Our story takes us to London in 1968, a the time when Harold Wilson was pulling down the shutters on the British Empire having realized that the Gnomes of Zurich had got it right all along: it is better to own a bank than to run a meat shoppe. The location is the infamous Hall of Inquiry which served as a place for officially sanctioned torture during the time of the Reformation. It is said that Thomas Cromwell’s father, a blacksmith from Putney, provided inmates with leg irons of exceptional quality: comfortable, cheap, and long-wearing. The location was taken over centuries later by The Southwark Lawn Bowling and Bridge Club. Within the seasick green walls of the cold, damp basement bridge players happily preserved the ancient traditions of accusation, inquisition, and insistence on a strict adherence to articles of faith. In the bright spectrum of first impression those of Abigail Abercrombie, an American tourist of middle age, tended more towards repugnance than delight, unaccustomed as she was to British taste in the interior decoration of public places. It was with some hope of improvement in her prospects that the widow spied a handsome young man in a blue Hardy Amies suit sitting alone at one of the tables.
Let us now introduce ourselves to this tall, lithe young man with a winning smile and an abundance of unruly sandy hair. He is James Woolwich, ‘Wooly’ to his former university chums, a regular player and a favourite of many of the old ladies of the club. A onetime student of philosophy, he was greatly influence by Aristotle, especially the wise man’s observation that nothing dulls the mind so much as regular employment. He decided that occasional studies in a variety of disciplines combined with bridge playing was a good way to develop his mind, in which pursuits he was aided and abetted by a rich uncle who allowed James to occupy his Lambeth flat while the old gentleman, reversing the current trend in immigration, pursued fulfilment in sunny Jamaica seeking something bright, brown, and beautiful….and finding it.
In his cooler, cloudier clime James was having less success with regards to fulfilment. His relationships usually got off to a good start, but petered out once the female component realized he was impervious to improvement. He looked to the Sunday newspapers for enlightenment especially with regard to curious observations such that in Cambodia the recent decrease in the water buffalo population had drastically increased the price of brides, putting them out of reach of many young framers, thereby causing an alarming rise in the rural crime rate. No mention of any bombing. It was his habit of remaining in bed on a Sunday morning drinking Blue Mountain coffee, smoking Turkish cigarettes, while going through the Sunday Times page by page seeking interesting items, un-heedful of the suggestion that it was a good time to finally tidy up (Jane), or to go for an overdue hike in the fresh air of the countryside (Alice), or make a long postponed visit to the BM (Cynthia). The girls just didn’t realize that for James this was the highlight of his week, surpassing all previous, more strenuous activities.
Then one day James went to a free, sparsely attended lecture by a Japanese Zen priest who gave out the promise of a better organized way of life. Much impressed by the monk’s quiet demeanour, James felt someone should ask a question from the floor.
‘What are your views on death, Sensei?’
‘End of cares and hardships. Death is Happy Hour with ancestors, who gather to celebrate many family duties performed… happy time for all.’
After the lecture James found Hisashi-san was staying for a year in a hostel at the end of the Northern Line learning English and perfecting his bridge playing skills. Perfect, thought James, and invited him to come stay in his Lambeth flat free of charge, lessons in English in return for lessons in Zen with a bit of housekeeping tossed in to create a balance. At a low point in that regard he committed to no female distractions for the duration, a promise he was later to regret. Hisashi bowed his appreciation of the offer. His expressionless face hid his extreme delight at the assignment of the cooking duties, for most English had never heard of seaweed and tofu soup and couldn’t even chop onions properly. There was much to learn and much to teach while gaining a regular bridge partner with qualification.
James looked up from his perusal of the yesterday’s game slips to see two women standing at the entrance, one middle aged, one not, wearing matching red outfits that would not be entirely out of place in a parade of Chelsea pensioners. The older woman was of uniform rotundity with a brightness of aspect typical of duplicate players throughout the world, whereas her stunning companion appeared be seen to be aloof and undulatory. Even at a fair distance James could assess the undulations as genuine, and the aloofness merely as a symptom of a short-sighted girl who refused to wear glasses in public – the so-called Myrna Loy look. In the twinkling of an eye James was at their side.
