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Pirate of Fleet Street, Chapters 17 to 19

CHAPTER 17 

Lossit & Co 

Strike Week 3 Wednesday March 19 

“I’LL SAY one thing for Septic bloody Hangnail; this track is a lot easier since the coaches have been carving their way through here to the Cantish Men.”
They were driving through the mile-long green tunnel of trees and scrubby bushes that connect the top-end of HtnmWytht with the Lundn to Cantering Highway. A couple of years earlier the undergrowth and overgrowth was so dense that the Phantom’s faded brown paintwork acquired extra digs and scratches on every trip. But since Septic had been voted the country’s bolshiest publican, coaches and even double- decker buses loaded with vicarious tourists, eager to be shocked and appalled at the country’s most notorious public house, had scoured the forest track. 

It was good news for the renovated Phantom, less so for lovers of nature. 

“Who’s ‘Septic bloody’, wojja m’call ’im, when he’s at ’ome then, Van?” queried Cheryl. 

Van struggled, briefly, with the twenty-something girl’s mix of vernacular, abbreviation and south Lundn patois. His own family had migrated into Lundn’s Eestend, but a strong Greek background and several years sailing the seven seas for a couple of navies meant his ear wasn’t precisely tuned to Cheryl’s cockney speech pattern. 

“Er, no, I mean his name isn’t actually Septic ‘bloody’ – that’s just a general comment on his mean and nasty character. Everyone down here automatically adds that, or worse, in the middle of his name because he’s such a git. 

“He’s the bloke I told you about, voted the worst publican in the Dis- United Kingdom of what used to be Great Britain. Remember? Proper name is Septimus Hangnail. But he’s always been called Septic, according to the locals. 

“Ah, here we go, this is our turning.” 

The Phantom slowed, engaged first gear and turned left very, very slowly into an even narrower side-track off the ‘main’ track. Traffic was infrequent along this one, which led directly to the complex of Nissen huts that formed the Lossit & Co works (or tip, to be accurate). Should any tourist bus turn up here it would be lost. Consequently the tangled scrub was dense and sharp and the Phantom, very sensitive to its new paint-job, proceeded accordingly. 

“ ’ow d’you know where to turn Van, I didn’t see no sign, except that ’orrible ol’ scarecrow,” piped up Cheryl, who had noticed that Van had played no part in the operation of steering wheel turning or gear-changing. 

“Oh, we’ve been down here so often, it’s all automatic,” Van replied. 

He had learned there was little to be gained by exploring or attempting to explain how a car built in 1929, even a Rolls-Royce, could virtually drive itself. He didn’t understand it himself anyway, or why regular trips down to HtnmWytht seemed to have kick-started the phenomenon. But he was sure a time would come when driverless cars would be the norm. For the time being ‘it’s an automatic’ stymied most enquiries. 

“Right, here we are, Lossit & Co,” he said. “Impressive, eh?” 

“You are joking, mate! Blimey, I thought all these old huts would ’ave been knocked down after the war! Even in Peckham, down our gran’s turning, they’ve got rid of the prefabs now.” 

“Yes, I expect Jacob bought this lot cheap from the War Office or something. He doesn’t believe in wasting money,” agreed Van. 

Lossit’s has no formal entrance. The narrow bush and scrub-choked track ends at a large, weedy patch of earth partly cleared and compacted by vehicles and boots. On the far side a shabby metal building fails to offer the slightest welcome. Its rusty, corrugated roof descends to the earth forming a half-circle. It looks like a half-buried, gigantic tin barrel. There is no sign, logo or any other identification on the building, or on a couple of other huts that can just be glimpsed lurking in the bushes behind it. 

If anyone is unlucky enough to wander down the track by accident, the works appear to be just what they really are – a collection of left-over wartime relics that have been abandoned to slowly rust into oblivion. Below the buildings are played-out mineshafts where embarrassing studies, feasibility plans, proposed social reforms and other fantasy projects go to die. 

Lossit’s unique service panders to government departments and other nefarious organisations which need sensitive documents kept, for a short while, and then kicked around until they’re lost. 

The twist is that Lossit’s government and corporate clients are more concerned with losing evidence than in keeping their paperwork safe. They have absolutely no wish to ever set eyes on those documents again. More importantly, they don’t want anyone else to see them either. By lodging the stuff in what is officially considered secure storage the government department, or company secretary, or any supposedly ‘responsible officer’ can claim to have fulfilled their duty. 

If, god forbid, some busybody or official enquiry, or Royal commission demands to see the paperwork, Lossit & Co will stall, obfuscate and finally admit, most apologetically, that the required item is lost. Case closed. 

