“I am here to reassure myself about your moral welfare,” said Uncle Mostyn, “It is a source of constant concern to me.”
“But I live a very moral life,” I said gloomily.
“That is what concerns me.”
Uncle Mostyn smirked with satisfaction at a bon mot well placed, and turned his attention to a cream meringue, which lay in shards on his plate.
1963 was a good year to be eighteen. The Beatles had brought out their second LP and God had proved his existence to young men everywhere by creating the miniskirt. London was full of ridiculously beautiful girls that summer, with long legs and wild hair and white plastic Courreges boots. I spent so much time craning my neck to look at them,I frequently bumped into lamp posts, almost knocking myself unconscious. A girl swung past the cafe at that moment- long dark hair and a crisp white blouse.
“She is so beautiful,” I said aloud.
Uncle Mostyn did not look up from his meringue.
“Just as I feared,” he said, “Incorrigibly heterosexual, like the rest of your wretched family.”
I should explain at this point that my uncle Mostyn was gay- in fact he had been gay when the rest of the world was still working out how to be mildly happy. At this time he was about sixty years old, a plump, handsome man with wings of silver hair and a tanned complexion. He owned a coffee plantation in Cuba, with his friend Colour Sergeant McFadden, a deserter from the Royal Scots Greys.
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing in London,” I said, “I can’t believe you’ve come all this way just for my benefit..”
Uncle Mostyn licked a dab of icing sugar from his forefinger with a pink tongue.
“ It’s largely shopping,” he said, “ Believe it or not, there are still some luxuries that the Workers’ Republic of Cuba cannot provide- like baked beans…and Marmite. And Mac wants some haggis. I shall also be visiting friends and acquaintances…” he glanced at his watch, “In fact I‘m already late for an appointment…an old friend of mine…long before the war…you can come along if you like…”
“Is he interesting ?” I asked.
Uncle Mostyn thought for a moment.
“Well, he arrested me once.”
“It’s wonderful to see you again, Mostyn,” said Derek Knapper, fixing my uncle with his wet blue eyes.
“ A delight, Derek – a positive delight”
Uncle Mostyn raised his port and lemon in salute. The tiny sitting room was hot as a furnace and filled with overstuffed furniture. The walls were covered in framed photographs and on the mantelpiece, resting on a wooden cradle, lay a police truncheon, polished and gleaming, like some obscene tribal totem.
Derek Knapper was a man under constant attack from superfluous hair. It curled in long tusks from his nostrils; dense groves of it peered coyly from the depths of his elephantine ears . He took a hefty swig of his gin.
“Only…I ‘ve got a little request to make..” he said, “A favour…”
“Proceed” said my uncle graciously.
Derek Knapper turned his oyster gaze accusingly on me.
“ I’ve told you already, Derek, “ said my uncle “He is family and as completely trustworthy as I am myself.”
I gulped a bit at this – young as I was then,I was aware that my uncle’s life contained wardrobes full of skeletons.
Derek Knapper took a rumpled handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his bald head, which was mottled and discoloured like the egg of some ancient dinosaur.
“Only things haven’t been too good recently.” he said, “ I never really took to retirement…couldn’t settle down after I left the force. But Maggie kept me on the straight and narrow ,and after she died…well…debts..you know…had to move out of the old house and into this hovel…”
“I can’t lend you money, Derek,” said my uncle gently.” I simply haven’t got enough.”
“I’m not asking for money !” said Derek Knapper, “It’s just I had a letter from this publisher…they do true crime and stuff like that. They want me to do a book about my career – ‘Knapper’s Tale’ – that’s just the working title…”
“It sounds quite…fascinating.”
Derek Knapper looked pleadingly at my uncle.
“Only I need to put in the story of St Wildred’s Jewel….you were my first collar after all… the first person I ever arrested…only I’d need it…from your point of view”
Uncle Mostyn put down his glass.
“I can scarcely remember it, Derek…it was all so long ago…”
Derek Knapper reached behind his chair and put a cassette recorder on the table.
“I’d be so grateful…”
My uncle Mostyn threw up his hands in delicate surrender.
“If you insist. It was the summer of 1927 as I recall and ….” he leaned forward…”is that thing on ?”
“Yes,” said Derek Knapper, “Go on.”
“It was the bishop’s fault,” said my uncle Mostyn, “If he had not decided to come on a visitation, I would never have succumbed. It was the summer of 1927..”
“Spring,” said Derek Knapper, “I have it in my notes.”
My uncle Mostyn treated him to three seconds of his gorgon stare.
“As you wish. It was the spring of 1927 and I was leading a double life- not for the first time, I might add, or the last . By day I was verger of St Wildred’s church in Hackney , keeping a careful tally of the hassocks, tidying the hymn books and leading the vicar into Sung Eucharist…”
He took another sip of port and lemon.
“ In the evening I indulged the …louche..side of my nature. It was the Roaring Twenties after all, and I was young, good looking and widely available.”
