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The Virtue Polarization

A Short Story

My friend and editor, Tom Bentley, suggested that I write a short story grounded in the Gackiverse, stirring up interest for the main novel by giving a few of my characters something else to do. Since I miss them all terribly, this is precisely what I set out to do.

The Virtue Polarization borrows a few descriptive passages from The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks. Other than that, it stands on its own as a tale of the corporate versus the bespoke; the hit versus the long tail. You may want to read the bios of the three characters who figure in this piece: John Buxomley, Halden Hudeler and the severe but always fascinating Mrs. Virtue.

And no, you shall probably never know her Christian name.



*****

The Virtue Polarization

*****

Preface

Unique, remarkable, bespoke businesses tend to be profitable. And profits attract the industrialist.

But the industrialist will race to the bottom on cost.

The industrialist will strive to monetize and anonymise and corporatise and dehumanise every business model that comes within their gaping maw in their insatiable lust for More with a capital “M.”

That's what the industrialist mindset does; it can't help itself. 

And then, one such industrialist encountered Mrs. Virtue…


*****

Chapter 1

 

May 1946

 

Virtue’s

 

Flight Lieutenant John Buxomley shrank down into the barstool at the Crow and Nettle in Henley-on-Thames.

“What will you have, sir?” the bartender asked.

“Well, the Gack&Bacon chaps are mates of mine, so I often go in for their brews. However, this occasion calls for something with a bit more yumpfh. Pour me a Lhanbryde, if you please. Neat.”

A pause. “Oh—and make it a large.”

The young man regarded Buxomley for a moment in silence.

“Virtue’s?”

“Yes! How did you guess?”

“Ah, sir, no guessing about it. You have The Look.”

“‘The Look’?”

The bartender’s eyes darted right and left a few times as he considered how far to go with a customer who wasn’t a regular. “Sir, it’s that curious mixture of excitement, nerves, fear and, I daresay, hope, that we see so often in those who are about to visit Virtue’s.”

Buxomley considered that for a moment. “Ah, yes, I would imagine that we all have a hard time with our poker faces before going in.”

Mrs. Virtue, proprietor of Virtue’s Candies For The Serious: Frivolous Customers Need Not Apply, was, certainly, a unique and extraordinarily difficult individual. The world, in her view, was a nasty, chaotic place, and she believed that manners and strict adherence to a logical, refined set of rules were all that kept humanity from sinking to the level of wild beasts. Mrs. Virtue’s stand against impropriety was universal and uncompromising. She often looked back to the Victorian era from her current perch in the Georgian and sighed wistfully. As to perches, Mrs. Virtue stood behind her polished counter at a significantly higher elevation than her clientele, so as to be better able to stare them down as they made their many procedural errors and breaches of protocol in her shop. For protocol was the order of the day in Virtue’s Candies For The Serious. Loud excited speech, animated hand and arm movements, and any sort of bumping into her candy bins were all grounds for immediate dismissal from the premises.

John Buxomley savoured his Lhanbryde. Such a delightful whiskey it was. And the thing was to titrate himself to precisely the ideal level of insobriety. Too little whiskey, and he would still be nervous, and liable to commit some gaffe that would get him expelled from Mrs. Virtue’s shop. Too much, and the inebriation itself would all too likely leave him vulnerable to making an even more severe mistake.

Such a funny word, that. “Inebriation.” He wondered whence it came. He’d have to look it up sometime.

But right now, at this moment in time, his mission was to titrate! Good lord, the stress of it all! Customers of all ages were to enter the store slowly and with dignity, and exchange greetings of “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” depending upon their time of arrival. And noting one’s time of arrival was vitally important—woe betide the patron who let slip a “Good morning” after the stroke of noon on the town clock. Customers of Virtue’s Candies For The Serious were also to have their money ready when they came up to the counter to pay, as Mrs. Virtue considered wasted time to be amongst the most frivolous of mankind’s many weaknesses. Reprimands were numerous and escalated according to the severity of the transgression. Banishment from her shop for a time was the most severe punishment she meted out for the more serious infractions of her many rules.

The odd thing was—Buxomley admitted to himself now that the Lhanbryde was working its magic—avoiding such a fate was actually rather fun. It was a stressful, maddening, delightful game, is what it bloody well was.

Buxomley finished, paid, nodded good day and slid off the barstool. Managing a series of relatively straight lines, he arrived at Virtue’s Candies For The Serious at one o’clock in the afternoon. One never wanted to arrive precisely at noon: calling the time of day at noon was far too dicey. Did one say “Good morning,” “Good afternoon” or, perhaps, “Good noon?” Bagh. Only the bravest souls would attempt it. And though Buxomley had flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain and after, he had never thought himself particularly brave. Successful, yes. A survivor, yes. Brave? All too often, he used to throw up on the runway grass before climbing into his plane for a mission. In fact, at one point, his squadron mates used to get worried if he didn’t throw up in front of his Spit.

Arriving at the entrance to Virtue's Candies For The Serious, John Buxomley composed himself, took a deep breath, nodded to no one in particular, and then turned the knob on just the rightward one of the big double doors. Never open both unless you had a good reason! He smoothed his tie, squared his shoulders and entered the most magical candy store in all the British Isles. Instantly he was speared by Mrs. Virtue’s glare as she surveyed her latest entrant from the daunting heights of her counter.

He knew it was essential to greet his host immediately, and with proper regard to the time of day as well.  “Good morn … afternoon, Mrs. Virtue. I am pleased to be returning to your establishment this fine summer’s day.” Drat! He’d almost got it wrong, even after all his preparation.

“Good afternoon, Flight Lieutenant Buxomley.” Remarkable, how she never forgot a service member’s rank. “Once again, young sir, I thank you for your service to our great nation during the war.”

Ah. That was excellent. And yet, not likely to protect him if he inadvertently knocked over a candy bin. Not bloody likely at all. “Just did my duty, ma’am, as did so many others.”

