Cat O’ Nine Tales

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The Beginning

MR JUSTICE GRAY STARED down at the two defendants in the dock. Chris and Sue Haskins had pleaded guilty to the theft of £250,000, being the property of the Post Office, and to falsifying four passports.

Mr and Mrs Haskins looked about the same age, which was hardly surprising as they had been at school together some forty years before. You could have passed them in the street without giving either of them a second look. Chris was about five foot nine, his dark wavy hair turning grey, and he was at least a stone overweight. He stood upright in the dock, and although his suit was well worn, his shirt was clean and his striped tie suggested that he was a member of a club. His black shoes looked as if they had been spit-and-polished every morning. His wife Sue stood by his side. Her neat floral dress and sensible shoes hinted at an organized and tidy woman, but then they were both wearing the clothes that they would normally have worn to church. After all, they considered the law to be nothing less than an extension of the Almighty.

Mr Justice Gray turned his attention to Mr and Mrs Haskins’s barrister, a young man who had been selected on the grounds of cost, rather than experience.

‘No doubt you wish to suggest there are mitigating circumstances in this case, Mr Rodgers,’ prompted the judge helpfully.

‘Yes, m’lord,’ admitted the newly qualified barrister as he rose from his place. He would like to have told his lordship that this was only his second case, but he felt his lordship would be unlikely to consider that a mitigating circumstance.

Mr Justice Gray settled back as he prepared to listen to how poor Mr Haskins had been thrashed by a ruthless stepfather, night after night, and Mrs Haskins had been raped by an evil uncle at an impressionable age, but no; Mr Rodgers assured the court that the Haskins came from happy, well-balanced backgrounds and had in fact been at school together. Their only child, Tracey, a graduate of Bristol University, was now working as an estate agent in Ashford. A model family.

Mr Rodgers glanced down at his brief before going on to explain how the Haskins had ended up in the dock that morning. Mr Justice Gray became more and more intrigued by their tale, and by the time the barrister had resumed his place the judge felt he needed a little more time to consider the length of the sentence. He ordered the two defendants to appear before him the following Monday at ten o’clock in the forenoon, by which time he would have come to a decision.

Mr Rodgers rose a second time.

‘You were no doubt hoping that I would grant your clients bail, Mr Rodgers?’ enquired the judge, raising an eyebrow, and before the surprised young barrister could respond Mr Justice Gray said, ‘Granted.’

Jasper Gray told his wife about the plight of Mr and Mrs Haskins over lunch on Sunday. Long before the judge had devoured his rack of lamb, Vanessa Gray had offered her opinion.

‘Sentence them both to an hour of community service, and then issue a court order instructing the Post Office to return their original investment in full,’ she declared, revealing a common sense not always bestowed on the male of the species. To do him justice, the judge agreed with his spouse, although he told her that he would never get away with it.

‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘Because of the four passports.’

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Mr Justice Gray was not surprised to find Mr and Mrs Haskins standing dutifully in the dock at ten o’clock the following morning. After all, they were not criminals.

The judge raised his head, stared down at them and tried to look grave. ‘You have both pleaded guilty to the crimes of theft from a post office and of falsifying four passports.’ He didn’t bother to add any adjectives such as evil, heinous or even disgraceful, as he didn’t consider them appropriate on this occasion. ‘You have therefore left me with no choice,’ he continued, ‘but to send you both to prison.’ The judge turned his attention to Chris Haskins. ‘You were obviously the instigator of this crime, and with that in mind, I sentence you to three years’ imprisonment.’ Chris Haskins was unable to hide his surprise: his barrister had warned him to expect at least five years. Chris had to stop himself from saying, thank you, my lord.

The judge then looked across at Mrs Haskins. ‘I accept that your part in this conspiracy was possibly no more than an act of loyalty to your husband. However, you are well aware of the difference between right and wrong, and therefore I shall send you to prison for one year.’

‘My lord,’ protested Chris Haskins.

Mr Justice Gray frowned for the first time. He was not in the habit of being interrupted while passing sentence. ‘Mr Haskins, if it is your intention to appeal against my judgement—’

‘Certainly not, my lord,’ said Chris Haskins, interrupting the judge for a second time. ‘I was just wondering if you would allow me to serve my wife’s sentence.’

Mr Justice Gray was so taken aback by the request that he couldn’t think of a suitable reply to a question he had never been asked before. He banged his hammer, stood up and quickly left the courtroom. An usher hurriedly shouted, ‘All rise.’

Chris and Sue first met in the playground of their local primary school in Cleethorpes, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Chris was standing in a queue waiting for his third of a pint of milk – government regulation for all schoolchildren under the age of sixteen. Sue was the milk monitor. Her job was to make sure everyone received their correct allocation. As she handed over the little bottle to Chris, neither of them gave the other a second look. Sue was in the class above Chris, so they rarely came across each other during the day, except when Chris was standing in the milk queue. At the end of the year Sue passed her eleven-plus and took up a place at the local grammar school. Chris was appointed the new milk monitor. The following September he also passed his eleven-plus, and joined Sue at Cleethorpes Grammar.

They remained oblivious to each other throughout their school days until Sue became head girl. After that, Chris couldn’t help but notice her because at the end of morning assembly she would read out the school notices for the day. Bossy was the adjective most often trotted out by the lads whenever Sue’s name came up in conversation (strange how women in positions of authority so often acquire the sobriquet bossy, while a man holding the same rank is somehow invested with qualities of leadership).

When Sue left at the end of the year Chris once again forgot all about her. He did not follow in her illustrious footsteps and become head boy, although he had a successful – by his standards – if somewhat uneventful year. He played for the school’s second eleven cricket team, came fifth in the cross-country match against Grimsby Grammar, and did well enough in his final exams for them to be unworthy of mention either way.

No sooner had Chris left school than he received a letter from the Ministry of Defence, instructing him to report to his local recruiting office to sign up for a spell of National Service – a two-year compulsory period for all boys at the age of eighteen, when they had to serve in the armed forces. Chris’s only choice in the matter was between the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force.

