Pirates of Fleet Street, Chapters 32 to 37


French Leave 

Strike Week 4 Friday March 29 

IT WAS a little after 10am and a thousand copies of US Sport and Games were aboard the Phantom, parked in Gough Square ready for the week’s second run to France. 

Van walked jauntily from the Square, down Wine Office Court, on his way to pick up letters that had accumulated in the office since his last visit. The general public, as well as runners from several small businesses, kept showing up in Fleet Street with mail every day of the week. There was always a sizeable bundle, but it was negligible compared to the bulk delivery of the US newspaper. 

Glancing through the open front door of the Cheshire Cheese, Van noticed that Andy the potman was sprinkling fresh sawdust. Two or three of the early-rising ad-men were already in their customary spot in the corridor. Manager Bill, less his red jacket, bow-tie still dangling down his shirt-front, had joined them to check the Friday racing form in the Sporting Life. 

Van made a smart left turn out of the Court and ducked through the ancient door of the Blankenberg Building. 

“Mornin’, Glad,” he called, passing the door of Blankenberg Estates’ first-floor room. No response; Gladys was still on the road, beetling cautiously through the Westend in her Reliant Robin to deliver Blanko to Gouts for the not-to-be-missed Friday lunch. 

“Good morning, Vince,” he said, seven flights further up. “Hi Cheryl, Len.” 

“Not so sure about the ‘good’ mate,” Vincent replied, walking out onto the landing, with a pink newspaper in hand. “Accordin’ to this, we could be back in the s**t.” 

Two days earlier everything was rosy. Van and his partners had examined the Port to Port bank account and, financially assured, they had duly written a company cheque for four million pounds, less ten thousand ‘commission’. 

“Call me a cynic if you like, chaps, but why am I not surprised to see that the payee is not any of the better-known charities? It is not even any of the minor ones, as originally promised. It is none other than Gouts Club,” said Van. 

“Ha, ha, Van, very good,” said Jacob, blotting the freshly inked signatures. 

He carefully folded the paper, inserted it into his wallet, slipped that trusty servant into a zippered inside breast pocket of his pin- stripe, buttoned the coat and, with a final pat, reassured himself that everything was securely in place. 

“I can understand your confusion, old chap, but of course you couldn’t know, could you? To be absolutely honest, until a few days ago I was also unaware. You see, Gouts is a charity!” 

Blanko and Van were bemused, and incredulous. Who says blokes can’t do two things at once? 

“Are you sure about that, Jacob?” asked the senior partner. 

“Absolutely Blanko, it’s true. I was told about it by this chap, the wealthy philanthropist chap, you know. I even checked with the Grand Pursuivant and he confirmed it. It’s in the club’s original charter. That’s why this chap wanted to send the four million this way, knowing Gouts was a charity and could be relied on to place his very generous donation ...” 

“Less our ten thousand,” added Blanko.
“... where it would be of most value,” concluded Jacob. 

“I’m no nearer to knowing where the pay-out has come from,” Van had confided to Vincent later, by phone. “But it sounds as though first my firm, and then Gouts, is being used to channel it to the PWU.” 

“Right, well as far as we’re concerned, don’t matter does it?” replied Vincent. As long as the union gets the money and stays out on strike we can carry on, right?” 

“Yes, OK Vince. But with these characters you never know what to expect. They’re up to something and the more you know the better off you are. Be prepared and all that – weren’t you ever in the boy scouts?” 

“Nah, couldn’t afford it, could we? All that tying knots and guessin’ ’ow tall trees are? Fat chance; never ’ad any trees in Berm-onSea anyway.” 

“Oh yes, sorry; I forgot for a moment what a deprived childhood you had, Vincent. Anyway, if your mate Elfie hears anything else, let me know. It might be handy.” 

Now in the Fleet Street office, Van accepted the pink ’un (the Financial Times) from Vincent X’s outstretched hand. The broadsheet was folded open at the industrial section. 

“Not your normal reading this, is it Vincent?” asked Van. 

“He gets it to check ’is horoscope,” laughed Cheryl. “I’ve told ’im it’s all cobblers but ’e won’t ’ave it.” 

“Don’t listen to ’er, silly cow,” grinned Vince. “I sometimes get pictures in it. They ain’t got any staff snappers, see? Anyway, look at that bit.” 

He’d ringed a down-page filler. 

“It reckons the international union of post-office workers are making noises about supporting our lot now the PWU is staying out indefinitely. They say they might try to black all mail from the D-UK.” 

They gathered around Cheryl’s desk and she handed ’round the tea- mugs. 

“What do you reckon then, Van?” she asked.
“About the strike ...?”
“No, about why I always ’ave to make the tea.”
“Well, I did make the tea once,” piped up Len.
“Yeah, an’ it was ’orrible,” said Vince. “I think one of our customers 

just arrived; go next door and see, please mate.”
“Dunno about the tea-making, Cheryl, but I do have a suggestion 

that might get you out of the office for the day ...” said Van. 

The possibility of Yoorupian backing for the PWU came as no surprise to Van. Louis Lamouche had intimated as much on the previous run, three days earlier. The Calais post office workers were very happy with the amicable arrangement Van and the manager had set up. Everyone was looking forward to an extra jolly Bastille Day, courtesy of Van’s liquid contributions. But if the French union was pressured and became militant they would all need to keep a low profile. Recording thousands of franked items might become just a little too obvious and provocative, suggested M. Lamouche. 

“There are no flies on my bon ami Louis. I know for a fact that he doesn’t want to turn business away; not to mention the bottles of booze he’s stocking up in his drinks cabinet. But it does means we have to make some changes,” Van explained. 

“I told him that we’ll keep out of sight, just drive around the back of the post office with all the letters and the papers hidden in boxes. 

“Only problem is ...”
“Stamps,” said Cheryl.
“Exactly, Cheryl. We have to stamp them all ourselves,” said Van. 

Some holidaymakers say their Yoorupian holiday begins in earnest as soon as they board the cross-channel ferry. In good weather they lounge on the decks enjoying the ozone wafting over the briny. If it’s rough or stormy, bars and restaurants and shops stocked with over- priced luxuries help while away a couple of hours. 

