Friday, 2 April 2010

"The 19 Club" by A J Alan

I belong to a dining club – as a matter of fact I’m the secretary – but apart from that there's nothing much to distinguish it from lots of other clubs of a similar kind. It's called the 19 Club.

You may think that sounds rather mysterious, but it isn't in the least, really. There are nineteen members and it was started in 1919, so I don't honestly see how it could have been called anything else.

We are just a lot of people who had a certain job to do during the war, and when it was over we thought it would be rather fun for us all to meet and have dinner together every now and then. So we do, twice a year: on June the first and December the first. When the date falls on a Sunday we make it the Monday.

This arrangement saves the secretary a lot of work, as there aren't any notices to send out – in fact being a secretary is no trouble at all. We always stick to the same restaurant and I go in two or three days before and order the dinner. When it's over, just before we leave, I go round and collect thirty bob or so from everyone and hand it straight over to the head-waiter; he gives me a receipt, which I generally lose, and there you are.

Nothing could possibly be simpler from my point of view, or, you'd think, from anyone else's, but it was this very simplicity which nearly landed us in a mess on June the first this year.

If you’ll examine our somewhat casual procedure for a moment, you’ll see that it leaves the management of the restaurant, and of course the waiters, quite in the dark as to who any of us are (not that we care): for all they know is that we are the "19 Club", and they write it up on a card down in the hall. There's a highly polished mahogany board on an easel just inside the entrance, giving the names of the rooms –
and they shove it on that.

Well, by some mischance, a prowling journalist in search of prey wandered into the hall during our last December meeting, and he happened to see this card.

He asked who we were and the people down below couldn't tell him because they didn't know – they said they had no information about us of any kind. This appears to have piqued his curiosity, and he promptly sent up his card addressed to the secretary asking for an immediate interview.

A waiter brought it to me during quite an amusing speech that was going on, and I thought it was rather cheek. I just said "No", or words to that effect, and would Mr. Heacham please go away – Heacham was the name on the card. I mean, the freedom of the Press is all very well in its way, but if a few friends can't dine together quietly without reporters butting in – well, it's a bit too thick. However, Mr. Heacham did not go away. He seems to have hung about outside for the rest of the evening until we left, and then got the commissionaire at the door to point me out to him. I never saw him at all, but he must have followed me home and then looked up my name in the directory, because two days later there was a letter from him – he wrote from some office in the Strand.

He described himself as a free-lance journalist and said that he’d been commissioned by the editor of a well-known London Daily to write a series of articles on dining clubs. Mind you, I never believe this story because I think it's so much more likely that they write the articles first and hawk them round to the editors afterwards – but I may be wrong. He went on to ask for the names of all our members, together with any biographical details likely to interest the public, and so on. I believe he added that it would be a fine advertisement for us. At any rate I called loudly for my stylographic pen and wrote him a letter to which he made no reply – and there it was. But it only goes to show that some people don't like you to mind your own business.

By the bye, I made a statement a minute or two ago which, I'm afraid, wasn't strictly accurate: I said that when this man's card was brought to me at the dinner, there was a speech going on. Well, actually, we don't have speeches in the generally accepted sense of the term – what merely happens is this. Supposing anyone does something clever or interesting, like flying to Australia and back or motoring across China or inventing something wonderful, we ask him to come and dine, and then afterwards he just gets up and spouts about it – er, describes his achievement in an informal kind of way.

And we don't confine ourselves to respectable exploits either. If anyone were to break into the Bank of England and get away with a million pounds, I'm quite sure we should ask him to come and tell us exactly how he did it. So you can see that in one way and another we do get a good deal of amusement and instruction, but we don't attempt to get it for nothing. Oh no: there's an honorarium of ten guineas which we always hope the guest of the evening will accept, and we are getting more and more sanguine about its getting accepted, because no one's ever refused it yet. You'd be surprised at some of the distinguished people to whom a tenner hasn't come amiss: in fact the man who pouched my furtive envelope with the greatest gusto was a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer – I shan't say who it was. He'd come along and explained his budget to us.

It isn't anyone's job in particular to procure these artists, but we all keep our eyes open for suitable “turns”.

