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Pirates of Fleet Street, Chapters 20 to 25

CHAPTER 20 

Vive M. Giannakopoulos! 

Strike Week 3 Thursday March 21 

IF YOU are a one-time conscript of two national navies, a man who has sailed the seven seas and dived below a few them, the Dover to Calais channel crossing is nothing to write home about. 

Weather fine, not too choppy, bar well-appointed and nobody was sick; that would fill a postcard nicely had he been so inclined. But as this was just the first of what could become a string of similar journeys Van decided he would just fill in the details for the old folks next time he called in at the Giannakopoulos family estate, a small café in the Eestend. 

On the other hand, the Phantom was not a seasoned maritime traveller. It had spent most of its 40-years’ existence bouncing across the Skootish hills. Undulating they might be, but at least they stayed firm below your wheels. A moving deck following the constant undulations of the Inglsh Channel was altogether more unsettling. 

Van appreciated the advantages of being in some kind of inexplicable, symbiotic relationship with the ancient vehicle. For instance, if you’d had a few and were inclined to doze off at traffic lights, it was useful to know the Phantom would start up of its own volition when they turned green. 

He wondered – how long would it take for that useful innovation to spread through the motoring world? 

There were disadvantages to this partnership though. 

When the front wheels first bumped onto the ferry’s loading ramp Van felt an unusual tremor run through the Phantom’s chassis and up into the steering column. 

It was a relatively slow traffic day and the ramp closed behind them shortly after the Phantom drove aboard. Although the Rolls engine was switched off, as the ship got under way and Van climbed down from the old leather driving seat and stepped onto the metal deck, he experienced an odd sensation. It felt like the engine had turned over. 

Fortunately they enjoyed a smooth crossing and neither car nor driver succumbed to any form of sea-sickness. 

Disembarkation was uneventful and caused no more quavering. The Phantom had found its sea-wheels. Gendarmes and customs officers showed mild interest in a vintage Rolls-Royce but absolutely none in its cargo of slightly out-of-date newspapers. 

Marvellous idea, this Common Market – always said so, thought Van. 

Then, as he started the Phantom and attempted to position it on the right-hand side of the dock exit road for its first brief spin on the continent of Yoorup, a brief, arm-wrestling match began. 

To be precise, the uneven contest was between the driver’s brawny arms and a huge, wooden steering wheel powered by an eight-litre engine. Turning the wheel, which connects more-or-less directly to the steering box, is a callus-producing exercise at the best of times. When your wrestling opponent has 120bhp under its bonnet; and when its six fat cylinders (each as big as a mini-Cooper motor) are burbling along at a mere 3000rpm; it feels like the referee has locked the steering and thrown away the key. 

The car zigzagged over the cobble-stones for a few metres before the Phantom took pity on its driver and relinquished control. It had noted, perhaps, that all those other outlandish foreign vehicles, with the sickly yellow headlights, were also on the wrong side of the road. 

In those simpler pre-Channel tunnel days, long before Inglnd and la belle France agreed to let 900 years of warfare be bygones, the small dockside post office at Calais was an especially sleepy outpost of the PTT. 

If it wasn’t for the yellow speed-bird logo hammered into the brickwork above the new front doors, you might have easily mistaken the century-old shop for yet another neighbourhood tabac et bar. Glass double-doors were a modern addition, as were the steel security gates at one side that sealed off a broad, vehicle-wide alley leading to the backyard. 

Contented postal workers at the Calais branch of «le Postes, télégraphes et téléphones» had a pleasant life. They enjoyed long, leisurely lunches. They sold a few stamps and postcards, cashed the odd giro, gossiped with locals who also had time on their hands. Twice a day le Maître de Poste dispatched cheery cyclists out to the immediate surrounds to deliver a few letters. 

This was a much sort-after outing because every French postman pictures himself in continual training for the Tour de France. 

The D-UK’s postal strike and the initial invasion of office juniors loaded with satchels full of mail and systems full of duty-free alcohol caught them on ’ow you say, le ’op? 

It was all quite exciting while it lasted and the manager at Calais, the jovial and mildly corruptible M. Louis Lamouche began musing on his chances of an enlarged annual bonus, based on increased turnover. It might even give his career a much-needed boost. 

A transfer to the south would be nice. Nice, perhaps? Even St Tropez would do. 

But after the first rush the flood of mail from the D-UK slowed to a trickle. As it became apparent that the strike might drag on, most D-UK companies found conventional and secure ways to send their essential mail around the British Isles. Many used private couriers rather than entrusting it to feckless youths. But overseas mail was more complicated. Some just reversed the US Sport and Games method, air-freighting bulk mail to overseas offices. A few smaller companies brought their business to licensed privateers like Vincent X. 

Foot-traffic of amateur postal pirates staggering into Cinque Ports dwindled. Monsieur Lamouche gave a Gallic sigh and stopped daydreaming about the south of France. 

So Van was welcomed with open arms when he strolled up to the desk of M. Louis’ secretary, announced that he had a couple of thousand items to post, and could he perhaps consult with Monsieur le Maître de Poste about the best way to proceed? 

Ten minutes later Van and Louis were enjoying morning coffee and sampling the very palatable cognac the postal buccaneer had purchased on the voyage. 

“So, how did Madame Lamouche enjoy that Gouts No 7, Louis?” enquired Van. “I think you said she does like the sweeter stuff?” 

They swirled, sniffed and sipped appreciatively at the cognac. Naturally, being a proud Frenchman, Louis kept a full range of receptacles to suit all drinks and occasions in the mahogany cabinet behind his desk. Their vsop was consumed from eminently suitable, sparkling glass balloons. 

“Ah, oui, Monsieur Giannakopoulos; merci, merci. It was most enjoyable; as is this excellent Hennessy cognac,” he beamed. “French, of course, even though it is named for an émigré. The founder was an Irish person I believe?” Louis knew his cognac. 

As they spoke, the Phantom, which had been moved discreetly to the post office yard, was being unloaded. M. Lamouche’s team ran the newspapers swiftly through their franking system and just a couple of hours after driving onto French soil the Phantom was aboard the homeward ferry, mission accomplished. 

Payment for the mailing had caused a slight hiatus in the amicable meeting of postal pirate and postmaster director but was quickly resolved. Van handed over a hundred quid in sterling to cover the approximate cost of mailing 2,000 pieces of mail around Yoorup. It was agreed that by the time he returned two days later, with the next load of newspapers and letters, he would be equipped with a suitable amount of francs, to swap for the sterling which Louis Lamouche would keep safe. 

“I’ll be over here with a load of mail about twice a week from now on, Louis. Right, we have established the rate is about 50 centimes a go. That’s two for a franc, and at about ten francs to the pound, right? Just so I can be sure to fetch the right amount of French currency with me.” 

They agreed this was a very suitable arrangement, shook hands on it, and sipped a little more cognac. Van didn’t know if Louis would be skimming a bit off the top, somehow, but he didn’t care much. The mail must go through! 

“But why does your Inglnd persist in using this strange system of 240 of your pennies for a pound, Monsieur Giannakopoulos? Would it not be logical, now we are all one happy, united Yoorup for your country to have the same decimal currency as all its partners?” 

“Well, I’m no expert – and please call me Van, Louis – but I should imagine nobody’s thought much about it. But I shall ask my partners. One of them is very close to the government.” 

“It would seem better, surely, if all the countries of the YEC had the same currency, no? Such as the franc, for instance? Very sensible, our franc. Counting in tens is easy, even for children, no?” 

“Good point, Louis. But somehow I can’t see the great patriotic Inglsh ever giving up their pound.” 

