Episode 88: Haringey Cricket College – a missing engine of opportunity in English cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In modest premises in a deprived part of north London, the Haringey Cricket College was a unique institution which developed a generation of talented black players into English first-class cricketers. Its disappearance was a lasting loss. Adrian Rollins was one of its alumni, an opening batter with over 7000 first-class runs for Derbyshire and Northamptonshire between 1993 and 2002. Julien Cahn was chair of its successor, the London Cricket College. They are the guests of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.


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Adrian describes his upbringing in east London which had gravitated him towards age group and youth cricket in Essex. But opportunity there was blocked, and he was about to abandon hopes of a county career and take up a university place when he was talent-spotted by the College’s guiding spirit, former West Indian Test cricketer, Reg Scarlett, who persuaded him to train there. It was a life-changing decision: he deferred university and, like others, advanced not only as a cricketer but through a range of sporting, educational and human development activities. He describes the mentoring they received from successful graduates and other connexions of the College, including England players, Roland Butcher, Philip De Freitas and Chris Lewis.

He comments on the role of the College as a shop window for young black players and its importance in balancing English cricket’s bias in favour of mostly white privately-educated players enjoying the best facilities and coaching. He describes his local club in east London on a rough unprotected park pitch which he and his uncle had to roll themselves on match days.

Julien tells how he became involved in the College through the agency of Bertie Joel, a cricketing eccentric and patron to match his celebrated grandfather, Sir Julien Cahn. In Joel’s XI, he met Reg Scarlett, who introduced him to the London Community Cricket Association, principal funders of the College. He cites Bernie Grant, the local black MP, fiery, radical and much demonized, as the inspiration for the College and the man who brought Reg Scarlett to run it. He describes the lucky encounter in which Reg Scarlett squeezed National Lottery funding from the then Prime Minister, John Major. Through him, they also secured the use of the excellent Midland Bank ground for midweek games.

He and Adrian emphasize the role of the College in developing coaches, and the contribution they made to cricket not only in England but overseas, especially in the emerging cricket power of Namibia.

They describe the giant personality of Reg Scarlett, including some of his exploits as the boon companion of Garry Sobers. Passionate, honest and blunt-spoken but always approachable he set clear high standards on and off the field. They also cite the tremendous influence of Keith Wareing, the director of training.

Adrian describes his introduction to Derbyshire during his breakthrough year of 1992, when the College’s matches against county second teams were a tremendous showcase for his and other talent. He tells the story of facing his first ball in a one-day game for Derbyshire – from Allan Donald of Warwickshire – and mistakenly waiting for the wicketkeeper (Keith Piper, another College alumnus) to come nearer the stumps. Because of injuries he himself had to keep wicket for Derbyshire on his Championship debut – at six feet five probably the tallest in first-class history.

As a teenager, Adrian’s height made him a victim of racial stereotyping, as a series of coaches at county trials wrongly assumed that he was a fast bowler in the making rather than a batter. He eventually joined Derbyshire, a team with a diverse dressing room, but he and other College members encountered racism in the form of unfunny “banter”, deliberate sledging from some opponents and from spectators at certain grounds. Black players regularly believed that no matter how good their performances they were disfavoured in team selections. He had not been surprised by the recent revelations of Azeem Rafiq and others.

Julien sets out the factors that led to the closure of the college despite its successes. The defeat of John Major’s government in 1997, and very different cultural and sporting priorities from the incoming New Labour government, saw the halving of Lottery funding. The departure of Reg Scarlett and then his successor, Deryck Murray, to posts in the West Indies were major losses. Julien describes vividly the negligent disdain towards the College and its work from toffs in English cricket when he approached them for funding. The newly-formed England and Wales Cricket Board rejected his application for support.

Adrian recalls his intense disappointment at the closure of the College and the consequent denial of opportunity to later black cricketers. It had been unique. Without it, he believes he would never have made it into county cricket. He and Julien note the current suggestions that something like the College needs to be revived and discuss what would be needed – principally a new charismatic leader of the quality of Reg Scarlett.

Finally, Adrian describes his current work to develop cricket opportunities for young people in Derbyshire, where he is deputy head of a large state school. He has put cricket firmly into the school’s PE curriculum, but as in other state schools it is held back not only by a shortage of facilities but also of PE teachers qualified to coach it.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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The Nice Ones – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy The Nice Ones, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

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The Nice Ones

By Simon Gompertz

I WASN’T TO KNOW WHEN I FOUND OLD ALF sitting outside his wooden allotment shed, delving into some stew with a big wooden spoon, the juice dribbling down his cheek and a sweet, herby smell wafting over, that he would introduce me to the art of catching and cooking London game.

In all honesty I was just hoping to borrow his garden fork, my own having split where the shaft joins to the head. So, nor did I expect, as I picked my way past his rhubarb, his asparagus bed and around his runner beans, that he would draw me into the mystery of who killed Mopey Dick.

Alf had set up a cooking table using an upturned tea chest and on top of it stood a rusty, blue gas burner, the sort you would take on a camping trip, although this one you would surely leave behind on the grounds of its suspect appearance.

He had built a structure of battered biscuit tins around the burner and balanced a wire rack on top to support a pan over the flames. This was his kitchen and his larder was all around: greens and potatoes, carrots and parsnips, herbs and fruit. He had parsley, thyme and rosemary and, in a section he had netted at the end of the patch, there were raspberry canes, and gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes.

“Come over and have a taste, Mr Fred,” he said, beckoning with his eating arm and spraying drops of gravy on the ground.

“What have you got?”

“Squirrel stew, the best you’ll ever try.”

“That won’t be hard, given I never ate such a thing before.”

My chief worry was not the thought of the squirrel itself, being well aware that some people viewed it as a delicacy. No, it was that there only seemed to be Alf’s greasy and unwashed wooden spoon to carry a sample of the stew over and into my mouth. He was holding it out to me, weighed down with pieces of meat and veg which glistened with juices from the pan. Well, he was giving me no choice.

I grabbed the spoon, which was nearly as wide as a trowel, and pulled off a good mouthful to chew. The squirrel was tender in places, though rubbery at the edges.

Maybe it tasted of chicken, if the chicken had been leaping around the trees and chomping nuts and berries. I was thinking about what a squirrel might find round and about, in this case chestnuts, acorns and beech mast, along with mushrooms and fruit, and I expect they had an effect on the flavours I was getting. To help, there was sweetness from the onions he had fried and richness from the butter he had used for the frying.

“It’s good. How do you make it?”

“Not hard. Fry some onions and while they are browning off, put in the pieces of meat and leave them till they’re cooked on the outside. You’ll be putting some salt a pepper if you have them. There’ll be some carrots or some of those sweet parsnips if that’s what you have.

“Then whatever herbs you can snip off and top it up with some water, rainwater’s as good as any, and leave the stew boiling in the pan for an hour. Bingo.”

Alf was eating straight out of the pan. He moved the spoon around, scraping the congealed parts from the sides and mixing them in. I remembered why I had ambled over.

“I was wondering if I could borrow your fork this afternoon, since mine’s broken in half?”

“Take your pick. There are two leaning on the back of the shed. I was just using the bigger one to pick up Mopey Dick and throw him in a pit I dug near the gate. He was shot through the heart.”

“What the old cat?”

“Very same. You could see the blood on his scruffy chest. Air gun pellet. Left on the path by the bins.”

Sodding hell. Who would do that? It sounded vile, pointless. Mopey Dick was a big old Tom whose home was the allotments. He fed on scraps left out by a few of the plot holders and sheltered in various favoured places in and alongside the sheds.

He spent most of his days slung over boxes or walls or in the short grass, padding slowly from one spot to another. Moping around. Hence the name. And he was a big one, a fat and long tabby with a white bib and dirty-white paws. But the main thing in this context was that he never did any harm to a human.

“Can’t think who would want to take down a cat. I’m stumped,” I said.

“He never stole anything we planted, that’s for sure, nor caused any damage that I know of. I’d say there’s more to it than some vengeful vegetable grower. I do have an idea though.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s to do with these here squirrels. They don’t jump into the pot, you know. You have to nab them first and there’s an easy way to do that. You have to shoot ‘em.”

“Oh, right. With an air gun. Not you, surely?”

“Shoot Mopey Dick? ‘Course not. But I’ve got a gun hid in the shed, old Turkish one. Does the job, with lead slugs. And I’m not the only one: that’s the point, Mr Fred.”

I looked around. These allotments could be bristling with weaponry and I never knew. All those days we had come down the Meadows in sunshine or rain, happily digging the silty loam here by the river, or lugging cans from the tap to water everything, or picking and pulling veg on a warm evening, then lying back on the grass with a bottle or a can, enjoying the bird noise and the peace, and had no idea that a neighbour could have pulled out a rifle and started firing off.

Once the shed next door to ours had been blown to smithereens after the owners abandoned their late night barbecue, and the flames revived and spread to a couple of gas canisters, the large sort. Bits of wood landed three or four allotments away. But this was different. This was people deliberately arming themselves.

“How many? Can’t be legal, can it?”

“That’s a moot point. No problem using them on your own land or with permission, and the council can turn a blind eye if you’re careful. But shooting across someone else’s patch when there’s folk around? No way. On top of that, you need to have your gun under control. Needs to be locked up. Mine’s in a locked box, not telling you where exactly. As to the number, it’s not that many. No one near you.”

“I’ve not seen anyone carrying one, full stop.”

“Well, you’re not here when it happens, that’s why: in the early hours when there’s no one else about, save for those who’ve got some business to do. Squirrel hunting, I mean. There’s three I know of, including me. There could be another but I’ve not seen him, only the odd bushy tail left about. I call us the Nice Ones.”

“The Nice Ones. Why?

“Nice one, Cyril…for squirrel, you know. People used to call them that.”

Alf got up to pour some water into his pan. He left it on the ground by the tea chest to soak.

“Tell you what,” he said, “Take the fork and when you bring it back I’ll show you how to get the squirrel ready. I’ve got another lined up.”

Image above: On the allotment; photograph Marianne Mahaffey

*

If you are squeamish you can skip this next bit or, if someone is reading it to you, you can say La La La or look away.