He selected the RAF, and even spent a fleeting moment wondering what it might be like to be a jet pilot. Once Chris had passed his medical and filled in all the necessary forms at the local recruiting office, the duty sergeant handed him a rail pass to somewhere called Mablethorpe; he was to report to the guardhouse by eight o’clock on the first of the month.

Chris spent the next twelve weeks being put through basic training, along with a hundred and twenty other raw recruits. He quickly discovered that only one applicant in a thousand was selected to be a pilot. Chris was not one in a thousand. At the end of the twelve weeks he was given the choice of working in the canteen, the officers’ mess, the quartermaster’s stores or flight operations. He opted for flight operations, and was allocated a job in the stores.

It was when he reported for duty the following Monday that he once again met up with Sue, or to be more accurate Corporal Sue Smart. She was inevitably standing at the head of the line; this time giving out job instructions. Chris didn’t immediately recognize her, dressed in her smart blue uniform with her hair almost hidden under a cap. In any case, he was admiring her shapely legs when she said, ‘Haskins, report to the quartermaster’s stores.’ Chris raised his head. It was that voice he could never forget.

‘Sue?’ he ventured tentatively. Corporal Smart looked up from her clipboard and glared at the recruit who dared to address her by her first name. She recognized the face, but couldn’t place him.

‘Chris Haskins,’ he volunteered.

‘Ah, yes, Haskins,’ she said, and hesitated before adding, ‘report to Sergeant Travis in the stores, and he’ll brief you on your duties.’

‘Yes, Corp,’ Chris replied and quickly disappeared off in the direction of the quartermaster’s stores. As he walked away, Chris didn’t notice that Sue was taking a second look.

Chris didn’t come across Corporal Smart again until his first weekend leave. He spotted her sitting at the other end of a railway carriage on the journey back to Cleethorpes. He made no attempt to join her, even pretending not to see her. However, he did find himself looking up from time to time, admiring her slim figure – he didn’t remember her being as pretty as that.

When the train pulled into Cleethorpes station, Chris spotted his mother chatting to another woman. He knew immediately who she must be – the same red hair, the same trim figure, the same . . .

‘Hello, Chris,’ Mrs Smart greeted him as he joined his mother on the platform. ‘Was Sue on the train with you?’

‘I didn’t notice,’ said Chris, as Sue walked up to join them.

‘I expect you see a lot of each other now you’re based at the same camp,’ suggested Chris’s mother.

‘No, not really,’ said Sue, trying to sound disinterested.

‘Well, we’d better be off,’ said Mrs Haskins. ‘I have to give Chris and his dad dinner before they go off to watch the football,’ she explained.

‘Do you remember him?’ asked Mrs Smart as Chris and his mother walked along the platform towards the exit.

‘Snotty Haskins?’ Sue hesitated. ‘Can’t say I do.’

‘Oh, you like him that much, do you?’ said Sue’s mother with a smile.

***

When Chris boarded the train that Sunday evening, Sue was already sitting in her place at the end of the carriage. Chris was about to walk straight past her and find a seat in the next carriage, when he heard her say, ‘Hi, Chris, did you have a nice weekend?’

‘Not bad, Corp,’ said Chris, stopping to look down at her. ‘Grimsby beat Lincoln three–one, and I’d forgotten how good the fish and chips are in Cleethorpes compared to camp.’

Sue smiled. ‘Why don’t you join me?’ she said, patting the seat beside her. ‘And I think it will be all right to call me Sue when we’re not in barracks.’

On the journey back to Mablethorpe, Sue did most of the talking, partly because Chris was so smitten with her – could this be the same skinny little girl who had handed out the milk each morning? – and partly because he realized the bubble would burst the moment they set foot back in camp. Non-commissioned officers just don’t fraternize with the ranks.

The two of them parted at the camp gates and went their separate ways. Chris walked back to the barracks, while Sue headed off for the NCO quarters. When Chris strolled into his Nissen hut to join his fellow conscripts, one of them was bragging about the WRAF he’d had it off with. He even went into graphic detail, describing what RAF knickers look like. ‘A dark shade of blue held up by thick elastic,’ he assured the mesmerized onlookers. Chris lay on his bed and stopped listening to the unlikely tale, as his thoughts returned to Sue. He wondered how long it would be before he saw her again.

Not as long as he feared because when Chris went to the canteen for lunch the following day he spotted Sue sitting in the corner with a group of girls from the ops room. He wanted to stroll across to her table and, like David Niven, casually ask her out on a date. There was a Doris Day film showing at the Odeon that he thought she might enjoy, but he’d sooner have walked across a minefield than interrupt her while his mates were watching.

Chris selected his lunch from the counter – a bowl of vegetable soup, sausage and chips, and custard pie. He carried his tray across to a table on the other side of the room and joined a group of his fellow conscripts. He was tucking into the custard pie, while discussing Grimsby’s chances against Blackpool, when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He looked round to see Sue smiling down at him. Everyone else at the table stopped talking. Chris turned a bright shade of red.

‘Doing anything on Saturday night?’ Sue asked. The red deepened to crimson as he shook his head. ‘I was thinking of going to see Calamity Jane.’ She paused. ‘Care to join me?’ Chris nodded. ‘Why don’t we meet outside the camp gates at six?’ Another nod. Sue smiled. ‘See you then.’ Chris turned back to find his friends staring at him in awe.

Chris didn’t remember much about the film because he spent most of his time trying to summon up enough courage to put his arm round Sue’s shoulder. He didn’t even manage it when Howard Keel kissed Doris Day. However, after they left the cinema and walked back towards the waiting bus, Sue took his hand.

‘What are you going to do once you’ve finished your National Service?’ Sue asked as the last bus took them back to camp.

‘Join my dad on the buses, I suppose,’ said Chris. ‘How about you?’

‘Once I’ve served three years, I have to decide if I want to become an officer, and make the RAF my career.’

‘I hope you come back and work in Cleethorpes,’ Chris blurted out.

Chris and Sue Haskins were married a year later in St Aidan’s parish church.

After the wedding, the bride and groom set off for Newhaven in a hired car, intending to spend their honeymoon on the south coast of Portugal. After only a few days on the Algarve, they ran out of money. Chris drove them back to Cleethorpes, but vowed that they would return to Albufeira just as soon as he could afford it.