At all events, last March I happened to come across a paragraph in the newspaper. It was tucked away in a corner but it took my fancy very much. It was all about an Englishman called Kennedy who'd escaped from a foreign prison. There's apparently a small island off the coast of Java which the Dutch use as a convict settlement, and Kennedy was there serving a sentence of ten years.

Well, whether they weren't kind to him, or he'd got tired of the place, I don't know, but one fine morning he decided to leave. He climbed over the barbed wire when no one was looking and made straight for the house of the Governor of the island.

The Governor wasn't in, so Master Kennedy went into his bedroom, put on one of his uniforms and strolled down to the harbour. There he borrowed the Governor's motor-boat and left the island flying the Governor's flag. He even managed to extract a salute from one of our light cruisers which was lying in the harbour at the time.

After that all trace of him was lost. I showed this paragraph to several other members of the 19 Club, and they all agreed that he was just the lad for us if only we could get hold of him.

It so happened that I knew the editor of the paper which had published the report, and I went round and asked him to let me know if he ever heard anything more. He promised to make enquiries, but he wasn't very hopeful.

However, roughly seven weeks later I got a somewhat cryptic letter from a man in Chiswick. He said he was just back from the East and understood that I'd been enquiring about a certain person whose name began with K. If I still wanted the information would I please call at the address on his letter (No. 23 something-or-other Gardens) and ask for John Smith. This I did that same afternoon. Something-or-other Gardens (and I'm not going to give the name) consisted entirely of red-brick villas with "Apartments to Let" in the windows. The door was opened to me by an obvious landlady – quite a nice old thing – and when I asked for John Smith she somehow looked as though she knew it was an assumed name. She said he was expecting me, but would I mind not stopping too long as he'd been ill. I promised not to, of course, and then she showed me into the right-hand front sitting-room.

It was typically, but comfortably, furnished. There I found a nervous little rabbit of a man of about thirty-five who kept darting to the window and peering out into the street. He also had one of those high voices which have never broken – it was so pronounced that it was quite difficult to get used to. We discussed the weather until the landlady got tired of listening at the door, and he admitted what I'd already guessed, and you too, probably, that he wasn't John Smith at all but John Kennedy, the escaped convict himself. He apologised for receiving me in such a hole-and-corner way but he was terrified of the police finding him and banding him over to the Dutch. I said they'd get no help from me, and we finally got down to the business of the 19 Club dinner.

He was a bit chary at first of coming out into the open so much, but he eventually thought he'd risk it, and he brightened up quite a lot at the idea of a tenner. The only trouble was that he was what they call "a bit pushed for the stuff" and he only had the clothes he stood up in. Could anything be done in the way of an advance? He was quite frank about his affairs: he'd had a bad go of flu soon after landing which had left him with a flabby heart muscle and prevented him from looking for a job; he was in debt to his landlady, and altogether things weren't too rosy. Anyway, I was able to let him have enough to square his landlady and get some clothes, and I also told him I'd get the Club to spring a bit more in the way of fee. I was most careful not to refer to his prison experiences because he didn't seem up to it, so I gave him the time and place of the dinner and came away. My only regret was that his voice was so singularly unsuitable for the recital of daring deeds.

It would be as well, perhaps, to explain that to get to the room we dine in at the restaurant you have to go through a sort of ante-room, and it is our custom to assemble first of all for sherry and cocktails in this smaller room.

Well, on June the first we were all waiting in this room when John Smith walked in. (We'd arranged to go on calling him that in his own interest.)

He looked a good deal better in health than when I'd seen him last, but he'd evidently been fortifying himself against the ordeal of delivering his discourse. Not that he was at all screwed, but he had undoubtedly had one or two. It was a good thing he was a bit late and that there was only time for him to have one glass of sherry before we went in. I also took the precaution of sitting next to him and seeing that he didn't overdo it. It seemed mean, but it was no use him getting tight too soon.

Anyway, dinner went off all right, and soon after “the King”, when the waiters had all cleared out, our chairman invited him to tell us about his experiences out East. He also gave an assurance on behalf of the Club that nothing he said would go any further. Whereupon John Smith Kennedy got up and proceeded to tell his story, and a very astonishing story it was.

He led off by saying that the crime of which he'd been convicted had been a burglary in Brussels, of all places.

