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A Star Shines In The East

Howard Robinson
www.howard-robinson.com
Twitter: @howardprobinson
www.facebook.com/howardrobinsonbooks

Copyright Howard Robinson - All Rights Reserved

By anybody's standards Jonathan Asprey was a successful man. A long career in advertising
had not only earned him the soubriquet "the brand breaker" but had also earned him a
lifestyle that few others could match and of which many others could only dream. Life,
Jonathan had preached, was for the living and he had certainly practised what he had
preached. The matreds in most of Londons more fashionable restaurants knew him by
name; his presence gained free and ready access to clubs, bars and sold-out events and. He
liked to walk through London from his lavish apartment inside one of the Georgian Crown
properties on that overlooked Regents Park from York Terrace East, but neither was he
adverse to occasionally taking his dark blue Maserati for his spin either. But now as he
approached his 70th birthday, the pain that continued to wrack his body fuelled a melancholy
within him that left Jonathan surveying with little satisfaction all that he had accomplished.
After a career founded on flagrant materialism, he had come to the realisation late in life that
a few million in the bank meant nothing if you had nobody with whom to share it. It was not
only the downside of being one of the worlds foremost brand breakers but also an inevitable
consequence of the events of the previous twelve months.

Jonathan shaved carefully in the illuminated mirror of his ensuite bathroom, using a soft
bristled brush to apply lather to his face the way he had observed his father and his
grandfather before him. It had been part of his daily regime for fifty years and he remained
convinced that it was not only the proper way to shave but also far more appropriate for a
man of his standing than anything as grubby as a spray can of foam and a disposable blade. To
the right hand side of the sink lay a styptic pencil from Taylors of Old Bond Street, in case he
should nick his skin, and a bottle of Tom Fords Neroli Portofino aftershave.

Twelve months previously the routine of his regime would have been strictly adhered to every
day. He would insist that Maria, his housekeeper of five years, would polish his black brogues
to a high shine and leave them at the foot of his bed. Once he had showered and shaved he
would run wax through greying hair, slicking it back and holding it firmly in place. He would
slip into a crisp white double cuffed shirt, hand-made by Green and Jacks, tighten a striped
Dunhill tie in a Windsor knot around his collar and place himself in whatever dark suit Maria
had had pressed and left out for him. He would routinely smooth down the jacket with the
cherry wood and dark bristle clothes brush he had bought for himself in Savile Row, though it
was harder these days without full use of his left arm. Even tonight or perhaps especially
tonight - it was important that standards were maintained.

****
A year previously Jonathan Asprey had been giving work colleagues the same impression he
had given them for as long as he or they could remember: that he, like them, was looking
forward to Christmas. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. At the
agency he founded Triple A (Asprey Advertising Agency) he exuded fake bonhomie as he
oversaw the serving of mulled wine and mince pies in the office, bringing himself out of selfimposed seclusion on the fourth floor of the building for his annual festive hour of interaction
with much younger staff members whose existence he rarely acknowledged during the rest of
the year. On this occasion, he would try uncomfortably to make small talk with people with
whom, their jobs aside, they had absolutely nothing in common.
Traditionally the office drinks marked the end of agency working for the Christmas period,
though a skeleton staff would come in on the in between days. Jonathan would do the same,
less because work demanded it but more because this was the one place he truly felt at home
and, if he was being honest, he had nothing else to do. All of his friends were work-related
and they would not only be occupied with their own families but all would assume that he
would be too. In previous years he would expect Maria to come in on Christmas morning and
cook him a three course lunch which he would then eat, alone at his dining table overlooking
Regents Park. After the Queens Speech, he would take himself for a brisk walk around the
Park, nodding and imparting Yuletide greetings to families that he passed, before returning to
his apartment for a generous glass of 25 year-old Macallan over ice. Not that there hadnt
been relationships, of course, though these had mainly been based on meaningless sex,
conspicuous consumption of his wealth and his need for a someone decorative on his arm at
industry events and receptions.
This year, as last, though would be different. Twelve months ago, he left the office celebrations
shortly after seven in the evening on the 23rd December, declining offers from senior staff to
join them as they moved to a nearby pub for on-going revelries. Instead he took himself to the
Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, positioning himself discreetly at a corner table in the black and
burnished gold Art Deco room before pouring himself a glass of Louis Roederer champagne.
Jonathan liked it here; he bothered nobody and nobody bothered him. He could sit and watch
events unfold as he indulged further in his preferred form of Christmas spirit. Occasionally
people, themselves mostly a little the worse for wear, would wish him Merry Christmas and
his response would always be the same: a nod, a smile and a toast to their health from his
perpetually full champagne glass.
By the time he left the Savoy at 10.30pm, his stomach lined with only salted peanuts, pretzels
and two bottles of champagne, Jonathan Asprey felt a little dizzy as the crisp, cold night air hit
him as he walked out towards The Strand. At first the dazzling cacophony of noise - part late
night revellers singing carols on their way back to the tube, part traffic noise, part the sound of

