The Speech Day
Mr Abbott, the headmaster of Nutcombe Junior School for Boys, was a worried man. The school's annual speech day and prize giving was due to start in half an hour, and he had just been informed that the Bishop of Nutchester, who was to have given the address on the theme of Virtue - The Golden Path To Success, was unable to attend because of some episcopal emergency. Knowing that the deputy headmaster was a pious man, he wondered if he could be persuaded to step in at short notice. Hurrying across the playground as a short cut to the wing where his deputy was teaching, he almost bumped into an old man who was gazing at the front of the school buildings as if sightseeing. He asked the man who he was and what he wanted.
The stranger replied that his name was Harry Fraser. He had emigrated to Australia at the turn of the century, when he was thirty years old. He had now returned to England at the age of eighty a wealthy man, and was revisiting the haunts of his childhood. He had been surprised to find that the school which he had entered as one of its very first pupils 75 years ago was still housed in the same buildings. He had wandered into the playground to get a closer look, wondering if his initials were still scratched into the stonework.
As Harry spoke, the headmaster examined him. He was tanned and, for his age, very fit. The quality of his clothes, from his dove-grey Homburg to his hand-stitched shoes and yellow pigskin gloves, supported his claim to be rich. He spoke fluently, albeit colourfully and with an Australian accent. Here, perhaps, was the perfect answer to his problem, a living example of what could be achieved by a son of Nutcombe, one moreover with a direct link to this very school as a founding pupil. The boys were surely more likely to heed words of wisdom from such a man than from the Right Reverend the Bishop of Nutchester, alumnus of Winchester and Balliol. Tentatively he asked Harry if he would be willing to say a few words to the boys on the subject of his path to success. Harry readily agreed, and the headmaster led him into the building and onto the platform in the hall where the boys were already assembled. After a brief introduction by the headmaster, Harry stepped forward and addressed his audience.
Boys, your head master here has asked me to tell you how I got where I am today, and the lessons life has taught me. Well, I started right here in this school 75 years ago. I paid attention to my studies, learned to read, write, and figure real good, and as a result when I left school I didn't have to go labouring for 9/- a week - I could become a clerk for 7/6d a week.
I worked as the mailing clerk at a firm of exporters in Nutchester. They sent out lots of letters to every country you can imagine, and my job was to weigh the letters, put the right amount of stamps on them, and post them. I soon saw that the firm was wasting money. Lots of the letters had wide margins with no writing in, or they finished halfway down the page, and the company was paying for sending all that blank paper round the world. So what I'd do was, I'd weigh the letters and work out how much the postage would be, then I'd take my scissors and trim off all the surplus paper. I'd weigh the letters again, and put the right stamps on for the new weight, saving a lot of money. Of course, my employers didn't get the saving, that went into my pocket. So I was better off, and the firm was no worse off. What could be fairer than that? But then one of them foreign firms went bust, and a letter came back undelivered. When it was opened, and they saw that there were no margins, they checked it against my post book and found that I had entered it as 9d, and it only had a sixpenny stamp on. That was when I went inside for the first time, lads, and it taught me a valuable lesson. What I should have done was to put the wrong return address on the envelopes of those letters.
When I came out I couldn't get a job, not as an ex-con. I decided to try my luck down south. I started walking to London, and teamed up with a gypsy woman who was headed that way. She would go ahead, knocking on doors, selling her lucky white heather. Then she'd say,
Let me see your hand, missus. You have a look of fate about you. She'd look at the woman's palm, and say something like,
A one-eyed man will come into your life. Be good to him. He is the key to your fortune.
A day or two later I'd follow the same route with an eyepatch over one eye. When I saw a house with our secret chalk mark on the gate post, I'd knock and ask for a drink of water. I'd tell the woman that I was trying to get to London to be at the death bed of a rich old uncle, but was having to walk because I had no money.
More often than not she'd give me the train fare, saying,
You can pay me back later. Here's my address. Mind you don't lose it.
Silly bitches had dreams of me inheriting a fortune and coming back to repay them tenfold. There's a lot of greed in this world, boys.
