off the boathouse. We went skinny dipping like teenagers, washing the salt off under the water tower. The day meandered by at a languid pace, seconds lurching into minutes and stumbling into hours like drunks with nowhere to go. By three, we were very peckish and decided to stop on the way to Jake's and pick up a barbeque. I was still wiping the remnants off the corner of my mouth as we rolled up to Jake's house, where Mary was sitting out front on an old chair dragged out from inside. "Well, don't you two look like the cat who ate the canary," she cackled as we got out of the car. Tess and I looked sheepishly at each other. I was taken back to the night of my initiation into sex at age sixteen, when I returned home to find my parents and my aunt and uncle surprisingly still on the back porch, drinking coffee and chewing the fat. I felt as though I was different, as though I now sported a badge on my forehead which said THIS BOY IS NO LONGER A VIRGIN. They might have noticed I was acting a little strange, but in retrospect I think their knowing looks were mostly in my imagination. Still, it seemed as though Mary could tell that Tess had found more than a friend. Tess had brought Mary some gifts, a basket with fruits and canned goods and a Christmas pudding that was noticeably out of season. We had also brought a bottle of nice wine for Jake, who had taken advantage of knowing we were coming by disappearing off somewhere. Mary poked through the basket and picked out the pudding, holding it aloft. She had a broad gap-toothed smile on her face. "Lord, child, how dj'you remember I love this?" Tess grinned. "I remember once when I was eight and you and I lit the pudding for the Aunts and you let me hold the match. I know it's not Christmastime..." she said apologetically. "Honey, at my age you don't wait around for Christmas in case it don't come," chuckled Mary, obviously pleased by the gift. Tess had done the right thing. Mary's smile was genuine and it suddenly seemed as though she was on our side. "How long you two stayin'?" she asked. I let Tess do the answering. "We're heading back tomorrow," Tess said, "so I didn't want to leave without seeing you again." I knew Tess was trying to make amends for her family's half-decade of neglect. "Ain't that a pity," Mary said. "I could have cooked you something." Her tone had changed since the phone call. Tess let the conversation wander back and forth like a hooked fish, gradually reeling it in and keeping enough pressure not to lose Mary's goodwill. I remained mute in the background. Curiosity had replaced Tess's earlier reluctance. Suddenly she gaffed the conversation. "Mary," she said. "I know you didn't want to talk about it yesterday but I wonder if you could tell me something about the boat trip with my great-grandfather again." Mary's expression changed slightly, but I couldn't tell whether this was good or bad. "You know child, when you left yesterday I was thinkin' bout that trip and it was all comin' back to me jes like it just happened." She shook her head. "I ain't thought of that for a long time, maybe because...because it changed my life so." She looked around at the chaos of her front yard. I knew she was wondering what a life in Washington would have been like. "I was so young..." she said. She shook her head with a mixture of regret and acceptance. Suddenly she leaned forward in her chair and looked at Tess. "Whatch-you wanna know about that trip, child?" Her tone made it clear that she had just opened a door and invited Tess inside. Tess was a bit taken aback, but quickly recovered. "Yesterday you said that you had never seen two partners go at each other like my great grandfather and Mr. Mackenzie. What did you mean by that?" "Well, child," the old woman said. "You gotta remember that I was a young girl. I hadn't never seen much of what goes on in the real world, you know, how people really act and all. I hadn't never seen Mr. Hoeflinger angry before. He was always so nice to me. Course I knew he must be really strong, else why would he be rich?" She paused for a second. "Mostly on that boat the men they kept to theyselves and so during the day I didn't see much of them. I was busy cleanin' and preparin' the beds and gettin' ready for supper. It only took a day and a half to sail down from Washington, you know. Anyway, after supper they was all playin' poker, and Mr. Hoeflinger, he asked me to stay and serve drinks. Schnapps. That's what they was drinkin'. I know, because I took a swig myself." She giggled and put her hand to her mouth like she was hiding something. She then continued, secretly proud of her audacity as a young girl. "By and by they started talking about