Moggerhanger, p.28
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       Moggerhanger, p.28

           Alan Sillitoe

  I poured another cup of tea. “Let’s look on the bright side, and hope that if he does set the cottage alight he won’t get out. You’ll be shut of him then.”

  I felt rotten straight after saying this, but she said: “The thought occurred to me, and I didn’t sleep all last night from feeling guilty.”

  I squeezed her hand. “He thrives on terrorising you. I’d go up there myself, except I think I’m going to be busy for a while. And because I can’t fetch him he’s got me feeling guilty as well, though I’m the sort who wouldn’t put up with it even from my own brother, if I had one. I only feel guilty when I’ve done something wrong to somebody I love, and not because somebody else has done wrong. That’s how you should think of it, Mrs Blemish.”

  “You’re a great comfort to me, Michael. I’ll never forget how you gave me a lift on the road near Goole. I don’t think you knew just how deep my despair was, on that awful day.

  To say that I had indeed felt it would have been unfair. “Perhaps I didn’t, but I thought how good of you it was, allowing me to give a lift to such an unusual person.”

  The shadow of Toffee Bottle blighted my shoulder: “His Lordship will see you now.”

  I took time to finish the third cup Mrs Blemish had poured for me. “Wish me luck,” I said to her.

  “You’re the last person in the world to need it, Michael.”

  Was it my imagination, or wishful thinking, seeing Moggerhanger behind his desk, to assume he had become older than he should since I set out for Greece? Perhaps it was the scowl, which covered his normal expression of superior neutrality. “Michael, there can’t be anybody in the world more pleased to see you than I am. Sit down.”

  I felt no reason not to.

  “Now”—the scowl was back—“tell me everything.”

  I did, even reciting the logbook of my amorous encounters, on the grounds that if I hadn’t he wouldn’t believe anything else. I told him how Bill Straw had been magically on hand to help me when attacked. Too Irish-proud to show I was in anyway afraid of him, I left nothing out.

  When Moggerhanger offered a splash from the bottle tank of whisky it had to be taken on trust that you wouldn’t wake up a few hours later on a Pol Pot torture bed in his equivalent of Cambodia. The bottle was so big one could never tell that the level had gone down—in spite of my drink being a hefty one.

  “You realise, Michael, that after what happened in Jugoslavia and Greece the Green Toe Gang will be after you till your dying day? Here’s to your good health!”

  “Thanks for telling me. Forewarned is forearmed is all I can say. Cheers!”

  “Cheers! But, and here’s the rub, they’ll only make a serious attempt on your life if they think you’re no longer working for me, and under the umbrella of my protection.” He drank. “As such, however, I’m afraid I’ll find you a constant liability, because my resources, though considerable, just won’t stretch that far.”

  The drink scalded my lips. “I hardly know what to say, or what I ought to do. I could hide myself, and get plastic surgery. I might even find a steady job, with a pension at the end of it, get a mortgage and buy a house in some leafy suburb, turn into a law abiding citizen, vote Conservative at elections, maybe even perform jury service, which is something I’ve always fancied, by the way,” though that was as far as I cared to go after noticing him turn a certain shade of pale.

  “You, Michael, on jury service?”

  “It would be an experience. I might do well at it. I know the difference between right and wrong, nobody better, but if I don’t I could always learn.” One of twelve good men and true, with Moggerhanger up before the beak, it didn’t bear thinking about how quickly and with what pleasure I’d learn. I took up the offer of another whisky. “Whatever happens I’ll find some outlet for my talents, and cast my bread upon the waters.”

  How well he was following my drift. No Arnold-fucking-Killisick would pressure me if ever I found him in the dock, or nobble the other eleven. “Don’t you know,” he said, “that if you cast your bread upon the waters it more often than not has a tendency to sink instead of floating back to you? The majority of our naive citizens might think otherwise, but how foolish they are.”

  He was right but, while not trying to convince him of anything, I put steel into my voice. “What was I expected to do in Greece, get killed? Turn the other cheek when those two thugs came for me out of their hatchback?”

