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Pirates of Fleet Street, Chapters 27 to 31

CHAPTER 27 

Puppet Master 

STRAITH had talent-spotted Reggie without even meeting the boy, who by 1961 was the union rep for the sub-post office of Little Smatter. Reggie had been promoted to the point where he could tick over in comfortable incompetence. It should, by rights, have been the pinnacle of his career. 

Reggie was blissfully happy at the post office. Christmas relief work had introduced him to the wonderful world of the post office and he convinced Lady Norah that the wages he could fetch home far exceeded the value of his inept efforts in the market garden. 

Finally he had found his metier, in unchallenging, mind-numbing repetitive work in the backroom. He knew he would never graduate to the front counter, but that was all right with Reggie. Even though he was a ‘Nob’ living with mummy and daddy at the Manor, he wasn’t a tosser. His fellow workers actually liked Reggie. The dreadful south Lundn working-class accent, acquired at the new-wave Higgins Academy in Oxford, helped Reggie to be accepted. He didn’t put on airs, said his comrades, and what’s more ‘he’s harmless’. 

Reggie would happily do whatever he was told, without protest. So when a mug was needed to represent Little Smatter PO at the totally tedious, monthly union branch meeting Reggie was the universal choice. 

“You’ll love it Reg, you bein’ educated an’ that,” they told him. 

In the same year Sir Sydney Smattering was residing temporarily at Gouts, serving one of the periodic banishments which Lady Norah imposed whenever he showed over-enthusiastic interest (purely ‘paternal,’ protested Sydney) in another of the foreign au-pair girls studying at the Smatterings language school. 

That’s when the Postmaster-General, of what was then still the United Kingdom, was baled up in the Pitt bar by his fellow club- member Sir Sydney and jovially informed: “Young Reggie has a promising career in our village post office Straith. You’ll have to watch out; he’ll be after your job next!” 

A year passed and Sydney was banged-up yet again in the cell-like overnight rooms provided for members of Gouts. This time Straith Trewth was more interested in his blather, particularly when Sydney told him the young oaf was joining the others of his ilk as the Barkshire union delegate to the annual conference. 

If the lad is as dim-witted as the old man, mused Straith, he might prove useful. 

The puppet-master began tweaking strings. 

In the following year, 1963, a couple of old time-servers who were cluttering up the executive council of the postal workers union were informed by the General Secretary that it was time for them to ‘forego the bi-annual election process’. 

He was planning his own retirement, the Gen-Sec pointed out, and could no longer guarantee that certain expenses, out-of-pocket charges and dubious foreign fact-finding tours of exotic locations that were funded from discreet government coffers would remain below the radar. 

Provided the pair took early retirement, he, the Gen-Sec, would have ample time to locate any documentary records that might suggest a whiff of improper conduct, dodgy procedures, or misuse of members’ funds. 

In consideration for their years of mutual comradeship he would ensure that any paper trails leading to the pair (and himself) were stored securely in a top-secret government establishment that specialised in effectively ‘losing’ embarrassing and/or incriminating documentary information. 

The pair knew a threat when they heard it and slipped quietly away. 

After the nationwide union ballot that year Reggie Smattering was quite surprised to find himself a new member of the 1963 National Executive Council. He hadn’t even known his name was on the ticket. 

Like most union members his mates at Little Smatter didn’t take the slightest interest in their union. They hadn’t seen a ballot paper and not a single one of them had voted. But they were pleased for ‘our Reg’ when they heard the news. 

Reggie carried on as before, blissfully contributing nothing to the NEC, just as he had contributed nothing to the branch. 

‘Reg was harmless’, everyone agreed. 

The next elections to the NEC were two years off but Straith Trewth had no intention of leaving his grand plan in abeyance that long. Anything might happen to upset the planned succession. It was now time for the Gen-Sec to make way for young blood. 

Straith gave his man a year to clear his desk, bury the secrets at Lossit & Co’s HtnmWytht dump, and announce his early retirement so as to ‘spend more time with his family’. 

That was stretching the truth to breaking point. The charisma-free, fat and balding Gen-Sec was twice-divorced, in a liaison with a young Asian lady residing in Singapore, and totally estranged from his three adult offspring. 

Any halfway competent investigative journalist could have revealed all if the Gen-Sec was of sufficient news value to cover the cost of the newsprint. 

He wasn’t, so they didn’t. 

In contrast, details of a financial arrangement agreed with PMG granting the Gen-Sec a fully-funded five-year roving commission to examine worldwide postal practices for and on behalf of the PMG would have made good copy. However, that paperwork joined all the Gen-Sec’s other documents in secure storage at Lossit & Co, HtnmWytht. 

At an emotional farewell banquet for the outgoing General-Secretary of the PWU past colleagues lined up to tearfully farewell their leader and lavish him with tributes that were fulsome (in the original and worst sense of the word). 

In reply, while the congregation was basking in sentimental nostalgia and reviewing rose-tinted memories, he asked his comrades for ‘one final favour’ and that they ‘respect his last act for our magnificent union’. He then anointed Reggie Smattering to succeed him as General-Secretary of the PWU. 

Reggie’s meteoric rise was at its zenith. At just 24 he was the youngest General-Secretary of any UK union. 

Straith Trewth had secured the succession and was quietly proud of his achievement. In their first Whitehall briefing, over tea sipped from bone-china cups, the PMG explained the basic approach to running a department. It was precisely the same approach used by government ministers. 

“But, I ain’t got the faintest idea abaht wot to do naow!” Reggie protested. 

“Of course you don’t, lad. But I do. So, just leave everything to the office staff. I’ll let you know if anything really important comes up. Occasionally there might be things you have to sign, and so on.” 

“Wer’ll, alright. Mummy and daddy’ll be pleased I expect. The wages’ll help out up the Manor. Fanks very much, Straith. Don’t know ’ow to fank you, really.” 

“Don’t worry, my boy. I’ll think of something.” 

CHAPTER 28 

Hotfoot Elfie 

Strike Week 4 Tuesday March 26 

Reggie achieved honorary membership of Gouts through nefarious handling of the crooked ‘postal survey’ that propelled Inglnd into the Yoorupian Economic Community (YEC). As head of a national union he had ascended far beyond his level of competence. He had no right to be there and it’s extremely unlikely he would ever do any better. Reggie was indisputably at the top of his personal ladder. 

And then there is Gouts newest recruit, Elfie Biggins, late of the PWU, where he was also late most days. Elfie is indisputably the man at rock bottom, a bloke who, even if he had been aware of the ladder of success, would have gazed up enviously and hopelessly at its lowest rung. 

He had relinquished his lowly spot in the post office, abandoned his union brothers without a qualm and shifted sideways across the low-paid spectrum to become Gouts’ newest, rawest, sub, under-porter. 

On the face of it, Reggie Smattering appears to have it all over Elfie Biggins. All they have in common is a coarse, south-Lundn accent. 

Reggie’s Gouts club-mates and contemporaries are drawn from the elite and privileged classes of D-UK society. Most have survived the public school system. Many are elected members of political parties, and/or representatives of the semi-secret organisations which subtly control the country. Consequently, Gouts members are mostly congenital morons who struggle to find their mouths with a fork. 

In contrast, the porters who ‘serve’ them are some of the smartest lads in town. The porters of Gouts are like carers in an institution, skilfully managing their charges, and allowing their ‘masters’ to wallow in a delusion of superiority while being manipulated like glove-puppets. 

While Reggie Smattering has fallen, and risen again, as far as he can go, Elfie Biggins has fallen on his feet. He has joined a tight cabal of street-savvy wheeler-dealers at the top of their game. Reggie has peaked. Elfie has only one way to go; up. 

CLATTERING up the uncarpeted stairs of the Blankenberg Building, Elfie Biggins was surprised at just how squalid the place looked. Unwashed walls, dim lighting. Funny he’d never really 

noticed before, when he and Len were happy picketing up here, out of the rain. Even the staff quarters of Gouts was better, and cleaner, than this. He’d been at the club less than a fortnight and couldn’t believe his luck. 

“Len, Len; where are y’, Len; got some news for yer,” he gasped, climbing up the eighth flight. 

“Blimey, look wot the cat’s dragged in, Vince,” said Cheryl, sticking her head out of the kitchenette doorway at the top of the stairs. “It’s the deserter.” 

“Looks like ’e’s been overdoin’ it an’ all. Workin’ y’ too ’ard up that fancy club, are they Elf?” asked Vincent, joining Cheryl on the landing. 

“Better give ’im a cuppa tea, Cher. Plenty of sugar.” 

“Aaoh, fanks Vince, fanks,” puffed Elfie, leaning on the stair rail. “Forgot ’ow far up this is. Dunno ’ow you do it every day.” 

“Young man like you should be fit enough for a few stairs,” sniffed Cheryl, handing him a mug. “Well, don’t ’ang about there clogging up the stairs, better come in the office. Wojja want anyway? Len’s not in yet.” 

“I got good news for ’im; for Vince an’ all, ’bout the strike.” He slumped into the visitor’s chair in Cheryl’s room.
“Go on then, Elf. What you ’eard?” asked Vincent.
“It’s gonna go on anuvver munf, an’ ...” 

“Oh, that. Yeah, we know. It’s in the Standard,” said Cheryl, slinging the paper across her desk. 

“Wot, you know? ’ow can they ... I’ve gotta go t’ work at twelve so I come in early ...” 

“Yeah, well that’s good of yer, Elf, I appreciate it,” said Vincent, winking across at Cheryl. 

“Nice to think of y’ old mates. Like I did when I gave you all that work, when you was skint on just that measly strike pay.” 

“Yeah, an’ then ’e buggers off wivout a word,” sniffed Cheryl. 

Elfie sucked at his tea-mug and avoided both their eyes. 

“Leave off, Cher,” said Vincent. “Can’t blame ’im for takin’ a better job. Anyway, Elf, ’ow did you pick up the news then? Not at work, I suppose, was it?” 

“Yeah, Vince, I did, I mean, it was,” said Elfie, hurriedly. He’d always been a bit in awe of Cheryl and was desperate to get off the topic of his loyalty. 

“You’d never believe it but the bloke who runs our union is a member of that Gouts club! I ’eard ’im an’ a few others talkin’ abaht the strike, an’ sayin’ they wanna keep it goin’.” 

“Why would they want to do that?” asked Cheryl, suspiciously. 

“Dunno, didn’t get that bit. But some geezer is gonna give the union loads of money ...” 

“You, what? Who’d do that ...?” asked Vincent. 

“That’s not in the paper,” added Cheryl, snatching up the Standard and scanning the piece again. 

“You sure about this, Elfie? Not still giddy from runnin’ up the stairs, are yer?” 

“No Cheryl, ’onest.” He risked a look, eyes lowered, in her general direction. “I couldn’t understand all of it, but this geezer said it was a secret ...” 

“Who was this, the union bloke?” she asked. 

“No, anuvver bloke, don’t know who ’e is, only bin there a little while, ain’t I? But ’e said it was ‘top secret’ I’m sure of that. So ’ow come it’s in the Standard?” 

He shook his head. 

“It was only yesterday I ’eard ’em. That’s why I was in an ’urry to let Len know ’e’s alright for strike money for anuvver munf. An’ to tell you an’ Vince, o’ course.” 

“Alright, thanks a lot, Elf. You better get goin’ or you’ll be late. Keep your ear to the ground, mate,” said Vincent. 

“To the door, do you mean, Vince?” replied Elfie. “That’s where I ’eard ’em, through the crack in the door ...” 

“Yeah, right you are, Elf.” He raised his eyes to Cheryl again. “Mind ’ow you go on the stairs.” 

Elfie shuffled out of the office and his boots resounded as he thumped back down to Fleet Street. 

“What a loss to our organisation, eh Cher?” said Vincent. “Give ’im a year and ’e’ll be runnin’ that club.” 

“I just passed a little bloke on the stairs, looked a bit like one of those pickets that used to be here. They were working for you as well, I think?” said Van. 

“Mornin’, Van,” said Vincent. “Yeah, didn’t think you’d met ’im, Elfie. Must have been that first time you came up here. He used to be a postman but he’s got a new job now, at some club.” 

“He came burstin’ up ’ere with news about the strike,” added Cheryl. 

“Oh,” said Van. “Did he?” 

He sat in the chair recently vacated by Gouts’ newest trainee under- porter. 

“That’s strange because I’ve got some news about the strike for you as well ...” 

“About it goin’ on longer?” asked Cheryl. “It’s in the Standard.” 


CHAPTER 29 

Board Meeting 

Strike Week 4 Tuesday March 26 

VAN had never attended anything approaching a formal meeting of the board of Port to Port and wasn’t sure what to expect when Gladys summoned him with an early-morning phone call. 

The old woman knew that Tuesday had become one of his days to make a run to France. “I’m sure he must have some trollop over there in Calais,” she had told Blanko, who showed absolute disinterest. 

“The boy’s doing vital work for the country, according to Jacob,” Blanko snapped, “So keep your gossip to yourself, woman, and get back to work.” 

Their working relationship hadn’t improved since Van had demanded and won a large wage rise for Gladys. Blanko still resented it. What’s more, he couldn’t sack her either. Thanks to Van she knew enough about Blankenberg and Lossit’s part in the 1973 postal ballot scheme to sink the company. In fact, she could probably sink the government, and Gouts, too. 

Gladys’s wage heist – that’s what Blanko would have called it if he’d been as well-versed as Gladys in tabloid vernacular – was perpetrated in the back of Van’s Phantom on the way home from a disastrous day at the HtnmWytht annual fair. Much of the fair had sunk into the ground as a massive new hole opened. Jacob and Blanko thought they were sunk too, when Van pulled out the incriminating ballot tallies. To keep him quiet they had reluctantly agreed that Van should become a partner in Port to Port. 

It wasn’t that they had anything against the young man. In fact they both quite liked him. The trouble was that he’d proved to be just as unscrupulous as they were. 

“Right-oh, Glad,” said Van. “I’ll be there to pick up the Phantom in half an hour or so anyway. Then I need to get into the City to collect the papers, so how long will this meeting take, any idea?” 

“I think Young Mr Blankenberg said it’s just to sign something,” she replied. “So I don’t suppose that will take long.” 

Jacob Lossit and Blanko were sitting at the board table in the old man’s office when Van arrived from his new flat across the river. The room was slightly tidier, less dust-encrusted than it had been two years back when Van had first met ‘young’ Mr Blankenberg. These days the dust shifted about more regularly due to the increased activity around the place. 

Blanko’s office was still stuffed with ancient furniture, and the curtains hung at the window looking out onto the Tems-side dock were those bought a century ago by Blanko’s grandfather, Erasmus Blankenberg the first. Only grime held them in place. 

After the usual pleasantries Jacob pushed the company cheque-book across the table to Van. 

“Just need a signature on one cheque, that’s all Van. Just there, see, below mine and Blanko’s,” he said. 

“Oh really, Jacob?” said Van. “I don’t remember ever having to do this before. Why do you need three monikers on this one? Which, by the way, I see is completely blank,” he said, pushing the cheque-book back to Jacob. 

“That’s no problem, Van, don’t worry. I can fill all those details later. Just wanted to catch you before you tear off abroad again.” 

“The bank needs all of us to sign if it’s above a certain amount, my boy,” added Blanko reassuringly. “Standard bank practice you know, security and all that.” 

“OK, so how high is ‘a certain amount’?” asked Van. “Considerable, I should imagine, as this company deals in pretty big sums all the time, am I right?” 

Port to Port had a virtual monopoly on the output of Portchergl and shipped port in and out of the D-UK all the time. Money was transferred regularly to growers, agents, shipping companies and others and Van had never been required to countersign a single order. 

“So ... forgive my scepticism, but if you two want me to sign a blank cheque, something smells fishy. And I don’t mean those old curtains, Blanko.” 

The old man craned his neck and peered towards the window. 

“Curtains? What’s wrong with the curtains?” he croaked. 

“Hhmm, he’s got a point, Blanko. Could do with a bit of a spring clean in here, you know. We can afford it,” added Jacob. 

Then he turned to Van. 

“Alright, Van. Let me explain. In the very near future – tomorrow probably – a large sum of money will be deposited in the Port to Port account. We need to pass that money on to ... well, no need to go into that now, but it needs to be done as soon as possible, and as you would be away on your travels, I thought if you could sign now it would expedite matters. You see?” 

Jacob pushed the cheque book across the table again. 

“Partner,” said Van, shaking his head, flicking the book back again, “you’ve been in the secrets business so long you can’t see the obvious. You’re going to have to tell me how much, and who it’s for, before I sign anything. We Greeks are famous for having a good head for business, y’know.” 

Jacob sighed. 

“Alright, Van, we’re partners so I will tell you as much as I’m allowed,” he said, with a fairly convincing show of reluctance. It would have fooled most people. But Van and Blanko were not most people. They watched, fascinated and with grudging admiration, as Jacob Lossit demonstrated the subtle art of misdirection that had stood him in good stead over a long, devious career. 

“A certain wealthy philanthropist, who I am forbidden to name, even to my close and trusted partners, has accumulated certain funds in an overseas location; which cannot be disclosed either, at this time.” 

He paused, as though checking he had not revealed too much. It was the intellectual version of the watch, wallet, spectacles, testicles pat-down. Then, reassured apparently, Jacob proceeded with his spiel. 

