Upcote sipped his tea from the china cup which was kept on the top shelf in Bob’s café for his own use only and eyed Peter Smith over the rim before placing it carefully back on its saucer and releasing his well-manicured finger and thumb.
“If you and I are to become associates, Smythe, we must attend to various pressing matters.”
“Who’s Smythe when he’s at home, John?”
“And the first of those matters is your name, and my name for that matter.”
“What’s the matter with my name?”
“A lot, and I can assure you that names matter, Smythe. Much water has passed under the bridge since we left the employ of Messieurs Atkinson and Sons – improving waters in my case – and the last eight years have transformed me from an inky-fingered office drudge into a gentleman, and a gentleman of leisure to boot.”
“But you must be as skint as I am, John.”
“Kindly address me by my surname, as I will henceforth address you by a more palatable version of your own. Wealth is a relative concept, Smythe, and if we become further reacquainted I will familiarise you with the methods by which one can augment one’s modest state subsidy and live like a gentleman even in a town of barbarians such as this.”
“Nuncaton’s all right, Joh-, Upcote.”
“Nuncaton is a heathenish post-industrial blot on a once unsullied pastoral landscape in which my forebears lived in the manner to which I am striving to become accustomed.”
“Wasn’t your old fella a weaver at Warton’s Mill?”
Upcote’s most withering glance passed through his pince-nez and hovered on Smythe’s narrow shoulders before settling on his thin, craggy face.
“Before that, dammit, long before that. My research carried out on the computers in the public library proves beyond doubt that my surname was prominent in this shire well before the Wars of the Roses and quite possibly before the Norman Conquest. I mean to restore the honour of the Upcotes and rise above the prevailing social decay which would sicken the soul of a less aloof man.”
“You didn’t use to talk like that and in that posh accent. Whenever I came into the office to collect an order you were always nattering away with the rest of ‘em.”
“Them, Smythe, but then came the metaphorical bridge and the eight years of purifying waters which have flowed beneath it. Eight years of education, refinement of character and significant sartorial improvements have produced a man who could enter the finest clubs in London and feel entirely at home.”
“Join the Con Club.”
“Pha! That conclave of philistine businessmen who owe their transient wealth to the beastly industrial revolution? You have much to learn, Smythe, much to learn.” Upcote thumbed his pince-nez into place and lowered his voice an octave. “Mr Williams, would you be so kind as to prepare another pot of tea, please?”
“Coming right up, Mr Upcote,” said the stout proprietor, grimacing at the back of Upcote’s head.
“How’d you get Bob to call you Mr Upcote?” said a stunned Smythe. “I’m lucky if I get more than a grunt.”
“Respect, Smythe. Respect and a cognisance that if he wishes to continue to enjoy my daily patronage he must address me befittingly. This establishment, though rather plebeian in character, has become my centre of operations, so to speak. I am surprised not to have seen you here before, given your familiarity with Mr Williams.”
“Yes, well, I’ve been away for a couple of years.”
“In a way,” said Smythe.
“Broadening your horizons far away from this nest of cultural newts?”
“Which burghs did you frequent?”
“Niddleton Open Prison mainly.”
“I say, Smythe. And what infractions led to your detainment?”
“Oh, benefit fraud and things like that.”
“And things like?”
“Like blackmail. Look John… Upcote, I’ve had a rough time since I lost my job. The missus walked out, I hit the bottle, started getting into debt. I haven’t been as lucky as you.”
“Lucky? Luck, my dear Smythe, has nothing to do with it. Application, determination and the realisation of my true merits have held the key, not luck.”
Smythe drank from his standard issue mug and observed Upcote’s shiny bald scalp, his plump rosy face with the ridiculous specs perched on his large nose, his tweed jacket and neatly knotted tie, and above all his expression of utter self-satisfaction. There was something to be said for those meta-something waters he went on about. Nor had he looked down his nose when he had told him that he had been inside.
Bob appeared, casting a shadow over the table.