Band Aids Do They Know Its Christmas blasting out from a bar combined with a
kaleidoscope of neon to make him feel a little nauseous. Hed have a black coffee on his return
to the flat and that would sober him up, he reasoned. He turned right along the strand and
began walking down towards Aldwych. He hoped to fit in one last brandy at The Waldorf
before hailing a taxi to take him home.
Thats as much as Jonathan could remember and as much as anyone can be certain about his
intentions that late night. What we also know for sure is that after two or three Napoleon
brandies he began to make his way along Aldwych towards Kingsway in the hope of finding a
taxi. It was a little after midnight. At some point, it seems, he tried to cross the road opposite
Bush House to walk in the direction of the Royal Courts of Justice. As he did so a black seven
series BMW with tinted windows sped round the corner at more than 40 miles per hour the
driver, confident but not certain, he could get through the amber traffic light before it turned
red. Jonathan, in his stupor, was equally confident that right was on his side. He was caught
first by the cars nearside wing. This unbalance him and threw him up onto the bonnet and
then diagonally up across the roof of the vehicle, throwing him violently over the side where
his body landed forcefully on the road, his left arm and his head smashing into the road
surface. As rain began to fall, the blood flowed freely from his wounds in a stream along the
surface around him.
In the minutes that he lay where he fell before an ambulance arrived, more than one of the
crowd that had gathered around him thought there was little chance of survival. Jonathan
didnt properly regain consciousness until Christmas afternoon. He struggled as much to
comprehend what had happened as he did to focus on the bright lights above him on the ward
at St Thomass Hospital. Unknown nurses, their uniforms spruced up with sprigs of holly or
offcuts of tinsel, periodically bent over his bed and made cheerful, encouraging sounds as they
completed their regular observations. All in all, he staying in hospital for approaching two
weeks and only Maria visited, fetching items from home that he wouldnt need and, in his
present condition, couldnt use any more. He received cards and texts from colleagues and
clients but he sensed they were perfunctory rather than heartfelt. For Jonathan there was
even less to be joyful and triumphant about than usual that particular Christmas.
All in all, Jonathans dalliance with the BMW had left him with a fractured skull, a badly
broken shoulder and arm and a ruptured spleen, which had required emergency surgery,
together with a myriad of cuts and bruises. He would be told several times in the ensuing
weeks and months that he was lucky to be alive. He wasnt so sure. His recovery had been slow
and painful, his rehabilitation patchy at best and he succumbed on a regular basis to searing
headaches and the frustration borne out of being unable to function the way in which he was
accustomed. He spent more time at home, often in bed, and less time at the AAA. Occasionally
he would attempt a circuit of Regents Park but even with the aid of a stick he would rarely get
more than a quarter of the way round without having to stop and take a break. Suddenly the

apartment that had been his haven, his sanctuary and his palace for so many years began to
feel like a prison. Jonathan, who lived his life to be out in the crowd, the bon viveur
connecting others and making connections of his own, felt isolated for the first time in his life.
In many ways nothing had changed. In other ways, everything had.
The first casualty of the Christmas car crash was Jonathans concentration. Although he chose
not to confront it, his injuries had left him physically and psychologically impaired and, on the
few occasions that he tried, he lacked the ability to concentrate on a brief or summon up the
creative thinking that had underpinned his reputation and the admiration of his peers. He
became more and more remote from the business over the first half of the year that followed
and when the suggestion of a management buy-out was mooted, he took it seriously in a way
that hitherto he would not have. He had run Triple A by sheer force of personality for more
than forty years. He was it and it was him but now it had become apparent that he could not
longer give it the hands on direction it required and neither could it deliver him what he
needed. He instructed his solicitors to advance the buy-out as quickly as they possibly could
and by the half year, although his name still hung above the door, Jonathan Asprey had a sixfigure sum in his Coutts bank account and little more than a token connection with the
agency he had founded. The money at his disposal could have taken Jonathan anywhere he
wanted to go. Despite the injuries and the persistent pain and discomfort, he stayed mostly
within the confines of his apartment musing over how quickly he had become a shell of his
former self. He would sip camomile tea and listen to Wagner during the day, drink whiskey
and read Dickens or Hardy in the evenings. Occasionally he would order a taxi to take him to
the National to catch a play but discomfort together with the fact that he had nobody to go
with meant this became an increasingly rare occurrence.