Even if they had a vintage Rolls-Royce fitted with well-padded bench seats, very few travellers would choose to spend the voyage down below on the gloomy car deck in the back of their vehicle. 

“Not my idea of a nice day out on the sea, Van,” pointed out Cheryl, smacking another French timbres de poste on the 356th rolled copy of The Game. She squinted at the address label before slinging the paper into a cardboard carton. 

“I ’ope ‘Mister Hiram Plonck the third’ up on some mountain in Switzerland, nice an’ warm in his ski-lodge appreciates the work I’m puttin’ in to get ’im ’is bleedin out-of-date’ sport results.” She sniffed. 

“I’m sure he would if he knew, Cheryl,” said Van, slinging number 357 into the box. 

“Never mind, only another few hundred to go. Have another drop of the chardonnay. You’re not driving.” 

At least his foresight in buying 1500 stamps on the previous run had saved many hours, Cheryl had to admit. Without that advance purchase they would have struggled to complete the stamping before the post office closed. Even if they had made that deadline the last ferry back to Dover might have departed. That would have meant an overnight stay in France. Might have been interesting, she thought. But ... 

“Anyway, I don’t fancy doing this every week, Van,” she said. 

They were on the return ferry with another successful mission under the belt. It was early evening and the London Postal Service was rewarding its couriers with a reasonably sophisticated dinner, considering it was being served aboard a car-ferry. 

“Cheers,” she said, sipping a Sancerre this time. “This wine’s nice, even better than the chardonnay.” 

“It’s entitled to be, at that price,” agreed Van. “Lucky Vincent X can afford it, eh? He must have hit Miss Rabbia about four hundred quid for that lot today.” 

“What if we picked up the papers early from Miss Rabbia and stamped everything up in the office?” suggested Cheryl. Then she thought again. 

“That means lugging everything all the way up the stairs, though. The Tuesday’s not so bad, only five ’undred. But this lot, like today, a thousand of ’em ...” 

“I know,” said Van. “Back of the Phantom’s the best really. But I’ve had another idea. Notice all those backpackers who got on at Dover, all foot-passengers?” 

“Yeah, I saw a few with packs an’ tents an’ stuff. Why?” 

“A lot hitchhike down to Dover as well,” said Van. “I’ve given some of them a lift at times. The thing is, when you book a car onto the ferry you can get a mid-week deal where all the passengers are included for nothing. What I’ll do is offer them a lift, and a free ferry crossing, if they sit in the back of the Phantom and stamp up the mail! 

“Of course, if you still wanted to come for the ride, Cheryl, that would be OK. I’m sure Vincent could spare you. I mean, there might not be any hitchhikers about sometimes?” 

“You never give up, do you Van? You’re supposed to be a gentleman, remember. We’ll see; cheers!” 


Business as Usual 

Strike Week 4 Sunday March 31 

As the great British postal strike ground into a second month, the public slumped in its habitual stupor and waited for something to happen. The biggest gripe was that the football pools coupons weren’t dropping through the letterbox. More and more businesses were getting ’round the strike by using private courier organisations. Post office workers carried on starving on five quid a week and complained, justifiably, that they had no support from other unions. They moaned most at some of their own brothers, the post office engineers, who were sole controllers of the nation’s telephone service. 

IT IS a fact universally acknowledged that London Taxi drivers – proper licensed ones, captains of proper, Black Taxis – are omniscient. They are all-seeing, the best-informed and wisest of citizens. By rights, and without exception, every Black Taxi driver should be urged to advise governments, mentor international aid organisations, sit on think-tanks, chair Royal Commissions, and moderate the disputes of competing religions in order to bring about world peace. 

Should you doubt the massive brain-power of the Lundn cabbie, get yourself a moped and spend at least two years driving about the capital memorising every road, street, alleyway and dead end. This impossible task is known by cabbies as ‘The Knowledge’. They claim, with some justification, that it can only be mastered by a genius with a brain too large to fit in the back of a Black Taxi. It is however the essential qualification needed to acquire a Lundn taxi-driver licence. 

Sadly, rather than taking direct action to right the world, these wise men and women prefer to drive about the metropolis, wearing flat caps and talking over their left shoulders. 

Occasionally they are shucked out of their driving seats and metamorphosise into bar-stool pundits. 

When cabbies take this form, any of the rest of humanity – the commonage, taxi-drivers call us – who are fortunate enough to be within earshot can absorb taxi-driver lore and wisdom without spending 50-quid on a ride to the airport. 

The Cobblers Last, as well as being the south Lundn local most favoured by Vincent X, was also blessed with a cabal of cabbies. On the first Sunday morning following the nationwide realisation that the postal strike might extend to infinity, several of them congregated in the saloon bar. Their discourse echoed the kind of existential debate occurring in pubs across the land. 

‘It’s obvious, ennit? One day, there won’t be any letters. If this goes on and on everyone will forget how to write.’ 

‘Oh, yeah? ’ow d’yer make that out?’ 

‘These kids today, they’ve already forgot, most of ’em.’ 

‘Nah, I’m not ’aving that. Always gotta have letters.’ 

‘I dunno so much. ’e could be right, y’know? You can do everything on the phone, these days, so they say.’ 

‘Oh yeah? Let’s see y’ get a haircut on the phone!’ 

“No, you pillock! I don’t mean everything, like that. I mean instead of writing stuff down. 

‘He’s right y’ know. That’s why the bloody post office engineers let the strike down. If they’d come out, there wouldn’t be any phone calls.’ 

‘Yeah, I bet this bloody government would ’ave given in bloody quick then.’ 

‘I reckon ’e’s right about the phones, y’know. I bet they’ll come up with some clever way to talk in the phone and it comes out the other end on a roll of paper.’ 

‘Not the same as a letter, though is it?’ 

‘No, I didn’t say same as a letter. Be like a record or suvvink. Bet they’re already doin’ it in Amurika.’ 

‘Get out of it! You’re potty.’ ‘Yeah, alright; wait and see.’ 

Vincent avoided the debate. Strike-breakers, even privateers like him with a post office license, were never flavour of the month with the commonage or the taxi-drivers. 

