Fiction Sampler: Artie Yard and a Very English Pickle

Artie Yard and a Very English Pickle

By Donnie Blake

artie-yard-press-release-gif

 

Chapter One

Blame it on Cheddar

I have Cheddar to thank for everything that follows.  Before I go any further, I should perhaps explain that Cheddar is my dog.  Was my dog.  It is all such a long time ago now, and poor Cheddar is dead and buried, mourned, lamented; yet never entirely forgotten.  I was fourteen years old at the time, almost fifteen.  It seems like a lifetime ago.  Who am I trying to kid?  It is.

Cheddar, in all truth, had not been a very remarkable dog.  He had done dog-stuff, presumably had dog-thoughts, and led a fairly ordinary dog-life: ordinary as any dog-life can be, brought up in the increasingly urbanised sprawl of southeast London.  It was no dog-utopia, but Cheddar had never exhibited any obvious signs of ever wishing to succumb to the call of the wild.  Three tinned meals a day, a warm, rug-lined basket, and a much-chewed, squeaky plastic bone called Gregory had appeared to be all that was required to make Cheddar a happy dog.

An additional source of Cheddar’s happiness had been his regular daily encounters on Beaulieu Heights with a neighbouring dog called Pickles.  Pickles belonged to a friend of my uncle’s next-door neighbour.  It may appear a rather tenuous connection but, nowadays, in this age of celebrity worship, these degrees of separation are increasingly considered to be important.

Beaulieu Heights is a lovely area of woodland and meadow.  It had been somewhere I had known ever since a toddler.  Some of my very earliest memories are of playing on the grassy slopes, hiding in the undergrowth and chasing after various sizes and shapes of ball, and if I could have looked back even further in time, I would have witnessed my mum pushing me around the same tree-lined circuits in a big old-fashioned Kensington pram, the dappled sunlight breaking through the autumn leaves onto my podgy infant face.  As a fourteen-year old I had reached that awkward age where it was no longer considered ‘cool’ to be seen partaking of such childish activities, but I could still take great vicarious pleasure in watching Cheddar playing on the grassy slopes, hiding in the undergrowth and chasing after various sizes and shapes of ball.

Cheddar’s relationship with Pickles had started fairly inauspiciously––a bark, a play fight, a brief chase––and, if it had not been for the chance of one day hearing Pickles’ owner calling his dog by name, that might have been the end of the story.  However, the coincidence of names was something that I could not allow to lie uncommented upon.  I had been that kind of a lad: interested in the world.  ‘Bothersome’ had been the description my mum preferred.  So, perhaps as much as I have Cheddar to thank, I also have my ‘bothersome’ nature to thank for everything that follows.

That same day I had caught up with Pickles––now restored to his lead––and his master in order to properly introduce myself.

The two dogs had leapt around one another, obviously pleased to be reacquainted.  Pickles was a black and white collie cross, with large, floppy black ears and a distinctive black splodge on his left flank.  Cheddar was slightly smaller: a loveable mongrel with pale bristly fur, tufty at the cheeks, and brown ears.  Cheddar’s name had not been my own choice, instead the result, so I understand, of some kind of private joke between my mum and dad, and whose elucidation I had wisely decided bore no further fruitful investigation.

“Did I hear you say your dog is called Pickles?”

Pickles’ owner had confirmed my question.

“That’s funny, because my dog is called Cheddar.”

Pickles’ owner had looked kindly indulgent, but also slightly uncomprehending.

“You know.  Cheddar and Pickles.  Like the sandwich.”

Spoken aloud it had not been a very amusing joke but, by that time, the ice between the two dogs had been well and truly melted, and it proved to be the start of a succession of companionable meetings, which the subsequent discovery of Pickles’ owner’s relationship to my uncle’s next-door neighbour only further served to strengthen.

Now, as I have already stated, Cheddar was chiefly an unremarkable dog: well-loved, kindly, affectionate, but chiefly unremarkable.  However, little did I know it then, but Pickles was destined to be a far from unremarkable dog.  Indeed, in little more than six months after my first encounter with Pickles he was to be a national press front-page sensation, relegating accounts of the build up to the approaching General Election to inside-page also-rans.  Pickles had become a celebrity and the public could not get enough of him.  To some the story will be as familiar as the Sunday roast, but to others, I appreciate, the name Pickles will mean absolutely nothing, and so it seems only good manners that I should take a few brief moments to provide a bit of background.