Jacob Lossit could guarantee with confidence that his clients’ fervent wishes would all come true, because secreting stuff with Lossit meant simply dumping it at the bottom of the inaccessible, worked out mines that lay below the rusting Nissen huts. 

It was a perfect location for losing out of date newspapers, too. 

“Looks like it’s shut, or abandoned Van. Did you let ’em know we were coming?” 

“It’s alright, Surly’ll be in there. Could be half-asleep, like the rest of his dozy cousins, but he’ll be here. That’s why there’s no point in phoning him. He still struggles working out which end of the phone to talk into. It’s best to just turn up.” 

John Surly, acting-manager and official night-watchman, was one of several locals employed at Lossit’s. The population of HtnmWytht numbered just a few hundred and it was Van’s opinion that they were all related to one another. Surly and his helpers – the lesser ‘surlys’ – were a clincher. 

The collection of individuals who worked – although ‘worked’ was stretching the point – in and around Lossit’s all looked alike. Round, red agricultural faces with cow-eyes gave them an amiable enough appearance. In their identical brown, warehouse coats they slouched around similarly slowly. When they weren’t busy slouching they leaned on something, always in unison. 

According to manager Surly the rest of their time was spent ‘doin’ the filin’, mostly’. He was imprecise on the details of how items are filed, before or after being hurled into a worked out mineshaft. 

Van was convinced that the other Lossit workers were all some branch of an extended Surly family. When he raised the possibility with the night-watchman/manager he didn’t disagree. He didn’t show much interest either. 

“Yeah, cousins prob’ly,” said John Surly. “We all be from Htnm, see? Very friendly place, it be.” 

Unloading five tea-chests of newspapers should have been considerably easier, and quicker, for the Lossit warehouse staff than it had been for Len and Elfie to carry them, one at a time, down several flights of stairs at the Battersea flats and then load up the Phantom. Nevertheless, the brown-coated surlys made a meal of it. It took four of them per chest, and the actual unloading was preceded by an in-depth discussion of logistics. This discussion was preceded by negotiations between Van and the manager. It went: 

“Well, Mr Van, we be a bit short-handed today see ...” “Cobblers, Surly, get that mob out here and get stuck in.” “Right you are, Mr Van.” 

Eventually two surlys climbed into the back of the Phantom and slowly inched the rearmost tea-chest towards the sill. They took a short break at that point, climbed down and re-evaluated the situation with two more cousins, who had so far played the observer role. 

“Blimey, this is gonna take all day,” observed Cheryl. 

“Oh yes, miss, very careful we be down ’ere at Lossit’s,” remarked Surly. “Don’t want to break anything, see?” 

“Yeah, like they don’t want to break into a sweat by the look of it,” she said, but that went right over Surly’s head. 

“No good being subtle down here, Cheryl,” Van pointed out. “Right, you four; grab that chest, drag it out and get it inside sharpish before I crown you with it.” 

Even under direct instruction and the prospect of imminent violence it took a good half-hour for the surlys to complete the unloading of five tea-chests. They shuffled across the yard, one man to each side of the box, heads swivelling continually, alert to minor obstacles, rising ground, low-flying aircraft or any act of god that might just possibly impede their safe journey towards the hut. 

Five boxes in half an hour; that was a half-day’s labour by surly standards. 

Van had never needed to delve further into the ‘works’ than the sparsely furnished front office, over which John Surly presided. Today was different. 

“I really fink Vincent would want me to make sure them papers are properly dumped, where no-one can ever see ’em, Van,” Cheryl declared firmly. 

So it was a revelation for the pair of them when they followed the slow-motion procession of the brown-coats, through the front hut, into the second (which appeared to double as a doss-house cum kitchen for the staff) and into an unlit third hut. 

This hut was virtually empty – unless the yawning opening of a large, dark hole could be considered to be a ‘thing’. 

Would the presence of a hole, inside an otherwise empty building, constitute ‘contents’? If so, would this render the building something other than empty? And if the hole is not ‘contents’ – in the commonly accepted sense of the word, where ‘contents’ is a description of physical matter – what is the hole? 

Van briefly considered the philosophical point. He thought he might ask John Surly’s opinion on the topic, later, after they had dumped the papers in that hole. It would be fascinating to watch Surly’s head explode. 

The hole was one of many concealed in and around Lossit & Co and it had once been a mineshaft. As eyes adjusted to the gloom the top of a rusting ladder could be seen just below the lip of the hole, which was about five metres square. Stout wooden barriers, painted with alternating red and white stripes had been set up on all sides. 

