The President’s Faux Pas (Winner of Trophy, April 2017)
In the recently completed West Wing of the White House, President Roosevelt sat behind his vast desk in the President’s office talking to his trusted friend, Charles Warren Fairbanks, about the assassination of President McKinley. McKinley had been shot in the stomach on September 6th and as a result died from blood poisoning eight days later, on the 14th. Theodore Roosevelt had been McKinley’s Vice President and was now in charge of the nation, arguably, the most powerful man in the western world and the youngest ever to hold the post at just forty-two years of age.
Today, Sunday, October 27th 1901, was Theo’s 43rd birthday, and in two days’ time McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, an American Anarchist of Polish descent, would be executed.
“I tell ya, Bunny, this is not a good way to start a presidency,” Theo remarked to Fairbanks, who was affectionately known as ‘Bunny’ to all his friends.
“Well, Mr President, it could have been better, I guess,” he responded cheerfully.
“His first name, Leon, was easy to pronounce but I had to practice his family name; Zolgosh. It’s so important to get peoples’ names right, Bunny: whoever they are. Remember that.”
Each had a large glass of finest cognac and they now chinked a toast with their glasses.
“To the next four years, Bunny,” suggested the president, “and can’t you call me Thor like you use to?”
Bunny’s very private and personal nickname for his friend had always made Theo feel like an all-powerful hammer-wielding Nordic god! Obviously.
“To the next four years,” agreed Bunny, “and no, Sir; it would be quite wrong of me to use your nickname, now you are president…
“Mr President,” continued Bunny Fairbanks after a pause, “can I ask you a question?”
“Sure: Go ahead, Bunny.” Theo swigged a good mouthful of his cognac. It warmed his stomach.
“Can I be your Vice President?”
Theo almost choked up his cognac. “Now listen, Bunny; I know we’re the best of friends and all that, but VP! Not unless I win a second term.”
“That’ll be 1905; four years is a long time in politics, Mr President.”
“Look, if I get a second term, I promise to make you Vice President.”
“Yes, Bunny; I promise. Now drink your cognac and get out of here. I’m expecting Edith any minute now.”
“Yes sir! Thank you, Mr President. And a very Happy Birthday… Thor!”
Mrs Roosevelt, Edith to her friends – First Lady to everyone else – had bought Theo a very special birthday gift. Now, she handed the parcel, carefully wrapped in colourful HAPPY BIRTHDAY paper, to her husband.
“Happy Birthday, Darling.”
It was a genuine 1846 leather-bound First Edition of The Book of Nonsense by an English author called Edward Lear. Lear had died back in 1888 and his first editions were now quite valuable. The First Lady, Theo’s second wife, had considered the work quite amusing; that English quirky sense of humour perfectly portrayed by Lear’s clever writing, and she knew that Theo already owned several other works by Lear: another book of Limericks called Nonsense Songs and Stories, published in 1871, and, from 1877, the sheet music and lyrics for The Owl and The Pussycat.
Theo particularly liked this song and Edith often heard him singing it in the ‘privacy’ of the White House bathroom: It was with atypical gusto that the President belted out the final verse in a tortured attempt at a posh English accent:
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
The Roosevelts had married in the Anglican Church of St Georges in Hanover Square, London in 1886 and it was during the time they spent in this great city that Theo had met the author; they became good friends and regularly exchanged letters prior to Lear’s death, two years later at the age of 75. The letters always began with ‘Dear Eddie’ and ‘Dear Theo’.
Theo opened the parcel.
“Darling,” he exclaimed excitably, “you shouldn’t have: a Lear First Edition; I couldn’t have wished for anything more. Thank you so much.”
Roosevelt placed the book on his desk and kissed his wife passionately on the lips.
“You’re worth every cent, Teddy, dear,” said Edith.
Theo grimaced. “Edith, please don’t call me Teddy; keep that for our son.”
“But I like calling you Teddy,” she said as she playfully tweaked his cheek, “and anyway, Theodore Junior is called Ted; and, after all, you call Charlie Fairbanks, Bunny!”
“I know, I know… but only in private. Please stick to Theo when in earshot of anyone. If you like calling me Teddy when we are alone, perhaps in bed, then fine, I’ll go along with that. Or you could call me Thor…” He grinned lasciviously.
Edith frowned, puzzled at the strange, and unsuitable, nickname. She had never called her husband Thor and never would have.
“And its Charles Fairbanks, not Charlie,” the president reminded her.
