Moggerhanger, p.10
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       Moggerhanger, p.10

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  The big brutal bastard—though he managed to look suave at all times—was in my mind’s eye, and I didn’t like it. “I’ll do my best to accommodate you, Lord Moggerhanger,” was my response.

  His chuckle wasn’t very promising, either. “Michael, you know me, don’t you? Don’t say you don’t.”

  “I do, possibly as well as anyone can, Lord Moggerhanger. Outside your immediate family, of course.”

  “You may have a point there. But I know you, as well, because twice in my long life I have been your employer. Don’t deny that, or you will soon be in that place best described by those words which precede a stroll through the gates of Hell. When you came to London as a brash young lad of twenty you showed a bit of road rage and tried to cut me up in Hendon. Or was it at Henleys Corner? A month or two later I set you on as a bouncer at one of my clubs, and from that privileged position I made you my chauffeur. You went from good to better, and earned a lot, so that our acquaintance turned into one of long standing.”

  “I’d like to know where all this is leading, Lord Moggerhanger.”

  “Of course you would.” Again the chuckle. “And so would I, but the fact is I’m in a spot of bother. Now you will own, if you are straight and honest—and I think you are, though you weren’t always entirely so with me, but I’ll forget that, because if I didn’t I would have been hard shouldered off the highway of life many a time, possibly halfway through one of my nought to sixty take offs in five seconds. But when I say I need your help the chances are I more than do. To put you in the picture, well, it’s a real damned Goya.” He’d picked up a few shreds of culture in his life, probably in prison. “The fact is, I’m pursued vigorously, relentlessly and, it could be, justifiably in the mind of the pursuer. I’ll tell you who he is in my own good time, but if he isn’t soon sidetracked into some shit pit of his own making (or yours) I’ll have a big hole dug into my financial resources, and that is something which I, Moggerhanger of all the Moggerhangers, can’t afford to let happen.

  “You may wonder why I’m falling back on you rather than the lads normally at my beck and call, why someone like you can be of assistance to yours truly. I certainly would expect you to wonder. I’m nothing if not imaginative. After thinking about my request you might even tell me in plain unvarnished fashion, using the diplomatic style of the United Nations, which the polish of generations since the Congress of Vienna has honed to perfection, to fuck off. No less a response might in some way surprise and even disappoint me, but in you it would, I know, be but the prelude to profound and sincere reflection—before the heartfelt acceptance of all I want you to do for me.

  “But for the fun of it,” the garrulous bastard went on, “let me say that though you could refuse my earnest request, to do so would be unwise in your present circumstances. I suppose, therefore, it would at this moment, while I have your ear—I still have it, I assume?”

  I not only knew that he did, but my hearing box ached worse by the minute at his callous fingers gripping so tightly. “You have it.”

  “I don’t intend to interpose a résumé as to how you got into your last period of employment with me, but considering your mischievous tergiversations, it didn’t end too badly for either of us and, I have to admit, it paid me in the end. You were very good at what you did. I only forgave your minor sins as a guarantee that you would from then on be loyal and one day come back to me. It behoves me to ask some return for having let you off my very sharp hook three years ago, in any case, and I don’t see how you can argue with that. I’m nothing if not reasonable. Whatever you do do for me will be amply remunerated, and for someone like you such opportunities don’t come twice. So turn up at my house in Ealing for instructions at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Make sure you’re on the dot, and on your own.”

  Either he’d enjoyed thinking up such a long spiel in the bath, or there were notes on his cuff telling what order to put his thoughts in. Perhaps he’d dictated them to Alice Whipplegate his secretary, who had then produced a treble spaced typescript. However it was, he had me sweating with rage and anxiety as I went into the kitchen to see how Clegg was getting on with supper. “Moggerhanger wants me to do some work for him.”

  Potatoes dropped into the pan. “It couldn’t have come at a more convenient time, could it?” He adjusted his striped cook’s apron. “I wouldn’t let it worry you if I was you. Just take things as they come.”

