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Pirates of Fleet Street, Chapter 12 to 16

CHAPTER 12 

Septic Hangnail 

SHE WOULD never let on, especially to her new business partner, but he was a gift. If he didn’t exist, no-one, not even the Wicked Witch of the West, could have created him. During the Bolshy contest 

many nasty, crooked, unhygienic, evil and conniving publicans had been named and shamed by No Fear. Mostly they had been nominated by outraged pub customers. Some had even been outed by their own wives, or husbands. Septic Hangnail was the only one who had written to the paper claiming that he was the country’s Bolshiest Publican. 

Hangnail was ambitious. He had read about diabolical pub landlords who had briefly boosted their trade after being named Bolshy Publican of the month. 

In the Eestend of Lundn a defrocked Cardinal had hired a couple of barmaids who dressed as nuns for the start of their session and slowly disrobed during the course of the evening. The ex-churchman also offered séances in the back-bar after hours. 

There was a German stand-up comedian running what he called a theatre pub, right in the heart of the capital. He did reasonable business until he thought to improve his act by hiring a voice-coach and professional scriptwriters. He was stunned to find that once his jokes were genuinely funny the pub emptied. Such is show business. 

A convicted fraudster, who was also an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Hang ’em and Flog ’em party used a backstreet boozer in the Midlands as a cover for an elaborate ponzi scheme. He offered one share in the racket for every ten pints purchased. 

Septic Hangnail’s ambitions would have stayed unfulfilled however, if the Bolshy Publican judging panel hadn’t arrived in HtnmWytht to inspect his miserable hostelry when a riot was in progress. 

Newspaper sub-editors are rightly loathed and despised by their colleagues. They emasculate deathless prose over which dedicated reporters have laboured, sometimes for minutes on end. 

Subs ridicule and trivialise vital stories of earth-shattering importance, by topping them with headlines made up of the shortest words in the Inglsh language – ‘because it has to fit’. 

But occasionally, rarely, their dark art deserves grudging credit. 

No Fear’s front page headline on the Sunday in question followed a half-hearted protest in HtnmWytht over a planned road. It was an outstanding example of a total beat-up. Using their biggest type (the ancient three-inch high letters known in the trade as woodcuts) they splashed: 

rooteD! 

across the full width of the front page. 

This was underpinned – mainly for the joy of alliteration but also to emphasise to the dimmer-witted readers the sub’s clever wordplay with ‘root’ and ‘route’ – in slightly smaller type: 

roAD roUte rIot 

and 

‘WorSt PUB’ SHoCK roCKS loSt folK 

Between the sub-headings was a huge picture of the Cantish Men sign-board, in full colour, portraying imbecilic yokels. It was captioned: 

He’s the pits – Septic Hangnail voted Bolshiest Publican (more inside) 

There was no room left for the story on the front page, but Elphaba summed it all up in a single paragraph. 

‘PITY mounts for the cursed people of lost-village HtnmWytht, already reeling as their only pub is named and shamed as perhaps Inglnd’s worst. Now – Motorway Madness threatens their idyllic home!’ 

Inside, her hard-hitting editorial was headlined: 

NIMFYs’ fight is our fight 

‘Some call them NIMFYs – Not In My Front Yardies. Maybe they are. 

But don’t judge the simple country-folk of HtnmWytht until YOU have gigantic lorries just six inches away from your front door, thundering through your ancestral village, flattening your chickens and rabbits. 

Maybe you’ll be a NIMFY too, when the beautiful gardens you have cherished for centuries are ground-down under inches of cruel, heartless concrete? 

Maybe you’ll be a NIMFY when your doors and windows are nailed up, because you can’t even look out without having your head torn off by a juggernaut? 

Maybe you’ll be a NIMFY when the only way in and out of your picturesque olde-worlde cottage is through the back kitchen window? 

No Fear says No More.
It’s time to halt the remorseless destruction of our fine Inglsh 

heritage.
Let it end here.
No Way to HtnmWytht! 

No Fear had made HtnmWytht’s plight national news. 

Of course competing Sunday scandal sheets spotted the whole scam as a beat-up for Elphaba’s dodgy landlord contest and ignored it completely. But plenty more media were sucked in. 

If No Fear had any really discerning readers they would have been hard-pressed to find details about the ‘Motorway’ that was going to plough up the ancient village of HtnmWytht. 

They learned only that ‘a reliable source’ had told our investigative team ‘in confidence’ that a powerful ‘local entity’ was negotiating ‘with un-named authorities’ and ‘official bodies’ to implement a ‘wide-reaching strategy’ involving transport and development in or around the ‘ancient, lost village’ of HtnmWytht. 

