Adam ironed his shirt. He felt that he spent an unreasonable amount of time ironing shirts. Mornings, before work, in the steam heavy kitchen with his Dad in the corner sipping tea. Friday nights, if he had a date. Saturday mornings, if they were going to the Synagogue.
He’d tried insisting that he shouldn’t iron on the Sabbath; Mum had told him to iron twice on Friday night if he was going to be that observant and Dad had told them both that they weren’t that bloody observant. Satisfied the shirt would pass, he slipped it on and tied his tie. It was important to look right. He went to his room and dug out his bank book, slipping it into his jacket’s inside pocket like a spy hiding secret information. If he was caught, there’d be hell to pay. They only shot spies; his mother would do worse if she found out he’d spent his savings.
He walked to the bank, shoes slapping on the rain-sheened pavements, shoulders hunched against an insistent drizzle and the sort of wind that sulked around until it could blast down your neck when you turned a corner. Although time was of the essence, he wasn’t eager to face the bank staff, but he had stock to buy, a car to borrow, and a table to find all before he got to the market to pitch his stall. Clock ticking, Adam gathered his courage and stepped into the bank, quietly joining the end of the queue and pacing forward towards the small row of clerks behind their polished wood and frosted glass battlements. When his turn came he handed over the book and withdrawal slip with a hand that shook.
“I’d like to make a withdrawal,” he said. The clerk opened the bank book, looked at the slip, raised an eyebrow.
“How much would you like to withdraw?”
Adam didn’t know whether to look the man in the eye and state the sum proudly, whisper it in case no one else was supposed to know, or try to pass it off casually as if he did this every day. He settled on looking directly at the counter.
“Fifty pounds please.”
It was done.
The clerk counted three tens, three fives, and five ones, handing the bundle of notes over the way Adam imagined a croupier in a casino might. As he tucked away the money, he smiled.
For the next hour, he was flush.
“Will you be closing the account?”
The clerk’s voice made him jump.
“No! Oh, er, no. Just a…short, temporary…cashflow…” he said, went to give the man a cheery wave and somehow ended up saluting him instead. The clerk raised an eyebrow and Adam made a move for the door. Fifty quid. A lot of money.
If you visited the right pubs and talked to the right people, you could get access to the gray market of Hooky Street. Around Hackney, you could find almost anything you wanted. Baggage handlers from Heathrow and dock workers from the Port of London would shift goods of questionable provenance in the same spaces as entirely legitimate businessmen with some surplus stock to shift. It all ended up on Hooky Street, and if you had fifty pounds burning a hole in your pocket and a business idea burning a hole in your entrepreneurial spirit, so did you, talking to a man called Charlie with a van load of hooky spare parts which might or might not have fallen off the backs of an assortment of lorries.
“Quality stuff, mind,” said Charlie into a pint of something brown. Adam slipped his hand into his pocket and fiddled with his house keys.
“How much are you asking?”
Charlie considered this carefully. “A pony,” he said, “will get you a car boot full of quality kit that the punters will snap up. No question.”
Adam knew he should haggle. It wasn’t done, paying the asking price. His dad would kill him.
“A score,” he said, dropping the price by five pounds.
Charlie shrugged. “Well, if you don’t want it…” he said, turning away.
Adam put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder, knowing this was a potentially stupid thing to do. “A pony, then,” he agreed and reached into his jacket. Charlie looked appalled.
“Blimey. New at this, are you? Bring your motor around to the arches in an hour and have your cash ready then, right? For now, finish your drink and,” Charlie’s face darkened, “never put your hand on my collar again. Alright, son? I shan’t raise my hand to you because I can see it’s your first day and you’re learning your manners. Go on, sod off.”
And that was that.
“Characterful” was how the owner described Adam’s borrowed car. He also used words like “brave” and “valiant” but the owner liked to talk. Adam used words like “leaky”, “clapped out” and “unreliable”, because it had broken down on the way to the Arches, garnered sneers and derision from the serious men at the lockup and then let in rain and wind on the way to the market.
Feverishly, Adam had set up his borrowed trestle table and spread out a selection of his wares. Then he’d stood back, stared at it for a few minutes, and rearranged everything. He did it again five minutes later, pacing around the table and finally leaning on the back of the car, fidgeting while he tried to look like he did this all the time.
No one came.
Everyone passed him by.
It began to sink in that he wasn’t going to sell anything. No one wanted replacement car aerials. No one wanted transistor radios. He’s made it to the market too late, got a lousy pitch because he was the new bloke, and would be standing in the rain wearing an inadequate overcoat until he drowned (in rain or self pity, whichever got him first) or he finally admitted defeat and packed his boxes of bits and pieces into his borrowed car.
