Liars’ League HK‘s latest evening, on September 24, featured another of my stories, “Tricks of the Trade.” The great Angus Gallagher officiated once again, as he had on my first comedy piece with them, “Speed Dating,” two years ago. The recording is below, but as the first few words have been truncated and the sound quality is a bit weaker than usual, I’ve posted the story underneath too. Also, if you are interested, I posted a number of notes on what I was trying to achieve at various points in the story. I hope you’ll enjoy.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
When I had joined Fine Wines Limited, I was excited: selling exceptional vintages to wealthy people, what was not to like? And yet, three months on, I was starting to feel trapped. For a start, I still had to make my first sale. My predecessor had left a Bible-long list of prospects, but none of them ever answered the phone. In fact, I was starting to think some of them didn’t even exist: for example, this Mr. Santa, first name Nicholas. Word of mouth also suggested that my colleague Connor had pruned the list before I arrived, taking the good customers for himself, and leaving me with the duds.
In the first draft, the exposition was several paragraphs longer, listing all the problems of the narrator, and introducing Nigel as a complete booby. But this made the story too long: the format for LLHK is 800-1200 words, i.e. more or less 8 to 12 minutes. Besides, this meant the first action or dialogue happened only after 2 or 3 minutes. I consequently decided to cut it.
Well, maybe not all the duds. There was a real prize on the list: Alexey Alexeyitch Petrov. This one existed; newspapers said he had made a fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and moved abroad just before attracting too much publicity. But he too foiled my efforts: he was never home when I tried to reach him.
I was about to compose his number again when my phone rang.
“Hello,” a small, whiny voice said at the other end of the line. “Is this Samuel Lees?”
With the annoying voice, I’m trying to imply that Nigel is not only annoying, but also lacks confidence. Which most people interpret as: being clueless. (Which is actually often wrong in reality, but in a short story format, it’s practical to use stereotypes.)
“Hi! I’m Nigel Blomsley, from Fantastic Wines. I’ve heard you guys sometimes do trade-in?”
Here, Angus changed Fantastic Wines to Vins de la Mer, as we thought the two company names could confuse the audience.
The name of his company vaguely rang a bell.
Ideally, I would have liked to give a hint of bad things to come, but didn’t find something short and sharp within the deadline. This is also why Angus suggested ‘Vins de la Mer,’ to try to suggest another French word beginning with M…
“Yes,” I replied, “if we can verify the provenance…”
“Awesome! Because I have some Lafite here, straight from the producer.”
The vintage and the price sounded right. I checked with the team: “Any interest for ten cases of Lafite 2008?”
Connor made a big thumbs up, and I took the bottles. A few minutes later, the invoice popped in my inbox, and I stared in disbelief. I called Nigel.
“I think there’s a typo on your invoice,” I said.
“Lafite. They don’t spell it L, A, F, E, E, T.”
“Really?” He shuffled some papers. “No, that’s the spelling I have.”
“Right… Can we cancel the order?”
“Oh.” He sounded genuinely devastated. “My boss is going to kill me. I haven’t made a single sale this month.”
I could relate. “Listen, if you find something else, call me and I’ll see what I can do.” And I hung up.
It might have been easier for the audience to understand why he could relate if the long exposition had been kept… but as mentioned above, this part needed to be cut.
Now I had another problem: because the systems told me that Connor had already sold the Lafite to his main customer, a Mr Lu in Repulse Bay. If I told him the mistake I had made, he would treat me like the village idiot for years. I had to solve this myself. I called the customer.
“Mr. Lu? Hi, I’m Connor Wright’s assistant. I’m so sorry to disturb you, but we’ve made a silly mistake: we unfortunately don’t have any Lafite at the moment… So sorry…”
In my intermediate draft (yes, there were several), the narrator became a woman. I loved the fact that she persisted and tried to do business in a toxic environment. Also, because I had listed everything Connor inflicted on her in the overlong exposition, I could add a small pique here: “Hi, I’m Connor Wright’s assistant. (Not in his dreams I’m not.)” But what works on the page would have been confusing out loud. I consequently cut it.
“Then why did you say you had it?”
I made up something quick. “Oh, we were… updating our systems, and for a minute or two they showed… an old version of the inventory?”
“So you did have some Lafite in the past, and you didn’t call me?”
I took as much flak as was humanly possible, swore that we would never again give Mr. Lu cause for grief, and finally hang up, marvelling at the fact that my phone wasn’t white-hot with the abuse. That’s when it rang again. It was Nigel.
“Sammy!” he said. “I have a great deal for you: bin ends from Petrus, Yquem, Cheval Blanc, Montrachet – fantastic vintages. Half a container full.” He mentioned a price that was way too low.
“How do you spell Petrus?” I asked.
Here, Angus mentions that the audience started laughing. I love when it happens — it means that the audience is playing along with the game you’ve laid.
He chuckled. “Don’t worry, they’re alright, I checked before calling you.”
Not happy with this sentence, for reasons I’ll explain below, but I didn’t want the dialogue to spin into a spelling bee competition.
“So what’s the catch?”
