Most Sincerely Mine

Most Sincerely Mine

by Jonathan Gash

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“Nature exacts revenge on those who want to perform miracles. . . and forces them to live in dire poverty.”
-Leonardo da Vinci, 1507

The lovely Victorian marble bust drew me to Gimbert’s Auction Rooms. Worth a king’s ransom, it dazzled as if the woman’s features were alive. Those ancient sculptors knew love. Lady Sophia Rutherford, carved about 1850. I fell head over heels for her.

“Why is it so valuable, Lovejoy?” Jeanie said. “She isn’t exactly pretty.”

“She’s beautiful.”

The sculptor could only have been Sir John Steell, Queen Victoria’s favourite in Edinburgh. He had used pure Italian marble and had carved the ringlets which fell about the lady’s mantled forehead in a Roman matron style.

Then Jeanie ruined my whole day, and all hopes for a fortune. She turned at the commotion among the antique dealers crowding the door, and cried, “Here she is!

A gorgeous apparition swept in. Thirtyish, with elegance and style, wearing tons of bling, she was wondrous. The dealers lusted Force Five after her wealth and beauty-in that order-and humbly made way. She went straight to the Lady Sophia bust, her gaze lighting momentarily on Jeanie, who managed not to curtsey.

I had a sudden bad feeling. “You know her?”

Jeanie runs a tatty nick-nackery shop, selling cheap dross. She does not move in high society.

“Lauralei is marvellous! She was so impressed when I told her about the Lady Sophia.”

“You told her?”

“Of course. She runs a charity for the Children’s Hospice and made me a trustee. She wants the bust for her sale at the Castle Show.”

This was the worst possible news. I’d borrowed all over East Anglia to scrape together enough money to bid for the Lady Sophia. “Is Lauralei rich?”

“A millionairess, Lovejoy.” Jeanie hugged herself.

“Thanks, Jeanie,” I said bitterly, and drifted, hopes in ruins. The bust was the only genuine antique in Gimbert’s, and I could never match her spending power.

Then something really weird happened. As I eeled out, I saw Lauralei dart a swift glance at the wall behind the auctioneer’s podium where a large elephant tusk hung on an immense wall plaque. Unfashionable these conservation days, but still a legal purchase if dated a century back, as this tusk was. Cheap, and no longer in favour, the tusk had stayed unsold for months. I wondered why a rich lady would dart a look of utter satisfaction at a useless old thing like that tusk? And suddenly I knew. Her scam was the same as mine.

Outside in the loading yard, I seethed with indignation. What an evil wretch, to pinch my idea like that. With all her money? Where, I asked myself, has honesty gone these days? You can’t even plan a decent con trick without some rich-bitch like Lauralei stealing it. Sometimes I despair of modern society. Where has honesty gone?

I noticed a Rolls Royce parked on East Hill, and walked the other way. The uniformed chauffeur behind the wheel was reading a paper. I’d seen him once before, in Chelmsford Prison. The old lags called him Sumo, because he was the size of a tram and always bodybuilding. In the Ship pub I found Fred, a thin whiffler, one of Gimbert’s hirelings.

“That Lauralei lady, Fred. Has she paid up front?”

“The posh bint? Nar, Lovejoy. Banker’s references. She’ll settle up after her charity sale. Why? A scruff like you thinking of outbidding her?” He fell about at his witticism.

I left, smiling. This was clearly a job for old friends.

Hymie, a genuine old-style goldsmith, lives by the sea estuary. I heard his caterwauling even before I walked down to his shed. He warbles old Russian folk tunes as he works.

“Wotcher, Hymie.”

“You again.” He kept working. “I can’t lend you a single kopek, Lovejoy.”

“Lucky I’m not on the cadge, then.” A dozen pieces of gold work were on his etabli-a traditional scalloped oak work table on which he crafted his precious metals pieces. “I can see how poor you are, Hymie.”

“Then welcome. A friend’s visit is a gift.”

Gnome-like, shrivelled and whiskery, he affected a small back skull cap and a shawl. Almost toothless, he wore bifocal lenses and sat with his chest fitted into one of the etabli’s recesses. “Lovejoy, you never paid me for that chalice I created for you two years ago.” He wagged his head. I often wonder if Hymie is consciously playing a caricature of himself. “Oy, the trouble my Sarah gave me!”

