A picaresque tale in which Pissed-off Toff is held to ransom …
The other day, on a street in central London, I was mugged for the first time in my life. It should not perhaps have come as a surprise that shortly afterwards, and in a place nearby, I was held to ransom, again for the first time in my life.
It happened like this.
For over a decade I had lived as a lodger in a large flat in Westminster, often free to give dinner parties in the dining room and play the grand piano in the drawing room. When my absentee landlady died at the beginning of last year and the flat passed to one of her sons, it was inevitable that I would have to leave.
Inevitable it might be; but I was quite unable to face up to it. I had nowhere to go; the briefest on-line trawl confirmed that for the rent I had been paying, I would be lucky to find a small bedroom in Battersea; to apply to an almshouse at the age of sixty would have been an admission that my life was over and that impoverished senescence was all that lay ahead; and what was I to do with chattels whose bulk had considerably increased following the deaths of both my parents?
Although the ‘lockdown’ brought an unexpected stay of execution and a welcome opportunity to procrastinate, a date for my departure was eventually fixed. Miraculously, an old friend offered me asylum in his church in Sunderland. But as my new London landlord’s visits with posses of architects and builders and surveyors became more and more frequent, and as I started to dig out possessions that I had hidden in the nooks and crannies of this capacious residence overlooking the apse of Westminster Cathedral, it became clear that I had far more stuff than I realised.
There were, for example, nineteen metres of books, almost none of which I was prepared to get rid of. My irreplaceable collection of French and Italian dictionaries? The complete essays and letters of George Orwell in a four-volume hardback set? The collected works of Jane Austen, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Somerset Maugham, similarly attractive? Unless I was willing to contemplate life as a tramp, it was unthinkable that I should dispose of these, or indeed of almost anything else.
* * * * *
Other more existential questions, long avoided, now pressed in on my mind. With the many opportunities and privileges that I had had, and with not a few talents and abilities to boot, was this what I had allowed my life to come to? What weaknesses and character faults had led me here? As I contemplated a future that looked entirely bleak and meaningless, and as I picked over objects lovingly and expensively accumulated but now lying in chaotic piles at my feet, I realised that I was shaking. And what was my saviour in the north going to say when I turned up not with a suitcase or two, but with the clutter of a lifetime? It hardly bore thinking about.
Nor, certainly, could I drive a large vehicle in my now fragile state, or cope with the task of hiring suitable transport. So it was a relief when a generous friend came to my rescue with a van in which we made the five-hour journey to my new berth. But this turned out to be just a first load; so with one week to go until the date for my final departure from my home of the previous ten years, I returned to the London flat, where I was now camping on the floor and where, in Augean manner, more possessions materialised at every moment before my eyes.
I had experienced something similar when my father had died a few years before, leaving behind him a rented house in Gloucestershire full of the detritus of several generations which it was my job to dispose of. This logistical and emotional rollercoaster ride had lasted for an eternity of lonely decision-making … the physical work being the easy part. Somehow I had managed it; but this time I could not cope.
And where was I going to find the van and driver for the second journey north, especially now that with the ‘lockdown’ mainly over, pent-up demand meant that many removals companies were fully booked for months ahead? “Oh, it’s so easy,” said a neighbour. “There’s this marvellous website where you say what you want, and people email you with their offers, and you choose the best one. What’s the problem?”
By now it was clear that I was involved not so much in a housemove, as in a forced retreat through hostile territory with a heavy baggage train in tow. With my brain starting to shut down on an alarmingly regular basis, and with all logical thought increasingly difficult, it was out of the question that I should initiate an on-line beauty contest between potential hauliers. Nor could I appeal again to the same friend who had helped me the first time round. He did, however, have a telephone number for a man-with-a-van whom he had found on Gumtree.
Enter, at this point, the smooth-talking Jay, a dusky sole trader who might have come straight from some back-street bazaar in his native Pakistan.
* * * * *
“Trust me, my friend. I’m a professional,” he said at the end of a telephone conversation during which we agreed a price of £600 in cash for him to drive me and my chattels up to Sunderland … this price, he explained, representing £50 for the loading and unloading, and £550 for his journey there and back. “Plus,” he continued, “I have three vans, and as a special favour to you I’ll come with the biggest one; big enough to move a family.”