No one said anything, but most of us thought it rather peculiar for a man to be sent to a Dutch penal settlement for an offence, however heinous, against the laws of Belgium. He made other equally glaring mistakes too, and it soon became perfectly clear that the whole story was a pack of lies from beginning to end and that he'd never been nearer Java than Southend.

Things got so ridiculous that it was finally put to him that he was romancing – and he admitted it without any beating about the bush. He said lie wasn't the man Kennedy at all, that he'd never been in prison, and that the whole thing was a hoax. We said, “Ha, ha, very funny and all that, but if you aren't Kennedy, who are you?”

And then he sprang his great surprise.

You remember that man Heacham, the journalist who'd sent un his card and tried to find out about the Club? Well – he was Heacham, getting a bit of his own back. I didn't see at first how he'd got hold of the Kennedy story in connection with us, but he explained with fiendish glee that he occasionally did work for my editor man, and he'd actually been sent for and given the job of making enquiries about it. The editor must have mentioned my name and told him why I wanted the information. Needless to say he hadn't traced Kennedy, but he'd used the circumstances to score off me and the Club – and there was no denying that he'd done it jolly well. We shouldn't have cared two hoots if lie hadn't been so beastly offensive: he strutted up and down and jeered at us and that wasn't the worst – he was going straight along to the Daily What Not and the whole story would be in the paper next morning, complete with such of our names as he knew. He got so truculent that if he hadn't been our guest I am quite sure someone would have slogged him on the beak. We told him that we didn't wish the story to appear in the paper and should take steps to prevent it, whereupon he completely lost his hair and got awfully excited. He said: "I'm still in the doctor's hands for my heart. If you offer me any violence it'll be the worse for you". It was pointed out to him that no one had the slightest intention of using any violence, and I can't make it too clear that nothing which any of us said or did could have been taken as in the least threatening.

We did, however, say that before we left we should like a few minutes to discuss the situation in private, and would he mind going into the anteroom.

He did, and one of us went with him to keep him company.

Well, the rest of us hadn't been talking, for more than a minute when the man who'd gone in with Heacham appeared at the door and said, "I wish you fellers would come and have a look at this bird. He doesn't seem very well".

So we all crowded in and – my word – he didn't look at all well. He'd fallen forward in a chair, apparently in a faint or fit or something.

One of our members was a doctor and he examined him for a moment, and then he said, "I'm sorry, good people, but this is a bad show. The man's dead", and he went on to explain how a heavy dinner and over-excitement had caused acute dilatation of the heart when it was a bit groggy, and it had snuffed out. Extremely simple, no doubt, from the medical point of view, but devilish awkward from ours.

We were very sorry, of course, but, at the same time, we couldn't help feeling a little annoyed with this person for coming to the dinner under false pretences and then going and dying on us as well, so there definitely wasn't the frantic amount of sympathy which there otherwise would have been. It would be bound to get into the papers, and a tragedy like that always does a restaurant a certain amount of harm, and it would also mean that some of us would have to spend a merry morning in the coroner's court.

So we were all standing about looking rather grave, and putting our cigars down, when one man remarked in a thoughtful kind of way: "What an awful lot of trouble it would have saved if only this individual could have survived long enough to get home". And then he gave a little nod – just like that; and, as everyone knows, a nod is sometimes as a good as a wink, especially when it comes from anyone as high up in the service as he was – and his meaning was so utterly scandalous that I'm sure all of you will have grasped it.

I asked him. I said: "Is it too late, sir, for you to get a game of bridge somewhere?" And he thought: No, it wasn't too late. He caught the eye of two or three more of similar rank to himself and they all sauntered out.

When they'd gone we put our heads together and settled our course of action.

We posted a man on the door to keep out stray waiters and went and fetched all the hats and coats, including the unfortunate Heacham's. While we were putting his on, the man with the largest car was told to go and get it and send his chauffeur home. As soon as word came through that it was at the door we got a move on.

A sort of advance guard of five went on ahead to make a demonstration. They were to send all available commissionaires for cars and taxis and generally clear the entrance of hotel staff. The main body, so to speak, followed a little way behind—this main body consisted of another man and me supporting Heacham, with the rest of the 19 Club in close formation all round us.

