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:
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.”
“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.
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