“For personal and potentially embarrassing commercial reasons this kindly personage cannot make a direct donation to a certain charity ...” 

“Charity!” exploded Blanko. 

“... Yes, as I said, this person is a philanthropist. But he also needs to maintain a tough business profile. His reputation would suffer enormously if rivals detected some sign of weakness, you understand? He can’t risk his kindly act being uncovered somehow, lest it be used against him,” Jacob went on. 

This sounds pretty good, he thought, considering I’m making it up as I go along. 

“Because of the trust and esteem he holds for Lossit & Co, and our past dealings, he asked me, as a personal favour, to take receipt of the funds. The deposit would appear on the books of Port to Port, very briefly, as just a straightforward advance payment for services, shipping and such, to be rendered at some point in the future.” 

“So what about this ‘charity’ ”? asked Van. “What happens next?” 

“Ah, that’s the beauty of the scheme, er, I mean charitable act by this very decent chap, I mean personage,” Jacob beamed. Port to Port will then make the donation to the charity. It’s all tax-free, I am assured. We will have to take a small handling fee from the donation, of course, to cover administration and so on.” 

“Ah, so we keep some of the money, eh Jacob? Good, how much?” asked Blanko, reinvigorated. 

“Oh, it should be about, er, let’s see; £10,000, less handling, but coming back in cash; oh, definitely, let’s say, well it has to be worth, nearly ... ten thousand pounds.” 

“Brilliant performance as ever, Jacob, congratulations,” said Van. “You should be on the stage; or in court with a wig on. But I’m still signing nothing until I see the money in our bank account. Look, I’ll be back tonight. Tomorrow, if the loot – I mean ‘charitable funds’ – are in the bank we can write a cheque to your mate’s ‘charity’. 

“But ... I don’t suppose for a moment you’re going to tell us the name of this charity, are you?” 

Jacob raised his shoulders, spread his hands, pursed his lips, and crooked his head to one side. The pose said, love to tell you, I really wish I could tell you; but ... can’t. 

“No, thought not,” said Van. “OK, tomorrow then. But how about the money? How much are we talking about, if you’re skimming ten grand off the top?” 

Jacob sighed. 

“Alright. We’ll be sending Gou’ ..., er sorry, the chosen charity four million pounds.” 

“Less £10,000!” added Blanko and Jacob, in unison. 


CHAPTER 30 

Hey Big Spender 

Strike Week 4 Tuesday March 26 

Van had made his regular collection of rolled and ready US Sport and Games from Miss Rabbia’s Cannon Street basement but he didn’t linger, even to schmooze the client. There was still mail to collect from Fleet Street and he wanted to make the noon ferry to Calais. He also wanted time to pass on what should be most welcome news to the postal entrepreneur and his glamorous assistant. 

Because as Van left the Tea and Coffee Exchange Jacob had let down his customary guard, briefly, and committed what might prove a costly indiscretion. 

“Right then, off to France again with the lovely Cheryl, I suppose? Off you go, have a nice day,” he had said, pleasantly enough, even though the cheque-signing hadn’t gone precisely to plan. 

“Yes, thanks Jacob, but unfortunately the lovely Cheryl, as you put it, is office bound. It’s just me and the Phantom for Calais this time,” Van replied. 

“I do appreciate you’re both allowing me the time off, though. Thanks. Anyway, it shouldn’t be for much longer.” 

“Not at all, Van, not at all. I happen to know that some very influential people consider what you’re doing, making sure the mail goes through as you do, is a real service to the nation,” said Jacob. 

But then he added: 

“Keep it up. From what I hear, the strike might be going on for quite a bit longer anyway.”  

“SO, MY esteemed partner, who is definitely well-connected, reckons the strike will continue,” Van told Vincent and Cheryl. “And that was early this morning so he won’t have read it in the 

Standard, either. So, what’s going on?” 

Vincent shrugged his shoulders. 

“You’re the second one in ’ere today talkin’ about the strike going’ on, Van. Elfie said the same thing,” said Cheryl. “An’ he reckons ’e knew yesterday.” 

“Listening at doors, should be ashamed of ’imself,” grinned Vincent. 

Van, who was heading for the door himself, stopped. 

“What do you mean, Vince, ‘listening at doors’,” he asked. 

“You can’t believe anything that Elfie says. He’s a bit stupid if you ask me,” added Cheryl. 

