I caught the Central Line train at Loughton, having driven in from Abbess Roding as I did every morning. There are a number of villages in that area of north Essex with the suffix Roding. They take their name from the River Roding which rising in the East Anglian Heights flowed southward meandering through the county; changing its name along the way to Barking Creek before adding its waters to the Thames. Roding was sometimes pronounced Roothing, a name going back to Anglo-Saxon times when the river was known as Hrodinga. Those first Englishmen pronounced the letter 'D' as 'TH'. It's quite remarkable how we live everyday in this island alongside reminders of more than a thousand years of history.
It was more convenient to get the train at Loughton as the car park there had far more room than that at Ongar. The service from Ongar to Epping had in any case been suspended in nineteen ninety-four, possibly because few, like me, used the service. The train journey was simply a time to think, my sub-conscious ticking off the stations without my having to read the station signs. I had made this journey so many times that looking out of the window was no longer of interest, same old, same old. The backs of terraced housing built after the line had extended out into Essex; a ribbon of humanity following the railway towards green fields escaping from the grit and grime of London. Once busy goods yards had become crowded car parks at the stations along the line as this was now commuter land. My ears recognised the clickety- clack as other lines that fanned out into the great suburbia joined the artery that fed me and thousands of others into the maul of commerce that was the City. The whine of the electric motors as the train accelerated then a roar and pressure on the ear-drums as the tube train descended into tunnels scarcely wider than the carriage itself; would tell me we had just left Leyton. A gradient took us back into the light at Stratford followed by another descent into tunnel.
None of these distracted my attention from the morning paper yet they were filed in my sub-conscious sufficiently for me to know exactly where I was without looking out of the window. I did take notice on arrival at Mile End where hundreds left the Central train crossing the platform to the District Line and many others, crossing in the opposite direction crammed into the spaces they had left until there was standing room only. The next stop was Bethnal Green where I would leave. So tightly packed was the carriage that I would start making my way to the doors as soon as the train left Mile End. I would push past bodies that were confined by yet other bodies in the tightly packed carriage. The ensuing crush forced me to a closer intimacy with these strangers than they or I would wish. Breasts, hips and bottoms were brushed and squeezed involuntary as I struggled through the throng, my briefcase catching in skirts and between legs impeding my progress. At last I reached the doors just as the train squealed to a halt. With a hiss the leaves slid open and I would push out fighting against the surge of passengers attempting to board the train.
Walking out of the station into fresh air was a pleasure. The London Underground by virtue of being the oldest system of underground mass transit in the world suffered from problems. The most immediate was the lack of air conditioning, but then those Victorian and Edwardian adventurers who built the system couldn't anticipate the advent of that particular convenience, or that so many people would travel on the system. It wasn't far to my office which was in Old Street and I enjoyed that short but brisk walk. A door to one side of a newsagent gave access to a steep flight of stairs. The Punjabi immigrant who owned the shop waved cheerily when he saw me, making a show of examining his wrist-watch. That was his comment on my unvarying punctuality. Another door at the top of the stairs allowed entry to the lobby of my office 'suite'. Two rooms, the larger front room was the office with my desk and filing cabinets and the other smaller room had become a kitchen with a cubicle for a toilet in the corner. Not exactly a plush suite but it suited me as I had no staff. My briefcase was placed to the side of my desk, the paper went on top of the filing cabinet and I went through to the kitchen, filled the kettle and plugged it in setting it to boil. Back at my desk I checked the phone for messages making notes on my pad of those that were important. I unlocked the filing cabinet and took out the dossier that I was working on. These were the accounts of one of my clients. I was a Chartered Accountant and this was my world.
My name is Charles Martin, not that it matters as it appears that over the years I have picked a couple of pseudonyms. At school I was first called Jessie on account of my lack of height and body weight I was only five foot six and weighed about six stone. I am still five foot six but my weight has increased now. Those who called me Jessie were bigger boys, bullies all, who picked on me with impunity. I learned a valuable lesson there apart from the official lessons. I found out that the world worked on 'trade-offs'. The bullies who didn't bother too much about studying; they would slip into a life of crime anyway; still had to pass exams and it would not do for them to be seen as the dunces of the class. I did apply myself to the lessons and soon I was in a position where they needed my knowledge. So an uneasy truce was forged. I helped them, by doing their homework for them, making crib notes for the exams and they would pick on someone else at the same time protecting me from other would-be bullies. Did I feel guilty that others were then the target of their bullying? No. I grew up in the East End of London and that world had always had the strong and the meek with violence happening every day. Strength was not always muscle and men learned early to use whatever talent they had to survive. Funnily enough the guys who rose to the top of the pile were the thinkers and planners, the muscle boys remained as they had always been, just muscle boys.