“Ah well,” said Louis with a Gallic shrug that would put Les’s efforts to shame, “until the Inglsh join Yoorup in a sensible, metric system, we will ’ave to continue with this silly exchange rate business every time.” 

 

CHAPTER 21 

Surprise in HtnmWytht 

Strike Week 3 Saturday March 23 

VAN’s first ‘regular’ run two days later, on Saturday, had gone like clockwork. Another uneventful drive to the coast was followed by a painless channel crossing; one thousand copies of The Game and a couple of hundred letters were swiftly processed by Louis’ team. A fat wad of colourful French francs changed hands; and the postmaster’s cocktail cabinet was further augmented with Scotch, gin and more port. 

Post office workers at the Calais branch were anticipating an especially jolly Bastille Day party this July, lubricated and spiced up from the collection of bottles the directeur was amassing in his office. 

The postage rate Van had negotiated was at the bottom of the scale and more than adequately covered by the exorbitant levy Vincent had extracted from Miss Rabbia; and although the Phantom was a bit heavy on juice, and the ferry crossing wasn’t cheap, the company’s books should balance very nicely. 

HE HAD made an early start and driving back from Dover decided to pop into HtnmWytht. Nothing had changed. 

The green tunnel leading into the lost village from the main Lundn- Cantering Highway had lost its signboard again. Nearing the other end, the track into Lossit & Co was still marked by a grotesque, bloodied scarecrow with a gory ‘Try Your Luck?’ sign hanging from its neck. A few hundred yards on the green tunnel finished at the Cantish Men, as always, in a pile of broken rubble which nobody was ever going to bother clearing up. 

After her visit to HtnmWytht to dump the out-of-date US Sport and Games Cheryl had questioned Van’s fascination with the place. 

“I know it’s a bit weird, an’ rustic an’ all that I s’pose, but what makes you keep going there, now you don’t really ’ave to?” 

“You’re right, I don’t, and I know it must seem pointless,” he agreed. “But ... it’s just ... look, have you ever seen that old film Brigadoon?” 

She looked blank. 

“No, I’m not surprised. It was old when I saw it. Well, it’s about this magical village, in Irlnd I think. No, it was Skootlnd. It appears out of nowhere once every 100 years, just for a day, and then it disappears. You have to wait another 100 years for it to turn up again.” 

“Oh right, sounds interesting” said Cheryl. “Hang on; you’re not trying to kid me this HtnmWytht place is magic like that, then?” 

“No, not really, not exactly like that. But each time I drive down there I start to wonder, will it still be there? 

“It’s so bloody peculiar, sometimes you think – it can’t be real, I must have imagined it.” 

In the Cantish Men, thankfully devoid of tourists this afternoon, Van had found the Old Man and John Surly at the Public bar. After the usual pleasantries which ended as usual with Van buying the beer, the Lossit & Co night-watchman and acting-manager surprised him. 

“Ah, Mister Van,” he said, “we bin ’oping you be in t’ see uz agin. Thanks very much for the beer.” 

He crossed himself, sipped, grimaced and went on. 

“See, me an’ the boys’ve been thinking about that idea of your’n, about our ’ole.” 

Thinking, thought Van. They’ve been thinking? 

Then the Old Man joined in. 

“Yers,” he said “that be an int’restin concept of your’n, Mister Van. Everyone in the pub’s bin talking about it. O’course, we do take a close interest in holes down ’ere.” 

Concept? thought Van. What next? 

Their close observation of holes was understandable though. There’s an abundance of holes in and around HtnmWytht. The ones providing convenient dumps under Lossit & Co are worked-out mines – for tin, possibly – but they were only mined because they started out as naturally occurring holes, part of the landscape. HtnmWytht-ites wouldn’t do any digging unless it was easy. 

Large holes open up all the time in HtnmWytht. The village fair of 1973 came to an abrupt halt when the most recent, a truly enormous hole, sucked in some sideshows, tents and a bandstand. 

If HtnmWytht ever does a Brigadoon and disappears completely it will be because another great big hole has opened up and swallowed the whole village. 

Van’s next shock came when Gorgy, the fearsome wife of publican Septic Hangnail, put in her two penn’orth. 

“Bloody men,” she said, leaning across the bar and glaring at the three of them. “It was bad enough when they had nothing to talk about, except work – an’ not much o’ that – but now it’s all bloody ‘philosophy’! Drive y’ bloody mad, they do.” 

Van gave himself a mental pinch. Yes, I am awake. Did she say ‘philosophy’? 

“Wimmin, eh?” said John Surly, rolling his eyes, once the landlady was safely out of earshot, crashing about in her kitchen. 

“Anyway, if Surly’s got it right, Mister Van, you wondered if there’s an ’ole in the big empty shed – an’ Surly says there is – is the shed empty? ’as ’e got that right? 

“Y’ never knows wi’ Surly, ’e ain’t that bright, y’know,” pointed out the Old Man. 

“You know, you lot never fail to surprise me,” replied Van. “Yes, I think that’s what I said. To be honest, I didn’t expect him to give it a moment’s thought.” 

“Oh ar, we all did give it lots of thoughts, Mister Van,” said Surly. 

“Alright, what’s the answer then,” asked Van. 

This is surreal, he thought. Just like I told Cheryl, you start to wonder if it’s all a figment of your imagination. 

“You shut-up, Surly,” said the Old Man. “I’ll tell ’im.” 

He emptied his pint pot, shuddered and cleared his throat. 

“See, we decided that where you went wrong wi’ your idea was thinkin’ that an ’ole is some thing. I know wot you uz gettin’ at mind; cos if it was summink, an’ it uz ’n the shed ...” 

“Which it is, I seen it near evry day,” added Surly helpfully. 

The Old Man glared at the nightwatchman, and continued. 

“Like I was tryin’ t’ say, if it is some thing then the shed carn’t be empty. But it ain’t cos ...” 

“Yer, see, it ain’t cos, er ... uhmm,” attempted Surly. 

“I tol’ you t’ shut-up, John Surly,” the Old Man barked at him. 

“Now, what Surly can’t get into ’is ’ead, is it b’aint see, cos an ’ole is a lack of a thing. It used to be a thing, but wotever it was ’as gone. Summink that used t’ be there bain’t no more, so it’s no thing. So it ain’t a thing, and the shed’s empty.” 

He coughed. 

“Yers, that’s made my throat a bit dry, thanks. Your turn to get drinks in, Surly.” 


CHAPTER 22 

Fair Shares 

Strike Week 4 Monday March 25 

“SO IF things carry on like this we’re gonna be in the money,” said Vincent, rubbing his hands together gleefully. He grinned. 

“Van, we gotta work out your money now, apart from the exs, right?” 

Vincent, Cheryl and Van were gathered at the Blankenberg Building, in the most comfortable of Vincent’s four top-floor rooms. They sat in old leather armchairs set around a small, cast-iron Victorian-era fireplace. It was one of a matched pair, the other being in Cheryl’s office next door. Neither fire had been lit in years, despite her jibe that she usually burned the punters’ mail at the end of each working day. There were similar potential fire-hazards on every floor of Blankenberg’s fire-trap building. 

The linoleum floor in this room was partly covered by a very ancient rug that retained traces of its original red, russet and brown pile. There were no matching curtains at the odd, circular windows which are the only distinctive feature of the Blankenberg Building. Anyone who cared to take their life in their hands, climb onto a desk and prise a window open could lean across the parapet for a view down to Fleet Street. 

Bookshelves fitted into alcoves each side of the chimney were mainly stacked with very old newspapers and magazines; but there were a few leather-bound volumes too. A small leather-topped desk and a swivel chair were from the same long-gone era as the armchairs. An ancient Remington typewriter and a small letter-weighing machine (patent still pending, no doubt) gathered dust on the desk. 

