Find The Lady

Find The Lady

The grocer’s shop where my grandfather committed most of his later crimes was pulled down shortly after he died but as shop-keeping was not his first choice of career he would not have been sorry to see the wrecking ball do its work.

His life sentence of greengrocery without parole had been foisted upon him by the Jockey Club following his warning off in the spring of 1955 and try as he might he was never truly at home in the uptight world of provincial, suburban commerce.

After what had gone before selling Bramley apples and Brussels sprouts was always going to be too tame for him. His working life begun with a bang of primitive poison gas when he left the poverty of rural Ireland to join the British Army who promptly shipped him to Iraq where he witnessed the Kurds getting their first taste of British chemical weaponry. This was quickly followed by a disagreement with his sergeant-major that lead to a lengthy spell in the glasshouse which was memorable only for the brutality, the bad food and a foul mouthed encounter with T.E. Lawrence which culminated in a one sided exchange of homophobic insults.

His inevitable dishonourable discharge saw him back in England and on the dole. With steady employment thin on

the ground he tried his luck on the racetrack as a bookmaker and he was moderately successful until restrictions on gambling imposed following the outbreak of WWII threatened to rob him of his livelihood. A lesser villain may have found DORA’s draconian measures too much, not my grandfather he simply carried on regardless.

Victory in Europe and the resumption of a full horseracing calendar saw him resume legitimate gaming operations and myriad illegitimate ones as well for a number of years until his countless violations of Tattersall’s rules compelled the Jockey Club to act.

His licence was rescinded and once again he was out of work. He possessed few qualifications beyond being quick with figures and quicker with his fists and as these were accompanied by a pathological inability to take orders he began to explore the opportunities on offer to the self-employed.

In that way he chanced upon and purchased a down at heel grocer’s store in a shabby suburb of a shabby West Midlands town known principally for its numerous saddle-making workshops. The shop stood quite prominently at the top of a respectable but quietly declining high street. It was a grubby off-white double fronted concern with small cold windows and a narrow unwelcoming front door.

Inside it was divided into two sections, to the right fruit and vegetables and to the left everything else,

which included a jumble of brightly coloured cardboard boxes containing anything from cereals to washing powders and miscellaneous tinned goods, mostly dusty and dented and all stacked busily on tall wooden shelving, the higher tiers of which were beyond the reach of grandfather or his customers. There was also a section selling cigarettes, grandfather never acquired a taste for smoking, he thought it absurd to burn your hard earned cash but nonetheless he was happy to do a lucrative trade in tobacco products. He was also happy to sell beer and spirits despite the lack of a licence. Booze was something he had a taste for and he was always happy to share a bottle of brown ale and a story with his late evening customers. Providing the customer paid for both bottles grandfather would be happy to drink with him and regale him with one or more of his many exaggerated stories about betting coups at Aintree or Pontefract, punch-ups in Ireland and exotic Middle Eastern sexual practices. In this way he collected about him a coterie of rather unpleasant men, a select sleazy junta who laughed at his stories and leered at his dirty jokes. He took their bets of course and he took any money they had left from them at the card table. He beat them hollow at poker, three card brag and find the lady but luck had nothing to do with it, he cheated.

Luck played a major part in the next chapter of his illustrious career as over night his customer base and his profits more than doubled.

Like many other scruffy manufacturing towns all over the country Walsall became home to an influx of West Indian migrant workers, quickly followed by a similar tranche from the sub-continent.

The vast majority of the street’s shopkeepers immediately placed signs in their windows saying ‘No Blacks’ but grandfather didn’t. This was partly because the previous incarnation of that evil sign, the one that said ‘NO Irish’ had been aimed at him but mainly because in his view money was money and no matter where a man was born my grandfather was ready to relieve him of it. It would be nice to say that his colour blindness was not based on sympathy for fellow immigrants but it had far more mercenary foundations and soon he was stocking mangoes, yams, sweet potatoes and plantain for his customers of Caribbean origin and okra and spices for the ever growing numbers of unlucky Asian buyers who were compelled to frequent his shaky emporium.

To accompany his new lines and to make trade progress more smoothly he developed his own peculiar patois, a unique West Midlands variety of Pidgin English that was sometimes amusing, often insensitive, always ill-informed and occasionally offensive. He even went as far as to

clumsily ape his customer’s accented English as he poured out yet another of his growing collection of nasty neologisms. The more memorable of the insulting inventions and mistranslations in his repertoire included:

‘Yes, no, sugary ha?’ Which he used as a question for all eventualities, as in: ‘Yams ok? Yes no, sugary ha?’

Then there was a series of catch all phrases suitable as a greeting, a compliment or a word of thanks as ‘Javon,’ ‘Uncas,’ ‘Ungowah,’ and ‘Mungani.’

