THERE‘S A MORAL IN IT SOMEWHERE
(This isn‘t a story. It‘s a talk. No, that‘s not correct. It is a story – a true story – of something that happened to me. Some years after it happened, I was relating the incident to Paul Humphreys, at the time BBC Radio‘s Chief Talks Producer in the Midlands, and he suggested that it might make a good ‘interval talk‘ - the kind of thing they used to broadcast between the two halves of a symphony concert. I had already read one or two of my stories for the Morning Story slot, so I wasn‘t without some experience in that direction. So I wrote it up, and it was broadcast on the Friday the 20th of December 1968. Eheu fugaces, as they say. And who says Friday‘s not a lucky day ?)
It began on a Sunday afternoon, early spring, some years ago. We‘d been with our growing family to see their grandparents in the North, and we were motoring back to Birmingham.
I imagine the children were playing one of their own interminable car games. Ours never play the games recommended in the books and the weekend supplements. They have tried them, but I suspect they were found wanting in a most important regard. Not noisy enough.
What I‘m really trying to do, I suppose, is to excuse my own negligence in not noticing the limousine until it had actually passed us. It was large enough, goodness knows, and that deep olive-green colour that looks so very high-class.
We were passing Haddon Hall at the time, just outside Bakewell, when the limousine passed us. The liveried chauffeur was pushing her along quite a bit. In fact, he actually accelerated after passing us.
It was that extra acceleration that did the trick , I imagine. Out of the boot, which was one of the vertical kind, slid a long object. It fell on to the tarmac and skittered along for quite a time in the wake of the limousine. The loss was quite clearly unnoticed by anyone in the car, for it took the next bend with no sign of slowing down and that was the last time we saw it.
Meanwhile I‘d been occupied with my own problem. I was so surprised by events that at first I failed to notice the danger of this fairly large object lying in the road. Looking back, I suspect it was more by good luck than good driving that I avoided hitting it.
I pulled up as quickly as I could, and my wife went back, picked the object up and returned to the car. It was a long brown case of very thick hide, beautifully made, obviously at great expense. On top it had a metal plate and my wife, who knows more about this sort of thing than I do, said it was certainly silver. And on this plate in that lovely curlicued kind of script was a name that meant nothing to me – then. I‘ve since been told that it‘s a name which is a household word in households that have such things.
When my wife slipped the catch to reveal the contents I reached forward, switched off the engine, and put on the handbrake. This was clearly going to take some time.
I‘m not even dimly acquainted with such things, but even I could see that this was a pair of dismantled sporting guns of a rather special kind. Not only did it have the separate barrels and stocks, but cleaning-rods, butt-guards, pull-throughs – I‘ve learned all this since, of course. At the time they simply looked very professional and very, very expensive.
Our small sons fell upon the booty with glad cries and wanted to play with them then and there, ammunition and all. But we resisted their entreaties and decided that, since we were already so late, we would push on to Birmingham, have dinner at our hotel, and I would then take the guns into the main police station at Steelhouse Lane.
We arrived just in time for the evening meal, and our family quickly saw ro it that everyone in the hotel knew about our adventure. I recall the feeling of horror when one of the guests (his name was David Coleman – yes, that one) said he thought the guns might be worth five or six hundred pounds. As that was almost a year‘s salary for me at the time, I couldn‘t wait to get down to Steelhouse Lane to off-load them.
I explained to the police constable on the Lost Property desk how I‘d come by the guns. He was rather off-hand about the whole affair until he snapped back the lid. Then, in a quite different tone of voice, he said,
‘Would you mind waiting there for a moment, sir ? I think the sergeant would like to see these. He‘s in charge of our Armoury section.‘
And the sergeant was interested, most interested. In fact, for quite a time they virtually ignored me, as the sergeant explained to the desk-constable that you could pick either gun up and fire it, and you would feel no difference beween one and the other, because they were ‘beautifully matched‘.
