Before I dive into the minutes of my meeting with Uncle Edward, a basic understanding of the Vasa family tree is needed. Ypres helped me with the research on this one. She has a surprising ability to sift through Victorian censuses.
Like most individuals, I appear to be the result of a tryst. Indeed, according to Charles “Evolution” Darwin, I appear to be the result of a series of trysts between various forms of life. Of course, the careful reader will remember Darwin from my earlier observation. The one that dealt with chesticular asymmetry, the Duchess of Pramama, and a chapter entitled Mammillar Similarities of the Human Species.
I take little consolation in the fact that, according to Charles, we descend from monkeys. (Note: the “we” in the previous sentence is not the royal “we”.) Yet, I like to think that, if I do descend from a furry mammal with a predilection for bananas, I descend from one of the more stylish specimens. An animal that could pull off a Dior dress with elegant aplomb. Nothing to do with that monkeyitis spreading gorilla at the London Zoo. I digress. (Digress is one of those words that I came across once in a Times crossword puzzle.)
Getting back to more recent history, the Vasa line’s stint in England started with Olaudah Equiano, Esquire. The aged ancestor dabbled in being a slave through no fault of his own. He found the position completely uncouth and inelegant. Emboldened by the air of determination that all Vasas share, he bought his freedom. He did some seafaring for a while, as a chap does to pass the time, keeping England as home base.
Then the writer’s fervour struck and he wrote his autobiography. Of course, he needed a stage name, so he chose Gustavus Vassa, after some King of Sweden. Apparently Sweden stuck because of his misunderstood love for Surstömming, not his predilection for assembling prefabricated furniture. The latter has been thoroughly refuted by historians.
In any case, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African was a huge success. The newly fêted Vassa cruised through the abolitionist movement with his friends Clarkson, Sharp, and Wilberforce. On the side, between writing residencies, he played a part in the abolition of the slave trade. England was now his new home.
Fast forward through a series of trysts, including one with a Vasa of Sweden, which precipitating a change in spelling, and several ancestors who spent their time gallivanting across the British Empire before the whole firm went bust, and you get to my Uncle Edward.
Individuals prone to hyperbole have described Uncle Edward as an underrated gentleman susceptible to elements of handsomeness. Frankly, I have never seen it. However, when I first introduced him to Ypres, I distinctly saw a corner of her lip rise upwards. It is disconcerting to see such a vivid display of emotion from Ypres.
Uncle Edward has set up shop in the City, not far from the Bank of England. He rules over his business from a smart corner office. The office is mostly devoted to windows. It is a shrine to Le Corbusier furniture. Furniture which has the kind of leather that emits unpleasant sounds when sat on. His firm, Vasa Assurances, is one of the few establishments that deals solely in umbrella insurance. One competitor went bankrupt not too long ago. The other, run out of Montreal by a former musical theatre dancer who starred in Singin’ in the Rain, has proved to be a redoubtable nemesis.
I am not quite sure how umbrella insurance works. Neither is Ypres. She remains sceptical on why anyone would go out of their way to buy umbrella insurance. In any case, Uncle Edward must be doing something right because his firm has managed to weather the last financial crisis. He has even managed to provide a handsome dividend, which, through various subsidies, has kept my enterprises in travel afloat. On top of which, he always provides a little something for me on birthdays and Christmas. All this helps to keep my quarterly reports cosi fan tutte, if that is the expression I am looking for.
I walked over the Grosvenor Square, keeping an eye out for pork pie equipped girl scouts, to take a taxi into the City. All was successfully incognito. I reached the shadow of the dome of St-Paul’s Cathedral without any notable incident. I was ushered into the ancestor’s office post-haste by a new receptionist who, evidently, had fallen into a vat of eau de cologne before scrambling into work.
I extended a cordial greeting. “Good afternoon, old boy. How goes things? Everything shipshape?” Uncle Edward’s eyes removed themselves from some sort of report. “Please, Vanessa, take a seat.”
I took a line from Ypres. “I would rather stand. Circulation and all that. Better for the legs.”
“Vanessa, I did not purchase Le Corbusier furniture, on which the architect himself is supposed to have sat, no doubt with a cigar in hand, and had it shipped from France, so that it would not be sat on. Please, have a seat.”
