In Vino Veritas

The day after Boxing Day. It’s what you do at this time of year, ‘the day after’ and then ‘the day after, the day after’…and when you say goodbye to people they say, “see you next year’ or “we’ll talk next year”, as if it’s some kind of joke.

Anyway, I know you’ll be pleased to hear I watered extensively last night and the rain didn’t come, although it is forecast for later in the week. We ate half of Mavis last night and Maud the other week, only Phyllis remains and she is going to seed slightly. (They’re broccoli by the way). And we also had Pak Choi fresh from the garden, delicious!

Now, today I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to let you in on a secret, my W.I.P. These initials stand for Work In Progress. I am going to give you a sneak peek at the first chapter of “In Vino Veritas.” I want you to remember that it hasn’t been proof read so there may well be some mistakes, just ignore them, I’ll pick them up later. But I want something in return, I want feedback. Are you interested in this story and do you want to know what happens next to these ‘people’? It is very much a scene set, both Vinnie and Marcus mature in the next chapter and their paths do not converge until a little later, with disastrous results. If this experiment goes well, I might let you in on Chapter Two…here goes:

Late 1976
Vinnie’s first real lie was about the death of his father. His mother had moved them to Hendon and he’d transferred to a posh public school. On his first day a spotty kid, with braces on his teeth and knuckles grazed from fighting, pushed him against a brick wall and demanded to know how his father had died. Vinnie thought for a moment and the options swirled through his ten-year old brain. A group of five boys, all around the same age, were watching him closely.
“Don’t you even know?” one of them asked.
“Bet he never had a bloody dad,” another said, looking him up and down with contempt.
“Are you a bast-”
“In a car,” said Vinnie, “he died in a car crash. Some drunk hit him head-on, it wasn’t his fault.”
Well that was easy. Nothing fell from the sky and hit him.
“We were awarded compensation and the man went to jail. It was in the paper and everything.”
The boy stared into his face. Vinnie didn’t flicker, he gazed back defiantly. The arm went slack against his throat and his feet took his weight.
“In the paper? Wanna join our gang?”
So it became his stock answer. As long as his mother wasn’t around he told people his father died tragically in a car crash. The truth was somewhat more lurid.
Albert Whitney-Ross, a clever middle-class accountant, married Mary Crosby, his childhood sweetheart, in a registry office in 1958. They lived in a two bedroom terrace in East London and Bert worked for Lawrence & Tizdall, a City accounting firm. Their only child, Vincent, was born in 1966. In later years Vinnie liked to say he was named after a Don McLean song, but the “American Pie” album wasn’t released until 1971. He was, in fact, named after the Dutch painter who was the subject of the song. His mother was a brilliant seamstress and made all his clothes. She taught Vinnie to read early so he could read to her while she sewed and she took him to museums and art galleries. They discussed life on an adult level and he learned that adults were pleased when you said clever and funny things. If you pleased them they gave you treats.
In 1972 Lawrence & Tizdall fell on hard times and Mr Lawrence had to let Bert go. While he was looking for another job he started freelancing and did the books for Monty Joe, his darts partner at the local. Monty was a small time fence with a pawn shop around the corner. He had two sets of accounts and he paid Bert well to keep one set hidden and to keep his tax payments low. Eventually he was so impressed he told Tobias Lane, who needed a discreet, but creative, accountant more than most.
Vinnie’s first memory of visiting the Lane home in Richmond was a vivid one. It was a three storied, red-brick building, covered in ivy, set in what seemed like a private park. Vinnie had never seen a house that big before and told his father he’d get very lost if he lived there. He met Tobias’s grandson, Marcus, who was the same age, six and a half. Marcus was tall for his age and very skinny. His elongated, slender limbs contrasted with Vinnie’s which were strong and chunky. Vinnie was watchful and quiet, fascinated by the other boy’s confidence and authority. The stern Nanny dressed Marcus in a coat, scarf and gloves as she lectured him about the nippy autumn cold. He didn’t object, but as soon as they were outside he ripped off the gloves and scarf and stuffed them in his pocket. They wandered down the lawn towards a wooden bridge that spanned the stream flowing into the lake.
“Have you ever played pooh sticks?” Marcus asked.
“No! But I’ve read the book. You know, The House at Pooh Corner.”
Marcus looked at him suspiciously.
“You read it?”
Vinnie hesitated.
“Yeah.”
“You mean your mum read it, or Nanny.”
Vinnie was puzzled by this, why would an adult read it to you?
“I read it, to mum, we like Milne.”
Marcus stopped still.
“You can read? Books like that?”
Could it be that this boy didn’t believe him or maybe didn’t read too? Vinnie felt a touch anxious.
“Course. I love reading. Mondays we read Paddington Bear-”
They’d reached the bridge. Marcus swept up a fat twig at his feet.
“Take that one,” he commanded, using his twig to point towards a bare stick lying on the river bank. Vinnie picked it up and ran after him onto the bridge where Marcus was already leaning out, stick in hand.
“We throw our sticks into the water. We run to the other side and see whose stick comes out first. Right?”
Vinnie nodded vigorously.
“O.K.”
“One…two…THREE!”
As he yelled Marcus threw his stick. Vinnie was a fraction later. They both sprinted to the other side of the bridge. The fat twig was marginally ahead. Marcus punched the air with a clenched fist.
“Yes! I win. Let’s do it again.”
He ran towards the shrub garden on the far side of the stream. Vinnie hesitated and then followed him. When twilight came and it was too hard to see the twigs floating in the dark water, they chased each other up to the big kitchen and Marcus persuaded the devoted cook to give them coca-cola and lovely warm scones with jam and whipped cream.
Unbeknownst to Vinnie Tobias Lane had made his father an offer he couldn’t refuse, five times his former salary. Lane had worked with the Kray twins in the 1950’s but when their rivalry with the Richardson gang escalated into murder he struck out on his own. The Kray’s imprisonment in 1969 left a hole to fill and as well as all the usual activities, armed robbery, bookmaking, loan sharking, extortion and protection rackets, drugs, arson, prostitution, fencing stolen goods, he’d begun to branch out into people smuggling, bringing illegal workers into the country and creating an underground workforce. His last accountant had suddenly disappeared and he needed to keep his two sets of books, launder his money offshore and make sure the authorities only got to see the sanitized set. His son, Norman, was a hugely ambitious young man. He seemed anxious to take over the reins of the organisation and make changes, especially to the collection of monies owed. He was not a man to be crossed and he made sure Bert understood the consequences of failure.
For the next three and half years Vinnie accompanied his father to the Lane house on a regular basis. He and Marcus both loved the cook who was happy to let them help and slip them extra goodies and ice-cold fizzy drinks in summer and hot chocolates in winter. He knew his mother wasn’t particularly happy about this client and she never came with them, but, with the innocence of youth, he just accepted it as one of those strange things adults thought sometimes.

