Vera, and Arthur

· humour

“Undue physical manipulation could void my warranty!” said the muffled voice from under the bed clothes.  Vera paused only in what she was doing for the briefest moment.  Humour from Arthur was almost unprecedented, unknown for him in the throes of passion.

He was an accountant, a typical representative of his species. If Arthur thought of himself at all it was in terms of how he liked to be the kind of person people would like to live next door to.  He was quiet, unassuming, the sort who would never ask for a raise. Not because he lacked will. Rather because he would trust the judgment of those in more superior positions to make such decisions.

Vera’s pause allowed her to run a quick card search to evaluate exactly what Arthur was telling her, and how she should react to this extraordinary occurrence.  She settled in three milliseconds on an enigmatic response. “Gibraltar wasn’t carved in a day Arthur,” she said as she proceeded to torture Arthur in yet another new and interesting way.

She had found him in a small floundering accounting firm two weeks before. The company had called her employer to request improvements to their telecommunications systems. They had two branch offices, neither of which was very successful. They struggled on with technology not very different from what Bob Cratchit used.

On her first visit Arthur had expressed passing interest in what she was doing, and then with a quiet apology for interrupting her, had drifted away to his ledgers.  Arthur was the sort of employee that was rated “reliable” on his annual performance appraisal. Vera saw something different.  On her second visit she cornered Arthur at the water cooler.

“Well Arthur,” Vera asked, “how goes the number crunch?” This expression had always aggravated Arthur for reasons he could not explain.  He knew it was sarcastic, or perhaps disrespectful. He didn’t treat his profession lightly. He in fact had not had a light moment since his second year at Fordham’s Business School when he won the “Most Likely” prize. (He won that because he complied with every directive without fail in his four years of business school. He was tagged then with the rubric of “dependability”).  Until he came together with Vera under the sheets, that prize had been his most noteworthy achievement.

He could barely conceal his disdain at Vera’s waist length hair and God forbid, running shoes.  “Um, ah,” said Arthur, struggling to make at least a small attempt at conversation, “see you got your running shoes on today.”  “Nope,” said Vera, them’s my white wall getaways.”

Arthur, for more than a few moments, digested this.  He had worn either of his two gray suits for the past twelve years.  His ties were subtle variations on brown.  He intuitively sensed that Vera did not take what she did (and probably what he did) with any seriousness whatsoever.  In all his years of accountancy and training Arthur had never heard anyone question the absolute importance of the accountancy profession.  This woman was threatening.

He knew that some reaction was called for.  Developing a stutter for the first time in his life, Arthur said, at a higher pitch than he intended, “Well, th-they get you there I gu-guess.”  Arthur would have been surprised to know that Vera was enjoying his company, and did not intend a joke at Arthur’s expense.  She had thought about him after their first brief encounter.  He was shy, yes, but she saw another person inside that gray suit unknown to even the wearer.

She had then decided to make an effort to get Arthur to lighten up a bit, for his own good. As for anything else, who knows?  As she expected to be working in the office for two weeks she would at least try to reduce the stifling office sobriety for her own protection.

If she enjoyed her work, she thrived on her personal life. One of her few demands of others was that they at least see the humour of the human condition.  At that moment she did not know that she and Arthur would some day be sharing greater intimacies than the relative merits of various kinds of footwear.

It was, in one of those classic understatements, a monumental leap for a man such as Arthur. To move from a stuttering functionary, slouching at the company water cooler, to this passionate and apparently insatiable character.  Vera reflected on what had happened over the past two weeks while Arthur exacted some torture of his own on Vera.

The brief encounter at the water cooler had conveyed one important message to Vera, and to Arthur himself.  He was very vulnerable in the presence of this red -haired woman in running shoes.  “Why,” he thought to himself as he settled behind his desk, “should this woman threaten me?  She is here today and gone tomorrow, doing God knows what with the telephone system, charging what are probably outrageous fees for something the boss will never even use.”

Arthur did not veil his disgust at either new technology or new so-called “management methods.”  He was comfortable with the predictability of his life….his work regimen, the futility of paying off a mortgage, the wistful thoughts of his upcoming summer vacation in Fredericton, where he would enjoy the hustle and bustle of a capital city. Across the river, he and Beth would rent the same riverside cottage they had taken for the past twenty-two years.  His children were now through college.  They were happy and successful, he supposed. It had not occurred to him at any time that this was a subject that he should raise with them.  He didn’t hear any complaints, and in his world, that meant that everything was as right as it could be.