“Oh, you men and your silly nicknames…” With that, Edith kissed her husband lovingly and moved toward the door, smiling broadly. On her way out she paused. “There’s one other surprise for you later… Teddy.” She emphasised her favourite nickname.
“What?” he asked.
“Well… if I tell you, it won’t be a surprise will it? But keep your diary free for this afternoon.”
An audience with the western world’s most powerful politician was regarded as a privilege and only available to the elite few. But it was his birthday and when President Roosevelt heard it was Thomas, Edward Lear’s son, who wanted to meet him, he was thrilled. This is the surprise Edith was talking about, he thought.
Later that Sunday morning, Thomas, accompanied only by a large case on wheels, announced himself to the White House receptionist.
“You’re expected,” she said. “Follow me.”
Thomas followed a couple of steps behind the young woman, dragging along his wheeled case.
The president heard the man say, “Good morning, Mr President. I’m Thomas, Eddie’s son.”
The president grasped Thomas’s hand in a vice-like grip and shook it vigorously, recalling the friendly old man he called Eddie.
“Come in, sit down,” said Theo. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Thomas. I’m a great fan of your father’s work.”
“My father?” said Thomas.
“Why, yes. The First Lady and I had the honour of dining with Edward many times at his London Club during the eighties.”
Thomas looked questioningly at the president, but because of his high status said nothing in response.
“Mr President, I have invented a machine I call a ‘Phonograph’ that can record the human voice and replay it.” Thomas opened his case and removed the machine. “I am also working on a machine that will record moving pictures.”
The president became unsure about this man who looked at him curiously, but played along. After all, this was Edith’s special surprise, and he was the son of Edward Lear.
Thomas demonstrated exactly how his ‘Phonograph’ worked. He recited the poem ‘Mary had a little lamb’ into the gadget and then played back the sound recording. The president was impressed.
“Can I try?” he asked.
The president sang The Owl and The Pussycat and Thomas played it back to him.
“That’s remarkable. You’re a genius, Thomas, and your father was a genius, too, composing such witty songs.”
Thomas looked puzzled, but nevertheless, he could see that the president was astonished.
“Are all members of the Lear family as talented as you and your father?” asked the president.
“The Lear family?” questioned Thomas. “I have no idea. Who are the Lear family?” He thought the president might be a little crazy.
“Edward Lear, the great English author, artist and poet: Your father.”
“I’m not the son of this Edward Lear,” said Thomas. “I’m not even English!”
“But you said you were Eddie’s son. The First Lady arranged your visit.”
“Edison… Edison! My name is Thomas Edison, Mr President! And I have never met the First Lady, Sir.”
The president blushed with embarrassment as he realised his faux pas: Edison, not Eddie’s son.
“Of course, of course,” said an unusually flustered president in response. “What can I do for you, Mr Edison?” Just saying the man’s correct surname brought back his earlier conversation with Bunny, and gave him the collywobbles.
“I need to secure further investment, Mr President, to ensure my inventions are realised; for the good of this great nation and the world.”
“Of course you do… of course. How much do you need? A million dollars? Two million? I’ll make sure the Bank of America grants you whatever funds you need, but you must never relate this meeting to anyone. Good day Thomas Edison. It was good to meet you.”
The president opened the door and ushered Thomas out into the corridor. A secretary showed the inventor out.
Meanwhile, in the president’s private quarters the guests gathered and Edith told them to be quiet as Theo was approaching the door. Theo entered to a roaring rendition of Happy Birthday. This was Edith’s surprise and his faux pas had just cost him two million dollars!
Regardless of this faux pas – which had been kept completely secret, until today – President Theodore Roosevelt completed his first term in office without a Vice President; but, true to his word, on securing a second term he made his most trusted friend, Charles Warren Fairbanks, Vice President, serving four years in office until 1909. And although President Roosevelt continued to call his friend ‘Bunny’ in private, Fairbanks never returned the compliment by using the nickname Thor… and neither did the First Lady who continued to call her husband Teddy, in private.
And Thomas Edison, overjoyed with his funding, never said a word to anyone… except me.
©️Alan Stanford 2017
The Wright Place
The house was perfect, just what we had been looking for, but could we afford it?
Ann found it on the internet; or rather it found Ann on the internet. What did we do before this marvel was invented? Foot slogging around the estate agents, that’s what. Now, using a computer from the relative comfort of our one-bedroomed rented flat, we could search for homes from the tip of Cornwall to the far reaches of the Orkney Isles before doing the physical stuff.