****
Sean Hall sat in McDonalds and watched as his mobile rang, the handset vibrating vigorously
on top of the plastic table causing it to gyrate through almost 180 degrees. Hed learnt his
lesson many times not to answer a call from a withheld number. It would only mean trouble.
Having lost his job in late November, he had maxed out his already overloaded credit cards to
put food on the table and presents under the small Argos tree for his girlfriend Denise and
their two small children, Ava, who was three and five year old Flynn. Now they wanted
payment. Sean was twenty-eight years old and he had always consciously done the right thing.
He worked hard at school and had left with a good clutch of exam passes to his name. He
dreamt of making a difference but had spent much of the past year making sandwiches in a
local caf. He couldnt complain because a job was a job and, though they barely scraped by,
with Denises work as a teaching assistant in a local primary school, they could pay for the
rent and put food on the table but there was rarely enough left for anything that one could call
luxuries. Denise said it didnt matter as the children were too small to notice but it cut Sean to

the core because, likely every parent, he wanted to give his children all that he himself had
had and more. But the recession had hit the east end of London hard and small businesses
had to cut back just to survive. His shifts as a sandwich maker had grown fewer over recent
months until the caf owner had had to let him go. He supplemented his benefits by busking
near the shopping mall until the police moved him on or with cash in hand work for a Polish
builder called Alojzy mainly painting and decorating but again with everyone tightening
their belts, fewer people were deciding that they had enough spare cash to smarten up their
homes. Either way, it wasnt a career or a future. But when Sean looked round and saw people
sleeping rough, especially the young ones, he felt grateful at least that he had managed to keep
a roof over their heads until now.
He emptied his pockets. Hed had a successful day busking in and around the City and had
enough money to justify a half of bitter on his way home. He was certain Denise wouldnt
begrudge him that.

The Good Companions, which had overlooked where the City of London met the east end
since the late 19th century, stood close to the famous Aldgate Pump at the junction
where Aldgate, Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street meet. Rumour had it that the pump
had produced water whose strange taste aroused the complaints of local people and was found
to be caused by the seeping of calcium from the bones of the dead in cemeteries through
which the stream that served it ran. The pub had been built a little later than the pump, in
1894, as a meeting place for the growing number of traders coming into the city to sell their
wares and what it lacked in grandeur, it made up for in warmth. Some original light fittings
fixtures gave you a sense of stepping back in time as you walked through its doors as did
fading photographs on the wall that showed the pub as an ever-present in a constantly
changing local landscape. With the City functioning as if nothing as sordid as Christmas had
interrupted its flow, the bar was busy with commuters stopping for quick refreshments on
their way out to the suburbs on the capitals increasingly clogged underground arteries. Sean
ordered a half of London Pride and looked round for somewhere to sit. Its not easy being a
solo drinker in a pub full of groups and couples and it took time for him to realise that there
were no tables free; just one in the corner with a leather-backed bench occupied by a stately
looking man reading a folded Evening Standard.

Sean coughed in preparation to ask if he could sit, as if simply asking straight out wouldnt
have been enough. The elderly man, though, who Sean thought, looked tidier than the usual
clientele, gestured for him to sit with his right hand but without making eye contact or
uttering a word. Sean crouched down onto the burgundy leather-topped stool, placed his
small rucksack under the table by his feet and let the first taste of cold, hoppy fluid slip down

his throat. He enjoyed the experience of people watching but the sight of ten pound notes
being brandished with abandon at the bar made him angry in a way that he hadnt expected.
Its not right, you know, he said out loud but unsure as to whom.
Pardon, the man next to him replied laying the newspaper down next to his drink.
Look at them, Sean continued. I mean, I know its their money and theyve earned it but
dont you think there something vulgar about the way theyre flashing the cash? I mean,
within a mile or two of here there are probably hundreds of families that cant afford to put
dinner on the table tonight or even get a roof over their heads and these guys are spending
what that would cost on a tray full of Jager bombs.
The elderly man uttered something but Sean was unsure what he had said. He turned and
offered his hand.
Sean.
The man looked at him but didnt take his hand.
Jonathan.
They returned to their previous positions. The elderly man, who seemed to have trouble
holding the newspaper in his left hand, was attempting the crossword on the back page. He
was finding to balance both paper and pen.
So what do you do Jonathan? Other than crosswords.
Im retired. And you? Jonathan felt obliged to reply.
I guess you could say Im semi-retired. A bit of this and a bit of that.
Sean supped on his beer a little further whilst Jonathan returned to the number eleven down
that was giving him problems. There was a roar from the far side of the bar as a small group of
suited young men celebrated a jackpot on a one-armed bandit whilst a barmaid with dyed
pink hair and a diamond stud nose ring collected empty glasses from the tables around them.
Do you have family, Jonathan? Sean asked.
No. No, I dont.