“Your forgery saved our village church and a lady’s reputation, Hymie,” I said piously.

“Me helping Jesuits, a’ready?”

“Don’t whine, Hymie. I’ve got a big moment for you.”

More wags as he resumed filing the bale of a gold pendant. “Some scam? A theft?”

“For the sick children.”

He stopped filing and shook out his basle-a split-thickness hide apron latched onto the etabli to catch the gold filings (or lemel) that fall from it. “Keep off my clays, son.”

I had more sense than to stand on the wooden grills on the floor. Properly named, claies are cleaned once a year in Chaumet’s famous goldsmithy in the Place Vendôme, Paris, though in Thailand’s mass production factories they use carpets and vacuum them daily, saving whole kilos of gold annually. Hymie recovers three ounces a year. A careful bloke, Hymie.

He switched on a kettle. We sat on the bench by the shed door. It started to rain as I explained about Lauralei, her charity scam, Jeanie, the felonious chauffeur.

“I want a sculpture copied small, preferably in ivory,” I said, and told him of the Lady Sophia bust.

He laughed, his wispy beard jerking. He sounded like a sheep in a hill fog.

“I’d need a Cheverton machine,” he gasped, rolling in the aisles. “In ivory? Out of the question.”

“That’s bad luck.” I knew he’d do it. “Because the Children’s Hospice will have to close if Lauralei gets away with it.”

No more laughs. Then he said, “Don’t kettles take ages to boil?”

Hymie’s grandbaby, now a thriving six years old, was successfully treated some time back. We drank his horrible brew in silence. Good goldsmith, but makes gruesome tea. I drank it and didn’t even grimace.

Remarkable things happen in the antiques trade.

You’d think, for instance, that a uniquely beautiful sculpture from a royal artist, like Sir John Steell’s bust of Lady Sophia, would be umpteen times more precious than, say, a five-inch ivory reproduction of that same bust carved by a machine, right? In fact, wrong. Christie’s sold an ivory replica for twenty times as much as the genuine original. Reason? It was made using a stunning gadget called the Cheverton-Hawkins sculpture-reducing machine. It is-was-an instrument created first by the genius of two Victorians. Those heroes invented their clever device in 1836. It meant that statues, busts, any sculpture could be copied in smaller versions. Within a year, these repros were all the rage. Simulants in ivory and Parian ware glutted the art market all through Victoria’s reign until the Art Deco movement put paid to such realisms.

Now, though, time has moved on. Whoever had the Lady Sophia sculpture would be in a wonderful position. People say that if you own a TV station you own a permanent machine to make money. The Lady Sophia would work in almost exactly the same way, because miniature replicates in exotic materials are now priced at whole logarithms more than the originals.

Illogical? Yes. Unreasonable? Sure. But true? Certainly, for fashion always spoils the plot in antiques.

So buy the genuine Lady Sophia sculpture and you’d be able to turn out illegal miniature reproductions of the master’s creation month after month to the nth power for as long as the fashion endured. I guessed she would use illegal immigrant carvers from the Balkans to make exact copies on the cheap, whereas I’d have to make mine myself. See how corrupt Lauralei’s mind truly was? I felt outraged.

Hymie, teaching art students at the Tech, once made a sculpture-reducing machine. I tried it and was all thumbs, but Hymie has patience. It works like a three-dimensional pantograph. Move a pointed rod over a bust, and it copies the original in a much reduced size.

“See, Hymie,” I wheedled, “I don’t think a millionairess should defraud a hospice. It’s wrong.”

He thought, then said, “Promise not to keep the money for yourself, Lovejoy?”

I swallowed. “Promise, Hymie. Hundred percent.” I gritted my teeth. “And I mean that most sincerely.”

By the time I left, I had promised to forge three Jack B. Yeats paintings for Hymie. The originals have increased by 3000 percent in the last decade, Irish oils being flavour of the day. Even a small Yeats will buy a town house. The forgeries don’t take me too long. I can do one in a weekend if I get my skates on. (Forger’s tip: Use Naples Yellow, Payne’s Grey, and size four palate knives on marine ply.)

I decided not to tell Jeanie. She would only worry. My problem now was how to get into Gimbert’s vaults, where the Lady Sophia bust was being kept until Lauralei’s charity sale. I thought of the risks-getting caught and imprisoned. Then I had a sudden brainwave. What if somebody else did it instead?