“How’s business then, Lil?” he said, dragging his attention away from the cabbie’s brains trust. “I’ll just have an ’alf, ta,” he said, pushing the pint glass in the direction of the landlady’s abundant sun- tanned bosom. “This strike made much difference to you?” 

“Not really, Vincent,” she said. “But it’ll be nice to get away from it all, get a bit more sun.” 

Lil was a firm believer in the recuperative powers of sun-baking. 

“Off on holiday again then, Lil?” 

“No luv, we’re going to go for good this time, to Spain, same as our Elsie. It’s easy now with this YEC, see? Don’t have to go there on the run, like Elsie’s better ’alf did. 

“Yes, provided we get the right price for this place, it’ll be viva Espanya for me and Frank!” 

“Well, at least your post runs are going alright, Vince?” 

It was Monday lunch time at the Cheshire Cheese, and Les was morosely wiping non-existent spills off the bar. Bill, who didn’t have anything more important to do, looked on critically. 

“Yeah,” said Vincent X. “Van’s got it off to a fine art. Giving free rides to hitch-hikers to do the stamping an’ that. Costs us a bit more, buying French stamps, but it’s not a problem. 

“Oh, good, good,” said Les absent-mindedly. 

“I think you’ve got that spot, Les,” put in Bill. “Rub any ’arder an’ you’ll be through to the cellar.” 

“I take it you two ain’t very ’appy this fine mornin’?” suggested Vincent. “What is it, the new competition still nickin’ business?” 

The front bar was unusually quiet and across the corridor the restaurant echoed peacefully. 

“Come on, ’ave a drink boys. You ain’t got much else to do by the look of it. Dickie, you want one?” 

Les pulled his rueful, ‘all right, I’ll just have a half’ face and gave full attention to putting a head on a half-pint of Marstons. 

“Whisky, I s’pose, Dick? Bill, what you ’aving with the postal pirate?” he asked. 

“Cheers mate,” said Dickie Dix, warming the scotch. 

“What you gonna do with all these profits when this strike’s all over, Vince?” asked Les, passing a vodka and tonic to Bill, who was ever the professional. He had no intention of smelling of alcohol if by some remote chance he got to meet and greet any restaurant customers that day. 

“That’s if it ever ends,” said Dickie. “Looks good for another few weeks, according to my ever-trustworthy brothers of the Press. I’d love to find out who’s propping up the PWU though. That’s the real story.” 

“Good luck to you anyway, boy,” said Bill. “Good to see one of our own earning a few bob, eh Les?” 

“Ta, Bill. Matter of fact I was gonna talk to you and Les about that. I thought, well, p’raps I’ll take a pub!” 

There was a brief silence in the front bar. They all sipped, except for Dickie Dix who gulped, and chased the whisky with some bitter. 

“Right,” said Bill. “Got anywhere in mind? Cos this place could be goin’ cheap if trade gets any worse!” 

Vincent X’s latest brainwave had struck him in The Cobblers the day before. That wasn’t as painful an occurrence as it sounds. Unlikely though it might seem the convivial atmosphere of a friendly local hostelry, or even a slightly dodgy back-street boozer, is often conducive to inspirational, entrepreneurial leaps. 

It was in The Cobblers that Vince had the light-bulb moment that culminated in the overseas postal runs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of joyful mail recipients all over the known world owed their good fortune to Vincent X and The Cobblers. 

And it was all because landlady Lil wanted to write to her sister Elsie and Elsie’s husband, one of the Great Train Robbers, who were comfortably hidden away on the Costa del Crime. 

Now it seemed that Lil and Frank wanted to join their outlaws and enjoy the moment, or preferably several decades, in the sun. They had put the pub up for sale with an ad in the Morning After. This was the publicans’ bible, a daily licensed trade paper that had started in 1794. Amazingly, it was still going strong in 1975, coming out six days a week and circulating all over the country. 

As Lil had confided to Vincent, the couple had high hopes of a good sale, because unlike most Lundn pubs, which were tied to the breweries, The Cobblers Last was a free house. 

Vincent knew no more about the pub business than any other punter, but he had noticed the ‘free house’ sign outside. It had been added years earlier after Lil and Frank had persuaded the brewery to sell them the building outright. 

“How did you manage that then, Lil?” he asked. 

“Well, this was a right ’ole when we come in, must have been 20 years or more ago. The building was in a real state. Your mum and dad were regulars even then and I always remember you sittin’ on the step, Vincent, with your lemonade and a bag of crisps. Right little red-head you were then; blood-nut, Frank used to call you! 

“Anyway, we built the business up but it was never all that, really. Rubbish beer from the brewery didn’t help and of course, you have to buy everything else from them. Robbin’ bastards.” 

Like most publicans tied to breweries Lil and Frank believed in making their own luck. This meant regular trips to the cash and carry warehouses of Lundn to stock up on beer and spirits which then crossed their bar at a nice profit that didn’t show up in the pub’s till. 

“The turnover was never all that anyway and after a while we talked to the rep about buying the place. The brewery wasn’t getting much out of it so why not?” 

“Didn’t this brewery bloke notice all the dodgy gear you was gettin’ in, Lil?” asked Vincent. 

“Joking, ain’t you? Talk about thick. Anyway, he stopped calling in after a while. Kept getting mugged when he came round here. Not badly, mind you, just enough to put him off. Then there was the time someone nicked his car when it was parked out front. Bloody kids, eh? Bless ’em!” 

“Blimey Lil, that was a bit strong!” 

“Oh not really, Vincent, they just had a bit of ride ’round in it. Though I do seem to remember it was burnt out when the coppers finally found it. 

“Anyway, this dozy rep, Frank got him round one night and gave him a nice drink and he put in a report recommending the brewery sell out. After that they sent in a surveyor, so we had to bung him a nice few quid an’ all.” 

“Go on; what happened then, Lil?” 

“Well, he told the brewery managers the place was about to fall down and they’d be well off out of it, before we called in health and safety and sued them! 

“So it all turned out nice in the end. Even after all the bungs we got the pub for a bargain price, just a few grand.” 