their machines and Mr. Ford, he and your great grandfather were doin' most of the talkin'. Finally Mr. Mackenzie, he began to butt in, sayin' how his company could solve Mr. Ford's problems. I remember he kept sayin' "Big isn't bad, Henry. Big isn't bad. My company can help you manage." "I remember it clear as day because that was when your great grandfather he broke in. He shook his finger at Mr. MacEnzie, and said loud, real loud like I never heard him talk before." "Your company, Tomas. Your company. Perhaps you have forgotten ve are partners again." "I remember it cause his face was red and his moustache blew out when he talked and he said Thomas like only he could: 'Toh-mas.' He was pokin' his finger in Mr. MacKenzie's face." She was shaking her head. I spoke up, bringing her back abruptly to the present. "Mary, you're sure he said we are partners again? You're sure he said again?" I said it twice for emphasis. I knew that probing the memory of a ninety year old woman talking about a conversation three quarters of a century before was expecting more than was reasonable. Mary looked at me quizzically. "Yes, I remember it well. I remember it zactly, 'cause that was the last thing I ever heard Mr. Hoeflinger say to someone else. The very last thing." Her head rocked back and forth, as if for emphasis. "After he said it he turned to me and asked me to get the coffee, and when I came back he told me I could go to bed. I could hear them still arguing for a long time, but I didn't hear nothin' they said after that. The next thing I knowed, the Cap'n was shakin' me awake and your great grandfather was dead." Her shoulders hunched up. "Anyway what's past is past, child. Ain't no use in rakin' over coals 'cause the fire went out a long long time ago." She was right, as most people are who have seen ninety years of the ebb and flow of life. The younger you are though, the less you heed their words and the more you plunge forward. My mind was still on that boat, replaying the scene she had just described. "Mary," I interjected, "when Mr. Hoeflinger was yelling at Mr. MacKenzie, what was MacKenzie doing? Did he say anything?" This may seem difficult to believe, but I knew what she was going to respond even before she said it. In my mind I had already seen it. I had already seen it as if the two men had been standing directly in front of us. "No, child, that was the strange thing. He didn't say nuthin'. He just looked at Mr. Hoeflinger and he smiled. He just smiled, child, was all he did."

Monday, 27 July 2009

BINARY CODE Chapter 17- A New Direction

We were back at the Winter House. We had spent the rest of the afternoon in the courthouse at Gloucester, looking through the county tax rolls from around the turn of the century to see if there was a Malcolm Riley who might have been a doctor at the Memorial Hospital. My first idea, to look through the hospital's staff records, had not panned out. The spanking new building was designed for the future, not as an archive of the past. Our search found no doctors named Malcolm, no Rileys, no-one who could possibly be examining physician for a body brought ashore on an autumn morning in 1916. A theory, still partially formed and as yet too fluid to take shape, was beginning to seep through the sluices of my brain. It looked as though it would be impossible to come up with anything concrete about an event which happened so long ago. We were in the kitchen of the old house, trying to figure out how to turn the heat on. Tess was on her knees with her head pressed to the floor, her rump in the air, trying to see if the pilot light at the bottom of the old boiler was lit. I know that she would not have been flattered to know, but my particular vantage point provoked a sudden and overwhelming desire, lighting a spark inside me which had been snuffed out since the accident. I went into the pantry and found a box of long matches. Kneeling down beside her, I tilted my head to look through the small hole at the bottom of the cylinder. I was conscious of the scent of her hair and the dust of the floor and the sweet acrid smell of the gas which seeped out when I turned the stopcock. "Press here and hold it," I said, indicating a small button which would release the gas in a steady enough stream to ignite it. She reached over to the button and our hands brushed. Like a teenager on a first date to the movies, I was acutely conscious of this touch, as if for a moment the rest of my body did not exist. The moment passed and the pilot light flickered on. Our task complete, we decided to go into Matthews to eat while the damp and musty house heated up. We sat in Mathews' only restaurant, eating crab cakes and sipping