"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

October 27, 2013


  (October 2013.  1750 words)

Remember ledgers? Massive books bound in boards, their spines lettered in gold leaf - "Sales", "Purchases", "Petty Cash", "Inventory" and so on, the pages ruled in columns for double-entry bookkeeping - Date. Item. Paid. Received, the columns totalled at the bottom and the totals carried forward to the next page.  The pages were pale blue, and when the ledger was closed the page edges showed swirly patterns in red, blue and gold and at close of business every day, in banks, department stores, concert booking offices, coffee bars, stockbrokers' dens, Dickensian counting-houses and all manner of premises where cash is king - the ledgers had to balance.  And if they were weighed in the balance and found wanting, someone was in for bother. The out-of-balance had to be accounted for and no one could go home until all balances came out at zero - no more, no less.
  "But we're only tuppence out!" Mrs. Denville protests.  It is 5 o'clock.
  These days accounting is done on computer spreadsheets - but this is 1997 when ledgers were still widely used.
  "You do protest too much, Mrs. Denville!  Find it! Tuppence is tuppence after all."  
  "But it's tuppence in our favour!"
  "Then we owe somebody tuppence! Find out to whom!"
  "You're the boss," Mrs. Denville sighs, but sotto voce, while Mr. DeWitt, Head of Accounts, snaps his briefcase shut, puts on his bowler and with a cheerless 'Goodnight' abandons his minion to the task of unearthing the redundant tuppence.  This is far from Mrs. Denville's idea of a game of soldiers so she sticks out her tongue at the Boss's departing back and bangs the sales ledger down on her desk. She snarls, "Come out, Tuppence. I know you're in there somewhere."
   An out-of-balance twenty pounds or twenty thousand pounds or fifty-five pounds and forty three pence  is an entry that someone forgot to enter or entered twice or entered in Petty Cash instead of Sales.  So - in the unlikely event that someone forgot - or worse, double entered an entry totalling tuppence,  Mrs. Denville knows she is looking for an arithmetic mistake.  Very likely one of her halfwitted colleagues sometime during the tedious hours since nine a.m. has added up a column incorrectly.  She could write a new entry saying "Error cast on dd/mm/yyyy  - 2p" and that would be that. Ledgers balance now. Let's get off home. But Mr. DeWitt has a long memory, is eagle-eyed and will spot this ploy by 9.03 a.m next day, and anyway, such transparent dishonesty is against Mrs. Denville's nature.
  So she sets to work. First check whether someone's biro smudged making an entry unclear? Does one of the halfwits write "2's" to look like "4's" etc? No problems there.
  Now we're in the nitty-gritty. Adding columns of up to forty entries using a desk calculator is error prone and because of this each column must be added and the addition checked. This ensures the column totals are correct. Have the totals been carried forward to the next page correctly?  There's many a slip twixt cup and lip in bookkeeping and the office clock pings remorselessly on and if the wretched tuppence is not found soon Mrs. Denville will be missing "The Archers."
   "An everyday story of demoralised bookkeepers," says Mrs. Denville, turning a page and stabbing at her calculator. The calculator, made in China, has a habit of entering a keystroke twice. This gives rise to errors much greater than tuppence, and by the time this "Heap of oriental rubbish" - says Mrs. Denville - has played its dirty trick three times she wonders if a device so small would smash the clock if she threw it across the office.  Grimly she bends again to her task under her green shaded desk light, her rimless glasses firm on her cherubic nose. Outside, the October sky darkens and inside things begin to click and creak as the office heating goes off.  Mrs. Denville puts on her padded anorak and utters words which are in her vocabulary but rarely used.
   At half past six she pulls the anorak hood over her hair and shivers despite the padding. Then, with only one page left to check and the tuppence not so far found and the awful prospect of starting over looming, someone in the doorway says "Unbalanced sind wir, liebchen?" This breaks Mrs. Denville's concentration. Her irritation explodes.  "Damn you up and down the hills of India!" she cries. "Why a dump like this needs gumshoe Security Patrols - " But when she looks up, whisking off her glasses, she sees that the figure in the doorway is not Security. The Security men have peaked caps and yellow tabards and ID tags hanging from their belts.  Her visitor is dressed in a frock coat and knee breeches, white hose and buckle shoes. There's a rust coloured cravat knotted untidily round his neck over a grubby shirt, and his shoulder length hair looks lank and greasy. She notices he has big hands. Now Mrs. Denville is scared.  An escaped madman? An addict high on bad acid? An axe murderer or worse?  Her heart quickens. She stands up, moves behind her swivel chair so that chair and her desk covered with ledgers lie in the madman's path. All she has to hand to defend herself is a not very heavy calculator, a plastic ruler and a paper knife. And some very heavy ledgers. And a panic button to call Security, but it's next to the door, the far side of the intruder.
