from the editor's desk

The Asking Price

by G. M. Glaskin

Mr Johnson said to Mrs Johnson: “Somebody’s at last bought the Allingham place.” And Mrs Johnson gave immediate attention.

Putting down both knife and fork, she said,”Really?”

Mr Johnson went on eating; he could be quite maddening at times. It had given her weeks of speculation ever since Mr Allingham had run off with his secretary and Mrs Allingham had gone for a divorce. After all, it was not only that there was a house vacant on The Heights, but also that it should happen to be just across The Knoll from themselves. Ever since the Allinghams had gone (and so precipitately, too, mind you—she had to hand it to Ted Allingham, nobody had even guessed) and the Allingham house had been put up for sale, she had been in a state of nervous anticipation as to who their new neighbours would be.

“Well, tell me who,” she demanded.

“Tell you who what?”

“Who’s bought the Allingham place, of course.”

“Oh. Fellow called Steinberg, I gather.”

Mrs Johnson’s hands fell clean into her lap.

“Oh, no!”

At which just slightly alarmed, Mr Johnson looked up.

“Oh no what?” he ventured to ask.

“That name!”

“What about it?”

“What about it! Alec, don’t be an idiot! It’s Jewish, of course.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Could be German. Perhaps even Aryan. I suppose the mountains in Germany are made of stone like anywhere else.”

He well knew his wife’s prejudices, as well as her whims.

“Steinberg!” she said, and it was almost a screech. “German, my foot!”

Mr Johnson sighed. At least, for once, she hadn’t referred to some other part of her anatomy.

“Well, until we’re sure, you might give him the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Johnson dared to suggest.

“There can be no doubt,” Mrs Johnson retaliated.”Steinberg! Steinberg! My God, what could be more Jewish than that?”

Mr Johnson could conjure up a suggestion or two, but thought better of it. Besides, his wife hadn’t finished. Dinner perhaps, but certainly not what she had to say.

“Did he pay the Allingham’s asking price?”she wanted to know.


“What, right to the penny?”

“Right to the cent, dear. Right to the cent.”

“Then that settles it.”

“What settles what?”

“That’s he’s a Jew, of course.”

“How do you make that out?”

“Well, who else but a Jew could pay a price like that!”

Mr Johnson had to give her one there. Mrs Johnson’s hands remained in her lap; they had discovered her dinner napkin to toy with. But food didn’t interest her; only Steinberg did.

“And how many of them are there?” she wanted to know.

“How many what?”

“Oh, Alec! Steinbergs, of course. Dozens of them, I suppose! And all with names like Benjamin and Sarah and Rachel and such!”

“Oh, that. No, only the one.” She seemed a little placated.

“Just Mrs Steinberg, then?”

“No. Only him.”

“What! A bachelor! On The Heights!”

“It has been known, you know.”

“That was different. He at least was a bishop.”

“Well, maybe this one is, too.”

“With a name like Steinberg? Don’t be so silly!”

“Perhaps there are Jewish bishops,” Mr Johnson suggested.

Mrs Johnson snorted; she positively did.

“And what does he do, may I ask?”


“For a living, of course.”

“Nothing, I gather.”

“There, that confirms it.” Mr Johnson dared to look a trifle exasperated.

“Really, Amy,” he said. “There are also some gentiles who choose to be indolent.”

“He must definitely be odd,” Mrs Johnson proceeded, but was prepared to acquaint herself with her dinner again.

“How come?”

“Well, enough money to buy the Allingham place, does nothing for a living, unmarried, lives alone, and a Jew into the bargain.”

“He doesn’t exactly live alone,” Mr Johnson informed her.

“What!” And food again failed to interest.

“I said, he doesn’t exactly live alone.”

“I heard you, I heard you! Now tell me he supports a whole Jewish family! A whole Jewish community!” she was compelled to append.

“No, only one.”

“What, one family?”

“One person.”