“Doesn’t look like you use this room much, Cheryl?” suggested Van. “Oh, ta,” he said, taking the mug of coffee she had ferried in from the smallest room, which doubled as the office scullery. 

“No, we don’t actually, Van, except for meeting new clients sometimes,” she said, handing another mug to Vincent. “It’s Miss Nomer’s room, see?” 

Van was fiddling with the letter-weigher. Pushing the top tray down elevated counter-weighted wings and rotated an arrow around a brass dial at the front, which was inscribed with the cost of posting. 

“They obviously didn’t change the post charges very often in the old days,” he said. “These prices are set in brass! Thank god Louis’ boys don’t use something like this to check our mail. I’d still be there waiting for the bill. 

“Sorry, Cheryl, you were saying; whose room is this? I thought it was just you two here; and Len, of course,” said Van. 

Versatile Len, the official union picket and unofficial office assistant of the company he was supposed to be picketing, was at that very moment minding the shop in Cheryl’s room next door. 

“Well, Len’s only tempr’y o’course. Handy though, for now. Once the strike’s over he can go back to his proper job,” Vincent pointed out. 

“OK; so who’s ‘Miss Nomer’,” asked Van. 

“That’s what Vince calls ’er, cos he never knew her real name. You tell ’im, Vince,” said Cheryl. “She was well before my time.” 

“Mine too, really, Cher. I only saw ’er a few times, years ago, before I took over this dump from Izzy.” 

“I’m getting lost here. Izzy?” said Van. 

“Yeah, great bloke Izzy. Izzy Goodenough. Not sure of his proper first name, Isaac I suppose. Used to run a little press relations business up here. I took a few pictures for him. Then he made a fortune publishing dirty magazines, moved out and I moved in. 

“At that time, she had this room. She was some kind of writer I think. Used to come and work here sometimes I suppose. Looked real old fashioned, like that Mary Poppins, but a lot older; an’ fatter.” 

“But not now ...?” 

“Never seen ’er since. I know she just stopped paying rent. Old Blankenberg asked if I wanted to take ’er room.” 

“You’ve got more room than you need though, Vince, haven’t you?” 

“We do,” said Cheryl. “Already got those two villains off the Mirror moonlighting in the other front office.” 

`Villains’ was a bit strong. Kenny and Don were on the show-biz desk and spent most of their working days and nights gathering gossip for the Sunday edition. What they couldn’t get into the limited space allowed them by the features editor was doctored and rehashed for overseas magazines, most notably the US-based National Disgrace. This was the pair’s favourite outlet because its operators were even more immoral than the Inglsh press. US libel laws helped; plaintiffs had to show they’d suffered financial damage, whether the libel was true or not. Nobody bothered suing, because everyone knew the National Disgrace was a joke paper, full of fantasy. So what Kenny and Don couldn’t prove they just made up. 

“Yeah, I know we don’t need the space, Cher. Just didn’t fancy ’aving some strangers up here. Didn’t seem right somehow. I always think ... well, dunno really.” 

“He thinks she might come back, Van. Doesn’t like to use the room much. That’s why he keeps all her stuff here. Like that old book from the Antarctic, right Vincent?” 

The book Cheryl mentioned was one of the few leather-bound ones left on the shelves by the mysterious Miss Nomer. It was almost filled with scribbled poems, observations and a one-act play. 

A hand-written inscription, to ‘My Dear Evans’ and dated 1914, stated that the book was exactly the same as the one taken to the Antarctic in 1910 and used by the ill-fated Captain Scott for his diary. The book given to Miss Nomer had also gone with Scott’s expedition, but wasn’t used, and came back home blank, aboard the Terra Nova after Scott’s death. The inscription ended ‘the writings in it are my own’, but the writer was anonymous. 

“See, it’s real personal, you know,” said Vincent. 

“Whoever this bloke was, he might have been real keen on ’er, eh? Unrequited love, an’ all that. Or p’raps not. P’raps they got together. She might be wiv ’im now, for all we know. Anyway, seems wrong to sling it. She might remember and come and fetch it one day I suppose.” 

Cheryl said nothing, just gave him one of her sniffs. A sniff that said, you’re dreaming. 

Van, would-be writer of derring-do novels was thinking; there could be a book in this. Who was the writer? Who was Miss Nomer? Was it all in code; spy stuff? But Vincent sounded unusually ... plaintiff? Wistful? 

“It’s the sort of thing you’d think she’d always want ...” he said. 

Then he shivered and perked up. 

“Never mind all that. Anyway, the room only costs a few quid a month, so what’s the problem?” 

“You’re a right soft touch, I reckon Vincent,” said Cheryl. “So, Van; the Saturday trip was alright?” 

Van was not a grasping individual and making money had never concerned him much. He would probably have carried on driving over to the continent with loads of out-of-date newspapers without any payment at all to advance his chances with the lovely Cheryl. 

But anyone with half an eye could see that Cheryl had one eye on Vincent, he thought. Still, you never know, he thought. Give it time. 

In fact Van’s wasn’t a totally lost cause. Cheryl also had half an eye on Van. But only half; he was after all, quite old, ‘at least firty’. 

And Cheryl was no naive ingénue either. She was shrewd enough to keep her own prospects in mind. She made her opening gambit. 

“Now then, Vincent, it’s about time we ’ad a little talk about money. I’ve bin meaning to bring this up, so it might as well be now. 

“I’m not gettin’ any younger,” she declared. 

“You ... wot! Leave off,” laughed Vincent. 

“No, I mean it. I’ve bin workin’ ’ere now for, what, six months, or a year? Filin’ an’ answerin’ phones, that’s about it. Time I got a proper job, wiv prospects, not all this mucking about.” 

“Hold on, Cheryl,” put in Van. 

He didn’t like the sound of this. Keeping close to Cheryl would be a bit tricky if she changed jobs. 

“Looks like we’ve just got this postal game on track; you can’t leave now, can you?” 

“Well, that’s it Van. Now it’s goin’ alright I could go. Unless, of course, I ’ad an interest in the business ... not just ... well, like I’ve got now, which is nuffing.” 

“Anyway, how long can it last?” asked Vincent. “How about waiting until after the strike, Cher? Then we could talk about what to do next. After all, we might have a few bob. Could even move out of this bleedin’ place, get a proper studio, do some other pictures instead of just snappin’ for the papers?” 

“Yeah, well Vincent, that’ll be very nice for you, but what about me, and Van? What are we gettin’ out of it, apart from my wages of course, if you can call five quid a week wages?” 

“Oh yeah, well p’raps we could do a raise ...” 

“Or a share?” asked Cheryl brightly. “And for Van an’ all?” 

“No, leave me out ...” Van started. 

“No, Van, that would be fair,” she retorted sharply. “You’re doin’ all the donkey work now. Should ’ave a share. Shouldn’t ’e, Vincent?” 

This wasn’t so much a question as a statement with menaces. 

“Er, yeah, I suppose, yeah you’re right, luv.” Vincent was hesitant. “Er, wot, like ten per cent or something ...?” 

“Twenty, each,” Cheryl snapped back.
“Hold on,” said Van, “I’m quite happy to just ...”
“Shut up, Van. You’re too much of a gent, that’s your trouble.” 

“Yeah, better listen to ’er, Van,” said Vincent. “She’s got form. Cheryl’s dad’s a shop steward in the print. You can never win wiv that lot. 

“But look Cher, I’ve got expenses, wages, petrol, stamps, all that to pay ...” 

“Right, twenty per cent, for me; twenty per cent for Van ... but only of the profits on the postal lark. Otherwise I might as well start lookin’ for another job right away.” 