On my return Alf reached into a leather bag and pulled out a squirrel. He had a sharp little knife ready, which he used it to make a cut under the tail, then he eased the skin away from the back for a couple of inches, keeping the tail attached, all while the animal was face-down on the ground. I could see the pink flesh appearing. However, at this point he dropped the knife, stood on the tail, pulled hard on the back legs and the body slid out of its pelt, as if it was coming out of a sock.

Only those back legs were still covered but Alf dealt with them in seconds. Next, he cut along the belly and pulled out the guts. It was a bit like gutting a fish and, as you would with a fish, he plunged the whole thing into a bucket of water to rinse it clean. The speed at which he worked made the process easier to watch. I judged the whole operation had only taken him a couple of minutes.

He took off the head and feet, so what was left looked like something on a butcher’s counter, fleshy and nameless. He worked the knife into the joints and detached the legs, then trimmed the torso into one meaty piece. He chuckled and glanced over.

“This’ll be for you. It’ll make you a fine dinner. Here, I’ll chuck the bits in a bag. Don’t let them hang around. They need cooking.”

“Wow! Thanks.” There was no refusing such an unusual gift, but I was wondering how it would be received at home. Not that we weren’t used to gifts. Our yields were so low and our failures so frequent that we often brought back more free produce from generous allotment holders than we managed to grow ourselves. But a freshly killed and butchered squirrel would be, well, a surprise.

“Alf, before I run this back, what was the idea you had about what happened to Mopey Dick?”

“Ah, well. That would involve me telling you about The Nice Ones, the squirrel hunters. There is me. Not a suspect. There is a down and out called Mall. He’s an ex-para and to be honest he is more into trapping than shooting, one reason why you should watch where you put your fingers and toes if you get close to some of the trees around here.

“In fairness, he only sets his little traps in hidden places or up in the branches. The third man is called Maz. Different proposition, someone you wouldn’t want to see looming out of the mist. He’s tall, well over six foot.

“He wears a brown poacher’s jacket with pockets on the chest and hips, and big boots, along with a camouflaged wool hat which has a peak on the front. I’ve seen him at dawn several times, carrying a solid-looking gun with an expensive scope mounted on it. He doesn’t miss his target. My idea is that Maz shot the cat for some reason.”

“And the fourth Nice One you mentioned?”

“Not much I can say, just that there are a few kills which are difficult to explain. Mall and Maz don’t leave any trace, but these other ones might have been butchered where they were, which would be unusual.”

I wanted to know more. I felt I had been through a kind of initiation, watching Alf prepare the squirrel. I had stepped into the world of the Nice Ones and I wanted to find out which of them fired the fatal pellet, and for what reason. Also, I had a plan.

“How about we confront this Maz and ask him what he knows? I’m not very happy about people shooting randomly around here. I’d like to get to the bottom of it. We could meet here at first light one day and go out and find him.”

“I’m not happy about it either, Mr Fred. Gives us a bad name, and I had to deal with the cat. OK, but we’ll need to be early, meeting here at five-thirty, just before dawn, and it’ll have to be Monday. That’s when Maz comes down to the river. It’s when he thinks he’ll have the place to himself.”

Image above: Early morning at the allotment; photograph Roz Wallis

*

The steel padlock sparkled in the beam from my head torch. Everything else around the allotment gates was black and grey. I could see stars in patches, split up by dark regions of cloud. As I looked down again and turned the key, I thought that Alf might have left the chain unlocked for me, but he hadn’t. Following the rules, I supposed.

I turned off the path and stepped along the narrow band between two plots, trying not to trip. Coming up behind his shed I could hear the quiet roar of a gas burner and the clink of a kettle. He was brewing up.

“Morning.”

“Morning, Mr Fred, you gave me a start.”

“Bit early. Quicker than I expected on the bike.”

There was a battery lamp hanging from a hook inside the shed door. It created a bubble of light in front where Alf was filling two mugs with boiling water, and it lit up the inside making it look snug and liveable in.

Now I understood what he had been doing. Along the back of the little room there was a camp bed, of the old army type which has an X of wood at each end, holding two long wooden bars which have thick green canvas stretched between them. On top was a thin mattress, a pillow and an old tartan rug. He had slept here with the owls, the foxes and the rats.

Alf was one of the overnighters, one of many more since the COVID lockdowns. People were whiling away their days by planting, weeding, watering and fixing things. It was better than sitting in a flat, counting the minutes and hours. When the time came to head home, some of them said ‘Why bother?’ They stayed.

It was as if they were in a cabin in the woods and fields. Once the walkers had gone off, the Meadows went back to the quiet of previous centuries, save for the occasional siren wailing in the distance. The country moved in on the city.

More birds appeared, and at dusk bats swooped down, hedgehogs rustled through the leaves, deer found a gap in the fence and helped themselves to the veg. The in-between land, from the houses and the playing fields down to the scrubby riverbank, along with the roads around it, was empty and silent. I wondered if Alf had made a habit of overnighting and could not shake it off.

“Had a good night, then?”

“Apart from Mr Fox sticking his nose through the door. Left it a few inches open on the chain. Must have still been a whiff of squirrel around. Then he knocked me bucket over.”

“Looks comfy, though.”

“It’s good enough. I’ll sleep a couple of hours then go out and sit for bit, looking at the night, listening to what’s happening, then go back in for some extra kip. Before you know it, the chirping starts off again.”

We walked across the playing fields towards the fringe of trees by the Thames. Dull forms appeared: woods, the café roof, some climbing frames. The sky was luminous grey, lightening above the river. Where the light was coming, some strips of cloud stood out in lines of charcoal and ash.

There was an area which had been planted with fruit trees and left to go a little wild and encroach on a grassy section which went down to the tow path. We stood on the grass and watched the red rim of the sun appear over the far bank.

It started as a fire behind the trees, with flames seeming to leap through the branches and to scorch the undersides of the charcoal clouds. As the full sun rose, like a burning hole in the lower sky, I noticed a man silhouetted in front, striding along the path. He turned in our direction and I could see that his outline was broken by the stock of a rifle on one side and the barrel sticking out on the other.

“Maz,” Alf called out, so Maz knew who was watching him. He marched over to us and we exchanged good mornings. Maz moved his rifle to his shoulder, hanging it by the strap.

“What’s brought you out?”

“Matter of a cat.”

“Oh,” said Maz. It was more of a grunt.

Rather than add to the conversation he made off towards an abandoned road we called the Avenue which had been, at one time, the main route down to a bandstand on the riverbank. Taking it in the opposite direction brought you back to the allotments. The Avenue was lined with sycamores and lime trees, along with odd oak and beech, and was rich in squirrels.

We followed behind. The daylight was pressing down through the tree cover, but I struggled to see a great deal close to the ground. Maz stopped beside a thick tree and reached into the hip pocket of his jacket, which was easily big enough to hold a hardback book.

He had titbits of some sort in his hand and he placed them on a raised root, then backed off about fifteen metres. We were lurking even further away.

“Bait,” Alf said, “Peanuts, seeds, corn: that’s what I would use.”

Maz had found a spot on the far side of a stump and was down on his knees setting up his rifle. He had rolled up his jacket and was using it as a rest for the front end of the stock. He leaned on the stump and we all waited.

Within a minute, two fat squirrels hopped down obligingly from the upper branches, racing each other to the root. It was all too easy, but it was September. They were in the mood.

Everything seemed to go quiet. The squirrels each picked up something to eat and sat on their haunches turning over the food with their tiny paws. There was a soft sound like a firework rocket going off in the distance. Pooff. One of them dropped as if it had fainted. The other didn’t flinch. It looked up, then grabbed a second morsel and sauntered off.

I thought we were done, but Maz stayed where he was and Alf touched my sleeve to hold me back. Already, there was another squirrel on the scene. I couldn’t tell whether it was a third or the survivor of the first pair coming back for afters. Whichever, it suffered the same fate. Maz walked over, picked up the two dead squirrels and brought them over to us.

Of course, he had known exactly where we were standing. Each animal had a wound just behind the eye.

“I wanted you to see,” he said, “I hit the mark both times. It is better for the squirrel but also I would like you to know my accuracy is first class.”

“Those are good shots.” Alf was filling in time. He just stood there. He thought Maz had more to say.

“You saw the cat,” Maz went on, “The pellet went into the body. It was a cruel one. I would never try to kill a cat like that; it would be too risky. Using an air rifle on a creature that big, you might just leave it with a painful wound. But the truth is it was me who fired the shot and I would like to explain.”

Now the sun was high enough, I could see Maz more clearly. He was a fine-looking man, upright, broad-shouldered, with cheekbones which pushed up the skin of his face and eyes like shining beads. He wore a trim, dark beard and moustache.

He slotted the squirrels into a huge pouch inside his jacket and hooked his gun across his back. He was a little stiff, not hostile but edgy. Alf started to walk up the Avenue.

“I say you come back with us to my plot and I’ll brew something up. Then we can talk. We’ve finished here. People will be up and about soon.”

*

A cuppa, a brew, a cup of char. When Alf poured in the hot water, he called what he was making a Rosy. The mugs were steaming, then he plopped in the milk and the bitter smell of the tea reached over. He had biscuits, Fig Rolls and Shrewsburys, which he passed round once we had the mugs in our hands and were letting the first sips splash around our mouths.

It was the right way to deal with Maz. He had propped up his gun in the shed and settled into the only chair. His arms had looked hard, like bent pieces of metal; now one flopped down his side while the other nursed his mug. Alf took the upturned bucket while I perched on a log.

I asked Maz where he had learnt to shoot so well. I was worried he would think I was prying, but it turned out he wanted to talk.

“It was in the police. I was a marksman. Learnt about every sort of firearm. That’s where I got the name Maz. I am Mo Azar, but they shorten everything, so I became Maz and the name stuck. I like it. When I left, I kept up my licence. I don’t need it for this air gun but I have a certificate for a .22 Browning and a .308 Sako.

They’re for the deer. I go out for estate managers and deal with any deer problems they have. They ask for me because I shoot straight. Not so many shots needed, you see. It is better for the animals and I make less noise. Don’t startle the horses, or the humans. That’s it.”

Maz was smiling now. Alf wanted to know what happened to all the venison.

“Ah well, that is good question, because sometimes they give me one of the deer afterwards. It might be a roe deer or fallow. Or muntjac. Muntjac can be good to eat as well. I take the carcass home and prepare the meat in an outbuilding I have at the bottom of the garden. And then I give it away to my friends. So one day I can give you some venison if you would like.”