cold beer. "You want to know what I think?" I suddenly asked. Tess was looking at me but her eyes were not focused on mine and her chin was propped up on her elbow, giving her a dreamy look. She didn't answer immediately. I felt a little bit self conscious. "What?" I said. "I was just thinking how this was fun, regardless of what happens. It as though suddenly there is a signpost where before there was none. I mean, it's somewhere to go and something to do." "Right." What else could I say? "Anyway. Do you want to know what I think happened?" I continued. Tess was trying to resist coming out of her reverie. Reluctantly, it seemed, she said: "Okay, tell me your theory." "First off, I think MacEnzie killed your great grandfather. I think he killed him and it has something to do with that agreement we found, maybe because he realised he was beholden to Helmut and he couldn't take it. I think he set the whole thing up. He invited Henry Ford along to give it some legitimacy, and I think he was in cahoots with his doctor friend." "How can you possibly think all that from what we know? Mary didn't say anything like that. Not even close." "Do you ever feel like you know something is going to happen before it happens? Do you ever feel like you are plugged into something involuntarily, like someone is leading you and you only half realise it?" Tess was looking at me with a look that was somewhere between bewilderment and wonder. "You are so...enthusiastic about this, Evan. Why?" "You know, Tess, I feel like somehow this is a part of my life...I mean everything. You, Stokely, your family, Valhalla, your great grandfather...Lydia....everything. It's just meant to be. I know it sounds weird. It just seems as though I have been led down a path and I have to follow it to the end. It just feels right." I knew that the mention of Lydia's name was the main ingredient that Tess tasted in what I had just told her. I could tell she was debating over whether or not to say something. "Why Lydia?" she asked, speaking softly to temper what could have seemed a harsh question. Lydia suddenly had come out of the shadow into the light, forcing us both to confront her. I took a deep breath. "This is where I met her. This is where I buried her. There will never be any way of forgetting that or her. But as time goes on I have come to realise that...she is part of my life. A very important part, but a part. A part that is gone now and can never come back." I paused and exhaled sharply. Tess looked distraught. "I'm sorry, Evan.....I didn't mean to..." "Force me into saying something? No....I'm glad you did. Say something I mean. And it's the truth, isn't it?" She wasn't going to say anything, even if she agreed. She only nodded. "Anyway, I agree with you," I said. "This...hunt has given us a signpost to follow." I know that the subtlest things carry the most weight in life. It is not the blatant statement but the casual glance, the turn of the head, the averted eyes, the brief rush of colour to the cheeks which are the most telling and powerful signs. Unplanned words that emerge from the undergrowth of sentences can grow over time into the tall trees of truth. The second I said us I realised it was different. There was no need to say anything else. "I think we should talk to Mary again," I said. "Otherwise any theory I have will remain just that...a theory. I need to know if she remembers anything that was said between your great grandfather and MacEnzie." Tess looked skeptical. "I don't know. She was a little less than enthusiastic. Especially there at the end." "Maybe we could use Jake as an excuse...and bring them something. A gift. To thank her." I knew that for Tess our investigation had taken a backseat to something else. I think she realised that perhaps the more we delved into what was now a lark could turn into something more serious, something which would quickly spread beyond the two of us. She was in no hurry to sacrifice our fledgling relationship for some unspecified benefit for her family. However, there was no stopping an adventure which now had gathered a momentum of its own. "Okay. Tomorrow," she said reluctantly. "Can we go home now?" She said this in a nervous sort of way, a breathless strained little girl voice that was at odds with the rest of her, as if it was a relief finally to be arriving at a destination. We had made a show of choosing separate bedrooms on arriving at the Winter House earlier, hers down at the end of the hall with its own bathroom, mine at the top of the stairs. It was not late, but not too early that we could not both say goodnight and go upstairs to brush our teeth and wash. Years of experience with Lydia taught me