“But it must be worth plenty now then,” said Vincent. “Here, ’ave a bob’s worth and I’ll make you an offer!” 

“It’ll be a bit more than that, cheeky sod,” said the landlady, with a smile. 

“But there’s some company with an ad in the Morning After, funny name, Septic Pubs or something like that. They’re after free houses in Lundn, it says, so here’s hoping. Cheers!” 


Decimalisation – Nothing to See Here 

Strike Week 5 Monday April 1 

STRAITH Trewth’s scheme was working even better than he could have hoped. Like a skilled magician he had misdirected the national press into screaming and shouting and searching for the 

source of the mysterious funds that had prolonged the postal strike. Next he stirred everyone up with a carefully-leaked revelation. A top- secret government investigation had uncovered an orchestrated union plot to call a general strike in sympathy with the post office workers. 

Despite strident denials all round, and amid calls for an enquiry into the leak and the legitimacy of the whole so-called ‘plot’, rumour piled upon rumour for days. The shock horror crisis kept on growing, only petering out the following week after a soothing government release, dated April 1. 

This announced that PMG Straith Trewth had scotched a dastardly Bolshevik putsch. He had heroically fought for meaningful industrial relations peace by negotiating a mutually acceptable settlement of the postal strike with PWU General-Secretary Reginald Smattering. 

Coincidentally another April 1 story, which most popular papers made an inside-page filler, announced the introduction of decimal currency across the D-UK. It raised little interest with the general public. A few critics commented that it was probably an ill-considered April Fools’ Day jape. 

Second paragraph of the brief announcement claimed that the change, which was being introduced to ease and improve trade with our Yoorupian partners, would have no adverse effect at all on the day-to-day life of Britain. 

The Prime-Minister made a low-key appearance on the BBC’s Gardeners Question Time speaking eloquently of his great passion, the cultivation of the giant, inedible marrows which covered several acres of his country estate. In closing, the show’s obsequious, star- struck host delicately raised the topic of decimalisation. 

The PM confessed jovially that he left “all that money talk to those johnnies in Treasury, what? Leave it to the experts, I always say. But, ah, I can assure all our people that the good old pound note is in safe hands, what, doncha know? Oh, and we’ll all be getting some nice new ones, pound notes that is, those chaps tell me. Which will be nice, what?” 



Licence to Print Money 

Strike Week 6 Monday April 8 

ELFIE Biggins was far from the brightest alumni of Snowsfields Primary school but he knew when he was on to a good thing. 

Gouts club had never had such a cheery trainee. Nothing was too much trouble for the new lad. He was eager to learn and to help his fellow porters wherever he was needed. Tending bar, cleaning the brass, sweeping the corridors – Elfie took it all on with good grace. Fetching coal from the cellar for the old building’s numerous fireplaces? Send for Elfie. 

Coal-carrying was a year-round chore. Elderly members felt the cold. For many, a roaring fire and a decanter of port was all that kept the grim reaper at bay. 

It was no surprise to bump into Elfie anywhere at Gouts. He was at home everywhere – the library, dining hall, the private rooms. 

“You are ubiquitous, Elfie,” said Grand Pursuivant Porter, encountering him again, ear to the door of Small Dining Room 2. “I think I’ll rename you ‘Ubi’. Keep up the good work.” 

Even though the Grand Pursuivant seemed friendly enough this encounter perturbed Elfie, who wondered if ‘ubiquitous’ meant ‘shortly to be unemployed’. 

Clarence, the aged Small Dining Room Porter, put his mind to rest. 

“Don’t worry, son,” he said. “He just means you’re all about the place. ‘Elfie Everywhere’, that’s you.” 

Elfie was indeed everywhere. Which meant he could dog the movements of Reginald Smattering, General-Secretary of the Post Office Workers Union without arousing any suspicion. 

Reggie had evaded the national press two weeks earlier by slipping into the safe haven of Gouts. His supposedly surreptitious dawn arrival via the loading dock in Portesque Mews was common knowledge among the porters within the hour. Subsequently Elfie Everywhere, undercover agent, the eyes and ears of the London Postal Service, stalked his old boss relentlessly. 

Every night he would phone Vincent X, or Cheryl, to report – nothing. 

“He’s not doin’ anyfing,” was the nightly message. “Not meetin’ any of them other geezers, members I mean, what I ’eard ’im wiv before.” 

While Reggie Smattering was doing nothing to excite his secret watchers he was having a very pleasant time at Gouts. The official line given enquirers at the NEC was that the Gen-Sec was on leave, location confidential. 

Straith Trewth had instructed the Gen-Sec to keep his head down until the ‘mystery donor’ story ran out of steam. “About a week should do it,” he said. 

Obedient to a fault, Reggie took his mentor literally and spent many an idle hour at Gouts’ snooker tables, keeping his head down, chin resting lightly on the cue. His game improved markedly, but he still lost consistently to some of the snooker-room habitués, who took the ingénue to the cleaners. 

Reggie was enjoying the first proper holiday he’d ever had. Although his duties at the NEC were minimal it was so pleasant to be away from the pressure of pretending he knew what he was doing. He thought he would like to stay in hiding at Gouts for the rest of his life. 

“He’s staying in one of the overnight rooms, cells they call ’em. Real basic they are, with just some bits an’ bobs in; like a bucket in case of accidents,” Elfie reported. “Seems ’appy alright. 

“When ’e’s not there, e’s playin’ snooker; or ’e’s in one of the bars; or the big dining room, the refectory they call it. I did see ’im in the library once readin’ the comics. Larfin’ out loud ’e was, ’til one of the old boys told ’im off.” 

“Nice life for some,” responded Vincent. “Alright mate; well let us know if you spot anything else, eh?” 

“OK, Vince; will do. Oh, tell you what, dunno if it’s important, but I saw one of them other geezers, one who was in that big money meeting with Smattering.” 

“What, at the club, Elf?” 

“Yeah, he turned up today, matter of fact. An’ I found out ’is name; Trewth. I was told ’is job is Postmaster-General, in the government. Bit of a coincidence that, eh Vince, ’im an’ Smattering, both to do wiv the post?” 

