The Man in the Gray Tie

"The Man in the Gray Tie" is a story about Dr. Sidney Holton, a man who tries to trick an auction house by falsely elevating the prices. He gets more than he bargained for.

After meeting the mysterious Valerie Eden and 'backroomed' by the owner Jeremy du Martin. Despite its quaint English countryside, this is one auction house not to be messed with....

Buyer beware!

First page

Here is the opening page of the story, now available in Buy Books as part of Trio 1, The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes.

Have you ever gambled and won something you couldn't afford?

The Man in the Gray Tie

"The Man in the Gray Tie"
“I don’t like masterpieces having one-night stands in collectors’ homes between auctions.”

Robert Rauschenberg

Dr. Norman Sidney Holton was sitting in his car as usual before doing battle. A man in his early sixties, many of the pleasures of life having receded, Sidney had found a new lease on life. There were a few minutes left before the fun of an otherwise dull morning was to commence, so he calmed his mind by occupying the old gray matter with a game of Sudoku.

Glancing up from the latest row of figures, he caught sight of his wife’s figure meandering across the car park. Gosh she was an ungainly woman, he thought, his spectacles falling lower on his nose.

“They don’t take dogs, dear,” she called, still ten paces away. He wound his window down (wishing he was winding it up). “They will not take dogs inside.”

Without speaking a word, Sidney popped the catch on the boot and the hatchback rear end of his Austin Rover levitated. The dog—a beefy-looking overfed grumpy Pekinese—leapt inside and curled up on its rug, happier to be escaping the cold. The mutt popped his head over the back seat and let his presence be known.

“Shut it please,” Sidney said through a crack in his driver’s window. “The boot, I mean, dear.”

Cherie Holton (née DeBoer) narrowed her eyes and did as she was bid. She wrapped her neck scarf tighter, partly for emotional comfort, partly feigned self-strangulation. “Don’t wait up,” she added, without looking at Sidney. “I’ll be an hour maybe. They’re probably closed, but it’s worth a shot.”

For an answer, Sidney popped his spectacles on his forehead and filled in a number ‘6’ in the Sudoku, smiling as he completed the line. Only when sure Cherie was out of earshot did he mumble to Rutger-Boy, her beloved Pekinese: “Where would I be without that woman?” Faithful to Cherie, the dog ignored him.

Sidney fake smiled, then couldn’t resist watching Cherie wobble across the car park and enter the double doors. All week she’d wanted to visit this miniature chocolate factory and bring Rutger-Boy, naturally, only to find the dumb mutt beast was barred. “Too bad, too bad,” he tut-tutted, but really didn’t think so. The jaunt out had afforded him the opportunity of another auction visit in the countryside, a short drive from Saffron Walden. Here no doubt were a few gullible Essex punters.

For a former chiropractor, Sidney ‘Normal Norman’ (as the secretaries called him at work) had developed a particular love of his retirement hobby. Sixty was too early to retire, Cherie had always said (not that she did anything with her life), but the wife couldn’t have been more wrong. A new passion had overtaken Sidney, a strange one for his careful non-addictive personality, and it was like his first days on his medical residency when he’d been released on the wards. Do no harm was the first rule of doctoring. But in those first days with real patients, the thrill of making mistakes was gone: you had to be professional.

Now he just wanted to walk the line between winning and losing in a safe environment. Who said gambling was a young man’s game? Weren’t auctions just casinos for retirees? Surely no one was in a better position than he was—retired, studious, goal-oriented—to mix a cocktail of chance without any mortal risk. Danger had preoccupied him his whole working life. He had been a social person, surely, devoting his life to ‘the greater good.’ Here was the time to tiptoe on the wilder side. Wasn’t that where everyone was having fun?

What was it the Americans said? Damn right. Time to look after number one.

The drizzle had stopped: he was ready for the next adventure. For a couple of months now, Sidney had enjoyed his pleasurable weekend drives, solo. His new ‘auctioneering’ pastime was a private indulgence, maybe a story for old friends at New Year’s in the comfort of his house, not for run-of-the-mill sharing down the pub. This was a one-man-operation. Oh plus the wife, yes, and damn it, the dog.

Ruminating, Sidney slid his pen over the top pocket of his suit and pursed his lips with satisfaction: even Friday’s Sudoku in The Telegraph was no match for his patience. He stepped out of his Rover and grimaced, remembering Rutger-Boy couldn’t be stranded in the car alone. As he opened the boot, the beast bounded out with surprising energy, tongue crazy-flapping.

The auction house building loomed into view, sedate, warm-looking. Easy-pickings.

“No dogs allowed, sir,” the heavy-set Chinese man on the door said. “You can tie him up in the lobby.”

