A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.
– Henry Ford
Arriving at Charlie’s office in Mile End, Jack followed the usual regime: doubling back, and back again, all around the side streets, to make sure there was no-one following. “Chequebook” Charlie was the most important link in a chain of cut-outs that linked the team to Bravo Section, financially, at least. He was streetwise, a spiv if truth be told: a procurer of rationed goods, and other difficult to come by items, and a dealer in information. Charlie had no tradecraft that a spook would deign to notice, but then he didn’t need to, he was the money man after all. Billy’d brought him in, and the team has sworn to protect him and his anonymity when he’d agreed to support the team.
Jack came up the backstairs, two-by-two, but carefully; he caught the tail end of a something Charlie was saying:
“… and that’s the problem with rich folks Uncle Billy, they’ve got bleedin’ no idea about making money stretch. They’ve got no idea about money, full stop. I got fed up of being expected to find funds when every single bleedin’ thing was “really important Charlie”. You know how he says it in that earnest voice of his. And ‘ere we go again, with not a bleedin’ penny in the coffers.”
“Aw c’mon Charlie, tha’s not fair on Jack. Sure ‘e’s got family money, but ‘e’s not spoiled nor nothin’. Nothin’ like that at all. Jus’ sit ‘im dahn and spill the beans, tell ‘im whut’s up and ‘e’ll get it sorted.”
“Yeah well, I guess he’s always been as good as his word, it’s just …”
“Look Charlie me lad, Jack’s not jus’ a good ‘un, e’s good as gold. Give you the shirt off of ‘is back if you needed it more ‘n ‘e did ‘e wud, and you knows it too. Seems to me, whut you bin sayin’ is we’ve not bin gettin’ our gov’ment money like we used tuh. Now tha’s sumat Jack needs to know. So tell ‘im!”
Jack stopped for a moment, smiling at the thought of Billy in the role of wise old patriarch, being the voice of reason, and allowed the conversation to change to more mundane matters before resuming his climb: he allowed himself to make a bit more noise to herald his arrival. He opened the door with a cheery greeting:
“Morning gents!” and bustled over to the kettle whilst offering “tea chaps?”
Both accepted, and he filled up the trusty old kettle and lit the gas ring, cautiously, with a match, before turning to survey the room. It was more than a bit shabby, he realised with a start. It was grim and grubby and chilly, and what with rationing and all the other privations on top, it must be a pretty draining existence for poor Charlie. Jack had no doubt that he was getting by – he still had a flash suit – but the end of the war meant a change in circumstances, and Charlie hadn’t caught up yet.
Tea delivered, Jack sat down and waited for an opportunity to talk money matters with Charlie. He’d been a tad hurt when he heard Charlie describe his voice as earnest, but he bounced back quickly enough, realising it probably was. He was totally committed to the work they did, and it was a timely reminder that not everyone was as much invested in it as he.
When Jack and Charlie started poring over the books, Billy made himself scarce with the excuse of some errand or other. You never knew with Billy, it might have been his way of allowing them some privacy, but he also had his fingers in so many pies. Blind Billy might be his moniker, but nothing happened in the East End that he didn’t get to know about; Jack would be totally lost without him.
Jack quickly saw that the figures supported what he’d overheard Charlie saying. Still, Charlie said nothing directly, avoided Jack’s eye and just stabbed his fingers at the numbers, more red than black, in the ledger. Jack realised he’d have to bring it up himself.
“I see the Department cut us off pretty promptly after the war, Charlie. I’m sorry I hadn’t realised how empty the coffers were”
“Empty don’t really seem to cut it, Jack. ”
“I know. The whole community’s in a bit of tiz at the moment, no one really knows what’s going to happen next. It’s like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“I don’t know pol’tics, and I fink it’s a shame they booted old Winston aht after all ‘e done, but Attlee’s a good bloke and he’s tryin’ ta sort stuff aht. Maybe we don’t need you spooks anymore.”
“If that’s what you really think then we’ll leave you alone to get on with your life, but I think you’re dead wrong Charlie: The Yanks are supposed to be our friends, but I’m pretty sure they’ve got chaps here picking up tidbits, and I think that some of them want to go home and pull up the drawbridge, and some of ’em want Blighty to be another star on their flag. Old Joe would quite like to carry on where the Nazis left off, too…”
“So, what you’re saying is, we’re still fighting a war, but nah we dunno whut side we’re on!”
“Oh no: it’s a war alright, but we’re still on our side. Look, are you in?”
“I’m in, but I cahn’t work bleedin’ magic! Whut we gonna do for readies?”
“What we always do…I’ll get her ladyship on to them. Whatever they think, we are still working for them. But, while we’re waiting for Lady Michaela to get it sorted, I’ll have my Estate Manager move some money. Let him know how much we’re short and how much you think we’ll need for the next couple of months. I’ll warn him to expect your call. Here’s a list of everything I think we’ll need sharpish, and some bits and pieces that I’d like you to keep an eye out for but that aren’t so urgent…
“Crikey Jack, ya don’t want much, do ya!”
“Not much! And Charlie, Billy told you about Frank? Be careful, but keep an ear open for anything. Don’t do anything about it, but get anything to Billy as fast as you can without leaving yourself exposed.”
“I have faith, in you Charlie, and” Jack said, guilelessly, “I know you know it’s important.” Charlie shot him a suspicious look, but Jack had a renowned poker-face, when he could be bothered to play. “And speaking of her ladyship, I’ve got to go meet up with her and give her the good news – she’ll have my guts if I keep her waiting too long.”
As Jack left, repeating his earlier security measures, he mused on how the whole area was unrecognisable from before the war. What a beating the poor old place had taken. When they talked about London’s Blitz Spirit, it was this part of London they meant. No wonder the Queen had said she could only look the East End in the eye after a bomb hit Buck House. Stepney and the Mile End was like so much of the East End with temporary housing having sprouted up all over the place. Accommodation had been urgently needed for those who’d survived the Blitz, as well as those who’d returned after evacuation. Anything more permanent would have to wait till the country had paid back its war debts.
Settling back to his figures, Charlie pondered on Jack and Michaela. He shrugged, Billy was right, they were good ‘uns, more than that in all truth. Being born into the upper crust, they could’ve just swanned around enjoying life. Instead they’d both risked life and limb in the war, and they weren’t resting on their laurels now it was over neither. He’d been more than a tad dubious when his Uncle Billy brought him in to support Jack’s team. Not that Billy was a real Uncle, more of an “old friend of the family”. He had to admit it though, that Billy was a good judge of character and he’d do anything for Jack. Not in a hero-worship way mind, he simply insisted you could put your life in Jack’s hands and he’d not let you down.
His sums done, phone calls made, Charlie shut up the office and headed downstairs for a quick pint in the boozer on his way home. As he nursed a pint, he watched his fellow East Enders. Men mostly, of course, although you got the odd lady in the Lounge. Still caused a raised eyebrow mind, East Enders being an old-fashioned lot. He spotted a couple in there he knew by sight. Some connection to Jack he thought, but you never asked. Best that way, then you couldn’t say anything you shouldn’t.
Mind you, there were a couple he’d not seen before, he might just try his luck. Passing the mirror, he straightened his tie, tipped his hat into a more rakish tilt, and checked his moustache for crumbs before strolling through into the Lounge.
“Evening ladies, what ya drinking?”
© 2018, David Jesson & Debra Carey