“Do you still want to be a pilot?” Marcus asked. They were lying on their backs on the freshly mown lawn, staring up at the clouds. It was a lovely summer day in 1976 and the massive garden around them was in full bloom. Vinnie could hear bees and insects nearby. His tummy was full of fruit pie and cola and he felt content.
“I think so,” he said as he traced a pattern in the air with his finger, “you get to see lots of exciting places. I want to travel.”
He rolled over and glanced at Marcus. The boy’s eyes were closed. That meant he was thinking.
“Do you still want to go into the family business?” Vinnie asked.
Marcus shrugged.
“I guess so. Dad says one day it’ll all be mine.”
“All what?”
The boy waved his arm in the direction of the house.
“All this. And whatever it is they do, Dad says they’re businessmen…maybe you should become an accountant and you could work for me.”
Vinnie pulled a face. Sometimes Marcus assumed too much.
“Why would I want to work for you? Unless you set up an airline.”
Marcus opened his eyes, turned and grinned at him.
“Maybe I will and you could fly us all over the world.”
Vinnie made swooping motions like a plane with his hand.
“Lane airways…or you could put a P in front of it and make it Plane Airways.”
Both boys laughed and the sharp, happy sound echoed around the empty garden.
“If you become a pilot then I promise I’ll set up Plane Airways and you can be the chief head pilot.”
Vinnie was delighted. Marcus always made such sense and his confident way of treating people, other children, staff, and shop assistants, thrilled Vinnie. No-one ever bullied Marcus and he’d have thumped anyone who tried. What Vinnie saw as bravery were the seeds of cruelty and brutality.
“Vin?”
It was a familiar voice and it made him sit up and then get to his feet. His father was standing on the drive, his briefcase in his hand.
“Time to go, come on.” His father sounded impatient in his good natured way.
Vinnie looked down at Marcus who hadn’t moved.
“See ya next time,” he said.
Marcus nodded.
“Remember what they say, don’t take no shit from nobody.”
Vinnie laughed happily.
“No shit.”
He turned and ran across the lawn towards his father. Marcus pulled himself up on his elbows and watched as Bert put his arm around Vinnie and they walked off together.