People who were not Londoners would call me a Cockney but they would be wrong as I hadn't been born within the sound of 'Bow Bells'. My Dad was a Dock worker. Waiting in line every morning at the Dock gates with all the others to see if the foreman had work for him on that day. He was killed working in the hold of a ship when the net hoisting a load broke. The contents of the net, Brazil nuts, fell on him. Dock workers were always casual labour, so there was no insurance or compensation. After his death Mum would work three cleaning jobs to clothe me and make sure that when I went to school I was properly turned out. My going to grammar school was an additional burden for her as I then needed the sports kit for Cricket in the summer and Rugby in the winter. She managed, often going without so that I had what I needed. When I turned twenty three and had passed my accountancy exams, she left. I suspect that she had a man friend all those years after Dad died and decided that having done her job she could now have her own life. I could manage on my own. I never saw or heard from her again.
In later years at school the name 'Jessie' was forgotten and I became just Jes, possibly an acceptance by the bullies that I was of more use to them onside than as the target of their cruel games. Some of those bullies had indeed taken up the life of crime and still call me Jes as I now undertake to keep their accounts looking good for the Inland Revenue. They can't declare that the majority of their earnings come from the proceeds of crime. So I created businesses that could show profits for them to declare whilst leaving them with most of their income untaxed and untouchable. I do well out of the arrangement, my earnings are declared and taxed accordingly although quite a tidy sum is tucked away in foreign accounts safe from our greedy politicians. As far as the taxman is concerned I am an honest, if unadventurous, Accountant.
As a result of my accountancy, and being viewed as a non-partial or at least neutral associate I seemed to have foisted on me another obligation. I appear to have become a diplomatic go-between for the various organisations. London and all other large cities tend to be parochial. The criminal hierarchy each define an area that they call 'theirs' and sanction or deny the plans of lesser criminals within their boundaries. The criminal fraternity, usually saddled with a volatile nature are not good at talking to each other so from time to time I would get a request from Mr. Brown to discuss a problem with Mr. Green. I had been blessed with a calm and non-combative nature so I could address the problem and find a solution. Gang wars are not good; they attract too much attention in the papers and from the police. Quiet diplomacy allows crime to flourish without attracting attention. Mr. Brown and Mr. Green are of course pseudonyms as is mine of Mr. Smith when they refer to me. I, of course know their real identities, as I said I went to school with some of them. Commissions received for these services form the basis of my untaxed safety net.
Crime has changed over the last few years. Bank raids and attacks on Armoured Vans are history. Now crime thrives on internet fraud, credit and debit card theft and cloning. Most people walk around with thousands of pounds available to them in their purse or pocket in the shape of little plastic cards. My clients take advantage of that. It's almost a victimless crime, as the losers are the banks and the insurance companies. I do not kid myself. I am as much a felon as my clients simply by keeping their confidence; under U.K. law Conspiracy is just as culpable as the actual crime. Our system worked smoothly, I was beginning to doubt that I could say the same about my marriage.
I was starting to think that Lily, my wife had something to hide. I had no positive evidence for this, no detail, no photographs, no mysterious calls, no unexplained absences. It was the lack of some details that brought about my suspicions. Accountants look at the detail that others ignore. Credit Card bills come in and most people either look casually at the balance and pay, or ignore them completely allowing the direct debit they have set up deal with the account. I didn't. I examined closely every item and the interest charged. If you believe that credit card companies don't make mistakes you are living in cloud cuckoo land. Over the last few months Lily had added to her wardrobe a rather nice dress and a very elegant suit. Even I could tell they were not cheap. At first I was pleased that she wanted to look good for me and she did wear them at social events we attended together. In the main she wore them to work. They were probably better quality than I would think suitable for work. It was curiosity that led me to see how much they cost. The detail that alerted me to a problem was that no charge appeared on her credit card statement. The bank statement, it was a joint account, did not show a charge either. Nor were there withdrawals of large cash sums to cover the cost, so to all intents and purposes Lily had got these clothes free of charge.