What, I thought, are friends for?

“What are friends for?” I asked Elisha.

Elisha is a bonny lass from Sierra Leone, who came a-touring one day and never left. She is our only lady burglar, and runs a coffee shop.

“I’m asking your help,” I explained. “Medical charity.”

She went all misty. “You’re so sweet, Lovejoy. Some folk only think of money.”

“What wretches,” I said. “Be at Hymie’s, six o’clock.”

Hymie had his homemade Cheverton-Hawkins device on the etabli when we got there. It looked like something from a horror film, where they tie a psychopath’s head into a sinister mask.

“It’s improvised, young lady,” Hymie told her. “I’ve made it as light as possible.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Just find the marble bust. The device is simply a spindly rod attached to a closed box. Move the spindle over the lady’s marble face. Up, down, ten degrees of arc every time. The little box records the measurements.”

I gave a grunt of disapproval.”

“Everybody’s a critic,” he said. “So I’ve put a small computer in it, Lovejoy. So what? The original was too heavy and who wants that?”

“True.” But I felt uneasy.

“Great museums make replicates of Egyptian and Roman artefacts using this trick,” he said.

Elisha made one or two practice moves and got Hymie’s nod.

“Not now,” I warned. “Three o’clock in the morning is best for burglars, unless you have Perugia’s luck.”

“What’s that?”

“Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian decorator in the Louvre, pinched the Mona Lisa in August, 1911. Just stuffed the painting under his smock and walked out. He wasn’t even suspected, despite having a criminal record and leaving thumbprints all over the frame. Would have gotten away with it completely if he hadn’t tried to sell it a few years later to a gallery in Italy”

“That’s real luck!” Elisha’s eyes glinted with excitement.

“The suspects included Picasso, no less. The French flics eventually slung the poet Apollinaire in the pokey for the crime. Had to release him later for lack of evidence. In true John Bunyan/Oscar Wilde fashion, he used the time to dash off a poetic masterpiece.”

“Isn’t life romantic?” Elisha breathed.

“Will you go with Elisha, Lovejoy?” Hymie said.

“Of course.” I tried for sincere.

“Take care of her.”

“Everybody’s a critic.” I tried to do his intonation, but it didn’t quite sound right. Reproach must be a knack.

Two o’clock that night, I walked with Elisha along the river footpath as far as the field below the Castle Hill moat. Once there, you climb the ancient St. Botolph Priory wall then go through the public gardens to Roman Road. Across East Hill stands Gimbert’s Auction. We made it unseen, me carrying the wrapped Cheverton device. I had my story ready should we be stopped by a vigilant plod. This was unlikely, because our town’s finest would be drinking themselves stupid in the Police Snooker Club, whiling away the lantern hours filling out overtime forms.

“Don’t forget,” I whispered. “The bust is a standard thirty inches. It’s the only marble in the locked bays. Okay?”

“Will you be here?”

“Trust me,” I said.

“You’re so sweet, Lovejoy.”

Which was true, because I could have been making a mint of money from this very scam. Instead, I was sacrificing myself on the altar of poverty for a good cause. I watched her slip silently into the shadows and leant back, ready to flee should some uniformed plod mistakenly wander out onto his beat.

The town hall clock struck quarter to three. When I’m nervous, I say bits of poems to myself. Some are from school, others picked up anywhere. I started with The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. The butt of many music-hall skits, it still has a certain grim power. I got halfway, then forgot the rest. I hummed a verse of Pale Hands I Loved, the only song Rudolf Valentino ever recorded.

Somebody grabbed my arm. I went “Aaaagh!”

“Shhhh, Lovejoy.” Elisha was back. She is darker-skinned than most, and I hadn’t seen her. I must have dozed off.

“You stupid bitch. You scared me.”

“Shhh.” In the night gloaming I could see her teeth. She was laughing. Women have no sensitivity. “It was exciting. Did you know they have a night watchman?”

Well, yes, but there you go. “No!” I said, as if shocked. “That Gimbert’s a suspicious swine. Clever girl. Let’s go.”

We walked back towards Castle Hill. It was at the end of Roman Road that we were arrested. George, our town’s most idle plod, was having a smoke under the old gateway arch. He shone his lamp.