“Yeah, you’re definitely onto something there, Elf,” said Vincent. 

“Yeah, well I saw ’im with our chairman, meetin’ another bloke I don’t know, never seen before. But another fing, they was both on the telly last night, Trewth and this bloke. It said, on the telly, that Trewth, you know, the one who’s our member, ’e sorted out the post strike! That’s another, whatsit, coincidence, eh Vince?” 

Vincent thought for a moment. Everyone in the country would have seen Straith Trewth crowing on the news about solving all the country’s industrial troubles. He boasted about an amicable settlement with his ‘colleagues and fellow-workers’ in the nation’s post offices. 

“Hold on, Elfie,” he said. “Cher, who’s that bloke in the picture with the postmaster?” He pointed at the morning’s FT. 

“It says ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Shane Niglet,” shouted Cheryl from the other end of the room. “They were on the telly last night, goin’ on about solidarity with the ‘working men and women of Britain’. Bleedin’ hypocrites!” 

“Right, Cher; thought so.” 

He turned his attention back to his undercover man at Gouts. 

“Elfie, you there? You done good, son. 

“Right. Listen, get on them two’s case and find out anything you can. Right. That’s it, yeah. Try and find out what they’re up to. See if they meet anyone else. No, it don’t matter if Smattering’s not in it. Good mate, I owe yer. Seeya.” 

Straith Trewth had reserved Small Dining Room 2 for a discreet lunch. Just three people would attend and if his plan came to fruition each of them would exit the room in a few hours assured of untold future riches.  

“Clarence, may I introduce Sir Shane Niglet?” schmoozed Straith. “Nigel, meet Gouts esteemed Chairman, Sir Clarence Noodle.” 

The two knights of the realm nodded politely and shook hands. 

Neither employed the finger-twisting Masonic handshake. Niglet assumed that Noodle was on the square anyway, and the Chairman had forgotten how to do it. Hand-eye co-ordination wasn’t one of his strong suits. 

“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Chancellor,” he said. “Welcome to Gouts.” 

Clarence had stooged about in the club’s black and white marbled entrance hall anticipating the arrival of Straith and Niglet. He was now anxious for his first drink of the day; well, the first since breakfast. 

“Why don’t we show you the Pitt Bar?” he said, waving vaguely in the direction of the club’s nearest watering hole, which led off the front hall. 

“Named in honour of one of your parliamentary predecessors, of course; Pitt the Juvenile. Bit before your time I suppose, his being one of the club’s founding members, back in ... er, when was it ... er?” 

“1773,” said Straith, well aware that Sir Clarence had already plumbed and drained his intellectual depths with the wordy greeting. “Yes, Shane, let’s take some pre-prandial refreshment shall we, while we wait for Jacob?” 

“Oh jolly good, yes, I can recommend Gouts number two special port,” added Sir Clarence. “Perfect at this time of day; perfect at any time of day, come to that. 

“Ah, thankyou porter, good chap,” he said to Elfie Biggins, who had hovered around the group. Now he collected their top-coats and handed the visitors cloakroom tickets. 

By the time the trio had established themselves at the sumptuous mahogany bar and ordered a brace of martinis, Elfie had dumped the coats on the hall porter and scuttled into the Pitt to assist the bar porter. While the drinks specialist mixed two large gins with miniscule vermouth, Elfie ducked under the flap, helpfully extracted the Number Two port decanter from the back counter, and placed it before Sir Clarence. Next he reached below the front counter for the cut-glass tumbler that was the Chairman’s current favourite. (Clarence’s  favourite glasses led a short but busy life before slipping from limp fingers to an inevitable fate.) 

“Your health, gentlemen,” said the Chairman, emptying his glass. “Ah, you again, porter; thankyou, yes I think I might,” he agreed, as Elfie poured a refill. 

“So I hung about, tidying up an’ that,” Elfie reported to Vincent later in the afternoon. “Then another bloke turns up, Jacob Lossit ’e was called. He’s another club member, and I think I recognised ’is voice. He was another one in that first meeting, about the money. Course I didn’t know ’em all then, but I’m pretty sure it was ’im. 

“Anyway, the silver-haired bloke, Trewth, introduces Mr Lossit to this visitor bloke who was on the telly with ’im. Turns out he’s only ...” 

“Yeah, Elf, we know, the bleedin’ Chancellor. Go on, what happened then?” said Vincent. 

“Aoh, you knew that? Right, well Trewth says ‘I think we’ll go in to the dining room now, gentlemen.’ Then ’e blows our Chairman out! Poor ole Noodle looked well cheesed off! 

“ ‘I know you understand, Clarence,’ Straith says ‘government business, extremely confidential’. Summink like that anyway. Then the three of ’em waltz off to one of the little dining rooms.” 

Straith Trewth had no intention of cutting Noodle in on the latest caper. The Chairman had done quite well enough, as had Gouts, out of the Yoorupian entry Trewth had engineered. In a few years Gouts had captured eighty per cent and counting of Portchergl’s wine production. Jacob, and his partners Van and Blanko, had also gleaned huge profits from Port to Port’s stranglehold on the import and export of Gouts’ port. But Trewth needed a credible front-man to set up a new business and Jacob Lossit was so deeply implicated in their past crimes that he could be trusted. 

With the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, underlined, albeit unwittingly, by the Prime Minister, the venture would provide more than enough for them all. 

“Shall I just fetch your drinks, sir,” Elfie Biggins asked obligingly, indicating the martini dregs. 

“Oh yes, good man,” said Niglet. Then, downing his own, he added, “Better still, my round I think. Fetch us fresh ones, please porter, and for you Jacob? Yes, that’s three then porter, thankyou.” 

Gouts’ lavish ‘small’ dining rooms are rarely occupied. This is because club members, who are more accustomed to basic and utilitarian public boarding school refectories, feel uncomfortable in them. In the refectory a chap doesn’t have to watch his manners, or what he spills down his waistcoat. 

This main dining hall resembles a prison canteen. Long wooden tables and benches are wrapped in plastic for easy sluicing, and the timber floor is strewn with sawdust to soak up spillage. Even the walls and ceiling are decorated in high-gloss, washable off-white paint. 