If there was one thing I had learned in my formative years it was that you don't get anything for nothing in this world so how did she come by these items? It may be that they were provided for her work, after all receptionists needed to look good as the first impression of her employer. The other thought that bothered me was that someone, probably a man had bought them for her. Was there a trade-off somewhere along the line? If a man were to buy a pretty lady some clothes it was usually on the understanding that at some time he would be allowed to remove them and enjoy the pretty lady when she was unclothed. Was there another man in the picture? I could not say except that this needed investigating. Some I could do myself, but for most of the investigation I needed to find others who could help.
I had met Lily when I called upon a new client in Stratford. She was a newly employed Receptionist, and she was perfect for the job. Pretty, but not beautiful, she had a manner that made it a pleasure to talk to her. Her face was without guile and would reflect her mood. Smiling easily with the person she spoke to and with a talent for empathy that drew the other person to her. Lily was an Essex Girl, an appellation that has become a joke in the U.K. But she was far from typical. Yes, she did wear stiletto heels, but her shoe colour would always match the colour of her dress, and she rarely wore white. If she danced around her handbag in the middle of a club, it was only to protect it from the busy workers of someone like Frank. He mentioned once that most of the 'liberated' credit cards that came to him were 'borrowed' from people in Night Clubs.
I called upon my client frequently and got to know Lily quite well. She was not overly intelligent I gathered from talking with her and would be the first to admit it, however she would listen and question trying to fill in the gaps that existed in her education. The expression 'Heart of Gold' was coined for Lily. Anyone, human or animal in trouble then Lily was there to offer help and comfort. She was an orphan and had been brought up in a Children's Home which did explain the paucity of her schooling. She did however know how to present herself, always smartly dressed and with immaculate make-up. I was surprised when she let me know that asking her out would result in an acceptance. For our first date I took her for a meal at a good restaurant. She was quite at ease with who she was and didn't try to act. Our conversation flowed easily and we had an enjoyable evening. Other dates followed, to Concerts, the Theatre and Dancing. Lily was conscious of our relative heights; she was the same height as me and would wear flat shoes on our dates although she would wear high heels to work. I told her that it was no problem to me if she wanted to wear high heels.
"Are you sure?" She queried.
"It's not a problem." I replied. "I have been looking up at people for all my life, and looking up at you is the best yet."
From that time on Lily wore high heels and looked damn good in them. Her legs were a work of art. I asked her to marry me, and her tears trickled down her smiling face as she accepted. We honeymooned in Tenerife where Lily who despite her twenty five years was relatively innocent, became very enthusiastic about our physical relationship. I was five years her senior and I had been lucky enough to learn a few things from a couple of experienced ladies. It was particularly satisfying for me when she expressed surprise at my endowment. My height would lead many to assume that I was in proportion in every respect. In truth I was no bigger than the slightly better side of average. But on my small frame the contrast made an impression. Lily's enthusiasm continued even when we came back to the reality of the day to day grind.
Accountancy is a dull and dry business, yet pays very well. I could afford to keep both of us, but Lily liked her job and wanted to keep it. We had been married for three years when she changed jobs to work with a company in Chelmsford. She was again the receptionist, but as she explained it was easier to get to work in Chelmsford than Stratford. It was approximately a fifteen mile commute to Chelmsford from Abbess Roding which took her half an hour. The journey to Stratford would take at best an hour. All this appeared reasonable to me, and I replaced her old car with a good used Volkswagen 'Golf' so that she had a reliable car to make the journey.
Lily didn't use her car except to get to work and back, and to shop at a supermarket close to her work. We used my car apart from that, it was bigger and more comfortable and Lily preferred to be driven. The receipts for the services on her car were in my files and noted the exact mileage. I could easily work out her average weekly mileage and estimate the mileage her car should show now, so when I got the chance one weekend when Lily was in the bath, I checked the milometer. My estimate allowed for some extra journeys in the last fourteen weeks since service, but Lily had managed to clock up some four hundred miles over and above my calculation. Not many miles but when compared to the average worked out from the number of days between services she was driving an average of sixty miles extra per week now. Where was she going in those sixty miles? It was time to get help.
I knew where I could catch Frank at eleven o'clock in the morning. He would be at the 'Starlight'. It's a cliché I know that criminal bosses would own a Night Club, but there was a point to it. With so many people coming and going who actually got to speak to whom and what they discussed was very difficult to say. However at this time of day I was just an accountant coming to talk to a client. Frank had just got in and was drinking his first cup of coffee. He poured one for me as soon as I came into his office.