Adam looked up and met the gaze of a man that made every working-class instinct he had vibrate with alarm.
The gentleman, because he couldn’t be anything else, had matched a homburg with an overcoat, gloves and…were they spats? All in dove gray. He was also carrying a cane. He had the air of a man finding something new, shiny, and unexpected.
“Yes?” said Adam.
“What are these?” asked the gentleman, tapping the box of car aerials with the brass-shod end of his cane.
Adam watched him carefully for a moment, frowning slightly, to see if he was just taking the piss.
“They’re car aerials,” he said, “for if yours gets snapped off or bent. Or if you have a radio installed.”
It occurred to him that he could have written that on the box, and a price too.
“How charming!” said the gentleman. “Radio sets in cars. Whatever will they put in cars next? Telephones, no doubt.”
Adam tried to smile, to show he was in on the joke, but the man didn’t seem to be laughing.
“Would you like to buy one?” he asked.
“Oh my dear boy, no. It’s very much you I’m interested in!” said the gentleman. Adam had heard the upper classes went in for that sort of thing, and of course the theater district wasn’t all that far away, but it was downright dangerous to go about propositioning people in public.
“Steady on, pal, we don’t go for that sort of thing round here,” said Adam, suddenly very unsure of himself. The gentleman blinked several times.
“No no no,” he said, “not like that. Dear boy, let me introduce myself. You may call me Rex.”
“Like Rex Harrison?” asked Adam.
“Even he,” agreed Rex, “and I am here to make you an offer. You are, are you not, a salesman?”
Adam looked around at his vinyl covered trestle table with the battered boxes of black market bit and bobs, the borrowed Morris, his own soaked shoes and leaking overcoat. Somewhere inside him a voice that he’d heard all his life started yelling that he was so much more than just a salesman, he was the man who employed salesmen.
“Yeah?” said Adam, feeling a blush rising.
Rex smiled. Or at least, Adam understood that Rex was smiling. Something in the character of the expression changed, perhaps something in his eyes, so suddenly that you were aware a smile was happening without it ever really reaching his mouth.
“But you want more. Don’t you? Don’t be shy, Adam! You want them to let you in. Give you a chance, let you prove your worth! And not just to them, am I right? There’s a young lady?”
Joan. Joan with the father who wanted more for his daughter than a lad with a future in schmutter or clerking, and who wasn’t going to move for anything less than his daughter deserved.
“How do you know so bloody much?” Adam snapped, then stepped back with horror in his eyes.
Rex waved the outburst away.
“It’s not difficult to piece things together, Adam,” said Rex, “a young man out in the rain on the worst pitch in the market, suited and booted when none of the other traders are? That young man is a taker of chances, a modern knight errant, and what suits a knight errant best than the pursuit of a lovely young lady?”
Adam shrugged. “Where’s this going, mister?”
Rex grinned. An actual grin, this time. Not the ghost of an expression, a full-bore toothsome grin.
“I’m here to offer you a deal,” said Rex, “that will put you on the top table. On the highest of tables in the land. A deal that will opens doors that would otherwise remain closed to you. How does that sound?”
“Expensive,” said Adam, “and a bit suspect. Tell me what the deal is or I’m calling the Old Bill.”
“In the coming week, you will double the money you withdrew from your savings account and I will arrange for you to find a remarkable deal on a reliable van. You will hear from a man who desperately wants to move a collection of consumer electronics; he will make a chance remark that will lead you to a lockup, which you can use to store stock.”
Adam shrugged. “Those things might happen anyway.”
Rex tilted his hat back.
“Additionally, that rather lovely young lady you’re so interested in will ask you to take her out. She will be impressed with your entrepreneurial spirit and so long as you keep that up I can see the two of you having a long future together. Next week, I will visit you again and I shall bring with me a contract. You can sign it, and your good fortune will continue. Or you can reject it and see how far you get on your own. For now, good day to you.”
He walked away, cane tapping a steady rhythm on the pavement. Adam watched him go.
The boxes rocked from side to side as Adam wound the Bedford panel van through the back streets to his lockup. New stock had to go under lock and key quickly, before it became someone else’s stock, and he had a lot to do before he could go home for a quick bath and a change of clothes. Joan would be waiting for him at seven – back home by eleven, but they’d get time to go dancing – and he didn’t want to waste time by being late.
“Lovely motors, these Bedfords,” said a voice. Adam put the box he was carrying down slowly and carefully. It hadn’t sounded at all right, using the word “motors”. It was too refined to be saying “motors.”