“A mistress!” she shrieked. “I might have known! And he thinks he’s going to bring her here, to live on The Heights!”

“No, not at all.”

“What do you mean, ‘No, not at all!’ Do you mean to say she’ll only come on occasions?”

“I meant no, it’s not a mistress.”

What then?”

“Another man, I’m afraid. Fellow called Henderson.” Unbecoming or not, Mrs Johnson let her jaw drop.

“You don’t mean to say that . . .” But she couldn’t bring herself to finish. Mr Johnson decided he’d better do so for her, if only to get it over.

“Looks a bit like it, it seems.”

“Oh, my God!”

“Now, Amy! I only said ‘looks’ like it.”

Looks like it! Looks like it!”

He wondered if she might even break one of her own dinner plates. But of course, she did manage to control herself.

“What age is he?” she said. “Steinberg, I mean.”

“Around fifty, I’d say. It’s not easy to tell with a well-preserved man.”

“That’s one way of putting it! And the other one, whatever his name is?”

“Henderson? Still in his twenties.” Mrs Johnson gaped.

“And you say it just looks like it!” she eventually said.

“Well. I—”

“Alex Johnson! Do you mean to tell me that a couple of pansies have dared to buy a house on The Heights and you just sit there and say it looks like it and you haven’t the faintest intention of doing anything about it?”

“Now really. Amy! Steinberg’s bought the place. What on earth do you expect me to do! Change his sex? Run him out of town?”

Mrs Johnson’s gape turned to venomous glare. Then she threw down her dinner napkin with considerable force, though not as a towel.

“What do I expect you to do?” she retorted.”I expect you to do something about it, of course!”

“Amy, I’ve just said—”

“Well, if you won’t, I most certainly shall!”

And he hadn’t the slightest doubt that she most certainly would.


* * *


She also didn’t doubt that she most certainly would. She wasn’t on so many committees for nothing. If the men wouldn’t do something, then it would be up to the women. She could amass a pretty formidable array, she contended, when it came to committees.

It took her forty-five minutes on the phone and she’d got the best of them behind her: Beryl Adams, Bessie Matthews, Hilda Haley, Elspeth Carruthers. With herself as self-appointed chairman, she considered it the most formidable committee she’d ever contrived. It had taken only a few words to each of them about having a couple of ‘those’ on The Heights and they were immediately agreed that something had to be done. It might not be often that they agreed, but in a matter like this there was no question about petty differences between them.

They were all agreed in a trice. After that, it was only a matter of an hour or two and they had Marian Hudson, Mary Stuart, Barbara Worthington, and even Emily Hodgkiss behind them. It was quite a coup, of course, when Diana Hetherington joined in as well. They had their first meeting the very next morning—coffee and crumpets at her place, of course. The crumpets because this was no time for cooking.


* * *


“Now let’s face it, girls,” she was pleased to have thought of, “from what I’ve heard of them, they’re really basically like us. Feminine, I mean. That means they’re social climbers. No, No! Listen to me, please!” she said quickly when there was a faint sign of protest from Emily Hodgkiss, “And it all adds up! Or why else would they come here to live on The Heights? Agreed? Right! So what we do is cut them off from all social activities for a start.

“They can’t join the Knoll Club inside a year, so that’s no drinks of a Sunday unless they stay home or go out of town. Alec is seeing to it that they can’t join the tennis club just in case they do play. And you, Mrs Worthington, can keep them out of what they’re so much more likely to be interested in, the Stage Club. Marian, your Ben can keep them out of the golf club and we’ve already fixed Father O’Brien—just in case, you know, girls; can’t tell with a name like Henderson, whereas we don’t have to worry much about Steinberg. And it’s also fixed with the Reverend Baker. So, that’s no church functions either.

“Now then, I think there’s no need to mention that we don’t accept their invitations and we certainly don’t give out any ourselves. So that’s taken care of them socially, shall we say. Now for the sound effects.