  I poured more whisky for us both. “I’ve been doing that all my life, and look where it’s got me.”

  “You’re sound in wind and limb, aren’t you?”

  “But for how much longer, working for Moggerhanger?”

  “Find out what he wants, but don’t do anything that smells of illegality.”

  I poured another. “Illegal? For him?” Clegg knew of my past entanglements. “He’s illegal from the top of his bonce to his highly polished Hush Puppies.”

  “I expect he wants a driver, and you’re the best he knows about.”

  “Oh, Cleggy, I love you very much, but you’re a teeny-weeny bit naive. I’m worried to death.”

  “Then don’t have anything to do with it. Get a job hoeing weeds in Farmer Brown’s fields for thirty-five quid a week. You’ll love bending over the soil till your back gives way.”

  He was right. In a month or two I’d need money. Bridgette, my ex-wife, would want maintenance for herself and the kids, and I had my railway station at Upper Mayhem to keep up, not to leave out Clegg as well as Dismal, who stood on back legs and snaffled a sheet of prime smoked bacon from my plate, and then came back for a sausage.

  “I know what I’d do in your place,” Clegg said.

  So I decided to do it.

  Chapter Six.

  Clegg buffed up my shoes, laid out the topnotch navy-blue suit always reserved for a foray into my favourite metropolis, and sorted a tie to complete the aspect. Moggerhanger’s rules had it that every man around him must wear one, maybe for him to hang them with if they gave any lip. Moggerhanger, in his ennoblement, also insisted on smart clothes as a form of respect to him, though such wishes were wasted on me because neat dressing had always been my style. Clegg’s gold fob watch, willingly lent, decorated my waistcoat as the ultimate mark of respectability. I put on my ceremonial trilby and best gabardine mackintosh, leaving the house by taxi after a night of undisturbed sleep, my last for some time.

  A positive spring in my heels on stepping out of the train at Liverpool Street got me to the ticket barrier before anyone else. I walked as if to go slow would mean death, like a powered bluebottle at the end of summer knowing what would happen if it stopped buzzing.

  A shaky old chap at the ticket machine in the Underground was in tears, and I asked what was the matter. He was so distressed I wondered whether I should send for a social worker. “I’ve just put a pound coin in the slot,” he sobbed, “and no ticket came out. It’s my last quid. If I’m not home at Leytonstone in half an hour my old woman will gas herself.”

  “Go to the office and tell them,” I said. “Then they’ll give you the money back, or let you through the turnstile. At least they should. London Transport makes millions out of people losing their money like that, and not protesting.” Even so, I gave him a pound coin, to stop his whining.

  He straightened up a bit. “In fact, sir, I was in such a hurry I put two pounds in before I realised what was happening. I don’t know what my old woman will do.”

  In such an upbeat mood at getting back to London I considered giving him another quid, till I looked more carefully at his face. “I’ve seen your mug before.”

  When the curve went out of his back he was about six feet tall. “Of course you have, Michael. Not very observant these days, are you, my old duck?”

  Such an encounter was more worrying than fortuitous, the world getting too small even for me. Fate was weaving a circle around me, and no mistake. There were times when I was gla
d to see someone from the old days, and others when I didn’t know whether to like it or not, but I was talking to my old pal Bill Straw. “I thought you were in Portugal, cosily married to Maria? At least you were three years ago, because I remember waving you off. I was happy, if you don’t mind me saying so, to see the last of you.”

  We talked among the moiling crowds. “It seems like thirty years to me,” he said, “though I sometimes think you live a lot longer if things turn out badly now and again. They don’t often go right with me, so I expect to live forever.”

  “What happened, then?”

  “I’d be happier to tell you if we were sitting in a nice café with a pot of coffee and a plate of cream cakes in front of us. I haven’t had a bite since breakfast.”

  We went into the main station and found a place. A waiter looked at Bill as if he was a tramp—which he was—and the scum of the earth—which he certainly wasn’t, his clothes being wrecks from good quality shops. He ate two cakes before starting his rigmarole, and I was glad to feed him because, unlike most people, he could be more dangerous in adversity than affluence.