I coughed, and said,
‘They‘re very nice, aren‘t they ? I had thought they might be worth a hundred pounds or so, but one of the chaps at the hotel said that was ridiculous.‘
‘He was right,‘ said the sergeant. ‘Multiply that hundred by ten, and you‘d be nearer the price !‘
I must have looked as disbelieving as I felt. He went on,
‘I reckon these little beauties are worth around a thousand pounds the pair. Perhaps more. They‘re matched – ‘ and he mentioned the name which I‘ve since been assured is synonymous with Rolls Royce in the matter of sporting guns.
A thousand pounds ! I ought to explain that at the time that figure was about twenty-five per cent more than my annual salary. But I hadn‘t even begun to calculate the reward money when the sergeant said,
‘I‘ll give you a receipt for them, of course, and if they‘re not claimed in three months, they‘re yours.‘
I‘d almost begun to spend the money when he added,
‘But I wouldn‘t worry about that, sir, if I was you. They‘ll be looking for these little beauties already. I reckon they‘ll be claimed within three days, never mind three months.‘
And they were. In two days to be exact. I arrived back at my office on the Tuesday afternoon to be informed by my secretary that the police had been asking for me about of a pair of guns. She looked more than slightly disapproving, and yet rather intrigued.
I went down to Steelhouse Lane that evening and saw the same sergeant. It transpired that he and the claimant had been having quite a lengthy chat on the telephone about these guns. The claimant, by the way, whose name was also a household word at the time was, said the sergeant, a millionaire. And this millionaire had been making enquiries of the sergeant as to my probable income-bracket, did I run my own car, and the like. In the view of the sergeant, he was weighing up the appropriate reward.
I suppose I ought to have pooh-poohed any such suggestions, but the sergeant went on to say that the guns were not actually the property of the millionaire. They had been hired from those household-word gunmakers by a guest of his who was staying with him at the time. So, when they got back to their doubtless country mansion that evening, there was, it appears, something of a disturbance about the missing guns, especially as the guest had undertaken to cover their cost in the event of loss. But his host assured him that he was in England now, and that he would have them back within the week.
The guest begged leave to doubt this. So, as the sergeant delightedly informed me, they‘d had a wager on it – which, of course, the millionaire won. I‘m naïve enough to think that he was on a pretty good thing in this country.
I told my colleagues in the office about the guns, and one mercenary individual at one suggested a sweep on the value of the reward to be paid. Each member wrote his estimate on a slip of paper and gave it to the initiator for safe keeping. As I was going to be on the winning end in any case, they said, I was barred from taking part.
On the Friday morning I had a letter from the millionaire on House of Commons notepaper thanking me for returning the guns. The one cynic in the office who had suggested ‘damn-all‘ as the reward collected the sweep money.
And there it might have ended. A story with no apparent moral, perhaps, but not a bad yarn for telling over drinks.
But there was more to come . . .
About a fortnight later, in the columns of the Sunday Express, there was one item headed ‘Duly Returned‘, relating the whole story. The millionaire‘s name got top billing. I was just ‘a passing motorist‘.
Understandably, I was intrigued to know where the newspaper had got the story. I couldn‘t quite see the millionaire revealing his parsimony in cold print. A few days later all was revealed. I was having a drink in the club one evening when a friend dragged someone across with him and said to me, ‘You must meet Peter !‘
My friend had told Peter the story of the guns, Peter had realized its potential, and sent it to one of the agencies he knew, and the Sunday Express had picked it up from there, and had paid Peter two guineas for his trouble.
So there we were. My colleague had won the sweep, the millionaire had won his wager, and Peter had won his two guineas.
There had to be a moral in it, somewhere.
Actually, it all turned out rather well in the end. For some years I‘d been toying with the idea of spare-time writing. I took a leaf from Peter‘s book and began in a small way by sending such human stories to the various markets which trade in such things. That led in due course to my first Morning Story on radio, thence to radio- playwriting, and to this effort tonight – for which, needless to say, I shall be paid. And while it hasn‘t made me a fortune, and I‘ve still to write any deathless prose, it‘s been - well, quite worth while.
So perhaps there is a moral in it after all . . .