He hesitated. “Weeeelll… The container might have been destined for North Korea.”
“But it never got there! The customer needed cash – you know, with the sanctions – and he decided to sell the wine as it arrived in Hong Kong.”
I pursed my lips. Well, it really was a bargain. “OK, I take them,” I said.
He mentioned something about not running a Geiger counter next to the bottles, but I didn’t listen: for I noticed Connor and our boss Michael looming over me.
Listening to Angus, I realize timing is essential for jokes: if you don’t pause for a tiny moment between the first and the second part of the sentence, the audience doesn’t have time to process the implications of the beginning. Reading is hard! I admire what Angus is doing with the texts.
“How fucking dare you?” Connor asked.
“Call my customers behind my back, and steal my wine!”
Michael stepped in. “The Lafite sale is restored. Oh, and: don’t do that again, or I’ll fire you.”
They both departed, leaving me back to square one: I needed to source some Lafite, and fast.
Nigel was still on hold. “Hey, Nigel, could you find me some Lafite?”
“But you cancelled the order?”
“Not La Feet, Lafite.”
“Oh, you mean the other one?”
The implication here is that Nigel still believes the Lafeet is legit — which I love. Remember the hints of cluelessness at the beginning. Unfortunately, when says above that he checked the spelling of the Petrus, he implied that he is able to see the difference… Maintaining coherence in a short story is surprisingly more difficult than it seems.
It took him a couple of hours, but he eventually called back. “Sunny! I found some Lafite, but it’s not the same year: 2007, instead of 2008.”
I winced: not a great year. But it was better than none at all, and I could always claim it was a typo. “OK…”
“There’s one more thing,” he added. “The owner agrees to sell it, but only if you also take something off his hands.”
Oh God. “What?”
“Ten cases of Armenian cognac, 1989 vintage.”
“French cognac, you mean.”
“No, it’s written Armenia on the bottles.”
My first draft was “Armenian brandy, you mean? — No, it’s written cognac on the bottles,” which was less effective — too obscure. Angus suggested the improvement. For full disclosure, Armenian cognac does exist — and is actually well-rated. I discovered it when I was a teenager, in the buffet of a Russian friend. We found it hilarious at the time, for the hijacking of the French ‘cognac’ designation, and also because whatever dregs remained at the bottom of the bottle smelled like Knorr or Oxo stock cubes: not very appealing. It was probably just because the bottle had been opened for way too long, but it remained a joke between us for years.
I sighed. “How much?”
It was painful, but not as much as being fired. At worst, I could buy them myself, and have a ten-year supply of drain cleaner. I took them, and dutifully assigned the Lafite to Mr. Lu.
I was composing Alexey Alexeyitch Petrov’s number for the fourth time this day, when I saw Connor coming at me, eyes blazing.
“You!” he bellowed. “You useless twat!”
In the draft where Samuel was a woman, this would have made Connor even more of a boor. But the team of Liars’ League had already planned on a male reader, based on my first draft, so we switched back again.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“The Lafite! You told me it was 2008, but it’s fucking 2007! It’s shit! Mr. Lu is furious, you hear: furious!”
I winced. “I’m really sorry… It must have been a typo. Let me see what I can do…”
Exactly the scenario Samuel had planned. In my head, he would have sounded falsely sorry, like a bad liar. But lying is hard, and acting a bad liar is even harder…
“No! Don’t do anything anymore! I’m going to fix this myself, and then I’ll have you fired.” And he stormed off.
That’s when I heard a voice on the other end of the line: deep, heavily accented: “Hello?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Samuel Lees, from Fine Wines Limited. I’ve been trying to reach you…”
“Fine wines? I don’t drink fine wines. Taste like sour juice.”
“What do you drink, then?”
“Pfft. Nothing much these days – all too commercial, too standardised. Tastes like McDonald’s. In the old days, in the Soviet Union, we used to drink real spirits, moonshine, garage vodka, Armenian cognac…”
“I have some Armenian cognac,” I said.
He guffawed. “No you don’t.”
My previous draft added: “that thing makes holes in liver.” But Armenian cognac is actually well-rated, so I cut it.
“I do! 1989 vintage. I can have them certified if you want.”
“You don’t certify soviet-era spirits, that would take all the fun out of guessing if you are drinking alcohol, or antifreeze. How many do you have?”
“I’ll take them, for old times’ sake.”
Not long after, my boss Michael paid me a new visit.
“Sunny, we have a problem.”
I feared the worst.
“It appears that we have just lost Mr. Lu’s patronage, after Connor took on himself to source some Lafite 2008, and purchased it from a disreputable broker. When the bottles were delivered to Mr. Lu, the labels were spelled…”
He enunciated a very familiar typo.
“This is the kind of mistakes we cannot tolerate, so I’ve had to fire Connor. I was consequently wondering: given how well you’ve done with Petrov, would you mind taking over Connor’s customers too?”
What do you think? Did the story work for you? What did you like more, or less? What would you have changed? Comments are open below.
(And if you want to learn more about the process of writing this story, I made a blog post here.)
Thanks for your attention!