that time increased exponentially with women, yet despite trying to pace myself, I found myself in my room, walking back and forth like an expectant father, sitting on the bed, getting up and then down again, wondering what I would do or say and listening hopefully for footsteps coming down the hall. Our attempt to heat the house had not really worked. It was still chilly, and I cursed myself for leaving my rarely used bathrobe in Washington. Finally, in an act of desperation I got under the covers and turned out the light, still wondering what I would do. Suddenly her silhouette was in the doorway. She only said one word: "Evan." Everything was a blur of contradictions: the silence deafening, the darkness bright, the bitter sweet, her cold skin hot as a fire that burns only once a lifetime, the hardness of our bodies mixed with the soft. It was not premeditated and yet not spontaneous, the end of a lifetime's rehearsal for an impromptu hour on the stage. The fear was comforting, the confusion so clear. We said nothing, and explored each other like two blind people grasping for an answer in the darkness, touching and tasting, caressing and probing and lunging and holding and suddenly finding our answer in an explosion of light at the end of a long tunnel. In the calm of the afterwards I held her and kissed her and through the confusing kaleidoscope of thoughts and images and memories--both painful and joyous-- which had led us through the years to that moment, I whispered in her ear: "If we let it, life will never cease to amaze us."

BINARY CODE-Chapter 16 Mary

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It is hard for me to imagine someone whose entire life has been spent within a twenty mile radius of a hard-scrabble shack in the middle of the woods. Someone who has never seen a mountain or a skyscraper or eaten Chinese food. Mary was from a different era. She had never wanted it any differently. Her son Jake had gone off to war to fight the Japanese and his stories of the outside world were enough for her. She had never summoned up the curiosity to go much past Washington, and even then she had only been there once. She had been easy to find. We didn't rely on Tess's memory, but stopped to ask the first black person we saw coming out of a church near Deltaville, a few miles outside Matthews. He happened to be the preacher, and when we asked him if he knew Mary Pickett, he looked at us as if we were daft. "Of course," he said, as if everybody knew of Mary Pickett. He directed us down the highway, closing by saying: "If you find her though you'll have seen her more than me. She ain't the church going kind." We followed his directions down a long dirt road heading away from the water. The soil was sandy and the pines were stunted and scraggly. "Bottom land," said Tess. "Not good for much." In the agrarian society hierarchy, those at the lowest rung of the ladder had to make do with what was left over. Jake's house was what a carpenter friend of mine used to call an afterthought. After they built a door, they thought of adding a window; after the walls, some insulation; after a story, another story. The whole building had sort of an improvised and half-finished look, like a man arriving at the office with shaving foam on his chin and his shirt-tail out. Out front there was an old Ford pickup up on blocks. The carcass of a refrigerator loitered around the side. Despite having landscaped Valhalla's gardens, Jake had never brought his briefcase home from the office, so to speak. There was a half-hearted attempt at a bush by the front door, and the rest of the place was left to grow whatever nature had deposited there, with only the most occasional trimmings. In spite of the chill in the air, the front door was open though the screen in front of it was shut and the hook and eye fastened. There didn't seem to be a doorbell of any kind. "Hello!" I yelled. Sometimes you can sense the presence of someone even when there is no response. The house just didn't feel empty. "Hello!" we both shouted in unison as I knocked on the frame of the door. Finally a voice called out from the adjacent room. "What is it you people want? I done told you once that Jake sent the check in last week." Tess looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and gave an ironic half-smile. "Mary? Is that you?" she called out. There was a pause. "Who wants to know?" said the voice. "Mary, it's me. It's Tess. Tess Haynes," Tess said, trying to eke out some trust from the suspicious old woman. "Tess?" The door to the other room opened and the small hunched figure of the old woman inched out into view. "Let me get a good look at you, girl," she said. She