  “You see, Michael, I had it made in Portugal, at first, anyway. We lived like a king and queen on our little country estate, but after a couple of years she started going a bit funny. I found out she was having a bit on the side with my manager, and that they were cheating me so much I was like one of the blind mice. Well, I have to confess I was drunk most of the time on that delicious wine they have out there, so it was easy for them to sell my produce without me knowing, and spin some tale as to where it had gone. In that couple of years we must have had more blight and phyloxera than in the whole history of viticulture. Or so they led me to believe. It was my fault, but you know how trusting I am.”

  I spluttered into my cup, for he was the most wary person alive, and whoever trusted him more than an eel in King John’s stomach would have to be blind dead dumb and completely daft. On the other hand, ever since we’d come to London thirteen years ago, he had been my friend, and if the first job I got through him set me on the road to prison it was no fault of his. “And then what?”

  “The cakes are all gone. Let’s have some more.” A belch sounded as if a pig had been trapped in his guts since birth. Two French girl students at the next table laughed, especially when Bill, on seeing them, induced the first bars of ‘Colonel Bogey’ out of another ripe effort.

  “You’re disgusting.” I stood up to go for the cakes. “Anybody can tell you were born and bred in Worksop, letting it rip like that.”

  “Oh, and don’t forget another pot of coffee,” he called. “This one’s about cold.”

  Three full packets of good quality cigarettes lay on the table when I got back, which I thought at first were a gift of the French girls, to encourage another sickening tune from his resident pig. “Where did you get those?”

  “Michael, you are looking at the most resourceful down and out in London, which means the world. Have one. You look as if you could do with a puff.”

  Perhaps in those deep pockets of his superannuated poacher’s coat he had more money than I suspected, and only sponged to gratify his second nature, and as a way of making life more interesting than if he had to work. Such cigarettes weren’t cheap, so maybe he was in Moggerhanger’s pay, I told him, set to spy me out as soon as I got to Liverpool Street, and make sure I went in the direction of Ealing.

  “Your theory is all to cock, Michael,” he said. “You never could think straight, could you? The reason I’m never short of a smoke is this. I hang around Hampstead, or Dulwich, or Wimbledon—all good liberal middle-class areas—because at such places you’ll find not a few blokes about to give up smoking. When they see me grubbing around dustbins with a plastic bag, or swigging back a bottle of water which they think is pure spirits, they see it as only charitable to give me their fags because the wife’s nagged them at home to make them give up smoking. They consider it a sin to throw them away. Luckily they generally decide to give it up in the middle of a carton, or half a tin of roll up tobacco, which shows more determination to pack it in than if they’d waited till they’d got none left in the house. It usually means they’ll soon give in and start puffing away again, which is all the better for me, because then they’ll be throwing another carton away when they can’t put up with the wife’s jeering at their will power anymore. You could say they’re the moral scum of the earth, because they don’t care if I get cancer, and that in their heart of hearts they see it as a way of getting rid of scavengers like me.”

  “You can’t have it both ways,” I said.

  “I’ve never wanted it both ways. A single track for me. One way’s always been enough—hasn’t it, duck?” he bawled across to the French girls, who laughed delightedly at his attention.

  “Leave them alone,” I said, “and tell me more about you and Maria in Portugal.”

  “Michael, I will. As you well know, or should by now, the trappings and the goods of the world have never meant all that much to me. Easy come, and more than easy go. So you know what I did when I found Maria and my manager in bed together? You’ll never believe it, but I walked out, because I didn’t want to murder them. It would have been nothing to me, to get my maulers around their necks and put their lights out, but I knew that if I hung about one more minute I’d have rotted the rest of my life in a Portuguese prison.”