Her glare relaxed a degree or two. This, he took to be the equivalent of a full smile in any of the less formidable women of the world. And then he entered, ever so carefully, into the boundless delights of her remarkable candy store.

From floor to knee there was a counter base, a wainscoting really, in oak or mahogany or maple. There seemed no pattern to it; the wood simply changed from aisle to aisle. And then from one’s knees up to one’s shoulders there were glittering glass cases with brass hinges and knobs. Again, every aisle was different. Some had three levels of cases, some two, and some just the one. The cases themselves were of varied sizes and shapes; some square, some rectangular, some deep and some shallow. Presumably this had to do with various aspects of the delights held within, but no one had ever dared ask, so far as John Buxomley knew. There was even the occasional bin crafted of wood rather than glass, and those ranged from darkest densest ebony to the near-white of aspen. Most were of glass, though, and the glass always glittered, with nary a fingerprint to be seen no matter how far one ventured from Mrs. Virtue at her counter.

It seemed Virtue’s customers had a care with her bin knobs.

And Buxomley got lost in those bins. For a brief but precious swath of time, he forgot about the war and what it had done to him. He forgot about his menial job that didn’t utilize one millionth of his skills in mathematics. He forgot that he hadn’t a girl, only a sports car with the left seat incessantly empty. He even forgot, for the moment, about how very much he loved alcohol in all its forms. For John Buxomley was having a hard time with the basic processes of living, and he tried to escape the torments of both a traumatic past and a workaday present by seeking intense pleasureable experiences, as so many others had before him and as so many others undoubtedly would in times to come. As for John Buxomley, his favourite pleasures were beer, whiskey, tea, oranges and chocolate. And, oddly enough, rice. Three liquids and three solids that transformed his world from dull grey to bright grey.

Trouble was, whiskey was by far the preeminent, dominant, overbearing of the six. Whiskey was sovereign. John knew this was going to lead to great difficulties for him. But he either didn’t care, or didn’t mind; it was impossible to say quite which it was.

And oh my, the chocolate. Buxomley had, ever since he could remember, amused himself, and only himself, by a delightful paraphrasing of Wordsworth:

 

One impulse from a chocolate bar

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

 

Pure doggerel, yes, but it made him chuckle to himself and that was what counted. And so, like an archaeologist unearthing impossibly rare treasures from a vast and rich dig in some foreign clime, Buxomley mined Mrs. Virtue’s bins for chocolate in all its forms. Light, dark and even white. High cocoa butter and low. Sweet, semisweet and bittersweet. Pure and with nuts. Simple shapes and complex sculptures, including a dark chocolate Spitfire Mark II that he found in Aisle Seventeen which, so far as he could tell, was in perfect proportion to the real machine he had flown just a few years ago.

For the convenience of her customers, Mrs. Virtue had stacks upon stacks of wicker baskets at the front of her store. Buxomley filled one up by the time he’d explored a mere two aisles, so he went back up front for another basket. Mrs. Virtue turned her eyes, but not her head, speared him with a glare but said nothing and went back to working on what looked like her ledger. The thing was, Buxomley now filled the second basket within a few more aisles. Faced with what Sherlock Holmes would no doubt have called “quite a three-basket problem,” he once again headed up front for another. This time, her head, but not her body, turned upon him from the heights of her counter.

“Stocking up for next winter, are we?” Her eyes were narrow like a vole’s.

Careful, now. “Well, Mrs. Virtue, I do distribute quite a bit of my purchases to my co-workers. And to Mrs. Perkins, who is my landlady.”

It was true. Buxomley may have been stuck in life, but he remained a generous chap. It could be said that he was generous to all but himself, but that was an insight he had not yet had.

“Very well, Flight Lieutenant.” She turned back to her ledger.

Finally, after having a gobsmacking good time amongst the endless glittering bins, Buxomley made his way back up to the counter to pay and bag up his treasures. He faced a terribly difficult mathematical challenge—the parameters of the equation were two hands, three baskets, one wallet and one pocket. Adding to the equation’s complexity, the wallet was a subset of the pocket. Knowing that Mrs. Virtue demanded speed once one arrived at her counter, having his hands full and, at the same time, sobering up by now into a heightened state of nerves, he started into a complex choreography of flailing arms, slipping baskets and failed pocket-entry forays.

And right in the middle of it all as he spun about, he noticed her.

Her was a beautiful young woman, a brunette with a face he’d remember the rest of his days, an indefinable way of carrying herself that instantly struck him as magnificent, and a fuselage that … well, she had quite the fuselage; leave it at that and mustn’t be caught staring. She also had a large scar on her left arm and a smaller one on the left side of her face. The injuries must surely have been inflicted in some manner during the war. Perhaps from a Luftwaffe bomb during the Blitz. If only he could have managed to shoot that particular bomber down! But then, her scars didn’t detract from her essential beauty. If fact, he realized in a surprising bit of insight—they augmented it. They hinted at inner strength.

The thing to do with a bird like this was, of course, to let her go first in queue.

His nerves firing seemingly at random by now, Buxomley did the best he could to simultaneously speak, move aside and put down his boxes; hindered by the fact that his hand had finally reached his wallet and was now utterly useless when it came to the vexing matter of that third basket, the one he had cradled under his arm.

“Please, miss, allow me …” and all three baskets tumbled to the floor, spilling part of their contents.

As he stooped to gather up his treasures, Mrs. Virtue finally swung into action.

“For heaven’s sakes, young man, sit down!

After scooping the last of his chocolates into his baskets, Buxomley threw himself onto the sofa that was situated between the counter and the stacks of empty baskets. He sat right down on a stapler and a dozen or so pads of blank receipts that had been left there. In spite of the discomfort, he didn’t dare move.

He sat there on that stapler the entire time the beautiful young woman paid. She managed, somehow, to simultaneously chat amicably with Mrs. Virtue and pay with sufficient speed so as not to upset the finicky proprietor. What John wanted to do more than anything else in the world at that moment in time was to take this girl to lunch; take her to dinner; take her to his life. He wanted to find out how she had been injured and how she had overcome the trauma, and he wanted to heal everything about her that needed healing just as she would heal his own wounds, which he postulated to be far greater than her own.