  He laughed. “You and I never lived by the Christian ethic. You did just what I would have done, waited for your opponent to turn the other cheek and then gave him a bigger one on that as well.”

  To be getting nowhere was hardly the confrontation I had imagined. It rarely was. “You put me at risk.”

  “I can’t say that I did, Michael. The fact was, you were the least important chainlink of several, but important all the same. Nothing wrong with that. Somebody had to be. I merely thought you were beyond the stage of competence when you would care to be idling in a café on the seafront at Cadiz. Your qualities called for a sterner and more difficult experience.”

  “But why didn’t you tell me that beforehand? I could have made plans to avoid any danger.”

  “You wouldn’t have done as well then. Plans go awry. They tie us down. I’ve never known anyone as good as you when it came to dealing with the unexpected. If all you’ve told me is correct, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, you passed my test with flying colours. I couldn’t have chosen anyone better.”

  “Thank you very much again. I thought you gave me the most dangerous route because you wanted your bit of fun.”

  “Michael, I’m a good judge of character, that’s all. When Alice phoned this morning to say you were back I had to be called out of my pew at the funeral of poor Eric Alport. It was such a great pity he had to go. Back in the church I got out my cheque book and, in the middle of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ wrote you this, while Eric’s choirboy acquaintances were crying their eyes out. It’ll tell you how highly I thought of you.”

  I put the slip of paper in my pocket, without a glance to see how much. “I hope it’ll cover my funeral expenses, after the Green Toe Gang have done with me.”

  “With a sense of humour like yours you’ll survive anything. Having said that, you’re not afraid of dying, are you, a chap like you with everything to live for? You’ve only got one life, but if you had two I could understand it. You’d be a miserable happy saver taking care every minute to keep both. However, let me get back to the point and tell you there’s no one in the world I’d less like to see on jury service than your good self. It wouldn’t be you. You don’t fit the part.” His lightened mood turned serious. “You’ve been behind bars, in any case. You’re disqualified for life.”

  Maybe that was why he only employed those who’d done bird—though not too much—and partly why he had arranged for me to get caught over the gold smuggling, though I’d never been certain about that, because in clink you blame everybody but yourself for being there.

  He was talking. I listened. Why else was I there? “You’ll find your remuneration even more than generous—when you deign to look at it—but your trip was worthwhile to me. What you brought back was more important than any other load I sent chaps out for. In any case—no, I’m not long winded without a cause—a time will come, and perhaps soon, such is your value to me, when I’ll be needing your efficient services again. Meanwhile I’ll spread the message abroad that will not go unheeded by any organisation thinking to do you an injury, telling them to keep their hands off you.”

  “I’ll thank you for that.”

  “You don’t need to, but I do think you’re looking a bit dyspeptic. Of course, you would be, wouldn’t you, after living at my expense for the last fortnight? You should wash yourself in the hoi polloi, Michael, take a walk up the Portobello Road on Saturday morning. I haven’t been there since I was a youth some forty ye
ars ago, and when I did,” he laughed jovially, “not a few people had less money than they set out with.”

  “You mean you were a common pickpocket?”

  “Not so common, either. I had twenty wallets under my poacher’s coat inside the hour, and there’s nothing common about that.”

  “There’s one more question, Lord Moggerhanger, if I may, now that this debriefing seems to have run its course. Can I have a few days furlough?”

  “Take as long as you like, but leave a phone number with Alice, in case I need you in the meantime.”

  “Will do. And if I notice myself tailed by any of the Green Toe Gang in the meantime, can I have the key to Peppercorn Cottage? It’s a good place to hide up in.”

  “Michael, I’d do anything for your peace of mind.” He opened a drawer, sorted a key, and handed it over. I hoped it was the right one, and didn’t discover it wasn’t till it was in the lock.