“Elfie’s not the brightest, I grant you,” said Vince, “but ’e reckons he overheard this bloke at the club where he’s workin’ now, said ’e wanted the strike to go on another month, and ...” 

Van turned, and thumped down again into the visitor’s chair. 

“Wait a minute,” he said, “what club?” 

“What? Oh, what’s it called, Cher?” 

“Gouts; I’m sure that’s it. What all them rich blokes get for drinkin’ too much port. Yes, Gouts.” 

Van laughed. 

“Of course: it had to be! Tell you what, your Elfie might be thick, but I reckon he’s on the money this time. Right on.” 

“Ah well, Elfie did say ’e ’eard something about money as well,” said Vince. “Seems some rich geezer is going to give the union enough money to keep the strike going.” 

“That’s why he came chargin’ up ’ere,” added Cheryl “to tell ’is mate Len ’e was alright for strike money for a few more weeks.” 

Van decided the noon ferry could go without him; he’d take the next boat. 

“I think it’s time to tell you two a bit about my partners at Port to Port,” he said. 

“And that’s why I was in Calais that day, and met Cheryl,” he said, winding up a very brief, censored outline describing how he was first engaged for courier work by Blankenberg, fronting for Lossit & Co, and how that led to a partnership in Port to Port. He skated cautiously around the blatant blackmail that finally cemented his directorship. 

“But the important point right now is that they’re both members of the Gouts club. 

“Look. Yesterday, your Elfie learns that someone at Gouts is bailing out the union. Today, my partner Jacob, who virtually lives at Gouts, wants me to sign an enormous cheque in favour of – he says – a charity. That can’t just be a coincidence.” 

Vincent X looked puzzled. 

“So what you’re saying is,” he began, but Cheryl, who had been silent through Van’s revelations, broke in. Her tone was both incredulous and outraged. 

“So all this time, you’ve been working for that old git who owns this building?” 

“No, no, not really, Cheryl,” Van blustered. “Not working for him, more like with him if you like, in partnership. Although yes, at first I did work for him and Jacob. Before I persuaded them they ought to make me a partner. Look I didn’t even know he had this building in Fleet Street until you phoned and got me up here. Because you needed help, if you recall,” he added. 

“Still, you might have said something.” She was still aggrieved. 

“Well, the time never seemed right. And anyway, it doesn’t make any real difference. I would still have helped out, with the deliveries. It had nothing to do with Blanko; that’s not why I, well ...” 

“Why you what?” she said. 

“Alright, alright, never mind that now,” Vincent broke in. “The thing is Van’s here now and he’s definitely made this business work a treat, so I don’t see it makes any difference he’s got some connection with old Blankenberg,” said Vincent. 

“Tell you what, Van; you can get a later ferry can’t you? Let’s all nip down the Cheese for a drink. If the strike’s going on a bit longer we can definitely afford it. Bit of a celebration, eh? 

“Ah, that’s handy, I can ’ear the fairy footsteps of Len stampin’ the life out of our stairs! What is it about these postmen? I reckon they ’ave to wear really ’eavy boots for kickin’ dogs. Good timing, Len.” 

“Mornin’ all,” panted Len. “Sorry I’m a bit late. ’ere, you seen this ...?” He was waving a newspaper. 

“Yeah, yeah, we all know,” they chorused. “It’s in the Standard.” 

The trio shuffled across the small landing to let him squeeze past into Cheryl’s room. 

“Listen Len, mind the shop, mate,” said Vincent. “We won’t be long. Oh, and Elfie’s been in; he wanted to tell you your strike pay should be OK for a few more weeks. Come on let’s get goin’. Pub’s been open for hours.” 

“Yes, OK Vince, but hold on a minute,” said Van. “Did Elfie tell you anything else about this bloke at the club? Does he know who he is, do you think?” 

“Not really, Van. Like I said he was listening outside the door.” 

“But he did know one of them, Vincent,” added Cheryl. “Remember he said that it was the boss of the union?” 

“Oh yeah, that’s right. Elfie was surprised he would be in a nobs’ club like that.” 

“OK, that makes sense I suppose,” said Van. “He would be meeting the characters who were going to bail out the union. Look, could you get in touch with him, Elfie that is? See if he can find out who the other bloke ...” 

“I think he said there were a few. But knowing that dope ...” said Cheryl. 

“Alright, but if he can find out a bit more, describe them, names would be best of course.” 

“Brilliant, yeah; Elfie Biggins, undercover spy. Fat chance,” Cheryl giggled. 