But even though she smiled at him and thanked him for his courtesy, what he actually did was to watch her walk out Virtue’s door (opening just the rightward one) without moving or calling after her, and let his world dim back down from bright grey to dull grey again. Eventually he rose and placed his baskets on the counter with smooth but listless motions, no longer caring if Mrs. Virtue got cross over his lack of speed. He paid and she bagged everything up without comment.

Finally, as he was turning to go, she opened her eyes wide and said, “Enjoy your treats, Flight Lieutenant Buxomley. And have a care with … things. I wish to see you back in my shop again soon.”

It was an astonishing thing for her to say. He nodded and walked out through the left door by mistake. No one was up front to notice, but behind her counter, Mrs. Virtue let out a long sigh and she wiped away some moisture from her eyes—moisture that must surely have resulted from some random bit of dust or pollen.

 

*****


Chapter 2

 

June 1946

 

Hudeler

 

Halden Hudeler was striding down Battersea Bridge Road, crossing the bridge across the Thames and heading towards the Slore’s (It’s Beer) Brewery in Battersea. He enjoyed the roles of both Chief Legal Officer and Chief Financial Officer of the concern.

People who knew him thought it odd that such an ostensibly wealthy man would prefer to walk about so often. He could easily afford a car and driver. He certainly could pay for the upkeep of an exotic car, and did, having an Aston Martin and a Rolls Royce in his garage. And he would presumably be able to pay the fare on the Tube or on buses with as much ease as most men could obtain a toothpick or a leaf of paper. Why, then, did he often walk? To find the answer to that question, one had to delve more deeply into his mind than he would allow even those close to him to venture.

Yet he himself was fully aware of the reasons. He walked often because he begrudged his automobiles the cost of their petrol. Furthermore, he would never consider paying another human being to do his driving, a task which he was perfectly able to perform for himself. And there was no way on this earth, with all its thorny financial challenges, that he would send so much as tuppence in the direction of a transit company if he didn’t have to, on those occasions when he had ample time and the weather was reasonable.

Most of the population of Britain in 1946 faced the coming of peace with a mixture of relief and joy and optimism, though those emotions were tempered by the pain caused by the loss of loved ones that nearly everyone had experienced. When it came to Halden Hudeler, however, even a close observer of the man would be hard pressed to say whether peace or war made any difference to him—whether to his countenance, to his demeanour in public and at business, or even in his relations with his family. He simply desired to make money regardless of the external conditions which he encountered. Money for his company, money for his family, and most especially, money for himself. In Halden Hudeler’s map of the world, money was not a means to an end, nor was it an exchange mechanism between men of ability. And in the world according to Hudeler, money was not ever to be used as a gift without something expected in return. Money was also most certainly not potential, in his view. He had seen many of his peers come to believe this misguided fallacy—that money gave a person or a business potential, freedom of action, and the ability to make things happen in their world. He had even encountered those who believed that money could make a difference. He considered them fools. For him, potential was a lowly servant whose sole reason for existence was to facilitate the making of money.

For, in Hudeler’s stringent, rigorous, narrowly focussed map of the world in which he found himself—money was the goal.

 

*****

 

This first June after the war there was a special meeting of the officers at Slore’s. Special meetings, but perhaps not regular meetings, always meant Boswell Slore, patriarch of the firm, would be in attendance. Now that the war was over, officers also meant Boswell’s elder son, Alabaster Prufrock Slore. He had served in the Royal Navy and was now eager to swing his turrets around and aim them at the business of brewing. The younger son, Adolphus, didn’t make very many meetings, being more generally inclined to sleep through half the day and carouse all night.

Halden Hudeler served as CFO and CLO, and then there were the heads of such departments as Production, Marketing, Accounting, Employees and so on.

As usual, Hudeler was on a mission to cut costs. This time, he was pushing to shorten the brewing cycle.

“We have to be careful,” observed Alabaster. He relaxed his expression with a hint of a smile and his eyes were wide open and welcoming. His strategy was always to start with charm and only go to war if necessary. Regrettably, war was all too often necessary when contending with Halden Hudeler. “If we shorten the process too much, we’ll have cloudy beer. Our entire standardization process is designed to accustom the English public to a clear, reliable, predictable product that never varies. They most certainly will not want to see cloudy beer once we’ve spent all this time and effort on teaching them to want clear.”

“Yes, yes, young man, I quite understand the ins and outs of the brewing process and the capricious demands of customers. I’ve been at this game for quite some time now.” Again, with that “young man” nonsense, even though Hudeler had less than ten years on him. “What I wish you to do is to tell your boffins to reduce the brewing cycle precisely to the point where the beer becomes cloudy, and then back off an hour or two. That is where the greatest efficiency lies.”

Boswell assented. “Yes, Alabaster, order Albertson in production to make it so.” He glanced at his watch and didn’t seem to care that he was being obvious about it. Alabaster suspected that he had some rendezvous with a woman in a nearby hotel. It was often, but not always, his father’s executive secretary who was the object of his carnal desires. Alabaster idly wondered if his own marital fidelity was at least partly derived from the disgust he felt at the hurt his father caused his mother with his interminable affairs.

Actually, they weren’t so much affairs as simple acts of satisfying base physical urges. There was no romance as far as Alabaster could tell. The women surely received money and gifts as part of the deal, carrying on with a wealthy and powerful man. Those favours were given in the spirit of quid pro quo, however, not as gracious gifts, lovingly tendered.

Now Hudeler was going on about cardboard. “When it comes to packaging our bottles, the new automated machines have allowed for tremendous gains in efficiency, not to mention the fact that they have replaced thirty-seven full-time workers.”

Alabaster roused himself. “Yes, and about that, were any of them re-purposed? I’ve been meaning to follow up on that since we spoke about it at the general meeting last week.”