  “All you have to do is tell me when you’re using the place. You can go now. I’m a busy man.” He stood by the door leading to his private part of the house. “I must see how pleased Agnes is with the halva and other choice items you brought back.” He called her name on going out, me hoping he would stuff her with all the goodies.

  Mrs Blemish smiled. “Congratulations, Michael. I saw how you were worried. He can be a little menacing at times.” She put her lips to my ear. “He’s a terrible criminal.”

  “Yes, and he’s generous, as you say. The kitchen might be wired for sound,” I whispered, and gave a warning wink. “I’m very happy to be employed by him. He pays very well.”

  She bridled at the notion, face reddening with shame, which led me to wonder whether she too couldn’t become an ally in my scheme of finding evidence to nail him.

  “I would have to leave, if that was the case,” she said. “I couldn’t abide being spied on.”

  “It’s only my little jest”—or I hoped it was. “There’s some washing from my trip, just underwear and a few shirts. Will it be all right if I put it in the machine?”

  “If you give it to me I’ll see to it.”

  “I must go now. And many thanks for the lunch. If I see Percy on my travels I’ll give him a clip around the earhole and send him back to you suitably penitent, though you may need to rub a pint of witch hazel on the bruises.”

  Outside, I looked at the cheque. Five thousand pounds. I couldn’t deny a shock of gratification, though questioned whether such an amount was the wages of sin, or a bribe to keep my lips glued. Probably both. Then I thought that if Moggerhanger’s empire fell how would I live when no more such cheques were forthcoming? It would be foolhardy to pull his industry down, and exist on giros for the rest of my life.

  On the other hand what socially responsible nature I had told me that mercenary considerations ought not to be entertained, and that if I could ruin Moggerhanger I would be a hero and a benefit for all mankind, at least for the powder heads, meaning most people these days.

  Worldliness then clocked back in to say that if Moggerhanger did go bang other firms would be more than ready to leap into the gap, especially the Green Toe Gang, who had wanted to plug such a hole for years. Only the powder heads and shooters-up could stop the trade, by no longer using his goods, and they were incapable of doing so.

  My animosity being personal to Moggerhanger, why didn’t I therefore ingratiate myself with the Green Toe Gang, and put the kibosh on him that way? They’d already had convincing evidence of my qualities and, with all I could tell them about Moggerhanger’s business, would willingly take me on.

  I paced the yard, to think my options over. Jock was washing the Roller, and I didn’t offer to give him a hand, which to his credit wasn’t expected. I came to no conclusion, but looked at the cheque again to see whether sufficient was miswritten to stop it being honoured. Since all was in order, I would put it into my account as soon as possible, at which sensible decision I went up to the flat and slept.

  Chapter Sixteen.

  Hatchbacks scooted like blackclocks around my brain. It’s only a dream, I told myself in the dream. Didn’t someone say life itself was a dream? My grandfather’s big wooden mallet squashed the beetles flat. I heard them crack under every blow but it made no difference because they turned into boats and floated here and there to find a landing. Someone pulled the plug, and daylight flooded in.

  I woke up wondering where I was. Dreams only meant that you had been down deep, which had to be good. I was safely back in Moggerhanger’s flat above the garage, but how safe was safe after his warning on my vulnerability from the Green Toe Gang? I couldn’t know that whatever he’d said about spreading the word among them that I was not to be touched was worth the breath it was blurted on. No one could live forever in a state of alertness, yet I had to be ready for any onset of peril, while confidently assuming that my instinct for self-preservation would look after me.

  If Moggerhanger was playing cat and mouse to see whether someone of my expertise would enter into negotiations with the Green Toe Gang, as a test of loyalty to him (he had a liking for such machinations) he could get stuffed, since I was the one who could well be playing the same game with him, and should I come to believe he was pressing me too close on that front I would send a stamped and self-addressed envelope in a letter to Oscar Cross offering my services.