Stories scattered across inside pages were headed with the simple, ever-reliable words Shock, Scam, Horror. But they were all about the Cantish Men, its grotesque guv’nor and his wife. 

The food and beer had to be experienced to be believed, they read. ‘You will be amazed, appalled, and No Fear will give readers the chance to have that experience, on our special readers’ Shock Horror coach outings’. 

Even though she was miles away back in Lundn when the ‘riot’ occurred, Elphaba wrote herself into the story that led page three with the bare-faced lie that the crowd was set to lynch the publican. 

editor saves life of Worst Publican in the land 

Septimus ‘Septic’ Hangnail may be Inglnd’s Bolshiest Publican but he doesn’t deserve to hang. 

That would have been his fate if pure chance hadn’t led me and my hardy team of Bolshiest Publican judges down the rough, beaten track to HtnmWytht that fateful day. 

Finding a riot in progress outside the Cantish Men I leapt from our bus and into the fray with no thought for my own safety. 

Fighting through the crowd of enraged locals, with just my Press pass for protection, I barred the door into the saloon bar where a terrified Mr Hangnail and his faithful wife Gorgy cowered. 

The mob was momentarily halted, awed, I believe, by the sight of a solitary woman (in bright red boots) standing up against them. 

I have no doubt that this hesitation saved the life of the Hangnails who would certainly have been hanging from their own pub sign without my timely intervention. 

“Stop this madness,” I cried. “Why don’t we all settle down, over a drink of your favourite ale, and you can talk to me about your problems?” 

That seemed to do the trick. 

(It was also a brilliant ruse to justify the enormous expenses claim filed by Elphaba that week.) 

Speaking to the villagers – who seemed calmer, almost comatose in some cases – as they supped deeply of Mr Hangnail’s home-made brew I uncovered the true source of their anxiety. 

It was bad enough that HtnmWytht’s only pub, their one place of communal comfort, solace and shelter was without a shadow of doubt the worst pub in the land. A teary-eyed village elder, who wished to be known only as ‘the Old Man’, spoke to me. 

(Please note that I have translated the old gentleman’s words into Inglsh, as the HtnmWytht dialect cannot be written down and is unintelligible to everyone but trained linguists and journalists.) 

“They say there’s going to be a motorway coming through and destroying the village,” he sobbed. “That’s bad enough. But they also reckon it’ll knock down the pub. We can’t ’ave that. It’s a rotten pub but it’s our rotten pub. If anyone’s gonna knock it down we will. That’s what we thought anyway.” 

I tried reasoning with the crowd of men and women. At least I think some of them were women. It’s hard to tell in HtnmWytht, as they all look very much alike, have the same smocks and wellington boots; and all of them are mostly covered in mud. 

“Alright, I see what you mean, but why not wait and see if it’s really going to happen. Sometimes these things sound worse than they really are,” I suggested. 

The mob quietened down a bit more then, and I suggested another round of drinks for the several hundred assembled villagers, which seemed to help even more. 

“And anyway, why did you want to hang Mr Hangnail,” I asked one villager, who had a massive roll of rope over his shoulder. “He’s got nothing to do with any new road.” 

“Oh that,” he replied, “no special reason really; but we never did like him.” 


CHAPTER 13 

Van is Hooked 

Strike Week 3 Tuesday March 18 

THEIR meeting at the Cheshire Cheese was going well, thought Vincent X. Time to broche the sensitive topic of work.
“So, Van, Cheryl wondered if you’re planning any more mail runs 

over to the continent?” he said. “Cos, to be straight wiv yer, we’ve bin strugglin’ a bit wiv our transport division.” 

“Yeah, Vincent was wonderin’ if you could take some stuff for us? If you were thinkin’ of goin’ again?” added Cheryl 

“Ah well,” replied Van. “Nothing happening right now in that regard. Bit of a one-off, that packet I had to get posted. But I do still drive down to Cant, about once a week and it’s not much further to the coast. Er ... would you be thinking of another trip, Cheryl?” 

“Well, don’t know about that, Van. Very important in the office, is our Cheryl. Don’t know if we could really spare her,” said Vincent hastily. 

Cheryl felt one of her flushes coming on and buried her nose in the wine glass. 

“Ah, pity,” said Van. “Still, perhaps if it was at a weekend ...?”
He sipped at his pint.
“Anyway, I wouldn’t mind a chance to take the old Phantom for a 

run down to the coast. How many letters do you send, usually?” “Well that’s the thing, Van. Not just letters, see. It might mean taking the motor on the car-ferry to France. That’s bin our problem wiv, er ..., 

the previous helpers.
“We have this contract now to take newspapers over there. When 

Cheryl said you had that big motor, that’s when I thought you might be able to fit them in.” 

Cheryl had overcome her embarrassment. 

“Oh yeah, Vincent, about that; remember I said that Miss Rabbia called, just before I left the office? Perhaps you ought to ’ave a talk to ’er before you ask Van about the papers, eh? 

“She said something about the papers we’ve already collected might be too out of date.” 

“Right, Cher, I’ll nip back and give ’er a bell. Sorry about this, Van. Listen, tell you what, why don’t you and Cher have some lunch? On LPS of course. Should be plenty of room in the restaurant according to Les. 

“I might ’ave to go an’ see her, our client. Depends. But it’s only up the hill in the City, shouldn’t take long. Cher, just ask Bill to put it on my account, alright?” 

“What account, you ain’t got no account ...” Cheryl started to say but Vincent X was already on his way out of the bar. 

Van grinned. 

“Sorry, Van, ’e puts it on a bit sometimes, but ’e’s a decent bloke really. Just trying to impress you, that’s all.” 

“No problem, Cheryl. We all do a bit of bull-shittin’ at times,” Van laughed. “But he obviously values you; bit possessive even? Never mind, let’s take him up on that lunch offer eh?” 

Settled in the half-empty ground-floor restaurant of the Cheshire Cheese, Cheryl and Van scanned the mock-parchment menus that Bill placed before them with an overly theatrical flourish. He obviously had time on his hands. 

As in all the bars, the restaurant’s authentic original timber floor was strewn with sawdust. It supported robust, wooden high-sided banquettes which provided most of the seating, together with leather- padded settles. 

The pub’s bill of fayre was heavy on ‘traditional olde-Inglsh’ and dominated by beef in every possible form, roast, stewed, grilled or boiled. 

“Wot’s this, Bill, ‘Baby’s Head’?” Cheryl asked with a grimace. 67 

“Oh yes, very tasty that,” replied the maitre d’. “It’s meat, beef of course, and some other stuff, all bunged in a sort of suet pudding. Round and smooth it is; looks like a baby’s head.” 

“That’s really disgusting, Bill.” 

She shuddered. “I fink I’ll ‘just ’ave steak.” 

Bill recommended rump and when both agreed to abide by his judgement he politely asked whether they preferred the meat well- done, or very well-done? 

“I fink I’d like it medium, please Bill, a bit pink in the middle like, if that’s not too much trouble?” asked Cheryl. 

“Course not, Cher, course not, for you. I’ll tell chef it’s a special order. Can I make that two mediums, sir, so as not to confuse ’im?” 

“That’s fine with me, Bill, and can you find a nice Bordeaux to go with it?” said Van. “It’s alright, Cheryl, I’ll get this,” he said as Bill retreated to the front bar to ask Les what Bordeaux was. 

“Now what were you saying about papers being out of date?” 

Cheryl told the sorry tale of Len, Elfie and Big Smiffy’s short-lived excursion in a borrowed post-office van. Their cargo was already venerable at that time, having lingered in storage near the airport for several days. Now it was sprouting whiskers. 

“Fing is, this Miss Rabbia, who’s our biggest client, reckons that by the time her subscribers all over Yoorup get their Yankee sports news it’ll be well out of date.” 

“What are they called, these newspapers, Cheryl,” Van interrupted. “It’s called ‘The Game’. Well that’s what Vince says she calls it. 

Proper name is US Sports and Games.” 

“Never heard of it,” said Van. 

“Nobody round ’ere ’as either,” agreed Cheryl. She giggled. “Vince reckons it’s summink to do wiv the Mafia!” 

“Let’s hope not Cheryl. We’ve got enough villains of our own over here.” 

His mind wandered off briefly to his partners, and Gouts. 

“So did your Miss Rabbia say what she wants to do with the ones that are out of date? I don’t expect she wants to pay for them to go to Yoorup now.” 

“No, don’t suppose so. Just ’ope Vincent can convince ’er that we can get a move on an’ deliver the ones that have arrived since. We’ll probably ’ave to dump the old stuff. 

“They definitely can’t stop in the corridor of Smiffy’s mum’s flat!” 

Van thought for a moment and finished his pint. Bill arrived with a bottle of red wine. 

“I think this is what you ordered, sir?” he asked. He had consulted Les, the drinks specialist, who had explained to his partner that Bordeaux was what all right-thinking Inglshmen called claret. 

“Well, why didn’t he say so?” Bill responded. “Probably a foreigner. Bloody Frogs, why can’t they use the proper Inglsh names, eh? Especially now we’re in the YEC?” 

Back at the table he mastered the cork-extraction process without resorting to the bottle-between-the-knees position; examined and sniffed the cork; poured an inch into Van’s glass and waited expectantly. 

Playing his part, Van held the glass against the light and considered the colour. “Yes, it’s definitely a red,” he said, winking at Cheryl. Then, after a quick sniff of the wine: “Go on mate, pour it out, I’m sure we can trust you.” 

“Coo!” Cheryl was definitely impressed. She already thought he was a gent; now she was convinced. 

“I remember now, you talkin’ in French. What did you call it, the wine, Bordeaux? That’s a town, ennit?” 

“Ah yeah, they named the wine after it. But it’s all b.s. really Cheryl.” 

Their steaks arrived, plated up and accompanied by mounds of vegetables and Yorkshire pudding and were followed promptly by Vincent X, who dragged a chair up to their table and shouted to Bill for another glass. 

“What’s this, claret? Lovely, don’t mind if I do,” he beamed. 

“Well you look like it went alright, Vincent,” said Cheryl. 

“Yes, young Cheryl, you know you can rely on me to sort out problems! It’s alright, she’s going to carry on with the LPS. From now on she’s organising the pick-up from the airport and we’re gonna collect from her office every couple of days.” 

He swigged the Bordeaux.
69 

“Nice drop.” He called across to Bill. “Didn’t know you ’ad wine this good! Bin keepin’ it to yourself, eh?” 

“So what about these out-of-date copies?” asked Van. 

“That’s sorted, sort of. She’s putting a note in with each new paper to say sorry about the missed editions, all bin lost, and blaming the post office. She’s gonna give the punters a refund. 

“Only thing is ... she wants us to dump the backlog, make sure no- one sees ’em. Could be a bit embarrassing, she says.” 

“Praps she is in the Mafia?” suggested Cheryl. 

“Never mind about ‘the family’, Cher, I’m more worried about Smiffy’s family, especially ’is mum, right now. She’s sittin’ on a couple of thousand papers in that flat.” 

“What can we do then?” asked Cheryl. “Can’ just take ’em to the tip, I s’pose? Bit too public.” 

“That’s right. Could wait till Guy Fawkes’ night and ’ave a bonfire I s’pose. But we still ’ave to hide ’em somewhere, and that’s, what, months’ off? ’ere Bill, let’s ’ave another bottle of this, whatever it is,” Vincent called to the manager, sharing the red around their three glasses. 

“I’d better ’ave something to eat as well, I reckon. Bit of a celebration called for, eh? What you got there, you two? Steak is it? Looks a bit of a funny colour.” 

Bill arrived with the Bordeaux. 

“I’ll ’ave one of them, please Bill,” Vincent said, pointing at Van’s plate. “But cooked proper, nice and brown in the middle, black on the outside, alright?” 

“Cheers!” The glasses clinked. 

“Look Vince, I’ve been thinking. I might be able to help you out with all this transport trouble, starting with your backlog,” said Van. 

“I happen to know a place where they’re really good at losing things, and I call in there most weeks.” 

“That’s great mate, ta!” said Vincent. 

“Where is this place, Van?” asked Cheryl 

“Remember I told you about that terrible publican, the bloke who was crowned the bolshiest publican in Inglnd? Well his diabolical pub 

is in a place called HtnmWytht, down in Cant. I’ve been there plenty of times because one of my partners has a business hidden away in the woods there. They specialise in hiding and losing things. 

“Stand on me, once I drop your Games at Lossit’s they’ll never be seen again.” 


CHAPTER 14 

Dickie’s tale 

Strike Week 3 Tuesday March 18 

DICKIE Dix was hard at work in the front bar when the trio left the pub. Crouched at a table near the fireplace – but clear of the dangerous-drop area below Perce, the African grey parrot – the grizzled veteran was squinting at a ring-top reporter’s notebook, deciphering his scribbled shorthand notes and muttering into his reel- to-reel recorder. 

Since he had drunk his way out of gainful employment on most of the Street’s papers the front bar was now the closest thing to a proper workplace Dickie could manage. Whenever his wife lost patience with his cluttering up the tiny mews flat they shared in a shabby part of north Lundn, Dickie would generally head towards Fleet Street, like a homing pigeon. In fact, he claimed, he couldn’t work properly at home anyway. He needed the buzz of the Street. And there was no bar in the marital flat. 

Although he didn’t put much cash across the bar Les and Bill tolerated Dickie, who was always affable, even when he could afford to get drunk. 

They agreed that he added colour to the boozer, in his old-time reporter’s uniform of trench-coat and soft brown trilby. Not every tourist expected to find Doctor Johnson in the Cheese, but they might well be impressed by a real, live Fleet Street hack practising his trade. 

With a pint of bitter and a drained whisky glass in front of him, and a liquorice-paper roll-up between his lips, ruddy-faced Dickie Dix might have been a stock character in any 1940s black and white British film. Except, in real life, during those dark days Dickie had played the much more hazardous role of a wartime British commando. The enemy wouldn’t have described Dickie as affable. 

“It was great, the war,” he once told Vincent, with a grin, after several scotches. “We used to go out at night in a rubber dinghy and paddle up the coast to get behind their lines. Then you creep up on a few sentries and ...” he made a horizontal slicing action that made Vince jump. “Do a few of ’em, just to get ’em worried, then back in the boat and paddle home again!” 

Dickie’s war was another reason the pub managers accepted his daily presence. 

“You never know, he might still ’ave that big commando knife in ’is bag,” said Les. 

Paradoxically, the little that Dickie now earned came from sales of bodice-rippers. It wasn’t hard for a man so deeply versed in tabloid journalism to churn out these lurid paperbacks, the front-covers of which were always adorned with an about-to-be-ravaged heroine in period un-dress. For extra authenticity, and to preserve his own professional integrity, he wrote under a variety of female pseudonyms. 

“Should anyone come in askin’ for Felicity Golightly, send ’em over to see Dickie,” Les instructed his bar staff. 

But this day, with the nation’s biggest ever postal strike well under way the old reporter’s nose was twitching. The nationals might not have thought it through yet but he sensed that this strike could change the country forever. He would be proved right. 

‘The union only wanted a three-pounds a week rise for its 200,000 workers who between them were responsible for millions of pieces of mail delivered every day all over the D-UK,’ Dickie Dix intoned into the machine. ‘That wasn’t much but it amounted to a 15-20 per cent increase. The Post Office said ‘no’ because it would have cost them £50m. 

‘Workers walked out and so began the country’s first-ever national post strike. 

‘But they didn’t want to disadvantage old and sick people and union workers opened some post offices for a few hours each week to pay pensions and other benefits. 

‘Strikers struggled to manage on the few quid a week the union could hand out. Some found cash work elsewhere while the Post Office signed up any organisation that offered to make mail deliveries. 

‘All over the country people said “How hard can it be?” and set themselves up as postmen. They soon found out that without a huge workforce it’s impossible to collect letters and deliver them to the 50 million or more addresses all over the D-UK. 

‘One ‘entrepreneur’ tried to co-ordinate groups of kids in major cities, and had them sending batches of mail by train to and fro all across the country. He had the cheek to call himself ‘the Postmaster- General’ and called his ‘service’ Inter-City, a name stolen from the railway system they used to connect all the hopeless would-be juvenile postmen. 

‘By and large, delivering letters inside the D-UK was a washout. The only postal pirates who could justifiably claim to provide an efficient service were those who guaranteed to deliver mail abroad.’ 

The reporter would doggedly follow the strike story to its conclusion. He had privileged insight into the shenanigans of union members and the endeavours of postal pirates who honestly did their best to deliver a tiny proportion of the daily mail generated by a nation of 60-millon people. Dickie did a thorough job but the shocking true story of the first and longest postal strike in the history of the D-UK wouldn’t emerge until long after his book crept onto the news-stands. Dickie rewrote it but the exposé and update went nowhere. Such was the power and influence of the perpetrators that neither Dickie’s publisher, nor any other, would touch the story. 

Yet the old-time newshound would finally have his day. He might have coined the phrase ‘if you can’t beat ’em, outlive ’em’ because despite practising a casual disregard for ‘looking after yourself’; self- medicating only with only tried and trusted substances – alcohol and nicotine – and leading a robust and, when in funds, riotous lifestyle Dickie Dix was to outlive most of the protagonists in the post office strike scandal. He would be well into his tenth decade when the advent of ‘new technology’ finally enabled him to name the names and reveal the shocking truth – in something known as an ‘online publication’. 

Sadly, by the time the full story was told no-one cared. There had been so many scandals and revelations in the intervening thirty years that the general public yawned as one, and said: ‘Not surprised. What else can you expect; politicians, eh? What’s on telly?’ 


CHAPTER 15 

Blanko’s Secret 

Strike Week 3 Tuesday March 18 

UP UNTIL the moment he trailed Cheryl and Vincent into the building adjacent to Wine Office Court, and past a first-floor door bearing the title Blankenberg Estates on its reeded-glass, Van hadn’t an inkling that old Blanko might have other business interests. 

When he met him first, a couple of years earlier, it was at the struggling import-export business the old codger ran out of the Berm- onSea Tea and Coffee Exchange. Gladys was the lone employee. ‘Struggling’ was too complimentary a description for the shambolic operation. Dilapidated, desperate and seedy were more apt. 

Van had noticed a faded sign, Blankenberg Building, above the big, black front door when he parked the Phantom in Fleet Street. Just coincidence, he thought. 

“Er, Vince, this Blankenberg Estates, what’s that all about?” he asked as they kept on climbing. 

“ ’e’s our landlord, Van,” Cheryl puffed. “Not often ’ere, except to collect the rent once a month.” 

“Oh, right. So you see him then, do you? What’s he like, old, young, what?” 

“Yeah, me or Vincent generally come down with the rent. He’s old alright, must be ’undred in the shade I reckon. It’s either ’im, old Blankenberg, or that ole cow Gladys takes our money and stuffs it in that safe.” 

“Unless I can slip by without ’em noticing,” grinned Vince. 

“Fat chance,” laughed Cheryl. “Right, this is it. Cup of coffee then, Van? It’s only instant though.” 

There had been a time, long before Erasmus Blankenberg the third (‘Young’ Mr Blankenberg as Gladys addressed him; Blanko as he was known to his Gouts Club cronies) when there had been a thriving business. Blanko’s grandfather, a grasping, miserly but shrewd manipulator of people and anything saleable had established the import-export company to capitalise on cheap overseas labour and raw materials. 

He set up the Tea and Coffee Exchange, let parts of it and filled ten rooms on the top-floor with wage-slaves whose working conditions were closely modelled on those of the plantation workers whose output fuelled the Blankenberg empire. 

Van first breezed into the Exchange hoping for courier work. At that time a business that once straddled the world had contracted into two grimy rooms. Gladys was squeezed into one of them, a tiny cubby, with the remnants of a 19th-century telephone switchboard and a gas- hob for company. On the rare occasions the candlestick telephone rang she would drag it the length of the top-floor, past all the locked offices, to the palatial front room that had originally been first furnished and occupied by the first Erasmus Blankenberg. 

Erasmus I handed it on to his son, Erasmus II. Now it was the lair of Young Mr Blankenberg, old Blanko, the feckless, ne’er-do-well who had drunk and caroused the company away. 

Nothing – not the furnishings, the carpet, the curtains, or even the dust – had been refreshed in that room since the glory days. 

Similarly, Gladys and Blanko were remnant shreds of their own past glory days. Gladys, thin as a rake and wrapped in swaddling layers of wool all-year ’round, was half a head taller than her employer. Passing decades had bent the once lithe stage-door Johnnie into a crumpled, three-piece suited question mark. It was unnerving to imagine the pair cavorting about Lundn on the champagne circuit fifty years earlier. Lisle stockings, eminently sensible shoes and cable-knit cardigans had replaced Gladys’ flapper dresses. Her blonde-crown was now a thin, suspiciously ginger cloud. Blankenberg would have killed for as much hair; his few remaining strands were plastered across his head from ear to ear. 

Until Jacob Lossit rowed the old man into his Port to Port monopoly it was obvious to Van that Blankenberg and Co, Import~Export, was nothing but a front for Lossit’s secrets scam. That was Lossit & Co, the dumping ground hidden in the woods near HtnmWytht. ‘Lostit’ was what locals called it and that was pretty near the truth. ‘Secrets’ secured at Lossit & Co were never meant to be seen again. 

Van had been in and around the Tea Exchange for almost a year now, since Lossit and Blanko had reluctantly made him a partner in Port to Port. His elevation came in the wake of a devious campaign by Gouts Club and its government accomplices to break up the United Kingdom; propel Inglnd into the YEC without the encumbrance of Skootlnd, Irlnd and Wails; and allow Gouts to get its hands on the entire liquid output of Portchergl. 

That would have been a pretty impressive performance for a bunch of port-addled drunks, and they obviously had a lot of help. One of Lundn’s most unscrupulous advertising agencies devised the strategy and a wily Skootish Postmaster General put it into action, with government connivance. The PMG’s inspired, phoney postal ballot supported the myth that almost everyone in Inglnd voted to join Yoorup. It was the crucial element of the coup. Van uncovered the scam and shamelessly blackmailed Lossit and Blanko – who were in the swindle up to their scrawny (Blanko) and porky (Lossit) necks. He was awarded the Port to Port directorship for his silence. 

(For more, see NO WAY TO HtnmWytht.) 

Now, Van grudgingly turned up at the Exchange whenever he had to. Port to Port’s new staff, poor wretches, at least made the place feel less like a mausoleum. But Blanko and Gladys ran the place like a workhouse and even though he was more or less a free agent, Van always felt uncomfortable there. 