In complete contrast the bijou dining rooms are lavishly decorated and appointed. Each has few small tables, deep club chairs, heavy velvet curtains and lush, thick-pile carpeting. 

As usual, dining room number two was unoccupied and the ancient Dining Room Porter had set the table nearest the door for Trewth’s party. 

Following a few minutes behind them, Elfie Biggins noticed that the men had pushed aside the carefully arranged silver and spread type- written papers across their table. 

“I’ll fetch a side-table for your drinks, eh gents?” he asked, laying the tray aside. Having accomplished that, he added, “And shall I ask the Dining Room Porter to come and take your lunch order now? He’s a bit deaf, so I could fetch ’im if you like.” 

The Dining Room Porter’s deafness was notorious. Each table in the small dining rooms had originally been equipped with a bell-pull to summon service. In the butler’s pantry the discreet, tinkling bell had been replaced with a klaxon. 

“Ah thankyou, porter,” Jacob Lossit replied to Elfie, “but we won’t require him just yet. I’ll sound the klaxon when we’re ready.” 

“So I couldn’t ’ang about much longer,” Elfie said later.
“You couldn’t get a butcher’s at them papers, then?” asked Vincent. 

“Not up close, no; but one fing I did see, a great big birthday card. You know, like people get when there’s loads of people gotta sign? This one ’ad sort of tissue paper ’round it. 

“An’ as I went out, Trewth, ’e says ‘have you checked, did it come through?’ 

“I looked back as I was shuttin’ the door and the Chancellor bloke was pointing at this birthday card, and they all laughed, and Mr Lossit, ’e says, ‘this isn’t a birthday card, it’s a licence to print money!’ And they was all still laughing when I went out.” 


The Band’s Back Together 

Strike Week 6 Tuesday April 9 

THE end was nigh for London Postal Service. The longest-ever postal workers strike would wind up within days. 

“We’ve had a good run, made a few bob, can’t complain,” said Vincent X to his team. They were assembled at the top of Blankenberg Towers prior to Van’s trip to the ferry. 

“What? Yeah, yeah,” said Van. 

“He’s miles away, Vincent,” said Cheryl. “I don’t fink ’e’s ’eard a word you said.” 

“No, you’re right, sorry Vincent,” said Van. 

“It’s just ... did Elfie say anything else, about those papers or anything? See, it’s Straith and Jacob, as I thought. Like, they’ve got the band back together again. Why, what are they up to?” 

“Blimey, Van; what’s the difference? Not gonna change anything now is it, the strike’s just about over, so what does it matter to us what they’re doin’,” asked Vincent. 

Van shrugged. 

“You’re probably right, both of you. I dunno. Just a feeling that, you know ‘a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing’. We’ve a little bit of knowledge. Be nice if it turned out dangerous for that lot.” 

“I must say, Van, you don’t seem to ’ave much loyalty to your partner, this Lossit bloke,” said Cheryl. 

“OK, you’re right,” Van agreed. “But he’s no saint either. I’m only a partner in that business because of, well; let’s just say they let me in because of something I knew. Doesn’t mean I trust him. This is the same. For all I know what he’s doing could shaft me good and proper. 

“Look, he had me sign that bloody great cheque for four million quid, and I don’t know where the money came from. Or, officially, where it really went. If ever there was some investigation ... well, the more I can find out about the whole deal the better.” 

His postal partners were silent.
“Alright,” said Cheryl, “see what you mean.” She thought a bit, then: 

“Wait a minute, though. That place we took The Games, to dump. Didn’t you say that’s where Lossit keeps stuff? P’raps the evidence will be down there?” 

“No, nice thought Cheryl, but I don’t reckon so. Anything that goes to Lossit and Co is never to be seen again. By the sound of it, Trewth and his little team were delighted at having that card signed. Last thing they’ll want to do is lose it at Lossit’s. 

“I reckon they’ll be hanging on to it somewhere, for blackmail probably. Lossit knows all about blackmail,” he said uneasily, with a slight twinge of conscience. 

“Well, next time Elfie went into their dining room, to help this old deaf porter, he said there was no sign of the papers, or the card,” said Vincent. “He was in and out a few times after that, and he said they were well pissed at the finish; champagne, port; well merry the lot of ’em. This Chancellor, Niglet, even tipped Elfie a tenner when he staggered out!” 

“Mornin’ all,” said Len, “sorry I’m a bit late.” 

“That’s alright, Len. Might as well get in practice again, eh, ready for next week when you’re back at the post office,” said Cheryl caustically. 

“Don’t be like that, Cher, you’ll miss me when I’m gone! ’ere, tell you what, I’ll make a nice cup of tea shall I? Oh, you’ve already got some; just me then.” 

They could hear him whistling happily in the next-door scullery. 

“Amazing, ennit?” said Vincent. “Goin’ back to that lousy job in the bloody post office and he’s cheerful about it!” 

“Oy, Vince,” Len shouted from next door. “You behind on the rent or suvvink? What’s your landlord doin’ creepin’ about downstairs? Thought ’e only comes ’round end of the month.” 

It was ingenious. You have in your hand evidence of a story that would set Fleet Street on fire. Where better to hide it than underneath the cauldron? 

Jacob Lossit had spent the night in a Gouts cell, his bulky, triple- locked case tucked safely below his cot. He felt safe and secure at Gouts. If he were anywhere else the bag would have been chained to his ankle. Bleary-eyed, that very morning he had summoned the intrepid Gladys and her trusty Reliant three-wheeler, for a journey like so many she had made before. 

Leather-clad, visor down, she had trickled sedately through the Lundn traffic, oblivious to the outraged hooting that always accompanied the Reliant’s cautious, snail-like progress. Gladys had missed her clandestine missions to Gouts. There was a time, before Port to Port took priority, when Lossit regularly summoned her to the club to collect top-secret packages for onward delivery to the HtnmWytht works. 

There had never been a more vitally important Lossit package than the one awaiting her today. The rust-red Reliant limped insignificantly into Portesque Mews. As always, Jacob Lossit was waiting at the loading bay. Gladys came to a lumpy halt and laboriously wound down her driver-side window. She expected to be handed a well- stuffed, anonymous brown envelope and was bewildered when Lossit ignored her bony claw. 

