George de Pistolekors was a smiling, chubby version of Adolphe Menjou, complete with moustache. His manners were exquisite, his clothing impeccable, and his untroubled face lit up with an radiant smile whenever anyone addressed him. He spoke with a “frightfully far back” upper-class English accent, as if he had a permanently hot potato in his mouth. He really should have worn a monocle.
In 1957 we held similarly humble jobs in the same office in Montreal. His desk was next to mine, and I often thought George’s sunny disposition to be an admirable defence against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The walls of his apartment were hung with framed sepia photographs. To the curious George would simply say that they were family photos. If pressed, he would identify the family members, including Nicholas, Tsar of all the Russias: his uncle. George was a Russian Grand Duke. When the family fled to Paris they adopted the armorial name of the immigrant Swedish ancestor elevated to the nobility for services rendered to Peter the Great. Pistolekors means “crossed pistols.”
His father had died in the White Guards. In 1940 George and his mother fled again, this time from the German invasion of France. On his arrival in England, George’s linguistic abilities proved to be of value to the British, and so he spent the war years in the Intelligence Corps. How and why he and his mother wound up in Montreal I do not know; perhaps the snows reminded them of Moscow and Petrograd.
Their family origins were occasionally a nuisance to him and his elderly mother. Whenever a fresh Anastasia appeared, with claims to the Romanoff fortune still held by the Bank of England, his mother was in demand as consultant authority. It was all somewhat tiresome, particularly since she was losing her hearing and found it difficult to travel.
As far as I could tell, their slim resources consisted of mementos of their former glory plus George’s small salary. Occasionally he would discuss with me ways to make extra money. He had a sideline tracing “skips.” By comparing consecutive issues of his accumulation of Montreal telephone directories he would establish the current address of delinquent clients for finance companies. In the evenings he would drive round to the homes of these potentially unpleasant desperadoes, ring their doorbells, and melt them with his charm. Under the influence of his good nature and dazzling smile they would admit their identity, confess their sins, and promise to reform their characters.
George took great care of his car because it helped supplement his income. He kept it neat, clean, and polished; the windows were always spotless.
One summer day, driving in Montreal, George flicked a cigarette butt out through the window. Some blocks later he smelled smoke. He stopped the car, got in the back and had a look. The driver’s window in fact had been closed and the cigarette butt had ricocheted onto the back seat. The glowing end of the cigarette had disappeared into the up-holstery and was thriving on the stuffing. He couldn’t put it out.
He remembered having just passed a fire station, made a U-turn, drove back, and parked in front. With his unshakable faith in the innate goodness of human nature he knew that help was providentially at hand. He entered the fire station. The place seemed deserted, so he walked in calling out “Hello, anyone at home?” until he found a fireman. Who demanded to know what he wanted. George said:
“May I have a glass of water, please?”
The fireman was not unnaturally annoyed at this request, and told George where to go in no uncertain terms. George apologized profusely for disturbing him and explained that he needed the water because his car was on fire. There was a pause in which the fireman mentally reclassified George from an bumbling upper class idiot to an escaped lunatic, quite possibly dangerous.
“Where’s the car?” he asked suspiciously.
“Right here” said George, “I brought it along the moment I saw the fire.”
“Let me look at it” said the fireman.
Together they went outside. By now the car was filling with smoke. The fireman looked at it. “You’re right,” he said, “it is on fire.” He looked at George with new respect. “I can get you a glass of water,” he said after a moment’s reflection, “but tell me though, do you have fire insurance?”
“Yes.” Said George.
“Well then, would you like to have the full treatment?”
Now it was George’s turn to stare. As he explained to me later, he would have been perfectly content with a glass of water, nevertheless he was only human. He absolutely had to say “yes,” if only to find out what the fireman meant by “the full treatment.”
The fireman went back inside and pushed an alarm button. Bells went off all over the building and within seconds twenty odd fire fighters in full uniform were sliding down brass poles and heading for the fire engines in an organized confusion of Pavlovian noise and movement. Twenty men in deadly earnest, trained to a hair and rarin’ to go. The fireman stopped them.
“It’s OK, boys,” he said, “the customer brought the fire here.”
Before George’s fascinated gaze the firemen all went outside, gathered around, and carefully studied the problem. Then they got their axes and attacked his car. They chopped out the back seat, removed it entirely, put it on the sidewalk and doused it with water. They looked to George for approbation.
George cordially thanked them and drove home in the ruins.
His faith in human nature was justified, however. His insurance company completely refurbished the car at no cost to himself, and it looked better than ever.
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