Live round here?


No, not round here.
Not much of a talker, are you Jonathan?
Youve realised?
Sean laughed.
How come? A man like you, you must have things to talk about. You must have been places
and done things.
Not really, Ive led a really boring life when alls said and done.
And drinking alone?
Nothing wrong with drinking alone.
Do you come here a lot?
Not a lot, but it helps to get me out and from time to time its nice to come somewhere where
youre not going to bump into people who know you.
You mean, so you wont be interrupted by people like me?
Jonathan looked at Sean and smiled. It was the first time since they began speaking that he
had properly made eye contact and he saw a young man whose sparkle was still just about
visible beneath a cloak of stress and exhaustion.
I am recovering from a car accident, Im afraid, so I am trying to get as much rest as I can to
give me the best chance of recovery. My arm is screwed as you can see but there are other less
visible symptoms. Coming here where nobody knows me and nobody knows what has
happened means for an hour or two I can pretend that it didnt.
Except when people like me interrupt you?
Actually, at first, yes, but, you know, its actually quite nice to speak to new people. Its a long
time since Ive done it. So, get yourself over to that bar and get us both another beer.

Jonathan took a crisp ten pound note from his wallet, folded it in half and offered it to Sean,
who finished the last drags of his beer, stood and checked the time on his watch.
Ill fetch you another beer, for sure, but I need to head home. I have a girlfriend and two
beautiful kids waiting for me and I dont want to be late for them.
Jonathan smiled and held out his right hand.
Well its good to meet you Sean.?
Hall. Sean Hall.
Its good to meet you Sean Hall. Who knows, maybe we will see each other again.
Who knows, Sean replied, locking his hand into Jonathans.

****
As much as Jonathan found the physiotherapy frustrating, it was the regular headaches that
contributed as much to his anger and depression. Rehabilitation was slow, as he was warned it
would be, and for a man like Jonathan Asprey, who was used to getting what he wanted when
he wanted it, being unable to control the pace of recovery was maddening. The headaches
came regularly and without warning, a heavy pain making it hard for him to keep his eyes
open and rendering him incapable of even basic tasks until the pain had passed. Each episode
would leave him exhausted and despairing of this being the new normality to which he had to
look forward. Maria suggested once that he should call his doctor again, in case the pains in
his head were the result of something more worrying but so angry was Jonathans response
that she never suggested again.
Jonathan began to spend more and more time in bed. He would sleep during the morning
and began to rely on tramadol to get him through each day, regardless of whether he was in
pain or not. It was during these dark moments, alone in the opulent solitude of his apartment,
that Jonathan began to reassess his life. He had achieved success beyond his wildest dreams
and that had brought with it wealth that meant he never had to do another hours work as
long as he lived. He dressed in hand-made clothes, dined in the finest restaurants whilst
staying in some of the landmark hotels in the great capital cities of the world. He was a fixture
at some of the countrys marquee calendar events from Henley to Ascot, from Glyndebourne
to Glastonbury and had gained a reputation as a philanthropist that had given him access to
politicians and even minor royalty. It was a dynamic lifestyle that left little room for
relationships but what future could there be for somebody whose physical and psychological

10

wounds left no possibility for dynamism? After all, he couldnt even lift his left arm to shake
somebodys hand any more.

So this was to be his future. The trauma of the accident and its aftermath was overwhelming
him. He knew that others people he had once trusted - spoke about him behind his back but
now, as a man of his age, he had begun to feel like a child learning to swim, caught out of his
depth, struggling to stay afloat, being pulled down and around by a buffeting current before
suddenly catching enough air to help him reach safety, even if every fibre of his being told him
he wanted to let go and be taken away. At other times he simply felt haunted by his inability to
cope and hunted by those who sought their pound of flesh and, as he perceived it with a kind
of mild paranoia, were positioning themselves to profit from his demise. For Jonathan, each
day had become just another to negotiate before the safety of his pillow and, if fortunate, the
security of sleep. He was not a religious man but he would lie in the darkness on his own and
would find himself praying that this would be the night that God chose to take him to join his
mother and father. Each morning he awoke disappointed and by early Summer he knew had a
decision to make.