He was vaguely aware, though, that the pair of old-timers went missing occasionally, for no more than a day, around the end of every month. The office staff relished their absence. For them it was like a bank holiday. 

Also vaguely, Van wondered if the geriatric duo were off somewhere recapturing their youth. That thought was so unsettling that he didn’t allow himself to dwell on the details for too long. The old git was probably just buying her lunch, he decided, some small recompense for the miserable working conditions she had put up with for years, until she had squeezed a pay rise out of him and Lossit. Gladys pulled that off when she was made privy, by Van, to the YEC entry scam. 

Yes, it was blackmail, but it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving pair of scoundrels than Lossit and Blanko. Gladys still had a lousy job with a miserly old goat; the old woman definitely deserved a lunch on the firm once a month. Now, it appeared, the end of the month brought just another working day, spent collecting rent in Fleet Street. 

The drab room on the first floor of the Blankenberg Building was, apart from a view of the Tems, in all other respects a replica of the one at the Exchange. There was a roll-top desk, candlestick phone and the detritus of years heavy with dust. The only item from the 20th century was a heavy steel safe. Blanko relished sitting in that room once a month, raking in payment from his tenants (in cash, preferably) and piling it up in the safe. 

Pleasurable as it was, if rent day fell on a Friday the old miser would abandon Gladys to handle rent day on her own. He would forego the delight of raking in his dues for the greater joy of Friday lunch at Gouts. Gladys would drive him to the club in her Reliant Robin and deposit him at the front door, feet ready-wrapped in the bandages of the gout-sufferer. As it happened, Blanko didn’t suffer from gout, though he richly deserved it. But it was a tradition. Bandages were compulsory dress for Goutsmen partaking of Friday lunch at the club. 


CHAPTER 16 

Dumping The Game Strike Week 3 

Wednesday March 19 

BRIGHT and early on the day after their meeting in the Cheshire Cheese the Phantom glided into Fleet Street again, this time pulling in directly outside the front door of the Blankenberg Building. 

Cheryl, who had been peering over the parapet that ran across the building below the circular, top-floor window of their front office, collected Len and Elfie from the landing and together they clattered down the uncarpeted stairs to the front door. Cheryl dashed across the pavement and stepped up onto the broad running board and into the passenger seat. Len and Elfie were more hesitant. They lurked in the doorway next to the infamous marble plaque that claimed, erroneously, that Mary Queen of Scots had been incarcerated on these very premises. Cautiously they scanned left and right, up and down the busy street for any sign of post office colleagues, before scurrying to the back of the Rolls and ducking in, heads down and Pak-a-Mac collars turned up high. 

It was bad enough for two pickets to abandon their posts. If the shop steward turned up and saw them getting aboard a Rolls-Royce ‘that’d put the tin ’at on it’ as Len put it so colourfully. Len was fixated on World War 2 slang. 

The pair were reluctant passengers. But Vincent made it clear that they owed him, after their pathetic attempt at delivering hundreds of copies of The Game in a borrowed post office van. Least they could do was help Van shift the boxes of weighty newspapers they had dumped on poor old Mrs Smith, he suggested. 

“Course, you don’t have to do it,” he said pleasantly. “As long as you don’t mind gettin’ off my landing and sittin’ back downstairs in the cold and rain. An’ I don’t see Cheryl carryin’ cups of tea down there, d’you Cher?” 

“Not a chance, Vincent.” 

“Not to mention no more back’anders for keepin’ an eye on the office, eh Cher?” 

“Definitely no more of that, Vincent.” 

So the dumping-party set off for the HtnmWytht premises of Lossit & Co, with a short diversion to a block of council flats that are just a stone’s throw, and a bulldog’s bark, from the Battersea Dogs’ Home. 

While Len and Elfie struggled up and down several flights of stone stairs with tea-chests stuffed full of The Game, Van turned on the charm for Big Smiffy’s mum. 

“You should’ve seen ’im, Vince,” Cheryl said later. “I told you, right gent ’e is. Even gave ’er a bottle of port. Special vintage ’e said it was. Not that rubbish you mix wiv lemonade.” 

The disposal party then dropped Len and Elfie at the nearest railway station for a quick return to their picket duties at the Blankenberg Building and Van and Cheryl headed out of south Lundn to Cant. 

Vincent had been chary about allowing Cheryl loose in the wilds of the countryside with a rich bloke in a Rolls-Royce but finally agreed that one of them had to go along and check that the back-numbers were given a proper send-off. Short of a bonfire he wanted to be sure they really were really lost. 