It took us months to get to London, because we had to follow a winding route so that we could meet every few days to divvy up, but it was worth it. It taught me the value of team work. The gypsy woman taught me one or two other things too, but I'll save them for the senior school.
In London I became a coalman, driving a horse and cart, making deliveries for a coal merchant. My route covered a lot of big houses, which gave me plenty of scope for enterprise. Usually a footman checked the delivery. Some of them would watch while I lifted each sack from the wagon, carried it across, and emptied it down the coal hole. It was easy to make them lose count. Like, I'd tip the fourth sack down, and say,
Four. Then I'd straighten up and ask him,
What time do you start in the morning then? If he said
Six o'clock, I'd say
Six? Then I'd get the next sack, empty it down the hole, and say,
To guard against losing count, some of them had a different way of checking. They'd make me leave the empty sacks next to the coal hole, then when I'd finished, they'd count the sacks. Of course, they didn't touch the sacks themselves. That would've spoiled their poncy white gloves. No, I'd turn the sacks over one by one while they counted. For them I used to sew an empty sack to the side of a full one - just a loose tacking stitch at each corner, using weak cotton, enough to keep the sacks together while I emptied the full one and threw them aside together. Then when it came to counting them, I'd hold the bottom one down while I tore the top one away, breaking the stitches, so one full bag made two empties.
Before returning to the depot each day I'd sell the coal left over at a bargain price to customers who weren't too curious about where it came from, mostly pub landlords. That proved to be my undoing. One day I was being paid by a publican when who should come waltzing out of the saloon bar but the coal merchant I worked for, so that was the end of that job. It taught me a valuable lesson - never work for a man who drinks.
I got my own back on him, though. I set up on my own account in competition against him and poached his customers by undercutting him. He never did figure out how I could buy coal at the same price as him, sell it for less, and still make a profit. Well, it was simple really. We both bought our coal from a wholesaler at the railway yard. When you arrived there, you drove your cart onto a weighbridge to be weighed, then you'd take it to the coal heaps to be filled up, then you'd drive it onto the weighbridge to be weighed again. The difference between the unladen weight and the laden weight was the amount of coal you paid for. Well, my cart had a water tank hidden underneath it with a tap that could be operated by a string from the driver's seat. Before going to the yard I'd fill the tank up, and while the cart was being loaded with coal I'd pull the string and let the water out. So the unladen weight included the weight of the water, and the laden weight did not. That was my secret margin - I turned water into coal. I gave up the business when one of the railway workers reported me to the RSPCA for failing to get treatment for my poor horse's bladder problem.
In the year 1899, lots of folk got very excited about the coming of a new century. They thought that a couple of noughts on the calendar was enough to make everything modern and up-to-date. Silly buggers! I needed a change, but I knew the date wouldn't do it for me, so I decided to move down under - to Australia.
I didn't want to waste money on a boat ticket, so I made my way to Southampton and hung about watching passengers embark on a P&O ship bound for Oz. I soon spotted a suitable mark - a fella about my age and weight, a chinless wonder being seen off by Mummy and Daddy. A bit of eavesdropping told me that his moniker was Cecil Ponsonby. Yep, there really are people with names like that. I invested in a bottle of brandy and went on board pretending to be seeing someone off. As soon as we set sail I made chums with Cecil and plied him with drink until he was blotto. When it got dark I took his passport and other papers from his pockets, rolled him into a lifeboat, and made myself at home in his cabin. There was a bit of fuss the next day when Cecil claimed to be me, but I was in the cabin and had the gift of the gab, while he had been found in a lifeboat and could only stutter and yammer, so it was soon decided in my favour. What they did with Cecil I don't know. I had a bonzer voyage. It was a bit of a bind answering to the name of Cecil Ponsonby, but the use of his clothes and funds made up for it. I knew that there would probably be someone waiting for him in Sydney, so on arrival I slipped away quietly, wearing his best suit of clothes, with the remains of his money and as much of his gear as I could pack into one suitcase. His silver-backed hairbrush alone brought quite a few bob in the nearest pawnbrokers.
