Chapter Onewallet: one who finances an antiques scam (trade slang)
Women and antiques are out there. They mean trouble. The reason is greed, everybody’s greed.A lady visited me in prison.
She eyed me. ‘I’m Ellen Jaynor. You’re not much to look at.‘You’ve got the wrong prisoner, missus.’Her eyes scored points. ‘Do you have trouble with religion?’Huguenot? No meat on Fridays? Jewish? One lot had prayer shawls, but was it her team?‘Diwali? Ramadan?’Her lip curled in contempt. It cheered me up. Right bloke after all.I’m nothing to look at, average everything in a worn jacket. My hair’s a thatch. I’d cut the fraying edges of my shirt cuffs, and my shoes are soled courtesy of Kellogg’s cardboard.She was bonny. Thirtyish, dressed in blue with an antique necklace of tourmalines with one showy diamond. I guessed 2.4 carats. No wedding ring, just a hen’s egg of a ruby (Sri Lankan, not that Madagascan muddy red people praise these days). Victorian jewellers were class.The screws and passing gaolbirds were lusting Force Five. I felt proud of my classy lass, but mistakes don’t last. Who exactly was Ellen Jaynor, down among us lowlifes?‘I’m offering you a job and a release permit.’Two months early? Permit is a filthy word. It always sounds its opposite, like licence. ‘Er, job?’ I didn’t want to do another robbery just yet.‘Speed-dating. Merely speaking to women.’‘I do it all the time.’‘The Anglers Manglers Speed-Datery pays a flat rate.’She gave me a smile like sleet. Women lack trust, I find. ‘Balaclava Street drill hall in an hour.’The screw smiled and let her out. Back in my cell I collected my stuff. I’m not so daft I can’t recognise a scam. It had to be antiques because I’m good at nothing else.One odd thing happened. I went to write my so-longs on the library blackboard, our tradition. There sat Rocco. He was reading. He saw me, and his giant builder’s hands flicked the tome under his chair. Hiding something? Rocco can’t read. He said good luck. I forgot the incident. You can’t explain what happens in gaol.
The nick faces the old Odeon in Crouch Street. I signed out on police bail — a legal shackle to allow lawyers more golf time. The desk screw grinned.‘I’ve bet you’ll be back in five weeks, son.’‘You’ve lost, George.’With a flourish I signed Lovejoy, I Hyde Park Gate, London
, and departed. Wellingtons old address would irritate them.Our town’s morning rush was in full flow, two buses, one car, a donkey cart and a crocodile of school children going to the Headgate Theatre. Hepsibah Smith their teacher ignored me.She carolled, ‘Hurry, children! We mustn’t be late!’Elizabeth is seven years old and lives in my lane. ‘Miss Smith isn’t speaking, Lovejoy,’ she announced in a voice of thunder. ‘You’re in prison.’Hepsibah’s lessons in tact had failed. I said, ‘Shut your teeth, you little sod.’‘Lovejoy sleeps on his new auntie,’ Elizabeth shrilled, ‘with her legs—’‘Elizabeth!
Hepsibah said, schoolmistress fashion: Eliz-a-beth
. ‘We are ambassadors for our village!’‘I seen him through his window …’ Elizabeth’s bandsaw voice faded.Guiltily avoiding stares, I eeled through St Mary’s churchyard. So much for the sacking I nail across my cottage window for privacy.Puzzled by Rocco’s concealment, I called in the town’s naff bookshop. I recognised the olive-green dust jacket — ugh — and gaped. Ancient Rock Paintings of North Africa.
Jesus. Well, lots of pretence in the nick.