“Yes, right. That’s good of you, Maz.”

Alf was grinning as if it was his birthday and nodding eagerly. But I was back to thinking about the hunting I had seen that morning.

“What about the squirrels, though?”

“That is for sport, and practice. I like hunting them. I enjoy going out in the early mornings as well. I was used to early starts when I worked in the police and it is very peaceful at that time. But the squirrels, I do not eat them. In my religion they are classified as vermin and not to be eaten. Sometimes I prepare them and give away, or I just give them as soon as I have them, so I want you to have these ones.”

The two dead squirrels had been stowed in his pouch all this time. He pulled them out by their tails and handed them to Alf, who accepted the present without protest. He had a wooden box just inside the door and they went straight in. Everyone knew that we had strayed off the subject, though, even Maz, who sat up in the chair and laid his mug on the old tea chest.

“Now I shall tell you what happened with the cat.”

“Mopey Dick,” I said and Maz raised an eyebrow. “That was his name.”

“I see. Mopey Dick. I’m sorry. You must understand that Mopey Dick was a wily fellow. He caught me out, but that led to his end. I was close to here on a very quiet morning, looking at the big rubbish bins outside the gate. That is a busy area for squirrels.

“They don’t just eat nuts, you know. They will take old food and some produce from here that people throw away. So they are all around. They think they own the place. Anyway, I put some bait on top of one of the bins and went some distance off to wait for my chance. There was no one near, in case you are concerned.”

“Something tells me old Mopey was lying in wait as well,” said Alf.

“It is true. The cat was lurking somewhere nearby. I don’t know where because I had not seen him. The squirrels were moving on the bait. They were very enthusiastic, so to speak. I could see four or five of them. I do not know what was going through Mopey Dick’s mind but I imagine that he was a very excited animal, waiting, watching and ready to pounce.

“We must have had exactly the same instinct about when to strike, because when I pulled the trigger, he had already sprinted across the tarmac and was leaping in the air to take a squirrel, which was crouched with a nut on the edge of one of the waste bins. It was the same one that I was aiming at, aiming directly at the head, as I always do. The cat came up in a sort of twisting curve.

“Please remember that these bins are a metre off the ground. He would have had the squirrel’s neck in his jaws, but I had already fired and he blocked my shot. He saved his fellow animal’s life. It was not his intention, of course, but Mopey Dick was at that moment a hero among squirrels.”

Alf was astounded. He was living a moment of clarity and discovery.

“So he was a hunter. I know he chased the rats. But a hunter of squirrels, and an eater.”

“I have no doubt at all. He was a squirrel-hunter and eater of considerable skill.”

“You see, he looked like a slob. He loafed about all day, but that’s after he had been on the prowl early on, seeking his prey.” Alf was looking from one of us to the other. I thought he might slip off his bucket. “Why do you think he was so fat? He was fat on the fruit of labours. That’s what it was.

“And another thing. Those bushy tails I’ve seen lying about: they are what he left behind. Have to be. He must have gobbled up the rest of those squirrels whole. He was a master of what he did. Then he would stretch out like a king after his feasting.”

Alf was turning our tea party into a celebration of the life of Mopey Dick. He was spluttering with glee.

“What you’re saying is that Mopey Dick was the Fourth Man,” I said, “He was one of the Nice Ones.”

Maz looked puzzled. We would have to explain.

“Yes, he was,” Alf replied. He took another sip and cocked his head to the side, letting out an appreciative sigh.

“He was one of us Nice Ones. Me, Mall, Maz here, and Mopey Dick.”

Simon Gompertz, author of The Nice Ones, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

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See also: All Fired Up

See also: A Museum of Knives – A short story by Simon Gompertz

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

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All Fired Up – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy All Fired Up, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

Read Limb of Satan on Kindle

Read Limb of Satan on Apple

Read Limb of Satan on Kobo

All Fired Up

By Simon Gompertz

“IT WAS AN AMBUSH. IT WAS ALL GOING along nicely. I had the house, then I lost the land.”

Crackers Trevor was explaining how money had come at him like a smirking devil and chewed through him and his hopes then puked everything up. He was in his favourite bench at the Shepherd’s Crook, a half-finished pint of Pride in front of him and a fat, black and white cat stretched out on the shelf behind his head.

“Thing is, I thought that the order of the lots was in my favour. Lot 4 was the old signal box: planning permission needed but big enough for three beds and a grand room which would be all window on one side, looking over the tracks to the park beyond. Lot 5 was the patch of land around it. I thought once you had the box you’d be the only one wanting to stump up for the land. It was just a stretch of waste ground, to be honest.”

“How the hell did you find yourself with enough dosh to spray around at an auction.”

“My auntie Syll. She died last year. Left the house to me and my sister. It’s all gone through at the lawyer. Hundreds of thousands dropped into my bank account. It’s been sitting there smouldering away. I kept thinking I had to do something with it before it burned its way out and I started whooping it on holidays and rubbish. Couldn’t get it out of my mind, Bill.”

This was Bill Cox, known as the Ear, which was not a name he liked, but then what do you expect if you are a counsellor, an adviser, a listener? Bill had been a debt adviser once and he had worked in a solicitor’s office for a time. Now he volunteered at the Citizens Advice over in Brentford and did shifts with a landscaping company. He said it kept him sane, moving the earth and planting, that and time with his wife, Lou.

Often the work was at one of the big houses by the river. He could look up and down, feel the space. He did a night a week at the lifeboat station. He might be pulling jumpers out of the Thames, which was grim, but then there were times when they drove a rib at high speed in front of the sunset. Nothing could match that.

To someone like Crackers, whose time was spent largely on building sites or waiting for labouring work, Bill was worth consulting. He was a man with perspective.

“Where was the sale?”

“At the tennis courts by Devon House. The club is called Secrets of Success. Bloody hell.”

“On a tennis court. What’s the point of that?”

“It’s outside; they can control it. I mean, there is wire fencing all around and only the bidders are allowed in. In fact, they divide the bidders up according to which properties they are going for, so once a few lots have gone by they clear everyone out and bring a fresh set in. It’s all about the virus and keeping people apart.

“The agent had those coloured football training cones set out two metres apart and you had to stand by one of them. But there is still the net in the middle and the auctioneer is standing on a platform where you’d have the umpire. I expect if it rains they’re stuffed.”

“So what happened?”

“I’ll take you back to the viewing,” said Crackers, “You look round on a set day, so everyone who’s interested turns up and you get a good look at who you’re up against. Except that there weren’t many for the signal box.

“Not surprising, really: it’s right on the tracks and the building itself is in a state. There is graffiti all over the walls and some of the windows are smashed. It’s got a flat roof which is probably broken up in places, which means that the damp is coming in. It’s all stuff I reckon I could deal with, though.”

Image above: Moss and rust; photograph Marianne Mahaffey

“The people who did come, what were they like?” This was the Ear at work, moving the conversation along, coaxing out information.

“Curtain-twitchers, nosey parkers mainly, just wanting a look inside, plus a couple of developers having sniff. Late in the session this older woman arrives. Well turned out, hoity-toity. Skirt, necklace and jacket: you know the sort. I start joshing her. Big mistake.”

Crackers could not resist a chance to get under someone’s skin. Bill wondered if that was where he got his nickname, because his way of behaving lost him work and lost him friends. He would rib the foreman or get into fights, for no reason. Maybe it was about proving himself, maybe he had been put down too many times in the past. He seemed to want to get his needle in when no one was expecting.

“I ask her if she fancies a bit of a lark around in the signal box, warn her not to get her jewellery caught on my levers. Harmless stuff, but I can see her getting riled. I ask why a lady from the top drawer like her is interested in a wreck like this. There’s a lot to be done, I tell her. I’m aware of that, she cheeps, getting all arch.

“Then I suggest, only suggest, mind, that she backs off, climbs into her tower and leaves the job to people like me, who know what they’re doing. Not my actual words, but that was the gist.”

Bill raised his eyebrows as if to say: “Blimey, then what?” There was no need to speak, because Crackers was launching into an impression of the woman.

“I’ll have you know that I am much better acquainted with this property than you or probably anyone here, given that I have lived across the way for many years – she points to a big old house, about four stories high – and my interest is not in doing it up but in making sure it isn’t ruined by the likes of you. That’s what she says and then she marches off.”

“Not a clever move on your part.”

“No, with hindsight, because there she is three weeks later, standing by a blue football cone close to the net on the Secrets of Success tennis court, only a few yards from me, and looking like whatever comes her way she will volley straight back.”

The Ear had taken a sip of his drink and was reflecting on the money situations which came his way. Most were from people who had nothing and were hard put to pay the rent or had been swindled in a scam. Alongside, though, were a rising number from lucky folk who had come into a lump of funds unexpectedly and it was causing them grief. They were sitting ducks.

Lawyers had creamed off big fees; relatives were claiming a share; some had been cornered by dodgy investment types. It all came from the property boom. Here was another example. Crackers had no need to be standing in the auction with cash spilling out of his pockets, but he felt impelled to do something with it. The money was on a journey and he was being carried along.

“Everyone’s looking around when the lot comes up. It’s a Mexican stand-off. Who’s going to bid first? What happens is that the auctioneer starts off with a pointless speech about the signal box: unique and so on, prime position if you like that sort of thing, piece of railway heritage, but warning that there is a lot of work to be done and no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to do it.

“All things we know already, so the bidders are just willing him to get on with it. They’re shifting from foot to foot, tightening their fists. It’s tense.”

“You have to hold back. Let the others muck it up for themselves.”

“That’s it. Look like you don’t care: you’re just here in case it goes for a song. So the guide price is £75,000 and he starts at £100,000. Obviously, no one is going to fall for that. He drops it down to seventy-five and then to fifty, at which point a guy in the front can’t resist putting up his paddle.

“See, each bidder has a paddle with a number, a bit like a little tennis racket, which they raise up as if they are going to serve. That’s when the fun starts: going up in fives, bids coming in lightning quick. It’s up to a hundred and I haven’t done anything. Who the hell are these people, I’m thinking?”

“Yeah, auctions. They want to get you excited, so you don’t think straight. Something tells me you couldn’t control your paddle, though.”