The year had been 1966.  For most Englishmen, the mention of this year alone is enough to provide some kind of context to my story.  Only one thing had happened in 1966.  England had staged, and subsequently won, the FIFA World Cup.  I am being deliberately flippant, of course.  1966 had been a year as eventful as any other.  There had been the tragedy of the Aberfan disaster and the continuing war in Vietnam; there had been a conviction in the case of the Moors Murders; in sport, Henry Cooper had been out-punched by Mohammed Ali; and, in entertainment, John Lennon had claimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.  And, in amidst everything else, Harold Wilson had been re-elected Prime Minister of a Labour government, with an increased majority.  But, as a news-phobic, football-obsessed fourteen-year old, a year of headlines had chiefly bypassed me as effectively as the newly completed A40 ring road had done Oxford.  It had been a year when football had been all consuming: the anticipation of the football; the event of the football; the celebration of the football.  Football might have come home again in 1996, but the home it had been coming back to was 1966.  And I had been there.  At the door.  Waiting.

How Pickles came to involve himself in the 1966 World Cup story is truly extraordinary.  It is said that every dog has his day, but before Pickles is to have his day he must patiently endure several more explanatory paragraphs of necessary, lap-leaping, tail-wagging, context.

The Jules Rimet trophy had arrived in England in January 1966, a full six months before the scheduled kick-off for the tournament.  The trophy itself was made of gold-plated sterling silver and was a depiction of Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory.  It was designed by Abel Lafleur, a French sculptor.  The trophy took its name from a former president of FIFA, and one considered more worthy of commemoration than later incumbents.  It stood 35cm high and it weighed 3.8kg.  These were the kind of details that any news-phobic, football-obsessed, list-driven fourteen-year old would learn by heart.  And then memorise for the rest of their life.

When the trophy arrived in England it was kept securely under lock and key at the Football Association’s headquarters at Lancaster Gate.  However, it had been agreed that the trophy would be put on public display at several publicity events.  The first of these was organised by the esteemed stamp company Stanley Gibbons as part of their Stampex exhibition, and held at the Westminster Central Hall.  The exhibition opened on Saturday 19 March, and the Jules Rimet trophy was a major attraction.  Except by Sunday 20 March it was gone.  Stolen.

The following day Joe Mears, the Chairman of the Football Association, received an anonymous phone call from the thieves.  The trophy would be returned upon the payment of £15,000.  The handover was to be made in Battersea Park, and Mears’ contact at the Park was to be a man called Jackson.  The police were not to be notified.  Mears agreed to the deal, but instead of keeping the police out of the arrangement Mears contacted Detective Inspector Buggy of the Flying Squad, and it was Buggy and his men who subsequently met and arrested ‘Jackson,’ correctly identifying him as the petty thief and fence Edward Betchley.  The ransom money was safe, but of the trophy there remained no sign.

Betchley claimed that he was merely a middleman, and that he was acting under orders of a mysterious individual known only as ‘The Pole.’  From his prison cell Betchley struck a deal with the police.  He requested that a woman ‘friend’ be allowed to visit him in prison and, in return, the trophy would be returned.  It seemed a most unlikely arrangement, but two days later the Jules Rimet trophy was back in the safekeeping of the Football Association, and Pickles was the toast of a grateful nation.

Sunday 27 March 1966 had begun like any other day for Pickles: a scratch, a sniff, a growl, a nap.  Things only began to take a different––and subsequently astounding––turn when Pickles started out for his daily walk.  I can still recall the day well.  I had been waiting with Cheddar on Beaulieu Heights for the arrival of Pickles and his owner but, on that particular day, they did not turn up.  Little did I know it at the time, but they were both at Gypsy Hill police station helping police with their enquiries.  Pickles’ walk that fateful day had lasted no longer than the time it had taken for him to scamper the short distance from his front door to the hedge surrounding his garden.  There, half-concealed in the shrubbery, Pickles had discovered a small parcel, wrapped up in newspaper and bound with string.  Upon unwrapping the parcel, Pickles’ owner had been amazed to find himself holding a small golden statuette, 35cm tall and weighing 3.8kg.

Pickles had discovered the missing Jules Rimet Trophy and, in so doing, had both spared the FA’s blushes and saved a country’s bacon.

And I had happened to know this famous personage.  My dog Cheddar had even sniffed his bottom.  You can’t get much more celebrity than that.

Donnie_Blake-takes-a-bow

The author takes a bow.

Artie Yard and a Very English Pickle is available on Kindle and as a paperback from Amazon.

 

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