With the growing numbers of sub-continental clients so Asian influences crept into his Pidgin. He frequently bawled: ‘Jahldi, jahldi’ to all and sundry. Then there were words like ‘Gutung,’ ‘Shanktar’ and ‘Kowolat’ which may have had their origins in the Bengali dialects spoken around Walsall at the time but a better linguist than I would be needed to definitively uncover their true lexicological roots.

Marginally less insensitive was his phrase ‘Otter Purse’ which means ‘to get a move on’ although yet again which language he bastardised when creating it is beyond me. He had his very own versions of gravely insulting phrases but they were still sufficiently understandable for any knowledgeable listener to take instant offence. He would declaim ‘my rarse clarts’ ‘cracka front’ and ‘plussnort’ loudly and without embarrassment and also without the

slightest inkling that what he was saying could lead to a blood feud.

Along with these clumsy cross cultural inventions, grandfather also introduced short changing, stolen goods, unpaid suppliers, overdue tax, ignored invoices, embryonic long firm scams and illegal betting to this previously peaceful suburban high street.

But most damaging of all he introduced sex to the asexual world of provincial domestic commerce. With the opening of that grubby little shop sexual intercourse began in Walsall in 1955, pre-empting Larkin by almost a decade.

He brought sex to the single shopper and to quite a few married ones as well. He introduced self-service but he was no Sainsbury, no innovator in shopping method. For one thing he had an aversion to getting his hands dirty whilst serving grubby spuds and grimy yams. But his main motive for inviting customers behind the counter to help themselves to spuds and carrots was to keep his hands free. His lilywhite hands were kept free to go a roving because once an unsuspecting shopper was behind the counter, he’d got her, she was in the spider’s web, trapped inside his lair. Scores of prim West Indian women in gloves and stockings even on a trip to the corner shop were surprised by his malevolent advances as they scooped root veg into brown paper bags. With hands occupied they were unable to defend themselves as he pushed past them

and pushed into them, pressing and stroking as he oh so innocently went about the business of shop-keeping.

One after another brightly dressed, immaculately be-gloved Caribbean women of the street felt the bulge beneath his dun coloured apron press against their buttocks as they rummaged through the sweet potatoes.

One by one prim saried sub-continental ladies were groped as they delved disappointedly through his greasy offerings of substandard okra and wilting coriander.

He frequently hung free beneath his dun coloured shop coat and more ominously he was often erect also behind the starched brown fabric. Over the years, sometimes willingly but mostly not, his customers were made all too aware of it.

There was a little give and take in all this and small adjustments would be made to their bills even though a discount was probably unnecessary to ensure their silence. The women’s complicity in all this was ensured by a poor command of English and the almost complete certainty of the backhander they would receive from their frustrated, steeped in nineteenth century colonial values husbands if they ever heard about the goings on at the corner shop.

Other discounts were available, super savers if you will, particularly popular at Christmas and Diwali but these required more active participation from the women. Often

their husbands would be short of work, always that work was badly paid and families were always growing. Then there was the money to send home and quite often a bad run on the horses or the greyhounds. All in all the housekeeping was forever short. Arrangements needed to be made.

The immaculate white gloves would unwillingly reach inside the dun coloured shop coat – was I alone in finding Ronnie Barker’s performance in ‘Open All Hours’ slightly sinister – and grasp grandfather’s ever ready member.

Then if grandfather just happened to be the bookmaker who held the husband’s marker, and he nearly always was, more serious arrangements would have to be made. He would place his lilywhite hand on her headscarf or deftly ease aside her pillbox hat and push inexorably downwards. Forced to her knees on the rough wooden boards, grandfather had scant regard for stockings or delicate sari fabric, the shopper was forced to work off the debt. Here his Pidgin English let him down, ‘Jahldi’ was no use and unfortunately he never learnt the Urdu or Hindi words for ‘slowly’ so his malevolent fun must have been brief because I’m sure his unfortunate victims went about their unpleasant task as quickly as they possibly could.

Not all were unwilling participants in his vice, some took an active and consensual role. One woman in

particular became Gertrude to his Claudius, a true partner in vice if ever there was one. She cavorted with him behind the counter and drank and smoked for free, helping herself to his stocks of fags and beer as reward for allowing herself to be groped. He was uncharacteristically liberal with the bottles of beer because she had a highly questionable talent involving brown ale that fascinated him and many other men in the street. She opened them completely without hands, making use instead of a far more intimate part of her anatomy. The very thought of it makes me cringe, the cold, smoky brown glass neck with its sharp frilly crown of unforgiving brass coloured metal and the frayed red label. First came the insertion and then a pause so that perhaps the Mann’s label could get a little damp, then a twist and out again.

At first these shows were just for him but soon they came to a mutual agreement and other men would be invited to watch, at a price naturally and then of course grandfather sold the unusually opened bottles at a premium.

At the end of all that I’d like to be able to say that he got his comeuppance but sadly I cannot. He didn’t, he died with his boots off, unpunished and unrepentant, his mildly medieval attitude towards the opposite sex unchecked and unchallenged right to the very end.