He walked around the car to the passenger door. As he hauled it open the rarely-used, rust-caked hinges squealed their complaint. Closing the door with even more difficulty he searched in vain for a seatbelt. Gladys gawped. Blanko apart, she had never had a passenger before. No-one else had ever been brave enough. 

“It’s alright, Gladys. I’m coming with you this time,” he assured her, clutching the Gladstone bag to his chest. “Fleet Street, please. Blanko is meeting us there. I think you know the address?” 

“Just nip downstairs please, Cher, make sure Len’s not dreamin’,” said Vincent. “Walk past, see if the door’s open. They always ’ave the door open, Van,” he explained, “when they’re here.” 

“Force of habit, I s’pose. Make sure no-one can get past without paying the rent,” added Cheryl as she headed for the stairs. 

Ten minutes later she was back. 

“You took your time,” complained Vincent as Cheryl subsided, puffing, into her chair. She glared. 

“Yeah, well you can go next time!” 

“Come on then, is it them, or what?” he pressed her. 

“Well, I wasn’t sure, cos the door was shut! But I could see something through the glass, like people moving.” 

The upper half of the Blankenberg room door was of reeded glass. 

“So I knocked.” 

This was unprecedented. Nobody ever went willingly into that room, so nobody would ever knock. 

“You knocked?” 

“Yeah; well I ’ad my excuse ready, for when she opened up. I was gonna say ’is everything alright? Just wanted to make sure – not like you to ’ave the door shut.’ Y’know, like that, caring like?” 

“That would’ve stunned ’em,” grinned Vincent. 

“A first for Blankenberg tenants, I take it,” said Van. 

“Only it wasn’t ’er, the old cow. He opened the door, ole Mister Blankenberg. 

So I say, oh, good, it’s you Mister Blankenberg. Is everything alright? 

`Yes, yes, Miss...er...Miss, er, thank-you’ ’e says and shuts the door in my face! Cheek! But there was definitely someone else in there with him, a bloke in a city suit, just saw him out of the corner of me eye.” 

Ten minutes later it was Vincent X’s turn and he was soon back. 

“Definitely empty now, Van,” he puffed. “Knocked; nothing.” 

“OK, that settles it,” said Van. “They’ve stuck those papers where nobody would ever dream of looking; a big old-fashioned safe in Fleet Street. 

“Vincent, do you know a good burglar? 187 


An Honest Thief 

Strike Week 6 Tuesday April 9 (pm) 

CONTRARY to common opinion not everyone in south Lundn is intimately acquainted with the criminal classes. Most honest people’s only contact with housebreakers is when they come home 

after a nice night out to find their place has been turned over. Yes, the unfortunate revellers might well have been mugged on the way home, but that’s another kind of mishap, perpetrated by a much lower class of toe-rag. 

“What you need is an honest thief, Vincent,” said Lil. “There’s not a lot of them about these days.” She sniffed contemptuously. “Bloody amateurs these days, most of ’em.” 

Landlady Lil was the first person that sprang to Vincent’s mind following Van’s query and he headed to his local the same evening. It wasn’t that The Cobblers was a den of thieves. It was just a normal boozer, where, if you were a regular who could be trusted you might well be offered something hot, cheap and desirable. And it wouldn’t be a vindaloo pasty. 

Pub landladies, especially in south Lundn, were well connected. The Licensed Victuallers Association annual dinner rivals a Hollywood premier as the competing landladies swagger into restaurant and ballroom, wrapped in mink and flashing gold and diamonds. 

“We was turned over, y’know Vincent? Wot, oh alright, just a bob’s worth.” 

She helped herself to a dash of Gordons and resumed. Disgustin’ it was. If you’re gonna do a blag you go up West, don’t do it in your own backyard.” 

“I didn’t know you were robbed, Lil; when was that?” asked Vincent, finishing his beer at a gulp. “Yes thanks, Lil, just an ’alf.” 

“Wasn’t a robbery, Vincent; a burglary. Half-assed one at that. No, completely different, robbery.” 

“Is it?” 

“Oh yes, o’ course.” 

She shot him a look that was part surprise, part disappointment. Any self-respecting local lad should know that difference, the look implied. 

“You can get life for robbery.
“Burglary’s not so bad, unless you’re carrying.” Vince looked puzzled.
“What ... pregnant? Who’d do a ...” 

“No, you pillock! Not that sort of carryin’. I mean like a shooter, or any weapon really. You can get life if you do a blag with a weapon. See, that’s what I mean about a professional, an honest thief. Never catch a good safe-cracker carrying; except for his proper working tools, of course.” 

Lil moved off to serve another customer. Vincent pondered the complexities of burglary versus robbery and the paradoxical ‘honest thief’. 

“So Lil, when was your burglary?” he asked after she’d rung up the till. 

“Few months ago now, Vincent. Some little toe-rag must have spotted that Frank keeps all the keys in his pocket. So in the early hours he – I say ‘he’ because you don’t get a lot of women burglars. They mostly do the shoplifting. Anyway, he comes in over the back wall, up on the flat roof of the kitchen and in through the lavatory window. 

“Must have been a skinny little git, because the loo is right up against the window. You wouldn’t think anyone could squeeze through it with the cistern and the pipe in the way. That’s why the window wasn’t locked.” 

“So how d’you know he came in that way, Lil?” 

“Well, because he went out the same way; took Frank’s trousers with him! They’re still out there now, on the flat roof.” 

Vincent couldn’t help chuckling. 189 

“How come he had Frank’s trousers then?” 

“Well, he crept into the bedroom, didn’t he? Took ’em off the chair, crept out again to go somewhere quiet. Probably lookin’ for the keys, to the safe and everything.” 

“Blimey Lil, that could have been dodgy couldn’t it, weapon or not, if you two had woke up?” 

“Oh yes, that would have been terrible, Vincent. Frank would’ve killed him!” 