The first time it was suggested to Jonathan that he might be suffering from depression he had
listened in disbelief. It was in July and it was his doctor who had brought it up in conversation
in response to his request for sleeping tablets. At first he was completely dismissive. The
notion was preposterous. What did he have to be depressed about? In spite of the injuries,
here he was, wealthy, respected, a great social circle of acquaintances and outwardly
confident, even funny; the person that others gravitated towards for reassurance or just for
company. And yet he knew and soon others would surely guess that this was a facade. It
was the mask that he wore; the performance he had perfected for who knows how long. Inside
he no longer had any of the old energy or confidence left and, in truth, he had forgotten what
it really felt like to be Jonathan. He had forgotten what it really was to be happy or content.
The energy consumed to maintain the facade and keep the mask from slipping had fed the
spiral of exhaustion.

The first time Jonathan could recall accepting something really might be wrong was at Bank
Underground Station. It was late July and he really hadnt felt himself for a number of weeks;
nothing dramatic that he could put his finger on and certainly nothing so severe to worry the
doctors with. In fact, he found he couldnt remember what feeling himself was supposed to
feel like anymore. With hindsight he had long since forgotten what normal was meant to be.
He was run down, mentally and physically spent and had found himself getting emotional at
unexpected moments. His concentration was poor, his headaches were becoming more

11

intense and he ached in every joint and from every limb. In the privacy of his apartment he
found it embarrassing that a television storyline could literally move him to the brink of tears.
That wasnt something he was going to share with anybody.

He missed work. He missed the pressure to keep clients happy, to keep delivering, to keep
moving forward. It seemed relentless at the time but he acknowledged thrived on it. With
hindsight, there had never been a point where he had felt he had reached where he wanted to
be; never a point where he didnt feel under pressure or as if he was running from one side of
a stage to the other spinning plates and racing to ensure that none of them dropped. Maybe
that was the way he had guarded against complacency all of those years. His schedule and the
stress it caused had become as persistent and pervasive as each other and now both were
gone. He wanted to curl up in splendid isolation and lock the world outside.

It had been 7.15am on a Friday morning and Jonathan stood at the far end of the eastbound
Central Line platform, a half drunk bottle of water in his pocket and a copy of that mornings
Metro, the free London newspaper that littered the trains and the stations every week day,
rolled up tightly under his right arm. To his right, an anxious woman repeatedly checked the
time on her watch, whilst a young man in paint-stained track suit bottoms and a Nike hoodie
attempted the Sudoku puzzle towards the back of the newspaper. Jonathan looked down
towards the tunnel as the rail and platform curved round like a river before him and waited
for the train to charge out of the darkness like a snake breaking free from its hideaway to
snatch itself some prey.

And then it happened; for the first time that he could remember, but certainly not the last. As
more morning-after commuters shuffled silently down the platform, Jonathan caught sight of
the lights of the incoming train reflected against the grimy side of the tunnel wall, moments
before the rush of air that preceded its actual arrival. He stepped forward, one foot across the
yellow safety line, bending at the waist and leaning his head towards the oncoming rush. And
in that split second, it all became clear.

If I jump now, just fall, or slip it would all be over. They could even think it was an accident.
The pain, the stress, the tiredness and the misery; all of it would end as simple as that.

12

The doors opened, commuters waiting on the platform were warned to mind the gap as the
drones on board shuffled off in silence. And then the train was gone. Jonathan remained
static on the platform edge. He hated himself for thinking about it but he thought he hated
himself more for not having had the courage to do it at all. And for the first time he was aware
of, he heard a voice in his mind berate him for not jumping. It told him it was just another
type of failure, a lack of courage that was typical of the new him. The voice told him he could
have done everyone a favour and jumped but instead he had screwed up again and here he
was still standing. The voice threw him as much as the temptation to jump but he did what he
could to push both of them away. He would find one easier to dismiss than the other. He
climbed onto the next eastbound train and continued his now regular journey to The Good
Companions.

****
Jonathan and Sean wouldnt meet again until early October. There was something about the
hunched figure shuffling along Leadenhall Street whose arm hung limply by his side that
struck a chord with the younger man.

Hello again, Sean uttered, stopping the man in his tracks. Jonathan looked up from beneath
an oversized cloth cap, looking in some way diminished compared to the last time they had
seen each other. His eyes were sunken within hollow cheeks, his hands bearing blue veins like
motorways on a map, prominent beneath paper-think skin, one of which was clasped tightly
around the silver top of an ebony walking stick. There was no recognition on his face.

