Charlie Chaplin came here to browse, to read, to buy. That tickled Alf. Marks & Co had closed, he did not know why. He had worked with them, or for them, found a few works put away by his Pops back in the war. Marks & Co had been part of the book ring. An arrangement whereby certain sellers and collectors agreed what to bid on (or not). In advance, lowering the prices from outsiders. There had been a quiet little scandal. But that had been Marks & Co whereas this was 84 Charing Cross Road. This shop and that were both Marks & Co, they both had the same address on their letterheads. Had. But this was the gentler book shop. This was the quietly bumbling, distant gazing, softly hands-touching-across-the-sea of a post-war Britain with a faint sigh, with parcelled eggs and where a cake was not a treat, but something daring.
Alf knew all this because he had been to the film not the night before with a bit of soppy tail, and here it was. Right down to the Polite Bookseller, with his brown paper and string face. Alf said, “They’re harmless.”
“But they are dago-types?”
“Oh yes,” but harmless, like he said. In the film last night all this, just exactly like this, a not-love non-affair across the years and ocean, by letter, the only shock a cultural one. Like a horrid, doomed extra-marital. Just without the thin-benefit of the fucking.
Alf Bittersweet knew he dressed snappily, and two decades before everyone else would have known it too. Everyone else had done. Alf Bittersweet had enjoyed twenty birthdays with twenty-nine candles on the cake. Simon Dee had robbed his look, the bitch. Here and he was twenty years too early. This was austerity Britain four years after wartime rationing, so now it was just rationing. He had not been paying attention. The prize-bullish man that had come to meet him had taken to sizing up Polite Bookseller. “Harmless,” said Alf again.
“Thought in Aunt Minerva we were meant to put down dago-types?”
The man flicked a look at Alf. Alf winked. Alf knew the type. Good family, Guards officer, Welsh by the tie if not by the accent. Missed the Falklands, never missed an episode of The Professionals, newly introduced to Aunt Minerva. Still thought there actually was an Aunt Minerva. “I’ve been told what we do. I was in Northern Island, Armagh, my platoon was...”
Alf scarce listened. Some dago-type had stepped out of some film, only not like here, not all sepia whimsy and frayed ribbon. Something bad.
“It wouldn’t die, I almost did. So don’t tell me...”
This time some bluster. Some sort of threat. Don’t play with the hard man. Aunt Minerva loved this sort. Rough and bold. Angry. Never missed an episode of The Professionals, again. “They only go away, they only die,” said Alf interrupting, “if it’s like in the film, or so bloody impossible to do otherwise that even Saturday serials couldn’t change it. Take him, take Frank Doel. Looks like Captain Bligh, dies from peritonitis, I looked it up. I can’t remember if it says that in the film, and it’s the film that counts. It’s lucky that the Polite Bookseller couldn’t hurt so much as a feeling ‘cause I’m buggered how we’d work that one.”
“Hardly, you’re not here for that. Not for him. Maybe he’ll endure. Maybe he’ll have a sequel, of sorts. Live on after this place fades. Wake up with his wife with a little bit of mirror. Have his twenty years. Manage an Our Price, or Athena. I don’t care. He’s not your concern. He’s not the threat. Your man,” said Alf, “is one Captain Peter Skellen.”
The name was familiar to the well-spoken ruffian, just not quite enough. He said, “How will I recognise him?”
“Trust me sweetheart, you’ll know him when you see him.” He looked and spoke like, and was, the one that wasn’t Doyle. Alf did not know how bad he was, but if he was half as awful as the film then Aunt Minerva was in for a stormy one.