That episode taught me that you don't have to accept your lot. You can be anyone you like.
Being Cecil had given me a taste for upper class life, and I regularly used to gatecrash the receptions and balls of Sydney society. All you needed were the right clothes and a lah-di-dah accent. For months on end I was living on a diet of caviar, paté sandwiches, and prawns in aspic. The beauty of it was, the longer I got away with it, the less likely I was to be caught, because I'd become a familiar face. Heck, I even got invited to join parties going to the opera, and that sort of thing. As well as the free nosh, I was able to pick up a few trinkets here and there. The servants always got the blame.
When the Great War started, I must have had a rush of blood to the head or something, 'cause I volunteered for the army, King and country and all that. They sent us to Egypt to be trained, and then to the Dardanelles. Have you heard of the Dardanelles, boys? I bet you've heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, brave men sent to be slaughtered in a useless battle, theirs but to do and die? Well, sixty years later they did it all again in the Dardanelles. They called it the Battle of Gallipoli, but this time it was against Johnny Turk instead of alongside him - and if that doesn't tell you something about the stupidity of our masters, nothing will. Tens of thousands of good men killed on both sides, for no sensible reason whatsoever. We had a song, us troops from down under. It went:
We are the ragtime army
We cannot shoot, we won't salute
What bloody use are we?
Cannon fodder, that's what bloody use we were. I was one of the lucky few who came back unscathed. It taught me one thing - never volunteer.
After the war I gave up gate crashing. Jazz age flappers had taken over from Edwardian society, and I was too old to mix with the gay young things, but that was where the money was, and I did my best to keep in touch. I often served as a waiter at high society events. The money was poor, but you could pick up useful information. For instance, I learnt quite a lot about Lord Bletchley. He didn't go to parties, but he had a hankering for ladies of the chorus, a right little stage-door Johnny. He gave them so many necklaces and bracelets that he had an account at Ospreys the jewellers. Sometimes he'd go in himself and pick out what he wanted; sometimes he'd just ring up and say,
Send me round a £50 ruby bracelet, will you? and they'd deliver something to suit. I studied his habits carefully from a distance, and was soon able to predict his movements pretty accurately.
One day I was outside Ospreys smartly dressed in a morning suit, waiting for Bletchley to turn up. When his Rolls arrived, I stepped forward and opened the car door for him, then I opened the door of the store for him, and followed him inside. I stayed close behind his shoulder, and as he looked at a selection of pieces I would murmur from time to time,
Any young lady would be proud to possess that, sir, or
That is a very fine piece, sir, and so on. As I expected, he supposed that I was an employee of the store, and the store staff supposed that I was with him. When he had made his selection, I opened the door of the store for him, followed him outside, and opened the car door for him. As the car drove off, I disappeared swiftly around the corner.
Two days later I went back to the store and spoke to the assistant who had served him.
Lord Bletchley has decided that he would like the sapphire and diamond brooch as well. If it is still available, will you have it sent round? The assistant confirmed that it was still available. I then said,
His Lordship has particularly asked me to take a note of the weight of the stones. As the assistant examined the piece, I made a show of searching my waistcoat pockets.
Oh dear, I said,
I have left my notebook on my dressing table.
He smirked in a superior manner, wrote on a pad, and passed the paper to me. Under the printed heading, he had written,
Sapphire and diamond brooch. Two sapphires weighing 7 carats total, 12 carats of rose cut diamonds. The simpering idiot had even added his signature, presumably hoping to win a brownie point from his lordship.
I waited outside Bletchley's apartment block until Ospreys' messenger had been and gone. Then I rang Bletchley's number from a public phone across the street. When his man answered I said,
This is Ospreys, the jewellers. I'm sorry to bother you, but we have just inadvertently despatched a package to you which should have gone to another client. When our messenger arrives, tell him to bring it back here, will you? Of course, he told me that the messenger had already been and left the package.
Oh dear, I said.
We will send someone to collect it right away.