“That you, Lovejoy? Come along. You’re nicked.”

“You can’t arrest us, George. We’re out for a night stroll. Aren’t we, Elisha?”

“Yeh, yeh.” He handed me his cell phone. “Text for a police van, Lovejoy. My eyes aren’t what they were.”

Twenty minutes later we were in the police station and booked. We stuck to our tale-an innocent night walk. The desk sergeant inspected Elisha’s gadget.

“What is this, miss?”

“For sketching,” she said with her winning smile. “I draw. It’s just a cheap graphing device.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” I put in quickly, avoiding her eye.

He was suspicious, but none of the plod had ever seen one like it. He unscrewed the computer box, making sure his penknife ruined the microchip.

“Whoops,” he said. “Sorry. Still, you can easily get another.”

They let me go. Elisha proved to be on parole, so they kept her. I was really narked, because she didn’t even answer when I called goodnight. I mean, she could easily have ditched the Cheverton instrument among the weeds by the Priory. Then we’d have been in the clear. I honestly think women are too unreliable for the antiques trade.

I walked the six miles to my cottage-no night buses to the village-then slept like a log.

“Lovejoy?”

I woke with a screech. Hymie was standing there. The door hangs off, so locks are futile. I cursed by way of a morning greeting. He was carrying a bundle, and unwrapped a beautiful Plasticine model of Lady Sophia.

I gaped. “How did you manage that?” It looked accurate.

“I didn’t trust you, Lovejoy.” He spoke with calm. “I put a transmitter in the gadget. A kiddie’s toy. You can get them from Parmer’s in Head Street. Cheap, but it does the job. I was outside Gimbert’s recording the measurements as Elisha took them.”

“You untrustworthy swine, Hymie.”

“So sue me.” He put the model down. “Good luck.”

“Here,” I said. “Aren’t you going to make an ivory miniature? My whole scam depends on it. Think of the sick children.”

“You left that poor girl in the nick, Lovejoy.”

“It was unavoidable. You have to believe me?” Everybody was leaving my glorious plan. Sometimes I feel I’m the only honest bloke left.

“Believe you?” he said over his shoulder. “Czars, sure. You, Lovejoy? I don’t think so.”

And that, said Alice to Christopher Robin, was that.

For breakfast I had an orange I’d nicked from the police sergeant’s desk. Then I shaved in icy cold well water, wrapped Hymie’s model in my spare singlet, and walked to the next village. I felt about as secret as the weather forecast, but I got lucky. The only police car I saw was filled with snoring constabulary earning their exorbitant overtime pay. I made it unhindered to Petula’s. She is an amateur potter who lives with a mad Spanish poet.

It took me two hours and four expensive IOUs to wheedle her into submission.

She said finally, “Will you pay for materials, the kiln firings, and the auctioneers?”

“I hate them.” This is my favourite grumble. “Auctioneers still charge twenty percent commission, even after the Christie’s and Sotheby’s goons were involved in that price-dice scandal.”

“Yes or no?” Petula gave me her seductive smile, a really unscrupulous manipulation, because she is gorgeous even when covered in clay.

“Agreed.”

Lo, Petula’s bloke, is a morose monosyllable. He resembles a mattress coming unstuffed, and loathes everybody except people who admire his motorcar. This petrol-crazed monster is responsible for global warming. A 1962 Grand Prix Pontiac, whatever that means. It looks like a stray spaceship. Car enthusiasts give antiques a bad name, I tell all my friends. But I don’t tell Lo.

“Isn’t he marvellous?” Petula kept saying as we got started on the Parian ware fake of Hymie’s mocked-up Lady Sophia. I chose Parian ware because Hymie had welshed on me and time was now short.

“No. He’s barmy.” I was already up to my elbows in heavy Parian clay.

“Lo is short for Loco, his nickname.”

“Imagine,” I said dryly, then got on with making the easiest forgery on earth. Tip: Try this at home and make a fortune.

There are two kinds of Parian ware. Sculptors, all being highly deranged, had terrific rows in the 1840s about its discovery. John Mountford of the Minton firm claimed to be the inventor, but the great Copeland firm of Stoke-on-Trent is my bet-their Thomas Mattam did those groundbreaking experiments. Every antiques dealer on earth is hunting for the first Parian ware miniature ever created. It’s John Gibson’s beautiful Narcissus sculpture. Find it, and you can name your price.