“Why Van, what are you getting at,” asked Vincent. 

“Vince, I’ve a horrible feeling I know a couple of the characters who were in that meeting with the union man. If I’m right, one of them is my partner; and I’ll bet the other one is ... well, he’s in the government. If they are up to their stiff-collared necks in it, there’s only one more question. What’s in it for them? If we can work that out we could be on to a winner.” 

Cheryl and Vincent X looked at each other, blankly. Van caught the look. 

“Alright, it’s a guess, but this is what I think is happening. Tomorrow morning I will be asked to sign a cheque for four million pounds.” 

“You kiddin’, Van? What? Four million quid!” Vincent exclaimed. 

“Blimey, I told you ’e was a gent, Vincent,” said Cheryl. “Didn’t know ’e was stone rich an’ all.” 

“Come off it, Cheryl, it’s not my money. Judging by the past form of my dodgy partners I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out where it’s come from. But I’d say it’s odds on that cheque will somehow wind up with the union and keep the post office out on strike.” 

There was a short silence, broken only by the rumbling of deep contemplation. 

“Seems wrong, somehow, don’t it,” said Cheryl
“Yeah,” said Vincent. “Wojja call it, ironic or something like that?” “I’ll look it up,” said Cheryl. 

“What I mean is, here’s this bloke Van, who some people – people like your old man, Cher, communists an’ that – would call a strike- breaker. If what he says is right, he’s also about to give millions of pounds to help out the union whose strike ’e’s breakin’!” 

“I have to agree with you, Vince,” said Van. “It’s confusing alright. Because when I sign over all that loot it also means our little overseas runs will carry on strike-breaking for another month. And you,” he pointed out, “will keep piling up profits for another month.” 

“Yeah, alright,” agreed the postal entrepreneur. “Pub eh?” 


CHAPTER 31 

Mystery Man 

Strike Week 4 Tuesday March 26 

FLEET Street editors justify their existence by droning on and on about the public’s right to know. They pontificate on freedom of the press, the duty of newspapers to inform and educate, people’s need for diversity of information and opinion, and the necessity for individual publications of every ilk to be financially self-sufficient. 

But really, they’re only in the game for the fun of the chase. 

Chasing the big story and beating the opposition compensates editors for working un-social hours under the iron heel of crass, money-grubbing Press barons. Although ... chauffeur-driven limousines, unlimited expense accounts, un-taxed profit share schemes and obscenely high salaries which they rarely need touch do help alleviate their misery. 

On Tuesday morning a frantic chase to unearth the mysterious benefactor (or benefactors, or subversive organisation, or foreign power?) who or which had bailed out the post office workers union was kick-started on editorial floors up and down the street. The national dailies were furious in their frenzy because they had all been scooped by the Lundn Standard. 

‘Thank f**k it’s only a poxy Lundn rag’ summarises the universal, explosive, expletive-laden reaction of editors, after their drivers had cruised them into the City from their luxury Westend flats, or those of their exotic foreign mistresses in Mayfair, for the morning news conferences. 

Radio and television news had picked up the lead from the Standard of course, but that could be a good thing, they all agreed, priming readers all over the country for the full story the next day. 

At the conferences, most editors limbered up by firing two or three of the staff. Mostly it was industrial editors’ heads that hit the basket, though on two titles they were joined by the night editors, for good measure. 

In one office Florrie, the tea-lady, was kicked out too, just so there could be no inference of gender bias. 

Like all commentators the industrial relations specialists (mostly blokes) had been writing, totally accurately, that the PWU was on its last legs, and couldn’t hold out for another week without life-support. So they were blamed for not seeing this coming (not their beheadings, just the bail-out) and therefore they simply had to get the chop. 

It was all totally unfair, normal Fleet Street practice. The editor could assure the proprietor that appropriate action had been taken. A few vaguely competent journalists would cop a promotion and replace the sacked writers, who would take a short holiday then join in a game of musical chairs ending with most of them joining another paper at an improved salary. 

The tea-lady’s union (NOTSLOWA – National Organisation of Tea-ladies LOunge Workers and Auxiliaries) called out all the sisters, as well as the office-cleaners throughout Fleet Street. Florrie was reinstated the next day and a week later surprised with a brand-new electric trolley. 

An army of reporters surged out of EC4 and by early afternoon every member of the PWU’s national executive council was undergoing a rigorous lavishing in pubs, restaurants and clubs across Lundn’s Westend. 

