Pissed-off Toff

No longer a sucker

in Random Ruminations

In which Pissed-off Toff is once again held to ransom by a crooked trader … but this time, to his considerable surprise, emerges victorious.

The sucker

For ages I had been meaning to have it repaired. But Bond Street jewellers are expensive, and now that I was based in God’s chosen city of Sunderland, why not get the work done there? London was not, after all, the only place in the country where good craftsmen were to be found.

“You did well to come to me,” said Mr C, as he inspected the slim pocket watch. “I’ve been at this job for forty years, and I reckon I’m the only jeweller in the whole of the north-east who can repair this.” And opening the casing, we found various hallmarks, including one for imported gold, as well as a lower-case ‘r’ denoting Birmingham 1916. 

My paternal grandfather was born in 1898, I told the jeweller, and went to school in Birmingham. So yes, this must have been his; probably given to him on his eighteenth birthday; or so the hallmark would suggest. And yes, it would be very good to have it in working order. Indeed, I added, this was the only thing of his that I owned.

After which, I wrote down my mobile number … using one of my solid 18ct gold ball point pens, which duly caught the attention of the good Mr C. He then handed me a slip of business paper with, written on it in his hand: ‘Work to be done: ESTIMATE’; and we agreed that I would return the next day.

The sting

The mechanism was almost certainly made by Rolex, he said, emerging from his workshop carrying a box containing the now-disassembled watch. And yes, it was a nice object, with machine-turned decoration even on the internal parts. So could he repair it, I asked; and if he could, how much would it cost?

“We’re up to £300 already,” he said, dead pan. It took a moment for this to sink in: the man had started the job without my consent, and the bill was already considerable.

“But I came in for an estimate,” I replied, aghast. “Why did you start work on this before I gave you the go-ahead?”

“Well, by the time I started disassembling it, the job was so far gone that I had to carry on,” came the answer. “So yes: it’s three hundred pounds and counting.”

Still struggling to absorb this development, I surveyed the bits and pieces of my grandfather’s watch, and felt as though I had little choice other than to accept the situation; and after a brief session of feeble bargaining on my side, Mr C agreed – making a great show of reluctance and of being generally put-upon – that the final bill would be no more than a modest £350, and that I was to return in a fortnight.

* * * * *

Well, at least that showed that this man with forty years’ experience was going to take his time doing a proper job, I said to myself as I returned to the church where I am now based. But as I ruminated over the days that followed, the truth sunk in. Quite apart from the fact that Mr C had undertaken work without my consent, a bill of £300 for tinkering with this watch between one day and the next was clearly absurd … especially in Sunderland, where prices are a fraction of those in the capital.

“Tell me, Barnaby,” I said to my childhood friend, now also my landlord, “Do I have ‘sucker’ written all over my face?”

“Let’s just say that your voice is ridiculously posh,” he replied; “and that the moment you opened your mouth, the man thought he was onto a winner. Plus, did you really have to flash that gold pen of yours around in front of him?”

I thought that a jeweller might like knowing that he had a customer who appreciates nice things, I remonstrated. You know … get him ‘on-side’?

“Yeah, right!” came the answer from this fellow-OE who is rather more street-wise than I am.

The standoff

Over the previous months, I had been mugged on the streets of London; I had been ripped off in spectacular manner by a Pakistani man-with-a-van … and here I was, being ripped off again … the not-inconsiderable sums of money involved in the latter two episodes making a nonsense of my various attempts to economise; by which I mean that I spend nothing, nowadays, except on food, rent, and gin. 

There was of course a pattern here, and as I tossed and turned in bed the night before I was due to collect this pocket-watch, I knew that once more I would be played for a fool. Mr C the jeweller would, I was sure, attempt to extract further money from me. But could I take legal action, with all the expense and uncertainty involved? And failing that, was there any point in embarking on an on-line odyssey navigating ‘free’ government help-lines with their premium phone charges, and enduring endless pre-recorded messages stating that ‘due to Covid’, waiting times were longer than normal, or that all normal service was suspended? 

“Let’s just go and talk to him, you and me,” said Barnaby to his visibly deranged lodger, the next day. “See what happens. But let me do the talking.” 

Since we had no plan, it would be incorrect to say that the encounter which followed did not go according to plan. “I’ve come about my watch, Mr C,” I said, shortly after Barnaby and I walked in, both of us stony-faced. “It’s not ready yet,” came the answer; this prompting the thought that he was wondering how he could string things out further, the better to extract even more cash from me.

“Listen, Mr C,” I now said, forgetting Barnaby’s injunction with regard to letting him do the talking. “Listen, Mr C. I’m afraid that I think you’ve pulled a fast one on me.” (Yes, those were my exact words. Why not get to the point?) “So I’ve come to see if we can reach an arrangement that is acceptable to both of us.”

From then on it was downhill. How dare I address him in such terms, said Mr C. He who had been doing this job for 40 years. He who was a longstanding member of the esteemed Jewellers’ Association of Great Britain, or some such. How dare I?

Regarding what followed, my memory is not entirely clear. At some stage I produced the chit, written by him and showing that he had undertaken only to give me an estimate for work to be done; and I pointed out that he had started work without my consent, racking up a remarkable £300 bill from one day to the next. 

It wasn’t like that, he said, shaking his head. Oh no, it wasn’t like that at all. And how dare I … 

“Just give us back the watch, will you,” Barnaby now said. “Otherwise we’ll have to go to the Police.”