The Cobblers burglary was a mere blip on the graph of south Lundn crime statistics. Unable to find any keys the thief made off with only a pocketful of change from the till. He dragged Frank’s trousers with him back through the lavatory window, in the vain hope that a roll of notes might be stuffed in a back pocket, and then abandoned them on the low kitchen roof. The pinstripes lie there still, and a buddleia has taken root in the windblown soot and dirt that has collected in the folds of cloth. The hardy buddleia can survive in the harshest of conditions and is known by some as the cockney rosebush. When last measured the Cobblers buddleia was a spindly seven-feet high. 

“Well, could ’ave been a lot worse, I s’pose. But, er, is there any chance you know someone who could open this safe for us, Lil? Someone good, like you said, a professional?” 

“Well, alright Vincent, as it’s you. I’ll give Minkie a ring, see if he’s busy.” 


“No, Minkie. He mostly does coats these days, only the best stuff, you know. He’s got a guaranteed market with ladies who run pubs, see, no questions asked. But I’m sure he can do your safe.” 

On the next evening a pallid, diminutive gentleman dressed in a sombre three-piece suit and carrying a slim, black briefcase ascended the Blankenberg Building’s eight flights of stairs with ease. 

His complexion suggested he worked nights. Otherwise, from his dapper, businesslike appearance he might have been an insurance salesman; albeit a very fit one. 

“No fanks, not today,” said Cheryl, looking up at the figure who had appeared in her doorway. 

“I’m not selling anything, luv,” smiled her visitor. “Is Mr Vincent about?” 

“Yes, ’e is, but ... aoh, was ’e expectin’ you? You ain’t ...” 

“Minkie? Yes luv, that’s me.” 

Vincent X emerged from Miss Nomer’s room. 

“Good afternoon, er ... Minkie, did I hear that right?” he said. “Friend of Lil’s?” 

The little man smiled. 

“Yes, that’s right. You look a bit surprised. You were expecting me, this evening?” 

“Oh, yeah, yeah, o’ course,” said Vincent. “Just, er ... Cher, ’ow about a cup of tea for er, Mister ... er? 

“Just Minkie, Mr Vincent, that’ll do.” 

“Right, well I’m just Vince, then. Come in next door and we can talk about the, er ... project?” 

Cheryl joined them with four mugs of tea a few minutes later. 

“I gave Van a bell, Vince; ’e’s on the way. Sorry if I seemed a bit rude, Mr Minkie, just that ... well we wasn’t expectin’ someone ... smart, like.” 

“No offence,” Minkie smiled. “You were probably confused because I’m not wearing my striped jersey and mask. Cheryl is it? Pleased to meet you. And this is ‘the third man’ I assume?” 

Van had lumbered into the room. Introductions sorted and tea consumed, Vincent X outlined the brief. 

“Well Mr, er I mean, Minkie ... this caper ... is that right, is that what you call it, a caper ...?” 

“Not really, son; that’s just on the telly. We ain’t in Monte Carlo though are we, so let’s forget the bullshit names. You just tell me what you want done.” 

Van took over. 

“There’s a safe in an office on the first floor, Minkie, and we would like to get a look at some paperwork we reckon is in there. There might be some cash in the safe too, and that’s all yours, for your time and trouble.” 

While Len looked after business, out of earshot next door, Van and Vincent explained the set-up and what they needed. 

Then Minkie briefed his newest partners in crime. 

“If we do get caught, as it’s an office job, sentence is only ten years, tops,” said the safe-cracker. “That’s a lot better than if it’s where someone lives, see? You can do fourteen years if it’s a dwelling. Not that we’re gonna get caught, nice and easy this should be. Now, none of you are carrying I hope?” 

Vincent and Van shook their heads. 

“What about you young lady?” he eyed Cheryl critically. “You carrying?” 

“Oy, cheek ...” 

“No Cher, he doesn’t mean are you up the duff, he means, weapons. You ain’t are yer, no flick-knife or anything?” 

“Oy, Vincent, you’ll get a clump ...” 

“Nah, nah, behave. Can’t have you thieves falling out,” laughed Minkie. 

Lil hadn’t warned Vincent that some criminals have a sense of humour. 

“We’re not worried about getting caught, Minkie,” put in Van. “If the papers are in that safe the last thing my partners will want is any publicity. They won’ be calling the law. And if there’s nothing there they won’t be missing anything, will they?” 

“What about the cash,” asked Minkie, serious now. 

“Oh yeah. Well, if there’s no papers, we leave everything untouched and we’ll pay you for the job, right Vince?” 

Two hours later the Blankenberg Building had emptied for the night and four figures lurked on the landing outside Blanko’s first-floor room. One of them wore surgical gloves. 

“Now, Van, Vincent, Cheryl, listen to me, right? Touch nothing, and stay out here. You’re very nice people but you are bleedin’ amateurs. I don’t want you getting in the way. And, if you don’t go in that room you ain’t burglars. You could get done for conspiracy or some such, I expect, but not burglary. 

“Anyway, you ain’t in the union.” 

The trio looked abashed, bemused and bewildered. 

“Nah, kiddin’ yer. There ain’t really any union. It’s a guild.” 

“How you gonna get in there, Minkie? Smash the glass?” asked Cheryl. 

“Wonder if our office key would open it? Knowing old Blankenberg his key probably opens all our doors. Wouldn’t put it past ’im.” 

“No Cheryl, no broken glass. I could use dynamite, same as for the safe, but ...” he stopped, grinned at their horrified faces. 

“Just look the other way for a minute, will you please? Trade secrets.” 

As the three amateurs turned around they heard a click and a squeak as Blanko’s door swung open. 

“Blimey,” came from inside the room. 

“Alright, you can turn round now; but don’t come in. Really, I meant that bit,” 

Minkie called, and then returned to the landing. 

“Wojja reckon then, Minkie,” asked Vincent. “Can you do it?” He looked down at the slim briefcase. “You ain’t gonna blow it up are you?” 

Minkie sucked air through his teeth. 

“Well, I haven’t seen one like that for a long, long time. Stay here.” 

He picked up the briefcase, stepped into the doorway, and then turned back. 

“Cheryl, have you got a hairpin I could borrow, please?” 


© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre