By Grigor McGregor
The pen of unsmiling Guthrie Flexton ringed a name, the last of ten listed by HR for final interviews. Sixty-nine had applied for the commission. Guthrie wrote ‘Sexy' under the name and sighed, knowing he invariably failed with such mindless predictions.
Guthrie's gray eyes widened slightly as in walked raven head Lexi Banff - mouth clenched, her chest of modest proportions and draped in a prim green dress devoid of flair. He crossed out ‘sexy' unaware that was a botched appraisal with no attempt to read signals.
On the scorecard her academic qualifications registered lowest at tenth and her ‘other' interests were the fewest except for one candidate whose two novels were set around chronic depression. However, Miss Banff was credited with five novels in the romantic action adventure sub-genre, which was of interest to Flexton Books Inc, publisher of romance novels.
Glenda Finch, HR manager, made the introductions and returned to her seat with the other two executives on the three-member interview panel, swinging her bright blue-framed reading glasses from her forehead and pulling her chair even closer to the older and still rather attractive Lilac Wellington, executive editor.
"You don't have a first-class degree Lexi?"
"No Miss Finch," said the unruffled candidate, examining at her nail gloss before lifting her head and saying firmly, "Before entering university I'd already decided to write fiction, not to become a lexicographer."
The three panelists eyed the newcomer - at least it was an original retort and sarcasm appeared absent.
"What motivated you into applying for this commissioned romance hooked into the history of this company?" asked hawk-faced Lilac.
"The challenge of competing for the commission interested me, the guarantee of publication attracted me but above all I was driven by a sense of affinity - Flexton launched me into professional writing and also published my third novel."
Guthrie frowned, quickly scanning the three-page candidate profile summary, watched by Glenda whose face colored as she shifted position nervously.
"That very relevant information is not stated here Glenda."
"My oversight for which I apologize." The pencil in her fingers snapped.
"Why didn't we accept any submissions after your third Miss Banff?" Guthrie asked, leaning back in his chair and appearing to be looking with growing interest at this candidate.
"I refused to include a lesbian scene in the manuscript as requested by the acquisitions editor - so that was the end of me."
The air was tense.
"And the name of that editor was...?"
"Brave of you to say so. Remarkably, that policy initiative by Mrs Wellington has proven most successful as we are now considered recognized in strength of story in that area of romance involving that sexual preference which has stimulated sales. Did the request seem distasteful?"
"Not at all. At university I was in an all-women's dorm so the practice is known to me - at a distance I should add. It's my preference not to write about same sex unions just as I don't write about cute little romances or passionate conventional romances that implode nastily."
Guthrie nodded. "It's not necessary to answer this question that may seem meaningless to you but perhaps indicates to us how you can fire your imagination. What opening words in an erotic novel would you think might turn the author and her courageous publisher into overnight successes?"
Lexi scratched behind her left ear and looked at the ceiling spotlight illuminating every imperfection of her face:
Susie de Vere pulled her sweating body away from Pete's. Gazing into his eyes she used her ripped white gown to wipe her swollen, white and strawberry blotched breasts and rounded chin. Her mother had worn that exquisite garment when leaving on her honeymoon to Jamaica twenty-four years earlier.
"Well, that's hot," Guthrie said. "Have you written those words or read them from somewhere?"
"They just fell from my imagination."
"You realize we don't publish adult literature."
Guthrie arched his fingers together. "Who was Errol Flexton?"
"Errol was the murderous illegitimate son of the founder of this publishing company, Captain James William Flexton."
Guthrie looked rather impressed; his two executives remained impassive. "What would happen if you were commissioned to write the novel, weaving in the company's history factually but were asked to leave out any reference to Errol Flexton?"
"I have difficulty imagining my reaction should such a that request come when I was 200-pages into crafting my draft manuscript, but I guess it would be explosive. However, if that decree came at the outset I would not accept the commission."
Five minutes later Guthrie pushed back his unruly multi-brown hair with bleached pale gold tips and lifted his lanky frame off his chair. "Excellent answers and congratulations; only three other candidates knew who Errol was but those three all said they would happily exclude any mention of him. Certainly none had the courage to describe him as the murderous illegitimate son of Captain James William Flexton. The commission is yours if you want it."
