Friday, February 1, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 63 - Barry Baldwin (2fer Issue)


‘Word on the Street says we’re in line for a takeover attack.’

‘Who in hell would want to take us over? Third Quarter figures were a disaster. Our bottom line is so red that it’s positively bloody. Not even Gordon Gecko could find anything to strip except our balls and the shareholders have already got dibs on those.’

‘Gozo Nakamura doesn’t care about any of that.’

‘And just what would that honourable gentleman want with a screwed-up old family concern like ours?’The chairman held up a liver-spotted hand: ‘Revenge.’

‘Revenge? What revenge? We’ve never had any dealings with him or against him.’

This ignited a history lecture. ‘His father was the industrial power behind General Tojo in the war. In 1945, the allies seized all his assets as a war reparation. On George Marshall’s recommendation, Truman personally sent my father to Tokyo to mastermind the handover. He put the boot in so bad that Nakamura senior killed himself, committed Seppuku in his office, only way he could salvage a smidgin of honour. Junior swore he’d get even. Now he’s about to do just that. Cost no object, doesn’t care how bad a deal it is. All he wants is his feet on my desk.’

I couldn’t help grinning. ‘Sounds like Cliff Barnes and JR on Dallas . So, how do we stop him?’

‘That’s how you’ll earn your Christmas bonus.’

I took Gozo Nakamura to the best Japanese restaurant in town, ostensibly to celebrate his eightieth birthday, which had been in all the business papers. Faking drunkeness, I fed him along with the food some tidbits about the company, hinting at a secret plan that would hoist us into the black in a year. The next day, a couriered letter from our corporate lawyers informed Mr Nakamura that he was accidentally in possession of confidential information and so could neither bid for our shares nor advise anyone else to, under pain of prosecution for insider trading. There was no more takeover talk.

‘You’re a genius,’ babbled the chairman. ‘How the hell did you come up with that?’

‘Another bit of history. Remembered something I read in The Economist . A 1980s stunt they pulled in the City, at least until it got too well known. Nakamura had no London interests back then, and no one’s ever tried it over here before.’

‘Let’s drink to history.’

Six months later, we were bankrupt and Nakamura’s name was on the door.

I had one consolation. The chairman, my father, jumped from his office window. But for underlings, Thank God, Western business has no tradition of Seppuku.

Gozo had simply found out who our creditors were, bought up all the debts, and served them on us for simultaneous repayment. An old Victorian business squeezeplay. History’s a two-edged sword.


The advertisements at the back of her magazine, now reduced to eight pages by wartime paper restrictions, promised remedies for many a disease sent by God or invented by man: bad legs, bunions, flatulence, piles, problems 'Down There', varicose veins, and the mournful-sounding 'Night Starvation'.

Doris Jones suffered from none of these, except the last, and no pill or potion was going to cure that, only a change in her boy friend's work load and shifts. But this new one looked as if it might be the answer to her prayers, not that she was all that religious or naive.

Ethel Courtney-Browne (the double-barrelled name comported extra weight, an unfortunate phrase in context), a Kolynos toothpaste smile glowing from her photograph over the sylph-like figure beneath, pledged to reduce the size of any woman, young or old, within "a matter of months, if not weeks."

No luck for men, Doris thought, carefully writing out the phone number would-be slimmers were bidden to call. Well, that was their lookout. It was more than bad enough for her, being fat when everything was rationed and in short supply, and the consequent ribbing, some harmless, some with nasty implications of who did she know on the black market, which was another joke altogether when you considered what her boy friend did, from her workmates at the South London johnnie factory where they spent ten hours a day churning out the latest latex-dipped rubbers for keeping down the city's baby population. While wishing it were true, they had hotly to deny to all and sundry that one in ten of these artefacts were deliberately punctured at source, often taking refuge in banter over the twenty-five free ones a week they were allowed, the common refrain from male and female employees alike being "Twenty-five a week? I should be so lucky!"

Doris, who rarely had use for more than one of her allocations, laboriously scratched out the requested letter to Mrs (she assumed) Ethel Courtney-Browne, and with only a tiny residual doubt popped ii into the red pillar box on her way to work. She didn't let on to anybody, least of all her young man who had recently started to hint that his dissatisfaction was growing in proportion to her ever-exanding girth. It was going to be the shock of the year for friend and foe alike.