Chris and Sue began married life by renting three rooms on the ground floor of a semi-detached in Jubilee Road. The two milk monitors were unable to hide their contentment from anyone who came into contact with them.

Chris joined his father on the buses and became a conductor with the Green Line Municipal Coach Company, while Sue was employed as a trainee with a local insurance company. A year later Sue gave birth to Tracey and left her job to bring up their daughter. This spurred Chris on to work even harder and seek promotion. With the occasional prod from Sue, Chris began to study for the company’s promotion exam. Four years later Chris was appointed an inspector. All boded well in the Haskins household.

When Tracey informed her father that she wanted a pony for Christmas, he had to point out that they didn’t have enough room. Chris compromised, and on Tracey’s seventh birthday presented her with a Labrador puppy, which they christened Corp. The Haskins family wanted for nothing, and that might have been the end of this tale if Chris hadn’t got the sack. It happened thus.

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The Green Line Municipal Coach Company was taken over by the Hull Carriage Bus Company. With the merger of the two firms, job losses became inevitable, and Chris was among those offered a redundancy package. The only alternative the new management came up with was the reinstatement of Chris as a conductor. Chris turned his nose up at the offer. He felt confident of finding another job, and therefore accepted the settlement.

It wasn’t long before the redundancy money ran out, and despite Ted Heath’s promise of a brave new world, Chris quickly discovered that alternative employment wasn’t that easy to find in Cleethorpes. Sue never once complained and, now that Tracey was going to school, took on a part-time job at Parsons’, a local fish-and-chip shop. Not only did this bring in a weekly wage, supplemented by the occasional tip, but it also allowed Chris to enjoy a large plate of cod and chips every lunchtime.

Chris continued to try and find a job. He visited the employment exchange every morning, except on Friday, when he stood in a long line, waiting to collect his meagre unemployment benefit. After twelve months of failed interviews, and sorry-you-don’t-seem-to-have-the-necessary-qualifications, Chris became anxious enough to seriously consider returning to his old job as a bus conductor. Sue assured him that it wouldn’t be long before he was once again promoted to inspector.

Meanwhile, Sue took on more responsibility at the fish-and-chip shop and a year later was made assistant manager. Once again, this tale might have reached its natural conclusion, except this time it was Sue who was given her notice.

She warned Chris over a fish supper that Mr and Mrs Parsons were considering early retirement and planning to put the shop up for sale.

‘How much are they expecting it to fetch?’

‘I heard Mr Parsons mention the figure of five thousand pounds.’

‘Then let’s hope the new owners know a good thing when they see it,’ said Chris, forking another chip.

‘The new owners are far more likely to come with their own staff. Don’t forget what happened to you when the bus company was taken over.’

Chris thought about it.

At eight thirty the following morning, Sue left the house to take Tracey to school, before going on to work. Once the two of them had departed, Chris and Corp set out for their morning constitutional. The dog was puzzled when his master didn’t head for the beach, where he could enjoy his usual frolic in the waves, but instead marched off in the opposite direction, towards the centre of the town. Corp loyally bounded after him, and ended up being tied to a railing outside the Midland Bank in the High Street.

The manager of the bank could not hide his surprise when Mr Haskins requested an interview to discuss a business venture. He quickly checked Mr and Mrs Haskins’ joint bank account, to find that they were seventeen pounds and twelve shillings in credit. He was pleased to note that they had never run up an overdraft, despite Mr Haskins being out of work for over a year.

The manager listened sympathetically to his client’s proposal, but sadly shook his head even before Chris had come to the end of his well-rehearsed presentation.

‘The bank couldn’t consider such a risk,’ the manager explained, ‘at least not while you have so little security to offer as collateral. You don’t even own your own home,’ the banker pointed out. Chris thanked him, shook him by the hand and left undaunted.

He crossed the High Street, tied Corp to another railing and entered Martins Bank. Chris had to wait for quite some time before the manager was able to see him. He was greeted with the same response, but at least on this occasion the manager recommended that Chris should approach Britannia Finance, who, he explained, were a new company specializing in start-up loans for small businesses. Chris thanked him, left the bank, untied Corp and jogged back to Jubilee Road, arriving only moments before Sue returned home with his lunch: cod and chips.

After lunch, Chris left the house and headed for the nearest phone box. He put four pennies in the box and pressed button A. The conversation lasted for less than a minute. He then returned home, but didn’t tell Sue who he had an appointment with the following day.

The next day Chris waited for Sue to take Tracey off to school before he slipped back upstairs to their bedroom. He took off his jeans and sweater, and replaced them with the suit he’d worn at his wedding, a cream shirt he only put on for church on Sundays, and a tie his mother-in-law had given him for Christmas, which he thought he’d never wear. He then shone his shoes until even his old drill sergeant would have agreed that they passed muster. He checked himself in the mirror, hoping he looked like the potential manager of a new business venture. He left the dog in the back garden, and headed into town.

Chris was fifteen minutes early for his meeting with a Mr Tremaine, the loans manager with Britannia Finance Company. He was asked to take a seat in the waiting room. Chris picked up a copy of the Financial Times for the first time in his life. He couldn’t find the sports pages. Fifteen minutes later a secretary ushered him through to Mr Tremaine’s office.

The loans executive listened with sympathy to Chris’s ambitious proposal, and then enquired, just as the two bank managers had, ‘What security do you have to offer?’

‘Nothing,’ replied Chris without guile, ‘other than the fact that my wife and I will work all the hours we’re awake, and she already knows the business backwards.’ Chris waited to hear the many reasons why Britannia couldn’t consider his request.

Instead Mr Tremaine asked, ‘As your wife would constitute half of our investment, what does she think about this whole enterprise?’

‘I haven’t even discussed it with her yet,’ Chris blurted out.

‘Then I suggest you do so,’ said Mr Tremaine, ‘and fairly quickly, because before we would consider investing in Mr and Mrs Haskins, we will need to meet Mrs Haskins in order to find out if she’s half as good as you claim.’

Chris broke the news to his wife over supper that evening. Sue was speechless. A problem Chris had not come up against all that often in the past.