It would be thirty-five years before Vinnie saw Marcus again. A week later he’d been out shopping for new plimsolls and some records with his mother. They’d stopped for ice-cream, walked beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park and ridden the tube home. He loved these outings, his mother was a fun person to be with and he hadn’t reached the age where it was considered naff to want to hang out with your mum. They’d sung a favourite song as they’d walked down the street from the tube station to the house. She went in first and he was just inside the front door when he heard her scream. A loud, shrill, scary noise of true terror, despair and anger all mixed together. A noise he’d never heard before. He met her at the door to the room.
“What-”
“No, Vinnie! No! Come with me.”
She was very white and shaking violently but she pushed him backwards. He was too confused to mount any resistance and she grasped his arm and hauled him outside and down the steps.
“What’s wrong? Mum? What’s happened?” he asked, panic gripping him harder than her hand.
“Just come with me.”
She half dragged him down the path and round to the next door neighbour’s house.
“I want you to stay here.”
She banged on the door with her fist.
“Why? What’s happen-”
The door was opened by Mr Weatherly, the pensioner who lived next door with his wife. He was already in his pyjamas and dressing gown.
“Mrs Ross-”
His mother shoved him at the old man.
“Please take care of him, Jim. Whatever happens, don’t let him come back to the house.”
Vinnie spun round.
“Please Mum! Just tell me-”
“I have to go.”
She was ignoring him and speaking to the surprised neighbour who’d been joined by his wife. The woman reached across him, took Vinnie’s arm and drew him inside the doorway.
“Of course we will, Mary, don’t you worry about him…come on dear, come and have some lemonade.”
The door shut behind him and Vinnie followed her reluctantly. His heart was pounding and his throat felt tight.

The ambulance arrived, followed by the police and finally an undertaker. He heard the sirens and the flurry of activity but his guardians wouldn’t even let him go to the window. When his mother finally came back her eyes were red and her ashen face was tear-stained. She hugged him fiercely and sat him down.
“We’ve always been honest with each other and I’m not going to lie to you now. You’re father is dead.”
The words hit him like a kick in the stomach. He’d known something was wrong but he’d assumed his father was ill. She waited for it to sink in. His eyes filled with tears and she took his hand in hers. His voice was small and words were hard to force out.
“How did he die?”
“He shot himself…I know it’s hard to understand now, but you will. And we will be O.K. We’ll cope together.”
Vinnie felt icy cold and numb and her voice seemed to be coming from a very long way away. For one thing he couldn’t see how she knew that they’d be O.K. How could anything ever be O.K. ever again?
Over the next few weeks it became apparent that Bert had been tipped off about a possible surprise audit. His calculations were excellent; his attention to detail meticulous, he’d hidden money very cleverly, but not necessarily cleverly enough to fool the forensic accountants of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. So he’d carefully burned all his ledgers and papers in the fireplace of the front room, spread a sheet on the floor to make cleaning up easier and put a bullet through his brain. His note explained that he knew he’d never stand up to intensive questioning and that he’d acted alone, created a double set of accounts, but gambled the extra money away. The essential evidence had been destroyed and Tobias Lane insisted he knew nothing of what his accountant had done.
Mary was completely mortified, she’d suspected Lane was a crooked businessman but she had no idea he’d corrupted her Bert to that extent. Her reaction was to move away and start again. She sold the house and most of their possessions and bought a large flat over a shop in Hendon, far away from the scene of her husband’s betrayal. Vinnie missed his Dad and Marcus very much, but being close to the RAF museum was a bonus and the irony was not lost on Mary when she discovered they were also very close to the Police College. She used the money Lane had insisted she take to send Vinnie to a public school. He had no way of knowing that, if he’d told her about his lie, she’d have been immensely relieved.

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