The Great Wagon Train Robbery

popcorn

TRUE STORY

Part 1.

We met up behind the garages. We didn’t have long. I had to be in by 6.30 or Mum would go mad. Reggie told us the news. It was definitely there. He’d just heard his dad talk about it over dinner. Today was Friday. It would be there till Sunday. That was good enough for us. The raid was on.

Me, Dave, and Trevor were all twelve years old. Reggie was a year older. That made him the leader.

The treasure was being stored in railway carriages on the sidings behind German Hill.

German Hill was a vast waste ground that led down to the river on the Thames View Estate.

Called German Hill because of the number of small concrete bunkers that were scattered around where soldiers used to look out at the Thames to see if the Germans were coming.

It would be a dangerous mission. Barking Power Station was just up the road and people said that German Hill was where all the waste from the station was dumped. The waste was poisonous and could turn your flesh to jelly in seconds. It was also haunted. It used to be where they buried plague victims hundreds of years ago. At night they all came to life and attacked anyone that dared enter their kingdom. So we had to do everything in broad daylight. It was risky.

But they were risks we’d have to take. There was Popcorn to be had. And it was Butterkist. The sort you see kids in America eating when they’re sitting in cars watching movies.

The route there was easy enough. Through our estate, then up to The Thatched House pub, across the busy, scary and child killing A13, through the Industrial Estate , turn right at The Ship and Shovel pub into River Road, then it was a fifteen minute walk to German Hill. If we went any further we’d be in The Thames.

Coming back we’d have to change route. We’d be carrying boxes of popcorn and didn’t want to be seen by too many people. We’d cross the wasteland and come out onto the A13 at Dagenham. Once safely over the child killing road we’d walk over the bomb sites at Goresbrook. Then through the narrow back streets of the Castle Green area and finally enter our Estate from the rear. It wouldn’t be easy. Rival gangs might spot us and want to steal our prize. If necessary we’d have to fight our way back.

We’d arranged to meet at one o’clock on Saturday outside Ken’s sweet shop at the front end of the Estate. Reggie wanted to go earlier but Dave had to go and get a new pair of school shoes with his Mum and Trevor always had to take shopping to his Aunt Flo on Saturday mornings.

We were all there at one o’clock. Surprising really as none of us had a watch. But if we had, we’d have synchronised them like they do in the films. We made a pact. No matter what happens, no one gets left behind.

The journey up to the Thatched House was easy enough. But then we had to cross the A13. It was a child killer. Our Mums had told us so many times. “Don’t you dare go near that road. It’ll kill you!”

But with stealth and timing we achieved the impossible. We were on the other side.

We soon reached the Ship and Shovel and now it was just one long straight walk down River Road until we could see the vast wilderness of German Hill. The whole area was deserted. An occasional Lorry would pass us on its way to the Power Station but there were no people. Perhaps they were too scared to go anywhere near German Hill, but not us. We were on a quest.

There was a fence to climb but no problem for us. We were up and over in seconds. The ground was boggy. It made squelching noises as we put our feet down.  We quickly realised that wearing our school plimsolls may have been a mistake. Especially Trevor because his pair had a hole in each toe.

With wet feet and feeling the icy wind blowing in off the Thames we plodded on until River Road was far away in the distance. Our brave leader Reggie went on ahead and he was the first to see them up ahead. Four wooden Railway Carriages. Reggie’s Dad called them Wagons, a word we all loved. We were cowboys on our way to a Wagon Train.

We circled the Wagons. Up close they were enormous. But they were no match for our gang. I stood on Dave’s shoulders and pulled at what looked like a giant lever. The door started to move to one side. After a few tugs it opened wide enough for us to see what was inside.

Big brown cardboard boxed with the magic words BUTTERKIST written on them. The treasure had been found. I pulled three boxes off the wagon, one of them split open as it hit the floor. This wasn’t just any old popcorn. This was the god of popcorn. Toffee Popcorn.

None of us had ever tried it before. Popcorn, especially Butterkist Toffee Popcorn was for the posh kids. The sort of kids that went to posh schools and whose mums and dads had nice cars and houses with inside toilets that had soft paper. Most kids on our estate had never heard of popcorn let alone tasted it. Our gang knew about it because it was advertised on the big screen at Saturday morning pictures.