Turning to his fellow executives he said, "Ladies, negotiate with Miss Banff."
"B-but you can't be so impulsive with an expensive decision like that - the terms state $80,000 is payable at $6000 a month for seven months and the remainder payable on completion at the end of the ninth month when the manuscript must have secured final acceptance. You have no idea if I'm reliable or am capable of writing to time restraints."
The three panelists stared at Lexi as if she'd just ripped up her contract.
"Impulsive Miss Banff?" Guthrie smiled, staring into her jade green eyes, and giving Lexi the opportunity of noticing his wholesome freckles. "Obviously you wrote well enough to have two of your earlier novels published by Flexton and your latest novel Competitive F1 Drivers' Wives slipped into the Top 100 Listings for Fiction at the end of its first month of sales. Anyone achieving that can produce a romance potboiler for release to coincide with our company's centennial celebrations.
"Potboiler Mr Flexton?"
"No, I guess not - a meticulously crafted romance novel exhibiting everything desirable in a Flexton publication."
"Thank you Mr Flexton."
"Contrary to my initial judgment, you have impressed me, Miss Banff. We'll meet again at the contract signing with the media present; we wish to receive excellent returns for this expensive outlay."
Guthrie walked away, the three women staring his expensive cream Italian-made suit through the door. Glenda sent a prepared group SMS phone text to all ten finalists advising that applicant Lexi Banff had been chosen for contract signing, adding that the decision would be confirmed in writing.
"Right, let's drop formalities Lexi," said Lilac. "You are completely under my direction for this project. We'll need to set up a schedule, the most important initial meeting will be the discussion with the editorial board, which I chair, of your proposal including short resumes of each chapter and a draft of your first and concluding chapter."
"I'm afraid not."
"I don't work under mindless constraints like that, Lilac. This is my project, not yours. It seems..."
"I am sorry Lexi..."
"Allow me to finish, Lilac. It seems to me that this project has been presented as an undeveloped concept with no one really appreciating what is wanted, which is excellent for me. I have nine months to submit my completed manuscript incorporating final revisions after your editing. I propose working to a schedule of two months for research and preparation, two months to complete my first draft, leaving three months for my work to progress through normal channels for acceptance as a Flexton novel. I want that written into my contract as well as provision requiring me to produce a 1-page A4 report on the 30th of each month outlining progress. That first monthly report to you will require me to present the outline of my novel."
"Are you finished?"
"Well, let me tell you young woman that I control things around here," flared Lilac. "Your suggestions are completely unacceptable to me. This is our project, not yours; it is our money, not yours until you've earned it. Back off otherwise I shall report to Guthrie that I find your demands are intolerable. Do you understand that?"
"I have made no demands, Lilac - I've simply set out my terms and conditions. Go to Guthrie if you wish but I'll point out that tactically you're in the weaker position here. I sense he merely finds you acceptable whereas he's just admitted that he finds me impressive. If you want a catfight Lilac, you'll get it. Otherwise simply accept that apart from those monthly progress reports you won't sight my completed draft manuscript until several months from now. This proposed contract calls for the novel to be written by me, not by a literary committee. That would be a set-up for disaster and I'd be surprised that you don't know that. Now, let's work through this draft contract, shall we?"
"I shall have to let Guthrie know that from Day One has drawn you and me into conflict."
"Providing any disquiet is presented objectively and professionally I cannot have any objection to that. No doubt I shall learn about that when Guthrie invites me to lunch or dinner."
"Mr Flexton indicated no such thing."
"That's true, Lilac but then you don't know men like I do. He's become very interested in me."
"Perhaps you are unaware that Mr Flexton is practically engaged to socialite film critic Wendy Nair." Glenda said stiffly.
"A good point," smiled Lilac triumphantly.
"I meant dining out to find out what he's purchased for $80,000 - I didn't mean as a prelude to sex."
Glenda appeared shocked but Lilac laughed easily and said: "You are showing yourself as a pain in the ass, Lexi; that comment shows you've got balls."
"I guess that is meant as a compliment," Lexi smiled, causing Lilac to shriek with laughter and that seemed to bridge the gap between the two strong-willed women.
* * *
"Thank you for agreeing to lunch with me at such short notice," Guthrie called jumping off his bar stool as he watched Lexi doing her best to walk elegantly in from the restaurant entrance.