“I come in a £110,000, thinking that will shut them up. Now it is jumping in tens; it’s with me at one-fifty. I’m sweating, thinking how have I let this happen? But you’re right, Bill, I can’t stop myself and the auctioneer plays one of his tricks. He says he’ll take a smaller bid, meaning just five more.

“The guy at the front has a little flutter and waves his paddle, but instead of taking the chance to drop out I pitch in at one-sixty and that’s where the hammer comes down. All over in a couple of minutes.”

Crackers glugs the rest of his pint and bangs the glass on the table.

“Look, I felt a bit of a fool, yet I was on a high as well. I had the money, after all, and I thought I could turn the box into something special. I was all fired up.”

Image above: Railway tracks; Marianne Mahaffey

*

Fired up. Funny he should put it that way. Bill the Ear was about to learn all about Crackers Trevor and fire. A week later, he was in his car with the traffic piling up and Lou came on the phone.
“Don’t bother driving home, love. Just park and walk.”

“Why?”

“Trains are stopped, and the crossings. There’s some blaze. You’ll never get through: best to make for the pedestrian bridge further down. You can pick up the car tomorrow.”

So he dumped the car and headed out over the playing fields and scrubby woods by the river and soon he saw the smoke coughing into the sky and he changed course, making straight for the fire. It had struck him where the smoke might be coming from, close to the tracks and near the crossing.

Already there was blue and white tape across the route and flashing lights further on. He could see what was happening clearly enough, though: sooty fumes were spewing from the huge window; roof timbers were falling in, glowing red at their top ends; there was a crash as some glass blew out. Yes, the signal box was in flames. The heat was pulling it apart.

*

The fire was still something in the future, though, while they sat in front of their pints in the Shepherd’s Crook and Crackers pushed on with his account of the auction. The signal box was Lot 4 and the next lot was the patch of land around it. They had different owners, no doubt, meaning they had to sell separately. Easy to forget. Easy to think it was all in the bag.

“You would need the land, I take it,” Bill said.

“It’s vital for access, for laying the drains because it never had a proper system and just for having, you know, a garden and a place to park. No one would look at it otherwise. Also planning permission depends on having all those things organised and showing that there is somewhere people can shove their cars.”

“OK, but once you have the building, you’re the only person who has any use for the space around it.”

“Not as it turned out. You are forgetting the lady from the big house: Mrs Fisher, the auctioneer said, Beryl Fisher. Old Trout, I’m calling her. She was biding her time by the net, paddle held firmly by her thigh, then she loosened up for Lot 5. I had kept her under observation, knowing that she had her eye on it, but I had no idea about the danger I was in.”

“You mean it was personal?”

“The Trout definitely had it in for me, after our little dance-around at the viewing. She was there to bid, fine, but she was also there to head me off at any cost. The guide was thirty grand – remember, we’re talking about a bit of wasteland here, brambles and rubbish – and the auctioneer had to dip it down to twenty before anyone moved.

“I played the same game as before, trying to stay out of the contest until the final rounds. So did she. It was slow, going up in twos, then fives, then we were at forty and my paddle went up. The shitty auctioneer saw what was going on and said fifty straight away. He had spotted that the Trout’s arm was twitching and, sure enough, she struck her first blow at sixty.

“That’s what it felt like: a punch in the jaw. I stayed with her and in seconds we were at a hundred thousand, for this derelict skirt of land around a tumbledown signal box. I kept looking over to her, desperate like. I suppose I was panicking.

“Went again, couldn’t restrain myself, but everyone could see it was a final effort, me waving the paddle like a surrender flag. Bastard pulled another fast one and marked it as an extra twenty on the price. The Old Trout didn’t hesitate to top the bid, which meant she had bought the land for £140,000.”

“In a way she’s the loser. She’s the one who overpaid.”

“You’d think, if you were watching from the side. From where I was standing there were only dud options once the price had shot up. One way I would be spending all my money, a load more once you factor in the building costs; the other way I would be left with a useless pile of bricks overlooking a railway track and no land.

“So this is my question, Bill: what do I do now? So far I’ve only paid the deposit for the signal box.”

“It’s a bummer. You could pull out of the deal. However, you would lose your ten per cent, so that is sixteen grand gone already, and legally they can still go after you for the rest, plus all their costs. Best route would be to talk to Beryl Fisher and see if you can come to some sort of an arrangement with her.

“She might give you access or even give you some of the land on a lease. Maybe that’s what she’s after: she would still keep control.”

“No chance of that. I chased her off the tennis court but she wouldn’t talk. I was going bananas: they had to push me back. She had a face like stone. As far as she’s concerned the whole place can just fall down and it won’t be in her way. I think that’s what she wants. Then she can buy the site from me or from whoever for next to nothing.”

Crackers turned away and looked towards the pub window, pushing his arm back over the bench. His elbow went straight into the cat which scurried off with a yowl.

*

A fire engine sounded its high-pitched siren right in Bill’s ear, then added a blast on its electronic horn as it tried to dodge past the crowd and drive closer to the signal box. He had been staring at the blaze for a good few minutes. At first there were giant flames curling out of the window, up from the middle and around from the back of the box.

There was a faint whiff of fuel. The upper part was mostly timber and it went up like a torch. The wood hissed and crackled and there was a thud as a beam collapsed. Then the fire team hosed water over what was left of the structure.

Once the flames were out he could see that the brickwork below was split in several places by jagged cracks. No one would be patching this up: it was a ruin.

Bill pulled out his phone and called Crackers Trevor. No answer. He texted: “Phone me, Bill Cox”. He had a nagging concern about Crackers and the fire. The man was sick with worry. Maybe he had some stupid plan.

A moment later he felt the phone buzz in his pocket.

“Bill? It’s me, Trev. What’s happening?”

“What’s happening? I am looking at your signal box which has exploded like an all-in-one bonfire and firework display. There are fire-people and police swarming all over and I am thinking I know somebody who is massively bothered about this property and maybe thinks he can make the whole problem go up in smoke.”

“Maybe you should keep your voice down, mate.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Not far off.”

“OK. On the walking bridge near The Dandelion. Meet me there. Ten minutes.”

*

The day was on its way out. Bill the Ear told himself he was ready to listen to what Crackers had to say but as he looked from the bridge up the twin line of rails and at the smoke still rising in the distance he felt increasingly pissed off. He should be enjoying a chilled wine on the balcony with Lou.

He had an advice day tomorrow followed by a shift on the boats. He could never detach himself completely from other people’s problems. He was involved. He resented that. Crackers appeared at the top of the stairs and walked over, grinning like a Halloween pumpkin.

“Don’t worry, Bill, it’s not the end of the world,” he said, nodding up the tracks, “In fact, I’m not giving anything away by telling you that my financial situation has just taken a turn for the better.”

“Oh yes? How is that?”

“Think about it. I am the soon-to-be owner of the signal box. Same box is a smouldering ruin. Insurers have to pay out to the seller. It’ll be insured, no doubt about that, because the seller is a big investment company which picked up a bunch of odds and ends from Network Rail. However, Bill, they can’t accept both the insurance money and the full payment from me in a couple of weeks.

“Therefore, wait for it, they’ll have to hand over the insurance or cancel the sale. Job done.”

There was a pause, a silent pause. There was no one else on the bridge and no trains running underneath because of the fire. Bill looked for a while at Crackers, whose grin began to waver.

“What if the police are on your tail? Buildings don’t burn themselves down like that. They’ll be looking already.”

“You’ll be an alibi, won’t you? Say you were with me.”

“I was driving home. I wasn’t with you. However, come to think of it, perhaps they won’t think it was you who struck the match. You would need a proper motive.”

“Well, that’s my issue, isn’t it? As I said: money sorted, nifty manoeuvre. So I guess a copper might spot that and claim it’s a motive.”

“No, Trev, you should have asked me. This is legal stuff. What do you know? I’ll tell you why the police probably won’t believe you did it: because you have just blown up your own bank account.

“The seller isn’t going to care about any of this. I mean, I bet you get an officer or two dropping in to get your statement, but they will be all sympathetic. It’ll be: we’re sorry about the signal box, big concern for you, you coping OK, we’re doing our best to find the culprit, all of that.”

“Makes no sense. Why?”

“Because when you paid the deposit, you signed a piece of paper. It was the contract to buy the box and the exchange of contracts was there and then. What happens at an auction is that the responsibility for insuring the property switches from the seller to the buyer straight off, not when you complete later on.

“So it was up to you to insure it. I presume you didn’t, which means that no insurer will be paying up and you are handing over your Auntie Syll’s heap of gold for a heap of smoking rubble.”

Crackers had a vacant look, like he had just puked up on the bridge. It was as if something had been pulled out of him. Bill thought of chucking back his remark that it was “not the end of the world”.

Instead, he said: “What you need to do is to take yourself back home; not talk to anyone if you can help it; act stupid about the fire. That shouldn’t be too hard. And think about all of this in the round. You’ll be writing off most of Auntie’s money but there will be a bit left, so you’re not even back to square one. Get some sleep: it won’t seem so bad in the morning.”

At the same time, he was asking himself why the people who had the least trouble dealing with the arrival of a cartload of money were the ones who were loaded already, people like the Old Trout. She could have handled it. Not that he was thinking the windfall should have landed in her lap instead. Far from it.

He was thinking about who the cash chose to stick to, not who deserved what. He saw a dozen people in a day who were desperate for a bit extra. If only they had what they needed.

Crackers and Bill the Ear leant on the railing and stared at the line of smoke which now appeared a reddish grey against the darkening sky. Crackers spat over the tracks to appear casual but, looking close, you could see a smudge around his eye. That’s the way dreams leak out, through the eyes, Bill thought. They leak out and run over the rugged landscape of the face and soak into the dirt.

Simon Gompertz, author of All Fired Up, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

Read more on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Barbel’s Ait – A short story by Simon Gompertz

See also: A Museum of Knives – A short story by Simon Gompertz

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.

 

The Mulberry Centre celebrates 21st anniversary with ‘spectacular’ concert in Chiswick

Image above: Richmond Orchestra

Cancer support charity The Mulberry Centre are to throw a ‘spectacular’ music concert Chiswick in May, featuring Richmond Orchestra.

The charity, which supports anyone affected by cancer including patients, carers, family, and friends, and those bereaved by cancer, is based in Isleworth and is throwing the charitable function to mark their 21st anniversary.