As I sat, the inevitable happened. No sooner had my lower half touched the chair that the leather emitted an unspeakable sound. It was the type of borborygmus emitted from bovines one reads about in scientific journals. I once came across a reference to borborygmus while reading Nature, which I mistakenly thought was some sort of off the grid lifestyle magazine.
It was hard to convince my dear Uncle that I had not in fact emitted intestinal residue, in gaseous or other forms, unto his chair. I declared my innocence, and tried to reproduce the sounds by getting in and out of the leather chair. The goal was to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the furniture was indeed the culprit. Unfortunately, my experiment did not work, as the chair refused to cooperate. There was mention of the Governor of the Bank of England’s failed attempt to defend himself when a similar incident occurred the previous week. The fact that he had been seen eating fortified chili an hour or so before did not help his case.
The chair incident rather took hold of the conversation. As time is money, I decided to bring the conversation away from alleged bodily function emitted by central bank governors. I struck the appropriate pose, and delivered the line.
“What precipitated the call to my red rotary phone, and the invitation to spent time in your company? You know, time is money. I am a conundrum consultant now. Speed is of the essence.”
“Well, Vanessa, I am in need of distraction. Between governors, insurance, and day to day personal events, my mind needs to wander. I thought an exposé of your last voyage might do me good. So I rang you at the flat and here you are.”
“Couldn’t this have been done over the phone?”
“I was instrumental in funding your lasted trip, so I figure I deserved a live performance. No phoning it in. Where did you end up going?”
“Somewhere in the Commonwealth. One of the former dominions or something. They all look alike really. You end up spotting the monarch either on the money or on a stamp.”
“The Commonwealth is always a safe bet. The continent can be a bit touch and go. You went with that special friend of yours?”
No one has ever referred to Ypres as my “special friend”. It came as a mild shock. Not the kind that is discharged when a toaster hits a full tub, but a shock nonetheless. I maintained the air of an innocuous conversationalist. I casually checked my fingernails. “Who? Ypres?”
“Yes, Ypres. She’s the one with the fish face and brain like a powerhouse?”
I pushed the insouciance to marvellous effect. “I suppose that could be a way to describe her.”
“How long has she been with you?”
“I would like to clarify that she is not with me. I am with her. After all, I hired her. She stays with me round the clock. Of course, she gets the odd day off, and the normal holidays. Although last year she tried to take something off called Eid Al-Fitr. To clarify, when I say take off, it is not to indicate the removing of…”
Uncle Edward, ever the businessman, interrupted me. I was turning out to be a strong day for interruptions. I began to wonder if I was the only one who had not been informed of the existence of World Interrupt Day. The string of interruptions brought to mind a conversation I had with a stranger the previous month. An animated man in tight trousers came up to me and started talking about a something interruptus. In any case, the term escapes me at the moment.
“Are you in a relationship with this woman?”
The line of enquiry raised red flags. I could feel my brain’s mission control scrambling. “I suppose one could term it a relationship. A professional relationship based on a casual acquaintance.”
Uncle Edward went in for the kill. “Just so you know. It is not a good idea to entangle oneself with one’s staff. So if you are dating that Ypres of yours you should be wary. There are plenty of other girls. Plenty of fish in the sea who don’t necessarily share maritime morphologies.”
It was as if I Uncle Edward had removed a glove, walked up to me, and slapped me across the face with a challenge to meet him at dawn by the meadow. I rose out of his tone-deaf chair with the appropriate gravitas. Indeed, there was so much gravitas that, had Newton been present, he would have felt the thump of a hundred apples upon his head.
“If you must know, Uncle Edward, Ypres is my lady’s assistant. As you choose to see romance where there is none, I must leave. I am afraid your mind wandering is at an end. ” I paused for emphasis. I counted to three to make sure the emphasis was emphasised enough. One can never be too sure. I left his office. Just as I was about to close the door, I threw a one-liner into the ring.
“I have a conundrum to solve. A Mayfair conundrum.”
Chapter IX will be published Monday, 22 February 2016, at 12:00 EST 17:00 GMT. If you enjoy Vasa and Ypres, please share on social media.