Well it comes along about 11 bells the night before Christmas Eve in nineteen eighty something or other. I am sitting warming my feet in the old Blue Posts pub on Berwick Street Soho. It is cozy and festive-looking with shiny decorations and real christmas tree, courtesy of Ronnies, the flower stall. Outside it is freezing and the white stuff is falling all day, such that patrons entering have to defrost momentarily before they are able to dust off the snow they bring in with them.
My feet (especially the left) take a considerable time to thaw out, as to the fact that in an attempt to do just that (thaw them out) I leave them rest in their Dr. Martens boots a little over-long on the fire surround. Now if Dr. Martens boots have an Achilles heel (so to speak) it is the vulcanised rubber sole. Acid, Alkali, Oil, Fat and Petrol-resistant they may be, but not heat. So the net result of this little exercise is a hole in the sole of my left boot. Ordinarily, not much of a problem apart from the ‘pht, pht, pht …’ sound you make as you walk along. But in the snow; a major handicap as it enters through the hole and lodges there in the form of an icy lozenge, making sure my left foot is thoroughly chilled all day.
In there with me, enjoying a few scoops and hoping for a cozy little after hours lock-in are Mad Mick the cabbie, Ronnie Flowers and a tall guy with a stripy face, result of being shivved-up in a club over on Brewer Street. Dinner and Dance, as he is known to one and all (except the arresting officer, with who he is on such good terms that he answers only to his real name of Lance) does a brisk trade in everything, especially when it falls off the back of a lorry. In fact the last occasion he does time it is because he is in the back of a lorry trying to get 20G’s worth of jeans to fall off it.
The door opens, bringing in a flurry of snow. Now with the mercury trying to bust its way out of the bottom of the thermometer, Ken wanders in with his regular casual attire of short sleeved shirt with button down collar, cashmere sweater, neatly pressed jeans and trainers. His only consession to the weather is a red Santa Claus hat with a flashing neon ball. In all the years I know Ken, I never hear him complain about being cold and he certainly never wears anything such as a coat or jacket.
Ken rubs his hands theatrically. It is fourteen hours since he cracks open his first drink of the day. Now It is time to let his hair down.
“A bottle of shampoo, and whatever these are having” At which he carelessly waves his hand in the direction of the rest of the punters.
It seems Ken has been in Topo Gigio’s eatery and has stopped in at the club on D’Arblay Street for half a dozen ‘Winter Warmers” And not only that, but who is he with, but The Great White Chief who runs out of Gillespie Road, which back in the day is in the shadow of Highbury. Well known by all as a top geezer and all round good guy, even if he does have a taste for the old grog.
And who does the Great White chief have his meal interrupted by as the waiter brings the phone to the table at Topo Gigio’s?
Only Terrible Tom. Now Terrible Tom, everyone is in agreement, punches way above his weight. He likes to think that he runs with the Big Boys and is a top guy around town, when in fact he is nothing but a halfwit who takes too many chances, and does not run himself a tight ship. Like tonight. Terrible Tom has the Roebuck in Victoria, big and noisy. The kind of bar I will cross the street to avoid.
Now it seems Tom, aside from his pub management duties has been showing a growing interest in all manner of extra curricular activities such as fraud and embezelment to name but two. In fact he has been ‘buying in’ whereby he takes it on himself to go direct to a ‘wholesaler’ (The Great White Chief) who is willing to buy him large quantities of grog. And not only that, but deliver under the cover of night. As the Roebuck is a tied house, naturally the brewery, if they ever find out take a very dim view of this, especially as, like today it involves 24 x 11 gallon barrelsof Fosters, which is a lot of spud in any language. So when the brewery call and inform him to be prepared for an 8:30am stock check on Christmas Eve, Terrible Tom starts to get terribly agitated. In fact as the day goes on he gets more and more panicky as he is unable to reach The Great White Chief such that by nine, when he finally tracks him down to Topo Gigio’s, he is naught but a quivering wreck.
Of course at such a time of the day the Great White Chief is having trouble remembering his own name, but despite this, he is able to remember what a pain in the bliff Terrible Tom is. But being a good sort the Great White Chief agrees to drop him his gear and goes about enlisting the help of his assistants, yours truly included. However, he plans to make terrible Tom sweat as much as poss.
Now getting hold of such a large amount of liquor at such short notice is no mean feat. In fact it means a trip in the transit to an old engine shed behind Kings Cross, owned by the Finnertys.
The Finnertys are a well known criminal family from Islington. Now don’t get me wrong, I am as much a believer in family values as the next man but in the Finnerty’s case the pursuit of same can get a bit out of hand.
I daresay the best-known example of this is their Finsbury Square shoot-out with rival gang the Adams family. It seems like both sides seriously underestimate each other’s resolve because after five minutes they have run out of slugs for their sawn-offs. Each repairs to cafes at opposite sides of the square for shelter and to re-arm with squeezy bottles of Tomato Ketchup.
The scene of carnage shocks even the hardest of the Gendarmes, when they finally arrive until it is realised that the dozens of bloody victims are uninjured, the only attention required being nothing more than the phone number of a reputable dry cleaners..
That said, there are any number of places I would rather be on a snowy night two days before Christmas than an old engine shed behind Kings Cross with Matty Finnerty, his map looking very creased indeed as, suited and booted, his black 1972 Mercedes Benz 280 SE 3.5 parked alongside, he supervises the operation.