Jacob’s showing un-typical consideration for his workers’wellbeing, thought Van. Pity though; complicates that philosophical debate about the hole. Barriers would definitely be deemed contents. 

“So this is where your team does the ‘filin’ eh, John?” he asked. 

“Yer, we slings ’em down there.” 

“The ladder is for if you want to go down and fetch anyfing back up then, I s’pose?” asked Cheryl. 

John Surly looked confused. 

“We don’t do that, Miss,” he said. “Never ’ad to do that, not that I ’eard of. An’ I wouldn’t go near that ladder, anyways. Very old an’ rusty that be. We don’t even go too near the edge. You never know, wi’ ’oles. Very trech’rous they be, ’round ’ere in HtnmWytht.” 

“Well, nobody will want you going down to fetch these papers back, that’s for sure. But how are you going to dump this lot, John, without going near the edge of the hole?” asked Van. 

“Aarh, right Mr Van, we’ll show y’,” said Surly, exhibiting rare pride and enthusiasm for his daily grind. I thinks he’s showing off for Cheryl, thought Van. Probably first time a female has ever been down here. 

“Wi’ little bits, the small stuff, the boys usually make ’em into they paper aeryplanes, you know, like when we were kids? Fly ’em towards the ’ole, they do. Most go in; usually. Makes it a bit of entertainment for the boys, see?” 

“That’ll take forever, Van,” protested Cheryl. “We can’t stand about ’ere while this lot turn two ’n’ ’alf thousand copies of The Game into bleedin’ paper aeroplanes!” 

“No, no Miss, carn’t do that! The boys ain’t that quick at the foldin’ an ’such,” John Surly smiled encouragingly. “We got special machin’ry fer big jobs like this,” and he kicked one of the tea-chests. 

He turned to the four minor surlys, who had been leaning, slack- jawed, against the nearest barrier and staring into the hole. 

“Alright boys, fetch the machine,” he ordered. 

A palpable buzz of excitement descended over them and stirred the quartet into action. They moved, slowly at first, then building up speed until they reached a gentle stroll, the surlys moved in formation back towards the connecting door to their kitchen hut. The ‘machinery’ was hidden under a drab tarpaulin and parked alongside the door. It was in the darkest corner; almost invisible. 

More contents, thought Van; drat. 

Surly’s crack team mastered the removal of the tarpaulin, without obviously even consulting a manual, and revealed a heavy, timber platform supported on six lorry wheels. Fixed to it was a conveyor belt on a long timber frame which extended twice the length of the platform itself. With grunts, curses and the occasional cry of pain as one or other of them ran one of the substantial wheels over his foot, the surlys manhandled the contraption across the rough earthen floor. Next they raised the conveyor belt and nosed the platform up to the striped barrier. 

“I get it, John. Put the chests on the belt, turn on the power, up they go and drop off the end into the pit, right?” asked Van. He was almost impressed at the ingenuity of Surly and the minor surlys. 

“Power? Oh yer, you mean the boys,” replied the acting-manager, night-watchman and machinery controller. 

He pointed at a large wooden crank running through the base of the conveyor. 

“Right, boys, load ’er up,” he commanded, proud as a gunnery master, and when the first tea-chest was lodged on the rubber belt, “and turn!” 

With two of the surlys winding the crank on each side of the conveyor the tea-chest creaked upwards toward its demise. At the end of the belt it fell, briefly caught at the edge of the hole, teetered and dropped into the darkness. 

Van and Cheryl listened carefully but heard nothing. It was a very deep hole. The surlys cheered and slapped each others’ backs. Before the back-slapping could deteriorate into the usual punch-up the manager intervened. 

“Alright, not bad, but we can do better. Push the trolley thing a bit nearer the ’ole,” he ordered. 

A few minutes later Van had turned the Phantom around and was just about to head into the village. Then, on an impulse, he stopped the engine, climbed down and walked back into the front hut. A minute later he was back and they drove off. 

“What, did we forget somefing?” asked Cheryl. “Should we ’ave paid ’im, or given ’em a tip?” 

“No worries, I’ll look after that side of it with our company. No, sorry; I just remembered I wanted to give Surly something to think about,” Van explained. “A bit of a brain-teaser for him!” 

“Alright, if you say so. Anyway I’m glad that lot’s sorted out. I’m really glad to see the back of them papers. Jinxed, they were.” 

The car turned left out of the track and into the green tunnel leading into HtnmWytht. 

“What a weird mob, in that place, eh?” she said. “All a bit simple I reckon.” 

“That’s a polite way to put it, luv,” replied Van. “But I really was impressed that Surly could organise that bit of equipment and get his dozy cousins to use it without falling down the pit.” 