“Only three. And they all took a reduction in compensation, averaging eighteen percent, for the privilege of holding onto their jobs,” Hudeler explained in a low growl.

“Only three? That seems rather a low number,” Alabaster replied.

His father would have none of it. “All the more money you can put in your own pocket, my boy! Let’s not go all bleeding-heart on me, shall we?”

“As you say, father.” Alabaster cast his eyes down at the table, wishing fervently that he could apply his increasingly well-honed negotiation skills with his customary ease to the two powerful men in this room! It was certainly much more difficult with these two than with any client he had yet come across.

Hudeler went on. “And yet I see the opportunity here to reduce costs even further. I’ve been poring over the cardboard invoices …”

You would, thought Alabaster.

“… and really now, Prist & Proctor is charging us an outrageous fee for what amounts to a pile of reprocessed tree limbs. I’ve had Baxter take a look through their catalogue and he has discovered that we can use a much cheaper stock and still maintain the strength of our cartons, not expecting to have any bottles fall out in transit.”

Alabaster straightened up in his chair, at last seeing where to place the point of his lance. “Well, yes, but, although I was rather busy at sea during much of the war years,” here taking a subtle stab at Hudeler’s continued civilian service within the confines of these brewery walls, “I do recall that when we used similarly cheap cardboard due to wartime shortages, it flaked all over the bottles, especially during humid conditions.”

“So?”

Boswell’s eyes darted between his son and his most valuable employee, eagerly lapping up the lines of tension between them as they engaged in yet another boardroom battle. He almost forgot his watch for the moment. Almost.

“So, as I said, the bottles came to look all dirty. They most assuredly were not, but they appeared that way. And perception is reality, from the standpoint of keeping our customers happy.”

Hudeler glowered and snapped, “Happy? Happy? We need have nothing to do with keeping our customers happy, Slore. I’ll remind you of the commonly acknowledged fact that happiness is not the most prevalent state of humankind, and it’s hardly within the purview of a brewing company to concern itself with such weighty philosophical matters. We need only concern ourselves with whether or not some change in our product or our operations affects sales in a positive or a negative manner. I shall reluctantly concede that if there were enough cardboard flakes on our bottles our customers might assume they were dirty, and further might reasonably be expected to buy less of our products. Yet I am equally determined to save money on cardboard, as it quite rankles me every time I have a look at our balance sheets. Therefore, let us select the lowest grade of cardboard possible that will not flake excessively. Baxter can run the tests, he enjoys that sort of thing, though I cannot for the life of me imagine why. And then I’ll go down to Prist & Proctor personally and batter old Frederick into submission on his outrageous prices. After all, we’re his largest customer. He can ill afford my ill will.” And with that Hudeler leaned back with a smug look on his face. Alabaster fancied that that last line was as close as their humourless CFO ever came to making a joke.

Boswell, satisfied that his two officers would maintain the profitability he required from his company, adjourned the meeting and went off to satisfy the itch in his groin that seemed ever so much more important than employees, brewing times and bloody ridiculous decisions about grades of cardboard.

 

*****

 

Halden Hudeler may have laboured in the brewery industry, but that didn’t mean he liked beer. He rather tolerated beer; that was all. Tea was more his beverage, but even with tea, he was more interested in extracting a bargain than in the nuances of taste. He was not the sort of man to go chasing after a rarified gongfu-infused Oolong, a delightful Keemun from Huangshan City, a blend of greens and whites from Assam, or, perhaps, the holy grail of Tea Enthusiasm, the First Flush Nishi Sencha from faraway Kagoshima. No, Hudeler was quite the Second Flush Man, content to reduce his gustatory and olfactory demands in order to also reduce the lightening of his wallet.

Still, when one was battered about by taxes, and vendors ratcheting up their prices, and, worst of all, the idiocy of employees who made costly mistakes from time to time, there was a certain recharging effect to be had out of a steaming cup of tea and a well-buttered scone. Or chocolate. Chocolate most definitely helped one burnish one’s armour as one prepared for yet another battle in the boardroom or on the brewery floor. And when it came to armour-burnishing, even Halden Hudeler would occasionally head off to Virtue’s. Yes, Virtue’s was dear compared to the bargains he could extract from the workaday candy merchants that dotted London. But the vexing problem was this: nine-tenths at least of Virtue’s stock was quite simply unavailable anywhere else on the planet. At least, not available all in the same room at the same time. Mrs. Virtue was a splendid collator, collector and curator. The only one of her kind, they said.

Most people took that assertion as an article of faith. Hudeler had researched it in painstaking detail and found it to be true.

So, early on a decent June Saturday in 1946, Halden Hudeler took the train out to Henley-on-Thames, with Virtue’s as his goal. He did not take his wife and children. Quite simply put, the cost of five tickets on the Great Western was five times the cost of one ticket on the Great Western. This was the sort of math that exerted a pull on Hudeler that was at least the equal of gravity. And in addition to the issue of the train fares, there was always the chance that one of his children, now well into their complex teenage years, would commit some infraction or other that would cause them to be expelled to the walled-in portico outside that kept them safe from vehicular traffic while their parents continued to shop. Besides violating his own sense of decorum, his two sons and daughter were old enough now to feel the full force of the indignity of such a fate.

These sorts of calculations, practiced in every aspect of his life, led many of his peers and underlings at Slore’s to conclude that Hudeler was a cold fish. But the man was not entirely devoid of feeling. When he arrived home from Virtue’s, he carried treasures for his wife and three children that he had selected with infinite care in order to make the most of their delight. He well knew their favourites. And he also knew how to seek out something new that would suit the tastes and excite the palates of each of his family members. As much as any man, Hudeler cherished the moment when four sets of arms embraced him at his door and four sets of eyes feasted upon him as he distributed the swag from Virtue’s. He also felt a considerable pride in the way his children still enjoyed his company at this stage of their lives where many teens sought to distance themselves from their parents as much as possible. How excellent it was, in a world full of fools and knaves who were out to, respectively, waste and steal one’s hard-earned money—how excellent it was to bask in the respect and heartfelt good feelings of those few people one could unreservedly trust.