Once Mr Tremaine had met Mrs Haskins, it was only a matter of filling in countless forms before Britannia Finance advanced them a loan of £5,000. A month later Mr and Mrs Haskins moved from their three rooms in Jubilee Road to a fish-and-chip shop on Beach Street.

The Middle

Chris and Sue spent their first Sunday scraping the name PARSONS off the front of the shop, and painting in HASKINS: under new management. Sue quickly set about teaching Chris how to prepare the right ingredients to make the finest batter. If it was that easy, she kept reminding him, there wouldn’t be a queue outside one chippy while a rival a few yards up the road remained empty. It was some weeks before Chris could guarantee his chips were always crisp and not hard or, worse, soggy. While he became the front-of-house manager, wrapping up the fish and dispensing the salt and vinegar, Sue took her place behind the till and collected the takings. In the evening, Sue always brought the books up to date, but she didn’t go upstairs to join Chris in their little self-contained flat until the shop was spotless and you could see your face in the counter-top.

Sue was always the last to finish, but then Chris was the first to rise in the morning. He would be up by four o’clock, pull on an old tracksuit and head off for the docks with Corp. He returned a couple of hours later, having selected the finest cod, hake, skate and plaice, moments after the trawlers had docked with their morning catch.

Although Cleethorpes has several fish-and-chip shops, it was not long before a queue began to form outside Haskins, sometimes even before Sue had turned the closed sign round to allow the first customer to enter the shop. The queue never slackened between the hours of eleven a.m. and three p.m., or from five to nine in the evening, when the sign would finally be turned back round – but not until the last customer had been served.

At the end of their first year the Haskins declared a profit of just over £900. As the queues lengthened, the debt to Britannia Finance diminished, so they were able to return the loan in full, with interest, eight months before the five-year agreement ended.

During the next decade, the Haskins’ reputation grew on land, as well as sea, which resulted in Chris being invited to join the Cleethorpes Rotary Club, and Sue becoming deputy chairman of the Mothers’ Union.

On their twentieth wedding anniversary Sue and Chris returned to Portugal for a second honeymoon. They stayed in a four-star hotel for a fortnight and this time they didn’t have to come home early. Mr and Mrs Haskins returned to Albufeira every summer for the next ten years. Creatures of habit, the Haskins.

Tracey left Cleethorpes Grammar School to attend Bristol University, where she studied business management. The only sadness in the Haskins’ life was when Corp died. But then he was fourteen years old.

***

Chris was enjoying a drink with some fellow Rotarians when Dave Quenton, the manager of the town’s most prestigious post office, told him that he was moving to the Lake District and planning to sell his interest in the business.

This time Chris did discuss his latest proposal with his wife. Sue was once again taken by surprise and, when she recovered, needed several questions answered before she agreed to pay a return visit to Britannia Finance.

‘How much do you have on deposit with the Midland Bank?’ asked Mr Tremaine, recently promoted to loans manager.

Sue checked her ledger. ‘Thirty-seven thousand, four hundred and eight pounds,’ she replied.

‘And what value have you put on the fish-and-chip shop?’ was his next question.

‘We will be considering offers over one hundred thousand,’ said Sue confidently.

‘And how much has the post office been valued at, remembering that it’s in such a prime location?’

‘Mr Quenton says that the Post Office is looking for two hundred and seventy thousand, but he assures me they would settle for a quarter of a million, if they can find a suitable applicant.’

‘So you’re likely to be a little over one hundred thousand short of your target,’ said the analyst, not having to refer to a ledger. He paused. ‘What was the post office’s turnover last year?’

‘Two hundred and thirty thousand pounds,’ replied Sue.

‘Profit?’

Once again, Sue needed to check her figures. ‘Twenty-six thousand, four hundred, but that doesn’t include the added bonus of spacious living accommodation, with rates and taxes covered in the annual return.’ She paused. ‘And this time we would own the property.’

‘If all those figures can be confirmed by our accountants,’ said Mr Tremaine, ‘and you are able to sell the fish-and-chip shop for around a hundred thousand, it certainly appears to be a sound investment. But . . .’ The two would-be clients looked apprehensive. ‘And there always is a but, when it comes to lending money. The loan would, of course, be subject to the post office maintaining its category A status. Property in that area is currently trading at around twenty thousand, so the real value of the post office is as a business, and only then if, I repeat, if, it continues to have category A status.’

‘But it’s been a category A post office for the past thirty years,’ said Chris. ‘Why should that change in the future?’

‘If I could predict the future, Mr Haskins,’ replied the analyst, ‘I would never make a bad investment, but as I can’t I have to take the occasional risk. Britannia invests in people, and on that front you have nothing to prove.’ He smiled. ‘We would, as with our first investment, expect any loan to be repaid in quarterly instalments, over a period of five years, and on this occasion, as such a large sum is involved, we would want to take a charge over the property.’

‘At what percentage?’ demanded Chris.

‘Eight and a half per cent, with added penalties should increments not be paid on time.’

‘We’ll need to consider your offer carefully,’ said Sue, ‘and we’ll let you know once we’ve made our decision.’

Mr Tremaine stifled a smile.

***

‘What was all that about category A status?’ asked Sue as they walked quickly back towards the seafront, still hoping to open the shop in time for their first customer.

‘Category A is where all the profits are,’ said Chris. ‘Savings accounts, pensions, postal orders, vehicle road tax and even premium bonds all guarantee you a handsome profit. Without them, you have to rely on TV licences, stamps, electricity bills, and perhaps a little extra income if they allow you to run a shop on the side. If that was all Mr Quenton had to offer, we’d be better off continuing to run the fish-and-chip shop.’

‘And is there any risk of us losing our category A status?’ asked Sue.

‘None whatsoever,’ said Chris, ‘or that’s what the area manager assured me, and he’s a fellow member of Rotary. He told me that the matter has never even come up for discussion at headquarters, and you can be pretty confident that Britannia will also have checked that out long before they would be willing to part with a hundred thousand.’

‘So you still think we should go ahead?’

‘With a few refinements to their terms,’ said Chris.

‘Like what?’

‘Well, to start with, I’ve no doubt that Mr Tremaine will come down to eight per cent, now that the High Street banks have also begun investing in business ventures, and don’t forget, this time he will have a charge over the property.’

