Uncle Mostyn and the Jewel of St Wildred

 

 

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“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’
Diego shrugged.
‘ 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.
“Well ?”
“ 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.”

Read another story here

The day a cup of coffee saved my life

The day a cup of coffee saved my life

“I am going to tell you how a cup of coffee saved my life.”
Great Uncle Mostyn extended his wrinkled hand and selected a piece of Turkish delight from the silver box on the table. He had changed in the ten years since I had last seen him.His hair was still coiffed in silver swirls which gave him the air of an elegant meringue, but no amount of rouge and powder could rejuvenate a face seamed and pouched with age.
“You’re not paying attention, dear boy”
“I am, uncle- honestly”
But in truth I wasn’t. I was looking out at the garishly wonderful South American sunset which flooded the horizon beyond his shoulder. I was listening to the rustling of palm trees and the asthmatic breathing of Uncle Mostyn’s parrot, Sewell.
Uncle Mostyn tapped the table pettishly with his fan.
“Edwyn ! I am an old man.I am ninety eight years old. It is therefore quite probable that I am dying. I wish to relate an episode in my life when I faced a man with a gun. You might do me the courtesy of at least appearing to listen !”
“I’m all ears, uncle”
“A disfigurement which could easily have been avoided if your mother had paid attention to me immediately after your birth,” snapped Uncle Mostyn. He steepled his fingers and stared moodily at Sewell, who was taken with a sudden bout of coughing, like a tubercular old tramp.
“It happened,” he said suddenly, “In 1929. I was working in the beverage department of a large store in London-a store which still has Royalty among its clientele. It was a wonderful education for a boy not quite twenty years old. During the day I learned the provenance of every tea, coffee, infusion or tisane which graced our shelves. To this day I remember the peculiar properties of a coffee bean grown only on the slopes of a volcano in Uzbekistan. At night…I learned…other things altogether.
Which was why, in the late summer of that year, I had to leave England in a hurry, following an unfortunate incident with the Bishop of Wolverhampton’s chaplain and a Sunday newspaper. I took a steerage passage to New York where I landed…almost legally…on October 23rd.”

His voice was as soft and hypnotic as the gentle susurration of the waves as they crumpled onto the beach behind him.
“I spent my first week in America at the Algonquin Hotel, drinking malt whisky and eating oysters.”
“And after that ?”
“I had no money so they threw me out on the street. Americans have no sense of style.”
Uncle Mostyn’s old, cracked face suddenly clouded with terrors more than half century old.
“It was not an agreeable time….New York winters are particularly unpleasant…it is a damp, biting cold that rolls in off the river…..for three nights I slept in an alleyway behind a bakery…it was warmer there, you see…but the smell of fresh bread was torture….I wandered from humiliation to…humiliation, getting colder and hungrier by the day. “
His eyes closed. Outside the evening was turning to blue velvet.
“What happened then ?” I whispered.
He was awake in an instant.
“I smelled coffee.”
“And that saved your life ?”
Uncle Mostyn looked at me pityingly.
“Of course ! Even the aroma of a good coffee is enough to revitalise the spirits.”
He held out a small chunk of Turkish Delight to Sewell , who took it carefully in his hooked beak and then began to suck on it noisily.
“This,however, was not a good coffee.” Uncle Mostyn continued “ It smelled like yesterday’s grounds boiled up for the third time…but I was desperate. I stumbled down some stairs. I saw a sign- “Sullivan’s Coffee Lounge” – I pushed open the door, greedy for warmth…”
“And then ?”
“I collapsed on the floor,”he said , “It was the voice of an angel who brought me back to this Vale of Tears.”
“What did the Angel say ?” I asked.
“’ Give the poor sap a cuppa cawfee’ “ said Uncle Mostyn in an execrable Irish accent. “ I had encountered the proprietor, Mrs Sullivan ”
The geography of my uncle’s face relaxed with the memory.The high places were levelled and the valleys raised. For a moment he could have been a youthful seventy five.
“ She picked me up so easily, I might have been a feather pillow- then put me into a chair and placed a steaming mug into my aching grasp.”
“It must have tasted wonderful, “ I said.
“It was appalling. Quite the worst cup of coffee I have ever tasted. I told her so, muttering through numbed and frozen lips – ‘This is not coffee. This was made from something which probably contained powdered owl droppings. It might have been shown a coffee bean once- as something to aspire to.’
“And what did she say ?”
“The poor bastard’s delirious. Stick him on the couch and throw a blanket over him. I’ll chuck him out in the morning.”
“And did she ?”
“Good gracious ! No ! When I told her that my name was Seamus O’Neill she clasped me to her ample bosom and begged me to stay on and work behind the bar.”
“But your name isn’t……”
“Of course it isn’t !” said Uncle Mostyn testily,” I played on her good nature- as she later played on mine. I started off tending bar- which meant pouring shots of diluted lighter fuel for customers crazy enough to think that it was gin. I made coffee for the ones with more intelligence- bad coffee at first- that was all I had to work with- and then- later on- good coffee – Ethiopian Chestnut and Guatemala Gran Reserva…that kind of thing. To start with our clientele consisted of bored clerks with tight celluloid collars, plumbers and janitors.. if we were fifty dollars up on Friday night it was a good week. But then word went round and we began to get bohemians…socialites who would drop in for a bath-tub gin and a decent coffee after seeing a Broadway show. Ma Sullivan left more and more of the business to me- it gave her more time to indulge her little hobbies.”
“Which were ?”
Uncle Mostyn screwed up his face into a mass of wrinkles.
“She played the horses. An Irish vice, I believe. But we had an equal division of labour, Ma Sullivan and I – I earned the money and she spent it. We were doing well- making two, sometimes three hundred dollars a week and yet…”
Uncle Mostyn stared glassily at the wall. For a long moment I thought he had died, or at least had a fit.
“And yet..” I prompted.
My uncle re-entered his ancient body with a noticeable jolt.
“And yet there was never any money to pay for the booze, or the coffee or a painter to give the walls a lick of paint…and she was always talking to Joe Lezzard.”
Uncle Mostyn leaned forward intently, his eyes the colour of lightly poached eggs
.
“ Joe Lezzard was a regular. He came in two or three times a week and Ma Sullivan had decreed he could have whatever he wanted- on the house. I liked him because he dressed well- a neat three piece suit in dark grey and a silk tie. Every Friday night he and Ma would retire to the back room; I guessed the intercourse that took place there was financial, rather than carnal as Ma Sullivan weighed three hundred pounds and had a face like a broken shovel. But Ma ‘s private life scarcely peeked over my horizon. I was young, I was good looking, and for the first time since I arrived in America…I had money in my pocket.

