Jon Shifrin is a writer plying his trade in Washington, DC. He is the founder of the popular political and literary website, “Policy and Poetry” (www.policyandpoetry.com), and former associate editor of the now-defunct online publication, “The Talent.” His non-literary career in politics has taken him from the White House to Capitol Hill to think tanks in Washington and Europe.But his life’s strange journey began, as his memoir Travels in Absurdia lays out, in the most unusual way: “I was born to left-wing Jewish New Yorkers in a Catholic convent in rural Spain at a time when a fascist dictator governed the country.”
Carlos and Will turned to find Montague peering down at them smugly. The expression came from on high. Montague stood six-feet five. At Oxford, he formed part of the “Meat Wagon,” or most powerful rowers on an eight-man crew. After racing at the university for four years, he accomplished a rare feat by competing for Cambridge during his graduate studies there. The achievement came at a price, though. Montague’s back went just after he earned his law degree. Coincidently, so did his hair, leaving a wisp high on his forehead bravely fighting the retreat.
“I was inquiring, lads, whether you talking about the Dalai Lama?” Montague said, repeating his earlier question. Carlos and Will, both annoyed, although not surprised by the interruption, hesitated before responding.
Montague was 32 but did not seem it. Prematurely balding men rarely act their age. Hair loss is a glaring reminder of life’s transience, a physical manifestation of the Latin admonition momento mori, “remember that you are mortal.” As a result, young men with receding hairlines confront existential questions that those blessed with bushy manes contemplate only much later, leading to their uncommon precocity and the good sense not to dilly-dally in the face of the ticking clock.
“Yes, but actually…” Carlos began to reply.
“I thought so. I suspected I heard his Holiness’ name. It’s not often in such a decidedly secular age that one happens upon a discussion about someone of such spiritual consequence.”
Carlos and Will exchanged glances subtly expressing their dismay. They knew the routine and braced themselves for the inevitable.
Montague Winchester Mustard IV, son of Lord and Lady Mustard of Leicestershire, and great grandson of the eminent Count Figglediboots of Swynnerton, was as unexceptional in appearance as he was exceptional in his lineage. His most outstanding physical trait, aside from his considerable height, was his teeth. Small and separated by conspicuous intervals, they appeared to have been denied the calcium to reach their full potential, perhaps because excessive consumption of the nutrient by Montague’s growing bones. His other features, aside from his height, were less noteworthy. Conscious that a man of great aspirations must plug the holes in his resume, Montague married a striking blonde from once-eminent family from Marseilles. She loved him. She loved his pedigree more.
Montague had done more than most men twice his age, bald or otherwise. This very model of a modern Oxbridge gentleman had backpacked across Africa, bathed in the Ganges, and dated an heiress to a cigarette fortune. He had also saved an old man’s life. The poor sod had suffered a heart attack meters from the pebbly beach in Nice. Montague, vacationing on the Riviera at the time, leapt into the cold shallows, pulled the foundering fellow from the waters, and kept him alive using CPR until the paramedics arrived. The heroic feat made the local papers. Montague was also the father of two young boys and an uncle to three more. He had twice read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.
“My good mate’s mother knows the Dalai Lama well,” Montague said. “She’s a little odd, but charming all the same. An amiable eccentric, one might say. She’s a renowned cardiac surgeon, or was. Patients came from far and near to see her. A few years ago, a Buddhist monk from Malaysia showed up at her practice. He was on a European book tour and had just come from a religious symposium during which he developed severe chest pains. Within minutes of his arrival, she had diagnosed him with coronary heart disease, which, left untreated, would surely have proven fatal. She put him on prescription medication and promptly sent him on his way. A few weeks later, she received a signed copy of his book on spirituality and mysticism. Patients often gave her mementos, which she typically donated to goodwill. But she happened to be going to a conference in Bucharest and took the book along to read on the flight. By the time she landed, she had committed herself to Buddhism. Strange, I know. My mate certainly thought so. He suspected that it was just a passing phase, as she’s frightfully whimsical and tends to have flights of fancy that depart as abruptly as they arrive. But this one didn’t. She subsequently founded a spiritual retreat outside Bristol and even went to India to meet the Dalai Lama. I think she impressed him more than he her, as he invited her to his ashram for a week of meditation and spiritual cleansing. She now goes there every now and then.”