We went down the stairs without the slightest check, all laughing and talking, though not feeling a bit like it; but when we got into the hall we were confronted by a most appalling snag. They'd gone and rigged up the revolving doors. They'd been folded back out of the way before dinner, but I suppose it must have turned cooler during the evening. Anyway, there the brutes were revolving away like anything, and we wondered how on earth we were going to manage. Perhaps some of you've tried going through those doors two at once. It's a bit of a squash at the best of times, when you're both of you alive, but you try it when one of you isn't and you'll admit that it's no fun at all.

We couldn't stop and confer without attracting attention, so our front rank went through and formed a screen on the outside. Then, as secretary of the Club, I felt it my duty to be entirely responsible for our guest, and he gave me no help at all. When we were half-way through and completely shut off from the outer world, his hat fell off – I had to retrieve it with one hand and keep him propped up with the other. The people who were turning the doors round saw and backed water to give me time, but it was a trying experience and I'm quite prepared to swap nightmares with anyone. I didn't feel happy until we'd got him into the car, and even then "happy" is rather an over-statement. Another man and I sat with him between us at the back, and there was just the owner in front, driving. He drove very carefully, too, because it wouldn't have done for us to run into anything and all get asked for our names and addresses. Also, we didn't want to get to Chiswick too early. As it was, in spite of simply crawling the whole way, we found a light in the first floor window, so we kept straight on. We came back in ten minutes but it was still there, and we drove about the district for the best part of an hour, passing the house at intervals, before it was put out.

However, it finally was, and the last stage of our operations began.

The car dropped us and drove off to wait a few turnings away. The other man and I carried our friend up the garden path and in at the front door. This was easy because we'd got his key, but then we struck another bad patch. When I'd called at the house the first time there'd been linoleum on the hall floor, but this had evidently been taken up, leaving nothing but bare tiles. There wasn't even a mat, and when we stepped on to these tiles straight off a gravel path you can imagine the row we made – slate pencils weren't in it – and it woke the landlady.

She came to the top of the stairs and called down: "Is that Mr. Heacham?" and I said "Yes”, in a very high voice (after all it was). Then she said "Your cocoa's on the kitchen stove", and I said, "Thanks very much. Good night", and she mercifully went back to bed.

We then breathed again and got Heacham into his room and switched on the light. We took off his hat and coat and arranged him as naturally as we could in an armchair. I went along to the kitchen and fetched his cocoa and cup and saucer and poured some out for him.

If we'd been his murderers, and we almost felt like it, we couldn't have taken more pains, but I should like to put it on record that from first to last he was treated with all due respect. We didn't forget to leave the light burning, and his own fingerprints were on the cup and saucer.

We got away without a sound, picked up the car as arranged and reached home without incident.

There wasn't an inquest, or if there was it didn't get into any paper, and everything must have passed off quite smoothly, but we had an anxious few days all the same.
We were anxious, because I'd made one foolish mistake, as, criminals so often do. On the face of it it was trifling, but, even so, it ought to have rotted up the whole of our good work.

I'd come away with Heacham's latchkey in my overcoat pocket.


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  2. Echoes of Fitzrovia and a bygone era, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Jack Hawkins in "The League of Gentlemen", although the narrator sounds like a ringer for Ian Carmichael.

    Reminds me of a train journey I had many years ago when I found myself listening into the conversation of two old duffers who must have been young blades when P.G.Wodehouse still had hair and a pulse.

    They were well into a rheumy eyed reminiscence about London in the thirties, when society wasn't nearly so proscriptive about the evils of drink and a chap could drive home after a good night out in Mayfair seven sheets to the wind, provided he didn't stray over 30 mph and kept one wheel on the kerb. The local constabulary would even help with directions should a chap need any assistance in this regard.

  3. As with Joseph Jorkens and The Fast Show's Rowley Birkin, a wee dram is a vital ingredient of these stories. Watch out for the hair-raising "A Joy Ride" in a couple of weeks. Heavy drinking and early motoring have never been so prominently combined.

    Talking of Jorkens, Lord Dunsany lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1957, so it'll be 2027 before I can start running those marvellous stories, which are otherwise sadly only available in expensive limited editions. And if Leo and I both got hit by a bus tomorrow, it would still be 2080 before anyone could publish Mirabilis. It's time the period of copyright was drastically reduced, perhaps to 20 years after an author's death, as after all it's of no use to the actual creator of a work - he or she is already pushing up the daisies.