“You’re right; she is good, isn’t she, Vince,” conceded Van. 

Vince shrugged. 

“Okay, okay, you win Cher. Twenty each ... of the profits, if we make any. Come on Van, we better get up the city and collect the next lot. Miss Moneypenny ’ere can obviously manage this place on ’er own. 

“Let’s just ’ope this strike goes on forever, or a few more weeks anyway, and we’ll all be well off. Yeah, a few more weeks would be lovely.” 


CHAPTER 23 

Gouts 

GOUTS is one of Lundn’s oldest ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs. When they are capable of coherent speech, members claim it to be the oldest of them all. Cynics may dispute that claim, but the privileged few who have inside knowledge of such establishments acknowledge that of all the clubs huddled around salubrious St James, if it isn’t the oldest, Gouts is definitely the most pointless. 

Fittingly, the entrance to Gouts is in a back passage. 

Within the Portman Passage building there are five floors of meeting rooms, bars, restaurants, kitchens, overnight accommodation and a library. At the top of the club is a fenced roof-terrace that provides glimpses across Pell Mell to the Palace. Fencing around the terrace takes account of past members’ drunken attempts to prove that man is capable of flight. The ancient building’s five storeys are anchored and well counter-balanced by several levels of cellars, jam-packed with thousands of bottles of spirituous liquors and wines at a near-perfect 55-degrees Fahrenheit. 

Almost all of these bottles contain port – for port is the raison d’etre of Gouts. The club’s name acknowledges the long-term effect of over- consumption. But over-consumption is not a consideration that keeps Goutsmen awake at night. Conversely, under-consumption might be a cause for concern, especially around the club, where eyebrows are raised if a chap fails to imbibe his daily quota. 

The Goutsmen’s attitude to what they all consider a gift from heaven was summed up succinctly by senior member Buffy Buffington, and it is worth repeating. 

“Thing about port,” Buffy once said, “is that it still tastes good even when you’re totally blotto.” 

According to the club’s framed certificate of incorporation (which can be inspected by request and prior appointment with the club’s Grand Pursuivant Porter) Gouts lurched into being in 1773. 

Hanging alongside the certificate in the club library (which is stocked mostly with children’s comics) is a spurious coat-of-arms, a feeble fabrication concocted by some early club committee to add gravitas to the institution. The coat-of-arms also boasts the foundation date as being 1773, the year in which port was first shipped into Inglnd. Some 11 million gallons came ashore and within the year port-drinking social clubs were formed in Lundn. In them members caroused and competed to prove their drinking capacity. 

According to legend – which is dubious because it would have been recorded by people who had been drinking port for hours on end – some club members could knock back three bottles at a sitting. Sitting would be the operative word. There’s no record of the amount that could be drunk while standing up. The infamous Pitt the Juvenile, Inglnd’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, was said to be one of the era’s finest proponents of sitting-down drinking. 

All those early social clubs either collapsed as fast as their members or evolved into more widely-based organisations. So Gouts members, having nothing else to boast of in their largely pathetic, useless lives, take pride in their own ancient club being the ‘last man standing’. 

In general, Gouts members find thinking, concentration and contemplation altogether too wearisome. But if any of them learned, by some fluke, that there were currently two representatives of the Post Office workers union on the premises they might be mildly, briefly, interested. 

By contrast, Straith Trewth, Sir Clarence Noodle and Reggie Smattering would have been extremely interested, even to the point of expressing mild concern, were they aware that the senior porters had recently recruited ex-PWU member, Elfie Biggins. 

Naturally they wouldn’t dare to interfere with the recruitment system, which was operated entirely by the senior staff. But they might have watched their tongues. 

As the Grand Pursuivant Porter explained to all new staff members: “The indiscretion of the drinking classes that make up the membership of this establishment never fails to amaze us. Members labour under the misconception that the serving classes, as represented by the porters of Gouts, are too deaf, stupid and discreet to ever overhear, understand or reveal the conversations of their masters. 

“On no account must we disillusion them. However, it behoves all members of staff to note all and everything they overhear – or discover in any other way – and report relevant information to myself and the committee of senior porters.” 

When news of young Smattering’s membership was posted on the hall bulletin board, a minor ripple of interest washed around Gouts. 

There was concern among some of the old guard. It wasn’t because of his involvement in the fraudulent ballot (of which few were aware), or even because he was involved in that unspeakable sector of society, a trades union. Weighty matters of that kind rarely warranted discussion around Gouts. They made your brain hurt. No; Reggie’s membership stupefied them because they didn’t know what to call him. 

“Who is he, again,” asked old Buffy Buffington. “What? What?” He was a little hard of hearing, as well as of the arteries. 

“I haven’t answered yet, you old fool,” said old Blenkers (Tiny Blenkinsopp). 

“What?” 

“He’s an old Smatters boy,” bellowed old Blenkers. 

The pair were propped against the mahogany and brass of the club’s main bar, the Pitt. Gouts has several bars against which members might prop. Indeed, propping – accompanied by raising of an arm and gentle rotation of the attached wrist – is one of the few regular exercises in which Goutsmen indulge, while also working on their bar-room tans. 

Who says chaps can’t do more than one thing at a time? 

The Pitt Bar is named in honour of the notorious Prime-Ministerial port imbiber of the late 1700s. Gouts claims – with absolutely no proof, evidence or justification – that Pitt was one of its earliest members. The Pitt is the largest and most easily accessed of the club’s bars, located off the marbled entrance lobby. It is exceptionally easy to stumble into, and be carried out of, which pleases taxi-drivers and porters alike. 

Ancient members such as old Buffy Buffington, who had been well past climbing stairs for decades, were habitués of the Pitt. 

“Sorry, did you bellow, sir?” queried the white-jacketed barman, who had been distractedly filling out his football pools coupon for the week. He normally paid close attention to the elderly pair, who were among the club’s most generous tippers. 

“No, no porter, stand down; just trying to get through to this old duffer. He still can’t work the on/off switch of this damn thing.” 

Blenkers resumed his bellowing and pointed to a large cream and brown Bakelite contraption hanging around the old man’s neck. 

“Turn that thing on, Buffy.” 

“If I may be of assistance, Mr Buffington?” enquired the bar- porter, rounding the bar. At that time Buffy, Gouts’ oldest member, was 109-years old and needed all the help he could get. The porter extracted an ear-piece from the breast-pocket of the old man’s pinstripe and deferentially stuffed it into his be-whiskered right ear, which was his best one. Rotating the large on-off-volume knob on the hearing machine completed the operation. 

“That’s better,” shouted Buffy. “Now what was I saying?” 

“About old Smatters,” said Blenkers. “And his boy.” 

“Alright, no need to shout, old boy. Porter, give us some more of the Club number 2, if you will. Throat’s dry with all this talk. Have one yourself while you’re about it.” 

Readers unfamiliar with Gouts might ponder use of the term ‘porter’. All staff of Gouts, which is an establishment devoted to the accumulation, and consumption of port, are porters. Senior staff are required, under club rules, to adopt Porter as their surname. This is in no way a dictatorial or undemocratic ruling. It simply takes account of the innate stupidity of the Gouts membership. These are people who will, on occasion, especially when port has been taken, which is often, fail to recall their own names, or those of their close associates, wives, children, and so on. This inadequacy is why members generally refer to each other as ‘old’ something or other. They can all generally get as far as ‘I say, isn’t that old, er ...’ or ‘saw old, y’know ...’ and then if faculties collapse in the usual heap, they’ve done as well as most of their fellows can expect. 

So as all the porters are named porter, or even Porter, the members can address, or speak to, all or any of them at any time and be scrupulously correct and polite. 