The drill hall in Balaclava Street looked derelict. I knocked and pushed. ‘Hello?’‘About time.’ Ellen Jaynor was inside.She lit a fag, pluming cancer-producing pollutants. The floor was unswept, a flag drooping from a broken pole.‘Space those tables. Female clients sit against the walls.’‘Eh?’ A dance seated on chairs?‘Watch it once round, then join in. Do the tea urn.’In the anteroom stood a begrimed tea thing, plastic cups and a box of biscuits. Not quite Disney World. I lit the gas burner.A fat girl came in and sat. Without a word she passed me a tea. Foul, but the best I’d had in weeks.‘I’m Trina. Are you the thief?’I went red. ‘Er, yes.’‘I take the money. Jaynor dongs the bell, stingy old bitch.’Ellen Jaynor could hear but made no sign. I felt better for an ally.‘Twenty-four today.’ Trina showed me her list. I gasped at the fee. For a chat? What happened to saying hello at the bus stop? ‘Here. You’re not that mare’s friend, are you?’‘Never saw her before.’In case you’ve never heard of the Anglers Manglers Speed-Datery, I report that it is degradation. No courtship, no sweet glances in Sunday church. In short, we’re barbaric.In speed-dating you’re shoved at strangers. It’s gab, grab, run to the fun, for now romance begins in a shoddy drill hall, at wonky card tables. Females — any age, any shape — face males — any age, any shape. On the tocsin the sweating males move to the next bird.Some daters were nervy, others brash. A swig of tea, a dry biscuit and a three-minute natter didn’t seem much for paying a fortune, but this was progress. Some women were young, others middle-aged, one frankly old, most in the grip of silent hysteria.Sessions ended on a double bell. Trina ushered them into the anteroom. Most women clustered, though one or two mingled. Embarrassment always makes my knees itch. I stood there filling cups. Eventually Trina beckoned me in. The bell sounded, and I sat.‘Wotcher,’ I said, my chat-up line.‘Maureen,’ the girl said irritably. ‘Got a car?’‘Where do you want to go?’ Her glance withered me. ‘Er, no.’‘How much do you get?’ And explained, ‘Money. Your job.’‘Er, I’m between jobs.’Her eyebrows were question-marks one hair thick. I tried to smile but my smile often has bad days.‘Have you got property? Email?’ And when I stuttered she added, ‘Where d’you live?’‘In a rented cottage.’ I’d stolen it by means of three fraudulent mortgages.She stared as if I’d mentioned leprosy, and called, ‘I’m wasting my frigging time here.’The merciful bell rang. I moved on. The lady there was about forty, determined to put a bright face on this brawl.‘Hello.’ She gripped her handbag. ‘I’m Joanna.’We spoke in staccato phrases. Joanna worked in a shop, and had been divorced for seven years. She told me this in a don’t-blame-me rush. I liked her. The bell came too soon. She looked back. I was a disappointment again.The kaleidoscope of faces came and went. Tracy was voluptuous but sneered. Seena had the shakes, craving doses only a pharmacist would know. The fifth made white-hot demands to prove I wasn’t married. Can you disprove a negative? Her final words were, ‘I need a fucking drink here.’ Romance was in the air, but not in Balaclava Street drill hall.The sixth was an enemy. I missed the signs.‘Laura,’ she said without preamble. ‘I’m forty-three. Well?’Bossy and attractive. Smart suit, with a brooch that caught my eye. ‘I only do antiques.’ I shrugged.She cut to the chase. ‘What antique is in this bag?’Laura must be the reason I’d been sprung. When all else fails I go for honesty.‘Show me and I’ll have a go.’Her expression became a snarl. ‘I’ve driven three hundred miles to waste my time. You’ll suffer for this, Lovejoy.’My name? I hadn’t told her my name.‘Nice brooch, Laura.’She was about to sweep out but paused. She peered at her lapel. A rose, four buds, diamonds in silver. ‘It’s off a street barrow.’‘Lucky you.’ I delved into her shopping bag and found a teddy bear, long of snout and hump-naped. ‘I thought you said antique.’‘It is a Steiff. It’s genuine, unlike you.’‘Worth a lot,’ I agreed. ‘But 1903 isn’t old.’Uncertainty crept in. ‘Made a century ago, and not old?’‘Hasto be 150 years before I get the feel.’ She went silent. I tried to help. ‘Work it out. Its stud is plain, so it’s early. Steiffs had an elephant emblem, then this domed blob. Those eyes are only shoe buttons.’ I stood to leave.The bell double-donged. Clients drifted into the anteroom and the next lot filed in. Laura just looked.‘You said about my brooch?’‘Pavé-
Gems laid like paving, each stone held in place by a dot of metal.’ I found myself smiling. ‘It’s genuine 1795, Belgian or French.’Her eyes narrowed. ‘Genuine, without a hallmark?’‘Continental antiques often lack marks. Junk shops mistake genuine jewellery for scrap 1960 lookalikes. So-long, missus.’‘Wait!’ Ellen Jaynor grabbed my arm. ‘Wait, or I’ll not pay you!’I’d had enough. ‘Being bonny doesn’t mean you can cheat. Ta-ra.’Trina fisted the air in silent applause. The Joanna woman was in the foyer. Her expression brightened. ‘Oh, Lovejoy. I’m so glad to catch you—’‘Sorry, love.’ I pushed past.The door swung shut. Free! So I thought.FACES IN THE POOL. Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan Gash. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
JONATHAN GASH lives in Essex, England.