I waited five minutes, then called at the apartment. The man servant answered the door. I said,
Good afternoon. I'm from Ospreys. We rang earlier about a package that had been delivered by mistake.
Bletchley himself then came to the door with the brooch in his hand, and recognised me as an assistant from Ospreys.
Damn poor show that. Inefficient. Shouldn't happen in a well run establishment.
We are so very sorry to have troubled your lordship. We are taking steps to see that it will not happen again. Be assured that the person responsible will be dealt with. If you could just let me have the brooch, here is a receipt, and I handed him the note that the store assistant had written, at the top of which I had thoughtfully added the single word 'Received.'
The moral of that story, boys, is,
It is better to take than to receive.
In the great depression of the 1930s, the upper classes became more careful with their money, so I had to go downmarket. I looked around to find a product that was easy to make, had a long shelf life, could be sold casually, and had a big profit margin. The answer was cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. One day I met a fellow who had tried to set up his own business making spreads for bread and cakes, but he'd gone bust. I bought him out cheaply and took over his equipment - mixers, and filling and packing machines - and his unused raw materials - lard, flour, starch, colourings, and so on. With these, plus a gallon of cheap scent and a can of carbolic acid, I started making and packaging my own brand of face creams, lotions, ointments, and the like. To help me I hired someone off the dole queue who was glad to get any kind of work. His name was Joe. We sold the stuff in Paddington Market every Saturday, taking it in turns to man the stall. We did good business, and made a tidy profit.
One Saturday, I was on the stall when a man came up and asked if I was the owner. Now I hadn't lived 60 years without learning two things: one, think before you speak, and two, the truth can be dangerous. This fellow had 'process server' written all over him, so I told him no, the owner was off this week but would be on the stall next week.
That night I paid Joe his wages for the week, and I said to him,
Joe, we've got this business running so smoothly, it doesn't really need both of us anymore. It would be twice as profitable if it was a one-man show. I could see the fear in his eyes as he thought I was about to sack him.
I'll tell you what I'll do, Joe. You've worked so hard, I'll give you the chance to buy the business off me. I know you haven't got the money to buy it outright, but if you like, you can pay by weekly instalments out of the takings. What do you say?
Of course he said yes, believing that the alternative would be the sack. So I took back his week's wages as the first instalment, wished him luck, and walked away.
The next Saturday, Joe was on the stall when the process server turned up and asked him if he owned the business. Joe's chest swelled with pride.
Yes, he declared,
I am the sole proprietor, whereupon the summons was served on him. When his case came to court, I sat at the back of the public gallery out of curiosity. It appeared that by making and selling that stuff, Joe had contravened so many by-laws and regulations I was ashamed to have employed the villain. He couldn't pay the fine, so he went to prison.
Remember, boys, life is a bus-ride to be enjoyed, but always keep an eye out for the ticket inspector.
One day I was strolling down Bourke Street minding my own business when a smart-looking fellow stopped me and said,
Fraser? Is it really you? Blow me down if it wasn't my old company commander from the war, Major Monks. He was now the secretary of the local branch of the New Guard, a sort of political group with a lot of ex-servicemen in it. He told me they were in a bit of a pickle because their treasurer was supposed to be running a raffle for them, but he had been given 28 days for getting into a punch-up with a commie. Well, where there's a treasurer there's money, so I told Monks that I had run many a raffle in my time and would be glad to stand in.
The treasurer had set up a very strict system to keep track of the books of tickets, but he'd forgotten that anyone could get more printed, so in no time I had a personal supply that I was selling on my own account. The raffle was officially limited to members of the New Guard, but I believe in democracy, so I sold my tickets to anyone.
The first prize was a motorbike. They had already bought one, but had not collected it. When I looked at the receipt, I saw that the buyer could cancel the contract at any time before taking delivery, so I went round to the dealer, told him we had changed our mind, and got a refund of the £75 the treasurer had paid for the bike. I then went to another dealer who had a nice looking machine which was technically second-hand but had never been used. The original buyer had defaulted on his first payment, and the bike had been repossessed before he had ridden it. I bought the bike for £45, with the proviso that the dealer would buy it back for £40 if it was returned unused.