Carlos and Will nodded with feigned interest.
Montague went into great detail about the friendship between his friend’s mother and the famous monk, meticulously weaving himself into the story whenever possible. He invariably took great pains to emphasize his associations, however tenuous, with men of renown, so as to bask in their reflected glory. Such vulgar self-promotion was common at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry, LLC, known to Carlos, Will, and the other summer interns as Loincloth, Gladhand, and Pedantry. The pretension hardly could have been otherwise at such a bastion of old world class and sophistication.
Founded in 1843 by a cousin of William Gladstone, and noted legal scholar and barrister Edmond Charles Faircloth, himself a descendant of William the Conqueror, Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry was in its heyday the most prominent law firm in the country. “Seek out the Raj for bitter spice or sweet tea,” the saying went, “but in a legal pinch make haste to Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry.” The firm’s fortunes waxed and waned with those of England. When it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, the firm prospered. It represented the landed gentry, and then, following the demise of feudalism and the beginnings of the age of mechanized labor, the new titans of industry. Its clients included principals of the East India Company and the textile magnate Titus Salt. Several barons of the slave trade allegedly also procured the services of the firm, although a parliamentary inquest was inconclusive.
Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry entered the twentieth century proud and preeminent. But no throne is timeless, and like Great Britain itself, the firm nearly collapsed during the two world wars. It managed to claw its way back from the brink on both occasions and even flourished in the 1950s, with the reemergence of deep-pocketed clients able to pay the firm’s famously steep fees. The oil crisis of the 1970s nearly did it in once again. According to lore, only prayers by the firm’s partners during their lunch breaks at St. Paul’s Cathedral staved off ruin. Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry hardly prospered, though. Competition from blue-chip US firms, and, more mortifying still, boutique outfits from the Commonwealth, kept margins low. Only with the selection of the firm in the mid-nineties by a Saudi prince to represent his numerous legal interests were its fortunes fully restored. Within two years of that coup, and several others that followed, branches were opened in Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Sydney.
“I assure you that I have nothing against ashrams, or any place of religious contemplation for that matter,” Montague said. “And neither did my mate. But really, to give up a successful career, and a bloody lucrative one, for such an endeavor does raise eyebrows.”
“Did I hear you talking about religion?” Colin asked as he walked into the conference room where employees often ate lunch. “I heard you mention an ashram, so I can safely assume you’re not chatting about the Hawthorne case.”
Montague laughed. Carlos and Will did not. As before, they looked on blankly. Their reaction mattered little. More precisely, they mattered little. Colin rarely, if ever, recognized the existence of the interns. Commoners without relevance to his professional ambitions registered in his consciousness the same way inanimate objects might. They were merely trivial entities occupying space. A bookshelf, driftwood, or a janitor—it was all the same. Such apathy is the mark of the true narcissist, and the true snob, if there is a distinction between the two. Colin’s indifference to those without purpose in his professional progress contrasted with his engagement with those who did. He wooed them with a winning charm, easily ingratiating himself with his keen wit and flair for storytelling. Colin had many admirers but few, if any, true friends. The ruthlessly ambitious and irredeemably class-conscious never do.
Colin was a victim of success—that of his father. Sir Randolph Wilcox’s shadow loomed large over his son. Colin’s father had enjoyed a distinguished career at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry, leaving after twenty-seven years, when the Tories tapped him to represent a constituency following the death of its incumbent MP. Sir Randolph won the seat outright in the ensuing election and quickly climbed the greasy pole of party politics. It was anticipated that he might in due course head the Home Office, a natural fit given his legal background, but the Tories lost their grip on power before he got the chance. Sir Randolph left parliament to head a policy outfit associated with the conservatives, during which time he earned a knighthood and published a modern history of the British monarchy that earned some criticism for its lavish, some said wildly excessive, praise of the House of Windsor.