looked through the screen door with her head cocked to one side and one eye squinting. Finally she cackled to herself and lifted the hook off the clasp to open the door. "Lord have mercy, child. You liked to scared me to death. I though you was them buzzards from the finance company come to git Jake's car." She pronounced finance like high-nance, with the accent on the drawn out first syllable. We stood outside the door while she looked Tess over first, finally casting her eye on me. Tess broke in. "Mary, this is my friend Evan." I reached forward to shake Mary's hand, gnarled and knotty like the puny pines around her house. She took it reluctantly. "Friend?" she said skeptically. "Ain't you got yourself a husband yet?" I liked her directness. By age ninety you are entitled to say whatever you want. You haven't got much breath left in you to waste on niceties. "Not yet," Tess said, a bit embarassed. The old woman harrumphed disgustedly. "You best be getting a move-on, girl," she said. "Time's a-wasting." She looked at me like I was to blame. She opened the door and indicated for us to come inside. We went into the living room and sat on her Naugahide couch. The house was dark with an indescribable musty odour, a mixture of stale cooking oil, dust, and human scent. It was tidy but not clean, and I imagined what bottles of disinfectant she had around were still in glass containers, sixties vintage. The whole place had a depressing air to it. Perhaps not to Mary though. She was quite animated. "I remember you when you was a little polecat, an ornery little polecat. You used to poke Stokely's eyes when you fought, didn't you Tess?" She reached out and poked Tess for confirmation, wheezing and chuckling to herself. She continued to run briefly through long forgotten incidents from Tess's childhood, most of which centered around Tess's tomboy adventures. It was her way of getting situated, as she put it. "I'm just getting situated here," she kept on saying as she launched into another monologue which only Tess and she could appreciate. Finally she stopped and looked Tess straight in the eye. "Now whatch-you two come here for?" she asked. "You ain't never been to my house before, Tess. I thought y'all done forgot an old bones-bag like me. All of you. I ain't seen nobody in your family since Aunt Mary died. Lord, that was ten years ago, must have been." There was no point in beating around the bush with her. She was having none of it. She didn't want to hear any excuses either. She knew we came from different worlds. Tess realised this too. "We want to ask you some questions about my great grandfather Helmut," Tess said. Mary let out a hoot. "Lord, you're talking ancient history now, child. I was half your age then." "I realise that. I just wanted to know what you remembered about him." Mary's face turned towards the door and her eyes seemed elsewhere. "Your great grandfather Mr. Hoeflinger," she said wistfully. "He was a real gentle-man." She pronounced gentleman as if it were two words. "Now mind you he wasn't no easy man. No ma'am, not at all. He done told people what to do and they went and did it. He was the boss. But he could convince a body that the sky wasn't blue. He could make you believe anything. Why he done made me believe I could swim." "And you can't?" I offered up. She looked over at me, distracted for a moment. "Lord no, child. I'd sink like a stone. I ain't never been no use around the water." She paused, drawing in her breath, and then continued. "But Mr. Hoeflinger, he just up and told me in that funny accent of his, he said, Mary, ve vill be on de boot togezzuh. Dere is nuttink to vorry about. And I just went. That was the first time and the last time." She shook her head. "Poor Mr. Hoeflinger." "The boat?" Tess interrupted. "Which boat?" "Why the Eric, child. That fancy high-falootin yacht of his. He done told my mama he wanted me to go up and serve for him on the boat, up to Washington and back. I was scareder than I've ever been and I screamed and kicked and carried on like I was going to run away. But my Mama didn't pay me no mind. She done told me I was sixteen years old and it was high time I quit acting like a baby. So I just kept my mouth shut and went and got on that boat. But I'll tell you there ain't no way I'da ever done that for no man cept Mr. Hoeflinger. That's why it was so bad when it happened." "When what happened, Mary?" Tess's eyes honed in on the old woman's face, straying over to me for the briefest of moments. "When he died, child. When he died on the way back to Valhalla." This time Tess looked over at me and raised her eyebrows. I noticed that we were both leaning forward with our hands under