“I dunno about that. Didn’t you see that sticker on the side of the conveyor fing? No? It said – This is not a ride.” 


CHAPTER 18 

Hopping Down in Cant 

Strike Week 3 Wednesday March 19 

ON THE open road to Cantering, Cheryl had surprised Van by suddenly recalling her own family’s long-past connection to County Cant. 

“O’ course, I forgot. Cant, that’s where all the ’ops come from ennit?” she blurted. “Funny I forgot that; we all used to go ’oppin’ down in Cant. Not me, o’ course, but mum an’ all ’er family, before the war. 

“Used to be the annual ’oliday, ’oppin down in Cant.” 

Van was bemused. 

“Sorry, what, they used to have a holiday hopping? Some sort of sports meeting, was it?” 

“Noo, don’t be daft!” She giggled. 

“Not ‘Hopping’!” She emphasised the H. “Can just see ’em all jumpin’ about on one leg, can’t yer, through the ’op-vines! 

“No, I meant ’oppin’ – pickin’ ’ops. Poor families in south Lundn, that used to be their ’olidays. Be down there all the summer. Before the schools broke up they’d be ’anging out to hear from the farmers. 

“ ’ave you ’ad your letter yet, the women would all be askin’ each other. They used to be regulars see, goin’ down to Cant, staying in long huts, all the families together.” 

“Sounds more like hard work than a holiday,” said Van. “Did they get paid?” 

“Oh yeah, a bit, not much. But it was free board and lodging. An’ livin’ down there in them huts was pretty good for some of ’em, Mum used to say. Got away from the bed-bugs at ’ome for a while!” 

When they left Lossit’s the prospect of lunch in a pleasant country pub sounded appealing to Cheryl. 

“I ’ardly ever drink beer, but I s’pose that with this bein’ where the ’ops come from it would be pretty good beer down here then, Van?” she suggested. 

He grimaced. 

“I wish I could say ‘yes’, luv, but I’d be a liar. You’ll soon see. But just to answer your question, in the place we’re going the locals all cross themselves before they take the first sip of Hangnail’s brew.” 

At first sight the village pub was typical, charming even, with thatched roof above solid stone walls. The exterior belied its true nature because even without the presence of the D-UK’s (or the world’s) bolshiest publican the Cantish Men was still an appalling hostelry. 

If anything it was even more appalling now than before Septic won the title. His wife Gorgy (Gorgonzola Hangnail, née Rennet) used to at least keep some parts of the pub reasonably tidy with her ‘no muddy boots’ edict. Now, Septic’s business partner, the dreadful Elphaba Hardboyl, had made it clear that the Cantish Men must set a new standard of awfulness so as to really appal the tourists. As a result the place was a cross between a tip and a stable. Gorgy didn’t like it one bit and as a result she was frostier than ever. 

The extra business that Septic’s reputation had dragged in didn’t help her mood either. The Cantish Men had always been busy of course, because it was the only pub in the village. She could cope with that, because, she would growl, ‘I only have one pair of hands’. The bloody customers would have to wait until she was good and ready to serve them. 

Previously her ‘bloody customers’ were almost all locals and were crammed into the tiny Public Bar, or packed into the yard outside, waiting their turn to shoulder a way in and up to the counter for the dubious privilege of buying some disgusting Septic ale. 

This miniscule, wood-panelled room used to be the Snug, before Septic changed its name to the ‘Public’. He did this purely and simply to inconvenience his fellow-villagers and customers and make them suffer. It was one of the dirty tricks that won him the Bolshiest Publican title. 

At the same time that he changed the old Public into the Saloon Bar he also renamed the original Saloon as the ‘Lounge’. No local would ever use either of these bars because a pint of beer cost twopence extra in the Saloon, and a whopping threepence extra in the Lounge. So to save a penny they squeezed into the old Snug or stood outside in all weathers. 

That pleased Gorgy. Her no-boots policy kept her two biggest bars clean; empty, but clean. 

The intermittent arrival of busloads of rubber-necking tourists anxious to be appalled, shocked and horrified changed everything. The tour guide would shepherd them under the swinging Cantish Men pub-sign and into the Lounge, which now had muddy straw spread across its bare boards. The pub sign, which depicted three rustic bumpkins, one picking his fat, red nose, had originally been designed specifically to insult the local clientele. 

Another masterstroke, declared judges of the Bolshiest contest.
An attachment now swung below the colourful bumpkins. Home of 

Inglnd’s Bolshiest Publican, it read. 

Gorgy hated that declaration too, nearly as much as she hated the new tourist customers, but not as much as she hated the bar-top menus that boasted Inglnd’s Worst Beer and Pub Food. 