“Here you are Mr Upcote, and Mr…?”
“Smythe,” said Smythe, blushing.
“Mr Smythe. Enjoy your tea,” said Bob sweetly, flicking a tea towel daintily over his huge shoulder and plodding back to the counter. He was used to Upcote’s ways – it broke the monotony if nothing else – and if he took that old soak Smith under his wing it might cheer the poor sod up a bit.
“So, Upcote,” Smythe went on, “you don’t think the worse of me for having done time?”
“On the contrary, Smythe, if nothing else it shows initiative, a refusal to be downtrodden, and a combative spirit which may indicate an aristocratic past.”
“Do you think so?”
“No, or at most a stray squire’s gene or two, but the point is that although breaking the law is something to be avoided by all judicious gentlemen, there is undoubtedly a higher moral law to which we adhere and which on occasions transcends certain legislative obstacles put in place with the management of the masses in mind.”
“So you think it’s all right that I claimed the dole and worked on the side.”
“Given your need at the time to slake a thirst provoked by matrimonial infelicity I should say that, on balance, yes.”
“I’m still overfond of a drop,” said Smythe, shaking his head.
“Your drinking habits will be taken in hand along with other matters, some of which I have touched upon.”
“Such as your posture, your attire, your diction, your manners, your hair, your nails and your car.”
“The car might be on the way out. I’m struggling to pay the insurance.”
“Au contraire, Smythe, your automobile is a vital element in our future undertakings. When I saw you pull up outside and recognised my erstwhile fellow wage slave I said to myself, ‘There is a man with locomotive powers who once taken under the Upcote wing and incubated there for a while will soon develop into a well-rounded companion who will deservedly share the fruits of my endeavours.’”
“So you’re not just looking for someone to run you about?”
“Certainly not, Smythe. In fact, given the current unwholesome state of the vehicle in question I would be most reluctant to seat myself within it.”
“It’s due for a clean.”
“Yes, and I will leave its sanitisation in your capable hands. Now, when you have ceased to slurp from that abominable mug we shall go forth and attend to the most pressing of your requirements.”
“Just so, and your hair. You can attend to your nails during and after the cleansing of your car and while you are about it please attempt to remove the disgusting nicotine stains from those two fingers.”
Upcote led the way into the pedestrianised part of Nuncaton town centre and Smythe was both impressed and embarrassed by his upright carriage and haughty bearing which attracted many glances that were never returned. He looked like a lord among his peasants and Smythe found himself stretching his own five feet six inches until he could just see over his shoulder. Upcote was a big man, probably weighing almost double his own eight and a half stone, and this and his smart clothes certainly made him look like a someone rather than a nobody like himself. He just hoped that these new clothes weren’t going to cost him a fortune.
“Here we are,” said Upcote, allowing Smythe to open the rickety door. “Good day, ladies,” he boomed at the three elderly stewards of the largest charity shop in town who, if they did not quite curtsey, certainly looked as though they might.
“Good morning, Mr Upcote,” said the eldest. “Come to look at our knickknacks?”
“Perish the thought,” he said to Smythe, sotto voce. “No, my dear, no time for trinkets today. Today we must provide my friend here with a suitable outfit for his court appearance. The poor man is about to lose all he possesses to his vulpine ex-spouse and must meet his fate with all the dignity he can muster.”
“Women today aren’t what they were,” sympathised the aged matron. “They don’t stick by their men anymore.”
“Quite so,” Upcote replied, his raised eyebrows closing Smythe’s open mouth as they made their way over to the men’s clothing racks. “Well, Smythe, I don’t think you can quite carry off this natty tweed jacket yet although you might try it on for size.”
Smythe slid off his green nylon jacket and slipped into the proffered garment.
“No, as I suspected, it makes you look like a poacher of the queen’s deer. Try on the jacket of this blue suit… yes, yes, just the thing. The sleeves are a touch lengthy but the general impression is not unfavourable. Now scurry off behind that little curtain and pop on the trousers.”