“I’m a regular.” 

“Same rules apply.”       

Mumbling under his breath—“Who do they think they are, Sotheby’s?”—Sidney showed his membership card and stepped over the threshold. Rutger-Boy was separated from him, looking plaintive, by a young woman in a blue pinafore.

“He’ll be here when you’re done. Just come to that window.”

Nodding, Sidney focused a beeline on the conference room. The auction was already in half swing; he could feel his limbs loosening in stride. A program was tucked under his elbow, the person who’d thrust it on him ignored since right now was Sidney’s ‘alone time.’ All was forgotten: Cherie, the dog, Sudoku, his treatment at the door, his muddy beat-up Austin Rover and the wet weather. Everyone deserves a thrill, ideally at the expense of one’s better judgment.

“The back row is mine,” Sidney told himself and covered his mouth with his hand, remembering Plan A to always Keep Calm and Keep Betting. So far he hadn’t needed to consult Plan B, nor was there one.

The bidding was already in progress, the current item an old coffee flask. It was too late to judge the room’s personalities, or the likelihood of a sudden flurry of bids, so like an old pro (pretending to learn a new game), Sidney sat tight. The auctioneer was a stout man with a squiggle of streaky white hair; he peered lasciviously over the podium, craning his neck at the elderly ladies in the first row. “No more bids, thank you, going…no…you sir, with the black cap…in for a penny, up to sixteen…I’m at sixteen thou.”

A lady in the corner of the auction room sprang up and shook her umbrella. “Seventeen…and a quarter.”

“Eighteen,” from a booming man’s call, the source unknown.

A weird silence prevailed. The auctioneer stuttered, trawled the room for nineteen just as Sidney glanced down at his program. He was fifteen minutes late—damn that business with Rutger-Boy not getting into the chocolate factory—but he hadn’t missed a big deal. A timeless Chinese vase, as ever; a scrap of lace worn by Egyptian tomb-digging slaves executed for their efforts (certain to entice higher bids); a pressed Victorian flower album. Junk, junk, junk.

But what’s this? Sidney re-read the inscription: “A caterpillar preserved in dandelion oil.” He’d never heard of this weird fusion. On closer inspection, he understood the caterpillar to be a silkworm, itself a type of caterpillar whose body was preserved by the taxidermist. The claim in the program was that on releasing the silkworm from the oil, it would grow to be a splendid and industrious butterfly, capable of weaving reams of the most wonderful silk.

“Poppycock,” Sidney voiced and a woman in front, chin raised in disfavor, turned then pretended to use her program as a fan. Sidney coughed to excuse his outburst. He knew it took thousands of silkworms to make a yard of silk, so the claim was outrageous, plainly untrue, if not downright criminal for an auction house on the up-and-up like du Martin’s.

He checked the front of the program: yes, Jeremy du Martin was personally backing the item with sellers’ insurance: clearly he was taking no chances. But something in the doctor’s gut knew, teased on by his gambler’s sense, that here was his ticket to excitement. Whoever wanted that silkworm would have to pay more than they could afford, and that was exactly why Sidney had to play.

He cracked his knuckles in rotation, inspired by decades of soothing patients’ spines. But that altruistic, bodily tingle he got from genuinely helping people was nothing to this predatory, deceptive one, happening right now.


You see, Dr. Sidney Holton enjoyed pushing the price up at auctions, duping the locals, and getting away with it. There was nothing more fun, more thrilling, than the price climbing higher and higher, the buzz in the room, the confusion, the unhinged run of bids. He relished the sweat forming on the cliffs of his knuckles.

Most of all, he was seeking the mixture of glee and relief he felt at the end. “Better than sex,” he would joke to a stony-faced Cherie, “the very first time you got it right.”

“Not funny,” she’d fire back, and he wouldn’t argue the toss.

Hence life’s consolations of ‘chancing it’ had taken over Sidney’s spare time, all of it, just so long as Cherie could bring Rutger-Boy. In auction houses all over the south-east, nothing less than a personal apotheosis—the singular joy of risking losing big—was the goal. Sidney knew that after hiking the prices the bids would escalate, and his sense of elation would follow. The sheer emotional power this created—the rising arc in imaginary-and-yet-all-too-real prices, the Darwinian consumption among people—was unmatched by any other pleasure, Sudoku included.


To Be Continued

Read on

To learn more about (the three stories in) Trio 1, see The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes.

For the opening page to Story 2, see "(He) Said, (She) Said."

For the opening page to Story 3, see "The Last Page of Friendship."


For the video to "The Man in the Gray Tie," see Video 1.


To buy Trio 1, The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes, see Buy Books.