“Bessie, your Henrietta will practise her piano scales at six every morning. Yes, I know, dear; a bit wearing on you and Bert. But it’s all in the cause, you know—all in the cause. And Elspeth, evenings you can encourage your Tom on his drums and young Eddie on the trombone. Then there’s your Robert, Beryl, with his stereo-set and his beat music. And Hilda, I think we can rely on your old Aunt Audrey to let loose her dogs? Good! That should take care of the noise angle until we can think up something else.

“Next is litter. I’m afraid we’ll have to depend on our girls for paper-strewing over the fence. In a case like this, as you all know, we can’t have our boys going too near the place. In fact, nowhere near it at all, may I stress. But of course they could help the girls assemble the litter in the first place. Yes, no harm in that, surely.

“And now, let me see. Oh, yes, fire hazard. As you know, we’re about half-way through the dry season, and though it may seem a pity to spoil a little of our natural beauty on The Knoll, the Horticultural Society has assured me that it does benefit the natural species to a considerable extent to have a burn-off now and then. Well, as the reserve land on TheKnoll, the Horticultural Society has assured I mean—Alec and I have decided that you can leave that part of it to us, with the help of the local fire brigade which has already been arranged. I do hope that none of you feel that we—we Johnsons, I mean again—are taking too much of this on to ourselves, both the tennis club and the fire hazard, as well as any other little contributions we can possibly make, but I think you will agree that we must all do what we can. And in any case, we are, unfortunately, their closest neighbours.

“Now I think you’ll all agree that, after a few months of our, er—little organizations, they’ll be out of The Heights much quicker than they came, and the Allingham place will again be up for sale. But this time, girls, I have a feeling that the asking price won’t be quite so high as it was the last time. Well, we can’t help that. Business is business and, as everyone and Jock Carruthers well know, real estate is real business. Now, any more questions? No? Any more crumpets anyone? No? Well then, the meeting is closed . . .”


* * *


Of course, sooner or later she was bound to run into Steinberg, and it happened in the butcher’s.

She had to admit that he was, for fifty, a fine figure of a man. His hair might be grey, but at least, unlike Alec’s, it was a beautiful crop. Dressed impeccably, of course. No rings or those identification bracelets his kind usually brandished. But what really disappointed her was that he had, contrary to her expectation, perhaps the straightest nose in The Heights. Was it too straight, perhaps? Plastic surgery, no doubt. And perhaps also a face-lift. He was as least discreet enough not to have his boy-fr . . . . er, Henderson with him.

Yet in a way, this also disappointed her; she was curious to see him and perhaps give a leer. What really infuriated her was that when she came to give her order, she found that Steinberg had taken all the best meat. Even the ham! Well, at least he wasn’t tiresomely orthodox. But it was a damned inconvenience when she had the Worthingtons coming for dinner and bridge.

Barbara Worthington, that evening, was full of excitement. She had seen the carriers arrive and my dear, she said, it was just chock of the most divine furniture you ever did see. No—not at all modern—all fantastic antiques. There was a china cabinet that was out of this world; seventeenth century, she thought. So heaven alone knew what kind of china he had to put in it.

Barbara, she decided, was more stupid than she thought. He probably didn’t have such furniture to live with; Jews nearly always dealt in antiques. Let him try it in The Heights! He’d soon be told of the community’s by-laws about conducting business on residential premises. Then he’d have to earn his lucre elsewhere.

She was preparing for Andy to come home from college when Bessie Matthews burst in.

“Meissen!” Betty yelped.

“What? Where? What on earth is it?” Bessie looked at her ox-eyed.

“His china, of course,” she replied. “The whole damn shebang. Meissen, mind you! And not only that, but all of it antique. Must be worth a fortune, to say the least . . .”

“What else would you expect!” she had to retort, and couldn’t help the tartness that had given it an edge.

