(that same afternoon)
The London taxi dropped off Alfie and Agnes on Chelsea’s King’s road. Once the taxi drove away, Alfie looked hesitatingly around, trying to get his bearings, rather like a dog chasing its tail.
‘Been years since I was in this area. Seem to recall that Charlie’s place wasn’t too far from a pub – In fact, we did most of our dealing in it.’ And putting his fingers to his lips. ‘Oh, what was it called... Potter... something Potter.’
Handbag classed tightly to her, fearing some mugger might be lurking nearby, Agnes chastised.
‘Should have looked in the flaming telephone directory first – Could have looked this Charlie mate of yours up under ‘antiques’. No, here we are, middle of Chelsea and he might be miles away – ‘
‘Chelsea!’ exclaimed Alfie triumphantly. ‘Yes, that’s it! The Chelsea Potter!’ Then, as if everything was suddenly crystal clear, trotted off excitedly. ‘Yes, yes, seem to remember it was in this direction.’
Agnes struggled a few steps behind him, still complaining.
‘.…He probably went out of business years ago – I mean, it’s been ten years since you retired.’
‘….He’s got to be around here somewhere….’
They were finally forced to pop into a local shop and ask its Asian owner who was able to point them in the right direction. In rapid steps Alfie, with a breathless Agnes struggling to keep up, they walked the two hundred yards to where they found the Chelsea Potter pub. Alfie stood outside, taking in the place, and said in a tone of nostalgia.
‘Good God. Place hasn’t changed a bit. Still as I remember it – ‘
Agnes sniffed the air disapprovingly and said.
‘Looks a bit run down.’
‘Yes, well. I bet they still serve up a great pint. At least it hasn’t changed into one of them trendy wine bars selling cheap plonk at high prices.’ Without further hesitation, Alfie pushed his way through the door, emerging a minute later, his manner very upbeat. Taking Agnes by her arm, he steered her further up the King’s Road.
Eventually they found themselves in a back street and in front of a double fronted antiques shop. Like the Chelsea Potter, It had seen better days, thought Agnes, and the windows were crammed full of useless antiques of every description. She squinted up at the peeling facia and read out the name displayed:
‘Charlie Holland Antiques, established 1924 – ‘
‘Yes, well, the name is genuine,’ quipped Alfie while stepping up to the door, ‘though the 1924 is a bit way out.’ And chuckled. ‘Probably should be nearer to 1980.’
‘And what about that logo: “member of the antiques guild”?’ she questioned suspiciously, knowing Alfie’s dubious background.
‘As false as the date,’ admitted Alfie. ‘But it gives the business a credibility to potential customers.’ And revealed in a whisper, in case Charlie might be listening. ‘Charlie was a printer for years, then he got into the antiques business doing a bit of ducking and weaving like the rest of us. Last I heard he was doing quite nicely thank you very much.’
At the push of the door a bell gave out a little tinkle. Once inside Agnes closed the door and took in the claustrophobic interior with its musty smell. She felt the place represented a junk shop rather than one offering rare antiques.
A few moments later a curtain was quickly drawn aside at the rear of the shop and an overweight figure emerged, aged – guessed Agnes - in his sixties and dressed in a sweat shirt that revealed a bulging beer belly. The wobbling figure was wearing a pair of out of fashion tracksuit bottoms and on his feet a pair of old trainers. Agnes’s first impressions weren’t favourable of either the business nor of Charlie Holland.
‘Hello, Charlie. Long time I know; thought we’d pop in. See if you were still in business.’
Blinking against the grey light that managed to penetrate the gloomy interior, Charlie Holland’s chubby face broke out into a smile of recognition and while extending a hand that displayed several large gold rings, he warmly greeted in a Cockney accent.
‘Why if it aint fackin’ Alfie Edwards. Must be all of five years since I last saw you – ‘
‘More like ten years,’ said Alfie.
‘Really? That long.’ Then losing his smile. ‘I was sure someone in the trade say you’d died couple of years back.’
‘Yes, well – Have had a couple of scares – You know, the old ticker,’ explained Alfie, patting his heart. ‘Found me collapsed once in Peckham high street. Luckily for me an ambulance was nearby bandaging up a drunk; otherwise I’d be a goner.’ Alfie then quickly introduced Agnes and after a brief conversation to bring themselves up to date, Charlie invited them through the curtain to his back office. The space was small and again it was cramped with the kind of dusty junk that Agnes felt would never find a buyer. A large wooden desk with a green leather top was shoved against one wall, the other walls were covered with a collection of prints, watercolours and oils, none of which caught Agnes’s eye and the kind of art one would find in any market town salesrooms on a bad day. Charlie invited them to sit down in a pair of sagging leather chairs.
After switching on an electric kettle at the side of the desk, Charlie wobbled over to a nearby sink and began to wash cups.
‘….Yeah, you got out of the business the right time, Alfie,’ he said with his back to them. ‘Since that fackin’ IKEA outfit moved over from Sweden, turned the antique market upside down. Now people can’t get enough of it. Can’t even shift jewellery anymore. Twenty years ago and I couldn’t get enough of amber – bracelets, necklaces, you name it I could sell it. Then all this fackin’ designer shite took over and suddenly everyone is buying direct from the internet. ‘Ere, only to look at EBay – with revenues of billions a year it’s taken our trade away,’ and turning from the sink, wiping cups with a grubby tea-towel – ‘It’s taken over the fackin’ market place. The old antique fairs have died a death and now comes along this thing they’re calling a credit crunch. I mean, where does that leave the small honest trader like me?’