Now it's against my principles to gamble, so I took steps to remove the element of chance from the draw and ensure that the bike came to me. As it might arouse suspicion if I were to make the draw myself, I suggested that the chairman of the group should do it. He was getting on and had poor eyesight. It would be even more suspicious if I owned the winning ticket, so I looked around for an intermediary. One of the members of the group was called Hoppy, because he had lost a leg in the Dardanelles. He hadn't bought a ticket because a motorbike would be no use to him. I asked him if he would buy a ticket if there was a £25 cash alternative. When he said he would, I promised him that if he won, I would buy the bike from him immediately for that amount. That persuaded him.
The draw was made on stage at the group's meeting hall. All the counterfoils went into the drum - well, all except those from my private tickets and from Hoppy's ticket. The drum was given a good roll, then the chairman drew a counterfoil. He unfolded it and blinked at it blearily. As I had expected, he couldn't make the number out.
What does it say? he asked.
Swiftly I took it from him and read out,
103, which was, of course, Hoppy's number. Then I passed Hoppy's counterfoil, which I'd had in my hand all along, to the secretary, who confirmed the number.
Hoppy cried out,
That's me! and made his way forward on his crutches. There was an embarrassed silence for a moment as members wondered if it might not be in bad taste to give a motorbike to a one-legged man. Hoppy reassured them, declaring
Harry here has promised to buy it off me. Applause broke out, partly congratulating Hoppy on his win, and partly commending my generosity.
I took the motorbike back the next day. The profit on the bike plus the sales of my private tickets gave me a net return of more than £100. As the good book says, boys,
Muzzle not the ox that treadeth out the corn , - but before you start make sure it's not hungry.
Thinking that it might be a good idea to lay low for a while, I went up to Brisbane to stay with a sheila I knew there, name of Brizzie Brenda. We worked the pubs with a nice little act which played out in three scenes.
Scene one, I go into a pub, describe Brenda, and ask if she's been in. The barman says no. I then have a drink while waiting for her, and get more and more impatient when she doesn't show up. I explain my agitation to the barman by telling him that she and I bought a lottery ticket between us, and tore it in two, each keeping one half. We had agreed to meet in that pub if the ticket won. I show him a torn half of a lottery ticket and tell him that the number has come up for the £500 prize, but I have to go away the next day, and if I can't get together with my lady friend, we will lose the prize. Then I tell him that I have some business to attend to, but will come back later. If my lady friend arrives in the meantime, will he please tell her to wait for me to come back. Then I leave.
Scene two, Brenda comes into the pub and asks the barman if I have been in. He tells her, yes, and that I want her to wait until I come back. She says that she can't wait because her mother is ill. Can she leave something for the barman to give to me when I arrive? Then she puts a torn half of a lottery ticket into an envelope, seals it, and writes on the envelope,
This is what you need. I promised the barman you'd give him £1. She gives it to the barman, telling him he will get a pound tip if he gives it to me when I arrive. She then leaves.
Scene three, I return and ask the barman if my lady friend has been in. More often than not he answers no. I curse and complain that I can't wait any longer, so now we won't be able to claim the prize. The barman likely then suggests that I leave my half of the ticket with him, to give to my lady friend if she should turn up. That offer I refuse, and I turn to leave. The barman then says,
Tell you what, I'm willing to take a chance. I'll buy your half of the ticket for a pound. I tell him it would be a waste of money, there was next to no chance she would return. He keeps increasing his offer, and I keep refusing, until eventually I relent when I judge he's reached his limit, usually between £5 and £10. I am careful to tell him that in my opinion he has just thrown his money away. I leave before he has the chance to put the two halves together and discover they don't fit.
It was surprising how many pubs we could cover in a day. I would go round one pub after another, performing scene one, followed by Brenda doing scene two, then I'd start at the first pub again doing scene three.
