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IT WAS NEVER ALBERT



Albert Smith is a young man who will go far. I dread to think that one day I might meet him again, his schooldays behind him, a rising young executive with the world at his feet. He'll stand there - I can see him - with that intolerable look of false modesty on his well-shaven face, his shirt and collar spotlessly clean, his neat charcoal-grey impeccably sponged and pressed, not a hair out of place.

And I shall loathe him, as I do now. But at least I'm free of him at last, and that's much to be thankful for.

It's a dreadful thing for a schoolmaster to say, but I never liked Albert. He was so good. No, 'good' is too meagre a description of Albert. He was perfect. Whenever there was a spot of bother in or about the school, and it became necessary to give the participants a little third-degree, I always prayed that Albert would not be of their number.

'Now, come along, you chaps !' I'd say. 'You were all there ! Now which of you did it ?'

Of course, they'd all say 'Not me, sir !' - Albert included. And Albert would be the only one I was sure of. It never was Albert. In other words, Albert Smith is a striking example of how a human being can at one and the same time be legally immaculate and morally delinquent. He would commit sins. Not crimes.

So, when the idea of a school trip to Holland was mooted, and Albert expressed a desire to go, it was a little difficult to think of any valid reason for not taking him. I had a horrid presentiment, amounting to a near-certainty, that with Albert along, something would go dreadfully amiss. Not involving Albert, you understand. It never was Albert.

I cast about in desperation for a single qualification which Albert might not possess. His age ? He was slap in the middle of the age-group. His health ? He was a sickeningly sturdy as a young ox. His work in school ? There were much weaker brethren who had already found acceptance. In the end, I had to content myself with a fervent prayer that, before the appointed day, he would be stricken with mumps or measles, or some other ailment which would effectively debar him.

But, when the day came, there he was, in rude health and beaming the sort of smile which obsequious head waiters affect. I returned his 'Good morning, sir !' with as much good grace as I could muster. The only course left to me was to bite on the bullet.

On the face of it, it didn't seem that there would be much opportunity for any of the young rips to go very far astray. In 1946, no one could take any large amount of currency out of the country, and school parties were limited to one pound per head. Not a lavish sum for young men of fourteen to sixteen years, and I couldn't see even my young devils painting the Netherlands very red on a quid apiece.

We were to spend the two weeks with Dutch families in Arnhem, and there are few nations in this world more hospitable than the Dutch. We were given the freedom of the town; the boys liked their hosts, and the hosts made much of their guests. Even Albert was popular - at first. He found it a new and rather heady experience to be liked, and for a few days I had a faint hopes of a conversion.

It couldn't last. Gradually the novelty of the experience wore off, and I kept coming across him looking thoughtful. I knew with a sense of appalled certainty that Albert was planning some twisted little scheme.

For a time, my fears seemed to be groundless. Then, one day, I came across a small group of the party shopping in town, perhaps for souvenirs. Such things were few enough in Holland at the time, but there was no doubt that these young men were getting rid of their money at a rate that would quickly make a hole in a pound note. One of them, I knew, had 'blued' his allowance within three days of getting off the boat. Yet here he was, spending money like water.

'Blenkinsop !' I said. 'Do you mind telling me whence this suddenly acquired wealth ?'

'Borrowed it, sir !'

'Borrowed it, Blenkinsop ? Of whom, may I ask ?'

'Smith, sir !'

I might have known it. But where had Smith got the money ? I asked myself. Along with all the others he'd been obliged to sign a declaration that he was taking no more than one pound sterling out of England - and Smith was not one to sail on the wrong side of the law. Albert must be found, and that right speedily.

'Ah, there you are, Smith ! Now then, what's all this I hear about your lending money to the other chaps ?'

'Money, sir ?'

'Money, Smith. Now don't stand there with that virginal look on your face, boy ! Money, Smith. Lucre. The stuff you'd sell your tiny soul for !'

'Oh, yes, sir. Money. Well, sir, they were a bit hard up, so I lent them a bit.'

'Oh, you loaned them a bit, did you, Smith ? From your widow's cruse, I take it ? How far did you make a pound go among twenty-four of them ?'

'It wasn't my pound, sir ! I've got that here !'

And so he had, all twenty shillings of it, after a week spent among the flesh-pots of Arnhem. Conditions were a bit grim in Holland in 1946, but they weren't that grim. I knew now for certain that there was matter here that would not bear the light. But I intended to drag it out just the same.

As I suspected, Albert had done it again. He had discovered a way to circumvent the law without actually breaking it. It would have been quite illegal for Albert to bring more than a pound with him, but there was nothing to stop him borrowing up to any amount once inside the country. And somewhere, somehow, Smith had found a source from which he could borrow.

'And how do you propose to repay the money, Smith ? You can't send it from England when you get back, you know.'

'Oh, that's all taken care of, sir ! I found a party of Dutch boys who are visiting England later this year, and they've lent me the money. I've kept a record of it, sir, and I've given them IOU's with my father's consent. I shall repay them when they land in England.'

'And you've been lending this money to the other chaps, Smith. I see. Very public-spirited of you, I must say !'