Reggie was the first to open a packet. He tipped some of it into his hand. “It’s sticky” he said, then put the handful into his mouth. He munched away like a greedy hamster. We waited for his approval. Finally he swallowed and nodded.  “It’s good.”

We all dived in and for the next five minutes there was a popcorn eating frenzy. Reggie was right. It was good. Very good.

But our leader quickly brought us back to our senses.

“Enough now. We’ve got to get this lot back to Dave’s dads shed before dark.”

He was right of course. Our raid had been successful but the quest wasn’t over yet.

 

 

 

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The Old Lady At Number 58 ( Part 2)

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I sat there trying to make sense of what she’d just said. How could she know? It was impossible.

Or was it? My rational mind took over. Rushbridge was only seven miles from where me and Aunt Dot had once lived. Maybe they knew each other. Maybe they were friends for a while. I stood up and walked over to her.

“Okay Doreen. You got me. You knew my Aunt Dot didn’t you. Were you friends?”

She ushered me back to the kitchen table.

“Sit down and I’ll get us both another coffee and we’ll…”

She stopped in mid sentence as if listening to something.

“Better than that. Go to that cabinet over near the window. There’s a bottle of something stronger in there. I’m told you like a drop of the hard stuff from time to time.”

She laughed as she said it as though she was sharing a joke with someone unseen.

But she was right. I did like a drop of Whisky, sometimes a bit too much. I’d never been much of a beer drinker. Scotch was my tipple.

I went to the cabinet and found a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black label. Doreen was already sitting down at the table when I returned. There were two clean mugs on the table.

“I’ll join you. But just a small one for me.”

I poured us both a drink and waited for her to tell the truth about Aunty Dot. But she remained silent. It was as though she was listening to another conversation. I raised my voice to get her attention.

“DOREEN. You did know her didn’t you.”

She smiled, picked up her mug and took a sip.

“No dear. I never met her. But one thing I do know is that she loved you very much and to be honest she thinks you can do better than The Rushbridge Gazette.”

Once again that was exactly the sort of thing Aunt Dot would say. She never pulled any punches, always spoke her mind.

“But how?…How do you know all this?”

That’s when she said the famous line. Though I very much doubt if she’d ever seen the film.

“I see dead people. They talk to me, tell me things. I don’t see them clearly, just as shadows. Dead people don’t like to be seen as they are now, so they make your eyes go weak. But I hear them. Clear as day. Your Aunt Dot is here now standing right behind you. She just said you won’t believe me.”

She laughed as she said those last few words and she was right to laugh. I didn’t believe her, not a word. There must be something else. I decided to put her to the test.

“Okay. Ask Aunt Dot to tell you something that only she and I would know.”

Her eyes moved to look at something to my left. She squinted as if trying to focus. Then she nodded.

“Okay. I understand. “

Now she looked back at me.

“After your Mum passed, Dot took you on holiday to Cornwall. You had ice cream but tripped over and it landed in the sand. You were inconsolable and cried for hours. She always thought it had nothing to do with the ice cream but more about your Mum.”

That was it. I was hooked. As impossible as it all seemed, I suddenly believed in Doreen Lucas.

For the next hour she told me about Ivan and his Russian lessons. He’d been visiting for many years. Usually twice a week and during that time he’d taught her the language. She also told me about the many “visitors” she had. Random dead people would just pop in to say hello and talk to her. She never left the house anymore because there were just too many distractions. Apparently dead people are everywhere.

After another mug each of whisky she stopped talking and looked away. She was listening.

“Yes, yes, why not. I’d be happy to help.”

I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or someone else. I couldn’t help but interrupt.

“What?

“You’re Aunty Dot has a plan to help you get a better job.”

Doreen went on to explain what Dot had in mind. If it worked I would be famous. So of course I agreed.

That was a few weeks ago. I’ve been visiting 58 Woodbridge Gardens every day since then. I sit with Doreen while she talks and listens to the guests that arrive. It’s amazing how many dead people want to come and tell her things. We’ve had musicians, politicians, gangsters, religious leaders, even royalty.

I sit and make notes as she repeats what they tell her. She can even ask for certain people to attend. It takes a day or two but they do come. Ever eager to tell their stories.