"Problem with the accounts, Jes?" Frank had started out as one of the bullies all those years ago.
"No Frank." I shook my head. "I have a problem. A personal problem."
"I know. But I'm not a plastic surgeon." He grinned. That was quick repartee for Frank. I smiled thinly before going on.
"I need someone who could follow my wife and tell me where she's going."
"Oh." His face became serious. "You don't think she's..." He left the sentence in mid air.
"It's a possibility." I said.
He sipped at his coffee slowly. Then nodded.
"There is someone. He owes me a favour." Everyone owes Frank a favour. They may not think that they did, but Frank had ways of getting favours out of the most unlikely characters. "I'll talk to him. Do you want to meet him here? I can get him here this afternoon." I thought about it then nodded.
"Yes Frank. That will be good. He will be discreet?"
"He will if he knows what's good for him." He poured more coffee for both of us. "Jes. If she is playing around, what will you do? Divorce her?"
I had thought about that. "No. If she fights, her solicitor would start digging into my finances to get her maintenance increased. I don't want anybody looking into my affairs. It could turn up a lot of things that we would both prefer were kept quiet."
He looked up with alarm. "No. I see where you are going with that. So what will you do?"
"I'll cut her adrift with a monthly payment to keep her quiet."
"I could arrange for a more permanent result." He offered.
"Thanks Frank. But no thanks. A body has a habit of being found. We don't want plods treading all over our doorsteps. Besides I couldn't do that to Lily."
"You love her then?"
"Yes I do. But if she's playing around she goes. I couldn't live with her. Ever!"
That afternoon I was back at the 'Starlight'. The man was waiting nervously. A summons from Frank usually had that effect. Frank introduced us. "Vincent. This is Mr. Smith. He needs someone followed and a full report of her movements and who she meets." He paused for a moment to let that sink in, and then menacingly told Vincent. "Mr. Smith is a very good colleague of mine. I would be very upset if you tried any tricks. Got it?" Vincent nodded quickly the nervous perspiration glistening on his brow.
"Yes. Mr. Weston. Who will I be following, and where?" Now that was a good question and I answered. Vin had to know who it was and that would reveal my identity.
"It's my wife. Her name is Lily Martin." I wrote down my address for him. "I want her followed for at least two weeks to her work in Chelmsford and anywhere she goes from there. I want details of who she meets outside of her work and home. If you can get photos so much the better. She usually leaves home at eight fifteen and she drives a silver VW 'Golf'" I took back the piece of paper and wrote down the registration number. He looked at the address.
"Where is this place, Abbess Roding?"
Great start I thought. "It's about six miles north of Chipping Ongar." His face cleared. He knew where Chipping Ongar was.
"Ok. Mr. Martin. I'll be there tomorrow. Oh and call me Vin. Only my mum uses the full name." Then he put me in a more assured mood. "Is this Abbess Roding a small place? If it is I shall stick out like a sore thumb." He indicated his face. That was a good point. The East End had been the receptacle for immigrants for more than five hundred years. The Huguenots, the Jews, then the Lutherans fleeing from a vengeful Catholic France; and in later years refugees from Hitler, Afro-Caribbean's and finally the Asians. Faces of various hues were common and unnoticed but a black face in Abbess Roding would be instantly noticeable and remembered.
"Yes you will." I had to agree with him. "Everyone knows everyone in Abbess and one car an hour is busy." I thought for a moment. "Tell you what, she uses country lanes at first but she turns on to the A 1060 just south of Margaret Roding. That's a busy road so if you wait there you will be able to follow her without being noticed."
"Leave it to me. Mr. Martin. Where can I contact you?."
"Phone me at my office." I gave him my card. He slipped my card into his wallet and stood.
"I'll call you in a few days just to give you a progress report."
When Frank and I were alone he ordered more coffee. "I can't understand you, Jes. You are the most sorted guy I have ever known. Even now you are calm and thinking things through. Don't you ever get angry?"
"Yes Frank I do. In fact I am bloody angry now. But anger isn't the way to handle anything. You need to think things through before doing anything that could rebound on you."
"And you are going to wait, what will it be, two weeks? Three? or more. Vin will want an earner out of this, say a monkey a week plus car expenses. What if he comes up with nothing?"
"Then I shall be relieved that she isn't playing around. But my gut instinct tells me she is."