Smythe soon emerged from the cubicle in a suit which apart from obscuring all but his fingertips and big toes – one naked and the other still under cover of an ailing sock – was a good fit.
“My, my, Smythe, you do have a peculiar body, but I think with some minor adjustments the suit will rest well upon it. Ladies,” he said in his special lowered tone of voice reserved for tradespeople and policemen, “how much will this old thing cost my poverty-stricken friend?”
“Let me see the label, sir,” said the youngest of the old ladies. “Seventeen pounds this one.”
“Heavens above! And still with shirts and ties to purchase, not to mention socks, poor man. Take off that suit of gold thread for now, Smythe, while I rummage on these costly racks for the necessaries.”
While Smythe changed, Upcote leisurely extracted some shirts and ties, mumbling all the while, “Poor man, poor man, that harlot has bled him dry and now these fine ladies will leave him without money for food.”
Smythe emerged with the suit over his arm and almost tripped over the curtain. Upcote quickly turned his smile into a grimace.
“Bear up, man, and we’ll get you to the church for your food parcel. You see how it is,” Upcote addressed the eldest of the women gravely. “When a man goes to bed hungry and wakes up hungry even a task as simple as changing his clothes brings him to the point of exhaustion. He almost fell twice coming here from his revolting bedsit while his soon to be ex-wife lounges in the spacious house which he worked so hard to pay for. Now then; the old suit, these three threadbare shirts, two ragged ties and this piece of leather which was once a belt, how much will he have to pay?”
The three women looked at each other and the most ancient, after much hand wringing, said, “Would twenty pounds be all right?” before dropping her eyes to the floor. “It’s for the hospice,” she added.
Upcote sighed deeply and extracted his wallet. “Here you are, my good lady.” She took the note and bobbed her head. “All my friend needs now is for the pertinent adjustments to be made to the suit in order to make a favourable impression in court. Do you carry out services of that nature here?”
“No, we don’t,” said the woman who had so far remained silent and who now showed signs of having been recently in the vicinity of a very old fish. Ignoring her, Upcote turned his blue eyes upon the other two.
“Would either of you fine ladies, skilled no doubt in all household tasks befitting the excellent wives I am sure you have been, or are, be able to carry out these trifling alterations in the comfort of your own home in order to enable this aggrieved man to have a fighting chance when facing the judge tomorrow?”
“Well, Mr Upcote, if you put it like that,” said the least ancient assistant, “I suppose I could do that for him.”
“You are the salt of the earth, my dear. Smythe, slip the suit on again and we’ll pin it up. We will call round tomorrow morning for the second fitting.”
“Deirdre,” said the rebel, “we’re going to the bingo tonight.”
“Oh, I’ll have time later on, Sheila, and Mr Upcote’s friend needs the suit for tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” said Sheila with a belligerent glance at Upcote.
“Extra sitting,” he retorted. “The frivolous young hussies of the town are queuing up to abandon their menfolk. Kindly bring me some pins, ladies, and may your Christian charity bring you luck at the bingo tonight.”
“Ah, Smythe,” said Upcote as he led the way to the barber’s shop. “Your stumbling from the cubicle was a masterstroke that may well have tipped the balance in our favour.”
“But I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“No? Well, store the event in your memory because it is little deceptions of that nature that shift the proletarian brain into a more malleable state.”
“Like that court case crap you were on about?”
“Language, Smythe, please. From now on you must cease to utter expletives, even in the most trying situations in which we will no doubt find ourselves from time to time. Swearing indicates weakness and the masses pounce upon the gentleman should he manifest any frailty of purpose or signs of anxiety.”
“You mean no swearing?”
“None at all.” Upcote stopped and faced Smythe. “No swearing, no voice raising, no vacillation and no stumbling unless performed with a purpose in mind. At present, Smythe, as far as I am aware I am the only true gentleman within a radius of ten miles from the spot upon which we stand, given that Sir Blandinton of Blandinton Hall resides in the Seychelles for tax avoidance purposes. If you aspire to one day become the second you will observe my behaviour with the utmost attention and allow it to permeate your consciousness.”