Next day at the chemist’s, Hilda Haley said: “They’ve got a housekeeper. I ran into her at the grocer’s yesterday afternoon. From the city, of course. But I must say she’s charming. Been with him for seventeen years, she told me. And do you know what? He’s got a Rubens and a Raphael and two miniature van Dijks. Lots of others, too, the housekeeper told me. But you know me, dear—simply hopeless at names. I must say, I’d give anything to see them . . .”

“Just you dare!”

Hilda looked as though she’d been hit with an axe.

“Oh Amy, how could you! You know I wouldn’t dream of it.”

But knowing Hilda Haley, she wouldn’t put it past her.

Bessie Matthews again: “You’d never believe it, but they’ve got a grand. And a Steinway at that!”

“You mean piano?”

“Of course. What do you think! Henrietta found out. They’ve invited her to play it sometime.”


“Henrietta met them both on the bus going to school. They were going to the city.”

“You didn’t let her, of course.”

“Let her what?”

“Try their goddam piano.”

“It hadn’t occurred to me.”

“Well, it had better occur to you. Good God don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our campaign already!”

Bessie Matthews was indignant.

“Of course, I haven’t. But really, when you think of it, Henrietta could make quite a nuisance of herself. Well, couldn’t she? If she went every day? And even I know the limit of Henrietta’s playing—if she has a limit.”

“Well,” she had to concur, “that could be an idea . . .”

But to her amazement, Bessie’s face had disintegrated into something that might have been rapture.

“Young Henderson plays,” Bessie said. “Rather well, I believe. In fact, I hear he has given up engineering to be a concert pianist. Steinberg’s his patron.”

“I’ll bet!”

Next was the car. Or cars, rather. No less than three of them. A Bentley for town, mind you. A Lincoln station-sedan for the country. And young Henderson had a Porsche. She’d have to warn at least sixteen families to keep their young sons away from that lot.

But then came Henderson himself. Tall, blond, blue-eyed and James Dean wasn’t in it. It made her, at just the sight of him, suddenly and acutely uncomfortable with abdominal sensations she hadn’t experienced in years. If she’d thought her young Andy a good looker, he was an ogre in comparison. Oh the pity of it!—when there were so many elligible young girls on The Heights. But then, of course, she had to admit that it was probably those very good looks that had made him what he was. She didn’t read The Ladies’ Home Journal and Readers’ Digest for nothing. And those clothes of his! Even if he did have the body of an athlete, it was almost indecent the way he showed it off. But you could hardly remark on it; cod-piece trousers and shoulder-length hair graced—or disgraced—so many of the young men these days, even in The Heights. Her own Andy, for instance, though she’d remarked and remarked. Didn’t matter one jot. She’d only made herself blue in the face.

Almost the last straw was the swarm of house renovators. Within a week, what had once been the Allingham eyesore became the sight of The Heights. And indoors, she’d been told, was not to be believed. Even the swimming-pool was enlarged—and then heated, by God.

There was only one consolation: the campaign was under way.


* * *


But even that wasn’t going as well as expected.

The noise tactics first. Henrietta Matthews played her scales every morning, only to hear an echo from across the way that left her dead in her chromatics. Henderson could play them at twice the velocity, ascending and descending and even simultaneously. Henrietta, Bessie told her, was in raptures over his Scarlatti. They’d even got to attempting duets, despite the vacant block in between. To cap it all, Eddy and Robert Carruthers had gone stark-eyed when the Steinway joined in with them. Henderson was the mightiest, they went around proclaiming—a veritable jazz king. Yet Henrietta said his Brahms might have been played by a Solomon. And as for his Mozart! Henrietta’s glasses had never been known to get so opaque.

And of all things, even Hilda Haley’s Aunt Audrey failed with her dogs. She let out the lot and in a trice young Henderson had them eating out of his hand, and Hilda Haley’s Aunt Audrey prepared to do the same. Steinberg had two Corgis, a Dalmatian, and—German again—a whole litter of Dachshunds. What was worse, Steinberg had evidently given the silly old maid a new remedy for ticks.