What happened if the barman was honest and handed over the envelope, I hear you ask. Why, I'd pay him a pound and look grateful. Does that surprise you? Well, let me tell you that the dishonest ones outnumbered the honest ones by more than two to one, and that I never sold my half of the ticket for less than £5. We took in at least ten times more than we paid out.
People are reliable, boys - you can always rely on them trying to cheat you if you give them half a chance. There was a sad ending to that episode. When I got back to Sydney I found that Brenda had tipped off some mates of hers that I'd be away, and they'd cleaned me out. Cherchez la femme fatale, boys, as the Froggies say.
When the war came in '39, there was more money around, but I was knocking on 70, so none of it came my way. In 1940 I was bumming on the streets of Sydney. That's right, sitting cross-legged on the pavement with an upturned cap in front of me, begging for pennies.
One day a rough looking fella stopped in front of me and took a fat wallet from his hip pocket.
Here y'are, mate, he said, and dropped a pound note into my cap.
Well, you can imagine my surprise - a whole pound in one go. That was as much as I'd been getting in loose change in a week. Naturally, my feeling of gratitude soon gave way to resentment. Judging by the size of that wallet, he could have afforded to give me two, or even three quid, the stingy bastard. He was walking away, shoving the wallet back into his pocket. So I shouted after him,
Hey, mister, thinking I could shame him into an extra bung. As soon as the words left my mouth, I saw that his hand had missed his pocket, and the wallet had fallen to the ground, unbeknown to him. Naturally, I shuffled forward quick and tried to snaffle it before he missed it, but he had heard me shout, and turned around in time to see me reaching towards the wallet.
Thanks, mate, he said.
That's real dinkum of you. A lot of blokes in your position would have kept it for themselves. The mug actually thought that I was trying to return it to him.
He took me off and bought me a meal. He told me he was an opal miner. He'd come into Sydney to sell a bag of stones. That's how his wallet was full. He asked me to be his partner - his previous one had left him.
What, me? I asked,
At my age?
He said all I'd have to do was to be up top while he was down the hole, so that I could get help if anything happened to him. He wanted someone he could trust, and he'd decided he could trust me. I'd be in for twenty-five percent of the finds.
We drove up to the claim at Lightning Ridge in his truck. It was god-awful country, but he'd built a decent shack that housed two comfortably. He'd found a right good strike, a thick vein only a few feet down. He was a hard worker, and every day up came bucket-loads of big nuggets of top quality black opal. Once a week he drove into Walgett for supplies, but otherwise he just kept digging. His idea was to work the seam until it ran out, sell the stones all in one go, and retire. The rate he was going, that wouldn't take long.
One night he'd had a bit to drink, and started talking about his ex-partner. It seems he'd caught him salting a few stones away for himself. I pricked up my ears because, of course, I'd been building up a little stash on my own account during his weekly shopping trips.
What happened? I asked.
Oh, he left.
Where'd he go?
Out there, he said, motioning towards the outback.
Suppose he comes back? I asked.
He gave a nasty little laugh.
He won't come back, believe me.
Are you sure?
As sure as I am that the dingoes didn't go hungry the night he went away. Then his head nodded and he fell asleep.
I wasn't going to hang around to share the same fate. That night I loaded up the truck with our entire haul of stones and drove to Sydney. Of course, I made sure that the dingoes were fed before I left.
The lesson my mining days taught me was,
Do unto others before they do unto you.
While we'd been in the outback, the price of opals had gone through the roof, especially black opals, and even more especially black opals of the quality I had. That truck-load of stones brought me a tidy sum with more than enough noughts on it. So I decided it was time to come home and see how the old country had been getting on without me.
That, boys, is how I got where I am today, and any one of you can do the same if you just try hard enough.
After Harry had finished speaking, there was a moment's silence followed by tumultuous applause from the boys. Some of the older ones so far entered into the spirit of Harry's speech as to shout,
Good on yer, sport! and similar antipodean expressions. Harry turned, confidently expecting the headmaster's congratulations for such a well received speech, but that individual was sitting with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, sobbing quietly. The rest of the staff had stolen quietly away at various intervals during Harry's address, vainly trying to suppress their mirth as they went.