Yet another thing she hated was sharing the back-of-bar area with her mum, Crackers, and her sisters, Wensleydale and Stilton. But she had to admit that her single pair of hands couldn’t cope with womaning two bars and serving food and drink to dozens of people at a rush. 

Just such a rush was in progress when Cheryl and Van arrived in the yard aboard the Phantom, which parked at the back of the yard, as far away as possible from a rather common cream and green, single- decker tourist coach. The Phantom was a bit snobbish and believed that ideally, buses should be in a separate, commercial area. Anyway, with tourists there was always the chance they might lay sticky fingers on the Phantom’s smart new paintwork while gawping at the majestic vehicle. If they sampled the food and drink offered by the Cantish Men, projectile vomiting was also a marked possibility. 

“Aarh, ’allo, Mister Van,” said a grizzled, be-smocked elder seated at a trestle table near the Public bar door. “You be back agin, then?” he added helpfully. 

This was the Old Man, the acknowledged sage of the village. He always greeted Van in the same fashion, just in case Van might have lost track of where he was, or developed amnesia since they’d last met. 

The Old Man might have once had a proper, ordinary name but as long as anyone could recall he had been known as the Old Man. 

Ordinarily Van would have escorted Cheryl into either the Saloon or Lounge bars. 

“I shouldn’t go in there, if I be you,” added the Old Man, nodding towards the Lounge door. “Tourists,” he spat, and would have spat some beer to go with it, to emphasise the point, if Cheryl hadn’t been present. 

“Nice to see you too, mate,” replied Van. “Alright, let’s see if I can get into the Public then. Cheryl, what d’you fancy?” 

“Oh, just shandy please, Van,” she said. 

“Ar, I wouldn’t do that either, if I be you, Miss,” the Old Man butted in. “Shandy? That ’as beer in it, don’ it? You don’ want to be doin anything stupid like that.” 

“Yes, you can take his word for that, Cheryl. I’d better see if they’ve got any wine.” 

“Alright, if you say so, but only a small one then,” she agreed. Then looking at the tankard set before the Old Man she asked him: 

“But what are you drinkin then?” 

“Oh, that’s very nice of you thanks, Miss, I’ll have a large scotch,” he shot back. 

“You know that’s not what she meant, you old git,” said Van. 

“No, alright, worth a try,” he mumbled. “Yer, this is beer, Miss.” He glared at the pot scornfully. “Bin ’avin to drink it for years, like. Ever since Septic’s dad died, an’ ’e took over. Started makin’ ’is own, see, down in the cellar. We’re immune now, see Miss, us locals.” 

“That’s amazin’,” said Cheryl. “Mind if I sit down? 

“An’ you don’t ’ave to call me ‘Miss’. My name’s Cheryl, by the way. Wiv a ‘C’; not an ‘S’. 

He looked at her warily, unsure whether a ‘C’ or an ‘S’ indicated some new religion, or worse, gender, that hadn’t yet filtered into HtnmWytht. 

“Oh right, pleased to meet yer; I’m the Old Man.”
He looked at the pretty blonde girl carefully.
“But ... you are a miss, ain’t y’? I get a bit mixed up sometimes, see.” 

He was thinking back to a young trainee, a No Fear reporter of dubious sexuality who had been embedded at the Cantish Men a couple of years before. That was the time of the Bolshy contest and the national scandal stirred up by the paper over a projected road into HtnmWytht. Despite Van’s assuring the Old Man that Michael Harris (or Haris Michaels as he/she preferred to be by-lined later) was (at that time) a boy the Old Man was unconvinced. 

“I were just tellin’ Cheryl ’ere about not tryin’ the beer,” he said to Van who had made it back through the crowd around the public bar door unscathed, despite having two hands full with a tray of drinks. 

He’d brought a bottle of white wine, two glasses, a pint of Septic best bitter (or least-worse, depending upon your point of view) and a glass of whisky. 

“There you go,” said Van, passing the scotch across to the village elder. “That might take the taste of the beer away.” 

They all drank. 

“Hmm, luvly,” said Cheryl. “Nuffing like warm white wine, is there?” 

“Sorry, Cheryl; but I did warn you it was the worst pub in the country.” 

“Never mind, Van. I’ve ’ad worse. But this gentleman was tellin’ me that the people down ’ere are immune to the ’orrible beer!” 

“That’s right, Miss, I mean, Cheryl,” the Old Man nodded. “Not to the food of course. Can’t get immune to that, cos you don’t eat it o’ course if you got any sense.” 

He paused to drain the scotch, cross himself, sip the beer and shudder, and then continue. 

