A Life of Crime

Penny and I were in the living room when we saw a man in waders walking down the river carrying a long pole. He didn’t look like a burglar but having lived much of my life in London I don’t take any chances. We went out to investigate. It turned out he was from the Bucks, Berks & Oxon Wildlife Trust and was looking for evidence of the fast-disappearing water voles and their sworn enemies, the American mink. We chatted about this for a bit: the results of the conversation can be read elsewhere. I went back inside, thinking about mink.

The association of mink and burglars in my mind is strong. Just after leaving school I got a job in Harrods, selling suits. On my first day I was told of a beautifully simple crime. Some months before, three men wearing what looked like brown porters’ overalls and pushing a large wheeled basket, turned up in Ladies’ Fashion. “We’re from Display,” they explained, “come to change the coats.” They took every one of the mink coats off the wafer-thin mannequins, probably about thirty in all, loaded them into the basket and vanished.

Life in the Men’s Suits department was a slightly more extreme version of Are You Being Served? but with a lot more John Inmans. Everyone minced around, waspishly addressing each other by their surnames: I remember a Mr Chance, Mr Poynter and Mr Lewis: there was even a Mr Humphreys. The male customers were treated, to their faces, with feudal servility and, behind their backs, with playground scorn – ‘old fish-face’, ‘that fat old thing with the red nose’. The wives, who often accompanied their husbands in these shopping trips, were shown nothing but frigid hostility. The suits were in four sizes: S, M, L and P, P being ‘portly’. The salesmen, who were all whiplash-thin, delighted in convincing the customers they were even fatter than they really were. We sold quite a lot of Ps as a result.

There were two buyers, sharply dressed men with fierce expressions. Whenever they appeared the salesmen would cluck and fidget like a bunch of startled chickens. I once described the senior buyer to Mr Chance as ‘your boss.’ “Ooooh, no,” he hissed, “Mr Dolman’s not my boss. No no.” It was like listening to Kenneth Williams. “He’s the buyer.” He rolled his eyes. “That Mr Dolman, he’s so silly he thinks he’s only got it to stir his tea with,” he told me out of the corner of his mouth, holding his hand at waist level and waggling his index finger.

The next day the January Sale started. This event was a major event on the London social calendar with people either rushing to buy things they could ill afford which could later be proudly be displayed as being from Harrods or ostentatiously not attending the sale at all to show how rich they were. Many people were assigned to jobs they had no knowledge of. I, aged 18, was given the job of processing the AmEx card payments. These were quite a new thing in those days – I’d certainly never seen one before – and involved running the card and a three-part voucher through a roller. Nine o’clock arrived, the doors were opened and the hall became filled with people. Then more people arrived. Then still more. It became almost impossible to think. I saw two prosperous-looking men fighting over a suit, holding a trouser leg each like a modern version of The Judgment of Solomon. I sat at my little table running the vouchers through the machine, filling in the values, giving the customer their copy. The air was filled with the roar and babble of Kensington voices and, more faintly, the chirruping sounds of Mr Chance, Mr Poynter and the rest of them calling to each other across the mayhem.

At about noon, Mr Dolman appeared clutching a thick bunch of credit card vouchers. “Who’s been doing these?” he roared. I told him I had. I’d heard about people being purple with rage but until then had thought it was just a phrase. He spluttered once or twice. “You idiot,” he finally said, “none of these have been signed!” No one had told me to sign them. I suppose there must have been £10,000-worth in his hand. For a wonderful moment I thought he was going to tear them up. He shouted at me for a bit. Those within earshot of Mr Dolman’s voice, which included most of the people in the Men’s Suit Department, sniggered.

“You didn’t know any of these men, did you?” Mr Chance asked when Mr Dolman had stalked away. I suddenly saw what he, and probably Mr Dolman, suspected: that I’d done some wholesale deal in the pub the night before to arrange for everyone with an AmEx card to get a free suit. No, I told him, it was just all-round incompetence. He flounced off.

“Last year,” Mr Poynter told me soon afterwards, “someone brought his own till in. Set it up with the others, no one thought anything odd. End of the day, he took the money and walked out.” He smirked. “Clever little boy.”

My tasks at the end of the day included picking up numerous old clothes in the fitting room. I asked Mr Chance what this was all about. “Ooh, they’re so crafty,” he told me. “They come in with old clothes and a big coat, take a suit off the rack, nip into the changing rooms, put on the suit and the coat, leave the old clothes, walk out all la-di-da.”

If I’d wanted to set myself up for a life of crime I could have done worse than stay on there: brilliant scams were falling into my lap every day. The atmosphere was, however, far too cloying and stuffy for my tastes. After a month or so I noticed I was starting to walk in a slightly different way and found myself adopting a fawning manner and an arch expression. This wouldn’t do at all. I left and managed to get a job at the Passport Office, an equally disorganised place where the possibilities for crime were even greater. These I also managed to resist.

What I did not, however, manage to resist was sabotaging the photos of every member of the Bay City Rollers when their renewed passports came my way. It seemed like an awful thing to do and I suppose it was but I blacked all their eyes out with a biro. The commentator Brian Moore was luckier: his photo I only stuck in upside-down. Sorry guys. It all seemed like fun at the time. I also had a competition with two other employees to see how many pages we could fit through the laminator at one time. Only one page, with the photo, was meant to pass through it: my record was 12, which broke the machine. I was caught red-handed so that was the end of that job.

Now, the main malefactors in my life seem to be these elusive mink, wrecking their havoc up and down the riverbank. You hardly ever see them, though. You might catch a glimpse here, a beady eye there: and then, like Keyser Soze – or the men with the trolley full of mink coats all those years ago – they’re gone.

Brian Quinn
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