“And copy you?”
“No, absolutely not. If you try to ape me you will merely look like an ape or at best a music hall performer. For the present you should simply pay attention to your language, walk rather than shuffle, and show total confidence in everything I say and do. Let us enter the establishment of this competent barber and rid you of most of that hair.”
“I’ve got a good head of hair for a fifty-three year old.”
“Most of which is about to slither to the barber’s floor. After you.”
“I bet I get a cold in the head now and I didn’t like the way you told the barber how to cut my hair as if I was a kid,” said Smythe, rubbing his closely cropped head and attempting to sulk.
“Left to your own devices you would have had him merely snip around that unsightly silvery mass and not have permitted him to remove your Victorian whiskers.”
“I’ve had sideburns since I was sixteen.”
“You looked like a failed turf accountant. With shorter hair you have risen by several evolutionary stages and your face looks fuller, or at least somewhat less emaciated, than before. Open your mouth.”
“Let’s have a look at your teeth. Hmm, the crucial ones are present but I suggest you purchase some of that whitening toothpaste and apply it several times a day before we make a final decision.”
“Why, whether to have them all out or not, of course. Look at mine.”
“They’re false, aren’t they?”
“Better false than flawed, Smythe. Mine were cracked and yellow so five years ago – when I was your age in fact – I ordered my dentist to pull them all out. He refused at first, saying they were perfectly normal for a man of my age, but I explained that although I was born and live in this town I am not of this town and did not wish to emulate the local predilection for Dickensian gnashers.”
“So he agreed?”
“After much persuasion and having obliged me to sign a disclaimer, he did. People judge a gentleman much as they judge a horse, you see, and one must eradicate any defects no matter how painful the process.”
“I’ll buy a tube of that toothpaste.”
“Buy two, and a good stiff brush. Now all that remains is to have you shod appropriately and rid you of those appalling football boots.”
“All sporting apparel is to be avoided, Smythe, unless we are to join a hunt, but until the government reverses its reactionary decision to prohibit that finest of gentlemanly pursuits there is no reason to step out of civilian attire.”
“Fox hunting’s cruel.”
“Poppycock. Animals know their place just as the mass of the people used to. There is no more honourable death for a fox than to be torn to pieces by a fine pack of English hounds. Now, let us stroll towards the monstrous supermarket where I believe a pair of passable shoes can be purchased for a modest sum.”
“Once I’ve given you that twenty quid back I’ll be skint.”
“Pounds, Smythe, but do not give it another thought. Between gentlemen money is something to be passed across the table like the salt pot or, in the case of larger amounts, under the table like, well, like money. It is only the common herd who attach undue significance to that most vulgar of topics.”
“Well, thank you, Upcote.”
“Think nothing of it, Smythe, nothing at all. Money is merely a means to an end and if our partnership prospers it will flow towards us and between us like water.”
They entered the gigantic supermarket which dominated the town and glided up the escalator to the footwear section where Upcote selected a pair of brown shoes and called authoritatively for assistance. A pasty young man soon appeared and was dispatched to find a pair of size sevens.
“These will do for now, Smythe, until our first joint successes permit us to purchase a pair of fine brogues like my own.”
“There was a nice pair in that charity shop that might’ve fit.”
“Gentlemen do not wear second-hand footwear, Smythe. With footwear, unlike clothing, all vestige of the former owner cannot be annihilated in the washing machine or at the dry cleaner’s.”
“I suppose not.”
“Now I must leave you as I have business to attend to. When I arrive at the café tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock I hope to walk past your gleaming automobile and enter to see you clothed in your new outfit which you will have collected from the old crones and changed into in the bathroom before leaving your old clothes in Bob’s bin.”
“They might come in handy sometime.”
“They will never come into your life again. In a month you will find it hard to believe that you spent your entire adult life impersonating an American teenager.”