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Clement's Corner: The Offer

…Their paper packaging business would certainly be worth well over a million dollars, a lot of money in those days. What was the catch, I wondered? No one offers you something so valuable without conditions attached….

And there really was a condition, as Owen Clement reveals in this remarkable story which is based on something that really did happen to him.

He was a man in grey, or I should say a grey man in grey; a grey pork-pie hat covering his sparse grey hair, a soft dove-grey shirt, dark grey striped tie and an expensively cut woollen grey suit. These colours did nothing to improve his sallow, almost transparent, pallor. His wife’s soft pastel-coloured woollen suit complemented her husband’s sombre outfit.

I watched them clutching each other as they shuffled towards me. Mr Cohen looked like death.

I soon realized that this time they were here not for my services as they always were, but on a personal mission.

“Good morning Mr Cohen, Mrs Cohen, what can I do for you today?” I greeted them cheerily.

Nodding almost impatiently he croaked, “What time do you go to lunch?”

“As soon as the manager gets back, which should be in about ten minutes, I’d say.”

“We’ll wait outside for you. Don’t be too long.”

I smiled and nodded. Wait for what, I wondered?

“I’ll be as quick as I can.”

I watched them slowly make their way out.

When my relief arrived I ran downstairs, picked up my brown paper bag of sandwiches and a piece of fruit and joined them at the doorway.

Mr Cohen linked his bony hand into my arm.

“We could be a bit late getting back? I arranged for you to lunch with us.”

“Oh! That’ll be fine, thank you.”

His immaculately maintained early model Silver Rolls Royce pulled up at the kerb and I helped them both in before entering myself, my mind racing wandering what on earth they wanted with me.

Before long a major-domo opened the door of the limousine and, minus my discarded lunch bag, we were escorted to the international’s hotel’s dining room. I felt distinctly out of place in my very ordinary work-a day suit.

I asked if there was a pay phone nearby. Mr Cohen barely raised his finger when a waiter arrived at his side.

“We need a phone.”

The boy soon returned with one and I was able to call the store and let them know that I could be a while. I could not say why, as I had no idea myself.

When I sat down again Mr Cohen said, “I have ordered for you. We’ll eat first then we’ll talk.”

“Thank you. My wife would be very envious of those magnificent pearls that you are wearing Mrs Cohen.”

“I’ve had them a very long time. They were my wedding present from Ziggy.”

So that was Mr Cohen’s name, I never knew.

Mrs Cohen and I chatted about the dining room décor and other inconsequential matters until the meal arrived. My steak was delicious. Mr and Mrs Cohen picked at their plain meal of either poached fish or chicken, it was hard to say which, covered in white sauce,.

It was like twenty questions when the meal was over with Mrs Cohen starting the questioning. How long had I been married? How many children did I have? How many boys? How many girls? How old were they? I told them that I had been married ten years and that I had one daughter aged eight and two sons aged six and four.

“Do you still wish to own your own business?” Was Mr Cohen’s question the main purpose of this meeting I wondered?

“It has always been my ambition to own my own business some day. However,” I continued,” it is just a pipe dream with my present parlous financial state, I’m afraid.’’

“Minnie and I have been talking. Do you remember me telling you that we do not have any children?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “We have no family at all. They were all lost in the war.”

Where the hell was he going and what did I have to do with all this. Were they offering me their business at a price I couldn’t refuse? Questions, questions.

I was gob-smacked when Mr Cohen said; “We want you to be our sole beneficiary. We will make sure that all our financial matters are settled and in order when we die.”

Their paper packaging business would certainly be worth well over a million dollars, a lot of money in those days. What was the catch, I wondered? No one offers you something so valuable without conditions attached.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m completely overwhelmed. I’ll discuss it with my wife tonight.” Mr Cohen sat back when I said this. I carried on “I’d like very much for you to meet my wife and children and for them to meet you.’’

My surprises were yet not over. I have thought back many times on what I should have done or not done at that moment.

“We have to have your decision right now. I haven’t much time left. Maybe you don’t understand, but you must promise that the business must always be your first priority, even before your own family.”

“I beg your pardon!”

Mrs Cohen took over, “You see, our business is everything to us. It has been our life. We didn’t choose lightly in selecting you as our sole beneficiary. If you do not meet Ziggy’s wishes it will break his heart.”

“I haven’t refused anything. It’s just that my wife and I are partners, well more than partners. Your generosity is staggering and as grateful as I am I could never put anything ahead of my family. I am not an individual any more that ended when I got married.”

Let me put you more in the picture of what other thoughts were racing through my brain as I watched Ziggy Cohen’s eyes harden to bitter disappointment. Firstly, our financial situation was very precarious, secondly, we were living in rented accommodation and finally, I knew nothing about running a million dollar business especially one in which I had no knowledge or experience whatsoever.

Mr. Cohen stood up. I also rose.

“You are a foolish young man. I thought that you would not hesitate for a moment to take up such a valuable offer. I won’t keep you any more. Good day to you.” His signal was taken up immediately by his chauffer who drove me back to the store.

I read a few months later of Mr Cohen’s death and that the proceeds of the sale of his company were donated to charity


© Clement 2006


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