   The madman does not move.  She picks up one of the ledgers two-handed and holds it across her chest.
   "Who are you?  What do you want? I'll ring for Security!" - then "What did you just call me?"
  "Liebchen," he says. "And you are cross because a penny you cannot find?"  Still he does not approach.  She sees he is a young man, perhaps thirty years, with a kind, stern but troubled face, clean shaven. She wonders how she suddenly knows he is not dangerous. Weird, but not menacing.  She lays the ledger back on her desk.
   "Two pence, actually." How on earth does he know? How can he know . . ? He must have met Mr. DeWitt  . . but Mr. DeWitt is long away.
   "Under the piano they roll. Sie sind so kleine."
   This conversation, Mrs. Denville thinks, is getting away from me.
   "Piano?  What piano? There isn't a piano. And it's not a real tuppence! Not a tuppence coin, I mean. It's an unbalanced tuppence." She thinks, he's the one that's unbalanced, but this she does not say.
  "Ach so! Perhaps some account you have not paid?"
  "What? Look - who are you? Bursting in here going on about pianos and accounts not paid, in that fancy get up.  We don't do dressing-up Friday."
  "Rarely properly was I paid, and I an artist amongst blundering artisans. Und es ist Mittwoch."
  Mrs. Denville thinks "Pedant!" and begins to look for a way out, reminding herself she still has an illegal tuppence to dispose of. On paper. Maybe she could give him the tuppence to go away and enter "To disposing of Madman - 2p."
  "Whose account, for Goodness sake? We don't get accounts for only tuppence. Can't you see I'm busy?"
  "Consult your payments für einem Monatja?"
  Mrs. Denville grips the back of her chair. "Look here! Are you from the Inland Revenue? We're all above board," thinking, of course he isn't from the Revenue. The Revenue barge in mob-handed and not in frock coats.
  The stranger smiles for the first time. "All accounts received against ledger entries for payments you should check. Bitte, liebchen. Much time I have not."
   Something insistent in the young man's face urges her. She takes a sheaf of invoices off the spike, leafs back through them to the previous month, cross checks them against the corresponding entries in the Paid column of the ledger - and finds her tuppence! Now she remembers. A supplier of long standing had given them a generous discount and Mr. DeWitt in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity had instructed her to give the same amount to a charity of her choice. And there it was!  A donation to the Royal Institute for the Deaf, entered in her own hand, at tuppence less than the supplier's discount. Her own mistake!
   Mrs. Denville lets out a long "Phewwww!" and then to her benefactor "How did you know?" He is no longer there but the self-closing door is still moving.  She gets up, rounds her desk, goes to the door, pulls it open.  "Just a minute! Come back!" The landing outside the office is empty. She looks over the balustrade. There is no one on the stair. There is no one in the lift. Mrs. Denville stands silent for a moment. "Was I dreaming?"
  Back in the office her phone is ringing.  It is Ted, her husband saying "I guess you were  out of balance? I'm in the car, right outside. Will you be long?"
  "Just finished.  I'll be right down. Oh, Ted. Did someone just leave the building?  Funny looking chap in - " she hesitates. Ted won't believe a frock coat!  " - in a hurry?"
  "Not in the five minutes I've been here, love."
  She tidies her desk, slowly, because she is thinking but can make nothing of what she is thinking. She leaves, locking the office's outer door after turning out the lights. She goes downstairs and out to the car. Her husband leans across to open the door, kisses her cheek when she gets in.
  "Long day, love? Let's get a take-away."
  He has a CD playing. The track is a solo piano piece. The catchy tune goes very fast. She doesn't know why she is compelled to ask what the piece is.
  "Well," her husband says, "It's a rondo. I forget its opus number but it's been nicknamed 'Rage Over a Lost Penny'.  It's by Beethoven. He wrote it when he was about thirty, but it wasn't published till after he died."
 "Wasn't he the one who went - ?"
 "Went what, love?"
 " - deaf?" she says and falls silent, lost in thoughts she will never share with Ted and they reach the Indian take-away, while a voice in her head insists - "Liebchen . . "