Derek Knapper harrumphed into his handkerchief like an asthmatic walrus.
“ I was a dance teacher,” said Uncle Mostyn primly, “Or rather, a Charleston teacher. I had a free pass to the best night clubs in London- you could hear Django Reinhardt at the Savoy and Whispering Jack Smith at the Troc.Everyone was doing it, or wanted to do it. It was a wonderful way of making a lot of money and meeting an awful lot of amusing people….but every pleasure has its price and I tried..every pleasure. ”
A look of sadness and loss passed like a cloud over my uncle’s complacent features.
“He was called Diego,” he said, “And I met him at the Black Cat.” I was listening to Jack Barujah’s Jazzmen after a particularly distressing Charleston lesson with a lady whose age and bust size both hovered around fifty. He simply sat down next to me and said ‘Let us talk.’ “
“All that business was still illegal in those days,” Derek Knapper muttered.
My uncle glared at him.
“Wouldn’t it be terrible, Derek, if I were to collapse and die of boredom while you were interrupting me t? If you would allow me to continue…..Diego was nineteen. He had dark eyes and his hair gleamed like patent leather. He told me that he came from Madrid and was the youngest son of a duke. He had come to London to polish up his English…as well as other skills…we started….seeing each other and for three …four weeks I was deliriously happy. And then we broke up…I slowly realised that there was less to him than met the eye ..it was a great sadness, nevertheless. I started gambling…something I have no aptitude for…. my landlady began to be impatient for her rent…”
Uncle Mostyn’s thin lips turned down in a moue of displeasure.
“ Life at St Wildred’s was good for my soul, but did nothing for my bank account. Sometimes I was compelled to take a small…commission…from the collection to see me through to the end of he week. I was therefore rather apprehensive when Gerald Porteous asked me to stay behind after matins for ‘ a quiet word’.”
“Gerald Porteous ?” I asked.
“The Vicar of St Wildred’s. A man so old I was convinced he had been an eyewitness at the Reformation. However, my fears were groundless.’ We are to have a visitation !’ he cooed,’The Bishop is coming for our patronal feast – and he is bringing the Jewel of St Wildred to place on the altar during the service ! Isn’t it exciting !’
I could barely restrain my indifference. A visiting bishop meant nothing more to me than a long list of extra tasks- church cleaning, organising the flowers and ensuring that the church silver was gleaming and the organist sober.
‘What is the jewel of St Jewel of St Wildred ?’ I asked, trying to muster up a scintilla of interest.
‘Aha !” said the old man,’ It is a reliquary- a small box – made to contain the bones of our patron saint-. It was made around 1183 by Meister Jorgblatt, a Swedish goldsmith. I have only seen it once, many years ago. It is made from solid gold and encrusted with seventeen huge rubies. Quite priceless, of course. I believe they keep it in a bank. The bishop will collect it on the way to the service.’
‘ What about security ?’
The Reverend Porteus waved airily at the parish safe, squatting on a heavy oak table in the alcove.
‘The bishop will put it in there as soon as he arrives. During the service it will, of course, rest on the altar.Then back to the safe afterwards while we retire to the vicarage for some light refreshments. I am having a small drinks party afterwards..’
I knew what that meant- selected members of the congregation quaffing small glasses of warm sherry.
‘ I am sorry that you will be unable to attend,” said the Reverend Porteus, ‘ But there will be all sorts of tasks requiring your attention…I”m sure you understand..’
‘ Of course,’ I said sourly.
“ The bishop will be coming to tea on Thursday- to make the arrangements”
Two days later the episcopal Lanchester drew up outside the vicarage and the bishop, a thin man with a simian forehead, alighted.
‘This way, Your grace’, said Gerald Porteous, his ancient knees audibly creaking with piety, “Mostyn !” he said, turning to me, ‘Instruct the driver where to park. Round the back .’
“ I should be most grateful for that information,” said a voice I knew only too well. It was Diego.
Uncle Mostyn took a delicate sip of his port and lemon.
“Meeting old lovers is always an embarrassment,’”he said thoughtfully, “ So many shared secrets…such much harboured resentment. However, I got into the car beside my erstwhile lover and guided him to a patch of gravel, hidden by two tall elm trees from the vicarage windows.
Diego switched off the engine and removed his black leather gloves carefully, one finger at a time.
‘ I did not know you led another life,’ he said, staring straight ahead through the windscreen.
‘ I thought you were the scion of a Spanish noble house,’ I retorted, ‘I see you now for what you are.A Bilbao alley rat’
‘ We both have secrets. It is necessary for the moment that I drive the stupid priest around. For the moment. And you must count your hymn books.’
Diego turned and looked at me. He was in truth the most beautiful man I have ever seen. -an El Greco figure come to life.
‘It need not be so,’ he said, placing his hand on my knee.
