Seven Dials, 1986. Broken Watches.
Fashion is unfaithful; it will always leave you for someone else.
If Artie West put aside the drapes, the drainpipes, and the Mr B collars he would be unrecognisable and that would leave him powerless. Without the brocade waistcoat, the maverick and the crepe soles there would be nothing left of him at all. So fat now and with bootblack hair Artie looking ridiculous remained ridiculous because the alternative was worse. And if anyone laughed or pointed at the old ted then he could always cut ‘em. No one had any respect now because no one remembered to be afraid.
Artie had been born in the Elephant & Castle in 1956, already a young man whilst the teds that made him tore the Trocadero Super Cinema apart. He had been born from the Blackboard Jungle and truly, really, literally. He had lived for thirty years in a London where the boys now dressed like Judies and the Judies dressed like communists. Fifty now or thereabouts Artie had come from the scratch fully formed and never gone back.
He loved the world. He loved its limited dimensions. Never having left London he loved America most of all. Diners and rumbles, sweet Gene Vincent, Billy Flagg, you were safe with music. Music stayed where it was. The scratch couldn’t hear it. Born from the frames between each frame of the film Artie had been made a rebel. If the scratch wanted him back it would have to make him. For what Artie was the only name came from his enemies, as had been. The scratch was only called the scratch by Aunt Minerva. It didn’t have a name for itself. And Aunt Minerva called those that came from the scratch dago-types, a play on their own, who had once been keen-types. Artie and his cousins were Daguerreo-types from back when there had only been photographs. A little piece of the world captured and framed, right about the time of the scratch. Leached into the world and he like most now through film but he hadn’t gone back, hadn’t come to the end of that story. Why would he? Artie West was a one-film wonder. All very nice for the The Little Tramp, Chaplin had made millions of films. The Little Tramp had more goes in the world than Presley had had on the hit-parade. The shorts had it best. They weren’t here long but they here were often. In, do, out and back again another day.
Better a big fat ted than a whisper hungering for a sequel.
“I’m not about to cause trouble,” said Artie. “Not here.”
Here was Bittersweet’s Treats, estd. 1941. It might have been Bittersweet & Son but it was young Alfred’s turn at the name, his Da having had it for quite long enough and Alf very unlikely to produce another generation. Bittersweet’s had only room enough for two to stand comfortably and Artie made three. The shop front small and the interior cavernous the counter, shelves and apothecary cabinets crowded the floor to the ceiling and more baskets, boxes and bags hung from the ceiling. There were thirty-seven varieties of itching powder in Bittersweet’s Treats and two of them would have your eyes out. The acid drops, were. There were mousetraps for men and Georgian fighting-corsets for women. The windows were filthy, green and from without what little could be seen within was the bottom of a pond.
The closed sign on the door was glued in place. The two shop-assistants were Susan and Lucy. Susan had whiskers he waxed with Kaiser Wax, and they no longer made Kaiser Wax. Lucy with his butcher’s gut and boater told Artie to go away. Artie raised his hands. He knew for a fact that Lucy had once killed a man with a pound of treacle-toffee.
Artie was a ted and teds were tough. Teds were nasty. But teds were pack animals. And he really hadn’t come here to make trouble. He said, “I’ve got this packet. For Mme Roux. Dated today, addressed to here. I’ve had it since ’69. Come on lads, all monsters together right?”
“I’ll speak to Mr. Bittersweet. You can wait here.”
“Maybe I’ll just leave it with you.”
“You can wait here in case Mr. Bittersweet wants to speak to you,” said Mary. He turned to go, but paused. Remembering his manners he dug into his apron for a paper bag. “Toffee?” he said.
The Big Freeze, 1962. Lord Rockingham Pours
She had enjoyed stranger places for a picnic, yet rarely so cold. She accepted the cup of tea and so too a lemon slice. The table was of old wood, the chairs matched and the linen was stiff with starch and edged with ice. The cups had handles designed for mittens. The ice on the Serpentine was not thickest in the middle but one took tea with Aunt Minerva where Aunt Minerva poured. There was no Aunt Minerva, it was the name of a club, a society and the list of apologies for absence had lasted ten minutes.
Mme Roux muffled to the nose in fox-fur and to her kitten heels in weasel only needed a monkey to open a zoo. She was for the moment a young lady, which pleased her enormously. She said, “I understand of course, Rockingham. Time is short. The scratch enlarges. Terrible times are upon us. Man lies with beast. Beasts lie in wait. Women put on weight. But wait,” she sipped. “I can honestly say I am not the one best suited to do anything about it.”