“Don’t worry, mate,” Van assured him. “Hand on heart, I’ve been working with Jacob for years now and I guarantee that nothing that went into those works ever came out again.” 

This was absolutely, 100 per cent accurate. The tallies of voting papers from the 1973 postal survey, which were still hidden below one of the bench seats in the back of the Phantom didn’t count. They had never gone all the way into Lossit’s crude disposal system. 

Voting slips from all over the country had been diverted to Gouts Club because the Mount Nice sorting office was shut down by a 24-hour strike. This had been cunningly arranged by Postmaster- General Straith Trewth and his young pal Reggie Smattering, who just happened to be head of the post-workers union. 

Van had collected all the voting papers from Gouts and over two days driven them down to HtnmWytht. But in Lossit’s seedy works office he had taken a look at the tallies, uncovered the stitch-up, and extracted the evidence before all the slips disappeared into the bottomless mineshafts below Lossit & Co. 

Mid-morning traffic was light as the Phantom transported Van and Cheryl through the twisting, turning streets of south Lundn and then onto the main road from Lundn to Cantering, the Cant county seat. Van was now accustomed to the Phantom’s omniscience. When in the driver’s seat he considered himself to be more like an airline captain, sitting back relaxed while the vehicle proceeded on auto-pilot. 

Today Van was genuinely happy, as ever, to get out of Port to Port’s Dickensian offices, but he also had more than a passing interest in Cheryl. If helping Vincent placed him closer to the attractive 20-something cockney charmer, whose outward Lundn-street- shrewdness was mostly bravado, that was a bonus that he hadn’t counted on. Her phone call asking for the Fleet Street meeting was completely unexpected. 

“It’s obvious that Vincent really values you, Cheryl,” he said, as south Lundn melded into the dual-carriageway. “Have you worked there a long time?” 

“Not really, Van, about a year I s’pose.” 

“So not just for this post pirate lark then? How did you come to work for him in the first place?” 

“Just saw an ad, in the Times I think it was. Dad works there, you know, in the print. I always fancied working in Fleet Street anyway. Lots of people do, from south Lundn. Same as in the markets, or the docks. Good jobs see, especially if you got connections, family an’ that. 

“Vincent advertised for a ‘Gel Friday’. Well, I could see it wasn’t really much of a job, but I thought it was a start. To be ’onest, it’s probably time I found somefink better, but now this postal business is on I can’t really leave ’im in the lurch, can I?” 

“Yes, I can see that,” Van agreed. “I’m sure he appreciates that loyalty as well. But he does seem to take a bit of a ‘proprietorial’ attitude to you, don’t you think?” 

“Aoh, ’e does go on a bit, I know, like wiv all that ‘young Cheryl’ cobblers. Like ’e’s me dad. But ’e’s only a year older than me, y’know?” 

“Yes, well I know a gentleman should never ask a lady her age ...” 

“An’ you’re a gentleman, of course, ain’t yer Van, like I was telling Vincent ...?” 

“Oh, thanks, of course ... but ... you say he’s only a year older than you ... and you can’t be more than ...” 

“Wojja reckon?” “Twenty-something?”
“That’s right, I’m 20 somefink.” 

With his new ‘gentleman’ persona to protect – a definite step-up from naval deserter, part-time coffin carrier, and now, partner in a nefarious business with two of Lundn’s shadiest import-exporters – Van wisely let the topic rest. 

“Very nice age that is, Cheryl, remember it well! Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to HtnmWytht before?” 

“No, never even ’eard of it, Van.” 

“I’m not surprised, luv; not many people have heard of it, let alone visited. It’s a bit off the beaten track, but that’s how they like it down there.” 

He regaled her with the tale of his first trip, a test run according to old Blanko, but really a set-up to check out the security of Lossit & Co when confronted by a new courier. Like most first-time visitors Van had trouble finding the works. 

“Lossit wouldn’t ever think of it but he’s a lot like the Htnm locals in that regard,” Van told. “He’s very happy for most people to have no idea the business even exists, let alone call in. 

“When I stumbled into the village that first time, in the old Phantom, I wound up buying drinks for everybody in their one and only local pub.” 

“Very generous of you, Van.” 

“Not really, Cheryl. It was a scam. They catch everyone who drives in and fine ’em for going the wrong way in the High Street ...” 

“How come you was goin’ the wrong way?” 82 

“It’s part of the scam. They keep changing which way is the right way, so it doesn’t matter which direction you come in from, it’s the wrong way.” 

She was bewildered. 

“Yeah, it’s complicated. Don’t worry about it. I’m a regular now, so I get ‘locals’ treatment.” He grinned. 

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