April fish and other hoaxes

Lilian Pizzichini has worked for the Literary Review and the TLS. She is writer-in-residence at HMP Chelmsford. Her first book, Dead Men's Wages (Picador), won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. Her next book will be a biography of Jean Rhys.

What a stitch-up

Alf's day started very pleasantly. His wife, Mary, brought him a cup of tea in bed with his copy of Greyhound Express. Then she backed out again. A breeze from the open window stirred the nylon curtains. It was early spring. Way up here on the fifth floor of a block of flats you could get a sense of the weather without having to get out of bed. Alf liked an easy life. He liked the latest trends and all the mod cons, especially if he could get them for nothing. He sat up in bed and studied the form in his paper. Joe, his erstwhile Corporal from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshires, was waiting for him in the kitchen, eating breakfast cooked by Mary. Unlike Alf, who'd been a private but had deserted from the ranks, Joe hadn't had such a good war. He would place Alf's bets for him at the stadium that evening.

It didn't take Alf long to instruct Joe and Mary on the day's requirements. He was brusque when dealing with inferiors. Mary laid out his suit for him. Joe pocketed his copy of the Express. Once he was suitably attired, Alf hit Queensway. The first thing he saw was his brother Tots. Larger than Alf, and several years older, Tots was a stooping figure in a dusty overcoat, not like the King of the Gas Meters he'd been back in the Twenties. Alf had been frightened of him then, especially when he'd been drinking. But these days Tots waited every morning outside the clean-cut lines of Hallfield Estate. For old times' sake, but primarily because it made him feel good, Alf would give him a few bob.

Tots was on his own since his wife had left him. In 1945 his daughter had married a GI who took her to start a new life in Canada. An opportunity: something Alf knew a lot about, but Tots continually failed to exploit. "It's the drink," Alf reckoned. "It's made him slow." When Tots's wife received a plane ticket from their daughter she didn't tell Tots it was one way. "That's nice, dear," he said, when she told him she was going to Toronto.

Alf handed some crumpled notes to his brother. He didn't reply to Tots's "Morning, Alf." He left him standing on the corner, smoothing the notes in his hand, counting his day's subsistence.

The broad expanse of Queensway made Alf swagger. Victorian mansion blocks leading to the park mingled with a tantalizing exoticism. This was where deals were done. Greeks and Russians, merchants and traders, had been gathering in the caf├ęs here for centuries, it seemed, talking shop. It was as though the idea of abroad was not far away, but here, on this street, a distinct possibility. It had shape. The onion dome on Moscow Road, with its curved ogee, curly and graceful, spoke of fabulous dreams and future promise.

Alf was caught musing his prospects by a man walking towards him. He was tall and wrapped like a parcel in a crisp, beige trench coat and brown fedora. He strode past Alf, unconcerned, as Alf fingered the charcoal-grey flannel of his suit. He felt for a moment disconsolate, as though something had blocked his way. The street was getting busy. He'd lost his momentum.

Another figure loomed on Alf's horizon, sleek and lithe, coming out of a glass-fronted shop doorway onto the street. Alf noticed the clothes first: a short blue jacket, with side vents and a wide collar, matching slacks with no cuffs. Black Fred was coming out of Whiteley's. He sold cannabis there, to the boys in the men's department.

"You look like a black wop, Fred," Alf said.

"If a customer can't pay me in cash, I'll take his clothes, Alf. You know me, I prefer the old school. I'll take these down to Soho later and sell them. They can't get enough of this stuff."

Alf considered Black Fred's modish outfit and decided he'd do. He was young enough to get away with it.

It had been love at first sight when Alf had met Fred on a train coming in to Paddington Station. Alf stared at the black man who was ignoring the ticket-collector's repeated requests for his ticket. Fred answered the growing belligerence by grinning.

"Me no ticket."

When the official asked him, "Where have you come from?" he replied, "Me come from Africa."

The man gave up; "Bloody wogs". Fred offered Alf a Lucky Strike, and introduced himself in immaculate English as the newly arrived son of a Ghanaian chief. Black Fred, as Alf christened him, recognized the spark in Alf. He saw it in his eyes.

H. Huntsman & Sons at 11 Savile Row was their target. Alf and Fred loved good clothes. Since this was the time of the Kenyan uprising, Black Fred decided to try something. As the two men walked across Hyde Park into Mayfair they fine-tuned their way into character. It was a giggle, really.

Black Fred and Alf entered the premises separately. It was stuffy and dark inside, august and reverent. The Duke of Edinburgh had his suits made here. In the presence of a junior assistant and an elderly, befuddled gentleman, Alf muttered, "Mau Mau bastard." He threw his voice so as to cast suspicion on the salesman.

"Did you call me a Mau Mau bastard?" asked a haughty, upper-class Fred. "I'll have you know, my father, Prince Nikizolo, has asked me to open an account here."

"Outrageous," said a cashmere-clad customer with the shadow on him of a military bearing. "This chap is clearly not Bantu. I'd recognize one a mile off."

"Thank you, sir," said a ruffled Fred. "You're quite right..."

"No, let me guess," the old man interrupted. He hadn't had this much fun for years. "Ashanti!"

"Why, gentlemen," said the master tailor coming into the showroom. "I assure you there has been a terrible misunderstanding."

"A disgrace!" The old man was delighted to be making himself useful. It had been such a long time.

Black Fred walked out with arms full of his and Alf's favourite pin-stripe suits. That evening, while Alf prowled the basement dives of Bayswater, Mary would be making herself useful. Alf was shorter than Fred and powerfully built. As a girl, Mary had trained as a seamstress. Sometimes she wondered if that was why Alf had married her.

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