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UKArchive ID: 28668The Prodigal Son by sirat
Originally published on November 12, 2012 in Fiction

This is my entry in the Prose Workshop challenge: a story on the theme of The Noble Lie. I hope you enjoy it





“Look, I’m not saying I don’t need the money, but I think I’m the wrong person for this job. I’ll screw it up for sure. It’s too much to ask.” He put his glass down on the hand-painted cork mat and lowered his eyes, no longer meeting theirs. Henry Calder and his much younger wife, with her glowing blonde hair and perfect model-girl looks, remained completely attentive but silent now, clearly wondering how best to persuade him.


It was the female aparition who spoke. “You’re an actor, right? You pretend to be people that you’re not. That’s what actors do, right?”


“Right.”


Henry took over. “Well, this isn’t any different. It’s called improvisation. It’s a role. A perfectly straightforward role. We tell you all about the person you have to be, and your job is just to be that person. Didn’t you do exercises like that at drama school?”


He nodded and looked around at the expensive leather sofas and the solid hardwood coffee table, smelling of fresh furniture polish. He had seen the cleaning lady leave as he arrived. “Mr Calder…”


“Please call me Henry.”


“Okay, Henry. You need to understand something. This isn’t my world. I’ve never lived in a big house in the country with servants and… and grounds and stables. I didn’t go to boarding school and learn to ride and play cricket and meet people with titles and six-figure salaries. My background is a housing estate in Grimsby and the local comprehensive school. Okay, you say I look like your son, and maybe I can do the accent, but I can’t do the background. He’s going to see through me in five minutes. Maybe less.”


Calder sipped his drink and considered. “It isn’t an interview situation. He’s not going to be testing you. He’s an old man, his memory’s been failing for years. If you make a blunder he’ll think it’s his own memory letting him down. He wants to see his grandson, and he wants to like what he sees. He hasn’t seen the boy for more than ten years. He isn’t going to be the least bit critical. He won’t be trying to catch you out.”


Calder’s uncomfortably beautiful wife joined in. “In fact what he really wants is for people to listen to him. He’ll do practically all the talking if you let him. He’ll tell you all about the old times, about when Henry was a boy, how they used to go fishing together, how Henry fell in the canal at Otterbourne and almost drowned, how he went to India when he was nineteen and thought he was a hippy, how they used to go grouse-shooting together, how he managed to get Henry into his old college at Cambridge even though he hadn’t really got good enough marks, how they pulled the business back from the brink of disaster in the 1980s. The old man loves to talk. All you have to do is listen, and smile, and nod now and again. It’ll be much easier than you think.”


“That’s right. It’s just an innocent little bit of deception. We want the old man to die thinking his grandson is doing all right. We want him to feel good about the family. About everything.”


Duncan let out a deep breath. “I don’t know…”


“Aren’t we paying you enough? Is that it?”


“Of course you are. The sum you’ve mentioned is extremely generous. It’s me I’m worried about. I need to… sort of radiate confidence, the way rich people do. I don’t think I can do that. Don’t you see? – That’s the real difference between your class and mine. You people believe in yourselves totally. You think you have every right to be listened to, to assert yourselves, to take control in every situation. That’s what’s going to give me away. I don’t think I can fake that. He’ll know there’s something wrong – that I’m not a Calder. You’re asking far more than you realise.”


The couple looked at one another and Calder’s brow became furrowed in concentration.


“Bond movies!” Calder said it as though he had discovered a new continent.


“Bond movies?”


“That’s the answer. Bond movies with Roger Moore in them. And Hugh Grant movies. And maybe Jude Law movies. I want you to go away and watch lots of their films and come back in a week, same day, same time. When you get here you’re going to be me. I want you to wear a decent suit and a collar and tie. What you’re wearing makes a big difference. I want you to knock on that door and treat me like I’m the butler and you’ve forgotten your key, and treat Laura here like she’s the cleaning lady. Tell us the house is dirty and untidy, that we’re not doing our jobs properly and we’d better pull our socks up. But do it politely, courteously, with total confidence, total assurance and firmness, the way I would. Then we’ll know if you’re the man for the part, and so will you. Do you think you can do that?”


