A Short Story
By Leighton Vaughan Williams
BERTIE’S BIG IDEA
Albert ‘Bertie’ Simpson Sinclair was a man who in earlier days might have been described as a bounder and a cad, albeit an immensely likeable and charming member of that sub-species. The problem for Bertie was that he was, as such, a hopeless, if heroic, failure. But Bertie was an optimist, a man who believed in the philosophy of ‘one more push’, of the sure triumph of unsound hope over all too sound experience. And he had an idea which he believed would make him rich. This is the story of Bertie and his magnificent idea.
Mr. Bertie Simpson Sinclair liked to think of himself as an ideas man. And an ideas man he certainly was. He had plenty of ideas, albeit none of them good. But his latest idea was going to be different. Of that he was sure. He had envisaged, in one giant midsummer night’s dream, a scheme to make himself rich, without making others commensurately poor. To this extent, it was an unusual idea for Bertie, for whom all previous schemes consisted of persuading others to part with their money in pursuit of an apparent though negative actual benefit. Bertie called such schemes win-win. By this he meant that he would win twice, first by taking their money, then by virtue of the scheme into which they had invested.
The problem for Bertie was that the success of every such scheme remained a dream, for all his boundless wit and charm. There were so many, including his ‘Grow Rich While You Sleep’ manual, his ‘Learn While You Doze’ method, his ‘Snooze Yourself Slim’ prospectus, his ‘Succeed While You Slumber’ pamphlet. Bertie reasoned that alert, wakeful people were out of his reach, which left the more reposed segment of the population as his natural target audience.
The problem for Bertie was not just the fact that he himself was neither rich, learned, successful nor svelte. The real problem for Bertie was that he had singularly failed to convince even one other member of the human race that he could help them become what he so evidently was not. But that, decided Bertie, was about to change. Because of his midsummer night’s dream.
Bertie saw himself as a clubbable man, a sociable ‘bon viveur’ who could mix with natural ease and grace with ladies and gentlemen of refinement. To this end he sought membership of tennis clubs, golf clubs, health clubs, focusing on the most exclusive of each. But Bertie had not grown rich while he slept. On the contrary, he had grown increasingly poor even as he dreamed of growing rich. As such, he was unable to actually gain entry to any of these clubs. It was all an unrequited dream.
But then came the big dream, that midsummer night, the night that inspired Bertie’s big idea. He had dreamed that he was at the door of one of these desirable but unattainable sanctums of social refinement, begging inwardly to be allowed in, when an elegantly attired gentleman, upon exiting, had spotted the less than svelte figure of the unlearned though charming Bertie, and had spoken to him, softly.
“Sir,” he had quietly ventured, “what are you doing waiting at the door? Did you not know that this is a club reserved only for the clubbable?” Taking immediate offence, Bertie’s dreamworld person had risen quickly to his own defence. “I AM a clubbable man,” he had expostulated, invoking his own claims to that most cherished status in society.
But something within him had turned, something that was stirred by the well-dressed accuser. And so awoke Bertie, with his brand new big idea, an idea which he had instantly concluded would make him rich.
A club for the unclubbable! That’s what he would create. He would create the world’s first club which would only accept members who didn’t want to join, or were unfit to join, members who were truly unclubbable. He would in other words create a club for those unwilling or unfit to join any club that would accept them as a member.
The idea was one thing, turning it into a practical scheme was quite another. But that, for Bertie, was the challenge. And the rewards beckoned for Bertie like a shining beacon on a golden hilltop. At least that’s the way that Bertie visualized things. But he knew he was at base camp and the climb that lay ahead was steep and possibly long.
He was not a gifted thinker, but he did have thoughts, and the first of these was to place an advertisement in the local newspaper. Although a man of strictly limited means, it was his only hope of starting the climb which would take him to that shining beacon atop the golden hilltop. The advert was quite simply stated.
“Would you join any club that would accept you as a member? If so, we’re wrong for you. We are the world’s only club for the unclubbable. We accept only those who don’t wish to join us.”
It was more words than Bertie could really afford, but he had seen that beacon atop the glittering hill and this was his one-time chance to glimpse its light. In the face of that shining lamp, he was steadfast. He would not blink. He waited. For the first response.
It arrived by mail the very next day. Addressed to Mr. A. Sinclair, the envelope contained one sheet of blue vellum notepaper. In neat lettering, it was from a Mr. Charles Bone, who simply enquired whether there was an active membership of the club. If so, he was not interested. If not, he might be. Bertie replied with alacrity. ”There is no active membership, so we do not wish to accept you as a member.” By return of post, Mr. Bone accepted membership of this club that didn’t wish to accept him as a member, on one condition. “I am not an active man, and have no wish to be involved with active people. I will join on this condition,” wrote the first and thus far only member of the world’s first club for the unclubbable.
By the same post came an enquiry from a Miss Edith Spratt, who declared herself unwilling to join the club because, while she had been told of the advert, she was not from the local area. As such, she could not make use of its services, even if she wished to, which she did not. Bertie was delighted to accept her as a member, because she was so clearly unable and unwilling to benefit from membership. He wrote to tell her so. On this basis, Miss Spratt became the second member of Sinclair’s club for the unclubbable.
No fee was asked, and none given, by either Mr. Bone or Miss Spratt. But they served their purpose. Neither could in any way reasonably be classed as active members of the fledgling club, but there was now at least a club in existence, and in their different ways both of its members were of the unclubbable kind.
There were no further replies to the advertisement, but Bertie was not discouraged. He had left base camp and set forth up the golden hill. He would not turn back.
And so came to Bertie his next idea. If he could introduce Mr. Bone to Miss Spratt, they might help him spread the word through what he conceived as some form of human chain letter that would spread forth and gather together the great unclubbable hordes, brought together into one vast club composed of only those unwilling and unfit to join a club.
“Do you possess transport?” Bertie now wrote to Miss Spratt. “Yes”, came the one word reply. Seizing upon this positive news, Bertie devised a plan to bring together the only members of his brand new club. He offered, though he could ill afford it, to pay the cost of fuel for what would be a 70 mile journey for Miss Spratt. The response from Miss Spratt was quick in coming and even quicker in its message. “Dear Mr. Sinclair, my transport is an electric wheelchair. Yours sincerely, Miss E. Spratt”.
To Bertie, that hilltop was starting to look further away than ever.
Was Bertie’s vision turning into a mirage? It was a question that might have deterred many, but not a question that deterred Bertie. If Miss Spratt could not come to Mr. Bone, then Mr. Bone must be brought to Miss Spratt, reasoned Bertie with impeccable rigour. Without further ado, he grabbed his quill-like pen, and rushed off a letter. “Dear Mr. Bone, I would like you to meet Miss Edith Spratt. Like you, she is totally unsuited to the life of a club. In short, she is totally unclubbable. Yet she is a member of the club to which you belong. I think this remarkable coincidence is too great to be overlooked. For that reason, I would like you to meet Miss Spratt. She lives some distance away, but this has the advantage of offering you a pleasant journey even if the meeting is less pleasant than might reasonably be expected. I hope you reply affirmatively. Yours sincerely, Albert Simpson Sinclair.”
Mr. Bone responded immediately, posing just one short question. “Is Miss Spratt an active member of the club?” Bertie was eager to reassure. “No, Miss Spratt is not an active member of the club. I trust this reassures you.” It did. The following day, Bertie received the acceptance of his invitation. All that remained was to persuade Edith Spratt to accept the same invitation to meet Mr. Bone. “Dear Miss Spratt,” wrote Bertie, “I would like you to meet Mr. Charles Bone. He is not a clubbable man, and by natural inclination not an active man, but he shares with you membership of the club which I am proud to manage. I trust this remarkable coincidence offers sufficient grounds for you to accept this invitation. Yours sincerely, Albert ‘Please call me Bertie’ Simpson Sinclair.
The letter of response arrived by return of post. Addressed to Mr. Bertie Sinclair, and written in exquisite script, it was simply expressed. “Dear Bertie, I accept your invitation. Please be so kind as to bring Mr. Bone to me. Yours truly, Edith.”
And so was arranged the meeting between Mr. Charles Bone, retired undertaker, and Miss Edith Spratt, lady of leisure, to take place the following Wednesday at the home of Miss Spratt. Thursday and Friday came and went, as did the weekend, but no news leaked out. For several more days, Bertie rushed each morning to pick up the morning mail. But no letter arrived from either Mr. Bone or Miss Spratt. After two weeks had elapsed, which seemed like three months, Bertie reached for his pen and wrote to Mr. Bone. “Dear Mr. Bone, I hope and trust that your meeting with Miss Edith Spratt went well. Perhaps your meeting went so well that you have had little time to write letters. If so, I would be delighted to hear of this happy news, which you might perhaps share much more widely. Yours expectantly, Albert Simpson Sinclair”.
Sooner rather than later a letter arrived, addressed to Mr. A. S. Sinclair.
“Dear Mr. Sinclair,” it read, “Thank you for arranging the meeting between myself and Miss Spratt. You assured me, however, that the lady was not an active member of the club. I cannot agree with your assessment. Could you in future introduce me to one of your less active members? Yours sincerely, Mr. Charles Bone.”
The human chain letter, it seemed, had come apart at the first link.
Bertie took pen to fresh paper, addressed to Miss Edith Spratt.
“Dear Miss Spratt, I understand that no developments arose out of your rendezvous with Mr. Charles Bone, and that you are no longer in contact. Can you confirm my impression? With sincere regards, Albert (Bertie to you) Simpson Sinclair.”
Two days passed, while Bertie fretted. And then it came. The envelope was coloured pink and addressed to Bertie Sinclair. On matching pink notepaper, it simply stated. “Apparently I was too active for the liking of Mr. Bone, or so he told me. Please do feel free, however, to introduce me to someone from your club rather more active than Mr. Bone. Hoping to hear further. Yours in anticipation, Edie.”
Bertie had lost interest in Mr. Bone, but not in his project. He still possessed the vision of a network of clubs composed entirely of unclubbable people. But the vision was starting, even to Bertie, to flicker a little. His only hope now, he reasoned, lay with Miss Edith Spratt. But he had nobody else to introduce her to, active, inactive or semi-active. Except himself. And so he resolved to visit Miss Spratt at her residence, disguised as a member of his club for the unclubbable. He wrote as follows.
“Dear Edie (if I may), I am sorry to hear that you were too active a member for Mr. Bone. I prefer to see it from a different perspective – that he was not active enough for you. That can easily be remedied. I have on my books a very unclubbable man, who likes his own company, but who I can assure you is a very active member of the club. I will send him to you next Wednesday, if that is convenient. Kindest regards, Bertie.”
Wednesday did prove convenient, and soon a disguised Albert Sinclair, replete with flowing beard, heavy horn-rimmed spectacles and extravagant moustache, was entering the country residence of the wealthy widow newly self-described as Miss Edith Spratt. Introducing himself as Archibald Henry, former solo arctic explorer, he was at once able to tick two boxes, as both a private man and an active man. Miss Spratt was impressed to meet an explorer, less so a former explorer, and even less so a man who had clearly given up the athletic lifestyle at some distant corner in time. They had little in common, so she asked him whether it was cold in the Arctic. Yes, very cold, he said, and there the discussion of his days as an explorer froze. It was only when he spoke of the club that she lit up, asking him whether he had ever met Mr. Bertie Sinclair. She was disappointed to hear he had not, sharing with him her secret crush on this exciting innovator who had created a wonderful club for the unclubbable, and whose charm and good manners flowed out of every word he committed to paper in his delightful letters. She confided in the former explorer how she secretly wished Bertie would visit.
What had he done? What had he done? This lady of wealth and refinement wanted him, Bertie, and he had instead entered her life disguised as a hairy arctic explorer. What could he do now? What should he do now? Should he discard the disguise and reveal himself, like some sort of superhero, to be the witty, charming man of her dreams? He thought about it but soon thought better of it, if only because he wanted more time to think. Instead, he bid Miss Spratt farewell and returned the 70 miles to his small suburban bedsit.
As he reflected on the day, he realized that he had not spotted the electric wheelchair she had spoken of, but he had been dazzled by the vintage Mercedes sports car gracing her ample driveway. It somehow made her all the more attractive. He slept fitfully that night, rising at dawn to do what he had to.
Drawing from his battered desk the fine stationary he used for only the most important of communications, he applied modern quill to traditional vellum. “Dear Edie,” he wrote, “Mr. Henry, who visited you at my invitation, has contacted me to express his great pleasure at the making of your acquaintance. He tells me, however, that he is not worthy of your notice, and has asked me to convey his great good wishes to you in all you do. Although I am persuaded that I also am not worthy of your notice, I would be happy to follow in the estimable footsteps of our arctic adventurer in order to make your personal acquaintance, should that be your wish. I remain, with the greatest respect, your humble servant. Bertie.”
The next day dragged heavily on Albert Sinclair, as he waited and hoped for a positive reply. He was waiting at the door next day for the arrival of the postman. A quick reply should mean good news, a slow reply worse news, and no reply the worst news of all. The pink envelope arrived at the first opportunity. He opened it gently, hardly daring to read it. “Dear Bertie. I did have some regard for Mr. Archibald Henry, and believed that under his hirsute exterior probably lurked a fine, attractive gentleman. Still, I expect the excess of hair served him well in the cold arctic climate, and he has now grown well accustomed to it. Thank you, I would indeed welcome a visit from your fine self. For a man of your considerable talents as a gifted entrepreneur, your humility is a further charming sign of the true gentleman that you so clearly show yourself to be. With regards from your friend, Edie.
Bertie could not contain all the excitement shooting through his body. All that stood between him and the wealthy, attractive widow, it appeared, was the removal of his pencil moustache. As such, he would turn up at the elegant doorway, and introduce himself, Albert Simpson Sinclair, to the lady who would clearly not be able to resist his very considerable charms.
Wednesday at noon was the agreed time.
She was waiting for him at the door, and extended her hand to him in such a way that he was not sure whether she was expecting him to shake it or kiss it. He shook it. “It is a pleasure and a delight to make your acquaintance in person,” he opened. “Tea or coffee?” she asked. “Coffee, please”. “White or black?” As a man who had not had either tea or coffee made for him for quite some time, he was not used to being questioned about his preferences in such detail. “Black, please, with milk,” he said. She looked at him quizzically. “Yes, plenty of milk,” he confirmed. “Decaffeinated, please.”
There was no conversation while the coffee was prepared, and after it was served, little more. The series of awkward silences, interrupted by sips of caffeinated coffee, was eventually interrupted by the chime of the grandfather clock standing in the corner of the room, alerting them to the fact that it was 12.30. It presented a much-needed natural break.
“I must take my leave,” said Bertie, “I have so much business to attend to.” There was a further moment of silence, while Miss Spratt rose to her feet, pointing accusingly at him. “What have you done with Bertie?” she asked. “Tell me NOW, what have you done with Bertie?” He was sure he had misheard her. “What have I done with WHAT?” he asked.
“What have you done with Bertie?” she persisted, in an increasingly strident tone. “But I AM Bertie!” “You, Sir, are NOT. You are Mr. Archibald Henry, former arctic explorer. Do you really think you could trick me into thinking you were my Bertie by shaving off your formerly abundant facial hair.” “No,” she continued, “Mr. Archibald Henry minus beard, moustache and large-rimmed spectacles is still Mr. Archibald Henry. Now tell me what you have done with Bertie, or I shall call the police to have you arrested.”
“I AM Albert Simpson Sinclair,” he insisted, “Archibald Henry does not exist.” At these words, Edith Spratt reached urgently for the telephone. “So you are now saying that you, Archibald Henry, do not exist, even though you stand right before me. Is this your defence to the charge of abducting Mr. Sinclair, or worse? A defence of insanity.”
Bertie could see his Big Idea unravelling before his eyes, the dream giving way to stone cold reality. Maybe he was insane, to hope that any idea of his could come true, maybe he was insane to still dream that one day he could persuade people that they could grow rich while they slept, succeed while they slumbered, learn while they dozed, slim while they snoozed. Maybe he was insane to believe that he could create a club for the unclubbable. But he was not insane in the way that Edith Spratt thought he was, and certainly not criminally insane.
For perhaps the first time in many years, he now decided upon a plan at odds with every instinct in his bones, a plan to tell the truth.
“It was I, Albert Simpson Sinclair, who came to your home last week disguised as the fictional arctic explorer, Archibald Henry. It is I, Archibald Simpson Sinclair, who stand before you now. I throw myself upon your good graces. I can do no more.” He paused. “Edie,” he half sobbed now, “I am Bertie. And I love you, just as you love me!”
Edith Spratt said nothing but put down the telephone which she had to this point been wielding with controlled menace. “Mister Sinclair!” she declared, enunciating each separate syllable of these two words. ”I am not sure whether you are a good man or a bad man, a sound man or an unsound man, and I am really not concerned to find out.” Bertie winced. “But”, she continued, more quietly now. “I do know the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, a sound idea and an unsound idea. And I am rather attracted to your Big Idea.” “My club for the unclubbable?” piped up Bertie, excitedly. “Quite so,” declared Miss Edith Spratt. “I shall turn this idea into reality, and because I am a lady of honour and refinement, you shall, if you work hard enough for me, be rewarded with a respectable share in its fortunes. But be assured, Mr. Sinclair, this shall become my vision, the vision of Edith Evadne Spratt.”
And so began a new dawn for Albert Simpson Sinclair. Employed to use his considerable wit and charm to help found and expand the Spratt chain of clubs for the unclubbable, his big idea had become reality. He knew now that he would never grow rich while he slept, nor succeed while he slumbered, but he would indeed grow rich, by working hard while awake, and he would succeed. But much more importantly, he had achieved a station in life which neither money nor worldly success could alone bestow. Mr. Bertie Sinclair, one-time conman, cad and bounder, had become what he had always wanted to be. A gentleman, and what is more – a gentleman of the clubbable kind!