Will he or won't he? Lexi mused. He might kiss her lightly as she was a sub-contracting professional, not a staffer. On the other hand, he might not be so demonstrative because he was shy and a nasty rumor about him kissing her might drift back to the temptress Wendy Nair, known for her restaurant tantrums that brought the media running. Oh yes, she'd read about Wendy Nair.
Instead of kissing her he shocked her. Lexi was sure Guthrie was puckering his lips when he halted abruptly and gasped, "You have breasts!"
Used to dealing with men out to seduce her Lexi recovered her equilibrium and wit instantly to reply airily, "Yes and I daresay they are somewhat larger than yours."
"What?" he responded, almost rendered speechless. Guthrie drew his hands over his eyes and said, "Oh God - I know what I just said."
"Two vodka martinis - urgently," Lexi said to the bartender who dashed off in the way serving staff do on the whiff of a big tip. Lexi pushed Guthrie back on to his stool and giggled, "I've had outburst about that part of my anatomy in the past and shudder, thinking the follow-up question will be vaginal in nature.'
"What!" croaked Guthrie and as the woman arrived with two glasses and the shaker Lexi handed the first glass poured to Guthrie and dropped a fifty-dollar note on to the bar but disappointed by not telling the bartender to keep the change.
The awkwardness and frivolity of Lexi and Guthrie's fledging relationship leveled out from that point as their conversion turned interrogative and they both attempted to observe each other more closely.
"So, retired British naval man Captain James Flexton, son of a printer, came ashore after long service in the squadron of the British Navy stationed in Australian waters to enter business as a printer?"
"Yes, he was my great, great, great-grandfather and started with two printers and his second wife served as the administrator while he went out touting for work - first doing posters and trade printing requirements which included invoice and receipt books and that led to printing books of poems written by his wife's friends. As the business flourished each new generation of Flexton the Printer expanded the business in sophistication and output until we have today a business going downhill under my management."
"Yes - although my parents and I own the business it's my parents who have the controlling interest and they haven't been near the place except for six monthly meeting when they come down from Townsville. They are tight about spending money so I have not been able to modernize or operate a realistic promotional budget to support our authors. My grandparents closed our printing works and that greatly slowed the rate of hemorrhaging. Outside print contractors now share the expenses but also share the profits of successful books."
"How long have you been managing director?"
"But know the business well?"
"Yes and I've written and published two books."
"Oh really, on what subjects?" Lexi asked, tempted to nominate, ‘Breasts That Surprise'.
Fringe Painters Waiting for Discovery and Fringe Poets Waiting for Discovery.
"That sounds enterprising. Were both volumes successful?"
"The book on painters was exceptionally well received; there are tens of thousands of people out there wanting to buy original art from emerging talented painters before prices go through the roof. The book on poets almost ran into profitability but that's how it is with anything to do with poetry."
"Is that sympathy for me or for the wanna-be published poets?"
"Both. May I suggest that my tummy is rumbling?"
"Oh yes, here and I going on about myself when you are ravishing."
"You mean famished?"
"If you wish, but I meant ravishing. It's my sneaky way of paying a compliment without risking getting my face slapped."
"You have a cuteness about you that is a rare find in a male these days Mr Flexton."
"That's a sneaky compliment Miss Banff. This way please."
They sat at the central window table of the Mediterranean-style restaurant with its white plastered walls sparsely decorated with high quality, very colorful paintings - they appeared to be originals. The wood finish was dark teak and the service appeared to be attentive; although it was an open-style kitchen the extractors worked quietly and effectively, the fragrances of cooking food being just tantalizing whiffs rather than overpowering introductions to what all other guests ahead of them had ordered.
"This appears to be top class," Lexi said but knocked his soft smile away when adding, "Do you bring Miss Nair here?"
"Occasionally if I'm sure my sister is in one of her better moods."
What an odd thing to say, thought Lexi. Enlightenment will be revealed eventually.
With the wine waiter hovering Guthrie quickly arrived at Lexi's lunchtime preference - a white, preferable Chardonnay, origin preferable New Zealand.
"Why New Zealand?"
"I find many Australian Chardonnay's are too powerful with a heat-burn underlying flavor."
