A Rose By Any Other Name.
by Harry Downey
Quite an evening, eh Dave? Between us weve solved the Middle East problem, picked the England team for the next Test, decided to sack most of the Elf nSafety crowd and changed the Government. Not a bad evenings work, eh? Lets go local for a change. Its annual Fete time again next month and I hear the committee has asked Lady Kingsley-Leverton is to open it. I know shes a newcomer but it looks like a decent choice, People seem to like what theyve seen of her so far.
I never missed a show when I lived here, Mike, but dont expect I can make it for the big day. The opening thing was always done by Triverton, our MP back then. Wrong party but a good man I always thought. Cant comment on the woman as I dont know her. Ill give you a call the next time Im coming this way and you can buy me a pint or three. Cheers for now, Mike.
* * *
This is Murphys shop then, love? Where they take in letters for people to collect?
When she replied the girls accent was a mix of Irish with an overlay of Birmingham.
Its me das shop. His name is Sean Murphy and his name is up there if youd care to read it. If you can read that is.
Yes, I can and you dont spell chips like that. Go on, leave it. Nobodyll notice the added comma. It looks fine. So your dad takes post then for people? Like Mrs. Johnson then?
The pretty young woman with the paintbrush in her hand paused and looked down, clearly not comfortable even on the second step of the wobbly folding ladder, Well, so you can read, but, for the record cleverclogs I do know about apostrophes and things but my Da doesnt and its his shop and he pays my wages, so thats why I spell the way I do. As for Mrs Johnson, Im not supposed to discuss customers with anyone else.
But yes. There is a Mrs. Johnson. She collects money for her charity. Da thinks shes wonderful for what she does. He thinks shes like Mother Teresa.
There is something I want to talk to her about. We have a matter to discuss and I prefer to do it face to face. I expect she picks up her letters and stuff regularly, does she? So when would she be coming here next then?
Sorry, Im not allowed to tell you anything about her. Its what we call a House Rule. Though I will say that tomorrow is the first Thursday of the month and she always comes here then in the middle of the morning, regular as clockwork. You could try then. I didnt tell you that though, remember.
You dont like her, though, do you? Dont worry. Nobodyll find out anything from me. If we see each other tomorrow we havent met before....right? Im Pete. And you are?.....Bernadette. Somehow I feel sure well meet again, and it wont be by chance next time. Goodbye for now Bernadette and thank you for what you didnt tell me. Bye then. He winked as he walked away.
Bernadette looked again at the freshly painted lettering on the window, then folded her ladder and went into the shop. From the doorway she watched the man until he was out of sight. As she responded to her fathers call she had a half-smile on her lips.
* * *
Thank you Mr. Murphy. God willing I shall see you again in a months time. Goodbye. The woman walked out of the shop, ignoring Bernadette who was holding open the door for her. She looked around carefully when she was on the street, then with the confidence of knowing exactly where she was going, turned left and round the corner towards the city centre.
The shopkeeper turned to his daughter. That Mrs. Johnson there is such a lovely lady. Every month she comes in rain or shine, it makes no difference. And all for a good cause. Kind people send her money and she comes here to collect it for her poor orphaned children. And anyone can see how poor she is herself dressing like that. I think most of what shes wearing came from a Charity Shop. Dye remember that she came in and had to dry her feet her shoes leaked so badly. And it must be so hard for her walking with her stick and that poorly leg of hers. Truly a saint among women that one. And, you know, if anyone asks about her she doesnt want me to say anything not as if I know anything to tell them. She should be in the Honours List for what she does. I think Ill have a word with Father ORourke about that when I see him at Mass on Sunday.
* * *
Five minutes or so later, Mrs. Johnson, turned off the busy road on to a narrow lane one-way lane made gloomier by the tall buildings on each side. On the left there was a grey door marked Hotel Staff only. After a casual look back the way she had come, the woman went through the heavy door, letting it clang to behind her. The white van slowed enough for the driver to see what he apparently wanted to see before he carried on to the end of the alley and joined the busy traffic.
* * *
Later that morning the receptionist on duty watched as the elegant, immaculately dressed woman headed towards her. Good morning, Mrs. De Vere. I trust you enjoyed your stay? I have your account ready here for you. And we have the same room reserved for you for next month as usual. Ben here will find you a taxi now thats if youre quite ready. Mr. Scribbens our Duty Manager unfortunately has been called out, otherwise Im sure he would have been here to see you off. He often says what a delight it is for us here in the hotel to have someone such as yourself choosing to come back regularly. We feel honoured,
The porter popped his head through the door. Your taxi is here for you, madam. He came inside, picked up her two suitcases, went out again and waited outside on the pavement. Bye my dear were Mrs. De Veres only words as she left.
You know Ben, Id have to work here for months to earn enough to buy that Louis Viutton luggage she has. And as for those shoes....
She may be loaded but she doesnt even give me a thank you never mind a decent tip. And we both know how much it costs just for a short stay in a posh place like this. Miserable old cow. OK, I know Scribbens isnt here, Dont worry, Ill be a lot more careful when he is.
* * *
It was their second date of the week. Pete felt it was time to let Bernadette know of his intentions.
Until now, Bernie, I havent been quite honest about your Mrs. Johnson. Now weve got to know each other a bit better, I think I can tell you what its all about. When you know the story you might agree to help. Just read this letter for starters.