‘Pardon my intrusion, but you are Americans are you not?’
‘Thank God,’ replied the matron, ‘your intrusion is most welcome. I am Abigail Abercrombie from San Francisco this is my niece, Gloria. We have been we have been walking about enjoying the sights, but now my feet are killing me and I would like to sit down for a few hours and exercise the grey cells in a game a bridge. I am a Life Master, but Gloria is a novice. Do you think you could fit us in?’
“I am not the director, Heaven forbid, but I’m sure you’d be most welcome. In fact, a player of your accomplishment might consider playing with someone at your expert level. You see that man standing beside the notice board with his eyes closed – he is very good. Don’t be alarmed, he is not blind – he is probably imagining a tranquil pool with multi-coloured carp as a way of calming his mind for the upcoming contest.’
‘Oooo..I just adore short, bald men, they are so virile.’
‘Errr, well, I must warn you he is a monk on leave here in London learning to speak English.’
‘Better and better still. We learned in Italy that language is no barrier to having a good time. In these modern times everyone understands 5-card majors. But what about Gloria? She needs someone who is not too serious.’
‘Well, I have no game this evening, so I would be happy to fill in.’
‘Would you now? Wonderful. Be gentle, as she’s inexperienced.’
“Oh, Aunt Abbie, I’m no dummy, you know,’ said the niece with a most alluring pout.
James introduced them to Hisashi-san.
‘This is Mrs Abercromie from America. Like you she is a life master many times over, and I was wondering if you might be her partner for this evening. I would then play with her niece, Gloria.’
‘Ah, so’ replied the Master with a deep bow of understanding.
When the monk went to fetch convention cards, Abigail remarked that he looked extremely fit.
‘ Oh, yes, an integral part of his religious practice is to maintain himself at the peak of his mental and physical capabilities,‘ explained James, trying hard not to monitor Gloria’s rhythmic breathing. ‘Sensei has nerves of steel and muscles of iron.’
“I’ll drink to that,’ said Mrs Abercrombie cheerfully.
On the first hand Aunt Abigail reached 3NT. Gloria missed the killing lead, which would have been obvious from James’ hand, and later missed an even-more-obvious compensatory switch, so it appeared that it was going to be a long evening, not that the young man didn’t feel the longer it stretched, the better.
James found he was having difficulty getting his beautiful partner to warm to his attentions. This is often the way with goddesses – like cats they become immune to abject idolization. It was with some sense of satisfaction that James was able to lay before her as a token of his devotion a neat play on the third board of the evening.
Gloria had opened 1♣ to which James replied with as strong Baron 2NT, one of the foundations of the ACOL system. To the young goddess this signified a weak minor-suit orientated hand, 11-12 HCP, a popular treatment in Oyster Bay, Maine, whence she had emerged. Gloria signed off in 5♣, a puzzling development, but one fielded to perfection by the Englishman with a confident bid of 6NT. Mrs Abercrombie began the defence with a fourth highest ♦3 and James could see at a glance that he had missed an easy grand slam in spades, not that the crowd at the Tuesday Evening Charity Pairs would bid it lacking a 9+card fit, but the 12 tricks which were evident in a no trump contract would not suffice even for an average score.
When Americans refer to their country as The Land of the Free, they are speaking metaphorically. Generous as they may be at giving their opinions or even briefly lending their affections, they are unaccustomed to acting charitably at the bridge table, so James was disinclined to accept the offer of a free finesse. He went up with the ♦A and ran off winners to reach a 2-card ending in dummy with ♥4 and ♦T opposite ♥AT in hand, the result being that Hisashi was happily squeezed between the red suits.
‘Golly, who would have thought it. You must have been potent,’ exclaimed Gloria. From the strange silence at the table she sensed she might become the subject of criticism.
‘He plays his cards very well, Dear. You are lucky to have him,’ explained her aunt.
Later in the game James again found himself in 6NT with 13 tricks available, this time in a diamond slam. Many played in 6♦ making an overtrick, but a few played in 6NT making 6 when West failed to find the killing club lead.
Most players can handle two rounds of bidding, but the third round brings trouble. On this auction a great deal of optimism was being expressed on both sides, so James took matters into hand with a 5-loser hand using the method of hand evaluation advocated by the great Maurice Harrison-Gray in a recent issue of Country Life.