I used the first Copeland-Garrett recipe. Purists-Petula being one-sulk about this, because it creates only soft-paste “statuary” Parian. It uses glass frit, those bits you shove into the clay to strengthen kiln-fired biscuit ware. If you want to forge a porcelain fake of, say, the expensive Bennington Parians made in America during the later Victorian days, then you leave out the frit and use tons more feldspar.

“That glassy frit won’t conceal the ivory tint, Lovejoy,” Petula groused. “Too much iron silicate. You want Swedish feldspar, stupid.”

I always try to humour women. “I know, Pet.”

“That’s Petula, you ignorant swine.” She flounced off. (See? The sulks.)

Large Parian ware pieces need to be made in moulds. You make small parts and join them up afterwards. For small pieces, any rubber moulding kit will do. I’ve seen a miniature Benjamin Franklin bust-less than eight inches tall-made with a child’s kit, convince all our dealers it was a genuine 1875 Trenton, New Jersey creation. New forgers, keen to start their careers, are too impatient. Parian ware is weak and wants to collapse in the firing. The trick is to use slip-runny clay-to stick it together. Complete drying is vital.

“Support rods use my valuable calcined flint, Lovejoy. It’s expensive,” Petula grumbled, as I inserted a rod into one of the busts.

“You can get dust-free flint from Grimes Graves.”

She went even sulkier. “You’ve been here five whole days, Lovejoy, and I’m sick of you.” Etc, etc.

“You’re crazy about me, Pet.”

Flounce, slam. I sighed and got on. A prolonged dry, two days in the low-heat kiln, then lastly a high-temp firing in a sand-filled sagger. Done right, Parian statuary carries exquisite detail, so essential for the lady’s features and hair.

Forging antiques is bliss. It calms the soul. I made as many Lady Sophia miniatures as I had clay for. I occasionally wondered how Elisha was, having a compassionate side to my nature. Luckily, Petula kept a well-stocked fridge. Even though her grub’s gone spicy Spanish since she got Lo, I ate well at Petula’s but was glad when it was over. Lo’s constant prattle about motorcars was making me suicidal. Either that, or his reading me poems in Spanish I didn’t understand.

Looking at my three rows of Parian replicas, I felt like lighting a candle in thanks. They were honestly the best forgeries I’d ever done. One had a blemish, but beggars can’t, can they? I healed it with Lo’s welding torch. Petula was disgusted. (“That is repellent, Lovejoy. No true sculptor ever resorts to tricks like that . . . .” Etc.) They looked perfect, each in a cardboard box, the lot of them laid out on an old orange tray. Worn out but exhilarated, I persuaded Jacko to give me a lift home in his coal lorry.

Miniature Victorian Parian repros have held their auction prices for two decades, which is more than you can say for Anglo-Saxon hammered silver coins or Impressionist landscapes. Why, I thought, as I alighted, even modern Vettriano paintings have wobbled lately.

“Here, Jacko. Take this to Jeanie, please. She’ll pay you.” I gave him one of my boxed replicas.

“You sure?” he asked suspiciously.

“Honest,” I said. “Say it’s for Lauralei’s charity.”

“You’d best be telling the truth, boy.”

Sometimes I get weary of people’s mistrust. I work my fingers to the bone and everybody grumbles. Is that unfair or what? As I walked to the cottage, Elisha leapt out of the weeds, fists swinging.

“About time, you traitor.”

I screeched “Mind my antiques!” and tried to run, but ended up having to take the blows, hunching over the precious Parians I had laboured so long to create. Finally she slowed.

“Serves you right!” Jacko called over the noise of his receding lorry, cackling with laughter.

Trapped by the hedge, I faced her. I honestly wonder what gets into people. One day I’ll declare independence, and the world can manage on its own. Serve it right.

I said innocently, “I was so worried about you. I kept phoning.”

Her face looked like a sleet storm. “They let me out on police bail a week ago. I’ve hunted you high and low.”

“Ah, I’ve been slaving to stop that fraud.” I smiled my most endearing smile. It never works.

“Honestly?”

“Promise,” I said. “Most sincerely.”

We made up soon after, and I took her for a nosh at the White Hart where I told her my revised plan. She was thrilled, and apologised for getting mad. Graciously I let her pay for the meal, to show true forgiveness.