Its Jonathan, isnt it?

It is, but Im sorry, do we know each other?

Jonathan spoke falteringly and the vacancy of his look, the void that sat behind his eyes, took
Sean by surprise. The depth to which he appeared to have declined shocked him.

13

Its Sean. We met a few months ago at The Good Companions in Aldgate. You let me sit at
your table and then offered to buy me a beer?

I remember, smiled Jonathan. But how did you remember me? It was a long time ago.

Its not everyday that somebody offers to buy me a drink.

Its not often I have somebody to buy one for, especially these days.

How are you keeping?

Not so good, Im afraid. Its no fun getting old, especially when your body gives up on you.

Sean placed his right hand on Jonathans shoulder. It was the first physical human contact
that Jonathan could remember for months and months and it caused a sense of exhilaration
to run through his fragile body. Sean was shocked at how prominently he could feel the bones
in Jonathans shoulder through the layers of clothing.

Can I repay your offer? Can I buy you a drink?

Now? smiled Jonathan.

Yes, now. Unless youve somewhere else to be?

14

No, no. Does it look like Im working to a tight schedule? But tea not beer, if you dont mind.

The two men settled themselves at a corner table in a small caf across the road from where
they had met. By the look on Jonathans face it seemed as if the tea was the first hot drink he
had had for days and that the sensation of the liquid on his lips was reviving the immediate
area surrounding. Without asking, Sean had ordered two rounds of toast for each of them and
felt good inside as he watched the older man devour the butter-soaked slices almost as soon as
they were laid in front of him.

I might be speaking out of turn, Sean began, laying the white cup of cappuccino back on the
saucer in front of him, but it doesnt seem that you are looking after yourself too well.

He took a napkin and wiped a small chocolate and milk-foam moustache away from his top
lip.

Is it that obvious? Jonathan replied.

You know, the older man continued, when you get to a certain age and you are constantly
in pain and discomfort, unable really to do the things that you have always taken for granted,
you start to question what really is the point of going on?

Theres always a point; you shouldnt speak like that.

Why not? Im just being honest and practical about things. The name of the game is quality
in life, not quantity. Who wants to live just for the sake of it?

Listen to yourself. What about your family, your friends? How do you think they would feel
hearing you speak like this?

15

Jonathan smiled a wry smile, as much for his own benefit as for Seans.

There is no family, no friends. Its just me.

Dont be ridiculous. Everybody has somebody.

I guess I buck the trend. I live alone, have no family and all of my acquaintances were
connected to me work and as I havent been able to work since the accident, I am no longer of
any use to them or, I guess, them to me.

Thats bollocks. What about meIm your friend.

Weve met twice, Sean. I like you and I appreciate you taking an interest, especially as you
know nothing about me. Im not used to having people who want to talk to me because of who
I am rather than what I could do for them or what they could get out of me.

Thats a bit cynical, if you dont mind me saying so.

Perhaps, but it doesnt necessarily mean it isnt true.

The caf began to fill with local office workers, each with hassled looks across their faces,
crashing in to grab a sandwich and a latte and to smoke a quick cigarette before they rushed
back to their desks. Many looked guilty for taking the few minutes it required to get their
lunch; the virile culture in which these young workers operated - once so familiar to Jonathan
now seemed quite alien to him.

16

So thats it. All done and dusted?

Jonathan smiled. He liked Sean. Even though they knew nothing about each other, he liked
the way the younger man was happy to challenge and stand up to him. How many people had
had the balls to do that over the years? Not many.

Look, Sean, its not as dramatic as youre making out. Im an old man. Im tired and Im in
pain and discomfort. Im not saying Im going to do anything today or tomorrow, but if this is
all I have to look forward to for the next however many years, Id rather end it now than drag
it out. And as my dear old mum used to say, you come into this world alone and you go out the
same way.

I cant believe youre speaking like that. What about me?

Jonathan laughed.

What about you? Weve only just met. You dont know me.

But maybe Id like to get the chance to.

Jonathan caught the waitresss eye and ordered more drinks.

So weve talked about me. Tell me about you, Sean. Hows life treating you?
Sean inhaled deeply.

17

Its not been great. I lost my job earlier in the year, so were living off benefits until I can find
something else to do.

Jonathan was shocked; not so much by the fact that Sean was living off of benefits but that he
didnt fit Jonathans historic pre-conception that anyone using the benefits system was a
useless sponger, capable of working, but living off the fat of the state instead.