“How dare you come in here and threaten me, sonny?” came the furious reply … and by now the fear and loathing on all sides were palpable. “This isn’t working,” said Barnaby, turning towards me. “Let’s go.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” barked Mr C, pushing a button under the counter which caused the door of his shop to lock. Then, with the two of us held prisoner, he turned with a show of elaborate courtesy to a woman who had been there all along, waiting to get a quote for having a bracelet repaired. Time now standing still and my mind a blank, I saw only that the diamond ring on the fourth finger of her left hand was surprisingly large.

The woman’s business finally concluded, she walked to the door, near which Barnaby had repositioned himself. “You stand back,” the jeweller shouted at him. But having no choice other than to let his customer out, he pushed the button under his desk once more, the lock disengaged, and with Barnaby holding the door open and gesturing to me urgently, the two of us followed the woman onto the street. Not a second too soon, it turned out, because just as we walked out, in came Mr C’s burly assistant-cum-son-in-law, returning from his lunch break.

“Do you realise what happened in there?” asked my friend, as we walked back to his church nearby. “Don’t you get it? The man was holding us hostage. But you didn’t even seem to notice.” Plus, he continued, I could wave goodbye to that gold watch.

The counter-sting

Gibbering with impotent rage, and wondering whether, despite having received the best education in the world, I was destined for ever to be ripped off by one small-time crook after another … still barely making sense, I attempted to consider my options.

Could I return to the shop and say: “All right, Mr C, you win. I’ll pay you the £350 that I agreed to under duress … Oh, £500 now is it? All right, all right!” 

Out of the question.

Or could I accept that I had lost my grandfather’s gold watch … and that Mr C was going to spend a short time repairing it, before selling it on for a handsome sum, with the excuse that it had been left with him by a customer who refused to pay his bill? 

That was even worse.

* * * * *

And then I saw the only way forward. That Mr C had embarked on a repair job without my knowledge or consent was a provable fact. That he had also attempted to charge me a outrageous price for merely tinkering with the object, was also a fact. That he had locked my friend and myself inside his shop was another fact.

Just for once, my mind was made up. I went to the Police. “It’s quite clear,” said the friendly female officer, as she noted down the details. “He should never have started work without your say-so. Plus, now he’s holding you to ransom. And if he sells your watch, that will be theft. Which is a criminal offence.”

And with things now looking up a little, I filed my complaint and half an hour later received a text message from the regional Police headoffice in Newcastle with an ‘incident reference number’ and a time and date for a proper interview.

Armed with which, I prepared to telephone Mr C.

* * * * *

Not for nothing, perhaps, had I once been an equity salesman at a well-known merchant bank in the City. Taking up the same solid gold ball-point pen the sight of which might have initiated this whole saga, I jotted down a number of ‘prompt’ phrases … because, as I learnt during those years talking to Paris-based fund-managers in control of large sums of money, some of which would with any luck pass through my own hands … as I had learned on the trading floor, one should never write out a speech. Brief expressions, or single words only … that’s the aide-mémoire you need for a successful pitch, calmly delivered.

‘Dishonest trading’, I duly wrote down. ‘Illegally and forcibly detaining friend and self’, I also wrote. ‘All provable … documentary evidence in yr own writing’ … Plus: ‘have already reported you to Police … can provide incident reference number’ … and ‘am now on way to Harding’s … 58 John Street … best solicitors in Sunderland … will sue.’

I then rang Mr C in his workshop, had my say, and concluded my little speech thus: “But if, Mr C … if you wish to come to an agreement with me, I might – just might – be amenable. So think about it and ring me if you want. In the meantime, the matter is with the Police. Good day, Sir.”

* * * * *

Barely twenty minutes later the call came through.

“I have your watch for you,” he said, “If you’d like to come round and collect it, there will be no charge.”

“You and I are no longer on friendly terms, Mr C,” said I, now quite lucid. “How am I to know that you haven’t messed it up?”

“I’m shocked that you can think such a thing,” came the reply. “Shocked and horrified that you could think such a thing of someone like me, who’s traded honestly these last forty years.”

When I turned up shortly afterwards, he emerged from his workshop with the reassembled timepiece in his hand, its back lid open. “It’s working now,” he said, meekness itself. “Have a look.” And the mechanism was indeed whirring round. Then, with an attempt at bravado: “I see you’ve left your strong-man behind” … this with reference to Barnaby; who, deeply suntanned and with hands toughened up by physical work on a series of projects over the summer, was indeed looking pretty fit. Even, perhaps, intimidating.

“He’s waiting outside,” I replied. And finally, as I left: “I’m very glad that we sorted this out, Mr C. Very glad indeed. And thank you.”

“You heard that, Dad?” said his son-in-law, looking up from behind the counter, from which he had been discreetly observing the proceedings. “He said ‘thank you’. You don’t hear that very often, do ya?”

* * * * *

Scarcely able to believe the reality of this complete capitulation, I returned home to mull. What lessons were to be gleaned from this most unexpected of victories?

Although born, raised and educated in circumstances of considerable privilege, I have, at the age of 60, known more than a few rough patches, and have had dealings with my fair share of crooks and rascals. And yet I never learn. Despite the copious evidence to the contrary, shoved time and time again right up against my face, I persist in my deluded belief that the world is basically a nice place, that people are basically nice, and that if I am nice too, then everyone else will be nice.

That just won’t work. Not any more. From now on, I am determined – quite determined – not to be played for a sucker.

* * * * *

Determined, too, that good deeds should not go unrewarded, I returned to the police officer in her empty office. What sort of chocolates did she like, I asked. I can’t accept any presents, she said. Whether you like it or not, I replied, I’m going to go to Hotel Chocolat now, in the shopping centre round the corner, and I’m going to buy you a box of chocolates. So you might as well tell me what sort you prefer.

“Go on then, luv,” came the answer. “Milk chocolate. With nuts.”

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