The concert is among several events during the year to mark the occasion. Those performing include the Richmond Orchestra, together with pianist Rachele Howes, featuring music by Weber, Shostakovitch, Schubert and Dvorak.

Set to take place on Saturday 7 May, the concert will start at 7.30pm at St Michael and All Angels Church, Bath Road, W4 1TT. The Mulberry centre said they were “very grateful” to St Michael and All Angels Church for supporting the event and making it possible.

Tickets for the concert are £15 (reduced to £10 for students and under-16’s), and can be purchased here. All profits will go to The Mulberry Centre.

Images above: St Michael All Angels church, The Mulberry Centre in Isleworth

Charity ‘thankful’ for years of support

Founder Patron and Trustee, Jane Kelly said:

“Our charity would not still be here today, nor would we have been able to help so many people cope with the impact of cancer in their lives, without the amazing support of our volunteers, donors, funders, staff and other supporters over the last 21 years; we are thankful to you all! “

The Mulberry Centre provides free services offering practical ways of enhancing the physical, psychological, and emotional well-being of visitors, and has supported over 15,000 people over the course of its existence.  The Mulberry Centre’s volunteers – numbering over 140 in total – were honoured with The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2021.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Outsider Tart premises repossessed by the landlord

See also: Night service returning on the Jubilee line – but not yet to the Piccadilly line

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.

Outsider Tart premises repossessed by the landlord

Image above: Outsider Tart closed, with the notice of forfeiture on the door

Outsider Tart has closed. A notice went up on the door of the American bakery on the corner of Chiswick High Rd and Chiswick Lane on Wednesday 27 April saying the premises had been “re-entered” by the landlord; that the landlord was “entitled to repossess the premises” and had now exercised that right:

“following a breach of the lease dated 24th April 2003 between Westbourne Properties Limited and David Muniz and David Lesniak Trading as Outsider Tart.”

The cafe, run by the couple who also live in Chiswick, made a name for itself with its American menu and groceries, rich cakes and flamboyant art work, characterised by provocative statements on the outside wall. The current slogan is in support of Ukraine, with a Russian swear word in it. Other campaigns have included one against the installation of the cycle lane.

The two Davids also gave refugees staying nearby a free Christmas dinner and organised a collection of presents for the children.

Westbourne Properties, based in Jersey, own quite a few shops in Chiswick High Rd – number 79 as well as numbers 83 – 93. Outsider Tart leased 83 and 85. The 20 year lease on the cafe was due to run out this July.

David Lesniak said:

“Our starter home, has fallen victim to the struggles that befell us all these past two years. We send our love and gratitude to everyone that stood by us – with us – for the past 14 years … We appreciate the outpouring of support and hope you all follow us as we and our team enter a new adventure.”

Image above: Outsider Tart’s popular cakes

Having run the business in their own names at first, Outsider Tart was incorporated in 2016:

“A couple of professional guys moved from New York to live and work in London … Outsiders as they both are, they set about rectifying the situation by turning a favourite hobby into an award-winning business” they say on their website.

They run stalls in markets – Real Food at King’s Cross station and at the Canopy Market in King’s Cross, and have brought out an American cookbook, but they have struggled during the pandemic.

Like many another small business taking out ‘bounce back’ loans which they are now having to start paying back, Outsider Tart took out a loan in 2020 for £50,000.

In September last year they borrowed a further £10,000 from Tallaght Financial, which trades as Cubefinder, offering small businesses short term loans for three to 12 months at very high interest rates. Outsider Tart’s loan came with a credit charge of £4,500.

They have recently opened another cafe at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith and set up a new company ‘Outsider Tart at the Lyric’ in David Muniz’ name only.

David Lesniak wrote:

“We are open for business as usual in Hammersmith at The Lyric Theatre. There our work and takings benefit the theatre and the community it serves. We have some exciting events planned with the theatre in the months ahead.”

Image above: Outsider Tart dressed for Christmas; a slogan on the window

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Thursday’s local elections in Chiswick “very tight” say candidates

See also: May local elections – List of candidates for Hounslow published

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.

To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here.

A Museum of Knives – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy A Museum of Knives, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

Read Limb of Satan on Kindle

Read Limb of Satan on Apple

Read Limb of Satan on Kobo

A Museum of Knives

by Simon Gompertz

THE BLADE MADE A METALLIC SCRAPING NOISE as Davie pulled it out of the sheath, the same as you would get from a single stroke over a whetstone. The light played over the steel. Then there was the smell of the axle grease smeared over for protection.

“It’s a verijero, usually about this size, the cutting edge about fifteen centimetres or so. A gaucho would use it to slice ropes and leather, chop up the meat, to shave or trim his beard. He couldn’t live without it. He would die without his knives.”

Davie put it back in and handed the knife to Tanveet. He watched her grasp the handle and run her thumb up and down the sheath, feeling the grooves. The decoration was of dull silver, low grade, with floral patterns beaten in and small golden fans in the middle of each section of the design.

The point was rounded off with a flower which had tendrils going up the side of the sheath and on one side, up near the wide end of the blade, there was a decorated clip sticking out, to help secure the knife to a belt or the inside of a boot. It had the look of a working tool trying to be something refined.

“He would be killing or watching something being killed pretty much every day. He was living from the land or working for someone who needed cattle or sheep slaughtering. He would be a fighter, as well.”

Davie stepped across the room towards a display of longer knives hanging from a wooden bar on the wall. They were like little swords: some were sharpened on both sides, others just on one side of the blade. A few had curved or S-shaped cross-guards between the hilt and the blade, to protect the holder, in a fight, against another weapon sliding up and cutting the hand.

“This is a facón. Sharp on one side only and with a cross-guard for your hand. Look at the blade: it’s about a foot and a half long. The groove all the way down is to save steel and make it lighter. It’s called a fuller. They made knives like these by chopping down old swords or bayonets, then a local blacksmith would build the hilt. Cheap to put together but a vicious weapon.”

He placed the facón back on the wall mount and picked out another long knife, deliberately swinging it too close to Tanveet before grabbing the blade in his other hand, squeezing his fingers around it and pursing his lips as if to emphasise how sharp it might have been.

“Daga. Same as dagger in English. It is double-edged, with no cross-guard. Sleeker. Might have been made from grinding down a metal file. Imagine someone flashing this at you.

“The gaucho would carry one of these longer knives slung over his shoulder or shoved sideways into the back of his huge belt, so it was easy to grab by reaching round his flank, and he would have the verijero tucked in at the front. That’s how the verijero got its name: it means near the groin.”

“Put it back, please.”

Davie ignored Tanveet’s request. He glanced up at her as if she was interrupting a show.

“I expect you’re wondering how they were used. Imagine one gaucho lassoing a steer by its horns, and another veering behind the animal, pulling out his facón or daga and slashing the rear legs so it goes down, then running round the front and plunging the knife into its throat. Gory, yeah? It was how they lived.”

He rehearsed the kill, waving the daga as if practising a backhand and pushing it forwards like he was poking it into a hole. Tanveet stepped back a couple of paces.

“Davie, who do you think is after your knives right now?”

“Well, they’re fearsome weapons, aren’t they? As effective as they were two centuries ago. You know, they never carried guns, preferred their knives and didn’t have the money to buy guns and ammo, anyway.

“The knives were working tools but they also used them to fight. A gaucho might have been weeks out on the pampa, on his own, then he arrives at a shop, which would have been little more than a homestead with some stores, essential stuff and maybe some of the luxuries he craved: spices like cumin and cinnamon.

“They were dotted around the countryside, huge distances apart, and there would be drink, and women, and arguments, so there were duels, which was part of their way of life. You have these grizzled men standing off against each other, holding up a poncho on the left arm, as a shield, wielding one of these long knives in the other.”

“Doesn’t sound much like Putney.”

“So you say, so you say. But the point is that people still want the knives. They still prefer the knife to the gun. And they still want to protect themselves and their freedom.”

Davie had transported himself to an in-between world. He saw Tanveet’s eyebrows go up and he heard her asking what the hell all this had to do with freedom. He still had the daga in his hand and was gazing at the blade, enjoying the glow.

“The thing is they were properly free. A gaucho could spend weeks out on the plains, on his own, free as a wild bird. He might be twenty or thirty miles from the nearest person or farm. He didn’t work for anyone. No one told him what to do and, if they tried to, they would have to answer for it. I know some characters today want knives to cause trouble but it’s not just them.

“The time is coming, and it’s already starting, when a lot more of us are going to be looking for ways to protect ourselves and make our mark. It’s because our freedoms are being taken away. Look at all the rules: the masks, the jabs, where we can go, what we can do.

“People are saying it has to be stopped or it will go on and on. And some of them want protection and some of them want a way of somehow making a stand.”

This was how Davie remembered the conversation, after he had seen Tanveet out of the museum. He had said more than he should have done, maybe, but the words came from a place deep in his backbone and saying them did not change the situation, as far as he could see.

If folk did not recognise how the world had morphed then they had to be told and, if they chose not to hear, they would have to be shown.

Image above: Gaucho knife

Detective Inspector Tanveet Kaur stood facing the terraced house off Putney High Street, wondering why this case had come her way. From a time-waster, no doubt. Shortage of staff, she guessed, with police off sick or self-isolating. Life had become strange.

First, the empty streets, the only people venturing out looking scared and hiding behind their masks. Then, the protests, the absurdity of police having to squash up against people who did not care about keeping a safe distance. Now, the talk was about getting back to normal, except that you could never go back, not really.

From the outside the place looked tidy enough. There was nothing remarkable apart from a curved cut in the front door. It was filled in with earth, making it look like a scar. She rang the bell.

“You’re the police?”

“Yes, Inspector Kaur, South-West CID. David Nairn?”

“Yes. Davie. I didn’t expect…”

“Didn’t expect what? Someone like me? Look, Sir, you made a call, something about knives missing. That’s a concern for us. Could be nothing, but could be a link with serious crime.”

“Yeah, right. You don’t look like police, that’s all.”

“Really? I mean, if it’s just the clothes, we don’t wear uniform unless there’s a reason.” Tanveet had been holding up her ID all this time.

“You’d better come in. So what are you allowed to wear?”

“Business-type clothes, just normal.”

“Jewellery, tattoos?”

“They’re not my thing, to be honest.”