The Haskins sold their fish-and-chip shop for £112,000 and were able to add a further £38,000 from their credit account. Britannia topped it up with a loan of £100,000 at 8 per cent. A cheque for £250,000 was sent to Post Office headquarters in London.

‘Time to celebrate,’ declared Chris.

‘What do you have in mind?’ asked Sue. ‘Because we can’t afford to spend any more money.’

‘Let’s drive down to Ashford and spend the weekend with our daughter –’ he paused – ‘and on the way back . . .’

‘And on the way back?’ repeated Sue.

‘Let’s drop into Battersea Dogs’ Home.’

A month later, Mr and Mrs Haskins and Stamps, another Labrador, this time black, moved from their fish-and-chip shop on Beach Street to a category A post office in Victoria Crescent.

Chris and Sue quickly returned to working hours that they hadn’t experienced since they first opened the fish-and-chip shop. For the next five years they cut down on any little extras, and even went without holidays, although they often thought about another trip to Portugal, but that had to be put on hold until they completed their quarterly payments to Britannia. Chris continued to carry out his Rotary Club duties, while Sue became chairman of the Cleethorpes branch of the Mothers’ Union. Tracey was promoted to sites manager, and Stamps ate more food than the three of them put together.

In their fourth year, Mr and Mrs Haskins won the ‘Area Post Office of the Year’ award, and nine months later paid off the final instalment to Britannia.

The board of Britannia invited Chris and Sue to join them for lunch at the Royal Hotel to celebrate the fact that they now owned the post office without a penny of debt to their name.

‘We still have to earn back our original investment,’ Chris reminded them. ‘A mere matter of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.’

‘If you keep going at your present rate,’ suggested the chairman of Britannia, ‘it should only take you another five years to achieve and then you could be sitting on a business worth over a million.’

‘Does that mean I’m a millionaire?’ asked Chris.

‘No, it does not,’ butted in Sue. ‘Our current account is showing a credit of a little over ten thousand pounds. You’re a ten thousandaire.’

The chairman laughed, and invited the board to raise their glasses to Chris and Sue Haskins.

‘My spies tell me, Chris,’ added the chairman, ‘that you are likely to be the next president of our local Rotary.’

‘Many a slip,’ said Chris as he lowered his glass, ‘and certainly not before Sue takes her place on the area committee of the Mothers’ Union. Don’t be surprised if she ends up as national chairman,’ he added, with considerable pride.

‘So what do you plan to do next?’ asked the chairman.

‘Take a month’s holiday in Portugal,’ said Chris without hesitation. ‘After five years of having to make do with the beach at Cleethorpes and a plate of fish and chips, I think we’ve earned it.’

That also would have made a satisfactory conclusion to this tale, had officialdom not stepped in once again; this time with a letter addressed to Mr and Mrs Hoskins from the finance director of the Post Office. They found it waiting for them on the mat when they returned from Albufeira.

Post Office Headquarters,
148 Old Street, London EC1V 9HQ

Dear Mr and Mrs Hoskins,

The Post Office is in the process of re-evaluating its property portfolio, and to that end, will be making some changes to the status of some of its older establishments.

I therefore have to inform you that the board has come to the reluctant conclusion that we will no longer require two category A status facilities in the Cleethorpes area. While the new High Street branch will continue as a category A post office, Victoria Crescent will be downgraded to category B. In order that you can make the necessary adjustments, we do not propose to bring in these changes until the New Year.

We look forward to continuing our relationship with you.

Yours sincerely,

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Finance Director

‘Does that mean what I think it means?’ said Sue after she had read the letter a second time.

‘In simple terms, love,’ said Chris, ‘we can never hope to earn back our original investment of two hundred and fifty thousand, even if we go on working for the rest of our lives.’

‘Then we’ll have to put the post office up for sale.’

‘But who will want to buy it at that price,’ asked Chris, ‘once they discover that the business no longer has category A status?’

‘The man from Britannia assured us that once we’d paid off the debt it would be worth a million.’

‘Only while the business has a turnover of five hundred thousand and generates a profit of around eighty thousand a year,’ said Chris.

‘We should take legal advice.’

Chris reluctantly agreed, although he wasn’t in much doubt what his solicitor’s opinion would be. The law, their advocate dutifully advised them, was not on their side, and therefore he wouldn’t recommend them to sue the Post Office, as he couldn’t guarantee the outcome. ‘You might well win a moral victory,’ he said, ‘but that won’t assist your bank balance.’

The next decision Chris and Sue made was to put the post office on the market as they wanted to find out if anyone would show an interest. Once again Chris’s judgement turned out to be correct: only three couples even bothered to look over the property, and none of them returned for a second viewing once they discovered it was no longer category A status.

‘My bet,’ said Sue, ‘is that those officials back at headquarters knew only too well they were going to change our status long before they pocketed our money, but it suited them not to tell us.’

‘You may well be right,’ said Chris, ‘but you can be sure of one thing – they won’t have put anything in writing at the time, so we would never be able to prove it.’

‘And neither did we.’

‘What are you getting at, love?’

‘How much have they stolen from us?’ demanded Sue.

‘Well, if by that you mean our original investment—’

‘Our life savings, every penny we’ve earned over the past thirty years, not to mention our pension.’

Chris paused and raised his head, while he made some calculations. ‘Not including any profit we might have hoped for, once we’d seen our capital returned—’

‘Yes, only what they’ve stolen from us,’ Sue repeated.

‘A little over two hundred and fifty thousand, if you don’t include interest,’ said Chris.

‘And we have no hope of seeing a penny of that original investment back, even if we were to work for the rest of our lives?’

‘That’s about the sum of it, love.’

‘Then it’s my intention to retire on January the first.’

‘And what are you expecting to live off for the rest of your life?’ asked Chris.

‘Our original investment.’

‘And how do you intend to go about that?’

‘By taking advantage of our spotless reputation.’