At least the litter campaign did get underway. But then it stopped almost as soon as it started. Henderson it seemed, had caught some of the girls at it and suggested their using his Porsche for their paper-chase. And of course the girls didn’t know what the older women knew; after Henderson’s charm, they refused to co-operate. If it hadn’t been so dangerous, she was almost tempted to call another committee meeting and have the girls replaced by the boys. But that, of course, ran the risk of contagion.

One thing, the social arrangements were being kept to the letter. No invitations were sent, and none were accepted. But what was most maddening was that neither Steinberg nor Henderson had yet applied for the clubs. Then, of all people, the first to turn traitor was the Reverend Baker. It appeared that he, too, had once owned a Porsche before taking the cloth. Doddering old fool! It also seemed that in no time at all he’d accepted young Henderson to be one of the ushers. Now if that wasn’t blasphemy if anything was . . .

Well, there was the fire hazard left. It had been infuriating that Alec had sprained a wrist at tennis, but at least it was only a day or two and their Andy would be home. He’d see to it. She’d see that he did.


* * *


Steinberg, Andy said, had once been the greatest full-forward the city team had ever known. He couldn’t wait to get his autograph. It had been the worst row she’d ever had with her son, and his first night home too. But she’d won, she’d won. And she’d keep right on winning. It might take longer than she had thought, but she’d wear them down sooner or later if it killed her, and she swore that she would. Then her day would come when Steinberg would give up and go elsewhere to live. She might even put up with having her mother in the district by getting her to buy the Allingham place. But even here there was an ‘if—and a big one at that. With all the improvements Steinberg had made, could even her mother afford the price he could ask?


* * *


She first heard of it through Mary Stuart. The Carruthers, Mary said, had been there for drinks.

“Elspeth? But she’s on the committee!”

“Jock,” Mary reminded her, “sold them the house.”

“Well that’s no excuse. He’s sold it now, hasn’t he!”

“It seems,” Mary said, “Steinberg is wanting The Knoll.”

For fully ten seconds that left her quite wordless.

“But—but he can’t! It’s reserve land.”

“It was.”

“It always will be.”

“Not any more. It seems that the council needs extra revenue, and Steinberg has offered it.”

“But they can’t sell The Knoll!”

“They can,” Mary said, “and it looks like they will.”


* * *


She thought there was something fishy when Alec was so subdued for fully three days. She tried to find out the cause. A loss on the stock exchange? She even looked at his accounts, but that wasn’t it. She’d never considered herself a nagger as were most of the girls, but she did have to keep at him.

“I’ve been over-ruled, I’m afraid,” he finally confessed.

“What do you mean, over-ruled?”

“The club, I’m afraid.”

“What, you mean the tennis club?”

“That for young Henderson. Steinberg too, I should say. And you’d better face it, Amy. They’ve been put up for The Knoll Club and I think they’ll get in.”

She couldn’t believe it. After all her plans and all she had done? After the committee’s unanimous resolution? Where could they have failed? She’d been certain for years that her girls had their husbands under incontrovertible control. She began to wilt when she got more out of Alec.

“Well, there’s Carruthers to start with, with real estate the way it is. The tradesmen came next—Connolly, Ridgeway, and Hobbs. Steinberg can easily shop somewhere else, and it seems his custom is considerable.”

“They couldn’t!”

“They already do.”

It took her quite a minute to get over that. And then—

“But there are still the councillors, surely,” she said. “Worthington, Horace Haley, Jimmy Adams, Ben Hudson, Harry Stuart . . .”

What came next did at least come quietly, she had to admit. But never in her life had she known Alec to be quite so brutal.

“Amy,” he said, “you’ve underestimated human nature too much just for once. Bert Worthington, remember, is a stockbroker, and he’d be an idiot to miss the chance of Steinberg’s account. Horace Haley’s a lawyer, so need I say more? Tim Adams has got three new cars to be fuelled and serviced, apart from the fact that Steinberg changes his models pretty well every year. Ben Hudson, of course, is doing the renovating.”

