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Pirates of Fleet Street Chapters 3 and 4

CHAPTER 3 

Blankenberg towers 

Strike Week 1 Wednesday March 5 

“YOU can’t say this, Vincent, ‘Licensed Royal Mail agent’,” Cheryl had complained, typing up his hand-scrawled advert for the Standard, Lundn’s most popular afternoon newspaper. It printed thousands every day, and this was at a time when everybody 

used to actually pay for newspapers.
“What licence? You ’aven’t even got a licence for that bleedin’ 

scooter, let alone to be a Royal Mail postman.” 

The great entrepreneur tore around London on a GS Vespa with L-plates up. It was perfect, easy to park in the city. He had never bothered taking the driving test. 

“Don’t worry about it, Cher. Time anyone reads that, I’ll ’ave one; for the post anyway. The Post Office is so desperate, all you gotta do is ask.” 

This time Vincent’s wild optimism was spot-on. Anyone who applied was given a licence to collect and deliver mail. Cynics might have thought the country’s Postmaster General was trying to make the whole post-office redundant and replace it with private enterprise. 

Vincent X was unused to success in business. Most of his brilliant ideas weren’t; brilliant that is. And he was always having them. He didn’t want to be schlepping up eight flights of stairs with a heavy bag of cameras, flashgun and tripod when he was old. Old: fifty for instance. Who could imagine that? 

But the closest the young snapper had ever come to financial success was a brief venture into buying and selling. One of the top-floor rooms .

had been packed full of pop-up umbrellas and lightweight suits from Portchergl (back in the old days, when it was still spelled Portugal). For a brief – very brief – time the punters would drag themselves up to the top of Blankenberg Towers for the sake of a bargain. It all crashed when Vince’s exclusive supplier, another of his good old schoolmates, let on that he was passing on hot gear. Unfortunately he made the confession under oath in court and so brought Vincent’s burgeoning commercial empire to an abrupt halt. So Vince was still in Fleet Street lugging the bags up eight flights of the seedy Blankenberg building. 

No architect could claim credit for Blankenberg Towers, which cowered in the shadow of the Daily Excess’s Black Lubianka excrescence and peeped up in awe through unwashed windows at the Egyptian decorations in front of the majestic Telegraph. 

The grandest quality about the building was the name, and that was just a mickey-take up and down the street. Erasmus Blankenberg the First, the entrepreneur founder of Blankenberg and Blankenberg Import~Export had acquired the unprepossessing, four-storey pile in lieu of a large, uninsured shipping debt. That was early in his unscrupulous career but by the 1960s it was almost the last vestige of a family business that had gone to the dogs under Erasmus the Third – ‘Young’ Mr Blankenberg as his secretary, Gladys, was inclined to address him. 

The Towers was rented, room by room, to a multitude of small operators like Vincent X. The rents were low but at least the place provided Blankenberg with a meagre, cash income. 

When the family’s shipping business made an unlikely recovery after Gouts club cunningly engineered Inglnd’s entry into the YEC (Yoorupian Economic Community) Blankenberg could have invested some of his nefarious profits into improvements of the property. Fat chance. 

He usually visited just once a month – on rent day – and settled in behind a roll-top desk, with his faithful assistant Gladys, to collect his dues from the tenants. 

‘Penthouse’ was how Blankenberg described the four cramped rooms that huddled around the top of the creaking, hundred-years’ old wooden stairs. The whole floor was rented to Vincent X, but he discreetly sub-let one room to mates from the Mirror, who used them for their shady freelance writing activities. 

Young Mr Blankenberg had the cheek to charge ten bob a room extra for the top floor rooms ‘because they are handy for the fire escape’. Fair point perhaps, in a firetrap with a wooden staircase, but this surcharge for survival assuaged any qualms Vincent might have suffered about ripping off the old git. 

However, there was no denying it was the top of the building, and there was access to the roof, if you used the fire-escape ladder. Vincent had made good use of that route on certain occasions, usually rent days, to avoid passing the open door of the first-floor office and the gimlet eye of Gladys. It was a way of buying time. A short stroll across the rooftops of neighbouring buildings and you could come down to earth via another fire-escape on distant Fetter Lane. 

On rare occasions when the sun broke though the perpetual grey curtain hanging over Lundn it was possible to drag a chair onto the roof and attempt some sunbathing. The view across rooftops blackened by decades of soot wasn’t the most beguiling, but in Lundn you had to take advantage of sunshine when it was offered and never mind the outlook. If you did look south on one of those rare, clear days, there were no towering landmarks to focus on. But you would be scanning the low-cost districts that clung to their side of the Tems just as tenaciously as their well-heeled northern neighbours. Vincent X, Cheryl Hitchfield and thousands like them crossed the Tems every working day to keep the City, the markets, retail and commercial ventures alive. 