  Walking down to the Mall to put my money in the bank I noticed two old people kissing at a bus stop. Such public billing and cooing at their age was rare, and I supposed that at seventy-odd they went at it at home like rabbits in a thunderstorm. If they were man and wife there was no life on vinegar hill for them, who had no doubt been making love since fourteen, in which time he had pumped sufficient in to fill a swimming pool, and she had come enough for her cries to reach heaven. They looked fit to be banging away with mutually adoring exertion at ninety, to be found dead by one of their twelve children in each other’s arms.

  Leaving them to their snogging I wondered whether, being a marked man, I would reach that age and still be going at it. I certainly would be if I did, which merry notion took me into the bank, and then out knowing that at least the cheque was safe enough to pay for a few more weeks of life.

  I thought of calling on Frances, but she wouldn’t be home from the surgery till six, so to get my legs in shape after so much motoring I headed for Notting Hill Gate, where I’d take the Tube into Soho. I was alone, but the sky was mine, and if any of Oscar Cross’s Green Toe Gang tailed me they’d have a job keeping up, because I walked faster than anybody except Bill Straw in full infantry spate.

  A dead straight condensation trail, turning woolly at the lowest height, came from a jumbo jet, and I wanted to be on it but, a dab hand at sensing trouble, I did a bit of jinking in case someone was at my heels, excited at the thought of Bruce Loggerheads from the GTG behind me, who I could waylay on one of the many turnings to Goldhawk Road and give him a fright.

  Trees were budding along Holland Road, in spite of traffic smoke, but when rain sheeted down I buttoned my mackintosh and slogged on. At the Gate I bought a Times, and escalated to the Central Line for Tottenham Court Road.

  The Palm Oiled Cat was my favourite Soho Pub. Wayland Smith was at the bar, a well-built middle-aged man who worked for the BBC. An unrepentant Marxist, he sported a short grey Lenin-style beard and steel-rimmed spectacles. Except in the blaze of summer he wore a long leather overcoat to look like a commissar, and a brown fur hat made from a nondescript Siberian tomcat. Or maybe he’d trapped it himself at Daub and Wattle Cottage in Wiltshire. He gave an icy it’s-off-to-the-Gulag-for-you-my-lad smile. “Good to see you, Cullen.”

  My pint tasted rotten, but at least I was drinking it in Soho. “Still working for the Beeb, Wayland, dumbing down all those shows?”

  This was maligning him and the Great Corporation, for their efforts to keep the populace docile instead of being out on the streets throwing bricks at illegal immigr
ant and government ministers. It wasn’t hard to twit him in that rig, but another smile made him seem more human, though I knew better. “We only give the people what they want,” he said. “But how are you getting along?” He always handed out as good as he got: “Still in the smuggling trade?”

  “I do bring a few poor folk over in the boot of my car now and again, whenever I’m feeling bored. I go to France and pack half a dozen in a white van, and don’t charge them a penny for the dubious pleasure of living on this right little tight little island. I’ve even taken one or two all the way to Bradford so that they can burn a few more books on sticks, and chase that writer for the million dollar reward.”

  He nearly puked up the beer I’d bought him. “That’s the worst sort of racism.”

  “Too fucking right, but you won’t say that when you have to send all your dumbed-down scripts to Mecca and get them stamped as OK to produce. Another thing is that if you tried to walk through Mecca in what you’re wearing now they’d have your guts for garters, so don’t talk to me about racism, you scumbag.”

  I wanted to make him jump, but he wouldn’t spend the energy on me. “Religion may be the opium of the masses,” he said, “but it’s sacred all the same,” thus giving me more enjoyment that I deserved.

  “Nothing’s sacred to me,” I said. “I never did believe in mumbo-jumbo.”

  Margery Doldrum came in, and called out, before he could say he’d been in half an hour already and was waiting to leave: “Wayland! Been here long?”

  She was willowy without being anorexic, with a well-painted face, and very fine legs visible due to the short skirt. She greeted me with a wave and a smile, and sat on a stool by Wayland. We had met at the time of her fling with Blaskin. “I’ve got you the gen on the GTG,” she said. “It’s all typed in here.”

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