The statuette was brought to London by Sir Alexander who kept it in his family for generations. Each of his heirs — civil servants and army officers alike — keep the statuette very safely and in great glory until the latest descendant of Sir Alexander Heathcote, forced upon very tough times due to reckless gambling, decides to sell the statuette. He discovers to his shock that the statuette is a fake. Just as he contemplates suicide, he also finds out that the base of the statuette is authentic and he makes close to twenty thousand guineas on its sale. Eduardo is hoping to receive the contract for building the city of Abuja while Manuel is there for a port contract.
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I waved back realising I knew the face but I was unable to place it. She squeezed past waiters and guests and had reached me before I had a chance to ask anyone who she was.
I racked that section of my brain which is meant to store people, but it transmitted no reply. I realised I would have to resort to the old party trick of carefully worded questions until her answers jogged my memory.
From her accent she was clearly American and looked to be approaching forty, but thanks to the genius of modern make-up might even have overtaken it. She wore a long white cocktail dress and her blonde hair was done up in one of those buns that looks like a cottage loaf. The overall effect made her appear somewhat like a chess queen.
Not that the cottage loaf helped because she might have had dark hair flowing to her shoulders when we last met. I do wish women would realise that when they change their hair style they often achieve exactly what they set out to do: look completely different to any unsuspecting male. No help there. So she knew my wife. But then not necessarily, I thought. A brave question, as she might never have been to Europe.
I smiled. Although I still had only vague recollections of the lady, I certainly would never forget the lunch. I had just had my first book published and the critics on both sides of the Atlantic had been complimentary, even if the cheques from my publishers were less so.
It was around this time that the lady, who was now facing me and chattering on oblivious to my silence, telephoned from New York to heap lavish praise on my novel. There is no writer who does not enjoy receiving such calls, although I confess to having been less than captivated by an eleven-year-old girl who called me collect from California to say she had found a spelling mistake on page forty-seven and warned me she would ring again if she discovered another.
However, this particular lady might have ended her transatlantic congratulations with nothing more than goodbye if she had not dropped her own name. I have often wondered how much American women get away with when they say those few words to an Englishman.
Nevertheless, the wife of an Oscar-winning producer does not phone one every day. And indeed she did, for almost six months to the day she telephoned again, this time from the Con-naught Hotel to declare how much she was looking forward to our meeting. I then strolled over to my bank and asked for a statement of my current account. The teller handed me a long piece of paper unworthy of its amount. I studied the figure as one who has to take a major financial decision.
The bottom line stated in black lettering that I was in credit to the sum of thirty-seven pounds and sixty-three pence. I wrote out a cheque for thirty-seven pounds. I feel that a gentleman should always leave his account in credit, and I might add it was a belief that my bank manager shared with me. I then walked up to Mayfair for my luncheon date. As I entered the restaurant I observed too many waiters and plush seats for my liking.
At a corner table for two sat a woman who, although not young, was elegant. A few minutes later a waiter materialised by the table and presented us with two large embossed leather menus, considerably better bound than my novel. The place positively reeked of unnecessary expense. I opened the menu and studied the first chapter with horror; it was eminently putdownable. I had no idea that simple food obtained from Covent Garden that morning could cost quite so much by merely being transported to Mayfair.
I remembered my bank balance and morosely reflected that I would probably have to wait until my agent sold the Icelandic rights of my novel before I could afford a square meal again.
I studied the menu with some caution, running my finger down the prices, not the dishes. She was kind enough to stop for a moment and ask what I was working on at present. I would have liked to have replied — on how I was going to explain to my wife that I only have sixty-three pence left in the bank; whereas I actually discussed my ideas for another novel. She seemed impressed, but still made no reference to her husband. Should I mention him? The food arrived, or that is to say her smoked salmon did, and I sat silently watching her eat my bank account while I nibbled a roll.
I looked up only to discover a wine waiter hovering by my side. I searched down the pages for half bottles, explaining to my guest that I never drank at lunch. I chose the cheapest. The wine waiter reappeared a moment later with a large silver bucket full of ice in which the half bottle looked drowned, and, like me, completely out of its depth. At the same time a third waiter made up an exquisite side salad for my guest which ended up bigger than my complete order.
I ordered a half bottle of the house red without calling for the wine list. She finished the white wine and then launched into the theatre, music and other authors.
When the waiter cleared away the empty dishes he asked my guest if she would care for anything else. A few moments later the waiter strode back in triumph weaving between the tables holding the apple surprise, in the palm of his hand, high above his head.
I prayed to Newton that the apple would obey his law. I was now attempting some mental arithmetic as I realised it was going to be a close run thing.
I took a deep breath. A man in a smart green uniform, whom I had never seen before, appeared carrying a silver tray with a folded piece of paper on it looking not unlike my bank statement.
I pushed back the edge of the bill slowly and read the figure: thirty-six pounds and forty pence. They were whisked away.
The man in the green uniform returned a few moments later with my sixty pence change, which I pocketed as it was the only way I was going to get a bus home. My guest rose and walked across the restaurant, waving at, and occasionally kissing people that I had previously only seen in glossy magazines. When she reached the door she stopped to retrieve her coat, a mink. I helped her on with the fur, again failing to leave a tip. As we stood on the Curzon Street pavement, a dark blue Rolls-Royce drew up beside us and a liveried chauffeur leaped out and opened the rear door.
She climbed in. As I stood surrounded by Literary Guild guests, staring at the white queen with the cottage loaf bun, I could still see her drifting away in that blue Rolls-Royce. I tried to concentrate on her words.
A Quiver Full of Arrows
Only one is totally the result of my own imagination. Somerset Maugham. Lot caused those quiet murmurings that always precede the sale of a masterpiece. I studied my catalogue and read the detailed description of the piece, and what was known of its history. I wondered if that was the case on this occasion and decided to do some research to discover what had caused the little Chinese statue to find its way into the auction rooms on that Thursday morning more than one hundred years later. Sir Alexander had been exact from an early age, as became the only son of a general. But unlike his father, he chose to serve his Queen in the diplomatic service, another exacting calling.
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