How my friend’s grandfather went rogue – my second winter’s tale for the festive season.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 31st December 2014
Arthur, my friend Steve tells me, was a wonderful grandfather. He loved the company of younger people, and always had a good story to tell. He remained as sharp as a pin and lived independently until his death at 101. His gold retirement watch, which stopped on the day he died, still sits on Steve’s beside table.
Throughout his official working life, he toiled blamelessly at the General Post Office. He was a union official, popular and respected, who was active in local politics. It was after he retired and received his watch that he went rogue. He fell in with a crew of geriatric delinquents and started working the racecourses.
The greybeards had the ticketing system stitched up. They were the dependable stewards – bowler-hatted, with perfect manners – who met the millionaires off their helicopters. Their job was to sell these people stupendously expensive tickets for the VIP enclosure. The tickets camed in sealed packets, numbered and dated. A couple of members of the grizzled racket worked inside the ticket office, and issued more packets than the sellers were likely to use.
On the way to the helipad, the old crims would open the surplus packets with a razor blade, extract one or two tickets from each pack, then melt the wax seal and, pressing it back into shape, use it to close the opening they had made. They sold the black tickets on their own account, and each made many hundreds. The old boys in the office then logged the packets back in, recorded them as complete and put them in the incinerator. When Steve was a teenager, he helped his grandad for a day with what he believed were official ticket sales, for the standard wage of a tenner. When the job was done, one of the gang members pressed £150 into his hand.
It might have been through this venerable crew that Arthur met a dissolute auctioneer, a functioning drunkard, also advanced in years, with a sharp eye for business and a selective blindness for how it was conducted. Arthur was employed to bid up prices in the auction room, and to help move the goods selected for sale. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs soon began to take an unhealthy interest in Arthur’s affairs; eventually he was stung for £6000 in back tax.
One day the two old rogues were working through a house after probate had been granted, with one of the sons of the deceased, when Arthur stumbled across something not listed in the will. It was a box containing sixty George V gold sovereigns, minted in Pretoria in the 1920s. The horde was worth many thousands.
There were two options. The first was to declare the find, whereupon it would be listed as an asset of the deceased’s estate. It would then be subject to inheritance tax, and the residue divided among the beneficiaries of the will. The second was to say nothing and split it three ways. The three philosophers examined the question long and hard, interrogating it from the point of view of Socrates, Aristotle and Epicurus, before divvying up the loot. Arthur took his share and hid it in his house. He told his family about this good fortune, but never revealed where he had stashed the treasure.
He was not a hoarder. On the whole, he preferred cash, and sold most of what he possessed, even – to his sons’ distress – his wife’s jewellery after her death, bar one diamond and some of the gold it contained, which he had turned into a signet ring. He lived sparely, in the way that people of his generation often did. By the time he died, his house was almost empty: just a few sticks of worthless furniture and some bric-a-brac fit only for the skip. But his family knew he had not sold the sovereigns.
There are not many hiding places in a 1950s bungalow: none of the priestholes or tunnels or sliding panels behind which gold is traditionally hidden. So, after the old man’s funeral, when Steve and his father went to clear his house, they never doubted that they would find the horde. They rolled back the carpets. They pulled open the base of the divan. Steve brought in a ladder and checked the pelmets of the heavy old curtains. They lifted the insulation in the loft and searched inside the water tank. By the time they had finished, every crevice and cornice had been examined. The house was empty, a mere shell of the old man’s life, in which no sign of his presence remained, except the faded carpets, which they had relaid, and the curtains. Reluctantly, they gave up. They appointed an estate agent and put the house on the market.
Steve’s father tried to contact the auctioneer, but couldn’t track him down. Perhaps the old soak was on a bender: he had, after all, failed to attend the funeral, which was surprising, as the two adventurers were known to be close. But some time after the house was sold, the auctioneer at last rang back. “Oh no,” he confirmed, “he never sold the sovereigns. They were just about the only things he kept.” “So where are they?” “He used them as curtain weights.”
Steve’s father has also now passed away, so we don’t know exactly what he said when he rang the new owners. But we know that he trod a delicate line between discovering what he was after and not alerting them to his intent. The conversation went something like this:
“We didn’t go through the house as carefully as we might have, and I think we could have left some items of sentimental value behind. I was wondering whether they might still be there.” “Well the house was completely empty. There was nothing in it except the carpets and the curtains.”
“Ah, those lovely carpets and curtains! I can’t think of them without picturing my father sitting in his armchair.” “You want the curtains and carpets?”. “He didn’t leave very much behind you see.” “I’m sorry to say that we’ve ripped them all out.” “Well yes of course, that’s perfectly understandable. What did you do with them?” “We put them in the skip.” “Is the skip – is it, er, full yet?”. “Oh yes, they took it away on Thursday. It all went to the dump. If you’d rung a couple of days ago …”
*The names in this story have been changed.