Walter Walters, known to family and friends as Walts, knew what was coming-another order from the boss.
The eyes of Mister Fowler, proprietor--auctioneer of Fowler & Sons, jumped out over half-moon spectacles. "Go with it, Walters." Mister Fowler's long fingers held out the proof-copy of the catalog as though it were a stained napkin and Walts' status was no more than that of a tea-boy.
He had no Sons, only junior partners he treats like dirt, thought Walts. No red pen marks on the catalog either, so no reductions in estimates or reserves. Never were and never would be. Mister Fowler was sticking to his inflated prices. Walts grabbed the proof-copy with what he reckoned his boss would mistake for enthusiasm. He could not get out of the office quickly enough. Outside in the hallway, he checked his watch. It was eleven-fifteen in the morning. Half the day gone already, so it seemed to him.
He loosened his tie. The secretary's office was just across from him. Everywhere was just across from him in this cramped end of Fowler & Sons where several offices had been tacked onto the floor-space as if by architectural afterthought. Prefabricated cubby-holes of plywood and glass, the offices stared out onto the auctioneering display area. Above and beneath them were the storerooms that filled the rest of this three-story Victorian building set on prime real estate in central London.
The secretary was in today, for a change, not out on one of her sick days as she so often seemed to be, and busy talking to a client on the phone, so no chance of Walts getting an eyeful of her latest text-message jokes. New ones came through to her every day from her wide circle of joke-sending friends. Walts saw Peggy arch her eyebrows and indicate an empty chair with her pencil. He shrugged and pointed at the catalog proof.
"Got to go," Peggy hissed into her phone. "Fowler's on the prowl. Talk to you later."
Walts smiled. So much for her talking to a client. "Listen, Peg. He's running me off my feet. This has to be ready. It's the catalog for the First Spring Sale. Can you email the printer straight away and give him the go-ahead? Tell him to check the red marks first--they're typos, not reductions. Heaven forbid we'd reduce our prices! I'd contact the printer myself only I have to get the showroom display sorted, and that'll take the entire afternoon. You know how it is on Fridays."
Peggy nodded her pretty head and beamed up at him. "No problem, Walts. I'll get onto the printer right away."
"Peg, you're a diamond." Walts handed her the proof and exited the office before she could even think of showing him the latest selection in her phone.
One week later, on the morning of the auction, Walts shook his head at the twenty-foot long 'Antiques and Fine Arts' banner that Theo, the caretaker, had unfurled and hung over the showroom entrance. The banner looked tawdry even compared to some of the tacky items on display in the showroom cabinets and on the tables and shelves. In these hard times, Fowler & Sons resembled an Aladdin's cave of curios and collectibles. In among furniture and paintings, tables of coins and medals, jewelry and trinkets, first editions and Royal Doulton China, Walts had mixed the detritus of the modern age. He allowed himself a smile at how Mister Fowler hated twentieth century schmaltz, especially the flight of flying ducks hanging on the wall.
"Why did you put those there?" He rounded on Walts. "They'll be right behind my head!"
Walts forced himself to keep a straight face, having placed them there knowing Mister Fowler would regard them as a crime against good taste as vile as singing fish, flashing dolls, musical toilet-seat covers, factory-produced portraits of crying children, zebra-striped furniture, garden gnomes, pink 1970's telephones and lava lamps. All those were in the sale too, guaranteed to make Mister Fowler look like a Portobello Road street-hawker.
Out loud, Walts said, "They won't be in your eye line, Mister Fowler. You'll be facing this way."
"They'll be in the bidders' sight lines, lowering the tone of the place for the entire duration of the auction!"