The next morning Vera suggested they have lunch together.  For some reason this alarmed Arthur.  He was even more alarmed when he couldn’t understand why he was alarmed.  There was no apparent reason why he should not have lunch with Vera.  He had lunch with people all the time.  Usually, because either he, or they, were too busy to allow for an hour or more to discuss a particular file. On such occasions food received little attention as documents were spread over the table.  All would have marginal notes done in Arthur’s fine script. It had been noted more than once that his writing was more appropriate for an architect than an accountant.

But Vera was suggesting lunch without a purpose.  What would he bring with him?  Like a Hollywood entertainer who must have a microphone in hand, Arthur needed his props. He felt naked without files and finely sharpened pencils.  “She will probably want to talk,” he thought.  “What on earth could we talk about? She will probably insist they spend an hour at some ridiculously expensive restaurant. Where they could possibly be seen.  Seen? Now where did that thought come from?”

Arthur had a glimmering of why his experience with Vera at the water cooler had been so awkward.  She threatened him all right, but not in a way he had experienced in the last two decades.  He realized with more than a slight shock that she was very attractive.  “Good heavens,” thought Arthur, “a red-haired girl in running shoes.” For Arthur chemistry was a high subject.  He did know something about pheromones, having attended a fascinating lecture the previous year when that subject came up.

It was not a biology seminar, but rather, the annual public accountants conference. One of the speakers had given an address on marketing.  “The Amazon tree frog,” the speaker had intoned, “seeks out its kind with body odours.  Living on huge living skyscrapers in the dead of the jungle these tiny green creatures do not leap from tree to tree in search of a mate.  They exude pheromones.”  As the speaker dwelt on his frog metaphor, Arthur took note of this new word.  Subsequent research told him that not only Amazon tree frogs had glands that exuded pheromones.  People as well sent out such signals, and the human olfactory system was equipped to receive and translate such scents.  That was the end of it until he found himself standing at the water cooler drinking a cool glass of water and getting warmer by the minute.

“It’s pheromones,” he thought.  Arthur’s pulse quickened.  “Good grief,” he thought, “that woman’s attracted to me.” His inclination was to run.  But he stood rooted because his worn- smooth ego was somewhat pleased at the whole notion. In the end, his ego won out.  He decided to cast his fate to the winds, and have lunch. “What harm can come from a quick lunch?”

At the very small, very dark, and very expensive French restaurant he found he was having a good time. He got over his surprise at the idea of having candles during lunch. He eventually got over his trepidation at not having dossiers spread before him and stacked under his chair. He discovered the poached salmon was very good indeed.  On his second glass on wine (when had he developed a taste for liquor during the day?) he realized he had said hardly a word since he ordered.  He realized too that he was not doing a good job of keeping up with the drift of the conversation.  Vera covered a lot of subjects, most of which he did not understand. Such as white water rafting. And the merits of tofu. And her CD-ROM computer. She was fascinating.  Arthur believed he had nothing to contribute.  He felt he hadn’t done anything in the last dozen or more years the least bit interesting.

He discovered he was talking about his childhood.  He talked for an hour without a break.  His words tripped over each other as he relived what to his own ears was a life of unhappiness and frustration. He finally wound down, feeling curiously relieved and fresh.  As Arthur poured out his hopes, his dreams, and his failures, Vera listened intently, saying without words that it was all right to have had such experiences, that his life was not over, that there was still time.  No one had ever told Arthur before that he could be something other than what he was.

When Arthur leaned back in his chair his eyes came to focus on an ornate grandfather clock in the far corner of the dining room.  “Odd,” he thought to himself, “they have such a grand old clock in this place and they never take the time to wind it.”  This conclusion was based on the fact that the hands indicated 4 PM.  He glanced at his wristwatch.  Either it had not been wound either or it was indeed four o’clock.

His reflexes took over and he bounded to his feet.  “Good God,” he exclaimed, “it’s four o’clock.”  It did not raise his comfort level to see that Vera not only seemed unconcerned about the time, but was casually ordering a coffee refill from a passing waiter.

In just a moment, Arthur had mentally scanned his appointment book, seized up the state of the files on his desk and reviewed the coming day.  He knew that he would now be behind his desk until late that evening. That is, if he was ever going to recover from the first real unplanned interruption in his work since he started with Forest and Witherspoon.