The bearded Frederick Snodgrass led the ♦7 in the British style of third worst from four bad. After 2 rounds of diamonds James could see that a contract of 6♦ would result in 13 tricks if played probably. With shortness on his right and his club communication still intact, there might be some advantage to be had from running off the diamonds to put pressure on Howard Botts, a building inspector with whom he had often crossed swords, not always to James’ advantage. At present Botts was leering over his spectacles admiring the obviously sound structure of an oblivious Gloria. Perhaps the distraction would prove beneficial. After the diamonds were played off ending in hand, James ducked a heart to the ♥7.Winning the ♣T return in hand, the young man found himself in a 7-card configuration of which he was only vaguely aware. There would be a great deal of satisfaction to be had from changing that leer to a frown, but how?
Botts had discarded 3 small spades in upward order giving an indication that Snodgrass held the guards in the spade suit, so a spade finesse in dummy might effect a squeeze in clubs, which could have been split 3-3 all along. Distrusting Botts disinterest in the spade suit James led the ♠Q, covered by the ♠K, pinning the ♠J thus turning the ♠T into a winner and the squeeze card to which Botts had no answer. Gloria was slow to realize 12 tricks in 6NT represented a very good score as many were playing in 6♦ making a lesser 1390 on 13 tricks.
The only West not leading a trump to cut down on the presumed ruffs in 6♦ was Mrs Abercrombie for whom leading trumps was an anathema. Her choice was a deceptive ♠9. The Reverend Forsythe, recently returned from Africa, was professionally obliged to assume that Man’s, and especially Woman’s, nature was in grievous need of restitution, but he did not, could not, accept this glum view, having been companioned for 35 years through innocence and health by the angelic Mrs Forsythe who was sitting North with a hopeful smile of encouragement on her lips. After calling for the ♠A in dummy, he became alarmed when on the lead of a small diamond from dummy the ♦J appeared from his fellow hierophant in the East. Without doubt this was an affliction, but afflictions are given us to be overcome. With an essential entry removed from dummy it would require a minor miracle to bring home this slam. With nothing apparently better the old fellow marked time by playing off the ♣KQ, to get the count, cashing the ♥AK pitching a club, and ruffing a heart to his hand to this 6-card ending.
On the play of the ♣A Abigail had to ruff to prevent the discard of the ♠T. Forsythe was well pleased with this development as he could overruff and lead towards his hand to promote the ♠Q as his 12th trick. It was a great shock when the ♠T was covered by the ♠J, the ♠Q and the ♠K from the scarlet Jezebel on his left.
A trump return was won in dummy, but a heart ruff with the ♦Q returned declarer to his hand. He played the ♠8, West following, and paused to reassess his chances. Could it be? Yes! His spade must have been promoted to a winning card, he was sure of it! So after passing the ♠8 he could take the last trick with his wife’s remaining top trump. Thank you, Lord, justice is served, thought the churchman, unaware that innocence being a condition, not a virtue, merits no reward. Scoring 1370 garnered a disappointingly meagre return given his brilliant recovery. Ah well, his experiences in Africa had taught him not to expect too much. Good health and a warm cocoa at bedtime were rewards aplenty in this world.
As a special concession to his American guests the director with rare good grace posted the scores soon after the finish. The names of A. Abercrombie and H. Hashimoto were listed at the top with a score of 68.3%. James and his friend had a few moments alone while their erstwhile partners retreated to the Ladies for emergency repairs. For James all dreams of romance had evaporated as he could not imagine himself making love to a woman, even a goddess, convulsing with hiccups.
‘Perhaps we can see the ladies to their hotel, then drop in on the way home at the Horns and Antlers for a lager and lime,’ he suggested.
‘So sorry, but Abbie-san has invited me to go to Ronnie Scott’s to listen to Ben Webster. His saasphone has rich sound like wet rice patty at planting time.’
I know what you mean, it’s earthy.’
‘ I admire her belly much – she has great Ka. You must look under the clothes to find the true person – remember that, James-san.’
‘Good point, Sensei,’ conceded James wistfully.