And then, one morning in early summer, I returned to the bar after a night of…diversion…to find the door open and unlocked. This was not just unusual- it was unheard of. Ma had three locks on the door and she and I were the only people who had keys. Cautiously, I went inside. The air smelled of sunshine and last night’s cigarettes. The place was empty.And then I heard an indistinct noise from the back room. I moved softly behind the counter and picked up the baseball bat Ma kept there for customers who were reluctant to pay. The door to the back room was ajar….

“Hi Seamus !” said Joe Lezzard , “ I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t be you.”
Joe was standing by the open safe .He held out his hand and I noticed it contained a large black revolver. The muzzle stared at me like a malevolent eye.I suddenly realised that I had lost the power of speech; my throat felt as though it was filled with sawdust.
“How about you put the bat down,” Joe suggested, “ We don’t want no accidents, do we…”
I laid the baseball bat slowly on the floor.
“Now back off,” said Joe, “Let’s you and me go sit in the front parlour- and we can have a little talk.”

Joe sat down at one of the tables. The gun gestured me to do the same.
“Now the first thing I gotta do,” said Joe, “is give you this.”
He reached into his inside pocket with one hand while the gun watched me warily. He pulled out an envelope and threw it on the table.
“Read it,” said Joe, “It’s got your name on the front.”
It was a note from Ma.
“DEAR SEAMUS ,” it said in unsteady capitals, “MY PORE FATHER IS ON HIS DEATHBED IN DONEGAL IRELAND AND I GOTTA BE WITH HIM. LOOK AFTER THE BAR TIL I GET BACK.IM SO SORRY MY DEER BOY IMELDA SULLIVAN”
“There must be some mistake, Mr Lezzard,” I gasped.
Joe shook his head.
“You’re a nice guy, Seamus,” he said, “I guess you’re a fruit but that don’t matter. You deserve to be told the truth.Truth One is this- I work for a fine gentleman called Mr Dillaglio who ensures that the business premises in this part of town remain undisturbed by fire ,theft or mayhem.That’s why I drop in from time to time- to collect a small weekly payment from Ma Sullivan to ensure same.With me so far ?”
I nodded.
“Truth Two is that Ma Sullivan owes Mr Dillaglio- owes him big – like eight weeks without so much as a dollar. Does this sound right to you `?”
I shook my head violently.
“Seamus- I gotta tell you. Ma Sullivan has been using Mr Dillaglio’s money to back the ponies. Using- and losing. Ain’t that a shameful thing ?”
“Absolutely awful,” I gabbled.
“Truth Three is that Ma Sullivan is about as Irish as you are. Her real name’s Ellie Foston- Canadian- she was seen catching a train north at two thirty seven this morning. I guess she’ll be over the border by now.”
I thought I could see the tiniest glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel.
“Excuse me…Joe…” I said, “But I wonder if Mr Dillaglio would be interested in taking over the business..?”
Joe seemed to give this idea serious consideration.
“Yeh, “ he said at last, “Mr Dillaglio would be very interested in so doing.”
I was beginning to feel a little more confident.
“Perhaps,” I ventured, “He would like to retain the current bar manager …”
Joe shook his head.
“Mr Dillaglio is a man of great patience and understanding…but he has his reputation to consider. An example has to be made…you understand..”
He reached forward and patted my hand.
“But Ma Sullivan has gone….” I protested.
“Exactly,” said Joe, “Which leaves …you…”
I knew then, with a terrible,cold certainty, that I could be dead within the next few minutes.
“But you can’t !”
I lurched to my feet and started to move towards the street door.
“Don’t move !”
Joe was on his feet. The gun was staring hungrily at my forehead.I heard the oiled click as he pulled back the hammer.