Theft must be simple if it is to succeed and Diego’s plan was the very essence of simplicity. We were to steal the Jewel of St Wildred- or rather I was.
‘It will be so easy,’ said Diego in a voice of silk.’ All you have to do is get the key of the safe..does he keep it on his person ?’
I almost laughed aloud.
‘He is a very unworldly old man,’ I said, ‘He always leaves the key on top of¶ the safe under a folded altar cloth.’
‘Then all you have to do is come back to the church while they are all in the vicarage, making stupid conversation with each other. Once you have got the Jewel, go straight back to your lodgings and I will meet you there. I will bring with me a man who knows about such things. He will break the Jewel up for us and sell it a small piece at a time. He says that the largest ruby is worth over two hundred thousand pounds .Then you and I….’
He brushed my face with the tips of his fingers.
You may wonder if I had any scruple of conscience about stealing. Morality is a pleasant pastime if you are well fed and watered. I was not. We agreed the plan then and there. I waited for the following Friday in an ecstasy of excitement.
There is nothing the Church of England enjoys more than a chance to dress up. The amount of lace on a chasuble, or the weight of embroidery on a cope causes more argument than Martin Luther ever did. The bishop brought his own robes, but his chaplain had to borrow the ones I usually wore. I was left with a dusty cassock. I felt peeved. I had a cold, too, which did not help matters. But it all went off satisfactorily. Saint Wildred was praised, and the complacency of half a hundred middle class English bores was resoundingly confirmed. I was strangely disappointed by the Jewel though. It was smaller than I had imagined and looked like a brass box encrusted with cough sweets.
‘I thought it all went very well,’ said the bishop, as he placed it in the safe and locked the door.
‘What shall I do with the key ?’
Gerald Porteous casually held out his hand.‘
Give it to me, your grace,’ he said, ‘You can never be too careful, eh ?”
I was thunderstruck. He had never done that before. Our whole plan was predicated on the assumption that the key would be there, in plain view‘
Is anything the matter, Mostyn ?’ asked the old man, somewhat tartly.
I recovered my composure as best I could.
‘Nothing at all, vicar. I was just considering the beauty of the service.’
“Then we will leave you to tidy up,” he said, ‘ There is sherry at the vicarage,’ he said to the bishop, ‘And my wife has prepared some egg and cress sandwiches.’
‘How considerate,’ said the simian bishop.
And they were gone- just like that- leaving me staring at the door of the safe.
“What did you do ?” I asked.
“I tried to open it, of course.I poked a bent coat hanger into the lock and tried to trip the tumblers. Quite useless, of course, I see that now. It was a Totteridge Centurion with a deep drawn lock plate. It was a tragedy. I had a fortune within my grasp, but it was locked behind two and a half inches of Sheffield steel…it touches me to the soul to remember it…even now…’
My uncle Mostyn took a large red and white spotted handkerchief from his top pocket and blew into it noisily.
“But you still haven’t answered the question I asked you nearly forty years ago !” ¡said Derek Knapper, “ We were standing in the kitchen of your lodgings at 33, Alfred Douglas Gardens and I asked you how the Jewel of St Wildred got onto your draining board. You dodged it then and you’re dodging it now.”
“ I’ll tell you,” said uncle Mostyn, “If you answer a question of mine first….is that fair ?”
“ All right then.”
“ Who squealed ? It was Diego, wasn’t it ?”
“ Yes,” said Derek Knapper, “I’m sorry. There was never any fence waiting to break the Jewel up. No happy ending. Hell hath no fury like a Spaniard scorned, eh ?”
Uncle Mostyn had a misty look about the eyes, which I put down to the heat of the room.
“ I thought so. Not that it matters.It was so long ago.”
“What about my question ?” said Derek Knapper, “ If you didn’t have the key, how the hell did you get into the safe. ?”
“The Totteridge Centurion was a fine safe,” said uncle Mostyn, with the air of a connoisseur remembering a fine wine, “ Deep drawn lock plate, superfine welding, covered hinges- but it had one small defect…”
“Which was ?”
“The back was held on by eight Whitworth brass screws. It took me no time at all to pull the table out of the alcove and whip the back off the safe with a screwdriver. It is so easy to overlook the obvious…”
We were travelling back into central London on the top deck of a red No 14a bus. Suddenly I felt his plump frame shake with suppressed laughter.
“You’re holding back on me, aren’t you ? ” I said.
Uncle Mostyn nodded.
“ The Jewel of St Wildred..”
“ What about it ?”
“ I stole two of the rubies- prised them out of their sockets ten minutes before Derek came hammering on the door. I stuck them in a box of trinkets and gave them to Mrs Sewell, my landlady, for safe keeping. A nice little nest egg when I came out of the Scrubs.”
You’re lying,” I said, “Someone would have noticed.”
Uncle Mostyn smiled at me with the innocence of a plump choirboy.
“Not if I replaced them with two partly sucked Cherry Menthol Throat Lozenges.”