“Do I mean motors, Adam? I’m never quite sure of the vernacular.”
Adam didn’t turn to meet Rex. He continued putting away his stock. “To be honest, Mister, I can’t even imagine you saying ‘van.'”
The lockup was a railway arch with large, secure doors at one end and brickwork at the back. With Adam and his stock in it, sometimes it felt roomy. Like his own Kingdom.
With Rex on the threshold, Adam was suddenly cramped and couldn’t move for things to bang his elbows against. The roof seemed very low and the darkness from the corners seemed to fill the space between the boxes until Adam turned, breathless.
Rex was wearing tweed. He smiled. “It’s not ‘Mister’, Adam. We’re friends, surely? All my friends call me Rex. Now, since time presses us both, shall we get our tawdry business out of the way?”
Adam folded his arms.
Rex raised an eyebrow.
“Adam, I’m hurt. The things I promised you, have they not come to pass?”
Adam ran the checklist in his head: the van for a score, which had come down a long way from what the owner wanted. Old Harry Marks dying suddenly and his widow wanting the rent from the lockup, happy to take some money from Benjamin Sweet’s little boy. Joan thawing on the evidence that her Dad didn’t hate a man who was willing to better himself. Jack Handley going out of business on account of the tax people catching on to his accountant and needing to dump a ton of stock all of a sudden. And a hundred pounds in his pocket. All very tidy.
“They have,” said Adam, “which leads me to worry that you’re some sort of criminal mastermind with ties to the Jewish community.”
Rex grinned, which turned out to be a worrying sight. Rex had a smile that hinted that he knew more than you. The grin said outright that he knew many, many things that you didn’t and was prepared to make you look very foolish in the process of demonstrating this.
“Well,” said Rex, “after a fashion. We’re not here to talk about me, Adam.”
“No, we’re not,” said Adam, “we’re here because you can wave a bit of cash around and think I’ll be impressed. So who are you, mister not-Monday?”
Rex shrugged. “A man of wealth and taste. I could ask you to guess my name, because I like games, but that would be childish. The promises I make you today, the ones you sign for, are set in stone. Ask, and you shall receive. For a price.”
“Really?” said Adam. He smiled now, certain that this was a put up job.
“In that case,” said Adam “I want to be known all over the world as a businessman. I want…” he thought hard for something unreasonable “…a knighthood and a seat in the House of Lords!”
“Of course I want Joan,” said Adam reasonably, “and only Joan.”
“Are you sure? It’s 1960, the start of a new decade. Anything might happen. No? Very well. Anything else?”
“A football team, successful business venture after successful business venture, and a comfortable life. I’m not asking the Earth.”
“Indeed not,” said Rex, “and neither are you asking nothing. There is a price, of course. You will sign a contract with me and, at the end of your long and happy life, I will collect your soul.”
“You what?” said Adam.
Rex wasn’t smiling. “Your soul. Sign here, please,” said Rex, offering Adam a contract.
Without thinking he picked up the pen, certain that nothing would come of these grandiose claims, or that some detail would void the contract. No matter what he did here today, there were no actual consequences to putting his name on a madman’s bit of paper.
Rex waited for the ink to dry and folded the contract away.
“Two small things, Adam,” said Rex. “Firstly, this is what’s waiting for you when I come to collect you a few short decades from now.” He placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
What was the last thing that really hurt you? What was the last thing that made you feel pain that wouldn’t go away? The pain would have left you unable to imagine an end to it, unable to remember what it was like not to hurt. Your wits would be scrambled by it leaving you a helpless thing flailing in the grip of something that had no interest in you other than to fire your nerves and remind you, by hurting you, that it existed. To be in the grip of something that not only did not care about you but had no concept of you as something to notice, let alone care about, would leave you bare, desolate, alone.
Imagine that desolation, that aloneness, that raw nerve nakedness. Being in blackness, feeling that, without even the comfort that others might suffer as you do, or see your suffering and in that moment be kin to your agony if not kin to you. Suspended in that hungry,sucking, nothingness a man would surely go mad, or come to pray for madness as a relief. Imagine having that hope denied second by second, forever. Adam lived it.
“Fucking hell…” swore Adam.
“The penny has dropped, the first of many to come.” said Rex. “To be fair to me, I did warn you. That’s what awaits you unless…”
If a man is drowning he’ll reach out for anything that might keep him afloat a little longer.
“Unless what!” snapped Adam, all too suddenly aware that he was holding Satan’s pristine tweed lapels.