All that mattered to me, I explained in conclusion, was that he should turn up with a large van on the appointed day; because the day after, I told him, the builders were due to move in. “Don’t worry,” read the text message he sent later that evening. “I’m a professional. Everything will be fine.”
* * * * *
After a whole night spent doing last-minute packing, I was making little sense, and the neighbour who helped me take box after box of heavy books from the fourth floor down to the ground-floor lobby ready to be loaded up saw me close to a state of mental collapse.
But when Jay appeared in a van not nearly as large as the one I was expecting, I went into meltdown. What if my stuff didn’t fit in it? What would I do then, with the builders due in the next day and the wrath of my landlord to face?
At which point he pounced. “There’s much more here than I bargained for, my friend,” he said. “I can’t possibly do this for £600. It will have to be £1,200. At least.” By now in a state of complete funk, and quite forgetting that only a few days previously he had told me that the loading and unloading was only a small part of the overall cost of the long journey ahead, I suggested a price of £1,000 … to which he agreed with alacrity.
The three of us – he, myself and my friendly neighbour – then loaded up the van. This task completed, Jay asked for full payment then and there. To which I replied that I had the cash we initially agreed on, plus a bit more. But as for the rest, I didn’t do on-line banking, and I would have to write him a cheque when we arrived in Sunderland … my chequebook now being in the back of the van.
“It doesn’t work like that,” said Jay. You must pay me now.” Thinking that I had at least £700 in cash, I prevailed on the long-suffering friend who was helping me to go to his home round the corner and make an on-line payment to Jay of £300; which duly came through. I then counted out all the banknotes in my possession, which came to £695 … leaving my hired hand just £5 short of the £1,000 he wanted for the day’s work.
“You’ll have to ask your friend to transfer those five pounds,” he said. “Otherwise we’re not going anywhere.” Whereupon I rummaged around in my briefcase, found an old film cylinder which I used for loose change, and counted out five pounds in coin … the last two pounds in 20 pence pieces. By the time Jay turned the key in the ignition of his beaten-up Ford Transit, and despite my brain being entirely scrambled, I realised that I had been played by a crook.
* * * * *
How lucky I was to have found him, he told me as we drove northwards out of central London. Yes, how lucky that I had seen his advertisement on Gumtree, to whom he paid ruinous sums every month; on top of the many other operating expenses which he had to meet. How clever, too, he had been to fit my stuff into his van … a skilled job, that was, very skilled indeed. How lucky, furthermore, that I hadn’t hired someone with a smaller vehicle; and how busy he was, with everyone wanting to move after the ‘lockdown’ … yes, I could think myself most fortunate to have obtained the services of a professional in such high demand as himself.
Why, then, didn’t he start a proper business, I asked; employ a couple of drivers and expand? “I tried that,” came the answer. “But you can’t trust anyone to turn up on time nowadays. You can’t trust anyone.” And since we were discussing business matters, did he, I wondered, ever visit his clients before a housemove, to see how much stuff they had? Might that not avoid a few misunderstandings? “Oh no, I never visit the client,” he replied. “It doesn’t work like that.”
* * * * *
Once we got onto the motorway and were no longer constrained by the traffic of the metropolis, Jay put his foot on the accelerator … at the same time as leaning down to pick up a bottle of a high-energy drink from the floor; a bottle which he proceeded to open with two hands while steering with one elbow. For the next hour or so, this happened repeatedly as Jay sped along at 80 mph, the van swerving wildly while he reached down for his source of refreshment.
“It’s no good doing that,” he said, as I flinched in terror yet again. “You’ll only make things worse.” By now he was on his smartphone non-stop, jabbering away in a language of which I understood not one word, and driving faster even than before, just a few feet behind the vehicles in front of us.
In this vulnerable state between one home and another, with my most valued and valuable possessions at risk, I dared not remonstrate. Were we insured for an accident, I nevertheless asked, as he narrowly avoided yet another life-threatening collision. “It’s bad luck to talk about accidents,” he said. “Very bad luck.” And once more taking both hands off the steering wheel, he propped up his smartphone on the dashboard in order to watch a lengthy home movie.