She wasn’t looking at Davie. She was looking around the front room. It was covered with knives, as if knives were a form of decoration. The front door opened directly into the space, which was about four metres by five with a rough wooden dining table in the middle. Along the short wall, on the left as she entered, she recognised a couple of racks of old Japanese kitchen knives and a curved Samurai sword.

On the right by the door were several daggers with wavy blades. They looked South-East Asian: Punyal was the word which dropped into her mind. But the rest of the room was devoted to knives, short and long, from South America, gaucho knives she guessed immediately, because Davie had hung a couple of old photographs of gauchos amongst them.

One showed and elderly man leaning against a horse, wearing a fat belt adorned with stitched-in coins, the belt clasped around a light blanket which he was wearing over his legs instead of chaps.

Another had a couple of men squaring up to each other, long knives in one hand, folded ponchos held up in the other. Set into the far wall, the one adjoining the neighbouring house, was a Victorian fireplace topped by a thick wooden mantelpiece. There was a long piece of card laid along the mantelpiece on which was written “El Museo del Cuchillo” in bold, black letters.

How did she not know about this place? A museum of knives.

“I’ve not seen anything about your museum. Do you have visitors?”

“I keep it low key. No signs. The name in Spanish. I put it on social media and you can message me and book a visit, for a fee. I guess you people don’t pick up on that. I’m not selling them, anyway.”

“So what happened?”

“The knives which went missing? I had a group come in, no idea who they were. They just rang on the door but said they had seen the museum online and could they have a look around. I said OK, didn’t think about being able to track them. To keep it short, they had a poke about, I gave them the spiel, and they asked for some water, which I went into the kitchen to pour out.

“Before I knew it they had left. It was only afterwards that I spotted some gaps in the display. Three of the longer gaucho knives had gone and three of the smaller ones.”

“Can you remember anything about them?”

“The people? Not much. All men. A couple with beards. It was hard to tell because of the masks. Those masks are a good way of disguising yourself. Tats on the arms but nothing special that I remember: crosses, animals, that sort of thing.”

He was looking away from Tanveet. There was something shifty about him. She wondered if he was telling her everything. Probably not. On the other hand, he had called the police, not the other way round. Why would he do that if he had something to hide? She asked him what he thought the thieves wanted the knives for.

“Well, your people like to show off their knives, don’t they?”

“My people?”

“It’s a status thing. I mean the Sikh knife, the Kirpan. It’s the same: status and defending yourself, putting the frighteners on someone if you need to.”

“Look, Davie, my people are the people of South West London and that’s why I’m here, looking at the hundreds of blades which you have on display, which I’m surprised we haven’t inspected before, very closely.

“I’m worried about anything which looks like a sword or a dagger, which members of the public might get their hands on. That’s exactly what you’re telling me has happened, isn’t it?”

“It is. It is. But this is a museum, Inspector, not a shop. The knives are not for sale, as I said, and most of them are antiques.”

It was at this point that Davie grabbed the verijero and started explaining what the different knives were and how the gauchos used them, ending in his declaration about freedom, making a stand and, what alarmed Tanveet, making his mark.

“But there was no one else about,’ she said, “That’s the difference.”

“There’s no difference. Freedom is the same the world over.”

“No, it’s not. Out on the pampa, centuries ago, it didn’t matter what knives you carried or what you got up to with them, as long as you were miles from anywhere. You were free to do whatever.

“And if your gaucho did turn up at some remote shop or even in a village, there were probably no police to help the people he might wave his weapon at. I mean, once there are other people all around, like here, now, those people have their freedom as well, which needs to be protected: freedom from being abused, or bullied, or knifed and killed, for instance.”

“Ah. That is where you are wrong, about the gaucho, anyway. It’s all to do with the code you follow and, for the gaucho, killing was a disgrace. He would be shunned. When they fought, the aim was to get past the opponent’s defences and slash the face, to leave a visible scar, no more than that, so that everyone could see who was the one to be respected and honoured.

“To be honest, it was a way of building respect for freedom across the community. Everyone benefited. The scar was a sign, a reminder.”

Image above: Gaucho knife

Tanveet stepped away from the front door and across the small garden to the road. She had taken a precise description of each of the stolen items and with that she felt she had gone as far she could with Davie. If she returned it would be to go through all his papers and stock, with another officer because she thought he might become agitated.

She might bring the council in as well, to check whether he needed a licence and whether Putney’s little-known Museo del Cuchillo deserved to stay open.

Something bothered her, though, about his story, about the theft. She looked back at the door and the scar across the wood. Davie talked about making a stand. He thought scars could be a benefit for the community.

He wanted her, the police, to know that knives had gone missing, that someone else had some of his knives and might use them, so they might turn up elsewhere, or be dropped. Maybe he was being public-spirited. Or maybe not. Maybe he wanted to make sure that if the knives were used, he was ruled out as a suspect.

She stopped out in the road opposite the house and tried to think it through again. What had she seen? Knives, a man with a tale about being robbed, but no inkling, supposedly, of who the perpetrators were, a room set up as a museum. She had not thought to look anywhere else in the house. Damn. She walked back.

“Hi, Davie, so sorry. I forgot something.”

“What was that?” He had opened the door only enough to look out.

“The kitchen. You never showed me the kitchen. I’d like to have a look.”

She had been in this situation before, knowing that it was wrong to push her way into a home when the person inside was reluctant to let her in. She put her hand against the door and started to move towards the opening.

She made it look as if allowing her to enter was the obvious thing to do and Davie complied, pulling the door away and giving her space to come in. Tanveet went straight through the front room and into the kitchen.

She sensed the man following behind. She saw two drawers between the sink and the cooker. She opened one: wooden spoons, spatulas. Not that one. She pushed it shut and pulled the other drawer. Yes, sharps. Not just kitchen stuff, though. Lying in the jumble of scissors and paring knives she saw blades the size of short swords and some decorated gold and silver sheaths.

She knew now that they were facóns, dagas and verijeros. Six of them. They looked like the same ones he had described.

“Who were you going to scar with these?”

He was close. His hand came around and reached for one of the knives.

“Let’s see,” he said.

Tanveet slammed the drawer shut as hard as she could. The man gasped as his fingers were crushed. With her other hand she pulled out a pair of handcuffs from her jacket pocket, hooking his trapped wrist with one end and pushing in the ratchet half-way.

She turned to face him. His mouth was open. She let go of the drawer and went on twisting in a full circle, at the same time pulling his hand across. Then she fastened the other cuff around the front bar of the grill.

Before he had a chance to make his move, Davie had been locked to his cooker. No knife, no poncho, no scar.

Simon Gompertz, author of A Museum of Knives, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

Read more on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Ruth Cadbury MP links funding cuts to knife crime

See also: Appeal for information after 16 year old stabbed in Chiswick

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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Andrea’s film review – Downton Abbey – A New Era

Downton Abbey – A New Era ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review by Andrea Carnevali

Follow-up to the 2019 feature film in which the Crawley family and Downton staff received a royal visit from the King and Queen of Great Britain. On in Cinemas, including Chiswick Cinema.

Downton Abbey ran between 2010 and 2015 and was one of the most nominated TV series in history as well as one the most successful British costume dramas ever to grace our TV sets.

Given the massive success of the series, the first film in 2019 seemed inevitable.

And the same must now be said of this second film.

Downton Abbey’s – The New Era does exactly what you’d expect from it. For every fan, this is a real warm bath. Just like in the first film, the plot is pretty thin and fairly clunky, the stakes are very low and this is clearly all just an excuse to get everybody back, get them to do what they do best and have another stab at it, trying to milk this cow as much as they possibly can.

In the first movie was orchestrated around a Royal visit and now in the second there’s a slightly pointless trip to France and a film crew coming to make a film at Downton. That’s pretty much it. A chance for a few jokes at the expenses of French people and some fun movie-making sequences ripped off from Singin’ in the Rain.

All the usual elements that people loved are back: the sweeping music, the huge cast, the array of costumes, the soapy dialogue, the ultra-British quips (the always wonderful Maggie Smith still has the best lines). All served on a glamorous silver dish and wrapped up in the frothiest confection.

This isn’t Gosford Park and it’s not really trying to make any big statements about social class or anything meaningful like that. At this stage of the game, everything has already been said. So just enjoy the ride for what it is.

I have to confess I’m only a casual viewer when it comes to Downton Abbey. I know… Shame of me. I missed the train when the original series was first broadcast and even though I’ve been trying to catch up with it for a very long time (I even got the Blu ray sets), with everything else coming out these days, I’m struggling to find the time to go through all the 56 hours in total.

While I’m sure I must have missed a lot of the inside jokes and tiny references which most Downton aficionados will instantly get, I was still able to enjoy the film.

It is clearly a film that has very few reasons to exist except to please its fans and give them another tour through the upstairs and downstairs of the Crawley family’s estate, and that’s fine.

If you’re a fan, you’ll love it. If you haven’t been following it from the start, some of the characters’ appearances will just wash over you, but you’ll still get the gist of it.

It’s all rather unnecessary and inconsequential in the big scheme of things, except for the ending which I won’t spoil here (even though you can see it coming from miles away) but which will surely prove to be a very moving affair for fans.

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick

Downton Abbey – A New Era is on in cinemas now.

See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali

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To subscribe to the weekly newsletter, go here nbsp;

Barbel’s Ait – A short story by Simon Gompertz

Former BBC journalist Simon Gompertz is raising money for the Trussell Trust, who support food banks in Britain, by donating the proceeds from his book of short stories Limb of Satan. He has permitted The Chiswick Calendar to serialise the stories, which are all set in Chiswick during the lockdowns of 2020 – 21 and delve into odd and unusual happenings:

“a mixture of the strange and the weirdly normal, with happenings you wouldn’t expect on your doorstep, intriguing mysteries, chancers who’ve taken advantage of the virus and good people caught up in the tension and fear” says Simon.

if you enjoy Barbel’s Ait, please make a contribution to the Trussell Trust. If you would like to read the rest of the stories in Limb of Satan, you will find them here:

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Barbel’s Ait

By Simon Gompertz

I LOOKED OUT OF MY LITTLE WINDOW across the dock and the other barges to the willows and the high alders behind. The willows were a luminous green in the morning light and they sparkled where the new leaves touched the river and pulled against the tide. It was just starting to go out. Under me I felt the swirling of the current. I wished it would take everything away. I wished I had never met Food Bank Freddy.