Great expectations can be ruinous. So it was for Sir Randolph’s children. The anointment as heir apparent of Colin’s older brother nearly broke him. He suffered a nervous breakdown at university, forcing him to take a leave of absence. He eventually completed his studies and became a primary-school teacher, but despite his popularity with his students, a sense of failure, which his father did little to dispel, haunted him. He tried to kill himself twice. Colin’s sister, two years his senior, also ran athwart of her father’s ambitions. He disapproved of her interest in art history, pressuring her instead to go into medicine. She also suffered immensely from her father’s uncompromising expectations but got revenge by becoming a housewife to a Cockney. Colin, the youngest of the three, represented the final hope. “The Redeemer,” Sir Randolph called him. He took to the role.
Colin excelled at St. Paul’s School, a citadel of aristocratic entitlement. It emphasized the classics, Greek and Latin, sport, and, above all else, the inherent superiority of its pupils. He easily fit in at the ancient and prestigious place of learning on the Thames, making what would become lifelong connections with Britain’s high-and-mighty-to-be. His subsequent legal studies at Oxford cemented expectations that he would assume Sir Randolph’s mantle. Colin joined Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry when he completed his studies and rose through its ranks as quickly as had his father. He made partner in six years. Many assumed the Houses of Parliament waited. But for all his success, a foreboding sensation overcame him from time to time, as if he had written a superb essay, only not his own. Worse, he did not know what topic he would have written about for his own essay if given the opportunity to choose.
“I can tell you, chappie,” Colin said, speaking to Montague, “an ashram is no place for the weak and dissolute. I know this first hand. In between my second and third year at university, I spent the summer backpacking through Nepal, a fascinating and striking place. I recommend a visit if you get the chance. Near the end of trip, I ended up, not by design, in an ashram outside of Kathmandu. My mates and I had taken the wrong bus on a way to an ancient shrine, and we found ourselves marooned in this small mountain village as night approached. The pea-sized place did not have a hostel, or even a restaurant. Panic had begun to set in when a villager, a cheery old bloke with a wizened face, approached and urged us with hand signals to follow signs up a small footpath to an ashram. It was an odd suggestion, but what choice did we have? We walked up a serpentine path along a mountainous slope for twenty minutes before coming upon a series of wood structures with terra-cotta-tiled roofs. By that point, it was nearly dark, and we resolved that despite the obvious risks, we would sleep in a nearby meadow if we were not welcome at the strange place.
“Well, we knocked on the door tentatively, and moments later a woman with blond hair and fair skin and wearing a long burgundy robe answered. She took one look at us, and, hand on heart, said in an accent worthy of the Queen herself, ‘What may I do for you, gentleman?’”
“That was probably my mate’s mother!” Montague yelled.
Colin, not missing a beat, went on to describe in great detail the warm reception he and his friends received. The decor, the traditional garb worn by the ashram’s inhabitants, and the rigorous regime of meditation—all were covered in excruciating detail.
“Quite a spiritual journey, I must confess. I don’t think I ever felt so relaxed, and yet at the same time so put upon by the demands of intense introspection. Hours of meditation can do that to you.”
“I think you might be due for a return visit if the Hawthorne case goes pear-shaped,” Montague joked.
“I should say so. But I’m confident that it won’t.”
“I bloody hope not,” Montague replied. “I’m afraid we’ll have to find another line of work if we allow that one fall out of our grasp. Maybe we’ll all become swamis.”
Montague and Colin had a good laugh, while Carlos and Will sat impassively, their thoughts elsewhere. The two interns knew the peculiar routine; insecurities that otherwise lie dormant in less-threatening company come to the fore when the bright and the ambitious meet. A game of one-upmanship ensues. Like birds of paradise engaged in an elaborate dance to win the affection of a potential mate, the competitors preen, shamelessly parading their considerable intellect, famous associations, and adventurous exploits. It was standard operating procedure at the law firm. The most casual of comments or innocuous observations could set things off. Names would be dropped, accomplishments cited, and places visited enumerated in this most pretentious of displays.