The End

Chris and Sue rose early the following morning: after all, they had a lot of work to do during the next three months if they hoped to accumulate enough capital to retire by 1 January. Sue warned Chris that meticulous preparation would be needed if her plan was to succeed. He didn’t disagree. They both knew that they couldn’t risk pressing the button until the second Friday in November, when they would have a six-week window of opportunity – Chris’s expression – before ‘those people back in London’ worked out what they were really up to. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of preliminary work to be done in the meantime. To start with, they needed to plan their getaway, even before they set about retrieving any stolen money. Neither considered what they were about to embark on as theft.

Sue unfolded a map of Europe and spread it across the post office counter. They discussed the different alternatives for several days and finally settled on Portugal, which they both considered would be ideal for early retirement. On their many visits to the Algarve they had always returned to Albufeira, the town where they had spent their shortened honeymoon, and revisited on their tenth, twentieth, and many more wedding anniversaries. They had even promised themselves that was where they would retire if they won the lottery.

The next day Sue purchased a tape of Portuguese for Beginners which they played before breakfast every morning, and then spent an hour in the evening, testing out their new skills. They were pleased to discover that over the years they had both picked up more of the language than they realized. Although not fluent, they were certainly not beginners. The two of them quickly moved on to the advanced tapes.

‘We won’t be able to use our own passports,’ Chris pointed out to his wife while shaving one morning. ‘We’ll have to consider a change of identity, otherwise the authorities would be on to us in no time.’

‘I’ve already thought about that,’ said Sue, ‘and we should take advantage of working in our own post office.’

Chris stopped shaving, and turned to listen to his wife.

‘Don’t forget, we already supply all the necessary forms for customers who want to obtain passports.’

Chris didn’t interrupt as Sue went over how she planned to make sure that they could safely leave the country under assumed names.

Chris chuckled. ‘Perhaps I’ll grow a beard,’ he said, putting his razor down.

Over the years, Chris and Sue had made friends with several customers who regularly shopped at the post office. The two of them wrote down on separate sheets of paper the names of all their customers who fulfilled the criteria Sue was looking for. They ended up with a list of two dozen candidates: thirteen women and eleven men. From that moment on, whenever one of the unsuspecting regulars entered the shop, Sue or Chris would strike up a conversation that had only one purpose.

‘Going away for Christmas this year, are we, Mrs Brewer?’

‘No, Mrs Haskins, my son and his wife will be joining us on Christmas Eve so that we can get to know our new granddaughter.’

‘How nice for you, Mrs Brewer,’ replied Sue. ‘Chris and I are thinking of spending Christmas in the States.’

‘How exciting,’ said Mrs Brewer. ‘I’ve never even been abroad,’ she admitted, ‘let alone America.’

Mrs Brewer had reached the second round, but would not be questioned again until her next visit.

By the end of September, seven other names had joined Mrs Brewer on the shortlist – four women and three men, all between the ages of fifty-one and fifty-seven, who had only one thing in common: they had never travelled abroad.

The next problem the Haskins faced was filling in an application for a birth certificate. This required far more detailed questioning, and both Sue and Chris quickly backed off whenever one of the shortlisted candidates showed the slightest sign of suspicion. By the beginning of October they were down to the names of four customers who had unwittingly supplied their date of birth, place of birth, mother’s maiden name and father’s first name.

The Haskins’ next visit was to Boots the chemist in St Peter’s Avenue, where they took turns to sit in a little cubicle and have several strips of photographs taken at £2.50 a time. Sue then set about completing the necessary application forms for a passport, on behalf of four of her unsuspecting customers. She filled in all the relevant details, while enclosing photographs of herself and Chris, along with a postal order for £42. As the postmaster, Chris was only too happy to pen his real signature on the bottom of each form Sue filled in.

The four application forms were posted to the passport office at Petty France in London on the Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the last week in October.

On Wednesday, 11 November the first passport arrived back at Victoria Crescent, addressed to Mr Reg Appleyard. Two days later, a second appeared, for Mrs Audrey Ramsbottom. The following day Mrs Betty Brewers turned up, and finally, a week later, Mr Stan Gerrard’s.

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Sue had already pointed out to Chris that they would have to leave the country using one set of passports, which they would then need to discard, before they switched to the second pair, but not until they had found somewhere to live in Albufeira.

Chris and Sue continued to practise their Portuguese whenever they were alone in the shop, while informing any regulars that they would be away over the Christmas period as they were planning a trip to America. The inquisitive were rewarded with such details as a week in San Francisco, followed by a few days in Seattle.

By the second week in November, everything was in place to press the button for Operation Money Back Guaranteed.

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At nine o’clock on Friday morning Sue made her weekly phone call to headquarters. She entered her personal code before being transferred to forward finance. The only difference this time was that she could hear her heart beating. Sue repeated her code before informing the credit officer how much cash she would require for the following week – an amount large enough to allow her to cover withdrawals for any post office savings accounts, pensions and cashed postal orders. Although an accountant from headquarters always checked the books at the end of every month, considerable leeway was allowed in the run-up to Christmas. A demanding audit was then carried out in January to make sure the books balanced, but neither Chris nor Sue had any intention of being around in January. For the past six years Sue’s books had always balanced, and she was considered by headquarters to be a model manager.

Sue had to check the records to remind herself of the amount she had requested in the same week of the previous year – £40,000, which had turned out to be £800 more than she needed. This year she asked for £60,000, and waited for some comment from the credit officer, but the voice from headquarters sounded neither surprised nor concerned. The full amount was delivered by a security van the following Monday.

During the week Chris and Sue fulfilled all their customers’ obligations; after all, it had never been their intention to short-change any of their regulars, but they still found themselves with a surplus of £21,000 at the end of week one. They left the cash – used notes only – locked up in the safe, just in case some fastidious official from headquarters decided to carry out a spot-check.

Once Sue had closed the front door at six o’clock and pulled down the blinds, the two of them would only converse in Portuguese, while they spent the rest of the evening filling in postal orders, rubbing out scratch cards and entering lottery numbers, often falling asleep as they worked.

Every morning Chris would rise early and climb into his ageing Rover, with Stamps as his only companion. He travelled north, east, south and west – Monday Lincoln, Tuesday Louth, Wednesday Skegness, Thursday Hull and Friday Immingham, where he would cash several postal orders, and also collect his winnings on the scratch cards and lottery tickets, enabling him to supplement their newly acquired savings with an extra few hundred pounds each day.