Debt is like a deadly disease. When you wake up and you are sick, you glance around, taking things in, thinking about the warmth, your kids, hearing the birds and someone shouting or a car revving. These are comforts telling you that your world is in balance. Then your throat and chest tighten. You feel an ache: there is something else. You remember you have an illness which will not go away. Most likely it will get worse. Those few seconds after you wake up will be the only moments in the day when you can feel at peace.

Debt is the same. It is a dark cloud looming above, eddying in the sky. There is no going back. Your name has been taken. You can go bankrupt but that means handing over control of your life. Anyway, the sharks don’t care. They will still be chasing you. You can dream of changing your name or disappearing. Good luck with that. You are still you.

As soon as they find you, the cloud will be back. Every morning you will open your eyes; your thoughts will drift around for a bit; you will stretch and see a hopeful sun gushing in, a warm current full of floating specks of dust. Then you will see the day for what it is and remember the debt.

Image above: Boatyard at Dock Road, Brentford; photograph Gwen Shabka

I pushed up the hatch and pulled myself onto the barge roof. I sat with my legs dangling over the cabin. The sun was warm on my back and it spread a morning brightness on the five other boats between me and the other side of the dock. All there was on Barbel’s Ait, this little island in the river, was the boat yard, some barges which people lived in and a jumble of collapsed vessels rammed into the banks.

Beyond the yard, a blue metal footbridge led over to the riverbank, though at the lowest tides you could wade across in boots. The Ait was a dreary place in winter, with the mists and the wrecks sticking out of the mud, whereas on a bright day like this it was a muddle of colour and noise. Either way, to me it was a safe place. The gate at the other end of the bridge had a lock on it so people seldom came over.

It was a safe place but my bed was borrowed, my roof was borrowed and I could only stay there some of the time. After I was chucked out of my security job, a mate said I could stop in the barge when he was away, to look after it. He was running a construction team and that took him all over the country, sometimes for weeks on end.

When he came back I would sleep on friends’ sofas and after a while I got in with some of the other boat-owners and they let me switch to one of their bunks if they were travelling. There was the odd piece of paid work to do as well: repairs, cleaning, or emptying toilet cassettes. The barge I used was called Bolthole which made sense to me.

How did I end up on Barbel’s Ait when I had a flat over in Brentford, with Mills my other half and the kids, Maze and Phill? I was a pain to live with. The night shifts were hard. I was tired. I was no help and lashed out now and then. But money was the killer. The job finished after the virus hit and we had nothing saved. We were missing meals so the young ones could have something. No one can do that for long and keep smiling.

When Mills found out I was sneaking out for beers, she said I could bloody well stay out and not come back. That was when I found my way over to the island. Not long after I heard about the food bank at a church up near the motorway and the football ground. It was called Our Lady of Sorrows. No joke. This was something I could do for the family. I could go over there and get some food which would tide everyone over.

I rang the Community Centre and they called me in and gave me voucher. I thought it might be my ticket back to the old life but I was wrong. It was my appointment with the worst swindler this side of Feltham.

I turned up at the food bank at nine, thinking I was early enough to pick up a parcel without waiting too long and hoof it back to the flat in time to cadge a coffee and try to mend relations. There was a woman with a clipboard and a mask and she gave me a sideways nod, showing where I needed to go. It was only at that point that I got an inkling of the size of the queue. It stretched out of sight.

“What? Down there?” I asked.

“Yeah. It’s not as bad as it looks, once they start doling out,” she said.

I turned about six corners walking to the end of the line. There were hundreds of people of every sort: old, young, parents with pushchairs, thin and fat. Some did look desperate, but most were like me, people who used to have just enough but now had a few pounds too little. I knew how they felt. For a week or two you are OK, but when it goes on you begin to feel unmoored. The water is rising around you and something is dragging you down.

For the next two hours I was one of them, but the woman was right: once the place opened the queue moved quickly. They would let six or seven in, close the door, then let another bunch in a few minutes later. I joked that I hoped it was going to be a good game, that the Bees had to have a chance if they had a crowd this big behind them.

I might have won a chuckle from the next guy along. I could sense the mood improving as we walked and stopped. They were hauling us in, like we were all on a rope, pulling then resting. It began to feel like a rescue for these people. But, of course, whether it is a rescue or not depends on who is holding the rope at the other end.

Freddy was someone who could trick a hungry dog into giving up its dinner. He was the school bully who would get you to jump first into the cold river, for a dare, then scamper off laughing. He landed the food bank job because they needed volunteers, but for him it was an opportunity to earn something under the table. And that is where he ruled: the table, where the food boxes were given out and the racks behind where everything was stacked.

All the other volunteers did what he said because he kept talking and kept bossing, because someone had to take control to keep the queue moving. The paid staff stayed back in the office, sending emails and answering calls. In the front, Freddy was in charge.

He was shaped like a roll-top beer glass: thick all the way up, with a bulge across the chest and under the armpits, topping off with a solid neck and not too much head. He had a round face with small dark eyes and black, greasy hair pulled from a side parting. What you noticed mainly was the mouth which was set in a down curve when it was closed, like the hump of a gentle hill. Usually, though, he kept it open, showing a line of yellow upper teeth in a one-size-fits-all grin.

It was a grin which said: I’m smiling at you now but if you get close I might take a bite out of you. Why could you see the mouth at all? Because while everyone else had fresh masks over their faces, he wore his under his chin. No one seemed to point this out. He did what he liked. What stood out apart from the grin was a pair of arched eyebrows. He was laughing at you and didn’t expect any challenge.

“Ah, Jonno. What brings you here?” The thing is, I already knew him, from the boys’ school years before. I recognised him as soon as I sloped into the hall. He had ruled the playground and I was a thin-legged nobody who tried to do my work and move on, without much success. He viewed people like me with contempt and still did.

“Looking for some grub. That’s all,” I said.

“Well, let’s see what we can do, Jonno.” He said my name again as if it was an insult, while grabbing the voucher. Then he started piling things for the family into a box: pasta, rice, onions, carrots, bread and butter, eggs, long life milk and tins of meat, fish, soup and beans. I am not giving the full list: there was more, including a tin for the cat and some puddings. It really was food for a week, with extras thrown in by Freddy to butter me up.

As I pushed the box along the table, aiming to get out of there as quickly as possible, he glanced up at me, then back to the cluster of helpers behind and back to me in a movement which he meant to look shifty.

“You might not qualify for the second box, next week,” he said, “But come back anyway and I’ll sort you out.” He tapped his nose, while giving me his fixed grin and lifting his eyebrows into the shape of pointed hats. I nodded and hurried off.

*

This was Freddy’s scam. You had to show a higher level of need to qualify for multiple boxes. And he was right: I would struggle to get the vouchers on a regular basis. At best I would have to wait a few weeks for the next one. But there was nothing to stop you queuing up again if you chose to.

The point is that Freddy was king of the vouchers. He took in most of them, the ones he wanted to anyway, and if he decided to overlook the fact that you offered him some other grimy piece of paper, or a piece of wrapping from the burger bar, or nothing at all, that was up to him. No one was checking what Freddy did. It sounds harmless enough: Freddy gives his mates a few favours. Maybe that is what some of the other volunteers thought. Maybe they did not realise that he was keeping a tally in his notebook under the table.

“Let’s scratch each other backs,” he said to me the second time. You have to understand that the food boxes were addictive. When I took the first one back to the flat, Mills was all talk and smiles again. She wasn’t going to let me back to live there, not yet. But she made coffee. We had a chat. There was hope. So I had to get hold of another and when Freddy said he was writing me down in his book, I said fine. It was painless: no cash changed hands.

What did it matter if he scribbled me down for a tenner and then wrote me in again and again? I never thought about paying. Some weeks I queued up twice and the boxes were always brimming over. The kids had plenty after school and at the weekends breakfast, lunch and tea were feasts.

Then I had a text from him. I suppose he nicked my number from the office.

“Food bill is £200 with charges. Settle up today. Food Bank Freddy.”

Image above: Boatyard at Dock Road, Brentford; photograph Gwen Shabka

I was sitting in a chair on the bow as the tide ebbed out. Bolthole was pointing a little upwards because the riverbed was out of the water and had pushed up her front end, which was the end nearest the dock. I was facing back down towards the shallow channel, just as the last of the brown river was being sucked into the sea. I was looking into the mire.

Two hundred pounds may not sound a lot, but we already had plenty on our cards and were behind with the bills. The landlord would chuck us out as soon as the virus eased off and government lifted the ban on evictions. I had a few quid from working on the barges plus some benefit to set against the overdraft; Mills had the Child Benefit in a different account. There was zero to spare.

I decided to ignore the text. What else could I do? Nothing would happen for a while, anyway, I thought. But there would be no more food boxes. I could not go back to Our Lady of Sorrows now I was in debt to Freddy. The water ran out between the stones. It was a very low tide. There was a rusty engine which someone must have thrown in years ago. It was so heavy it never moved much.

There were piles of bricks appearing: maybe they had been part of a walkway. A gull was picking up snails, flying up a few metres and then dropping them back down to smash them and get to the meat inside. Everything was being revealed and shown for what it was.

On an island you can imagine that you are in a separate world and time can pass at a different rate. Now and then I had been lounging on Barbel’s Ait for a few hours, then found the day had nearly gone, or stayed for what I thought was a couple of days, tinkering and doing odd jobs or sleeping, then had a call asking where I had been for the week. I suppose I knew what I was doing and I knew it again now.

You might accuse me of skulking. That is not how I saw it. I said the island was a safe place; it was also a place to mend myself. It seemed to float offshore. Crossing the blue bridge was like stepping along a gangplank. I felt that other lives and other places were laid out around me and I was drifting free of them for a while. I soaked up strength from the mud, the air, the sun and the mist.

I don’t know how many days went by. Not many. Then came the morning I was telling you about, when I was thinking about the debt. I was sitting on Bolthole’s roof, looking across the other barges and riverboats, and keeping half an eye on the bridge to see if anyone might be coming over. And someone did appear.

She hurried down the lane to the bank, her yellow hair shining in the sun, her feet bare, her pyjamas rubbing together at the knees, her small face serious and scared. She was nine; she liked reading; she played football on the recreation ground. I knew all that because she was Maze.