For the first time he smiled faintly. “I can try.”


ooOoo


“You were nothing short of magnificent.”


“Was I?”


“Of course you were. Didn’t you realise? I felt thoroughly intimidated. Laura, what did you think?”


“Great. I felt really small. He’s definitely got it.”


“I tried it out before I came, actually. I had a dry run in the shop where I hired the suit. I told them that the first one they took out wasn’t good enough. That it hadn’t been cleaned properly. I was quiet and assertive, like Roger Moore. I didn’t need to make a fuss. And they scurried around like their lives depended on it to find me another one. I surprised myself.”


“Well done boy. You’ve discovered the secret of this society’s ruling elite. Not competence, confidence. Nothing else matters."


ooOoo


He strolled up to the receptionist at the desk and smiled. “Henry Calder Junior. I’m here to visit my grandfather.”


“Mr Calder is very ill. We have to restrict visiting…”


“I think he’ll want to see me. There’s no need for me to speak to your superior, is there?”


“No… no, of course not, Mr Calder. I’ll just see if the doctor is with your grandfather at the moment.” She lifted a phone and dialled an extension. “Mr Calder? I have your grandson here. Is it a suitable moment…? Certainly, sir.”


She put the phone down. “Your grandfather will be delighted to see you. But please, you mustn’t tire him. Fifteen minutes at the absolute maximum.”


He beamed at her. “Thank you."


“The fourth door on the left down that corridor.” She pointed. “And you will remember what I said about tiring him?”


He didn’t hurry. That would not be appropriate to the persona of Henry Calder Junior.


ooOoo


“Henry? Young Henry? Is that really you?” The old man’s eyes opened a fraction and his gaze flitted across the face of his visitor.


“Of course it is, Gramps. I’m ever so sorry for not coming before. I’m with the Tokyo office now, and I can’t begin to tell you what it’s been like with this recession. It was just impossible to get away. Worse than the 1980s… “


“That’s all right, Henry, I understand all that. We’ve been through it all before. But you look so different. So… grown-up.”


“That’s what the years do, Gramps. Make us grow up. Can’t remain children for ever, can we?” He studied the old man's face. “You don’t look as bad as they make out. You’re not going to let this disease beat you, are you?”


“I’m sorry, son. This disease has beaten me. I’ve only got weeks now, maybe days. I don’t mind. I’ve had a good life. Nobody ever kidded me I would live for ever. A good life, and I’ve left the family business strong, even in economic times like these. Your father is a clever man – clever like I was once. He won’t let the ship go down. Neither will you when your time comes”


“No, Gramps. That’s right. We won’t.”


There was quite a long pause. The old man’s expression seemed to soften, as though he had stopped concentrating.


“You don’t fool me, you know.” His voice was barely audible.


“I… don’t?” The words hit him like a physical blow.


“Of course not. That suit’s something you got in a hire shop. It’s not even close to a good fit. That white shirt, dark tie. Did you think you were coming to my funeral?”


Make-believe Henry’s spirits sank. His shoulders slumped in resignation. It had been a test and he hadn’t passed.


“Listen boy, I know all about you. You don’t work in any Tokyo office. Your father tried to hide it from me but I know all about your career. Getting sent down, the drugs, the time in the mental hospital, sleeping rough, disappearing in California. I’m not a fool. I have contacts. I know what you’ve been up to. And believe it or not I tried to help. I sent people to find you. I sent money. But I don’t think any of it ever got to you, did it?”


Relieved, but also puzzled, make-believe Henry shook his head. “No, Gramps. None of it.”


“So you hired that ridiculous suit and came to see me. Came pretending you worked in the Tokyo office – that everything was all right. And I’m touched that you did that. I respect you for it. You didn’t come looking for money. You came pretending that you didn’t need it.”