The entire executive had been called into the office and regaled with Reggie’s top-secret news the night before. Due to the unusually late timing of the unofficial meeting they hadn’t really had much time to cash in with lucrative loose talk and indiscreet chatter. But the new day began early and the executive were all treated by keen reporters to ‘off the record’ entertainments where many a union tongue was loosened with liberal libations. 

Herbert Longbotham, an old hand who knew the ropes better than most, was the exception. It was Herbert who jumped the gun and tipped off the Lundn Standard. He knew that news like this wouldn’t stay secret for long and he also knew that an ‘exclusive’ was the route to a big earner. On Monday night, on the way home from the NEC meeting, he stopped at a handy red telephone box and made an untraceable tip-off call to his long-standing Standard contact. As a lunch-time paper the Standard didn’t often get a big one over on the dailies and Herbert’s mate was extremely grateful. He assured Herbert that the paper’s gratitude would be expressed in time-honoured fashion, under any table Herbert cared to name, in the form of a bulging brown envelope. 

Fleet Street’s finest were generous lunch providers but they didn’t get much for their money. It wasn’t that the NEC blokes were unwilling. They were just uninformed. All the reporters learned was that good old Reg had personally arranged a large donation from a well-wisher who wanted nothing more than to support the post-office workers in their fight for better conditions and more money. 

Who was the donor? Nobody knew. How much? Nobody knew. 

Reggie Smattering was apparently the only source worth pursuing by the baying newshounds. But Reggie was nowhere to be found. When they drew a blank at the union building, which is conveniently located behind Mount Nice sorting office, a posse had ventured south and camped outside the Smatterings’ ancestral home in Barkshire. 

Outside the ornamental gates was as far as they could go. Any hope of door-stepping the Gen-Sec was swiftly dashed by Lady Norah. Shotgun crooked over her arm, she clanged shut the Manor gates on the pack and vowed to sue any organ that dared invade the sanctity of Smatterings, which was a seat of learning for vulnerable young ladies. 

In their search for Reggie none of the country’s news-gatherers thought to call Gouts and ask if the General-Secretary of the Post Office Workers Union was in residence. But that’s where he was hidden. 

Straith Trewth, Reggie’s puppet-master, anticipated substantial press interest once news of the donation was leaked. He was reasonably sure that the lad could hold his tongue at the executive council meeting. Reggie’s colleagues should be so overwhelmed with admiration that they were unlikely to quiz their leader too hard over the actual source of their windfall. 

The Press were another matter. 161 

Straith had zero faith in Reggie’s ability to say nothing if asked. The Gen-Sec must disappear while the dust settled. He telephoned Reggie early that morning at his modest pied-a-terre, a flat in the Eestend borough of Whopping. 

“A black taxi is waiting in the street outside, Reggie,” he instructed. “Put some clothes on, go downstairs and get into it. No need to speak to the driver, he knows where to take you. I shall see you when you arrive.” 

Before dawn the Gen-Sec was deposited at Gouts’ loading dock, which is discreetly located at the back of the club in Portesque Mews, and ushered in by a porter. 

Given the paucity of solid facts Fleet Street reverted to plan B – speculation, inference and innuendo. 

Struggling and little-read Left-wing organs such as What About the Workers was convinced that Reggie Smattering – ‘an old-school Nob, even though he puts on a working-class act and accent’ had funded the strike himself from family money. Not much in-depth investigative reporting on show there; a cursory glance at the Smatterings’ accounts would have disillusioned them. 

Right-wing press like The Daily Rage had a lot more fun with the story. Rage speculated – citing ‘informed sources’, which meant they were invented – that all the other UK unions were bankrolling the PWU to stay out on strike, forever. Their dastardly plan was to provoke ‘our popular, democratically-elected government’ so it would send in the troops. 

It was a pity, Rage and other newspapers suggested, that this ‘namby- pamby government’ hadn’t done just that on day one of the post strike. That would have shown ’em! 

Now, the unions had become confident and taken the initiative. If they could provoke military intervention the swine could make that an excuse to call a total national stoppage. Backed with funds from who knows where? the union bully-boys would close down essential services, bring the nation to its knees and most probably start a civil war. 

After The Daily Excess was tipped off by its undercover man in Rage’s print room about Rage’s front-page banner, which read WILL IT BE WAR? The Excess went one better. 

Subs quickly changed a paragraph or two to justify a new headline and remade the front page with: COMMUNIST PLOT TO CONQUER BRITAIN? 

NEXT INSTALMENT


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