“Now sit down…I don’t want to kill you here…it’s a messy business…cleaning bills to consider.”
When you are staring into the black mouth of death, all fear leaves you. A profound calm flooded through my body. I felt clever, resourceful, intensely alive.
“Perhaps,” I said, “I could have a cup of coffee before…”
“Sure !” said Joe, “We got time. Make me one while you’re about it- but no funny business.”
I went behind the counter and switched on the coffee machine; I reached for the tin of ground coffee and then stopped….”
Uncle Mostyn paused. Outside the tropical night glittered like a cheap mirror ball.
“You recall I mentioned a certain coffee,” he said, “Grown on the slopes of a volcano in Uzbekistan.”
“Yes.”
“It is a curious bean. Used by the Uzbeki shaman to contact the spirit world, it has a double effect. First it sedates, and then…if taken in the correct strength, provokes visions.”
Uncle Mostyn leered.
“I had bought a small packet the week before- as a trial. I made two cups of Uzbeki- one heavily watered for me and one – double strength- for Joe, and took them back to the table.
Joe took a slug of coffee.
“That’s good,” he said, “You make a good cup of coffee. I’m really sorry about this.If it was up to me I’d just break your legs and take whatever’s in the till- so I can say I’ve earned my crust.But MrDillaglio needs a corpse. He’s got to have a photo in the paper – “Bar tender slain in coffee house slaughter” – it keeps the troops in line. He is a very demanding man, Mr Dillaglio .”
“Life must be very difficult for you,” I said carefully, studying his face for signs of somnolence.
“ Then there’s my wife Delia- always on at me for a new coat and when can we change the car and when am I going to get a promotion. The protection business is very precarious, you know. You got bad debtors to deal with as well as other mobs muscling in on your territory and then there’s the image – I mean you got to look smart. If you’re going to ice some guy it’s only fair to make sure that the last thing he sees is a decent suit.”
Joe’s face was misted with sweat.
“Tell me one thing-” he said ,” Have you got any brothers ?”
“No”
“Then what’s that bastard doing behind the bar ?”
He swung the revolver round and pulled the trigger. Two bottles of gin disintegrated into glittering rain.
“Jesus ! “ said Joe, “Three of them now ! Which one is you ?”
I dived under the table as he blasted the empty room. At last I could hear nothing except the click of the empty cylinder as Joe pulled the trigger over and over again. At last there was nothing but silence and the smell of cordite and gin.
I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Joe was kneeling beside me. His pupils were the size of pinheads.
“Excuse me, “ he said, “But have you got any more ammo? I seem to have run out”
Then he collapsed beside me on the floor and started to snore.

It was time to move on. I went back to my room and collected my stuff. Then I went back to the bar. Joe was still fast asleep. I thought for a moment about leaving him there. Then I found a trolley out back that we used for shifting crates of gin around. I loaded Joe aboard and dropped him off on the front doorstep of the Trappist monastery down the street. He did very well there , I believe, and became a respected theologian in later years.

By two o’clock I was on a train headed south. There was a song at that time – one line of it was going round and round my brain…..”

The tropical night was filled with tiny noises- the hush of waves on the beach, the wind rustling in the palm trees. My uncle’s face hung in the light of the hurricane lamp like a old oil painting, cracked and dusty with age.

“What was it ?” I asked.
Uncle Mostyn’s pale eyes flickered with amusement.
“ The song ? Something about there being an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”