I’m still with the Rushbridge Gazette. But not for long. Tomorrow I have an interview with a large Sunday Newspaper as an Investigative Journalist. How can they turn me down? I’ve got this amazing story about Lord Lucan. I can prove where he went after the murder of his nanny and even where his body is buried. All done with proper investigative techniques of course. After I’ve got the job I’ll start to explain other unsolved mysteries like what happened to Jimmy Hoffa and who really shot JFK. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

There’s just one drawback. I’m beginning to think I can hear the voices as well. But not clearly, just as faint whispers. Oh and another thing. My reading glasses don’t seem to work anymore…

 

 

 

 

The Old Lady At Number 58. ( Part 1)

index

“I see dead people.”

I know what you’re thinking. It’s a good line from a good film. You’d be right. But the exact same words were said to me by an elderly lady by the name of Doreen Lucas.

Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

I’m a reporter on a local paper. The Rushbridge Gazette. Maybe “reporter” is a bit of a grand title.

Basically, people phone in or write to us about a local matter that they think worthy of our attention. I go round, find out more information, decide whether it’s true or not, then write a few hundred words for the paper. It’s easy work. Usually it’s about singing cats, talking dogs or maybe someone’s grown a potato that looks like Prince Philip.

But a few weeks ago I got a call from a woman who said that her elderly neighbour had learnt Russian at the ripe old age of eighty six.

Seemed like a great local story so I set off to investigate. The only information I had was that the woman’s name was Doreen Lucas and she lived at 58 Woodbridge Gardens.

The neighbourhood was classy. Big old Victorian houses, three storeys high and each with a large basement. Most had been converted into flats, but not number 58. This was still original. It would need a fair amount of TLC to restore it to its former glory but it was still a handsome house. The door knocker was a big bulls head with a large brass ring through its nose. I knocked and waited.

An old silver haired lady, no more than five feet tall and not much more than seven stone stood in front of me wearing a smile as big as the house itself.

“Yes dear. What can I do for you? Have you come to read the meter?”

There was something about her eyes. Although she was looking straight at me, I couldn’t help but think she was struggling to focus. Cataracts perhaps?

“No, Mrs Lucas. I’m from the Gazette. I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes to have a chat about you learning Russian recently.”

She started to laugh.

“I bet it was that stupid woman next door who told you. Just because she heard me talking in the garden the other day. Come on in. I’ll put the kettle on.”

She turned and walked along the hallway leaving me standing on the doorstep. I wiped my feet and followed her into the kitchen at the end of the hall. There was a large wooden table and four chairs in the middle of the room. She patted one of the chairs as she walked by. I took that to mean I was to sit down. So I did.

“Tea? Milk and sugar?”

Before I could answer she quickly spoke again.

“Oh you take coffee. Black. I’ve got some in the cupboard somewhere.”

She was right. I hate tea. Haven’t had a cup in over twenty years. How would she know that?

“Yes please. If it isn’t too much trouble Mrs Lucas.”

She had her back to me and I could see her moving things about in a large walk in pantry.

“Can you help me? My eyes aren’t what they were. I know I’ve got a jar in here somewhere but can’t seem to find it. Don’t want to give you a cup of gravy by mistake.”

Once again she laughed. It was infectious. I started to laugh as well.

I walked over and found the coffee behind two cans of peaches and a tin of Ye Old Oak Ham.

“Here you go Mrs Lucas. Do you want me to make it?”

She took the coffee from my hand and unscrewed the lid.

“Don’t be silly. You’re a guest here. Go and sit down and I’ll bring it over. And another thing. Stop calling me Mrs Lucas. It’s Doreen.”

I did as I was told and sat back down at the table. A few moments later she put a mug of hot coffee in front of me.

“There we go. Now what did you want to talk about? Oh yes. The Russian.”

I took out a notebook and pen eager to take notes. I was now in interview mode.

“So you DO speak Russian then?”

“Well I wouldn’t say I was fluent but I can hold a conversation.”

“How did you learn it? Was it from your husband?”

Again she laughed.

“Reg? Oh no dear. Poor Reg was from Derby. Never left the country. Farthest he ever travelled was here to Rushbridge when we bought the house back in the fifties. He’s been gone twenty years now.”

“So how did you learn it? Books, tapes, classes?”

“Menya uchili russkiy yazyk menya khoroshiy drug Ivan.”

I was impressed. The words were clear and precise. I had no idea if it was Russian or not but it sounded authentic.

“Was that Russian? What did you say?”

“I said I was taught Russian by my friend Ivan.”

“Who’s Ivan? A neighbour?”