I tried half-heartedly to discover what rate of interest Albert was charging them, but my efforts proved fruitless.

And then the day came when we must part from our wonderful hosts, with many well-intentioned promises to keep in touch. Safely installed on the train, I gave the boys a short lecture on customs procedures. I insisted on each of them making a complete list of all his purchases, and told them I would show these lists to the Customs Officers and get them off as lightly as I could.

On the Dutch side the officials pushed us through with scant ceremony, and we were quickly aboard. There remained only one more hurdle to surmount. Albert Smith chose this particular moment to seek me out.

'May I have a word with you, sir ? In private ?'

'In private, Smith ? What's this to be then ? Some sort of confessional ?'

'Oh no, sir. I just wanted to apologize for causing you so much trouble. I assure you, sir, I didn't mean to do anything wrong. And I did write to my father for permission.'

'Very well, Smith. That will do ! Let's not discuss it any further, eh ?'

'No, sir. Just as you say, sir. But - but I thought there was one other thing I ought to tell you, sir !'

'Come along, then, boy ! Dredge it up ! What is it ?'

'Well, sir, I know you don't like tale-telling, and all that. But as this is sort of - sort of illegal, I thought it was my duty to tell you.'

'Get it off your chest, Smith, before it chokes you ! What is it ?'

'I thought you ought to know, sir, that Blenkinsop's got a lot of things in his bag that he hasn't declared on his list. Quite expensive things, sir !'

'Thank you, Smith. That will do !'

'Yes, sir ! Thank you, sir ! I hope you didn't mind - '

'That will do, Smith, thank you !'

'Yes, sir. Of course, sir !'

My mind was now in a ferment. Smith, for all his deviousness, was not usually untruthful. Blenkinsop was a normal boy- as honest as he needed to be for the sake of peace and quiet, with a bit left over. On the other hand, he would deeply resent the idea of having his luggage searched by anyone other than a Customs Officer. I had to tackle Blenkinsop in the only possible way.

'Blenkinsop ! I'd like a word with you !'

'Yes, sir ?'

'This, Blenkinsop, is your list. I want you to look through it - carefully, mind - and tell me, have you bought anything, anything at all, which isn't on this list ?'

'No, sir ! Nothing !'

I would have staked my life that he was telling the truth.

'Thank you, Blenkinsop ! That will be all !'

I caught Smith's eye. There was a gleam in it which I couldn't fathom. Disappointment, perhaps, that I hadn't insisted on searching Blenkinsop's luggage ? Or pity, perhaps, for my scruples in not doing so ?

The realization hit me like a bomb.

Of course ! Of course ! The classic red herring ! My attention being diverted to Blenkinsop had been diverted from Smith ! Of course ! The bag with the contraband in it was Smith's !

Now this was the first time in my experience of Albert Smith that he could have been said to be on the wrong side of the law. And doubtless there had to be a first time, I told myself. I determined to see to it that he got a salutary lesson.

Before we docked at Harwich, the Customs Officers came aboard to clear the school parties. I sought one of them out, and explained that these young men had been buying souvenirs rather prodigally in Holland and that I held the individual lists. He gave the lists a cursory glance, and said,

'If you'll give me your word, sir, that your chaps have listed all their purchases, I think I can pass the party through without troubling them !'

'Ah, well, now that's my difficulty ! You see, there is one boy I suspect of a dubious list, so I can't honestly give you that assurance. But, if you agree, I'll see to it that he's first in the queue, so that you can satisfy yourself !'

And so it was done. Albert's bags were thoroughly searched - and found to contain only the items that he had listed.

The secret air of triumph on his face was almost more than I could bear. The Customs man grinned at me a trifle ruefully, and passed the rest of the party through.

But Albert's triumph was short-lived. At that moment there was a cry and a splash. I rushed to the rail.

'It's one of Blenkinsop's bags, sir ! It's fallen in the water !'

I looked quickly at Blenkinsop's face. It wore a half-smile, and a look of studied unconcern. But one glance at Albert Smith's face told all.

He would never be sure whether Blenkinsop had deliberately dropped his old bag in the sea. But I now knew, and Albert knew that I knew, that for once Albert Smith had over-reached himself. As he had said in sober truth, that bag of Blenkinsop's had contained contraband of some sort. He had merely omitted to say that it was his ! And I could just imagine what he must have said to Blenkinsop.

'There's no need to tell any lies, Blenkinsop. Just put this stuff of mine in your bag, and say you've listed all your purchases. He won't open anyone's bags, you know that !'

He had gauged my reactions to a hair's-breadth. Unfortunately, he hadn't reckoned with Blenkinsop's. I do hope he's meeting a lot of Blenkinsops in the wider world beyond school.

I had my own tiny revenge, too. On Albert Smith's last school report I said this,

'Now that Albert is leaving us, I should like to say that I believe he will go far.

I am very glad !'





Editor's Note

In this, his first published radio story, Bill drew on his experience as a teacher. Between 1944 and 1950 Bill ran a school, High Harrogate College, in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

I came across a school photograph from this period. Bill is the young man seated in the front centre. His wife Dorothy is to his left. I fancy that somewhere amongst this group is the inspiration for the Albert Smith featured in this story.