“Dad. Dads.” Maze had come up against the metal gate to the bridge. She was rattling the bars. I jogged over the planks on the bridge, pushed the green button and yanked the gate open.

“Some men came. They’ve busted up the flat. They’re coming here.” She was sobbing.

“Whoa,” I said, putting my arm round her and pulling her back to the Ait. But Maze squirmed away and sprang up and down, making the bridge creak.

“You don’t understand. You have to be ready.”

“Who came?”

“There were two. One had an iron stick. They came in and asked for you. Then they smashed the telly and they went in the kitchen and bashed a big dent in the cooker. One said he was Freddy.”

I told her it would be OK, took her hand and walked her to the barge. I calmed her down then the full story came out. The three of them had been getting up when there was a crash at the door. She said it wasn’t a knock because it was the stick striking the door front.

Mills had opened it a crack but they stuck their arms through, broke the latch and barged in demanding to see me. When no one told them anything, they had started whacking things and they grabbed Mills and pulled her arm behind her back, but she wouldn’t say where I was. Maze was weeping again. She said she had shouted out that I was down at Barbel’s Ait.

“I couldn’t help it. I had to tell them. They were hurting her.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “You did the right thing.”

“The man, Freddy, he was laughing all the way through. He thought it was funny. He said we looked well fed on his food and now he wanted his money. Mum told them to piss off. They’d let her go. Then she nodded to me and I sneaked out the front while they weren’t looking. That’s when I ran over. They’ll be here next, Dads.”

“I want you in a safe place while I get organised.” I took Maze over to Bolthole’s stern hatch. There was a ladder down into the aft cabin which was the one I slept in. It was independent from the main lounge area forward of the wheelhouse. It had its own head and the hatch was the only way in.

“They won’t be able to touch you here. Just flick the catch from inside and it’s locked.”

I had to think how to deal with Freddy and his henchman, whoever he was. There was no one else around that I could see. Maybe one of the lads from the yard would turn up soon. On deck I could see a boathook, some ropes, a few sections of hose and various plant pots, as well as the chairs and a small table on the bow. Not much I could do with those. I had an advantage, though. This was my island. They would have no idea what to expect.

I loosened off the moorings so Bolthole could lie further away from the dock. Then I locked the wheelhouse and the cabin, pulled up the scaffolding board we used to step on and off the boat and trotted over to a derelict workshop which stood between the bridge and the yard. It had a corrugated asbestos roof, half of which had caved in.

The sides were filled with huge casement windows, the sort with criss-cross glazing bars and small panes. Most of the glass had been smashed, but there was still plenty of cover and I could keep an eye on the bridge without drawing people towards the barge and Maze. Keep them guessing. They might not know where to start looking.

*

I must have been cowering in that workshop for about a minute, no more, when I caught sight of two figures moving down the lane. They looked like a pair of greasy rats following their noses towards the smells of the river. Freddy was wearing a cockroach-coloured leather jacket along with his usual forced grin. He was staring straight towards the Ait.

To the right was his back-up, a scrawny character in jeans, a grey hoodie and a dark baseball cap. He was unimpressive except for two things. First, he had a vicious look, as if he meant to do some damage. Second, he had his fingers around a metal rod, the size of a broom handle, which he was dragging along so that it made a ringing noise as he pulled it over the broken tarmac.

This must have been the stick Maze had told me about. By the time they reached the bridge I could see that it was a digging bar, the sort with a point at one end and, at the other, a flat edge which could be sharpened like a chisel. I could feel my heart drumming.

Freddy’s sidekick pushed his bar through the gate and started prising it open. He could have reached just a bit further and hit the green button, but he didn’t think of that. He fought with the metalwork for a bit and there was a crunch as the lock broke.

Then he swung the gate unnecessarily hard, so it crashed against the rails at the side: these two were not bothered if anyone heard them coming. They were probably trying to put the wind up. I only hoped that Maze couldn’t see. Just then I felt my phone buzzing. It was Mills. I texted: “Cant speak theyre here”. They were coming down the stairs onto Barbel’s Ait at that moment.

“Be carefulxx” she replied. It was the kisses which got me going. Now I was ready.

I picked up a loose piece of brick and lobbed it in the direction of the first barge on the dock. God knows why. Maybe I thought I should make the first move, to stay in control. It landed with a clunk on the far side of the deck and, sure enough, the two men loped towards the sound.

The barge was attached by two long lines to some cleats on the other side of the paving. The lines were lying slack and they stood over them peering at the boat. I had sneaked out of the warehouse and I grabbed those ropes, pulling them up and yanking them sideways.

Freddy was caught and thrashed about like a fish before falling on his bum and letting out a groan. But I had let on where I was. The other guy curled both hands around the middle of his bar and advanced towards me. I fled down the side of the boat yard into the trees behind.

“Bolthole.” It was Freddy calling out. “We know the name, Jonno.”

“Leave it. I’m over here,” I shouted from the undergrowth.

“No, we’re going to remodel the boat, do a bit of design work,” he said. “So you’d better come out.”

There was no choice. I skirted round the back of the yard and came out at the opposite end of the dock, down where Bolthole was moored, so I was between them and the barge, and Maze.

“Leave off. It’s not worth it. I’ll get the money. I just need some time.”

“I want it now. Jimbo here wants it too.” He threw a sly glance at his companion. “We have our own debts to pay off. It’s been long enough.”

“It’s been a week, if that.”

“You’ve been my customer for a couple of months. All that time I’ve been serving your needs, bending the rules in your favour. You knew what was going on. Now you the customer need to pay your bill.”

Freddy’s eyebrows were arching. He was pressing his upper and lower teeth together and pushing out the corners of his mouth. It was a con-man’s smirk.

“I’m a man with a family to feed and you’re a fucking crook. That’s what you are.”

Suddenly I could feel something gushing through my veins. The strain of the past few months had been stored deep in my body. The split with Mills, the debts, the lack of work, the hunt for food, missing the kids, the shame: they had been forming pools and lakes inside. Now the sluices were up and anger was pouring out. All the worries had turned into anger, pure and simple.

“Ah. Pissed off, are we? Us too.” Freddy waved at Jimbo then pointed at Bolthole. The digging bar went high in the air and slammed down on the bow rail. Jimbo must have jarred his hands with the blow because the rail did not bend much. But he was making a point.

I had already jumped down on the barge which was a good stride away from the dock but slightly lower because the tide had turned. I grabbed the boathook and slotted it under Jimbo’s steel bar. He tried to push me down; I tried to yank him sideways. It was like a grappling of spears except mine was longer and lighter. The tussle was going nowhere, so I jabbed the point of the boathook into the cavity between the top of his chest and his neck.

He backed off and dropped the bar which clanged away along the dock. I spun the hook around and whacked him on the side of his head. I hoped that was the end of the round for Jimbo. He was on the ground, his face pressed into the gritty surface of the dock and purple blood seeping out behind his ear.

“Not clever, Jonno.” Freddy had picked up Jimbo’s weapon and scurried along the jutting-out section of dock which ran alongside the barge. He was trying to extend his foot across the gap and come aboard beside the wheelhouse. In the end he had to make a leap and grab a rail which was screwed into the side panels.

The digging bar was still in his right hand as he held on and his forehead went down on the pointed end. So when he started picking his way over, waving the point at me, there was an open gash below his hairline.

I was crouching where the seats were, on the raised bow deck, with the boathook beside me and my arm around a pot holding a yucca. I stood and bowled the plant underarm at Freddy but it glanced off and splashed in the water. Then I saw the stern hatch being pushed up behind him.

“Christ.”

I couldn’t shout to Maze because Freddy would have worked out what was happening. Instead I lurched forward, forgetting the boathook and thinking only about keeping the attention on me. He thought he had the upper hand. He didn’t expect me to come at him, so he hesitated. In any case, the bar was no real use to someone stepping along a narrow walkway. I got hold of the end and we had a struggle while I pulled him back to the bow. Then I kneed him in the balls.

This is when Freddy had his come-uppance. He was doubled up on his side and grunting when shit started pouring down on him from above: shit and piss, on his head, his shoulders and over his cockroach jacket. It splatted onto his cheeks and dribbled under his collar. His hand came up and started pushing it around on his face. At first he had no idea what it was. He was mixing it up with the blood from the gash. Then he got the smell.

“Bloody shit fuck,” he said.

It was Maze. She had carried up the toilet cassette from the rear cabin. What an idea. I had pulled the cassette out for emptying that morning, so it was heavy. She must have had a job bringing the thing up the ladder. She nipped around the other side of the wheelhouse and onto the roof of the front cabin.

As it turned out, that gave her the height she needed because Freddy was sprawled on the low platform in the bow area beneath her. She unscrewed the cap and pressed the button to let the air in. I scratch my head now wondering how she knew about the button. Then she tipped the contents over the man below. Never have I been so happy that I had a good dump early in the day.

*

Two lads were at the yard by this time and they walked over to see what was going on. This was the end for Freddy and his scam. I thought about trying to push him into the river but the anger had ebbed away. Maze had seen to that. And he was in for it, anyway. Everyone would know what he had been up to.

It turned out that he had been ripping off the food bank over the supplies as well. When he drove to supermarkets to pick up donations, he would keep back some of the food for himself and sell it on the sly. The stuff never even reached the food bank. All this was an eye-opener for Our Lady of Sorrows.

When I had hosed off the decks, I sat with Maze on the cabin roof, our legs hanging over the side. I had my arm around her and we looked over the barges, the yard and the tumbledown workshop to the trees and the cloudy sky. The tide was nearly gone. It always seemed to muscle in secretly and go out fast and carefree. The last water was running through the stones again and into the channel.

We turned to the bridge and spotted two figures close to the gate, one small and one larger. I nudged Maze and told her to run over, to run over to the bridge and let them in. It was Mills and Phill. I am not normally one to cry, but I had the wet in my eyes and I was blinking.

Then tears dripped down the side of my nose and I gulped once or twice. It was because I saw Mills, walking over the blue metal bridge and looking at me through the gaps. She was speeding up. In the end I couldn’t stay where I was. I wiped my eyes with my hand, scrambled onto Barbel’s Ait and hurried along the dock.

Simon Gompertz, author of Barbel’s Ait, was a news correspondent for the BBC for many years, working in the Business unit and specialising on personal finance. He has won a series of prestigious awards for his work. He lives in Chiswick. This is his first book of short stories.

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