What should he say? Where was this leading? He tried to think fast. “I just wanted to see you,” he stammered. “I didn’t want you to… to think that I was a loser. That was all.”


“You came because you wanted to see me. Before it was too late.”


“Something like that.”


The old man took a few laboured breaths before he spoke. “Listen, kid. I know your father can be a stubborn man. He made me cut you out of my will, even though I thought it was a harsh thing to do. He said he thought a boy should be able to make his own way in the world, not rely on family money. But it wasn’t the way he did it himself. Your father stepped into a thriving business on a top salary. He didn’t have to fight his way up. I got him there, and kept him there, in all kinds of ways that you can’t even imagine.”


“It’s okay Gramps. I don’t want your money, or father’s. I had every chance and I blew it. I’m no good. There’s no point in throwing good money after bad. I’ll never be any good. I’ll just drag the Calder name down.”


“I disagree – and I’m going to give you a second chance, whether you think you deserve one or not. Show them, Henry. You’re a Calder. You’re my grandson. Show your father that you really have grown up. You’ve probably learned more about life than any of us. Use it. Show them all. What’s money for if it can’t be passed down from one generation to the next? If it can’t help the family? Your father isn’t going to know about this – ever. Have you got a pen and a piece of paper?”


He fished around in his pockets and found a grubby ball-point pen and an old printed bus ticket. That would have to do. “Yes, Gramps.”


“I’m going to give you the number and location of a Swiss bank account, as well as a password. Memorise them all. Then destroy whatever you’ve written them on. They’re going to be your new life, Henry. Your second chance.”


ooOoo


As he passed the receptionist's desk an unshaven, dishevelled young man in tattered jeans and an old white T-shirt was arguing with her. He caught a mention of the Calder name. “What’s going on here?” he demanded, cutting through the man’s pleas.


The nurse seemed bemused. “This young man,” she explained, clearly embarrassed, “wants to see your grandfather. He claims… that he’s you.”


“Ridiculous. An obvious impostor with criminal intent. Some kind of vagrant, I would say. Call Security.”


There was no need. The man looked at him, then turned and left with a slow, dejected gait and without another word. “Hard to believe anybody could be so blatant, isn’t it? You need to protect my grandfather from people like that. As soon as they hear an old man with money is about to pass away they’re on to him like vultures. It’s disgusting. Isn’t there any honesty or decency left in the world?”


Not waiting for a reply he strode confidently past her and headed for the main entrance.

© sirat (sirat on OLD UKA)
UKArchive ID: 28668
Archived comments for The Prodigal Son
bluepootle on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
Oooh. Nice twist. Not so very noble, then.

I liked the idea that watching Roger Moore movies could teach you upper class confidence. That added some fun.
It hung together well and I didn't see the ending coming. I liked the grandfather figure. It seemed a neat and interesting meditation on whether a lie ever can be totally selfless.

I think you missed a speech mark here: Not competence, confidence. Nothing else matters. (missing after "matters").

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Aliya. Glad it worked for you. It was a quick job, maybe not as deep as it could have been. A bit of fun, hopefully.
Quotation mark duly added.

e-griff on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
A good, light story built around a worthy catch at the end. I do think it would have read better without some of the introduction, which was traditional (younger doe-eyed) with an intrusion that jolted me (clearly wondering how ....). your trademark dialogue/explanation section also struck me as a little heavy, but once we got into the swing of the plot it motored along nicely. One anomaly which really didn't fit -- 'I take it he's in a private ward?' first, given the preparation you've set up, a person in his ostensible position would not even ask this, but secondly, and more importantly, this would not be a public hospital where such a distinction could exist. (I guess it would either be his own home, or a private nursing home).

Nonetheless, entertaining to read.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback.