Carlos had arrived by chance at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry. He came from a long line of ardent socialists—his great-grandfather had fought in the Spanish civil war and been imprisoned by the fascist regime for four years—and saw law, specifically, humanitarian law, as the best means of furthering his own commitment to social justice. He had intended to spend the summer working for a respected Brussels-based NGO known for its work assisting the prosecution of war criminals, but a grant to finance the internship fell through at the last minute. A sympathetic professor came to the rescue by making a few calls on Carlos’ behalf. Though Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry focused on corporate, not humanitarian law, the firm paid its summer help handsomely, and the experience would look good on his curriculum vitae. It would also mercifully get him out of Madrid during the searing heat of summer.
Carlos quickly got the gist of life at the firm. It took only two days to fully appreciate that he worked with insufferable snobs who could not be bothered with the lowly summer interns. They had much more important matters to think about: themselves. Being persona non grata had its advantages, though. Carlos’ lack of importance liberated him from having to engage in office politicking. Thus, he did his work unmolested, punching the clock as required, without having to worry about truculent line managers, petty turf wars, or participation in the ritualized and ubiquitous displays of erudition at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry. Carolos mostly kept to himself, although he did strike up a friendship with Will, a fellow intern from Australia.
As Montague and Colin chatted, Carlos pondered his evening plans. He had a date with Leticia, a shapely brunette he met at a club the previous weekend. She was also from Madrid, and, like him, was in London for the summer. He could not decide whether to take her to the Tate Modern, an otherwise logical choice given her interest in art and the museum’s romantic view of the city at night. But that plan ran the risk of exposing his lack of cultural refinement. She would easily see that he knew nothing about art, potentially reinforcing the stereotype that law attracted one-dimensional stiffs. Or perhaps not. His willingness to venture into her territory might charm her. A safer option also existed. He could take her to a new Latin-Asian fusion restaurant written up in the paper.
Baklava had a grip on Will’s thoughts. He had never tasted the sweet dessert, but a friend of his from Sydney had dated a Greek girl who introduced him to it. His friend loved the stuff. He practically snorted it. His many attempts to convert Will had failed; Will did not have a sweet tooth. The standoff became a running joke. It had come up during an email exchange between the two that very morning, when Will said he might stop in Greece on his way home to Australia at the end of the summer. He figured he deserved a holiday. Unlike Carlos, who seemed to brush off the disrespectful treatment by the firm’s principals, Will, sensitive to his humble origins as the son of a house painter, found the condescension particularly grating and eagerly anticipated returning home. An adventurous trip back to Sydney with stops on the way could compensate for his tenure at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry. By chance, when he joined Carlos in the conference room for lunch, he noticed a plate of sweets on the far end of the table, probably left over from an earlier meeting. There, next to some brownies, sat wedges of baklava. Their allure was undeniable. Maybe, he wondered, the time had come to take the plunge.
“You laugh,” said Colin, “but stranger things have happened. I once knew this bloke in school who was stark raving mad. The peculiar fellow had few friends, if any, and lacked all social graces. He rarely talked. Instead, he tapped out computer code day and night. We had a running count of how many times he was seen doing anything but typing. I’m quite serious. I once was spent most of the night at the library working on a legal brief. On my way out at dawn, I passed the fellow crouched over his computer, pounding out code. A rumor went around that he had hacked into the Pentagon’s mainframe for fun. Well, after graduating, he got a job at a start-up in Silicon Valley. Given his peculiarity, we thought the company had made a terrible mistake, despite his technical know-how. One-trick ponies are surefire losers. Or so I thought. A venture capital firm recently bought out his startup and he made a couple of million dollars. Not bad for a cobbler’s son from Liverpool. I’ve no idea how he got into Balliol in the first place, though. It probably had to do with this newfangled obsession with diversity. Merit is so passé these days.”
“So it is,” Montague agreed.
“A shame, isn’t it.”
“Shame? A sham, I’d say.”
“We’re a dying breed,” Colin added with a sigh. “Bloody Stradivariuses amongst kazoos.”
Just then, Will stood up and walked over to the dessert tray. He tentatively picked up a wedge of baklava and, after careful examination, took a bite.
“Were you talking about music?” said Nigel, walking into conference room holding a binder, which he set down on the table.
“In a roundabout way, old boy,” said Colin, giving Montague a wink.