Vincent would never admit it to Cheryl, of course, but it came as a bit of a shock when the great British public began trudging up the stairs to post letters. It was amazing how many people were desperate to write to their long-lost in the colonies. In a couple of days the Standard advertisement sucked in dozens of punters. Cheryl wasn’t exactly run off her feet taking their money, but at four bob a go, plus another four shillings ‘foreign post charge’ it was a nice little earner. 

It was an even bigger shock when the post office workers union caught on, and sent in the pickets. 

“Anyway, what you gonna do about ‘Young’ Mr Blankenberg? If ’e comes round an’ sees them pickets ’e’ll go spare,” Cheryl moaned. 

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I want ’em upstairs, once the shop steward’s bin round. Anyway, ’es not a bad old geezer really ... an’ when I pay him cash for this month’s rent ’e should be happy.” 

“Dunno about that, except the ‘old’ bit. Him and that Gladys; them two are like a pair of antiques. Just like that that funny old desk of ’is, and that phone, wossit called?” said Cheryl. 

“It’s a candlestick.” 

“Yeah, that’s it. It can’t work, surely?” 

“Yes, does. I was down there once paying the rent – ‘Why are you always the last, Mr X?’ he says ...” 

“Yeah, ’e always says that to me if I go in wiv the cheque, every month ...” 

“an’ it rung,” Vincent said. 

“Wot?” 

“The phone, it rung.” 

“Oo was it, Dr Who? I bet ’e would ’ave one of them, ‘candlesticks’. Straight out of the ark that fing is.” 

“Well, like I said, it still works. Same as ’is roll-top desk. Actually, I reckon they’ll bury ’im in that desk,” Vincent mused. “ ’E’s not very big, tuck up his legs a bit and I reckon ’e’d fit. 

“I might mention that next time I’m down there. Then again, p’raps not; some old people get a bit funny, you talk to ’em about death, don’t they?” 

“ ’ow old do you reckon ’e is then, Vincent?” 

“Very, very, I reckon. Nearly as old as this place. An’ Gladys’ll be even older, eighty suvvink at least, I’d say.” 

“P’raps he likes older women, eh Vince? Ole cow. You should’ve seen the look she gave me last time: ‘You seem to have a lot of visitors on the top floor lately, young woman’ she says. 

“Like I was on the game or summink!” 


CHAPTER 4 

Vincent’s Post Office 

Strike Week 2 Monday March 10 

On the second Monday of the postal strike that crippled civilised mail communication across the D-UK Cheryl Hitchfield sat staring morosely at a stack of filing trays that spilled airmail letters onto her battered wooden desk. 

The Victorian-era office was sparsely furnished with a small open fire, two desks, a couple of cupboards and a metal filing cabinet. Down in the narrow street-level entrance a marble slab shamelessly declared the bare-faced lie that Mary Queen of Scots was once imprisoned on this site by Queen Elizabeth the First, on an unspecified date. Shortly after the postal workers went out on strike a couple of pickets camped outside that street door. As soon as it rained, they jammed themselves into the doorway and became a decided nuisance. 

FROM the other side of her office door Vincent X could be heard. 

“Alright, boys? Nice ’n’ comfortable? ’as she made you some tea? Right, good, see ya later.” 

“Aye aye, Cheryl, see you’ve bin busy then?” he said, pushing open the half-glazed door. 

“Yes Vincent, I ’ave, fanks very much; more than can be said for your mates, sitting’ there all day drinkin’ tea ’n’ studyin’ form.” 

The ‘form’ that absorbed the post office pickets was not that of the attractive blonde young Girl Friday (whose legs were neither black nor scabby) but that of the greyhounds racing that day at several tracks in the Lundn area. 

Cheryl glared at and through the ribbed glass that mercifully obscured her view of the pair camped on the small landing outside. Vincent thumped his old leather camera bag on her desk, and as she re-directed her glare to his direction, hurriedly dragged it off again. He moved over to the other desk, under the window which looked down onto Wine Office Court. It was a murky view. The outsides of Blankenberg’s windows hadn’t been cleaned in living memory. Not that the view would have been noticeably brighter even were the glass sparkling. It was another grey March day. 

“Ah come on luv, be fair. It can get very borin’, picketin’.” 

“Yeah, well it wouldn’t be if they did it properly, ’olding up placards and shoutin’ at people, like proper strikers do. 