It wasn’t until they were settled with mugs of tea and Charlie was squeezed into his swivel office chair that he asked.
‘So, what brings you out this way, all the way from Putney?’
‘We’re after a couple of bits and pieces,’ said Alfie from over the lip of his cup. ‘In fact we’re looking for old paper – ‘
‘Newspapers?’ pre-empted Charlie through narrowed eyes.
‘ Not newspapers; notepaper,’ smiled Agnes. ‘Ideally, pre 1900 – ‘
‘Pre 1900...’ said Charlie through a vague shake of his head. ‘Think you’ll be unlucky.’
‘What about notepaper that came with an old writing desk you might have bought up?’ asked Alfie, leaning forward in his chair. ‘When I was in the trade I quite often came across writing pads, pens and inks just shoved in the back of drawers, forgotten.’
‘I haven’t found a set in the past fifteen years. Problem with paper is, it deteriorates quickly and there’s never been any call for it,’ said Charlie.
‘What about ink?’ asked Agnes, beginning to think they’d made a worthless trip. Again Charlie pursed in lips in thought, then said.
‘Might be luckier there. I do get the odd request. Sometimes get an old artist by the name of Tom Hickman who comes in for it. His oeuvre is pen and wash – From what he tells me, he knocks out these fackin’ pen and wash drawings, mostly hunting scenes from the shires, sells them on to the fine art trade to collectors who can’t afford the genuine article – ‘ Then through a conspiratorial smile – ‘or he’s passing them off as the genuine thing. But haven’t seen him in over a year. Oh, also a lady pops in wanting similar.’
‘So you might at least have the ink?’ Alfie asked hopefully. Charlie nodded his head. ‘Think I’ve got some pots left out the back in the stockroom. Bought a five drawer Victorian office desk couple of years back from a Doncaster salesroom. Amongst a lot of crap, you know, paperclips, lacky bands and old invoices dated around the time you’re looking at, several pots of ink. Yeah, think you’re lucky there. But regarding the fackin’ paper – ‘fraid you’re out of luck.’ Then Agnes asked.
‘What about old books, Charlie? Do you deal in books?’ Again he pursed his lips.
‘Books? Books about what? Antiques? Fly-fishing? Model railways?’ he asked.
‘The subject doesn’t matter. They just need to be old ones,’ said Alfie. ‘Pre 1900’s. Those with end papers that haven’t hopefully already been torn out or defaced.’ Charlie Holland was beginning to put two-and-two together and half laughingly said.
‘’Ere, you thinking of creating an undiscovered ink drawing by Walter Sickert or something?’ Alfie tapped his nose and replied.
‘Ask no questions, get no lies.’ Charlie Holland understood. He knew the fine art and antiques trade was full of dodgy stuff, and he knew enough about Alfie Edwards’ past to know that he was probably still working the odd scam to top up his miserable state pension.
‘Yeah, got plenty of books back in the stockroom,’ inclining his head towards the back of the shop. Been meaning to throw ‘em out – Thing is, can’t fackin’ give ‘em away these days.’ And further complained. ‘It’s the likes of that fackin’ Amazon dot com. Squeezes us little people out.’
‘Can we take a look?’ asked Agnes, pulling herself up from the depths of her chair; thinking that if they were unlucky here, then they’d need searching elsewhere.
Charlie Holland skilfully moved his large frame through the cramped space, lifting his arms, turning sideways as he squeezed past his stock as if engaged in some kind of delicate limbo dance.
Agnes and Alfie were forced to follow the same dance, while Alfie kept up an enthusiastic patter. And while rubbing a hand over a polished oak desk inlaid with gold he commented.
‘….Oh, I like this piece, Charlie. Now that is a genuine piece of furniture – ‘
‘Came from the Earl of Derbyshire’s estate.’ Said Charlie over his shoulder. Then Alfie was picking up a teapot and squinting at it appreciatively.
‘Nice little piece this teapot, Charlie – I like the floral decoration.’ Once again Charlie turned his head over his shoulder and warned.
‘Don’t drop that, Alfie, came from the same sale as that desk. Fackin’ genuine 18th century Cream ware, is that.’
‘How much you asking for it?’ asked Alfie. Thinking a sale might be in the offer, Charlie adopted a friendly tone and said.
‘Now, you couldn’t have picked up a nicer piece, Alfie. Made by the famous Leeds pottery turn of the eighteenth century. A rarity nowadays. But it’s yours for one-hundred-and-fifty knicker.’ Alfie gave out a short laugh.
‘Definitely not Leeds pottery.’ And rubbing his fingers over its surface. ‘Glaze definitely not smooth enough. At a guess – More like Stoke-on-Trent, late 1960’s.’ And quickly added insult to injury while placing it back down. ‘In a car boot sale, pay anything over a fiver and you’d be robbed.’
In the stockroom Charlie Holland switched on the light and a fluorescent strip lazily blinked into life. Like the rest of his business, the stockroom had no order. It seemed to Agnes that items were stacked and stored according to if it could fit a particular space. She and Alfie were again forced to delicately pick their way to a pile of books stacked randomly on the floor.
‘Now, anything pre 1900 is going to be fackin’ rare,’ sighed Charlie. ‘Whenever I get something as old as that, I usually sell it on to the book trade. Mostly to Frank Green – ‘ Alfie turned the name over in his head.
‘…No, no, doesn’t ring a bell does that name – ‘
‘Has a place on Sydney street. Been in the business all his life. What Frank doesn’t know about rare books isn’t worth knowing.’