Despite the vagaries of the Royal Mail, largely though not wholly the result of Adolf's bombs and rockets, Doris received her answer by first-class post within a couple of days. "Do come at once, before buying your summer frocks, " urged Mrs (I was right about that, Doris reflected) Courtney-Browne, since your sizes will have changed drastically after taking my course."

The letter went on to insist that Doris pay a personal visit at her earliest convenience, to an address in the East London borough of Stepney. A funny place for someone called Courtney-Browne, Doris pondered, she would have expected somewhere posher, before deciding that this was perhaps the lady's contribution to what everyone vaguely called The War Effort.

A fee was mentioned, almost as an afterthought. It was well within Doris' range, but she thought it good tactics to demur, and see if Mrs C-B might bring it down a bit. She wasn't too optimistic, London was full of fat girls, previously a consolation for Doris but now a worry, Mrs C-B was probably doing a roaring trade, but there was no harm in trying, as she had often heard her mother and father, now both dead in the Blitz, say both to her and each other, the tone varying according to the subject under discussion.

So Doris knocked out a response to this effect, wondering as she licked the stamp if she'd get a reply, polite or otherwise. There wasn't long to wait. Back one came from Mrs Courtney-Browne, extolling her treatment at greater length than before, full of sympathy for Doris' plight, she knew people hadn't always a lot of money in these difficult times, hence she would be willing to "stretch a point" and reduce the amount by ten per cent.

Here was where Doris did what she shouldn't have, not that she could have known, or that you could hardly blame her. It's worked once, she gloated, let's have another bash. Another appeal was dashed off to Stepney, expressing how obliged Doris was by Mrs Courtney-Browne's understanding, but unfortunately the price was still on the high side for a simple (Doris was pleased by this touch, confident its acknowledgement of their social class-divide would both flatter and soften up this obesity oracle) factory girl, and could a further reduction be considered?

Apparently it could, according to the reply, though not without a note of plangency. Nothing daunted, Doris decided to milk the cow one more time. But she was now countered by a stiffer tone: Very well, but I cannot go lower than this, as it is, my margins are stretched to their limits, and furthermore I should warn you that my customer list is fast filling, so I urge you to make your decision immediately.

Doris did. Five days later, after a final epistolary flurry, she was outside Mrs Courtney-Browne's fat-removing headquarters. What a dump, Doris thought, not a patch on mine, and that's no great shakes. Stepney was one of those areas best viewed in a London pea-souper fog at midnight. Much of the street had long ago been bombed-out and boarded up. Still, you couldn't blame her for cutting down on the overheads, a good sign, really, it should mean everything was channelled into the programme.

The avoirdupois miracle-monger was in keeping: vaguely Eastern in looks and dress, welcoming in an anxious sort of way. She nodded at a large sign on the community notice board affixed by the door: Wife and Dog Missing. Reward For Dog. "You can wager she was over-sized as well. Do come in, Doris, dear. I may call you Doris?" You got that the wrong way round, Doris glowered unresponsively to herself: typical.

"It's just up these stairs. Mind the third and fifth ones, they're a bit rickety. A lot of them, as well, but you can consider them stage one ."

Once inside what resembled a large store room, its walls' leprosity mitigated by multi-coloured charts and pictures of Before and After snaps of presumably satisfied clients, Doris was told to sit down, and offered a large glass of something red. "I always give my people this first. It relaxes them. Drink it down, dear, like a good girl."

A bad girl, more like. Still, anything to oblige. Doris swigged it down. She needed a bit of Dutch courage, having come with the intention of trying to beat the price down even now, take it or leave it, having enough savvy to know that people selling things in a place like this can rarely stand to see hard cash leaving the room without them.

The drink was Doris' last mistake, along with being here at all, and not talking it over with her boy friend, a police officer attached to New Scotland Yard who was involved in the raid planned for the very next night of the premises of Mrs Courtney-Browne, on whom they had had an eye for some time.

This was carried out without a hitch, except that by this time Doris Jones had been drugged by the red drink, bundled up in a tatty oriental rug, carried out by her associates, slung into a lorry, driven down to the nearby docks and put on a tramp steamer for Istanbul where she ended up in a brothel as Turkish delight for the large number of that city's natives whose tastes run to extra-large partners. They were often rough, her owners took most of her earnings, but at least no one there was laughing at her for being fat.