That night I spoke to a few Midland dealers, using her cell phone while she was asleep. My own telephone line had been cut off by heartless fascist engineers who alleged non-payment. I needed as many antiques traders as possible, so dear Lauralei would get her comeuppance. It would be ugly. Nothing is nastier than a mob of dealers tricked out of a fortune. I should know. I see such mobs all the time.

“Lovejoy?” Elisha opened a bleary eye. “Did you use my cell phone?”

“Borrowed it, Lish. I was asking after poor sick Uncle Charlie-”

“I listened. Nine calls, Lovejoy. Pay me in the morning.”

“Not as tired as all that, then,” I said sharply, and got back in. “Budge over.”

She’d pinched my warm patch. Women have no scruples. Life is just one long struggle against oppression.

The day of the charity sale (Slogan: Come and make a fortune for yourself, and a million for the Children’s Hospice!!!) dawned brightly. The Castle Park meadow was beautiful, the sun pleasant, the greensward lush, the boating pond translucent. Crowds thronged early along the oxbow curve of the ancient river. The Castle Show marquees were decorated with banners and gonfalons, and guilds of ladies were ferrying displays and flowers. In an hour, I reckoned, it would be impossible to get in or, more importantly out.

Morris dancers, our village’s ring among them, gambolled to the sound of Uilleann bagpipes, the soft plaintive elbow pipes so much mellower than any other. Carefully I carried my tray of Parians to the largest marquee. George, my least favourite plod, was in full fig under his glistening helmet. I was pleased to see he was already sweating.

“Good day, constable. On duty, George?”

“I could do with a pint, Lovejoy.”

“Tut tut, constable. No drinking on duty.”

Only yards away, the beer tent was being set up by enthusiasts, crates of bottles chinking.

“Where are you taking that tray, Lovejoy?”

“To the charity sale.” I acted surprised. “This is it, right?”

“Not to you, lad.” He barred my way. Inside, I could see volunteers setting out seats.

“Why not? There are dealers already inside.”

George smirked at his triumph. “Lauralei told me to keep out anybody with a criminal record, Lovejoy. That means you.”

“Only innocents, eh?” I retreated. “Seeing you’re on first names with the lady, can you ask if I might take a pitch outside instead?”

“What for?”

“Don’t be so suspicious, George. I’ve made a few trinkets. Just to give away.”

“Very well, Lovejoy.” He added wistfully, “Fine lady. Wish she was staying hereabouts.”

“Leaving, is she?”

“Once the sale’s done. I’ve to guard her.” He was so proud, poor bloke. I almost felt sorry for what was going to happen. “The newspapers and TV will be here. The mayor’s coming.”

“Splendid,” I said, sounding like a squire doing his rounds. “What time is her antiques sale?”

“Finishes at noon, Lovejoy. Seen that bust? They’ve found a little one of it, too.”

“Life’s one big surprise, eh, George?” I said, and went to sit by the Ladies Guild’s cake-and-pie stall out. I live in hopes. There’s always a fair amount of lovely grub damaged in transit, and I hate waste. Also, Elisha never cooks any breakfast. She blames me, saying there’s never any food in the cottage. Whose fault is that? Women, I’ve learned, lack logic.

It was a record year, the attendance greater than anyone had expected. Lauralei made a smashing entrance, two heralds parping trumpets to signal her arrival. She was in a shimmering dress that made all the women gasp. She made a sumptuous show all right. Three muscly minders in suits stretched at the stitches guarded her, each eyeing the crowd for an impending assault. Dealers thronged into the auction tent. Gimbert himself was to be the auctioneer.

Gimbert-a stout florid geezer polluting the entire district with his fuming cigar-began by announcing over the tannoy that he would donate his auctioneer’s commission to charity. He’d had phoney applause dubbed onto the soundtrack. A giant screen allowed us excluded hoi polloi to see and admire.

Such a mob of innocents today, I thought, listening contentedly to the proceedings while holding my tray of little boxes, each containing a miniature Parian replica of Lady Sophia. Lauralei-she’d promoted herself to the Right Honourable for today’s scam-made an emotional appeal for dealers to bid as highly as possible, and to pay either in cash or by an irrevocable credit card.

“My own auction clerks are on hand,” she cooed, “to verify payment. Please note that the total proceeds-the total proceeds-will be handed to the mayor.”

