The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2011 Results

The Secret Life of Frank Bliss

Copyright © Paul Sterling

I first met Frank during a lunch break at a seminar organised by the Melbourne office of Wistfull Harmless and Grabbett, international consultants. These experts, with offices in Argentina, Albania and Andorra, hoped to persuade ambitious executives to use their expensive but shrewd business planning services. As we all know, a career as a successful strategic management consultant is far, far better than spending a lifetime picking raspberries in Daylesford.

They announced that big was beautiful, that ambition was indispensable, that charity began with a bank deposit in Switzerland and that with Wistfull Harmless and Grabbett success was only a platinum credit card away. Suddenly, across that crowded room, I saw somebody who looked totally mislaid and out of place.

As it was not by just by invitation but an open house event, there were several struggling small-time consultants attending the seminar to find out what the big, beautiful and internationally successful enemy was planning. They were also there to enjoy their favourite commodity, a free lunch. It was obvious that the poor man was one of them.

I recognised him because I was a consultant myself. I had come to Melbourne from Adelaide, having fallen in love with a local paediatrician. Her friends rumoured that my 'love' had been inspired by practical factors such as her comfortable home, respectable income and a car twice as big as mine. According to their spiteful gossip, I had moved here with a cat, a lap-top, and had left behind a poky flat in Glenelg and my membership of the Port Adelaide Football Club.

All this was not true. I had not only fallen in love, but I had taken a strategic decision, had opted for a tactical redeployment, and had added to it all a personal commitment.

The stranger I saw today had that despairing look in the eyes that I knew so well. I smiled encouragingly at the lost soul, and he looked surprised for a moment before smiling back. I fought my way across the crowd towards him and we shook hands.

“Gerard Bigglesmith, business consultant,” I announced.

“Frank Bliss, strategic advisor,” he replied.

I did not have a business card and his was a piece of paper, bearing a PO Box in Brighton but no street address.

“Brighton, eh?” I said, trying desperately to sound a little envious. “My girlfriend and I live in Mentone.”

He grinned happily. I was an inferior being.

“I’ve just arrived from Adelaide,” I told him. “The cards are with the printer.”

I dropped another two rungs on his social ladder. I could see it in his eyes.

“Oh, really?” he answered. “I always do them myself on the computer, it’s simpler. Anyway, everyone knows who I am.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He grinned mischievously, tapping the side of his nose with a knowing forefinger.

“Just checking up on the competition.”

As we chatted about things of no consequence, I gave him a quick and discreet inspection. The jacket was at least twenty years old, the shirt collar was rumpled and the St Kilda tie looked as if it had just come out of a close encounter with a Geelong supporter. He was the only man in the room wearing baggy jeans, and his shoes were badly worn. Somehow, I did not think that Wistfull Harmless and Grabbett, or their young Blackberry wielding executives, were going to be very concerned by the possibility of having to compete with Frank Bliss.

“The coffee is lousy,” I suggested. “In Adelaide, they would have served a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with the nibbles.”

“They do have a bar here,” he muttered. “But if you want alcohol you have to pay.”

I grabbed him by the arm and towed him towards the inviting wooden edifice and its array of smiling bottles.

“My shout,” I announced.

His eyes shone with delight.

Once served, we exchanged information about our business activities. He was surprised with the news that that I was mainly involved in export marketing and he seemed to have limited knowledge of South Australia’s international trade. I explained that the State exported wine, sheepskins, soft drinks, footballers, ugg boots, crystallized fruit, table grapes, solar water heaters, barley, media magnates and fridge magnets.

We had finished our first glass of Sauvignon Blanc and the barman was hovering, waiting for my companion to invite him to refill our glasses. Frank suddenly noticed the look of expectancy on both our faces.

“Better not,” he suggested, with an apologetic smile.“I have a business plan to work on this afternoon.”

I nodded glumly.

“You're probably right,” I murmured.

I was just about to ask him about his business plan when the Master of Ceremonies invited us to sit down, to shut up, and to listen to words of wisdom. Not in so many words but we got the drift. Messrs Wistfull Harmless and Grabbett themselves probably lived in Singapore, Paris or Seattle, but their local representatives were full of themselves and their employers’ brilliant ideas. Graham Rockfast-Gluttony was still explaining how he had saved the Bloop Corporation from extinction as I crept out. I was surprised to see that Frank was creeping behind me.

“Bloody boring,” I muttered.

He agreed, whispering that he could not understand how they could snare clients with that sort of rubbish.

If I compared poor Frank with the business advisers in thousand-dollar suits who had been telling us how wonderful they were over the last hour, I could well imagine that their services were in a different field to those offered by the Mastermind from Brighton.

“How do we get to the car park?” I asked moving towards the lifts.

“2B I think,” he replied. “I never bring my car into the city.”

“Can I drop you off?” I asked as we stepped together into the lift.

He nodded happily.

He liked the Honda Accord and ran his hands slowly over the leather dash, purring, as I drove up the ramp. I decided not to explain that my Corolla was being serviced and that my girlfriend had lent me her wheels for the day. When we reached Brighton, he navigated me to the front door of a white two-storey mansion in what must have been one of the nicest streets in the suburb. I whistled appreciatively, and he blushed.

“We must catch up,” I suggested as he stepped out of the car. “Can you give me your mobile phone number?”

“It’s being repaired at the moment,” he explained leaning through the car window. “But you have my home number on the card.”

I nodded, and he waved as I drove off. I watched him in the rear vision mirror as he stood, still waving enthusiastically, as I turned the corner.