“I told that bus driver last time, tell ’em not to eat anything! Buy it as souvenirs if you like, I said. Like the bottles of beer. Don’ drink that either. Not meant to be drunk. That’s even worse than the draught, that is.” 

A sudden flurry of action outside the Lounge Bar cut short his diatribe. An elderly couple had exited the pub in a rush, hands clamped to mouths. They were clad in matching Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, which were so totally inappropriate for the Inglsh climate that they were only allowed, by common law, to be worn by tourists. Frantically looking around for privacy and shelter, and seeing nothing but low, scrubby bushes at the edge of the car-park; the desperate pair scooted to the far side of the cream and green coach. 

“Aaoh, see? That’s what I mean,” said the Old Man as faint sounds of retching reached them, much to the amusement of the locals crowded outside the Public Bar. 

“Lavatory must be full up, I s’pose. Nice of ’em to go outside though, not make a mess on that straw. I ’eard Gorgy put new stuff down last weekend.” 

“It’s unbelievable. People are payin’ good money to ’ave an ’orrible time,” said Cheryl. “Surely it can’t last, this worst pubs lark?” 

“Werll, Cheryl, I dunno. I s’pose they be makin’ lots of money. Never thought I would say it but, miserable an’ ’orrible as she is, even Gorgy don’t deserve this.” 

“No, don’t she? If you say so. That’s a funny name though, ‘Gorgy’, ennit?” asked Cheryl. 

“Funny? Wot yer mean,” asked the Old Man. 

“You have to remember that everything in HtnmWytht is a bit different from the rest of the country, Cheryl,” Van explained. “They do things their own way, here.” 

The Rennet family were a good example of HtnmWytht perversity, he explained. They were the village’s cheese-makers and to them it was quite logical to name their offspring after varieties of cheese. 

Gorgy’s father was named Cheddar, after his father, and grandfather before him. It was the cheese on which the family fortune was founded. They made nothing else. The first-born was always named Cheddar. Over the years the family had learned of other cheese types, even exotic foreign ones. They would never consider making anything of the kind, but they did like the sound of the names. Gorgonzola was actually envied her foreign individuality by sisters Wensleydale and Stilton. They had only one brother, and he had been given a distinctive, classy double-barrelled first name – Stinking Bishop. Gorgy’s mother was not born a Rennet, of course. But to show solidarity with family tradition she changed her first name to Crackers when she was wed to Cheddar, her childhood sweetheart. 

“So, how do the people feel about ’aving visitors in HtnmWytht,” Cheryl asked the Old Man. 

“Aaoh, we don’t mind a few, like you an’ Mister Van, see? But some of they tourists even wander about the village. We don’t like that much, poking they cameras at us like we’s not normal. No, that’s no good. Bloody Septic.” 

Cheryl had been amazed by Lossit’s. She was stunned by Htnm. Leaving the bottle of white wine to become even warmer in care of the village elder, she was given a brief tour of the village by Van. A short walk down the unmade track known euphemistically as the High Street revealed rows of mediaeval looking cottages. There were no power lines, no phone cables. 

“All the outside world stops at the pub,” Van explained. “Everything that’s delivered to HtnmWytht, such as the mail, is left there for villagers to collect. If they can be bothered, that is. 

“Did you notice when we drove in, at one time the council or somebody had started laying a proper road? All that broken concrete and tar and stuff? It didn’t take, according to the Old Man. He says it’s the same with telephones, electricity, the lot. 

“He reckons it ‘won’t take’. Suggests the village rejects anything from the outside world.” 

“It’s really ... funny, this place ennit?” 

“Funny ha-ha?” 

“Nah; funny, you know. Not just the pub, the whole place. Feels a bit unreal, like bein’ on a film set or suvvink. Weird. Not frightening weird, but friendly weird; almost sort of, what’s that word like be ... er ... been?” 

“Benign?” (Van was a wordsmith, after all; an unpublished author, yet.) 

“Yeah ,that’s it, benign. Sort of a ‘smiling’ word ennit?” 

“I reckon you’re right, luv. I’ve always thought it was an unthreatening place. Fey, that’s what you are.” 

“Nah, I’m Cheryl. I’ve got an old aunt called Fay though; Great- Auntie Fay, that’s her.” 

Van really wasn’t sure if she was gee-ing him up. Girl had hidden depths, for sure. He liked her more all the time. They walked back to the Cantish Men. Cheryl said she really ought to borrow the pub phone to call Vincent and report the successful dumping of the newspapers. 