“Old Smatters, eh? What’s up with him now?” asked Buffy, whistle wetted with Club No. 2. “Been chasing those au pair gels again, has he?” 

“Not as far as I know. Nothing wrong with him in that department; well, apart from the usual. Should have thought he was well past it, like the rest of us. No, it’s his son Reginald who’s been made a member. That’s the problem.” 

“Of course, of course. I see what you’re getting at. What are we going to call him, eh, what?” 

“Exactly, Buffy. Young Smatters? Doesn’t sound right, really, does it?” mused Blenkers. 

“Quite right, Blenkers. Nobody could remember that. The Committee will have to look into it,” decided Buffy, with finality, and with the matter settled, both drained their glasses, with satisfaction. 


CHAPTER 24 

Overheard at the Club 

Strike Week 4 Monday March 25 

“A few more weeks would be lovely, a month at most. That should do nicely, thank you Reggie.” 

Vincent X would have been amazed to hear his own sentiments reiterated in the plush Lesser Hall of Gouts Club. Had his ear been pressed to the crack in the door – alongside that of Elfie Biggins, recent deserter from the D-UK post office workers union and presently Gouts’ newest trainee porter – he would have been gobsmacked, as was Elfie, to hear them dribble off the port-stained lips of Straith Trewth, Postmaster General of the Dis-United Kingdom of what used to Great Britain. 

August, stately and famous though he was, it was not Straith Trewth who had caught the attention of lowly Elfie. Three more Goutsmen were sitting with the PMG and passing the pre-lunch decanter, to the left, with ever-increasing alacrity. One was Sir Clarence Noodle, club chairman and one of the fastest passers of the bottle in the whole of Lundn’s Westend. Sooner you passed it, sooner it came around again was his theory. The second was Jacob Lossit, sole proprietor of Lossit & Co. The third man was none other than Reggie Smattering, general-secretary of the Post Office Workers Union, the man who had taken Elfie and 200,000 of his workmates out on strike just three weeks earlier. 

REGGIE Smattering might be considered to have a dual personality because he was thick in two of the senses of the word.
Firstly, although he was a union boss he was too dense to appreciate how and why Postmaster-General Straith Trewth had cunningly engineered his appointment at the top of the union in the first place. 

Secondly, he was too insensitive to perceive that his membership of an elite, pillar of the establishment gentlemen’s club was inappropriate for the general secretary of a workers’ union. 

Reggie was granted honorary membership of the club as a thank- you for his assistance during the postal ballot scandal of ’73. Then, like a mythical mafia Don, Straith Trewth had called upon Reggie to repay a favour that Reggie couldn’t refuse. Now he was demanding further tribute. 

“Gawd, Straith, I dunno ’ow we can keep goin’ that long. The bleedin’ union’s bleedin’ skint,” Reggie Smattering whined. “You said it’d only be for a fortnight, an’ we only just ’ad enough in the kitty to give the blokes ’alf wages for that long.” 

Elfie pushed his ear closer to crack. He wasn’t sure if he’d heard a sob, or a slurp. It was the latter, as Reggie sustained himself with a large snort of port. 

Elfie could have backed up his erstwhile leader if he had been on the other side of the Lesser Hall door. Strike pay had skidded to a halt a week ago, which is precisely why Elfie was now creeping around Gouts in the club’s regulation uniform red waistcoat and carpet slippers. 

At Gouts, porters all wear slippers so as not to wake the members. 

Even though he was still serving a probationary trial period, Elfie’s wages were already well above post office pay. 

“Calm yourself, young man,” said Sir Clarence, pouring Reggie another large one. “I’m sure Straith knows what he’s doing. Never let us down yet.” 

“Quite, thank you Clarence,” agreed the Postmaster-General. “Cheers!” 

“The fing is, Straith, we’re losing so many members that if it goes on much longer, when we do call the strike orf there won’t be no post office to go back to,” moaned Reggie. 

Elfie twitched a bit at that, shifted uncomfortably and re-applied his ear. 

The Postmaster-General eyed the Secretary General of the PWU critically. 

“I should have thought that you would know me better by now, Reggie,” he intoned sombrely. “Ever since Sir Sydney first implored me to take an interest in your career haven’t I always had your very best interests at heart?” 

He employed his sad, disappointed godfather voice. 

“Yes, well, o’course Straith I know I got a lot to fank you for, you an’ daddy, but ...” 

“Right, so let’s have a bit less snivelling,” barked Straith, business- like again. 

“Here’s what you will do. Put out a defiant press statement – you know the, usual twaddle – ‘the union will not be cowed into submission and is determined to fight on for the good of the workers, and the country’; all that crap.” 

“But Straith, ’ow ...” 

“Shut up and listen. 

“First, you hotfoot it back to your office and summon your executive comrades for an absolutely top-secret meeting. And you can tell them that you, personally, have recruited an extremely wealthy supporter who will underwrite the post strike. 

“You must emphasise that this is all top secret, remember. That will ensure that everyone in the union will know all about it in no time flat, followed within minutes by the Press. Reporters will be all over you like a rash. You’ll be a hero, Reggie, the man who saved the day for the workers. 

“Just remember, you can’t tell them who the mystery benefactor is. Well, then again, of course you can’t. You don’t know who it is.” 

“Wot, you mean, you Straith, you’re going to ...?” gasped Reggie. 

“No, you nitwit, what do you think I am, made of money?” snapped the PMG. “Of course not. Government funds will be routed into the union’s bank along an untraceable trail from one of our friendly tax- havens; the Cayman Isles probably, I haven’t decided yet. It will be enough to give your lot a fiver a week for another month, and after that you can get them all back to work.” 

Reggie was astounded. So was Elfie Biggins, who was so engrossed in the conversation leaking out of the Lesser Hall that he failed to notice the silent arrival at his side of the carpet-slippered Grand Pursuivant Porter. 

“What’s this, then,” said Porter, the club’s senior porter. “Eavesdropping on the members?” 

“Oh, er well, sir, I mean sort of, a bit; couldn’t ’elp just over ’earin’ ...” 

“Never mind all that, Biggins, isn’t it? I know you’re new here but you don’t have to call me sir, Elfie. Save that for the members. 

“Now then; if you’re going to listen to what the members are up to make sure you keep your eyes open as well. Don’t want other members creeping up and spotting you, do you? Right; carry on.” 

Shaken though he was by the encounter with his new boss, Elfie wouldn’t have stirred from his listening post but for the sudden exeunt from the Lesser Hall of his old union boss. 

Reggie Smattering hurried out of the room en route for union headquarters, lips moving silently as he practiced his lines. Straith Trewth saw the departing Gen-Sec to the door and closed it firmly behind him. With that Elfie Biggins decided not to push his luck further and shuffled off to the Gouts staff kitchen. He’d heard enough anyway. The strike was going to keep going for another month. Elfie couldn’t wait to pass the news on to Vincent, his old schoolmate, and Len, his erstwhile Fleet Street picketing partner. He’d call in there next day, he decided, and surprise them all with the good news. 

“Now gentlemen, I think I can rely upon your wholehearted assistance in this matter?” said the Postmaster-General. 

He phrased it like a question, but Noodle and Lossit knew better. Trewth had enough on the pair of them to put them away for life. Yes, he would be alongside them in the chokey, but that was cold comfort. 

Gouts, its chairman and Jacob Lossit had all benefited enormously from their part in Trewth’s government conspiracy to slip Inglnd into Yoorup. Afterwards, Jacob and old Blanko had set up Port to Port, the company that now monopolised the shipping of virtually every barrel of fortified wine produced in Portchergl. Most of the best vintages ended up in the cellars of Gouts, which was fitting because the club had been stealthily buying out port producers ever since Inglnd joined the YEC. 

Over the past couple of years Gouts had mounted a scurrilous advertising and promotion campaign which lauded ‘real port’ and ruthlessly mocked and slandered all alternatives and substitutes. 

Their campaign made it clear that ‘real port from Portchergl’ was actually the elixir of life. Drinking anything else, masquerading as port, was not only treacherous but ill-advised because those substitutes contained secret additives which could make drinkers impotent, if they didn’t die first. 

“What do we have to do, Straith?” asked Jacob Lossit. 

Sir Clarence just grinned amiably and nodded. He wasn’t known for financial acuity. A small commission was paid to Gouts every month by Port to Port, he knew that. How it was calculated didn’t worry him unduly. Best to say nothing in discussions of this kind; that was his opinion. A couple of chaps on the club committee could count, a bit. Jacob was one of them. Those chaps sorted out such things, together with the Grand Pursuivant of course, and then told him where to sign. It all made for a less complicated life. 

“Nothing too onerous, Jacob,” beamed Straith Trewth. “Your very profitable shipping enterprise will simply receive a large advance payment for services to be rendered at some indeterminate point in the future.” 

“Oh, very good, Straith, fine, fine,” said Jacob hastily. “Er, when you say ‘large’, er ...” 

“Very, Jacob; very large,” said Trewth. “About, let me see, roughly 200,000 workers; times five quid each; for four weeks; that’s ...” 

“Four million pounds!” squeaked Jacob. 

“Hhmm, that’s about it I suppose,” agreed the Postmaster-General. “See any problem there, Jacob?” 

“What, oh no, no,” gulped Jacob, pulling himself together. Then a chill ran through him. “What about tax, though? All that money, traceable, in the bank ...?” 

For obvious reasons – well, they would be obvious to anyone with a devious mindset – most of Jacob’s former dealings, in the secrets business, had been conducted in cash. He was still coming to terms with the necessity for his new import-export business to operate more or less conventionally. 

“That shouldn’t be any problem for a company like Port to Port,” said Trewth. For one thing, the dosh will barely touch the sides before you and your fellow philanthropist partner make an extremely generous contribution to charity. All tax deductible, I’m sure. I’ll have word with the tax office. 

“Mind you, it would be entertaining to see old Blanko’s face when you tell him he’s donating four million quid to a union! I’d like to see that.” 

“It’ll probably kill him,” grinned Jacob. 

Yes, that really would be a sight to relish, he thought. Jacob had agreed with Blanko that whoever survived longest would inherit the other’s shares. 

“But look, Straith, couldn’t the four million hang about in the account for a couple of days? I could get a little commission on the short-term loan market, and ...” 

“No, nothing risky thank you Jacob,” snapped Straith. “This is HMG loot we’re playing with. However, I don’t see why Port to Port shouldn’t take a tiny handling fee. Let’s see: shall we say £10,000? I’m sure you would be happy to share a little of that with present company, eh?” 

“Oh well, yes that sounds marvellous, Straith, marvellous,” said Jacob, rubbing his hands with ill-concealed glee. “Calls for a celebratory lunch, I think. On Port to Port of course, I insist!” 

Sir Clarence stirred. 

“Excellent, chaps. Always like a celebration, don’t we? I’ll just pop out and see if the small dining room is available, shall I?” 

He made for the door, and then paused, and made a slow turn.
“Just a minute, chaps, a thought has just occurred to me.”
Such a rare announcement as this was a conversation-stopper at 

the best of times. In the Lesser Hall Sir Clarence’s companions were understandably concerned. 

“Feeling alright, are you Clarence,” asked Jacob. “Perhaps you stood up a bit too quickly. Here ...” he pushed a chair forward and made soothing, sit-down-and-rest gestures. 

“No, no I’m feeling fine, thank you Jacob,” responded the Chairman. “It’s just that I wondered ... er, what it was ... lost my train now ...” 

“Don’t worry, old boy, I expect it will come to you ...” put in Straith. 

“Ah yes, got it! What I was thinking was, I thought you told young Smattering you were giving him some money, for his union thingy? Don’t want to pry, of course, I know you said it’s all top secret, what? 

“Now, if I followed properly, Jacob and Blanko are going to have this money and then give it to charity ... er, is that it?” 

“Well done, Clarence, that is precisely what we shall do,” agreed Straith Trewth. “There’s just one detail I should clear up for you. Port to Port will not pass four million pounds ...” 

“Less ten thousand,” Jacob interjected.
“... to charity in general. They will make their very kind and thoughtful gift to one specific charity.” 

“Oh I see, I see,” said Sir Clarence Noodle, although he didn’t. 

“Yes, which charity are we giving the loot to, Straith?” wondered Jacob. 

“Gouts,” said Straith. “Gouts is a charity.” 

“Bless my soul!” said Sir Clarence. “I had no idea. Is that why we never pay any tax?” 

The date inscribed on the spurious, illuminated certificate of incorporation hanging in the club library is 1773, because that is the year that port first came ashore in Inglnd. It intimates, correctly, that the ancient building in Portman Passage became a port-drinking club in the same year. 

In fact, it’s likely that the otherwise insignificant back-passage was renamed after, and as a consequence of, the establishment of Gouts. Early members were certainly powerful and influential enough to demand a change of name to something more fitting than the original Piss Alley. 

At some point the title ‘Gouts’ was adopted, casually at first, and then formally. But the club had been a notorious drinking den for more than fifty years prior to the arrival of port. Its clientele were drawn from the upper echelons of society. They were high and mighty, and rich enough to be mightily pissed most of the time at the place they simply called The Club. 

Around 1720 the British government was struggling to clean up the national crisis it had brought about by underwriting the South Sea company. Dozens of fake ventures and outright cons followed and when the South Sea Bubble burst the government struggled to prop up the country’s financial system with new funds. 

The national debt was split up between the Bank of Inglnd, the government’s treasury and something called the Sinking Fund, which was an elaborate savings fund into which taxes were channelled. People in the know called the latter the Drinking Fund, because it was seeded with huge contributions made by members of The Club. 

The whole farrago was a blatant example of the establishment looking after itself. Club members were up to their necks in the original losing ventures and were effectively bailing themselves out. They propped up the government’s Drinking Fund with a huge loan, worth thousands then, millions today. In return the Portman Passage building was purchased by the same Fund and given to the donors – for service to the nation. To preserve it forever The Club, which later adopted the name Gouts, was given charitable status, effectively insulating it from all taxes, forever. 

Just like Sir Clarence, few Goutsmen knew the murky history of their beloved club. But they were all beneficiaries of a trust which controlled the charity. 

“As you will appreciate Jacob, an acknowledged charity can donate funds just about where it wishes,” beamed the Postmaster-General. 

“Consequently, you will sign the four million ...” 

“Less ten thousand ...” 

“... over to Gouts, and you Clarence, will sign a cheque, countersigned by your committee member here, Jacob, in favour of the Postal Workers Union. All clear? Good. Let’s have lunch.” 


CHAPTER 25 

Fall and rise and fall Again 

WHEN IN 2003 veteran journo Dickie Dix revealed the late Sir Reginald Smattering’s underhand role in the nationwide postal strike of 1975, the dead man was roundly condemned by commentators of all political persuasions. 

The right-wing gutter-media were first off the mark, ready as ever to point the indignant finger at the mildest indiscretion of any ‘union official’ a description that was, in their columns, code for card- carrying communist activist sympathiser and likely militant terrorist. 

Left-leaning publications trumpeted just as loudly that Smattering was obviously an upper-class fascist plant who had infiltrated a noble trades union (which was battling for the rights of common people) in order to undermine a decent and humanitarian movement. 

The left’s rhetoric was closest to reality. Hamstrung by complex libel laws the conventional press could only cautiously hint that Lord Trewth of St Rewth, who was unashamedly named by Dix as the evil genius behind the whole plot, might have a few questions to answer. Online-Dix cocked a snoot at libel laws. 

In fact, Dickie had ‘cocked a snoot’ at the world in general all his life; he dearly loved snoot-cocking. 

‘It would have been bleeding marvellous if we’d had the internet in the good old days,’ he mused ruefully. ‘Think of all the bloody politicians we could have ruined!’ 

When he finally put up the facts for the world to read, Trewth was barely clinging to life in the Gouts Rest Home and Retreat Inc., up in the Cairngorms. He was unable to focus or take solids, and was sustained by little more than a daily quart of port. Trewth’s demise less than a year later was gleefully reported by both sides of the political divide and all the media peeled off the gloves to give Trewth the send- off he so richly deserved. 

Political leaders of his party – The Common Sense Party, better known as Hang ’em and Flog ’em – were safely quarantined from the fit-up of 1975 by virtue of their spotty youthfulness. So they announced that an internal enquiry would consider stripping the old, dead Skoot of his title. Several years later when someone remembered the enquiry the government stated that any possible action was dis-considered due to its potential to bring about a constitutional crisis, downfall of the monarchy and the end of civilised life on earth. 

It is an infuriating reality that among the highest echelons of British society a total swine can fall, rise, fall again and still cling on to the top rung of the class-system ladder. 

However, Reggie Smattering was never a total swine at any stage of his life-journey because he lacked the required intellect and talent. Even his descent towards the ultimate ignominy of paid work wasn’t really his own fault. 

The first skid on that slippery slope occurred when the patriarch of the family, Sir Sydney Smattering, confessed to his wife, Lady Norah, that he didn’t know where the next bottle of Dom Perignon would come from. He spoke the unvarnished truth. Sir Sydney, who was as close to congenital idiocy as one can venture without being locked up, didn’t actually know the way to his own cellar. 

The same afternoon he had woken from his daily post-lunch nap in the conservatory of his ancestral home and rung the bell to summon MacSchmidt, the estate’s sole remaining full-time servant. No-one came. 

Smattering’s land-holdings in semi-rural Barkshire had steadily dwindled under the assaults of death duties, mismanagement and reckless gambling. The manor house (modestly named Smatterings) and its gardens were all that was left of a once prosperous family home and farmlands. Red-brick townhouses built on the sold-off land now surrounded Smatterings and had engulfed the nearby village of Little Smatter. 

A market-gardening business set in the manor grounds and worked entirely by MacSchmidt was all that was left. It provided a bare living for the Smatterings – Sir Sidney, Lady Norah and Reginald – who at that time was wasting his time at an establishment of learning in Oxford. 

Herr Lothar MacSchmidt, by contrast, worked every daylight hour in the market-gardens and doubled as butler and general factotum after sundown. He lived in the gatehouse and, on the day of the futile bell-ringing, hadn’t been paid for three months. 

Lothar first visited British shores as a prisoner of war in the 1940s and so enjoyed his civilised captivity, working on farms in Skootlnd, that he came back as soon as possible after being repatriated. After a few years in his new Skootish homeland he adopted the new persona of MacSchmidt, which fooled nobody, but won Lothar full marks for daring. He travelled around Britain as an itinerant farm labourer and in 1949 fetched up at the gatehouse of Smatterings wearing tartan trews and speaking with an outrageous Skoots lilt. The combination of tongues was hysterical funny and virtually unintelligible. 

Lady Norah, who had considerable experience of congenital idiocy, assumed Lothar was probably stupid enough. She engaged him for a trial period, the length of which was unspecified but had reached 11 years before Lothar finally bolted. During this time it was agreed that he would be paid a pittance, weekly, and enjoy free board and lodging in the gatehouse. “And you should be jolly grateful for it,” her Ladyship pointed out tactfully, “being a dual foreigner.” 

Sir Sydney continued ringing his little brass bell for several minutes before wandering the corridors and halls in search of Lady Norah. Eventually he found his way into the scullery where her Ladyship was scrubbing the entrails of a large hare off her butcher’s block. 

“Can’t find MacSchmidt,” he blurted. “Rang bell; didn’t come; dead, or what?” 

Wiping blood from her hands Lady Norah advanced on her husband, thoughts of the evening’s planned jugged hare mingled with homicide. This wasn’t unusual. Her mind often paired homicide and Sydney. But she couldn’t remember ever seeing him in the kitchen before, so perhaps something really serious has happened? 

“What’s that pinned to your waistcoat, Sydney?” she asked. 

“What ... waistcoat ...?” he blathered, and recoiled as his exasperated wife appeared to aim a left hook at his solar plexus. 

“This envelope, Sydney, look!” she snorted, snatching at the thing and tearing it open. 

Lothar’s poignant farewell note – for that’s what it was – thanked the Smatterings for the past eleven years’ trial period and respectfully gave notice. 

Dear Lady Norah and Sir Sydney 

I beg your forgivingness for written missive. We German-Skootish people are famous for sensitive sentimentality no; yes and I hoping you will understanding that saying goodbye in personal to two so kindly, considerate and noble peoples was emotionally distressing experience which I could contemplate not. Thankings to your continuous generosity in allowing me to work in your wonderful home and gardens I have managed to save my entire pittance. I know you will be delightful learning that I shall still be nearby remain, for have fallen love-in with widowed landlady of the village pub at Little Smatter. Perhaps you will both us join in pub there soon, and enjoy a pint with ‘Mein host’? 

(This is German joke.) 

PS: House cellar now empty; keys under mat of gatehouse. 

MacSchmidt, Lothar, Herr 

“Ungrateful bastard!” exploded Lady Norah Smattering. “Well, serves us right I suppose, for being so kind-hearted. 

Traditionally, the British aristocratic inheritance system is arranged so that family estates are inherited by the elder son, or grandson, and so on. 

As a result the Smatterings have been led by incompetent fools for centuries. 

An hereditary rogue gene, technically known as the Duffer, was the curse of the Smattering family line. In layman’s terms, the effect of this genetic dead-end was that the Smattering males were all nincompoops – or duffers. 

Fortunately, the Duffer is discrete to male descendants and cannot be passed to females. But for every action there is a reaction, if you can believe those wild-eyed fanatics with staircase hair who tried to drum physics into us at school. 

Take for example the Smatterings. 135 

Action: generations of witless dummies are handed an inheritance of large tracts of land and outrageous wealth. 

Reaction: recurring generations of bright, strong and capable women sacrifice their pride, marry Smattering thickies and preserve the family line. 

All these noble women produced both sons and daughters, praying that a halfway acceptable male heir would eventually be born. Someone who could be left alone with sharp implements and was able to tie his own shoelaces wasn’t much to ask, surely? Actually, yes, it was. For almost four hundred years Smattering brides lived in hope; hopeless hope. 

Reginald Smattering was an only child and the last chance for preservation of the line. Lady Norah determined he would be educated if it killed him, and if it did, nothing lost. The boy was tutored, coached, bribed and threatened until finally yes, he could tie his own shoelaces. So, nine years old and as ready as he would ever be, little Reggie went to school. He failed his way through, pre-prep, prep and post-prep until the fateful day when he went up to Oxford. 

His little suitcase was packed. A boater was clamped firmly on his bonce and held securely with an elastic chinstrap. But despite his impressive shoelace breakthrough Reggie’s shoes had the new- fangled Velcro-fastenings, because all the new things he’d learned (like not playing with matches or running with scissors) had driven out what he’d learned earlier. 