“Oh no, they waltz in ’ere this mornin to dry out by the fire, wearin’ them ’orrible Pak-a-Macs over their uniforms. At least I made ’em dog out their roll-ups. Prised ’em off their bottom lips, they did; stuck ’em behind their ears for later. Charmin’ that is. 

“Shouldn’t they be sittin’ downstairs ’round an old brazier or suvvink?” 

“Oh yeah, that would look nice, wouldn’t it, in Fleet Street? ’fore you knew it, you’d ’ave the papers out, in sympathy. Don’t take much to set that lot off, ’as you well know, your old man bein’ in the print.” 

“Yees, but ...” 

“Not to mention puttin’ off some of our customers.” 

“Well, they still do that, put people off; sittin’ out there callin’ everyone scabs and blacklegs ’n’ stuff. Some of ’em do look a bit iffy when they come in, bit puzzled like.” 

“So ...?”
“... so, like you said, I tell ’em it’s just a publicity stunt.” “... and?” 

“Some of the customers just think I’m ’aving a joke. So, I say that we let them sit there, even though it’s not very good for business, ’cos you felt so sorry for ’em, outside in the cold ’n’ rain, etcetera. That shuts most of ’em up.” 

“Good gel.” 

She gathered up the spilled letters and started bundling them with elastic bands. 

“Still, I don’t know why you bother gettin’ ’em up here. They’d soon get fed up out in the street and probably go ’ome.” 

“Ah well, that’s why I’m the brains of this enterprise, young Cheryl. I ’ave plans for those lads.” 

“What – another ‘brilliant’ business scheme I s’pose?” 

“Nope, same one. You’ve seen we’re getting busier every day, since I very shrewdly got us that licence from the Post Office? An’ I put the ad in the Standard – ‘officially appointed to deliver the Royal Mail’?” 

“Alright, big ’ead; an’ you also brought them two pickets ’round ’ere, wanting tea all day.” 

“Never mind that, small price to pay for all the extra wonga we’re gonna make.” 

“Talkin’ of which, p’raps I’m gonna get paid sometime then, am I, Mr X?” 

Vincent shifted uneasily; he always got a bit embarrassed and twitchy about his working name, especially with piss-taking mates; or even Cheryl. His mum and dad hadn’t been too impressed either. 

‘What, you ashamed of us then’ was the gist of it. He could hardly tell them that Mr and Mrs Vincent’s total lack of imagination had forced his hand. And in south Lundn your mates did think it was a bit poncy, changing your name. But he was totally fed up with smart- arse comments from other snappers, like ‘he’s such a great artist, they named him twice’; or ‘oh my Gogh, it’s Vincent.’And anyway, he liked it; ‘Vincent X’ had a bit of mystery about it, he thought. 

“Alright, no need to get clever. Anyway, what do you mean, get paid? You’ve just ’ad an all-expenses paid ’ovvercraft ride to the Continent at the weekend, on the firm, plus a fiver spendin’ money. And I might add, I can’t see any sign of the duty-free you promised to bring back from Calais.” 

“No, well dad got into that a bit sharpish so there ain’t much left. Anyway, wojja mean? That was no ’oliday, wiv all them bloody students getting’ drunk ’n’ bein’ sick. Makes you ashamed to be British sometimes.” 

Cheryl’s Calais run had seemed like a good idea at the time, Sharon being unavailable due to rostering that had her stuck in Tel Aviv. Nice life for some, Cheryl had sniffed. 

“Kids eh, what can you say?” commented Vincent. 

“Still, makes you think. Who would’ve thought so many people would ’ave the same brilliant idea as me, sendin’ couriers off to France to post the company’s letters? Still, none of them seem to ’ave got the idea of makin’ a proper business of it, like we ’ave. Not so far. That’s why we’ve gotta think big, get ready.” 

“But I thought wiv your gel-friend, wosser name ...” 

“Don’t start ... an’ you well know ’er name, Sharon, an’ she’s not my gel-friend ...” 

“... yeah, I know ‘friend of the family’ (she sniffed) ... anyway, ‘her’ deliverin’ off the planes ...” 

“No, if it keeps on like this Sharon’ll ’ave to pack it in. She’s already gettin’ dirty looks from the cabin staff boss, not to mention the Customs blokes. See, a few letters were no problem. She even slipped some of ’em into what they call the ‘ship’s mail’. Cost us nothing!” 

“Can just see ’er, staggerin’ across the tarmac wiv a bleedin’ great back-pack ...” 

“That’s where them two outside come in.”
“Go on then, genius, ’ow are post office pickets gonna ’elp?” 

CHAPTERS 5 AND 6


© 2005-2021 Alastair McIntyre