Van loaded, the financial transaction complete, The Great White Chief and the crew scuttle off down to Victoria and without incident (unless you include driving through Victoria Bus Station, and being stopped by The Bizzies on Waterloo Bridge – something to do with driving without lights on and tax, insurance, log book and suchlike, I believe. I don’t know as I never drive the transit I never take much notice of these things.) In fact Terrible Tom is so pleased that he still has a job and a livelihood that the whole gang are treated to a few warm somethings to stave off the wintry chill.
It is gone 2:00 am when we return to noisy Blue Posts. Reason being Ken makes such a song and dance about The Great White Chief’s successful mission as he lets him back into the bar. A quick look at my Tintin watch confirms there is no way I’m going to get to the flat tonight. In fact, I am due to open up the off licence with Ken in approx six and a half hours. It’s just as well I’ve got my clothes with me in my bag, for tomorrow at noon I am to make the long Journey up to the frozen North to wish the Old Timers and family ‘Joyeux Noel’. As the brandies get passed around on account of the cold and snow and whatnot, there is another rap at the door.
We figure it must be one of The Great White Chief’s crew, so we open up. In a mini snow storm who should make an entrance with four of his gorillas but Matty Finnerty and moreover they are all tooled up with sawn-offs, and I’m willing to bet shivs as well, though I never get round to asking.
“Good Evening gentlemen” Says Matty all friendly like as he looks around the room at Ken, Dinner And Dance, The Great White Chief, Ronnie, mad Mick and me. “Don’t mind if I do” he says eyeing the brandy. Ken pours another glass.
Now I remember hearing somewhere that the Finnertys begin to take an interest in insurance particularly in the form of extortion, protection rackets and so forth; and it turns out Matty has been collecting insurance premiums all day.
“It seems” he says “You do some pretty good business with Terrible Tom after you leave us. I know this because we follow you all night …” He pauses and casts a withering look at The Great White Chief. “Which reminds me, I must have a word with you about your driving sometme. Now, as we all know Christmas is a time for giving … and you’re going to give me Terrible Tom’s one and a half Gs. In the bag if you please!”
With that, Matty indicates a plastic carrier bag. The Great White Chief, not being a man of violence, sees that the odds are stacked against him and does as he says, but with such a look of pain as I only ever see carved on the faces of the people in churches and suchlike.
“Good! Now with the business out of the way let’s enjoy a bit of Christmas spirit. Merry Christmas one and all!” Says Matty Finnerty.
Matty slams his sawn-off and bag onto the bar, right next to my head, causing me to leap about 3 feet off my stool. Someone puts ‘Fairytale of New York’ on the juke box and Matty Finnerty and his boys begin to wail. Outside, the snow comes down like five pound notes falling from the sky.
Well, at some point I doze off, and the next thing know I am chewing a bar towel, waking from a dream that I am eating the biggest Christmas dinner ever. I look around. Most of last night’s ghosts are gone. Only Dinner and Dance and Ronnie Flowers still snooze either side of a cold fire. I grab my bag and hot foot it out into the market to get some bacon and eggs and a couple of gallons of tea, in the Berwick St. Snack Bar (Phone Orders Taken) before opening up with Ken. Who is philosophical about the night’s events.
“Easy come easy go” is the only comment he makes. I am not sure The Great White Chief sees it like that, but decide to let sleeping dogs carry on snoozing.
Well, before I know it, it is time to bid farewell, Happy Christmas, Feliz Año Nuevo and make my way through the snow to Euston Station for the phenomenon that is the Christmas Eve West Coast Line service all stations to Glasgow. This has to be seen to be believed. The carriages are awash with beer and wrapping paper, their occupants dancing and singing traditonal songs like ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ ‘I wish It Could be Christmas Every day’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Everyone is full of Christmas cheer.
Indeed, when I alight, I am so full of Christmas cheer, I can barely walk in a straight line.
Finally and wearily I make my way up the path home. It has stopped snowing now. The sky is clear and frosty with a bright moon that sets the drifts of snow a’ twinkling. Once inside, I quietly make a nightcap as my parents, brothers, and their wives, nephews and nieces have been asleep awhile.
I leave my plastic bag of clothes in the kitchen before going tp to join the rest in the Land Of Nod.
I am awoken by such a commotion; even for a Christmas morning. There seems to be more shouts and expressions of joy than from my mother than I remember for a long time. Bleary-eyed, I make my way downstairs, stepping over various nephews and neices as required and enter the front room.
“Why if it isn’t the best son anyone ever has, you make our dreams come true, now we can retire to that lovely little cottage by the orchard! …”
Retire? Who? Cottage? Orchard? This is the first I hear of it.
Of course, I am thinking she already overdoes the Christmas sherry, and any more and she will be out for the count the rest of the day. Until I see her holding my plastic bag, which she empties onto the table. And what do you expect falls out? Not the shirts, socks and pants I leave last night to go in the wash, but bundles of carefully tied £50s and £20s. I am astonished. Then I remember the night before last in the Blue Posts, how Matty Finnerty drops his bag and gun on the bar, next to me. It seems he picks up the wrong bag. Matty gets my laundry while my Mum gets, at my quick estimation something like one hundred and thirty Gs. (Less The Great White Chief’s one and a half Gs which I intend to siphon off and return to him asap)
After that, I keep a low profile for a little while, and anyway, I am far too busy, what with arranging a move to the cottage by the orchard and one thing and another to visit the smoke.
Which is probably just as well.
In memory of two larger than life characters Ken Whitehead and Arthur Mullen.
© Andy Daly 2012