“No dear. Ivan is a man who used to live in this house many years ago. He pops by from time to time for a chat. He taught me Russian so that we could talk together.”

“That’s nice of him. Does he still live close by?”

“No. He’s long gone now.”

“Did you and Reg buy the house from him?”

“No Ivan lived here a long time before that.”

I was intrigued. What she was saying didn’t seem to make any sense.

“So WHEN did Ivan live here?”

She sat back in her chair. Her head turned slightly away from me. I thought she was thinking. But she seemed to be whispering into thin air. Then she spoke.

“84.”

Now I was really confused.

“But Doreen you said YOU’VE lived here since the 1950’s. Was Ivan a lodger?”

She laughed that lovely laugh of hers then said the words that stunned me.

“No not 1984…1884!”

My first thoughts were simple. The woman was a nutter. But it didn’t change the fact that she COULD speak Russian. Then she said something else that absolutely floored me.

“Your Aunty Dot says you’ve always been a nosey so and so.”

She laughed as she said it.

This time I didn’t laugh. My Aunt Dot had been dead for six years. She was my Mums sister and brought me up after Mum died. I loved her from the very marrow of my bones. When I was a kid growing up I wanted to be Clark Kent, Superman by night and a Newspaper reporter by day. She used to tease me and say. “You’ll never be Superman but you’ll make a good reporter you will, because you’re a nosey little bastard.”

I just sat there in shock. Doreen was smiling at me. The she said something else.

“Of course I’m being polite. She used other words.”

I couldn’t help it. I just blurted out.

“What words? What words did she use?”

Doreen stood up and put her hand on my shoulder.

“She said you were always a nosey little bastard.”

She picked up the cups and walked away.

 

 

More Rules.

the-rule-book

Another extract from a much longer story I’m working on…

So, a new family has moved into the street, just four doors up. The Donovans. I know them for two reasons. Firstly, by reputation and secondly…well, I’ll tell you about that a bit later.

Joe Donovan has a haulage firm and his two boys work with him. I hear they’re a bit of a handful, all of them, even Mrs Donovan. She bit a chunk out of her neighbours ear during a fight over a garden fence panel. When I first heard the story I didn’t think much of it. Woman fight, so what? But then I discovered that her neighbour was Jack Williams, a six foot five scaffolder. Respect…

Now everyone around here knows about my rules. Leave us alone and you’ll be fine. Mess with us and you’ll be in a world of trouble. Simple, easy to follow. Over the years some people have broken those rules and they’ve paid the consequences. Their fault, not mine.

I’m sure the Donovans know all about us, just as we know of them. But, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding I’ve arranged a “Sit down” tonight with Joe at the Royal Oak pub. Best to get things straight from the outset. We don’t want another “Chandler” situation!

Oh you don’t know about the Chandlers?

Well they were another “Big” family that moved onto the Estate a couple of years ago. Came with a reputation for being a bit handy. I didn’t explain the rules to them, just assumed they knew.

Bob Chandler sold cars. My boy hadn’t long passed his test and wanted a run around. Nothing flash, just reliable. Bob sold him a Ford Focus. A few months later and it needs an MOT. My boy takes it into a garage, the mechanic looks it over and tells him that it’s a cut and shunt. That’s two cars that have been welded together. An accident waiting to happen. A death trap.

My boy goes back to Bob and asks for his money back. Bob tells him to fuck off. He didn’t think the rules applied to him. He was wrong.

Apart from selling cars, Bob Chandler was a keen Pigeon fancier. Had a massive loft at the end of his garden. He raced them, bred them and showed them. Some were champions worth thousands of pounds.

I was in Majorca on holiday when his loft caught fire. People tell me the smell was like burnt barbeque chicken and hung in the air for days.

The Police asked him if he could think of anyone that had a grudge against him. Bob gave them my name and told them there’d been a dispute over a car. Fair play to the Old Bill, they suggested Bob gave me my money back. He declined.

The Chandlers moved away after Bob was involved in a freak accident. He was under one of his cars one day checking the exhaust. The jack slipped and poor Bob got a bit mangled.

They live in Kent now. I know the address because he still hasn’t paid my boy his money back. I’ll wait for him to start walking again before I take it any further.

So you understand my reasoning about the “Sit down” tonight with Joe Donovan.

Oh, and the second reason I know the Donovans? My daughter has just started going out with Joes youngest son.