“Unless you can find someone to take your place, Adam. A successor. If you can arrange someone to willingly take on the burden of your deal, you get to go to the other place when you die. If they’ll have you. Not so bad a deal, is it?”
Adam let him go, looked away, found himself a corner to curl up in, and wept as the sound of Rex’s brass-shod cane tapped away into the distance.
Adam took four calls as he was driven to the TV studio. Three were business. One was a reminder that his position as a Baron came with a seat in the House of Lords and this came with an obligation to vote on matters important to the nation. Adam shrugged. He attended and voted when it suited him and about topics that interested him. The business calls irked him slightly. A lifetime of making money had left him alternately bored and frustrated with the whole process. Time was marching on and leaving him, if not yesterday’s man, then behind the curve. He was no longer on the cutting edge. He looked out at the gradual sweep of London as it waltzed past the windows of his Rolls Royce and didn’t recognize most of it.
Childhood landmarks had gone, traders familiar as family had fallen by the wayside to be replaced by chicken franchises, bookmakers grown respectable or laddish, coffee shops selling anything but coffee. He was, he supposed, getting old. The thought didn’t worry him much. He had the damn silly television show to get through, a cousin to the American version with some property tycoon more famous for his bad hair than his business acumen, and the prospect of a retirement (maybe, possibly) and much more time with Joan. He settled back. That would do.
Adam normally met with the producer. Any time he was supposed to fire someone, he would consult with the producer, watch some of the playback, meet with his assistants Jack and Tessa. They’d discuss who the show could afford to lose, see who still had entertainment value. Today Angela, the producer, was late. Adam was about to express his unhappiness at this turn of events when she stepped into the floral and pastel “green room.”
“Sorry, Adam, I’m just showing a guest around and he says he knows you?” Angela, young, blond, brilliant judge of character, seemed a little flustered. Which in three seasons of decent ratings and occasional contestant temper tantrums, she never had been.
“Really?” said Adam. “I find that a bit unlikely.”
“Not a bit of it,” boomed Rex, stepping through the door and hugging Adam like a lost sibling. “Adam Sweet, you surely can’t have forgotten me?”
It was forty years ago, in a railway arch lockup, wrapped in darkness and clammy from his own sweat trying and failing to unsee what he had seen. It was now. Forty years ago, the man would have lost control of his bladder. Now, Lord Sir Adam Sweet, Baron of Hammersmith, paled a little and covered the sudden pounding of his heart with his trademark bluntness.
“Do we have time for a reunion, Angela, or have we got a show to do?”
“Showbiz,” said Rex with an indulgent smile, “you’ve really conquered everything. And just in time. We’ll catch up later, old friend. You have some replacements to interview.”
“Aha, no, they’re more apprentices really,” said Angela as she steered Rex out of the room.
“Oh? But of course! I called them replacements. Silly me. I mean, I watch every week…” said Rex as he left. He looked back at Adam. “I wouldn’t miss my old friend’s weekly selections,” he added as his voice faded away. “It’s compelling viewing!”
Adam looked around for a bottle of water. His mouth was suddenly very dry. And with a dull, aching certainty he knew what Rex wanted from this little TV Show. He wondered if that had been part of the plan all along, whether he’d had this plan bubbling away in the back of his head, or whether Rex had arranged it.
He took his seat in the Boardroom to the familiar pressure of a dozen pairs of expectant eyes. Young faces, closer to the schoolyard than they wanted to admit, with their little successes and big ambitions, all of them looking for nothing more than approval. They wanted Dad to tell them they’d done well. Adam wasn’t a Dad. There wasn’t money at first, then no time, and always something at the back of his head telling him to avoid having kids.
Joan had never said she wanted kids. Maybe she’d not dared approach him, maybe she’d been trying and it just hadn’t worked. Maybe. After all these years, who knew? So here they were. Kids playing dress up in their parents clothes so he could sit in judgment over them. This season, Angela wanted him to pick the people he fired on the day. More tension, she said.
Adam had a better idea. Rex couldn’t have it all his own way.
One by one he dismissed them, sent them away temporarily victorious or with a hard word to spur them to greater success next time. He kept back the ones he liked best. The ones who might have the same spark that drove a young man to spend his savings on car aerials. The ones with Joan’s eyes. The ones he’d have taken to the park to play on the swings. And one by one, he destroyed their dreams.
It was all he had left, the only way he could save the ones he liked. Sooner or later, he had to welcome one into the business and every year the BBC wanted the reward for selection to be greater. Some time soon, he’d be picking someone to take his place. He’d have to condemn a successor. In the meantime, he could save a few with the two words that were the real expression of the only real power he had left.
Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.”
He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who.
He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it in public.