  He was the most violent man I knew, when necessary, so he was being truthful. After pouring coffee he got stuck into the eccles cakes and custard tarts. “I enjoyed myself with a couple of women in Lisbon, and when I’d spent half my money got the plane to London. Maria could have the house. It’s still mine, so I might go back one day and boot her out. She was a sly little piece, though at times looked as if a tuppenny icecream wouldn’t melt on her belly button. I should have twigged when I met her that she was as deep as the Trent at Colwick. With her, every sleep was a different fever. She gave me hell.”

  “And you’ve been living in London since?”

  “Off the fat of the land, even though I do say so myself. That trick I tried on you in the Tube rarely fails, but if I’m really on my uppers I put my cap on the pavement, pull out this little tin mouthorgan,” he showed it to me, “usually outside a Tube station, and in ten minutes I’ve got the fare to wherever I feel like going.”

  “And what do you do when you get there?”

  “Play the mouthorgan again till I’ve got enough to go back to where I came from, and have a good feed on the way. I know a lot of places where a pot of hot soup is on the go, and a doss made ready for my head to plonk down. Another thing is that whenever I see a crowded supermarket I go inside with a newspaper under my arm, and there’s nobody quicker than me at drinking off a bottle of sherry, and walking out with half a pint of whitewash milk, with a smile for the girl at the till, of course, as I pay up.”

  “You’ve got it made,” I said, accepting one of his cigarettes.

  “Well, I think, don’t I? Just listen to this for a ruse. I go out to Gunnersbury and set off east along the main road. Then I stop a passerby and ask him how can I get to Peckam. The bloke scratches his head: ‘Peckham? From here? Well, you can walk on west for about four miles, then turn south for another few. But it’s a long way. Why do you want to walk? It would be far better to take a bus.’ ‘Maybe it would,’ I tell him, ‘but when I got up this morning the landlord threw me out of my bedsit, and now I’m going to my brother’s in Peckham, and don’t have enough for the bus fare. On the other hand I don’t mind a bit, because I like walking. As long as I get there by tonight.’ Nearly always I get a quid or two for my fare, though I can’t play the trick too often in case the same chap comes by.”

  “You’ll get too clever for your boots one day.”

  “Michael, a man’s got to live, and I’ve had a lot of good times in my life. I often recall though what a comfortable time I had when I was allowed to stay in Major Blask
in’s flat. What a gentleman he was—though I found it a bit hard living with that farting dog called Dismal always trying to jump on my knees. I hope the Major’s well. The world don’t know how lucky it is having an author like him to write so many books. Thank God for all writers, which I have to say in my present circumstances, because if authors hadn’t turned out so many books no libraries would have been built, and then where would the likes of me go in winter to keep warm, and read the newspapers to find out how the other half of the world was living? Otherwise I’m just waiting for things to come my way. Life is all ups and downs, though nothing can be as bad as when I was in Normandy with the good old Sherwood Foresters. So where is it you’re going this morning?”

  “I’d better bring you up to press on my life before telling you that.”

  “Michael,” he said when I had finished my tale, “you’re lucky to have got rid of such encumbrances. Who needs a wife and a job?”

  I explained the gist of my phone call from Moggerhanger, noticing that every word seemed to taste as sweet to him as the cakes he was still stuffing into his insatiable feedbox. “You lucky dog,” he said when the plates were empty. “You’ll soon be back in funds. Moggerhanger pays well. But don’t get anymore funny ideas about having him pulled in and sent to the Old Bailey. Just do whatever he says, and smile.”

  “If it’s crooked I don’t want to end up in Dartmoor.”

  “Crooked? Moggerhanger do anything crooked? There’s no straighter man in the House of Lords. He’s just got a lot of businesses to run, and like a sensible man he wants your cooperation. I must say, though, you’ll do very well working for him, because under my expert tuition in the past you’ve acquired a goodly syllabus of skill in taking care of yourself.”

  I stood, unable to take anymore of his character assessments, or cock-eyed summing-up of my capabilities. “Let’s walk a bit.”

  We headed through the City towards Holborn. “Just a minute, Michael. I feel untidy in a posh area and walking with a smartly turned out chap like you.”

 
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