I actually trimmed down the introduction considerably from the first draft, but there were a few points that I felt i wanted to retain – the idea that Duncan had a trophy wife and was living very comfortably, the idea that nobody would ever mistake his wife for a servant, the class gap between Duncan and the actor, the actor's lack of self-confidence and faith in himself (which he overcomes), the notion that confidence is what really separates Britain's classes one from the other. I don't think I could cut it very much further without loss. The anomaly of make-believe Duncan asking about the private ward was of course a slip-up on the part of somebody who hadn't really internalised his new class identity – but it's one that he gets away with. Driving home the point that self-assurance is all that counts. The ward sister doesn't ask either of the self-proclaimed grandson's for identification for the same reason. You don't question the authority of your social superiors.

Anyway, it's a light piece and I hope people enjoy it.

e-griff on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
ps (after reading your response) one thing I forgot to say, which I will now given your reply, is he wouldn't be in a 'ward' would he?

Other responses:
The wife comes across as a rather quiet girl. to be a 'trophy wife' I think you need to beef up her description a bit.

I appreciate what you say about his slip-up but I think that's a bit too 'clever' to be apparent, and many readers will have the same reaction as me. As it is not important, it would be better to eliminate it.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for coming back with the second bite. As with all feedback, I'll take on board the bits I agree with, discard the bits I don't.

franciman on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
A good story and an excellent twist at the end. I have two qualms which become almost nit picking given the lightness of the story. Having spent years around actors, I would be hard put to find one lacking in self-confidence. And perhaps there is a fair bit of 'author intervention' which you could preclude by making it first person narrative?
Grandfather/ Grandson scene worked beautifully for me.
Overall a really good piece of work.
cheers,
Jim
(P.S. Please, please lose "Doe-eyed wife'.)

Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. Glad your general impression was favourable.

The idea of doing it in the first person is an interesting one. The place where it might interfere a bit would be at the end, when the protagonist has to surprise the reader with his duplicity. To do that in the first person you might need to introduce some tiny qualm of conscience, or at least a feeling of some kind to accompany the action. I think it might be hard to have him reveal himself in such a bad light without turning it into another kind of story.

The description 'doe-eyed' sums up a lot that I want to say about this character. She's young, very attractive (which is the source of her confidence and power rather than money) but also fairly passive. She let's her husband finish her thoughts for her, and simply reinforces what he wants to say. She's actually based on somebody I met who was married to a very wealth Italian. She's a possession rather than a person in her own right. I thought 'doe-eyed' fitted the bill rather well.


TheBigBadG on 12-11-2012
The Prodigal Son
It all ended up a bit like a Bond film too, didn't it. Him walking out in his suit pretending to be someone else clutching the number of a Swiss bank account hoping no one catches him before the exit...

I sincerely wanted him to give, or at least share, the money with the real son but perhaps I'm one of the optimists today. The twist was a nice touch though. The whole set up was neatly done as well, the little snippets of dialogue picking out the story progression et al. I'm with Griff though, some of the dialogue is a bit heavy, notably in the first section. F'r'instance:

“Of course you are. The sum you’ve mentioned is extremely generous. It’s me I’m worried about. I need to… sort of radiate confidence, the way rich people do. I don’t think I can do that. Don’t you see? – That’s the real difference between your class and mine. You people believe in yourselves totally. You think you have every right to be listened to, to assert yourselves, to take control in every situation. That’s what’s going to give me away. I don’t think I can fake that. He’ll know there’s something wrong – that I’m not a Calder. You’re asking far more than you realise.”

Maybe cut it after 'confidence' up to 'I don't think I can fake that.' The exposition of class differences is clear enough without needing to say it.

Well constructed though, and only builds on itself as you go through. The Grandfather in particular lifts it up.

G

Author's Reply:
Yes, plot-wise it's a re-telling of the parable, except that this time the returning son is a ruthless imposter.

I'll think about the sentence you don't like, but the whole thing hinges on the notion of the Calder set being able to command this immediate respect and authority. I want to do more than just mention the notion of social class. I want, through the actor's lips, to give an account of it as well.

Many thanks for your thoughts.