The teenager’s two years studying Modern Languages – Inglsh at the Higgins Academy for Late Developers were probably the happiest, if not the most productive, of Reggie’s life. The Higgins didn’t pressure him at all, as long as the fees were paid regularly. 

“Boys’ll be boys, wotever we bleedin’ do, ain’t that right, muvver?” Professor Higgins would assert if questioned on his approach to learning. 

“Yers, dead right, ’enery,” his wife, Araminta, would always agree. 

“That young Reg, wer’ll, ’e did real well wiv ’is Inglsh, ’specially once ’e looked old enough to get in the pub. Accent was a bit of a problem, real la-di-dah ’e was when ’e come up to Oxford at first. Couldn’t even say ’iggins proper, could ’e, dear?” 


CHAPTER 26 

The leaving of Lothar 

REGGIE’S Oxford idyll ended with the departure of Lothar.
Lady Norah knew things were bad, but the empty cellar was a stark reminder that the bank account was also empty. The market garden had given them a scant living, largely because they had exploited Lothar scandalously. They needed another Lothar. But where could another such muggins be found? 

In Oxford, of course. 

The matriarch took charge, summoned Reggie home from the academy, told Professor Higgins he could whistle for the next term’s fees – and was jolly lucky not to be sued for obtaining money under false pretences – and moved the family into the gatehouse. The Manor was destined for greater things. 

Assuming Sydney and Reggie were capable of pulling carrots and cabbages out of the ground, which was doubtful, it was just possible that the market garden could feed the family. Even so, there would be little left over for sale to the public and the proceeds would be nowhere near enough to restore the Smatterings to solvency. 

So Lady Norah laid a plan. She would capitalise on their last remaining asset – the Manor – and turn it into a place of learning. 

Ironically, while she knew for a fact that the Higgins, with all their talk of ‘the new Inglsh’, were utter charlatans, it was their financial success that inspired her to cash in with a similar racket. 

Lady Norah had known the pair, vaguely, years ago when she and Araminta were debutantes. She had only agreed to Reggie’s attending the Academy in Oxford because the Higgins guaranteed that every pupil would leave with a diploma of some description. 

The only other chance of obtaining any kind of academic qualification for the young idiot was by purchasing a degree from some fake Amurikan university. Norah, ever the patriot, would have none of that. If the Smatterings were going to be bilked it would at least be a good British bilking. 

Araminta and her husband – real name the Rt. Hon. Henry Dripleigh – were a couple of utter phoneys who had cynically adopted this ‘new Inglsh’ malarkey as an acceptable alternative to real work. Because, like so many other upper-crust families, they were skint. 

Under their assumed name (they hoped it would ring a bell with anyone who had enjoyed My Fair Lady) the Higgins had won a loyal following among rich and desperate parents of hapless offspring. They were making bucket-loads of dosh from ‘re-educating’ the offspring of such gentlefolk. 

Henry and Araminta had also caused a stir among the arty-farty and left-wing loonies section of society with a claim, based on dubious studies coming out of emerging nations (which had purloined Inglsh as their own main language) that a new order was imminent. In a few years dropped aitches and glottal stops would make speaking ‘proper’ completely unfashionable, reported the Higgins. 

They were reversing the theories espoused in My Fair Lady. The fictional Hollywood-created Professor Henry Higgins intimated that if the English would only teach their children how to speak, poor creatures like his protégé, Eliza Doolittle, would have no difficulty finding better employment. 

Eliza might well have been ‘a lidy in a fla-ah shop’ instead of working the streets flogging flowers out of a basket. 

According to the real-life Oxford ’iggins, a posh accent would be a marked disadvantage in the new order of society. Talking common, with overtones of a migrant accent, possibly Jamaican, would be the acceptable lingua franca. 

Lady Norah had never been convinced. 

“Tommy-rot,” she snorted. “The fools even suggest that regional accents will become acceptable for BBC announcers, which is plainly laughable. 

“Next thing you know, they’ll expect Her Majesty to abandon the delightful, strangled, cut-glass tone of her birthright and speak in a way that even the Amurikans can understand. It’s unthinkable.” 

Reggie was distraught at leaving Oxford, just as he was getting a grip on talking Inglsh like a barrow-boy. He had even toyed with the fantasy of having his own barrow one day. Now, with his degree in Modern Languages – Inglsh only half-baked, he was mortified to be informed by Lady Norah that both he and Sir Sydney were to replace Lothar in the market garden. 

“With luck and a following wind the pair of you might be able to do half as good a job as that mongrel Teutonic highlander.” 

They were patrolling the grounds when Norah dropped her bombshell. Reggie disconsolately kicked at a cabbage. 

“Aow, mu-um,” he moaned. 

“Don’t take that common tone with me, young man!” his mother thundered. “And don’t sulk; it makes you look backward.” She corrected herself. “More backward. 

“Now; perhaps if I point out that the time you have spent with the unspeakable Higgins has not been completely wasted, it will be some compensation for having to get your hands dirty?” 

The boy struggled to understand such a complex sentence and, eyes glazed, said nothing. 

“If those appalling Higgins can get away with daylight robbery then anyone can. I have decided to convert the Manor into a language school for au-pair gels,” Lady Norah continued. “Everyone seems to have them now. Most of them are foreigners, I believe: much cheaper than employing proper nannies, one supposes. 

“Let us hope that this dreadful ‘new Inglsh’ patois you have acquired might prove of some value in communicating with the inmates. You should have picked up enough from your studies in Oxford to be able to pass on a modicum of Inglsh. And the appalling accent with which you are now cursed might even be useful with that level of clientele. 

“I will emphasise one point however, Reggie. Reggie, are you listening?” 

The boy had augmented his glazed expression with a slack jaw. 

“Just try to remember that if any of the gels are delivered here by decent people of superior class you must keep your mouth firmly shut – that’s it, like that – until they’re safely off the premises.” 

Sir Sydney was just as unhappy as Reggie that his ancestral home was to be desecrated by ‘business’. Business was an alien concept. It all seemed rather tacky. Not like agriculture. With agriculture, all you had to was employ a good farm manager and simply leave him to it. 

Sydney had no objection to having the old place swarming with nubile young women of course. That was partly traditional and most acceptable. The hearts of generations of Smatterings had quickened and warmed over comely kitchen staff and winsome chamber maids. 

The problem was that while the Manor house was to be packed with fillies, Sir Sydney would be out in the grounds, up to his wrists in the mould and his ankles in manure. You can’t cut the dashing aristocratic figure and tempt young ladies into the greenhouse while decked out in gumboots and moleskin trousers. 

The language school would be known as ‘Smatterings’ the grand dame had informed Sir Sydney “because a smattering of any language, even Inglish, is all we can expect of our idiot son, who is obviously descended from your blood-line. 

“A smattering is all these young gels will need anyway, before they trap some damn fool into marrying them. Anyway, it also means we won’t have to change the name on the gate and we can use your coat- of-arms on the notepaper.” 

Remarkably, the venture partially restored the family fortunes. So Reggie’s fall should have halted right there. How did he continue to spiral down into the unthinkable realms of real work, the post office, and ultimately, into the clutches of Straith Trewth? 

Well, it was all because of Christmas. Smatterings was running reasonably well after two terms (apart from some minor unpleasantness involving Sir Sydney, an attractive Swedish au-pair named Inga, and the hothouse). 

Lady Norah quickly smothered that potential scandal by banishing Sydney to Gouts for a month. The Christmas holiday break was imminent and she also packed Reggie off – to the local post office. Seasonal casual work was a staple form of extra income for students in those days and she certainly wasn’t going to let the boy idle his time away enjoying the festive season. 

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