I ran into Frank quite by accident some four months later. I was shopping in Southland with my girlfriend when I saw him in the food hall eating an ice cream at a table with four kids. I introduced Sophie and I saw that he was suitably impressed.

“Your kids?” I asked.

He frowned, then looked at the youngsters and laughed.

“Oh, no, I’m not married.”

At that moment an angry looking woman stormed over and told her children to come away from the table. She glared at Frank, as she reminded loudly them of her recommendations to keep away from strange men.

“I was just leaving anyway, and I’m not strange,” he muttered lamely, tossing the unfinished ice cream into a rubbish bin. Then he turned to me, perking up a happy smile. “I’ll walk to the car park with you.”

We chatted idly until we reached the Honda.

“Where did you leave your car, Frank?” I asked.

“My girlfriend’s got it today,” he explained as he opened the rear door of our car and slid on to the seat. “Mind dropping me off?”

Sophie looked a little annoyed but I frowned heavily, which was my way of asking her not to make a rude comment. She understood and sighed. He navigated again, but this time we dropped him off in front of an orange stucco home, in East Brighton. It looked like something out of a Zorro film. Sophie noticed that I looked a little bemused as we drove off. I saw him in the rear vision mirror, waving us away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The last time, I dropped him off at a different house,” I explained.

“Maybe he’s moved in with the new girlfriend,” she suggested.

I shook my head and drove around the block to stop quietly at the top corner of the street we had just left. A few minutes later Frank walked quickly past on the opposite footpath, looking furtively left and right, although he passed our car without seeing us.

“Probably forgot to pick up a bottle of milk,” Sophie suggested, but there was a wicked twinkle in her eye.

Two months later, I decided to call Frank. I had picked up a contract with a company producing low-fat dairy products, and that they wanted me to research ideas for new lines, looking at what was happening overseas, I suggested that he might be interested in doing some of the research for me over the Internet.

As I expected, he was delighted. I quickly discovered that he did not have a computer for the moment and that his mobile phone was still ‘on the blink’, but I declared that I was happy to let him use my laptop and to work from my office at home. I told him I would be out all day attending to clients. He was very impressed. His daily attire was simple: baggy jeans, a Jimmy Hendricks T-shirt and Nikes, probably because he came to work on a bicycle. However, I must admit that he worked conscientiously and had soon established an interesting profile of the international market for dietary dairy products.

It became quickly obvious that my delightful partner overwhelmed him although Sophie herself was becoming severely frustrated with the unwelcome daily resident. Among other things, she was annoyed by the eagerness with which he drank my whisky and the number of times he seemed to end up having dinner with us. She did not believe him when he explained about the houses in Brighton and Brighton East, that we had caught him between two rentals.

“I never buy real estate,” he explained. “I think it's an unproductive way of tying up your capital.”

When his report was ready, I told him that we had an appointment with the client, a certain Mr. Attila Plattino. The day before the supposed appointment, Frank appeared at my front door. He was very pale and actually shaking like a leaf.

“Can I avoid the meeting?” he beseeched me. “I’m not very good at this sort of thing.”

I told him that in that case he would only receive a minimum fee. He accepted my decision without protesting, jumped on to his old bicycle and pedalled away, looking very relieved.

Sophie persuaded me to stop baiting Frank, and to forget his ailing computer, his broken mobile phone and his residential instability. I was a consultant, not a psychiatrist, she reminded me.

One Saturday morning, Sophie told me she had promised to lend some textbooks to a ‘nice’ girl she had met at the clinic and who was studying to be a paediatric nurse. We were going into town to catch up with some friends for lunch, so we stopped in Highett where she lived with her parents, on the way. It was a quiet street in an older part of the modest suburb. They lived in a neat little brick veneer with a pretty garden.

The only drawback seemed to be the derelict weatherboard cottage next door. There was a guy turning over a cabbage patch in the front yard with a fork, and I would have recognized the Jimmy Hendricks T-shirt anywhere. At the front door was a very haggard looking blonde, wearing a partially unbuttoned but heavily stained pink blouse and grey baggy shorts. There was a cigarette butt hanging out of the corner of her mouth and a glass of white wine in her left hand. It was ten o’clock in the morning, but it was obviously not her first drop, to judge by the vile abuse she was screaming at the gardener.

I was glad when Nancy invited us inside for a cup of tea, as I did not want to be a witness to Frank’s humiliation. Our hostess apologised as she closed the front door.

“Sorry about the neighbours,” she murmured. “They’re really awful.”

“They’re new, are they?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, they’ve been here for years. Molly used to work as a receptionist in a brothel in Dandenong until the boss chucked her out. Frank repairs lawnmowers.”

There was nobody in the next-door garden when we left, but we could hear through an open window that Molly was still screaming abuse at poor Frank. I noticed for the first time a brown Lada in the driveway. It had no wheels.

“Strategic advisor, eh?” Sophie murmured sarcastically as we drove off. “Turf consultant, maybe?”

I nodded, without replying.

“Cutting edge!” she added spitefully, and laughed.

Frank rang me about three weeks later, asking how things were going.

“I actually had a job for you last week,” I lied wickedly. “But I didn’t have your mobile phone number.”

He apologised.

“Would you believe that it’s on the blink again?” he asked.

“Yes, Frank,” I told him sadly. “I can believe that.”

Since retirement in 1998, the author has been feverishly writing novels and short stories, often seeking inspiration from past professional failures. Oddly, some of them have been published. He has lived and worked in several overseas countries, with few notable successes and uses writing as a form of vengeance. He uses the pen name of Paul Sterling to avoid his critics and also writes rude letters to daily newspapers.