That must be tough. A little guilt washed over Jonathan that he had accepted a drink from
someone who clearly was less able to afford it.

Its tough but other people have it tougher. Ive been volunteering at one of the local food
banks to make sure I dont just sit at home and vegetate and I know other people have it much
worse. I was reading that more than 6000 people are sleeping rough in London alone and half
a million are using food banks. I mean, its the 21st century, that shouldnt be happening any
more. We still have a roof over our heads and friends and family who wouldnt see us hungry,
so, yes, other people have it tougher.
So youre one of the lucky ones?
Of course Im lucky. I have a beautiful girlfriend who loves me, two gorgeous happy, healthy
kids. What more could I want? Im not precious what work I do and I believe, maybe naively,
that things will get better. Even if I won the lottery, Id probably give most of it away.
To who?
Sean laughed.
Trust me, its not going to happen. I dont even buy a ticket.
No, but play the game with me. Suppose you won, what would you do with it?
Sean contemplated.

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Id keep enough for us so that we didnt have to worry, didnt have to live quite so hand-tomouth anymore and maybe enough to take Denise and the kids on holiday; nowhere fancy but
just a break as weve never been able to afford to go away. But then the rest, Id probably try
and use it to put roofs over other peoples heads and food in their bellies. But, like I said, I
dont buy a ticket, so its not going to happen.

****
At Seans request, he and Jonathan met at the same caf at the same time on the same day
each week. On each occasion they would chat over coffee and part as friends. When Jonathan
realised that he was looking forward to their weekly meetings, he was as surprised as he was
uncomfortable. He had resolved after the accident that he wouldnt allow himself to be close
to anybody lest they should feel any responsibility to him or he should feel he was becoming a
burden on them.
When the two men met in the first week of December, each had battled through the crowds
coming to pay homage at the new spiritual home for Christmas: the malls and the shops with
their windows a battleground between Christmas decorations and early sale signs.
Do you have a faith, Jonathan? Sean asked.
Not in the conventional sense, I dont think. Im not a churchgoer and I sure dont believe in
an all-seeing omnipotent God. But I have come to believe that faith in each other can be very
powerful, if thats what you mean. Im just not sure that people getting themselves into stacks
of debt, buying shit for the sake of it that nobody really wants, drinking too much and
generally over indulging is really what Christmas should be about.
Theres a line in my kids favourite film, The Grinch, in which Dr Seuss says that maybe
Christmas doesnt come from a store.
I like that. I prefer what the Calvin Coolidge said, the American President. That Christmas is
not a time or a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in
mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. How many people can really say that is true of
them?
What will you be doing at Christmas?
Oh, Im not sure. I shall probably have a quiet day, a little to eat, a little to drink and I might
try and drag these useless limbs for a walk. And you?

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I guess we will be woken early by the kids wanting to see if Santa has come. Denise insists we
put out a glass of sherry and a mince pie for him and a carrot for Rudolf and then we will sit in
our pyjamas. We cant afford a Christmas tree this year, but we have saved some money and
bought each of the children something small from the charity shop. Its nothing much but its
still good to see the excitement on their faces. In the afternoon, our parents will come round
and bring food with them and well have some lunch and, in the evening, Ill stop off at the
food bank and help out for a bit.
That sounds like a packed day.
It will be, Sean replied, sipping again from his cappuccino cup. Spend it with us.
Pardon?
Spend it with us. Join us for Christmas. Dont spend the day on your own; come and spend it
with us. We cant offer much but we would like to share it with you. Please.
Jonathan swallowed hard. The old Jonathan could never have understood how such an act of
kindness could be offered to somebody who remained essentially a complete stranger. The
new Jonathan wanted to accept but worried that if he did, any closer emotional proximity
with other human beings may weaken his resolve.
Look, Sean, thats incredibly kind of you and I am touched in a way that I havent been for
many many years, but I dont want to impose on you or your family.
Its not an imposition if youve been invited, is it?
I suppose not, but I have plans.
Yes, you mentioned. Dinner alone and a walk in the park.
Other plans, Sean, other plans. But I do genuinely appreciate your invitation and in many
ways you have shown me something I have been looking for certainly for the last year but
probably for many years before that. A year or two ago this would have been more than I
could ever have hoped for.

****

20

And so it was that on the evening of the twenty third of December that Jonathan shaved
carefully in the illuminated mirror of his en-suite bathroom, using a soft bristled brush to
apply lather to his face the way he had observed his father and his grandfather before him. It
had been part of his daily regime for fifty years and, even now, he remained convinced that it
was not only the proper way to shave but also far more appropriate for a man of his former
standing than anything as grubby as a spray can of foam and a disposable blade. To the right
hand side of the sink lay a styptic pencil from Taylors of Old Bond Street, in case he should
nick his skin, and a bottle of Tom Fords Neroli Portofino aftershave. It was important to him
that he should look his best.

