Every year, competition at the BEN Quiz got that little bit hotter. There were two competitions, actually. The first was the quiz itself. The various people who took tables – the great and good of the financial world – were all desperate to leaven their tables of duds with celebrity polymaths and former winners of Mastermind or, at a pinch, Blockbusters.
But where the real kudos came was in the donation of the raffle prizes. This was where the serious money was spent. Here – rather than the ability to identify George Gissing from an old Punch cartoon – was the battleground that mattered. It was rumoured that smart speculators occasionally tweaked their valuation of a given company based on the value of the prizes they donated to the £100-a-ticket BEN raffle.
And donate was what Ben Boateng did every year. He took a table, yes, and booked the usual ringers. But the raffle was where his focus lay. His firm’s had been the top prize for the past three years: the heli-skiing weekend at the Gstaad chalet, complete with private chef, ski guide and masseuse; the box at La Scala for Plácido Domingo’s Otello; the private party on a megayacht with a view of the Monaco Grand Prix.
This year, however, he was practically combusting with rage. It was only when he complacently opened the brochure at his table that Ben saw his prize – a week in the company’s converted 12th-century castle in the Maremma for up to 16 guests – listed at number two. The winner – or, as he had to remind himself, “first prize” – was “by kind courtesy of Warner Tackett”. Fred Warner, the impudent tyke, had been an intern with Boatengs 15 years ago. Ben hadn’t liked him then and he positively loathed him now. In fact, he wasn’t 100 per cent sure that the internship hadn’t itself been a raffle prize in the BEN Quiz.
“Lunch at Le Caprice with Fred Warner.” Talk about adding insult to injury. Unless there’d been some sort of printing mistake, the implication was that an hour and a half eating with Warner at a middle-management canteen was the British equivalent of getting a hot-dog with Warren Buffett. The slow-braised featherblade of beef turned to ashes in his mouth.
So for once, Ben stayed to the bitter end. Of course he bought the usual handful of raffle tickets himself and feigned interest in which year Winston Churchill returned to the gold standard. But when it came to drawing the raffle, something odd happened. Fred Warner – to his intense anger and surprise – won second prize, meaning Ben would be paying for that puffed-up little upstart to holiday in his beloved Villa Borgia. Then something even odder happened. When the time came to announce the first prize, Lord Archer said, “Pink 247”, which was one of the tickets in Ben’s hand.
“Oh, how embarrassing,” Ben murmured, as he reached the mic. “You know, I’m thrilled to win this, ah, distinguished prize… but I think it’ll be wasted on me. Young Fred and I know each other of old and” – he composed his face into what he imagined was an expression conveying affectionate joshing – “I don’t think there’s all that much I can learn from my old intern!”
He coughed. “And I dare say Fred, come to that, can afford to pay for his own summer holiday. How about we do this? Fred – if you’re willing – let’s donate both our prizes back and let Jeffrey auction them off.” He positively glowed with magnanimity.
Possibly thanks to a discreet text message encouraging a friend on another table to bid in prospect of reimbursement, and the slight cold water Ben’s acceptance speech had poured on Fred’s Sage of Omaha credentials, 15 minutes later BEN was £15,540 better off for the Tuscan holiday, and £970 up on the lunch date. Ben made a point of shaking Fred’s hand for the cameras. It was in the name of charity, after all.