‘William,’ said his wife.
William did not hear. He was far too busy experimenting with opening his boiled egg. It always seemed to William that there were far too few available methods of opening boiled eggs, and those that had been discovered were, without exception, unworthy of the name of discovery.
He despised people who hit the top of the egg with the back of the spoon, because that led to multiple fragments of shell which got into the egg. He despised people who plunged the spoon straight into the egg, because nine times out of ten this caused a spurt of yellow. At the moment he was experimenting with a new method which involved using the serrated edge of a grapefruit knife to saw through the egg shell. So far it was working quite well, although the noise of the sawing might have grated on a soul less sensitive than William’s.
‘William!’ said his wife. ‘Aren’t you a little old to be playing with your egg?’
William considered this possibility briefly and dismissed it.
‘I am not playing with my egg,’ he said. ‘I am experimenting with my egg. Correct me if I am wrong, but I would have thought there was a big difference between playing with an egg and experimenting with it. For years and years people have been looking for a new way of opening boiled eggs, and if I come up with one, we could be millionaires.
‘Both of us’ he added generously. ‘After all, there are special implements for DEALING with other kinds of food, such as a steak knife and grapefruit knife, so why not an egg saw? I bet the man who invented the steak knife is a millionaire, and his wife is, and I bet when he was experimenting with his knife at the table, his wife didn’t say: ‘Sidney, stop playing with your entrecote’, because if she did, he would never have discovered the steak knife, and I bet…’
‘William!’ said his wife desperately. ‘I just wanted to tell you that you are on the front page of the paper again.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ said William Brown. ‘I’m not surprised. I expect that when they put me on the front page they sell more copies. I expect they’ve done all the research. I expect the marketing men have gone into it and done comparative studies, and asked people in the street if they would buy a copy of the paper if it had (a) the Queen, (b) the President of America, (c) William Brown, on it. And I bet I know the answer. And I bet the answer isn’t the man who invented steak knives. I bet no-one knows what the man who invented steak knives looks like. I bet…’
Temporarily washed away in the flow of words, his wife fell silent. But it was true. Her husband, William Brown was famous and he did sell copies of the papers. Quite why he was famous most members of the public would have been at some disadvantage in explaining. Wasn’t he in the Government? Didn’t he write famous books? Wasn’t he a big businessman?
The answer to all these questions was, well, not really, but sort of. The fact of the matter was the William Brown was famous because he appeared so often on television and in the papers. Sometimes he was defending the Government and sometimes he was defending his latest book and sometimes he was defending himself, and he always sounded much the same whatever he was defending, and so obviously enthusiastic that it was hard not to warm to him, though if you had said that William Brown was chiefly famous for being enthusiastic, in an age when it was more fashionable to sneer, people might have looked puzzled.
She had married him in the first place because of his enthusiasm. That and his imagination and his optimism. There was something about William that was endlessly undaunted. No sooner had one scheme of his collapsed than he was back with another. It was simply impossible to squash him for long. But she wondered how he would deal with the latest.
‘I’m not sure if you are going to like this headline, dear,’ she said. She handed over the paper. The main headline said: “William Brown in Share Scandal”.
‘Oh, crumbs,’ said William Brown.
His wife winced. There were certain boyish expressions which her husband still clung on to, quite unconsciously, which no other adult of her acquaintance ever used. The effect was charming, but tiring, like wearing clothes from 20 years ago. Whenever he used these phrases, she would explain to friends that is was a catchphrase from a television sitcom which he had picked up, and they would believe her.
‘Crumbs,’ said William again, as he read on through the item. Apparently he, William Brown, was thought to be guilty of INSIDER Dealing. He had tipped off various people to buy shares which only he, William Brown, could have known the profitability of because he, William Brown, had a wife who was in a position to tell him about it.. He, William Brown, could not quite get the hang of the details – he could never quite get the details of anything, preferring to leave that to people who were good at details and not at master-plans – but it seemed to him he was in deep trouble.
‘Gosh!’ said William feelingly, where he came to the bit where it said: “We shall wait to see whether Brown the consummate escape artist can get out of this one.”
‘Gosh,’ he said again. ‘They’ve really got it in for me, haven’t they? But what am I meant to have done?’
‘Think very carefully,’ said his wife. ‘Before the Mini-Magna takeover, did you tell anyone about it?’
‘I’d never do anything to offend you, dear.’
‘No. Well, only old Ginger…’
‘You told Ginger?’
Ginger, one of William’s oldest friends, was one of the big fish in public relations in London. They did not see him often. She did not like him very much.
‘Yes. Him, and Douglas and Henry. I may have mentioned it to them as well. They may have said, ‘What’s going on?’, and I might have said, ‘Nothing much,’ and they may have said, ‘What nothing at all?’ and I may have said ’Only some silly old shares which my wife is involved with,’ and they may have said, ‘Oh, what silly old shares are they?’ and I may have said, ‘Oh, Mini-Magna, or something, they’re going to go shooting up in value…’.’
‘William,’ said his wife. ‘I can’t believe you’ve done it again. I can’t believe you’ve got us into another mess.’
In some ways she felt more of a mother to William than a wife, and if William’s mother had still been alive, she would have backed her up. If William’s mother was no longer alive, it was partly because of a lifetime of watching William get in and out of troubles and messes, which had worn her out prematurely. Now William’s wife had taken over the mantle, and she could not remember what it was like not to have William in and out of trouble.
‘Well, I don’t see what’s wrong,’ said William hotly. ‘If you can’t tell your friends your news, well, its news to me that you can’t tell your friends your news, I mean if Ginger or Henry or Douglas rings me up and says, ‘What’s new?’ am I supposed to say nothing? And if they ask me what my wife is up to, am I supposed to pretend you’re doin’ nothin’? They’ll think you’re pretty borin’ if I always tell them you’re doin’ nothing, and pretty soon they’ll stop asking me about you…’
‘William!’ said his wife. ‘Pretty soon the telephone is going to start ringing and pretty soon they’re going to start asking you all sorts of questions and you had better have some answers ready.’
‘I’ll show them,’ said William hotly. ‘I’ll sue them for libel. I’ll issue writs. I’ll stand up for myself. I’ll fight them…’
‘William, not another libel write, please,’ said his wife wearily. ‘We’ve been through all this before, and I don’t ever want to go through it again.’
‘Well, I got pounds last time, didn’t I?’ said William. ‘After that silly woman said those things about me.’ *
‘The silly thing was giving her the money in the first place,’ said William’s wife.
‘Well, it’s news to me if you can’t help people who are down on their luck,’ said William. ‘It’s news to me if you can’t give a bit of money to people who are worse off than you. It’s news to me if generosity is against the law…’
The phone rang.
‘It’s for you, William,’ said his wife. ‘It’s the PM.’
‘Hello, PM,’ said William. ‘Listen…’
But this time it was William who did the listening, and it was a quieter, more chastened William who went to his study to get out a press release.
‘If you are going to put out a press release,’ said his wife, ‘ you’ll have to do it over the phone. I don’t think you’re going to get past them.’
She pointed out of the window at the posse of pressman and media cameras at the bottom of the garden.
‘Gosh, I could easily get past them,’ said William. ‘I bet I could put on a disguise that would fool them. I bet I could disguise myself so they would never know…
She sighed. He was incorrigible. He would never grow up. Still, at least you knew where you were with him, unlike other men who pretended to be grown up.
(To be continued, unless we get a writ meanwhile.)
* see “William and the Lady of the Night”.
A feature for The Independent Summer Bank Holiday edition
29th August 1994