But all that still did not justify four unnecessary train fares on the Great Western.

Arriving at the entrance to Virtue's Candies For The Serious, Halden Hudeler composed himself, took a deep breath, nodded to no one in particular, and then turned the knob on just the rightward one of the big double doors. Never open both unless you had a good reason! He smoothed his moustache, squared his shoulders and entered the most magical candy store in all the British Isles. Instantly he was speared by Mrs. Virtue’s glare as she surveyed her latest entrant from the daunting heights of her counter.

He knew it was essential to greet his host immediately, and with proper regard to the time of day as well.

“Good morning, Mrs. Virtue. I am pleased to be returning to your establishment this fine summer’s day.”

Her eyes narrowed. Hudeler fancied that her entire face had narrowed.

“Good morning, Mr. Hudeler.”

And that was it. He was allowed to pass into her establishment. On his visits here, Hudeler often had the impression that Mrs. Virtue didn’t favour him. It was really the strangest thing. Now, she had a remarkable memory. She not only knew each and every regular or even semi-regular customer by name. She also recalled much about their behaviour in her shop. Hudeler wouldn’t have been surprised if Mrs. Virtue could say with a fair degree of certainty who, over the years, had said “Good morning” when it was afternoon, and who had said “Good afternoon” when it was morning. And Hudeler, being a serious if not downright dour fellow, had always gotten the time of day correct. Further, he had never so much as grazed a glass case with his elbow, jostled a fellow patron or fumbled about in his wallet up at her counter. He had been unfailingly polite, had run up what, to him, were exceedingly large bills, and had paid them promptly at her counter, always with crisp new banknotes and without complaint. Considering the inner pain caused him whenever his wallet was being lightened rather than ladened, he felt somewhat put upon by this vague feeling of dislike she gave him. However it was only that, a feeling, not subject to verification in the manner of a ledger or an inventory list, and so he always let it go. The truth was, as fearless as Halden Hudeler was in the halls and boardrooms of Slore’s, the prospect of asking Mrs. Virtue the question “Do you not like me?” terrified him down to his very core.

Feeling the heat of her gaze on his back, Hudeler took in Mrs. Virtue’s “Cavity Clocks.” These were three massive clocks, all identical except for the coloured bands on their faces. Each clock was a full two feet in diameter. They had black Arabic numerals on a stark white dial, and were rimmed by a buffed silver casing. In the first clock, to the far left, labelled “The careful child,” there were three narrow red bands radiating out from the centre; two of them occupied a half an hour centred around typical English mealtimes, with a wider, hour-long red band at dinner. These red bands showed patrons the relatively low risk for tooth decay if they ate Mrs. Virtue’s confections, or anything sweet, strictly at mealtimes. Since so little of the overall day was in red, one saw that one could eat sweets to one’s heart’s content in this manner and nothing damaging was likely to happen to one’s teeth.

The middle clock had the same three red bands and three additional ones—bands that represented snacking. It was perfectly clear to all who looked that the risk for soft spots in one’s teeth was higher here than in the first clock. This clock was labelled “The Snacker.”

It was the last clock that was most striking, however. Labelled “The Grazer,” its face was almost all red. From morning to night with just the most minimal breaks in between the clock face was a sea of angry red. This was the child—or adult—who chose to graze all day long on sugary treats, and toss sugar into every beverage they drank. The red-laden clock was stressful to even look upon. The Grazer’s teeth were sure to be wrecked.

Unlike Slore’s, then, Mrs. Virtue was a woman who took a care with her Externalities.

Shrugging off such negative thoughts, Hudeler set off down the aisles. From floor to knee there was a counter base, a wainscoting really, in oak or mahogany or maple. There seemed no pattern to it; the wood simply changed from aisle to aisle. And then from one’s knees up to one’s shoulders there were glittering glass cases with brass hinges and knobs. Again, every aisle was different. Some had three levels of cases, some two, and some just the one. The cases themselves were of varied sizes and shapes; some square, some rectangular, some deep and some shallow. Presumably this had to do with various aspects of the delights held within, but no one had ever dared ask, so far as Halden Hudeler knew. There was even the occasional bin crafted of wood rather than glass, and those ranged from darkest densest ebony to the near-white of aspen. Most were of glass, though, and the glass always glittered, with nary a fingerprint to be seen no matter how far one ventured from Mrs. Virtue at her counter.

It seemed Virtue’s customers had a care with her bin knobs.

As he wandered in the vastness of Virtue’s, seeking the treats that would delight his wife and children, Hudeler kept feeling the irresistible pull of the profit-making potential of the place. His mind, a mind of business and ledger sheets and the utilitarian fine points of law, was tuned and honed and stropped over many years to always seek More, with a capital “M.” And More was not a static thing. Even the well-stropped blade turns dull with use. As soon as More was attained, Hudeler’s imperative was to lean the work into the grindstone so as to gain even more More. Fools and knaves saw profits as asymptotic things; Hudeler knew their true nature, which was to fill the space a man of business created for them.

And so with Mrs. Virtue’s boundless cases glittering all around him, it was inevitable that Hudeler would have the thought: Slore’s must have this unique candy business—and scale it up to industrial size. He was already in the process of expanding into non-alcoholic drinks such as soda water. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, the public could even be coerced into buying water itself, in little disposable bottles, rather than drinking it out of their tap. Hudeler had always been maddened by the notion that water, one of the most basic necessities of life, was almost free to the average man. Yes, of course it was plentiful, but it was also extraordinarily valuable. Just ask the poor fellow dying of thirst in the Sahara. Or those unlucky crews of becalmed ships during the age of sail—water rations running out, throats in unspeakable pain, yet surrounded by more water than the human mind could ever comprehend—all of it salt and undrinkable. And water had, further, to be clean! The chap suffering from cholera or dysentery was the very one to ask about the value of water’s cleanliness.

Giving thoughtful consideration to the total absence of a thing was, in Hudeler’s view, the best way to learn its true worth.