He handed Bernadette a single sheet of paper. It was a photocopy of a letter. Originally handwritten in a scrawl that sloped away to the bottom right hand corner of the sheet, undated and with no return address.
I know who you are and enough about you to get you into big trouble with the Tax Man. He would be delighted to add your name to his list of Tax Avoiders who have been caught and punished. At the very least you will be expected to repay all the unpaid tax since you started your little fiddle, with a substantial financial penalty charge added. Whether you will go to prison as well is up to the magistrate, but they do take a hard line on Tax-dodgers these days.
There is a simple way round this for you. If you want me to keep our little secret, all you need to do is send me some money. I think that £100 would be a fair amount. This is a sum that I feels still will leave you with enough of your undeclared income free for you to spend as you wish. You will realise that I am talking of a monthly payment, and, in cash, of course. Just send the payments to Murphys Convenience Store, Van Vollenhoven Street, Birmingham in a package marked Personal. For Mrs. Johnson. Mr. Murphy at the store doesnt know anything about my business or me, so its no good asking him questions.
I look forward to hearing from you soon at the start of a mutually profitable business relationship.
Freda Johnson (Mrs).
Bernadette looked up enquiringly but didnt speak.
OK. Now you know why I wanted to meet that woman. When the letter arrived that I was livid. I genuinely do try to be honest where I can. Old fashioned point of view, maybe, but I happen to believe in taxation and that everyone should pay their fair whack into the kitty. I want to sort her out and stop her little game.
Having met her I can see how she would send a letter like that to someone. But why you?
What I think she does, and its only a theory, mind, is find as many tradesmen painters like me, joiners, handymen, electricians and the like by picking up business cards whenever and wherever she sees em, looks in local papers for ads and watches out for handbills, that sort of thing. My card has my home phone number on it so Im easy to trace. When she has a home number she either looks in the phone book or online. After all, when she hoovers up all these details and sends out all her letters she only needs a small percentage to fall for it and cough up the money.
So its just blackmail then?
Yes, and with your help I think we might teach her a lesson. I reckon if you twisted your fathers arm hed give you a bit of time off? Probably on a couple of Thursdays? And your scooter would come in useful in my little plan. What dye reckon to this for an idea then?
* * *
The loud knocking was unexpected and with a little snort her doze ended. Pausing in the hallway, she looked in the ornate mirror, and satisfied with her appearance, opened the door.
Good morning Mrs. Johnson. We havent met. You can call me Mr. Smith John Smith. I must say, I didnt expect you to open your own front door. Is it the maids day off then? We have some unfinished business to sort out. Lets talk inside, shall we?
The man brushed past her, and inside the house went through an open door and found a comfortable armchair. She followed him without a word.
Mrs. Johnson and dont even think about denying who you are. Ive seen you dressed up and dressed down. Ive seen you at work in Birmingham and Ive now seen you here in your home. Tracking you down was a piece of cake. Just some help from a couple of associates to follow you from Murphys shop, to that nice hotel, the change of outfit, New Street station and here we are. Youre not as clever as you think.
"Thats the end of the social chat. To business. Some people on your little shopping list would be really pleased to find out who you are and where you can be found. Valuable information that. Worth a few bob to anyone who knows how to use it. In the letter you sent me you used the phrase substantial financial penalty. Nice phrase very apt I thought. But Ill simply call what I want expenses. So lets go to your money box upstairs or wherever it is and you give me a nice even thousand. Cash, of course. Then I shall go away. I may even go out of your life for good. Or perhaps not. Only time will tell. And by the way, I see you seem to have lost that very bad limp you had when I saw you previously. Congratulations.
* * *
A few minutes later Mr. Smith left the house. The first words Mrs. Johnson had spoken since her visitor arrived were on the telephone to ask for Mr. Adams in person and No, Mr. Layton would not do. If Mr. Adams wanted her future business he should call her immediately in person.
* * *
Massive talking point in the village since you were here last Dave, You remember we talked about our local celebrity who was booked to open the fete this year? Well, Lady Rosemary seems to have gone AWOL. One day you see her, next day shes gone. Adams the agents already have a For Sale sign up at the Manor House and there are all sorts of rumours. The fact is nobody knows where she is and what its all about. Weird, isnt it?
Not to me Mike. I saw the woman when I was leaving and recognised her. Ill go on record now in making a prediction. That youll never see your titled lady again and even if you went through all Google and every copy of Whos Who you wouldnt find any trace of her alleged husband, Kingsley-Leverton. If Im wrong bet you never need to buy me a beer again theyll be on me.
What you will find is the name Maxie Wolfson. He was one of the next generation of London gang bosses after the Krays. He was a really nasty piece of work witnesses refusing to give evidence, that sort of thing. A few unproven murders to his name apparently. Dont forget I was a young copper in the Met way back, and thats how I know. .
And Lady Rosemary? She was Rosie Klein till she married Wolfson. Loved dressing up apparently and did a bit on the stage now and then. The sort of woman they used to call a gangsters moll. Shell have gone for good now and youre well rid of her. Its your shout, I think.
* * *
You were alright while I was out then, Bern? Nothing you couldnt handle then?
"No, nothing at all, da. But you wont see your nice Mrs. Johnson again in the shop. She phoned and said shes very grateful for your help in what she does, but some family matter or something means she wont be coming again. Shes arranging for someone else a man apparently to call in future to pick up any post for her. Starting this week, she said."
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