We were looking for something on the edge of the city, an easy commute into the centre for work and entertainment. We enjoyed the theatre, cinema, eating out and dance clubs, so a rural location wasn’t top of the list at this time.
This would be our first real home of our own; our wedding was booked for October and we dreamed of having our own place ready and waiting for then.
Ann had just clicked on search when a new window opened and this house popped up with all the details. The house was on a new development of twelve similar properties, all due for completion in August, only one remaining for sale. The photograph that introduced the properties showed detached, contemporary three-storey cedar-clad buildings with grey aluminium-framed windows; each featured a good-sized porch with a wide, composite door; a single garage and a flat roof covered in sphagnum moss. An eco-build, said the accompanying description. We read the details and looked at more photographs; two large bedrooms with en-suite walk-in style showers; a small third bedroom, a study and a family bathroom on the top floor and a separate cloakroom with utility area on the ground floor. There was an open-plan lounge that featured full-width, south-facing sliding glass doors that led to a small patio and garden. A modern kitchen with stone tops and Neff appliances nestled neatly in the sunny corner of the room.
Basically, it was highly desirable.
Ann scrolled down and we checked the price: Unaffordable in the extreme…
I felt depressed and we had only looked at the one place. I left Ann to it and wandered into the kitchen to make some drinks.
An hour later we had a short list of three homes to view; the new build wasn’t one of them, but it had made an indelible impression on me. Ann called the agents and arranged viewings for the following Wednesday afternoon. They were within streets of each other so two hours should kill it.
“Ann, why don’t we just drive round to that new development, take a look while we are in the area. It can’t hurt, can it?”
“But what will that achieve, Rick? It’ll surely make you more depressed; you’ve been like a bear with a sore head since Saturday!”
She was right, of course, but I argued anyway. Unfortunately, Ann was behind the wheel and she wouldn’t budge. We headed home after we had deemed all three properties unsuitable for one reason or more. Time to search again.
Back home on that Wednesday evening we logged on to the site. Ann was just about to hit search when the same new development popped up on the screen.
“We are meant to take a look at this place,” I said.
“But look at the price,” she said and scrolled down the details. A new price, reduced by fifty grand for a quick sale, but still unaffordable.
“Perhaps we could negotiate an even better deal,” I suggested.
“Like they’re going to knock off… what? Another fifty grand at least just because we are nice people?” she responded sarcastically.
“Well… you never know! And we do share a common name.”
Ann ignored my comment, continued her search in silence and I left her to it once again.
The following Wednesday we had five properties to view; all affordable; none that I liked. I just couldn’t get the Eco Build out of my head. It was five o’clock and we had finished. The estate agent returned to the office and we sat in our car arguing over the various properties.
“Humour me, Ann. Let’s just drive round to the site and take a look; we don’t need to stop, just drive by, see what we think.”
“There’s no point, Rick. It’s way out of our league even if we could get them to reduce the price by another fifty grand. Just forget it!”
We argued back and forth for another ten minutes. Ann slammed the stick into gear and floored the accelerator. We took off like a rocket! A hundred yards to the junction and we did it in a few seconds…only for Ann to brake hard as a police car ambled around the corner. She smiled at the driver as the vehicle passed. He smiled back.
Ann pulled over and parked, burst into tears.
I put my arm around her shoulders and apologised.
“No, it’s me that should be sorry,” she said. “I should have just taken you to see that place in the first place!”
I was aware of the odd use of words and grinned as Ann’s tears became tears of laughter.
“Come on, we can walk from here,” I suggested.
It took ten minutes. We strolled past the eleven sold properties. They looked fantastic; the location was perfect, the price wasn’t. Number 12 was still open so we ventured in…
October arrived and the wedding was fantastic, everything Ann wanted it to be. We honeymooned in Mauritius and moved into the new Eco-build on our return. Our first batch of post was addressed to Mr and Mrs Richard Wright; most were New Home cards.
You couldn’t make it up really. The developers were called Wright Developments and used the straplines Wright to Build and The Wright Choice and even a distortion of the Government’s Wright to Buy in their marketing strategy. And they had been open to further negotiation; maybe our shared name had something to do with it. We agreed a further reduction with Mr Wright himself – no relation – and then applied for a slightly bigger mortgage, which we could just about afford.
A smart house-name plaque on the porch wall welcomes visitors with the words: Welcome to the Wright Place.
As things turned out, we had been in the right place at the right time.
Alan Stanford © 2017