He slipped into his crisp white double-cuffed shirt, tightened his striped Dunhill tie in a
Windsor knot around his neck and place himself in a dark blue Hugo Boss suit. He smoothed
down the jacket with the cherry wood and dark bristle clothes brush he had once bought for
himself in Savile Row and turned back towards his bedroom.

It was past eleven in the evening and it would be a good nine hours before Maria would arrive
the next day. He regretted that she would be the one that would have to find him but there
was little he could do about that. The post-mortem would show that, in the hour that followed,
Jonathan swallowed in excess of one hundred high dose painkillers, washed down with nearly
two litres of Jack Daniels. Nobody could say whether he was in pain or whether he simply
slipped quietly away. All that we know is that when Maria let herself into the apartment the
next morning, he lay like a porcelain statue on top of the covers of his bed.

****

More bloody Carol singers, joked Sean, at the loud rap on the front door. It was the
afternoon of Christmas Eve and he was attempting to make his own version of a Christmas
pudding. He arrived at the door, wiping flour and butter off of his fingers with a tea towel. The
FedEx man asked for Seans name and invited him to sign for a small, cream DL envelope.
Sean was confused. The only time until now he had received letters that he had to sign for,
there were generally from bailiffs or other people wanting money. He re-entered the sitting

21

room and sat himself down on the small threadbare sofa, opened the envelope and began to
read.

Dear Sean

By the time you receive this, I should have done what you told me was unthinkable. As I am
writing I can envisage your disapproving face, but hope you will understand. Dont feel bad
for me, because at least the pain and the frustration is at an end. Since the accident, it has
been a horrible time. Theres nothing worse than being unable to do the things that you have
always taken for granted.

I wanted to thank you for befriending me. I have never had a friendship with somebody
either so much younger than myself or based purely on what I do or how much I earn. If
only we had met five years earlier but then, our different circumstances at that time,
probably means that would never have happened.

Anyhow, despite your best efforts, I managed to avoid telling you too much about me. My
name iswasJonathan Asprey and I had a very successful career in advertising. Google
me if you want to. I have spent the last year wondering what to do with all of my things
once I had plucked up the courage to end my life. The people who knew the old me would
have circled like vultures around a corpse trying to pick off all that they could, but thats not
what I wanted. I wanted to find somebody who would use what I could give them to
improve their own lives, for sure, but also do something selfless and positive with it in a way
that, sadly until now, I was never able to. And you were the star I found shining in the east.

The reason for this letter is to let you know that two days ago I signed over my entire estate
to you. By the time all of the taxes are paid, it should be worth in the region of 3-4 million.
My lawyers will be in touch over the next few days. Use it well. I know you will.

Jonathan.

22

****

It was a curious Christmas for Sean. On the one hand he couldnt deny a sense of exhilaration
at being the recipient of such an extraordinary bequest but with it came an all-pervading
sense of sadness at the loss of Jonathan. He was genuine when he told family and friends that
he would much rather have had Jonathan at his Christmas table than the money in his bank,
but that was not within his area of control. The lawyers had been as prompt as Jonathan had
said in his letter. Sean and Denise were amazed at how many people were present at
Jonathans cremation as neither could recall seeing so many people in one place before. Word
had got around about Jonathans bequest and they found themselves an object of curiosity for
some among the throng; a few introduced themselves and offered themselves for guidance
and advice, most just stood in distant huddles and whispered about them. Sean and Denise
were polite to all but declined each offer in turn.
That was almost twelve month ago now. Since then, Sean and Denise have set up the
Jonathan Asprey Foundation and begun to plan its work. The money has provided enough for
them to live on comfortably and yet spend all of their time on the Foundation. They have even
had their first holiday; to Cornwall. Their big ambition is to have a Jonathan Asprey House in
as many cities as possible in Britain, providing sanctuary, a warm meal and a bed for the night
for young homeless people. At the moment, Sean fully admits, its little more than a dream but
this year, for the first time, they will serve Christmas lunch for twenty-five young people in a
local church hall who would otherwise be alone and on the streets. The Foundations motto is
a phrase that Sean had chosen to write in a Christmas card he was never afforded the time to
give to Jonathan: it is never too late to learn how to give and receive love. Jonathan, in his
own way, seems to have learnt this in the end.
Ends.

23

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