On the last Friday in November, week two, Sue applied

for £70,000 from head office, so that by the following Saturday they were able to add a further £32,000 to their invisible earnings.

On the first Friday in December, Sue raised the stakes to £80,000, and was surprised to discover that there were still no questions back at headquarters: after all, hadn’t Sue Haskins been manager of the year, with a special commendation from the board? A security van dutifully delivered the full amount in cash early on the Monday morning.

Another week of increased profits allowed Sue Haskins to add a further £39,000 to the pot without any of the other players round the table demanding to see her hand. They were now showing a surplus of well over £100,000, which was stacked up in neat little piles of used notes, resting on top of the four passports buried at the bottom of the safe.

Chris hardly slept at night as he continued to sign countless postal orders, rub out piles of scratch cards and, before going to bed, fill in numerous lottery tickets with endless combinations. By day he visited every post office within a fifty-mile radius, gathering his spoils, but, despite his dedication, by the second week in December Mr and Mrs Haskins had only collected just over half the amount required to retrieve the £250,000 they had originally invested.

Sue warned Chris that they would have to take an even bigger risk if they still hoped to acquire the full amount by Christmas Eve.

On the second Friday in December, week four, Sue called the issuing manager at headquarters, and made a request for £115,000.

‘You’re having a busy Christmas,’ suggested a voice on the other end of the line. First sign of any suspicion, thought Sue, but she had her script well prepared.

‘Run off my feet,’ Sue told him, ‘but don’t forget, more people retire to Cleethorpes than any other seaside town in Britain.’

‘You learn something new every day,’ came back the voice on the other end of the line, before adding, ‘Don’t worry, the cash will be with you on Monday Keep up the good work.’

‘I will,’ promised Sue, and, emboldened by the exchange, requested £140,000 for the final week before Christmas, aware that any sum above £150,000 was always referred back to head office in London.

When Sue pulled down the blinds at six o’clock on Christmas Eve, both of them were exhausted.

Sue was the first to recover. ‘We haven’t a moment to waste,’ she reminded her husband as she walked across to the bulging safe. She entered the code, pulled open the door and withdrew everything from their current account. She then placed the money on the counter in neat bundles – fifties, twenties, tens and fives – before they set about counting their spoils.

Chris checked the final figure and confirmed that they were £267,300 in credit. They put £17,300 back in the safe, and locked the door. After all, they had never intended to make a profit – that would be stealing. Sue began to put elastic bands around each thousand, while Chris transferred the two hundred and fifty bundles carefully into an old RAF duffel bag. By eight o’clock they were ready to leave. Chris set the alarm, slipped quietly out of the back door and placed the duffel bag in the boot of their Rover, on top of four other cases his wife had packed earlier that morning. Sue joined him in the front of the car, as Chris turned on the ignition.

‘We’ve forgotten something,’ said Sue as she pulled the door closed.

‘Stamps,’ they said in unison. Chris turned off the ignition, got out of the car and returned to the post office. He re-entered the code, switched off the alarm and opened the back door in search of Stamps. He found him fast asleep in the kitchen, reluctant to be enticed out of his warm basket and into the back seat of the car. Didn’t they realize it was Christmas Eve?

Chris reset the alarm and locked the door for a second time.

At eight nineteen p.m. Mr and Mrs Haskins set out on the journey for Ashford in Kent. Sue worked out that they had four clear days before anyone would be aware of their absence. Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Sunday, Monday (a bank holiday), back in theory on Tuesday morning, by which time they would be viewing properties in the Algarve.

The two of them hardly spoke a word on the long journey to Kent, not even in Portuguese. Sue couldn’t believe they’d gone through with it, and Chris was even more surprised that they’d got away with it.

‘We haven’t yet,’ Sue reminded him, ‘not until we drive into Albufeira, and don’t forget, Mr Appleyard, we no longer have the same names.’

‘Living in sin after all these years are we, Mrs Brewer?’

Chris brought the car to a halt outside their daughter’s home just after midnight. Tracey opened the front door to greet her mother, while Chris removed one of the suitcases and the duffel bag from the boot. Tracey had never seen her parents looking so exhausted, and felt they had aged since she’d last seen them in the summer. Perhaps it was just the long journey. Tracey took them through to the kitchen, sat them both down and made them a cup of tea. They hardly spoke, and when Tracey eventually bundled them off to bed, her father wouldn’t allow her to carry the old duffel bag up to the guest bedroom.

Sue woke every time she heard a car come to a halt in the street outside, wondering if it was marked with the bold fluorescent lettering POLICE. Chris waited for the frontdoor bell to ring before someone came bounding up the stairs to drag the duffel bag from under the bed, arrest them and escort them both to the nearest police station.

After a sleepless night they joined Tracey in the kitchen for breakfast.

‘Happy Christmas,’ said Tracey, before kissing them both on the cheek. Neither of them responded. Had they forgotten it was Christmas Day? They both looked embarrassed as they stared at the two wrapped boxes that their daughter had placed on the table. They hadn’t remembered to buy Tracey a Christmas present and resorted to giving her cash, something they hadn’t done since she was a teenager. Tracey hoped that it was nothing more than the Christmas rush, and excitement at the thought of their visit to the States, which had caused such uncharacteristic behaviour.

Boxing Day turned out to be a little better. Sue and Chris appeared more relaxed, although they often lapsed into long silences. After lunch Tracy suggested that they take Stamps for a run across the Downs and get some fresh air. During the long walk one of them would begin a sentence and then fall silent. A few minutes later the other would finish it.

By Sunday morning Tracey felt that they both looked a lot better, even chatting away about their trip to America. But two things puzzled her. When she saw her parents coming down the stairs carrying the duffel bag with Stamps in their wake, she could have sworn they were speaking Portuguese. And why bother to take Stamps to America, when she had already offered to take care of the dog while they were away?

The next surprise came when they set off for Heathrow after breakfast. When her father packed the duffel bag and their suitcase into the boot of the car, she was surprised to see three large bags already in the boot. Why bother with so much luggage when they were only going away for a fortnight?