“And Harry Stuart?” she did manage to venture. “What could Harry make out of someone like Steinberg?”

But—”Plenty, I should think,” came the crushing reply. “Steinberg collects rare manuscripts, and he’s appointed Stuart his agent.”

“Then you mean that—”

“What I mean, Amy, is that it’s money you’re fighting. And plenty of it. Not only Steinberg’s, but the whole district’s as well. And you might, if I may say so, have overlooked human nature as well—that being what it is.”

She was crushed and she knew it, but she still wouldn’t give in.

“Then I for one,” she resolved, “will never have anything to do with them. I shan’t even speak to them. Nor will you. Nor will Andy. Don’t ever let me catch you, not with either of the monsters!”


* * *


Then the parties began.

The Carruthers, of course, were the first to ask both Steinberg and Henderson, then the Stuarts followed suit. At least it was only cocktails—till the Worthingtons had them for dinner and the Haleys did lunch. Of course it was just a matter of time before Steinberg’s invitations began to be sent. She tore theirs up immediately and what’s more she told Alec. Even if there were forty people for dancing and buffet and champagne the whole night, nothing, but nothing, would induce her to go.

The following weekend, there were to be even more. A garden party round the pool, they all let her know. Such food, catered by the Waldorf in the city, had never before reached The Heights. The women were nearly bankrupting their husbands, she’d heard, in trying to outdress each other. Fools, fools that they were! For a couple of pansies? . . .

And speaking of that, there was talk of some rather weird stag parties at times. Well, they’d expected it, hadn’t they? She’d warned them, hadn’t she? The absolutely awful thing about it was: it seemed to have drawn a fair number of participants from the district itself. People no one would have dreamed of. The golf pro for one, the Adams boy for another, that house-termite sprayer and even the Reverend Reggie Baker. She hoped it was only talk. But one never knew . . .

The third invitation was the filthiest of all. Guest of honour? No less than the Governor! And she’d been trying for years to get into that circle. The Governor, my God! Didn’t even he care about the company he kept? Or—could that also be possible? One just didn’t know these days. One just didn’t know. Being married didn’t mean a fig any more, nor their position. In fact, it now seemed that the thing was not to wonder who was, but to be certain of who wasn’t. All that silly secrecy in the Masons . . .

Alec would have to be away on some business appointment. Should she ring him long distance to consult him about it? After all, the Governor . . .

Then the full horror of her hesitation suddenly swept over her. What on earth was she thinking of! How low could she stoop?

She couldn’t believe it, but it was Steinberg himself on the phone.

“Mrs Johnson,” he said, in those nauseating tones, “I wonder if I have your address correctly? I’m sure I’ve sent you invitations, but I’ve had no reply. I was particularly wanting you this Saturday. I’m sure you and Maisie Harris will have so much in common . . .”

Maisie Harris! A snob if there ever was one! But the wife of the Governor. Quite literally, the first lady . . . and Steinberg’s emphasis on the word ‘common’?

“I’m giving a formal dinner party,” Steinberg was saying, “if you didn’t get my little note. And I’ll be most disappointed if you and Mr Johnson can’t come.”

There, that was the answer.

“I’m afraid Mr Johnson’s away,” she replied.

There was hardly a pause.

“Oh what a pity! Must keep the numbers, you know. But I believe your son is home on holidays from college. If you bring him along with you, then the invitation still stands . . .”

Her Andy! Nineteen, good-looking, and not exactly demented over girls. The sheer evil of it! Alec away and no doubt Steinberg well aware of it. That Jew! That—that thing! He expected her to eat in his house and take her Andy as well. The devil!—to have found out her one weakness. He must know how much she wanted to be one of the first hundred. Perhaps even the upper ten? But what an asking price! And after this, what other invitations might Steinberg contrive?

It took her three seconds to make up her mind.

“This Saturday, you say? I’d be delighted,” she said.




This story first appeared in Westerly 13:1, March 1968.

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