Vague thoughts of his being fired passed through his mind. This fear was quickly overtaken by a remembrance of something he had thought about while at the office.  He had risked being “seen” even in coming to the restaurant, now he had exposed himself to the world, dallying over coffee with this youngster in running shoes.  A business lunch he could pass off, but the appearances here were inescapable.

Vera observed his panic with wry amusement.  She knew that Arthur had enjoyed himself, that he had opened up for perhaps the first time in years.  His conditioning, she knew, would not give up easily. She knew that if she didn’t get her coat fast Arthur would be long gone.  Those running shoes came in handy.

“Come on,” he almost shouted, “I’ve got to get back before I’m missed.”  The banality of this was too much.  Vera could not resist a loud guffaw, followed quickly by a very tight hug that left poor Arthur gasping.  “What are you doing,” he whined, “someone will see us.”  “There’s no one here Arthur.  The last customer left two hours ago.”  “Oh my God.  Let’s get out of her.”

It took about seven seconds to get back to Forest and Witherspoon.  But to Arthur’s shame and regret, it seemed that not only had no one missed him, no one even noticed his return.

It would be three days before Arthur’s eyes rose from his desk.  He ate alone, picking at his sandwich surrounded by mountains of documents.  He seemed a man possessed.  Vera chose not to intrude.  On Friday afternoon Arthur surfaced at the water cooler once again.  It was not completely accidental that he found Vera there.  She had, after all, spent most of the previous three days loitering in the general neighbourhood.

“You’ve really been hitting the books Arthur,” she said, “do you suppose it’s all going to add up?” Arthur was enough on the ball to recognize a jibe when he heard it.  A dozen standard accountancy responses sprang to mind but he found that his previous stutter had been overtaken by a severe tongue tie. “How about a drink after work Arthur?”  “A drink after work”, he thought, “wasn’t that something that people did when they…..?”

His thoughts ran out at that point because he really wasn’t sure what came after the drink.  His irrational fear rose again.  But another force took over…the force that reminded him that he had after all not been missed during his four hour lunch. In fact nobody had missed him at home the last three nights when he struggled in after 10 PM bearing stacks of files.

The one bright spot had been that marvelous lunch when he had talked, and talked, and talked.  He had in fact been on cloud nine since that day, feeling giddy and on more than one occasion, just a little foolish.  He told himself it was because of the balmy weather.  But now he was not so sure.  Maybe he had better get to the bottom of the situation.  “Why, that would be nice,” he said, “where would you like to go?”  “How about my place, said Vera, we’ll have a drink, dinner and if you are not too loud you can stay the night.”

Arthur digested this news.  Then in rather short order made his decision. The next thing he knew he was drinking what Vera called a Filipino whisky sour.  “Just a dash of bitters, whatever fruit is left in the fridge chopped up and about three ounces of vodka,” she said as she mixed his second.  “But,” said Arthur, “you call it a whisky sour and you make it with vodka.” “Yeah,” said Vera, “and when I’m out of vodka I call them Polynesian vodka sours.”  If this was humour it was lost on Arthur.

Though Arthur had not had a lot of exposure to irreverence, irrelevancy and downright absurdity, he was catching on.  “Well what if you’re out of fruit,” he asked.  “Simple,” said Vera, “then it’s an Arctic sour.” Suddenly this seemed very logical to Arthur.  Maybe it was the vodka.  Maybe it was being here.  Maybe it was Vera.  But then maybe it was himself.

It took Arthur only three steps to reach Vera and clutch her tightly for a very long moment.  His thoughts at that time were anything but sexual.  His mind, and his body, were expressing a need for closeness that would have been equally valid with a male or female.  She gently disengaged and eased him down on the couch where she patted him for well over an hour.  Half way through this special moment Arthur began to cry.  He said nothing, nor did Vera.

Their love making afterwards was quiet and for all its slowness, immensely satisfying.  At four in the morning their union was far more athletic and heated.  Vera reminded him that he had been told to be quiet if he was to spend the night.  Arthur, barely suppressing a giggle, said that if she didn’t ease up she was going to do him in. “In fact, Vera, my warranty might expire”.

“Gibraltar wasn’t carved in a day Arthur,” said Vera as she snuggled down under the sheets, caressing as she went.



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