“It’s probably going to be too late to get back to the office now, Vincent,” she told her boss. “Yeah, it’s all done. Watched ’em disappear. Yes, we are at the pub, actually. No, we’re not. It’s the only place wiv a phone, that’s all.” 

She rolled her eyes at Van. 

“ ’e thinks we’re ’aving a jolly ’oliday,” she mouthed, hand over the mouthpiece. 

“Yeah, I’ll fetch you a stick of rock then, shall I? No, better still, ’ow about a slice of pizza? They’ve got a special on ... ’old on, it’s,” she picked up a souvenir counter menu, “herring and cheese with gherkins. I’ll fetch a bottle of this Septic beer an’ all. I’m sure Les would be interested in that.” She giggled. “Right, seeya in the morning.” 


CHAPTER 19 

Ready to roll 

Strike Week 3 Thursday March 21 

“MISS Rabbia was well impressed. An’ that was before ’e slipped ’er a bottle of port!” 

Vincent was beaming. 

“I reckon this is goin’ to work out alright, Cher. Come on, I’ll treat y’ to lunch down the Cheese to celebrate. Len’s out there; he’ll look after any customers that turn up.” 

At ten o’clock that morning Van and Vincent had glided into an underground car park below the offices of US Sport and Games on Cannon Street precisely on time to make the pre-arranged pick-up of 1500 copies of The Game. The papers were waiting for them, rolled, labelled, boxed and presided over by Miss Rabbia, who was looking formidable. 

She was all business, attired in a three-piece parody of the formal City suit cum uniform favoured by the bankers, business men, fixers, hangers-on and underlings. All of them purported to be ‘gentlemen’ but it was the latter, underlings and dogsbodies, who made up 99-per cent of the business district’s daytime population. 

Miss Rabbia – she would never admit to having a first name – had been instructed by her New York bosses to ‘fit-in’ with the little Inglndrs. Consequently, tucked into her waistcoat was an obscure club tie decorated with alligators chewing a basketball. A small bowler-hat (which she called a derby) hung on the hat-stand in her office; and she wore shiny black Oxford shoes. White socks were her only letdown. 

But Miss’s rigid demeanour crumpled, just slightly, when the LPS team drove into her basement in a vintage Rolls-Royce. 

“Yeah, gobsmacked is, I believe, the correct term for it,” Vincent suggested, lifting a pre-lunch pint in the Cheese’s front bar. 

“Cheers, Vince,” said Cheryl, safely back on shandy now she was in a civilised hostelry. “Aoh, nearly forgot. This is for you, Les, souvenir from the worst pub in Inglnd.” 

She pulled a pint bottle of Septic Ale from her shoulder bag and slid it across the bar. 

“So what did she say, Vince, Miss no-name Rabbia?” 

“Oh yeah, something about ‘I thought you were bringing a van’, and I says, no, you got me wrong there. I said I would be bringing Van, and this is ’im! 

“An’ then, ’e only does a little bow an’ gives ’er a kiss on the ’and! What a right con-man, eh? She looked a bit funny about that ... sort of wary ...” 

“Of course, she would, ’er bein’ in the Mafia like you said,” put in Les. “Probably ’er lot only do that when they’re gonna kill yer,” he added with an attempt at what he thought might be a Sicilian gangster- boss’s shrug – shoulders up, hands spread wide, face set to vaguely apologetic. 

“Then they ’it you over the ’ead with a big frozen cod, wrapped in newspaper. Probably an old copy of The Game. Sleep with the fishes, that’s what they say.” 

“What are you on about, Les?” 

“Yeah, I saw it in a film. ‘It’s not personal, just business.’ They say that a lot, an’ all.” 

“Dunno, prob’ly,” Vincent agreed. “She does ’ave a real strong foreign accent though. Anyway, I says, we decided that to avoid any trouble with unions and pickets and such, the company Rolls would be a perfect disguise, see? No-one’s gonna think we’re carrying mail and stuff in a Roller are they? 

“And she looked well impressed, see. She says, ‘that seems very sensible, Meester X’. With that funny foreign accent see? Meester. 

“So we’re loading up the boxes, and I see she’s squizzing around the motor. So I ask ’er, anyfing wrong Miss Rabbia? No, no problem Meester X, she says. I jus’ think perhaps Meester Big Smiffy, ’e might be ’ere today? 

“Blimey, I thought, p’raps she really did fancy ’im? So I said no, he’s gotta look after his old mum today, she’s not well. They love all that family stuff, y’know, them Italians, or whatever she is.” 

“Don’t go against the family, Vincent,” faux-Sicilian Les cut in again. 

“Do leave off, Les. That’s when Van nips into the front, brings ’er out a bottle of port.” 