Yes, all one needed was just the right set of marketing messages, delivered over long periods of time and with savage consistency, and, so Hudeler was convinced, one could induce the rabble to fear the very taps in their own homes, and to buy an endless stream of bottles and cans of expensive water instead. It was his secret and grandest dream, as the volume of such water sales would make Slore’s output of beer seem as a mere eyedropper in comparison.

Back to Virtue’s, now. Somehow, sometime, he had to work up the nerve to present this most formidable of businesswomen the opportunity to become a part of the Slore’s conglomerate, with all the advantages their supply chains, distribution networks and marketing budgets would bestow upon her and her endless glass bins full of sweet gustatory treasures.

But the barriers! First of all, there was the obstinate woman herself. That alone was daunting. One did not simply have a normal human conversation with Mrs. Virtue. She set such boundaries! But then, her Cavity Clocks were copyright protected. He had checked. And her bin makers were unknown. Who made the wooden ones? Who made the glass ones? Who the knobs? Further, her business processes were not apparent—the manner in which she kept her glass clean, her procedures for restocking, and so on.

Worst of all, in Hudeler’s utilitarian view of the world, Mrs. Virtue’s supply chains were unknown to anyone but herself. That was the supreme insurmountable barrier. She had Variety. She was a consummate collator, collector and curator. Mrs. Virtue was one of a kind. Most merchants of any product or service aimed for the hits, in hopes of making a profit from the most people possible. Mrs. Virtue set her sights squarely on the niches. Rather than selling a thousand Cadbury bars, she sold, day in and day out, a mere handful of Pecan Toucans, Fiendish Licorice Accomplices, and Dark Chocolate Almond Barques, which came in the shape of three-masted square-riggers. And the sum total of her sales amounted to a king’s ransom. What Hudeler could not fathom—with his utilitarian mind, simply could not grasp, no matter how hard he tried, was—how did she make it all work? Wasn’t it a great deal of effort to manage such an inventory? Could she not have made more profit by simply selling an endless string of Cadburys and Toblerones and have done with it? Didn’t the very issue of the inventory management eat, literally, away all her profits?

Ahh—but it was on this very visit, in the summer of 1946, that Halden Hudeler came to understand the answer to that question. And that answer was that Mrs. Virtue’s customers paid for her variety. Not for chocolate. Not for pecans. Not even for licorice. They paid for variety, and also for the unique and ridiculously stressful challenge of surviving all her byzantine rules and regulations. The ever-present threat of getting summarily expelled from her shop was the second most important reason to go there. The variety was the first. And, to be honest, Hudeler was still working out the question, when it came to those two factors, of whether he had got the order right.

Hudeler brought his treasures up to Mrs. Virtue’s counter and paid without any fumbling is his wallet. He made a large purchase. He had used her brass knobs and kept his fingerprints off her bins. He had never bumped into a fellow customer, made an unnecessary noise or said anything irrelevant.

And yet when he left her shop, Hudeler had the distinct impression that she knew. Mrs. Virtue knew somehow that he had designs on her unique business. Hudeler was normally supremely confident in his own abilities in managing people. All the Slores and Gacks and irrational customers and even the self-centred employees of the world could be managed if one steadfastly applied oneself to the task. But Mrs. Virtue?

Halden Hudeler wondered if he had finally met his match.

 

 *****


Chapter 3

 

July 1949

 

Batting Collapse

 

Flight Lieutenant John Buxomley bounded onto the barstool at the Crow and Nettle in Henley-on-Thames.

“What will you have, sir?” the bartender asked.

“A Gack&Bacon Pabulum Smasher, if you please.”

“No scotch before Virtue’s, sir?”

“Bagh. I’m feeling confident today. Beer should suffice to titrate me quite nicely.”

He only had two imperial pints, then paid and ambled off to Virtue’s.

Arriving at the entrance to Virtue's Candies For The Serious, John Buxomley composed himself, took a deep breath, nodded to no one in particular, and then turned the knob on just the rightward one of the big double doors. Never open both unless you had a good reason! He smoothed his tie, squared his shoulders and entered the most magical candy store in all the British Isles. Instantly he was speared by Mrs. Virtue’s glare as she surveyed her latest entrant from the daunting heights of her counter.

He knew it was essential to greet his host immediately, and with proper regard to the time of day as well.  “Good morn … afternoon, Mrs. Virtue. I am pleased to be returning to your establishment this fine summer’s day.” Drat! He’d almost got it wrong, even after all his preparation.

“Good afternoon, Flight Lieutenant Buxomley.”

He bowed ever so slightly and then wandered into the awesome delights of her aisles and bins.

 

*****

 

Halden Hudeler, alone, took the Great Western to Henley on Thames. He sipped a nondescript mass-market tea in the railway station, went to the water closet, washed up and fiddled with his moustache. He walked out and marched towards his target.

Arriving at the entrance to Virtue's Candies For The Serious, Halden Hudeler composed himself, took a deep breath, nodded to no one in particular, and then turned the knob on just the rightward one of the big double doors. Never open both unless you had a good reason! He smoothed his moustache, squared his shoulders and entered the most magical candy store in all the British Isles. Instantly he was speared by Mrs. Virtue’s glare as she surveyed her latest entrant from the daunting heights of her counter.

He knew it was essential to greet his host immediately, and with proper regard to the time of day as well.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Virtue. I am pleased to be returning to your establishment this fine summer’s day.”

Her eyes narrowed. Hudeler fancied that her entire face had narrowed.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hudeler.”

And that was it. He was allowed to pass into her establishment.

He was distracted on this trip and only filled up one basket, with dozens of Black Jack Claques and nothing else. This was to be the day. Ever since the war was over, he had dreamed of acquiring Virtue’s Candies For The Serious as a part of Slore’s. It would be the next expansion into a new product line, after the successful seltzer water and other non-alcoholic beverages which were now being mass-produced and mass-marketed quite successfully.

Ah yes, this was the day on which he would start. There would no longer be just the one Virtue’s. There would be dozens, hundreds, scattered throughout the British Isles. He would personally take charge of the expansion programme. His very first step would be to rationalize her ridiculously complex inventory. Variety was one thing. Chaos was entirely another. Supply chains would be identified, analyzed and simplified. Bin design would be standardized. The Marketing Department would plaster every British newspaper with adverts, and set the radio waves ablaze with ads for Slore’s Candies for the Commonwealth. Perhaps the next step, once the British, Canadian and Australian markets were saturated, would be France. Or Germany. The Huns could probably use a good jolt of sugar now and again, what with the state they were still in. And then again, the Swedes had quite the sweet tooth, didn’t they?

Oh, and those infernal Caries Clocks! They most certainly had to go. No marketer in his right mind would remind his customers of his own product’s externalities. That was insanity.

Silly old woman.

He came up to the front of her store, placed his basket on her counter and made no move to retrieve his wallet from his trouser pocket. The right front pocket, from which any hypothetical pickpocket would have a difficult time stealing from him.

Mrs. Virtue peered down her nose and past her bifocals at him, just as John Buxomley came up from behind. “Just the one basket, Mr. Hudeler?”

It was time. He went right in with no preamble. Preambles were for the weak. “Mrs. Virtue. Yours is a remarkable business.” He swept his arm to indicate its many aisles.

A long pause ensued. “Yes, Mr. Hudeler?”

“Well, I say … have you not dreamed about greater profits?”

“Most businesspeople do.”

“Yes. Right. The thing is, Mrs. Virtue, you are trying to do too much yourself. It is impossible to manage, and to sell, and to advertise, and to deal with employees, and with beastly difficult customers, and all the other things that a business demands, all by oneself. Under such draconian stresses, it is impossible to be a proper entrepreneur. Impossible to focus fully on growth.”

She straightened her shoulders. “I do not have ‘beastly difficult customers,’ Mr. Hudeler. I do not allow them here.”

He smoothed his moustache. “Yes, well, we all have to deal with the rabble in our own particular manner, don’t we. My point is, you are destined to be more. This place … it begs to be reproduced. To be brought up to a larger scale.”

“And what would you require of me, if I were to entertain such an idea?”

Hudeler steered into the safe harbour of his corporate mantra. “We at Slore’s (It’s Beer) seek to create, develop, and support standards of excellence within our brewing industry in order to provide value and reliability to our customers, and to be a leading profitable product and service provider to both the pubs we distribute to and to individual retail customers, with superior financial results for our valued stockholders.” He paused to catch his breath. “Your store will be duplicated, with branches set up in dozens—hundreds!—of locations. Supply chains will be identified, analyzed and simplified in order to create a distribution network commensurate with the scale we achieve. The Marketing Department will saturate every newspaper with adverts, and set the radio waves ablaze with ads for Slore’s Candies for the Commonwealth. You shall become part of a vast organization that reaches a scale you never dreamed of before, and its profits shall astound you.”

“You would change my name?”

He waved his hand about in the air. “Ah, that. A minor point. This notion of yours of ‘Frivolous Customers Need Not Apply’ is too quirky for the masses. It might confuse them. Confused people do not buy, Mrs. Virtue. Do not trouble yourself over this issue; you shall be well compensated for the simple alteration of nomenclature.”

She opened and shut the drawer in her till. “I do not wish to sell, Mr. Hudeler. Not to you, not to anyone. I am quite happy with where I am.”

He reddened. “You are not thinking clearly of the advantages, Mrs. Virtue.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Hudeler. I am thinking quite clearly, and I’d thank you to remember it.” Buxomley winced. He’d never seen anyone push Mrs. Virtue like this!

“But you’d be a fool to pass up such an opportunity! If you’d only just look at the detailed proposal I have here …” Hudeler reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a thick envelope. As he started opening it up and laying out its many pages on her counter, Mrs. Virtue stood back and pointed to them.

“Get those unauthorized papers off my counter, Mr. Hudeler! You are skating very close to expulsion here. I would have already expelled most other customers from my shop for these transgressions. It is only your exemplary behaviour up until the present time that mitigates against me doing so immediately.”

He ignored her and stabbed at his papers with his finger. “Mrs. Virtue! If you would just take the time to read Section 15c, which elucidates your job title at Slore’s, and Section 27, a through f, which deals with your executive compensation package, I’m sure you shall begin to see things our way …”

Mister Hudeler!” Her eyes flared big as saucers. She swept her hand across the counter, pushing the many pages of his contract off onto the floor.

Hudeler’s nostrils flared. “This is foolish and self-defeating behaviour, you cantankerous old woman!”

Buxomley could take no more of this.

“I say, Mr. Hudeler …”

There was no response whatsoever from the man. He was still arguing with Mrs. Virtue. Buxomley tried again.

“I say, Mr. Hudeler, that is not the manner in which one speaks to Mrs. Virtue.”

It was as if he were not there; were not there in the room at all. And Buxomley never did like being ignored.

Suddenly the thought struck him that no matter how rich and powerful Hudeler might be, confronting him was nothing compared to shooting a man down with the .30 calibre machine guns and 20 millimetre cannon mounted in the wings of his Spitfire. Certainly this was a milk run in comparison to all that. And he felt he had to do something here, had to take a stand. Wealthy, powerful man he may be, but Halden Hudeler was being impolite to Mrs. Virtue!

Buxomley reached out and grabbed Hudeler by the lapel. He felt ridiculous; all he could think of was a Yank gangster film. Something starring, perhaps, Cagney. Yet nonetheless it felt the right thing to do, and Hudeler finally acknowledged his presence.

Buxomley went straight to the wall. “I say, I know who you are—you’re Halden Hudeler, of Slore’s. And no matter who you are, it’s not right that you speak to Mrs. Virtue like this.”

“Get your hands off me, you idiot!” Hudeler brushed away Buxomley’s arm. “And why should I not speak to anyone in any manner I choose? I see no reason.”

I do. And I’ll tell you why. Mrs. Virtue has standards. You do not.”

Hudeler gasped. Buxomley started laughing. As the laughter rolled over him, Hudeler grew yet redder in the face. “And just what do you mean by that, sir?”

Buxomley inched closer. “Mrs. Virtue may drive us barmy with all her rules and regulations …” His eyes darted over to her, still ensconced behind her lofty counter. “Ahh, sorry, ma’am.”

She peered down her nose at him, unmoving. “Do go on, Mr. Buxomley.”

He turned back to Hudeler, then. “But those are the standards to which she chooses to hold us, and the thing of it is, Hudeler, she holds herself to yet higher standards. In the end, it’s not about ego or power, it’s about excellence in what she does here. You lot at Slore’s, on the other hand, you focus on profit with such force and single-mindedness that you throw your standards out the window whenever it’s expedient to do so. And you don’t care a fig about our standards—our standards as your customers. If I have a pint too much, hit the motorway and get the chop, you don’t care. You’ll just set the marketing department to the task of finding another customer to replace me.”

Hudeler just shook his head and turned back to Mrs. Virtue, until Buxomley sidestepped and got in between. Glaring, he said, “You don’t even like us.”

Hudeler ignored this and sidestepped as well. Buxomley sidestepped again. Hudeler sidestepped again, and so on in a ridiculous sort of jig until finally Hudeler was up against the counter, looking up at Mrs. Virtue with no space for Buxomley to intervene. It was rather like in chess, when one placed one’s protected rook, which was perfectly capable of ranging across many squares, right up against the enemy king so that an errant knight could not interpose.

“Mrs. Virtue, ignore this blithering idiot and consider what I am proposing here. By becoming a part of Slore’s, you shall expand to far greater size than you ever shall on your own. You shall become a wealthy woman. And we shall free you from the incessant depredations of selfish employees and mercenary customers. All those vexations will be handled for you by our employee relations and legal departments.” He stroked his moustache, then pointed at her. “I shall make you a wealthy woman, Mrs. Virtue!”

Never had Buxomley seen her so cross. Not even when his cousin Alan had knocked over that large glass bin of Bristol Brittle, back before the war.

She leaned forward over her counter. “Are you quite through, Mr. Hudeler?”

He didn’t flinch or back away. “Yes. What is your reply?”

Mrs. Virtue glared down at him. Buxomley, only inches away, watched in awe as she finally went into action.

“You, Mr. Hudeler, are an industrialist. And remarkable businesses like mine often attract the attention of you industrialists, because we tend to be successful. Your finely tuned noses can, apparently, sniff out our profits from afar. Well, from what I have seen of this unsatisfactory, chaotic world of ours, Mr. Hudeler, whenever an industrialist gets his grip on a remarkable, bespoke business, he waters it down and makes it average so that it will appeal to Everyone, with a capital E.

“If Slore’s got ahold of my unique, remarkable candy shop, you’d relentlessly scale it up to industrial size. You’d manufacture a vast chain of interchangeable stockists that would dot our nation from Thurso to Penzance. You’d pay all the invaluable workers as part-timers without benefits, steal from their wages at every chance, stop cleaning the bins at decent intervals, throw sawdust fillers into the candies, break the hallowed relationships I have with my suppliers and mindlessly race to the bottom on cost until you sucked all the joy—and fear—out of the experience of visiting Virtue’s Candies For The Serious. That’s what your industrialist mindset does; it can't help itself. It seeks to maximize profit, minimize cost, and commoditise everything it comes into contact with. Even when the thing wasn’t a commodity to begin with.”

She spat out her final words on the matter: “You and Slore’s, Mr. Hudeler, would make me average.

Hudeler stood there, mute and red. Finally, after about a minute, he stroked his moustache again.

“Bagh! You’d get off your high horse, or high counter, I should say, once you saw the profits fattening your bank account. And this maudlin concern of yours for the employees doesn’t suit you, Mrs. Virtue. You strike me as a good deal tougher than that.”

She raised her head and looked down at him at an even more acute angle than before. “A human being is never a commodity. Not for any reason, not under any circumstances.”

Mrs. Virtue then reached down behind her counter and came up with a gavel. Good heavens—she actually had a gavel. She rapped it on her counter three times and levelled her gaze upon Halden Hudeler.

“Mister Hudeler! You are summarily expelled from my shop for one year precisely.” She looked up at her Caries Clocks. “It is now two-seventeen in the afternoon, twenty-third July, nineteen forty-nine. You may enter my shop again in one calendar year.” Now she turned back to Hudeler. “I advise you not to enter until two-seventeen next twenty-third July. If you arrive at two-sixteen, I shall send you packing.”

Halden Hudeler, redder than ever, stripped of his Black Jacks and his dignity, turned and walked out of her shop, opening just the rightward door.

And then Mrs. Virtue turned upon John Buxomley. “Well, Flight Lieutenant? I don’t have all day! Place your baskets immediately upon my counter. Is your wallet at the ready, or must you fumble about for it?”

Buxomley complied, then watched in silence as she tallied up his order. Trying to speak would only distract him and increase the chance of a catastrophic error. He managed to pay without excessive fumbling. It seemed that was it for today, so he turned to go and put his hand on the rightward doorknob.

“Flight Lieutenant?”

He paused and turned around. “Yes, Mrs. Virtue?”

“Her name is Millicent Holt. She works in Vaughan’s, the dressmaker’s shop on Greys Hill. Past the cathedral.”

Buxomley knitted his brows. “Who are we speaking of, Mrs. Virtue?”

She reached for her gavel and straightened it so that it was parallel with the edge on her counter. “The girl with the scar on her arm. The one you graciously let in front of you in my queue, the spring after the war was over. Millicent Holt. A fine young woman. One who possesses standards.”

John Buxomley blushed. “Thank you, Mrs. Virtue. Thank you for remembering.”

She gestured with her arm through the air, as if to brush him away. “All right, now, off with you. I don’t have all day, you know. Other customers beckon for my attention.”

 

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