“Quite a coincidence. I just received an email from my wife. She said that her cousin had just resigned as musical director for the Salzburg Philharmonic. Or was it Strasbourg? Well, no matter. He had been there for thirteen years. Molly and I had seen him perform several years ago. The papers said that his interpretation of Bach was a revelation. Or was it Mozart?
Montigue and Colin burst into laughter.
“Fair enough,” said Nigel, conceding that he deserved the gentle ridicule. “Classical music is like golf: its tediousness is matched by its usefulness as a networking tool. You know what they say: the most direct route to a client’s heart runs through a concert hall. It’s the rather unfortunate Golden Rule of corporate life. Anyway, as I was saying, this cousin of Molly’s a unique character. Bless him. He studied with a Jewish conductor in New York for many years. Following his apprenticeship with the Jew, he left the states for Salzburg, or Strasbourg, and eventually became head of the philharmonic there at the ripe old age of twenty-five. An accomplishment of the first order, although some considered the appointment a poisoned chalice, given the dismal state of the orchestra. It was in rotten shape. He was not paid much either, but I suppose artists are cut from different cloth. Be that as it may, he miraculously turned the orchestra around. Some heralded him as the next great maestro, a virtuoso of the highest order.
“Tragically, he suffered a severe setback. It was the stuff of fiction. He was in recital, preparing for a Christmas concert, when he suddenly fainted. He was known to have bouts of vertigo, so nobody thought much of it at first. Indeed, when he came to, he got back up and resumed conducting as he had done many times in the past after such episodes. Minutes later he collapsed again, though. This time, he was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with an aneurysm. He was in a coma for ten weeks following six hours of surgery. Molly practically went apoplectic. When he finally emerged, he couldn’t talk or walk, much less direct an orchestra.
“The poor chap had to start from scratch. Remarkably, within four months he was shipshape. Well, almost. He returned to his post as conductor, but two weeks later he was sacked. The philharmonic’s board said he had lost his ear. The musicians agreed, although most felt he deserved more time to recover. The public reaction was swift, however. Angry letters began arriving from season-ticket holders, demanding refunds on account of the philharmonic’s callousness. It was quite a row. He even approached me for legal advice, which, of course, I provided pro bono. The philharmonic, overwhelmed by the bad publicity, finally raised a white flag. The fellow returned in triumph, but his musical skills had deteriorated. Even a novice could tell as much. Don’t let on to my wife that I said so, but it could hardly be denied. He was terrible. The papers agreed, saying his timing was hopelessly off. Apparently, you could see the confusion, the abject disbelief of his orchestra as they tried desperately to follow his lead. And yet bizarrely, the orchestra thrived. Audiences came in droves. He might have been a grotesque circus act, but people wanted to see what some were calling the ‘Frankenstein Philharmonic.’”
Colin and Montague nodded slowly, as if taking time to fully savor the story’s sumptuousness. Will, aware as ever of his essential invisibility, had tuned out; he savored the baklava, wondering whether he had the money to stop in Greece on his way home. Carlos, on the other hand, listened carefully to Nigel. He spoke beautifully, Carlos thought. The perfection of his delivery stood out even at the rarified firm. His diction was flawless, his cadence impeccable, and his accent a model of aristocratic pedigree. Nigel’s oratorical skills, which so impressed the Spanish intern, and many others as well, well-heeled and well-bred Brits included, were, in fact, not natural, but the fruit of much labor.
Nigel was born into a working-class family outside of Southampton. His family’s humble circumstances did not suit him, however, and he set out from a young age on a journey to cross the class threshold. He studied hard, often spending afternoons poring over textbooks while his classmates played football or rugby. His academic diligence won him few friends, but in due course it did win him entry into Cambridge. Being the first member of his family to go to university, much less such a prestigious one, only stiffened his resolve. He choose law because it paid well; he worked tirelessly, aware that he, unlike many of his classmates, whose connections would grease the wheels when graduation came, would have to earn his place at one of the country’s finest law firms. Yet he understood that academic credentials alone would not win the day.
In the evening, after dinner and just before he began his night’s study, Nigel would retreat to the bathroom. There he would sit in front of the mirror practicing his elocution. First he would enunciate syllables, then words, starting with those that began with “a,” until he worked his way through the alphabet. Nigel’s hard work once again paid off: in his cocoon, a toilet in his drafty room located in a stone dormitory built in the seventeenth century, he transformed himself from a garage mechanic’s son to a noble man amongst the noblest of men.
The well placed lie, or, as Nigel saw it, useful exaggeration, helped solidify his new persona. His wife’s cousin was, in fact, not his wife’s cousin, but the uncle of his wife’s best friend. He had heard the story of the conductor several times and stowed it away until its deployment would best serve his interests. Just before walking into the conference room where he intended to eat lunch, he heard that a colleague had made partner. Anger welled up in him. He could feel heat travel up his neck and envelop his face. The lazy fool did not deserve the promotion. His reputation for late-night carousing matched that for indolence. A team of paralegals and a light caseload kept him afloat, and just barely at that. But for his father being a member of the House of Lords, he would be an anonymous associate at an anonymous firm, not a high-flyer at Faircloth, Gladstone, and Coventry.
Nigel took the disheartening news as he always did: he resolved to try even harder to get his due. Needing a quick boost to his flagging ego, he decided to deploy the story of the ailing composer when he found Montague and Colin chatting in the conference room. It made him feel erudite, sophisticated—a member of the club who would, in time, be as duly, or, as the case might be, unduly, rewarded as they.
“A rather dispiriting story,” Montague observed. “Is he still performing, this Frankenstein fellow?”
“Yes, as far as I know,” replied Nigel.
Crispin entered just then, carrying a bag of Chinese food. The aroma from his Szechuan Beef filled the room. “Did I overhear you talking about Frankenstein?” he asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Montague. “On the subject of wretched monstrosities, have you ordered take out from that dirty Chinese restaurant again?”
“My dear boy, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
“So it is said,” replied Montague. “But by that reckoning being flayed alive by a gaggle of rabid aborigines would improve your constitution if you survived the ugly ordeal.”
“I might prefer the aborigines to having to eat that food,” joked Colin.
“Well done,” replied Crispin sarcastically. “I must confess, I’m delighted you’re discussing Frankenstein because I was recently pondering the tale myself. While at Oxford, I studied Shelley with…”
“We weren’t chatting about that Frankenstein, dear boy,” said Colin, cutting off his colleague.
“Dear me, I beg your pardon. What were you talking about?”
“I was recounting a story about my wife’s cousin,” Nigel explained. “He’s in a bad way physically, and has been compared to Frankenstein.”
“What a terrible shame. I do say, if you pardon my asking, how did you get on that rather dour topic?”
“When I walked in,” Nigel answered, pointing to Carlos and Will, “I found these two discussing music, which reminded me of this story about my wife’s cousin, who...”
“Actually, we weren’t chatting about music,” Colin interjected. “I had merely used a music metaphor when describing a decidedly odd classmate who went on to make a fortune in Silicon Valley.”
“Is that so?” asked Nigel, somewhat embarrassed. “And how did that topic come up?”
“If you must know, I arrived to find this fellow waxing philosophical about ashrams. It got me thinking about a trip I took to…”
“How is it that you came to be discussing ashrams?” asked Crispin impatiently.
“I’m not sure, really,” said Montague, slightly embarrassed. “When I got here these two chappies were chatting about the Dalai Lama.” He then looked at Carlos and Will for confirmation. “Weren’t you?”
By now, Carlos had tuned out as well, but Montague’s question returned both his and Will’s attention to the lawyers’ conversation. Montague, sensing their confusion, repeated his question. “You were talking about the Dalai Lama?”
Carlos and Will looked at each other and smiled. “Well, not really,” said Will in between bites of baklava. “We were talking about this new restaurant. It’s called Dali’s Lama. It’s a fusion of Latin and Asian cuisine. The Guardian wrote a review of the…”
At that moment, Digby, head of corporate practice, limped into the conference room with the assistance of an ivory-tipped cane. A polo accident suffered in youth explained his odd gait; a heritage that he proudly traced to Henry VIII explained his superciliousness. Interrupting Will, he asked in a baritone voice, “Did I hear someone mention that socialist rag, the Guardian?”