“I bet not many delivery drivers do that,” said Les, back on familiar cockney ground. “Course, he gets it cheap don’t he? I expect he’ll stick it on his expenses though.” 

“Huh, I expect she’ll be after ’im now,” said Cheryl with one of her more contemptuous sniffs. These she saved up for any potentially predatory female who made a move into her territory. 

“That reminds me, Vincent, have you discussed money with Van, how much we’re going to pay him and that?” asked Cheryl. 

“Come on, let’s go and get a table and I’ll explain it,” said Vince. 

“OK. Oh, Les ... that beer I brought you. Whatever you do, don’t drink it!” Cheryl said. “The locals down in Cant say you have to be immune or it does you right up. It’s just a souvenir, alright?” 

In the ground-floor restaurant, manager Bill was wearing his lugubrious face. 

“Still a bit quiet then, Bill?” suggested Vincent. “Never mind. Room for two?” 

“Well, it is a Thursday,” added Cheryl. “Probably always quiet, Thursdays?” 

Bill was not to be cheered up. 

“No love,” he said. “Always about the same, every day, until that new bleedin’ Septic pub, excuse my French, started up and nicked half our lunch business.” 

He sighed.
“Anyway, something to drink first?”
“Yeah, some more of that nice claret, if y’ got any left, Bill, thanks,” 

asked Vincent.
Bill went to search the cellar and left them to contemplate the menu 

and decide what kind of beef they would eat today. 102 

“Well fed-up ain’t ’e? Don’t fink I’ll tell ’im about visiting the opposition down in Cant,” said Cheryl. “So, Van’s got the first load ready to go today then?” 

The plan worked out with Miss Rabbia was straightforward. The Game printed in New York and published three times a week. The Saturday paper was a bumper edition carrying all the previews and fixtures for the weekend. After the weekend all the results, match reports and analysis were stuffed into a Tuesday edition. Two days later the Thursday Game was the lightest, a digest surveying the sports scene, with profiles of players, other features and any minor results from across Amurika. 

Overseas copies of the papers for Yoorup were rolled and addressed and air-freighted, hot from the presses, on night flights in the early hours of publication days, Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday. Normally, if the post office was operating, punters across Yoorup could read their Game only a couple of days after readers back in the good old USA. 

“Yeah,” said Vincent. “The deal is we pick up from Miss Rabbia twice a week, get them on the ferry and all being well, into the French post the same day. 

“This week’s a bit different. Van’s got the backlog on the way now, and ’e’s got to collect another lot tomorrow, take it over on Saturday.” “We’re really lucky to ’ave ’im, I reckon,” said Cheryl. “Good idea 

of mine, wasn’t it? So ’ow much are we paying’ ’im, Vince?”
“He doesn’t seem bothered really, Cher. Says he’ll cover the costs and then let us know ’ow much we owe ’im. Fair enough, cos we don’t 

really know ’ow much it’ll all come to until after the first proper run. “I do know he plans to do a deal with that manager of the little post office in Calais again. Take him a few bottles of booze and get him to 

frank all the mail.”
“That sounds good, Vince. Mind you, after the shambles we ’ad with 

the three stooges, anyfing sounds good.
“I noticed the little one, Elfie, ’e wasn’t on picket duty – if you can 

call it that – this morning. Can’t even turn up on time to do nuffink, that one.” 

“Dunno, Cher. I did ask Len about that and ’e said he thought Elfie ’ad gone for an interview, for a new job. A lot of the postmen ’ave given it away, y’know. Can’t manage on the strike pay.” 

“Yes, but what else can a dope like that Elfie do? I’m surprised he was bright enough to find the right slot to stuff the letters in.” 

“Len said somefing about a club up West, workin’ as some sort of porter. That’s if ’e gets past the interview.” 

Bill arrived with the wine. 

“Have a drop yourself, Bill, might cheer you up a bit,” said Vincent. 

“Right, cheers,” said Bill. “Hold on a minute; punters!” 

Leaving his glass of claret untouched on their table Bill galloped to the door to greet two middle-aged Asian couples. 

“That’ll pick him up,” said Cheryl. “Ooh, wait a minute, one of those blokes doesn’t look too clever, does he?” 

Manager Bill was escorting back to the door one of the would-be diners, who was definitely looking paler than he should, and holding a large white handkerchief to his mouth,. Bill pointed him along the corridor, past the usual mob gathered at the front-bar hatch, towards the gent’s toilet. 

“I saw somefink like that when we was down in Cant,” Cheryl whispered to Vincent. “I bet’cha they’ve bin over the road to that new Septic pub before coming in ’ere. That poor bloke must’ve tasted the beer.” 

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