"Robert, best in house Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay please."
"Yes Mr Flexton."
Nothing like having a wine waiter know who you are, Lexi thought, noting that until then those two men had not spoken to one another. She saw a pretty, slightly plump woman dragging on a charcoal executive chef's jacket with drop shoulders and French cuffs wave away the approaching waitress.
The chef said, "After observing you being accompanied by a woman of distinct class compared with some of toughies you bring in here at times Guthrie I though I would show my appreciation and cook for you myself."
Lexi observed, taking care not to raise an eyebrow, Guthrie sink a hand-clamp on to the secondary cheek of the chef's ass as she bent over and kissed him on the mouth.
"Ella, this is Lexi Banff. She's..."
"An author, but not one of yours." Ella smiled at Lexi, "I've just finished reading your Competitive F1 Drivers' Wives published by Souter-Marsh - you painted some of those women as living a life of hell. The introduction said you spent two months talking to the wives and the drivers and their mistresses for almost three months before writing a word."
"Yes - the venom rather than the car exhausts became overpowering at times."
"You're a great writer."
"Thank you. How do you two know each other?"
"Guthrie's my brother."
Ella obviously enjoyed the look of surprise she'd brought to Lexi's face. "Our parents retired two years ago. They put Guts in charge of the bookstore and bought this restaurant for me to keep me gainfully occupied. I had returned home after soaking up advanced chef training in London, Paris, Bologna and Louisiana just at the right time to rant and wail at them for deserting me. Their guilt was such they richly compensated me for my loss of family after consulting with Guts."
"Yes, although you had abandoned your parents to work overseas and at the eleventh hour returned to the disintegrated family nest just as they were entering their new life, they still believed they were responsible for your welfare. You are romantic enough to see that, surely?"
"Ella romantic?" mused Guthrie at the apparent novelty of that concept. The two women glanced at him but made no comment.
"Well, I suppose it could be called romantic when expressed like that," Ella admitted. "But enough of this fuzzy talk, I'll cook for you huh? Any food dislikes?"
Lexi didn't have to think: "Red meat, shellfish, mushrooms and offal."
"Right, that's not too restrictive. And you Guts?"
Guthrie broke from deep thoughts. "Right - I'll have the same as Lexi. I've just worked out your names are of Gaelic origin, aren't they Lexi?"
"Yes, that was clever of you. My given name is Alexis but my lazy father shortened it. Banff is an old county town in Aberdeenshire Scotland - many people think Banff is a Canadian invented name-place. The name comes from Banbh or Banbha, one of the old poetic names for Ireland. The story goes that one of my descendants, Charles MacGregor, took the name Banff for his family's surname when usage of northern Scottish clan names was banned by law in 1746 until repeal thirty-five years later. Charles then decided to stay with the unusual name of Banff.
"That's romantic," laughed Ella, leaving the table after confirming that Lexi was okay with nuts, including peanuts. "I guess I won't find it in the phone book."
"Why are we lunching?" Lexi asked. "I mean the real reason."
Momentarily rattled, Guthrie gathered a smile as his survival instinct kicked in. "I suppose you'd reject a claim that this is the first stage of a planned seduction?"
"And why not?"
Lexi smiled and sipped her wine, complimenting Guthrie on a superb choice, and then said she tended to extract instant impressions. In this instance she had the impression Guthrie was not a person who'd plan a seduction - rather, being a person who waited until he fell over it.
Guthrie rubbed his chin and mouth with a palm, three leisurely stokes as if scrubbing for time to answer rationally.
"Until falling over it? That's a romantic notion though perhaps a little overpowering when attempting to visualize that with someone you don't really know. Exactly what do you mean?"
"Oh, of course," he sighed, motioning to the wine waiter to add to his glass. "This is from the Petaluma winery in the cool hills a little east of Adelaide - 2001 vintage, I imagine."
"It's the 1996 if I may say so sir."
"Thank you Robert; trust you to spot a special guest."
The pert waitress arrived wearing her black apron long and frilly white shirt low. "My, you must be special guests - I've been here eleven months and it's the only time I've seen Ella actually cooking in the kitchen with the public still in the restaurant. This is a wee taste sensation, not on our menu - African peanut soup. It may over-power your Chardonnay so just sip your mineral water with it."
Lexi smiled curiously. "Thank you for that advice - are you a chef?"
"Yes, I'm here for eighteen months of advance training under the tutelage of Ella, who is one of Australia's best kept culinary secrets because she abhors both recognition and notoriety that go hand-in-hand with fame."
"I recognize your face, ma'am. Are you famous?"
Lexi smiled, "Not within my lifetime."
Guthrie dropped a hint, saying she was a romantic author.
"Ohmigod - you're Lexi Banff. I remember you from the dust jacket. You wrote The Three Whores Trilogy.
Sighing, Lexi said that was one of her novels and was the reason why her parents had uprooted.
"Truly," asked the wide-eyed chef.
"Yes, some of their so-called friends deserted them and mother decided to leave for England when one of the women at the supermarket checkout recognized her from the publicity and refused to serve her."
At that Guthrie stopped staring in the mid-distance and said to Lexi that title was not on her list of published books.
"No, it's only available from a porn website as has been a top ten seller for the past six months or so," smiled the chef-waitress. "You sound very experienced."
Blushing, Lexi suggested that was a common mistake; it must be acknowledged that imagination figures so hugely in a work of fiction.
"I bet," Guthrie said. The two women looked for the chink but his expression remained poker-faced.
The waitress/chef withdrew reluctantly as Guthrie said dryly that of course Lexi would always engage in research before writing a book.
"Did I what?"
"Research strongly before writing The Three Whores Trilogy?"
"My heroine of my first book had a fetish for writing recipes. Considering our present environment, it is more appropriate I discuss my research that preceded that volume."
"Don't bother," said her grumpy luncheon host.
They made appropriate yummy noises about the soup and smiled more than they talked until finished.
The main course was salmon steaks briefly soaked in soy sauced and maple syrup then poached in a glaze of the same mix, served with a Greek salad with lemon dressing. Ella returned to the table when it had been cleared, taking in the compliments and said that Tarla would be serving her dessert specialty - a pear cheesecake teamed with a 10-year-old Californian Black Muscat that could knock their socks off without them feeling overwhelmed. "I love it."
The brief lull in conversation was shattered by Ella asking was it by sheer chance or deliberate action that the best sexpisodes in The Three Whores Trilogy followed gluttony.
"Sexpisodes - that's a novel rewrite of English?" began Lexi, looking around for the entrance to the restroom.
"Answer before leaving the table, if you please," Guthrie commanded.
"I...well...it may seem too much of a coincidence."
Ella almost rubbed her hands in glee. "Do you find some foods promote great sex while others promote little more than a whimper?"
"You are a premier chef - you ought to know about the aphrodisiac reputation associated with some foods?"
"Oh yes, but you rightly tagged on the word reputation. We are more interested in learning about your expert knowledge," Ella smiled, beginning to unload each dish from the tray held by Tarla who was listening, eyes huge.
"Well, as you will know Ella, the effects vary from person to person, from dish to dish and according to the state of one's emotions. Some lovers become terribly aroused by licking cre brulee off another person's skin while the more hair-triggered sophisticates may only require the mere dab of raspberry jam on a nipple to slam them into a voracious encounter of sexual gluttony that will leave them legless for twenty-four hours. But then is it the food, I ask?"
Three pairs of eyes remained fixed on Lexi; three mouths shaping into circles as Lexi paused to slowly lick a splash of cre brulee from her finger - Tarla's arm was frozen midway through its action of beginning to pour Lexi's Black Muscat.
Lexi smacked her full red moist lips as she resumed speaking, Tarla's pouring arm shaking despite the other arm being folded into the small of her back to supposedly ensure a compact, steady pour process.
"It's not necessarily the food igniting the interplay of chemistry that is as old as man himself. A newly married need only gently drag the remains of a limp lettuce leaf over the top lip of his nude, awaiting virginal bride and her trusting blue eyes of fathomless depth will glisten and then waver, signaling her first marital orgasm is on the way."
Tarla began pouring the heavy sweet red wine over the tablecloth.
Guthrie whispered, "Jesus."
Ella sat with a glassy-eyed expression.
Then Lexi broke the spell. "We could all be writers, virginity intact, and comment like that providing we take our research seriously," Lexi said brightly. Then looking at Tarla, Ella and Guthrie asked, "Are you guys okay?"
They stirred; those moments of intensely shared intimacy were lost forever.
The flustered Tarla expressed her remorse and hurried off to fetch replacement table linen while Ella apologized for the inexperience of her chef and asked Guthrie to finish pouring the wine.
Forty minutes later Guthrie and Lexi were farewelled at the door by the cheerful Ella who had a supportive arm around her still upset senior student. Lexi kissed them both.
"You have a wonderful way with words Lexi," Tarla sighed. "After reading about the three whores I thought the author must be heartless, bordering on being sick with such invention. Then, somewhat miraculously, I have the privilege of meeting you and my immature concepts are blown away by your charm, wit and personality. It has been a pleasure knowing you."
"Well said," Ella smiled. "Today is filed away in my mind as one of my more memorable lunches. I understand you have recently arrived from living in Sydney for three years. Please drop in here whenever you wish; regard it as your second home."
Lexi stepped forward, hugged Ella, and then hurried through the doorway hand over her mouth.
Ella looked startled. "What brought that on?"
"Lexi has spent some years struggling to establish herself as a professional writer," Guthrie smiled, kissing his sister. "Only now to doors appear to be opening, just a little. She's grateful but confused wondering why it has taken so long. She senses she's good but publishers don't seem to share her view. Coming this far has taken a leap of faith, perhaps at considerable personal cost; she's learnt to deal with the struggle and now knows she must take the next step confidently, and the one after that and the one..."
"She's hitting an emotional wall."
"Yes, that's it. Bye."
"Go to her Guthrie," Ella said, wiping a cheek.
Lexi and Guthrie walked quickly in the unexpected chill of the early afternoon air although it was but two weeks from the official start to summer.
"Where are we going?" Guthrie asked.
"To this next intersection where you turn left to your office and I proceed onwards till I come to the office block where I live."
"That sounds a long walk," he said, indicating curiosity. "Your CV gave no street address."
She looked started, "You actually read CV's?"
"Yes, I believe in giving all job applicants a fair go."
"I'll tell you about myself one day. You still haven't told me why you invited me to lunch today. I don't think it was to show off your sister or to seduce me, as you don't appear to be a first-date seducer. So you shall have to go back to Lilac and Glenda and report we spilt the wine and I talked about sex during the entire meal, allowing you no time to meet their demands that I comply to their concepts how my novel should be proposed, approved and mangled."
Turning a crimson face to Lexi, Guthrie looked astonished: "Mangled."
"Yes, those two lovers have discussed this book opportunity so much they've come to regard it as their book."
"Lovers?" Guthrie said weakly, now looking pale.
"Yes, but don't fire or reassign them. Women working as a team often work at their best and any replacements could be big disappointments. Learn how to exploit what you have."
Guthrie nodded in agreement. "Okay, so what do I tell them?"
"Tell them that you are making good progress. Don't worry about that being a lie as women expect men to lie to them."
"Okay, then when do we meet next?"
Lexi licked her lips, asking what evenings were he free. He was free every evening but Wednesday and on Saturday when he had a business dinner.
"Wednesday will be fine thank you."
"But that's already booked."
"It's the only night that suits me."
"But book critic Miss Wendy Nair has invited me to a function that evening."
The poor boy, his eyes were practically bulging, thought Lexi. It was time he brought Miss Nair under control.
"Tell her to find a substitute partner because you have a higher priority date. Isn't it time, Guthrie that you did something about this fear you have of women. In the order of things, women like Lilac and Glenda should be reminded they are only senior executives, nothing else and Miss Nair should either stake a claim on you or butt out. I'll talk about your mother when I am better informed but at least you and Ella appear to have a well-balanced relationship."
"I am currently considering Ella's request for an interest-free loan of $200,000 for a kitchen fit-out."
"Oh, I see. Poor lamb." Lexi kissed Guthrie and told him to toughen up. She suggested he phone her with the time and address of the restaurant for Wednesday evening and not to worry. "In fact the sooner this Miss Nair sees me with you the better."
"Oh God," Guthrie croaked. She darted forward to join the march across the traffic-controlled intersection of Collins Street to continue along Swanston Street brimming with its colorful trams that add immeasurably to the city's character.