Frightened and angry, I sat there in silence; and by the time we arrived at our destination, the mood in the van stopped just short of overt hostility. “We’ll have to hurry up,” he said, as I opened the door of my new home. “I’ve got a long journey ahead of me.” A journey, I replied, for which I had paid him generously.
There ensued an unloading session during which Jay dropped any remaining pretence of goodwill, or of his much-vaunted ‘professionalism’ … and during which my main concerns were first to hide from him the bags containing the essentials of my life, including the gold sovereigns that I keep as an emergency fund; and then to fend off passing vagrants, who, like drugged vultures, had spotted prey in the form of my unprotected possessions.
“It’s done now,” said Jay, a frantic half-hour later … “but if you don’t trust me, look in the van.” And as this crooked descendent of the divine Hermes – god of merchants, thieves and oratory – drove off with his ill-gotten one thousand pounds, I uttered a string of unholy imprecations.
* * * * *
For days – even weeks – afterwards, I fumed with anger directed at both him and myself; because if I had not been in a state of such visible funk, the accursed Jay would not have tried it on in the first place; and even if he had, I would have pointed out that as he had explained when we first spoke, the price was determined not by the load carried, but by the distance driven; and calling his bluff, I would have told him that if he was not prepared to stick to the figure that we had agreed, then he could go home and lose a day’s work.
And even if his actions fell short, strictly speaking, of extortion or ransom, the further £400 he had extracted from me under duress was a spectacular rip-off. A brief telephone call I now made to a removals company I had once used in Gloucestershire bore this out. Driving up from Cheltenham to London in a larger van than Jay’s, and then driving me and a full load insured for £100,000 up to Sunderland, before completing the long triangular journey and returning to Cheltenham … even for this superior service they quoted the far smaller sum of £650 … and the more I thought about it, the angrier I became as I contemplated the £1,000 I had handed over to the unspeakable Jay for just one day’s work.
* * * * *
What recourse, though, did I now have against him? Report him to the Police for endangering my life and the lives of others by reckless driving? I had no proof and no witnesses. Sue him for breach of contract? But as a young solicitor whom I consulted pointed out, although any judge would be inclined to believe me rather than the slippery Jay, I had paid mainly in cash with no receipt, so that even if I could track him down, my chances of winning a case against him were perhaps 50-50 … and even if I won, he might not pay; whereas if I lost, there would be still more costs involved.
Just one avenue lay open to me for gaining satisfaction: report him to the Inland Revenue for the systematic tax evasion of which he was undoubtedly guilty. During a telephone call that lasted for 45 minutes, I told my attentive interlocuter in this least-loved of Her Majesty’s agencies everything I knew about ‘Jay’ … which I now had reason to believe was not his real name. I could provide his mobile number, his bank details (obtained from my friend who had transferred part of the ransom money), and the registration number of his van (I had at least had the presence of mind to note that down when he stopped for petrol): quite enough to identify him.
Realising, too, that the Inland Revenue were less interested in how ‘Jay’ had cheated me than in how he was cheating them too, I proceeded to paint as alluring a picture as I could of this low-hanging fruit waiting to be picked by them. Finally, asked the man on the other end of the line, would I be willing to testify in court? Not just willing, I replied: I was at their service at any time; I would welcome their call.
I can only hope that ‘Jay’ gets what he deserves. But just as the man who held me to ransom will never be told who informed against him, so I will never know whether the Inland Revenue act on my information, or the outcome of any action that they might decide to take.
* * * * *
What morals are to be drawn from this picaresque tale of foolishness and knavery?
If the man pounced, it was because he saw vulnerabilty; so I should never have placed myself in a position of weakness to begin with; nor, certainly, should I have compounded my error by drawing attention to my predicament. As my ancestor Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord once said with his customary succinctness: Il ne faut jamais être un pauvre diable.
It is clear, too, that I almost entirely lack the quickwitted commercial reflexes that are called for in the cut and thrust of bargaining. As an Old Etonian friend commented when I told him of this episode, “the trouble with our kind of education is that it leaves us particularly weak in the area of street wisdom.”
But not least, perhaps: if any silver-tongued Caliban encountered in the jungle of the Internet ever says “Trust me, my friend. I’m a professional” … if anyone ever says this, it is time to walk away.