Tracey stood on the pavement and waved goodbye, as her parents’ car trundled off down the road. When the old Rover reached the end of the street it swung right, instead of left, which took them in the opposite direction to Heathrow. Something was wrong. Tracey dismissed the mistake, aware that they could correct their error long before they reached the motorway.

Once Chris and Sue had joined the motorway, they followed the signs for Dover. The two of them became more and more nervous as each minute passed, aware that there was now no turning back. Only Stamps seemed to be enjoying the adventure as he stared out of the back window wagging his tail.

Once again, Mr Appleyard and Mrs Brewer went over their plan. When they reached the docks, Sue would jump out of the car and join the queue of foot passengers waiting to board, while Chris drove the Rover up the car ramp and on to the ferry. They agreed not to meet again until the boat had docked in Calais and Chris had driven on to the dockside.

Sue stood at the bottom of the gangway and waited nervously at the back of the queue as she watched their Rover edge towards the entrance of the hold. Her heart raced when she saw a customs officer double-check Chris’s passport, and invite him to step out of the car and stand to one side. She had to stop herself from running across so she could overhear their conversation – she couldn’t risk it now they were no longer married.

‘Good morning, Mr Appleyard,’ said the customs officer, and then added after looking in the back of the car, ‘were you hoping to take the dog abroad with you?’

‘Oh yes,’ replied Chris. ‘We never travel anywhere without Stamps.’

The customs official studied Mr Appleyard’s passport more carefully. ‘But you don’t have the necessary documents to take a dog abroad with you.’

Chris felt beads of sweat running down his forehead. Stamps’s papers were still attached to the passport of Mr Haskins, which he had left in the safe back at Cleethorpes.

‘Oh hell,’ said Chris. ‘I must have left them at home.’

‘Bad luck, sir. I hope you don’t have far to travel because there isn’t another ferry until this time tomorrow.’

Chris glanced helplessly across at his wife, before climbing back into the car. He looked down at Stamps, who was sleeping soundly on the back seat, oblivious to the problem he was causing. Chris swung the car round and joined an overwrought Sue, who was waiting impatiently to find out why he hadn’t been allowed to board. Once Chris had explained the problem, all she said was, ‘We can’t risk returning to Cleethorpes.’

‘I agree,’ said Chris, ‘we’ll have to go back to Ashford, and hope we can find a vet that’s open on a bank holiday.’

That wasn’t part of our plan,’ said Sue.

‘I know,’ said Chris, ‘but I’m not willing to leave Stamps behind.’ Sue nodded in agreement.

Chris swung the Rover onto the main road, and began the journey back to Ashford. Mr and Mrs Haskins arrived just in time to join their daughter for lunch. Tracey was delighted that her parents were able to spend a couple more days with her, but she still couldn’t understand why they weren’t willing to leave Stamps with her; after all, it wasn’t as if they were going away for the rest of their lives.

Chris and Sue spent another uncommunicative day and a further sleepless night in Ashford. A duffel bag containing a quarter of a million pounds was tucked under the bed.

On Monday a local vet kindly agreed to give Stamps all the necessary injections. He then attached a certificate to Mr Appleyard’s passport, but not in time for them to catch the last ferry.

The Haskins didn’t sleep a wink on the Monday night, and by the time the street lights went out the following morning, they both knew they could no longer go through with it. They lay awake, preparing a new plan – in English.

Chris and Sue finally left their daughter after breakfast the following morning. They drove to the end of the road and this time, to Tracey’s relief, turned left, not right, and headed back in the direction of Cleethorpes. By the time they’d swept past the Heathrow exit, their revised plan was in place.

‘The moment we arrive home,’ said Sue, ‘we’ll put all the money back in the safe.’

‘How will we explain having that amount of cash, when the Post Office accountant carries out his annual audit next month?’ asked Chris.

‘By the time they get around to checking what’s left in the safe, as long as we don’t apply for any more money, we should have been able to dispose of most of the cash simply by carrying out our regular transactions.’

‘What about the postal orders that we’ve already cashed?’

‘There’s still enough cash left in the safe to cover them,’ Sue reminded her husband.

‘But the scratch cards and the lottery tickets?’

‘We’ll have to make up the difference from our own money – that way they’ll end up none the wiser.’

‘I agree,’ said Chris, sounding relieved for the first time in days, and then he remembered the passports.

‘We’ll destroy them,’ said Sue, ‘as soon as we get home.’

By the time the Haskins had crossed the Lincolnshire border, they had made up their minds to continue running the post office, despite its diminished status. Sue had already come up with several ideas for extra items they could sell over the counter, while making the best of what was left of their franchise.

A smile settled on Sue’s lips when Chris finally turned into Victoria Crescent, a smile that was quickly removed when she saw the flashing blue lights. When the old Rover came to a halt, a dozen policemen surrounded the car.

‘Oh shit,’ said Sue. Extreme language for the chairman of the Mothers’ Union, thought Chris, but on balance, he had to agree with her.

Mr and Mrs Haskins were arrested on the evening of 29 December. They were driven to Cleethorpes police station and placed in separate interview rooms. There was no need for the local police to conduct a good cop, bad cop routine, as both of them confessed immediately. They spent the night in separate cells, and the following morning they were charged with the theft of £250,000, being the property of the Post Office, and obtaining, by deception, four passports.

They pleaded guilty to both charges.

Sue Haskins was released from Moreton Hall after serving four months of her sentence. Chris joined her a year later.

While he was in prison Chris worked on another plan. However, when he was released Britannia Finance didn’t feel able to back him. To be fair, Mr Tremaine had retired.

Mr and Mrs Haskins sold their property on Victoria Crescent for £100,000. A week later they climbed into their ancient Rover and drove off to Dover, where they boarded the ferry after presenting the correct passports. Once they had found a suitable location on the seafront in Albufeira, they opened a fish-and-chip shop. Haskins’ hasn’t caught on with the locals yet, but with a hundred thousand Brits visiting the Algarve every year, there’s proved to be no shortage of customers.

I was among those who risked a small investment in the new enterprise, and I am happy to report that I have recouped every penny with interest. Funny old world. But then as Mr Justice Gray observed, Mr and Mrs Haskins were not criminals.

Only one footnote. Stamps died while Sue and Chris were in prison.