Lord Rockingham in Shackleton’s rejected lemon-yellow suggested quite the opposite, adding, “It is because time is short dear lady that you are really the only one to do anything about it. If we could action the matter here, rather now, then doubtless I could fetch up some wicked rogue or bold Tom Sturdy but it is happening and not only now. Aunt Minerva has been fighting it off and on for a number of years now, this particular party being thrown. And you are the only one likely to know the why of it. I only learned myself some days ago. It’s rather tedious,” he said.
Mme Roux exchanged her tea for a cigarette. “No, I’m not arguing against my suitability so much as my eligibility. I don’t want to, can’t be bothered with it. I am,” she said, “a remarkably lazy person. By the way, love the venue. Last time I was here was with Harriet Westbrook.”
Rockingham had heard the tale. Very tragic, Westbrook’s poet husband had taken all of two weeks to remarry. He changed the subject, “In ten days they will race here for the Peter Pan Cup on Christmas morning. The sight of so many ardent swimmers diving into the water will doubtless stir the blood. Do you think they will bounce? Or skip over the ice like a stone?”
Mme Roux not liking the turn of the conversation brought it back to more important matters, herself. “I’m a drone, Rockingham. I intend to spend Christmas tucked up with something warm inside of me. Errol Flynn has a certain reputation. Other than that and even seeing in the new-year sounds like such a bother. I shall have to get someone to get drunk for me. I shall be a shocker, a shameful thing, and then read about myself in the papers in the morning.”
“I’m afraid someone is being very insistent on your participation.”
“You Mme Roux, you. You telephoned me this morning. I had no idea there was a 5am and I shan’t be inviting it for cocktails. Awful time, very brash.”
Mme Roux flicked away her cigarette having waited too long for someone to light it. She said, “Oh you don’t want to go listening to me.”
“I’m afraid you were very firm on the matter. It was suggested that if you needed a spot or two of encouragement then I was to remind you that you owed you, and that you were collecting.”
Mme Roux surrendered. She would never allow herself to be bullied or blackmailed, but she took oaths and debts very seriously. It meant she was not expected to extend the same courtesy to anything else. She said, “Did I give myself any indication as to where I might begin?”
At that his gentle smile dropped. He did so loathe Mr Bittersweet. As he did also Mr Bittersweet.
Bittersweet’s Treats, A Surprise In Every Bag!
He was not a criminal. They had yet to pass a law to that effect, but one day. “Now my da, he was a criminal,” said Alf Bittersweet. “The Blitz you see? It weren’t all spitting in the eye of that Hitler and standing resolute. Crime went through the roof. Not that there were roofs. They had to let out anyone that had less than three months left inside, and all the borstal lads. You’d never know it now.”
“I remember Alf,” said Mme Roux who did not but feared she probably would.
Alf ignored her. An old man at thirty he wore his hair about the ears. A rich man still he paid his tailor on weekly instalments. Mme Roux thought it should have been Alf back in the war, not his Da. No matter how princely his clothes or how stylish his barber Alf looked like a spiv. He never looked anyone in the eye, always about them, cautious and with one hand in his pocket. He said, “Looting was bloody rife. It weren’t exactly breaking and entering, not when windows were patched with cardboard. My Da used to have a racket where he and his stepsons used to dress up as ARP Wardens. Magic uniform, they even got the rozzers to load up a van once. Unexploded jewellery probably. Mind, all the rozzers were old men. Everyone was at it. Back then you got £500 if you were bombed out. One lad called Handy of all things, he was bombed out nineteen times and never lost his home once,” he said, and chuckled.
Mme Roux stood in the office behind the shop front with her back to the three safes old Mr Bittersweet had only chosen when he couldn’t get into them himself. Then gone back later and nicked all three. The room was all old cardboard and the smell of Vim. Trays of broaches, rings and cufflinks were stacked upon one another like old newspapers. When the Cafe de Paris with its supposedly safe underground ballroom had been bombed people were stripped of watches and necklaces even as they were being pulled from the rubble. She said, “Alf?”
“Madame please, Alf, I didn’t marry a Frenchman for his name not to have it used.”
“This is Artie West. He’s a dago-type. Artie says he’s got a letter for you. Tell her Artie.”
Artie did. When Mme Roux asked why he had not thrown it away he admitted it was because she could have killed him once, but hadn’t.
“That doesn’t sound like me,” she said. Then playfully because she was a lot more manipulative than intimidating, added, “Of course, I still might.”
And that was why. Artie fetched out the envelope. Padded but wrapped in tape she was not the least surprised to recognise the handwriting. She asked for a knife and Alf fetched her a bayonet. Mme Roux hated getting letters from herself. It was never good news and she always had to take special care to make sure to later send it. She had a notebook of things-to-do, and all because she had.
“I hope it’s bad news, Mrs,” said Alf.
Part Two tomorrow: Went The Day Well?