our thighs, looking for all the world like ski jumpers hanging on the winds of her words. My heart suddenly did double time. "You mean you were there when he died, Mary? You were there at Haynes Point?" Tess asked incredulously. It seemed almost too unbelievable. Mary suddenly quietened down. "Yes, I was there child. It was turrible, just turrible. The worst day of my life." "Can you tell us what happened?" Tess asked. "Why do you want to know about that, child?" Mary wanted a good reason to dig up old ghosts. My mind went blank, but Tess quickly responded. "Aunt Lillian is nearly dead. You're the only person who knows anything about that time. I want to find out...for the family." The mention of Lillian in the same breath seemed to elevate Mary to a level she had never reached previously in the Hoeflinger universe. She nodded. "I remember that trip like it was yesterday. It was the first time I done left home and I never went again. No ma'am. His dyin' was a sign. We sailed up on that boat to Washington and I stayed in that house of theirs and I ain't never seen nothing like it since. They was gas lights and a butler who put on airs and called me a little pickaninny till I told him to mind his mouth. Mizz Hoeflinger she bought me a nice dress at some big store, Gar-something. We stayed for 'bout one month till it was time to come back down to Valhalla. I didn't want to come back home by then, no ma'am. Being up there was like being in a different world and I was gettin' customed to it. I mean I was supposed to be learnt how to be a maid but I spent most of my time playing with Lillian and Mary." She shook her head, and it bobbed up and down in a circle like one of those puppets on television. The memory of this brief spell as a sixteen year old transfixed her for a moment. "Then?" prompted Tess. "Then it ended. Just like that. Mr Hoeflinger, he come back one night and said he was going back to Valhalla with some of his friends and he wanted me to come along and cook and clean and so we left the next afternoon, the seven of us, to go back on that damn boat." "The seven of you?" I asked. "That's right. Me, the captain, the mate, Mr. Hoeflinger, and his three friends." "Who were they?" Tess was drawing information out of the old woman like a maestro extracting music from an orchestra. "There was Mr. Ford. I didn't know he was so famous at the time, I was so ignorant. Then there was Mr. Hoeflinger's partner Tom, though I ain't never seen two partners go at one another like the two of them. Then there was their doctor friend." Tess and I looked at each other. "Doctor friend?" "That's right. Fat lot of good he did, though I spect it was too late anyway." "Too late for what?" "To save him...when Mr. Hoeflinger had his heart attack," she said, suddenly biting her lower lip as she talked. "We was all sleeping right before sunup. All of a sudden the Cap'n, he was roustin' me and yelling for me to come and we were out by that damn lighthouse and we had to carry Mr. Hoeflinger across to the beach and go through those waves and I kept screaming that I couldn't swim and the Cap'n he smacked me upside the head and told me to shut up. Then we came onto the beach and we had to wait forever for the ambulance. Like I said, by that time it was too late. He was already dead when it came...that damn ambulance." The recollection of the event was painful for her. She spat out the word ambulance, rhyming it with dance, and it seemed to echo around the room. "And where did you go then?" Tess continued to lead her on. "We went on down to the hospital in Gloucester, and then we went on back to Valhalla, cept for Mr. Tom. He said he had to go to Washington to take care of things...for the family, you know." "Washington?" I asked. "You're sure he said Washington?" She gave me a puzzled look. "That's what I remember, child." Suddenly her attitude seemed to change course. She had had enough of dredging up bad memories. "I didn't never go nowhere again," she said, slamming the door of the conversation shut. "I don't want to talk about that no longer. Everything changed after that." There was an awkward silence that seemed to empty the room, halted finally by me. "Can I ask you one more question, Mary?" Reluctantly she nodded her head. I was an interloper. "Go ahead, son. I ain't got all day." "Can you remember the doctor friend's name?" She looked at me like she was picking ticks off a dog, wondering why in the heavens I would want to know that. I thought she wasn't going to answer, when finally she said: "I remember that, child. I remember cause when I met him the first time I thought he was askin' me to come over. Malcolm. That was his name. Doctor Malcolm."