I was so moved, seated on the grass waiting for the sorry farce to end, that I almost filled up. It’s a pleasure, though, to listen to a fraudster at work. Credit where credit is due, right?

The tannoy was switched off when the auction began. I ambled to and from the Ladies Guild tents, because you can never tell when the next kilojoules will come. I kept an eye on the marquee entrance. I didn’t want any dealers wandering off. Most would wait for the big finish, scenting a fortune. Rumours of money spread like moorland fires. Lauralei, clever lass, had listed the bust and the miniature Parian copy I’d sent to Jeanie as the last items. All auctioneers keep the best wine for last, even Sothebys (“auctioneers trying to be gentlemen” as dealers say of that lot) and Christie’s (“gentlemen trying to be auctioneers”). A sombre mood settled on me as the auction got underway. Poor old George was still on duty. I fervently hoped he was fitter than he looked. I was so excited I almost nodded off.

Finally the last item came up. I only managed to catch the scatter of applause and the dealers’ murmurs of dismay as the precious items were snatched up by undeserving rivals. I got up and stretched as the tannoy transmission resumed-first the mayor bumbling his thanks, then Lauralei saying that charity was our solemn duty.

I was at the exit when the marquee disgorged the dejected dealers.

“Wotcher, Tanker.” I picked out a massive Yorkshireman who was first out. “Here’s a gift.” In preparation, I’d unboxed all my Parian replicates.

“Did you see how much that marble bust went for, Lovejoy?” Tanker demanded. “I’ve come all this way and . . . .” He eyed the replica. “What’s this?”

“Just a copy, Tanker. Chinese import, I’d say.”

Other dealers tried to leave. Smiling, I handed out a few more.

“They’re free,” I chirruped. “No value.”

“What is this, Lovejoy?” Tanker growled.

“For your kids,” I said with my most sincere beam. “No passing them off as genuine Benjamin Chevertons, okay?”

Some pressed forward, holding their hands out.

“No shoving, lads,” I complained loudly. “They cost me nothing. I didn’t think anyone would be interested.”

“Who made these, Lovejoy?”

Tanker gripped me by the throat and raised me from the ground. The dealers grabbed for the scattered replicates.

“Imported, Tanker,” I gasped. “Penny a ton.” His friends called out and he let me down. Arguments began.

People started looking over at us and anxious parents reached for wandering tots. George headed over, trying to look confident.

One dealer had the sense to turn a replica upside down and read the signature. “It looks like genuine Parian.”

“See the name?” I said, pointing. “The name’s spelled wrong. Sir John Steell’s name has a double ‘L’. Everybody knows that. It’s a giveaway.”

The mutters rose to a hubbub. I ducked and moved away as the dealers thrust their way back inside the marquee. Tired, I left the last replicate on the grass. Let some PhD digging through the volcanic ash of our pathetic civilisation try to figure out how it got there. In the beer tent crowds of morrismen were busy restoring their fluid intake while being deafened by the brawl coming over the intercom.

“What’s going on in that auction, Lovejoy?” one asked. “A riot?”

“Typical. The one day you want everything peaceful, eh?”

“What started it?”

“Heaven knows. Time somebody called the police. George’ll never cope.”

“Mmmh.” Nobody moved. “Want a drink, Lovejoy?”

“Ta, Ted. Just the one.”

Our town’s finest showed up after a slight delay. They had been at the cricket match. Old towns like ours have certain in-built priorities.

Lauralei was arrested before a gaggle of TV cameras and photographers. Jeanie tried calling out to me for help as she went into the Black Maria, but I didn’t notice. I was safe. All in all, an enjoyable day.

That evening I was sent for by the mayor. I was calm, because I’d done nothing wrong. He was at his desk with four serfs standing about. Anxiety ruled, so I brightened. Authority in distress always bodes well.

“Yes, sir?” I went into grovelling mode.

“Lovejoy, I believe you know something about the fakes that caused the riot.”

“Replicates, not fakes.” I shrugged. “I contributed some small copies to give away,” I put in piously, “not wanting profit. Charity, after all.”

“Right.” He looked away. The serfs exchanged glances. “Look, Lovejoy. The town council is suffering from all this media attention. The whole auction was declared void, and all the money was returned. The antiques are all in police custody. I need the whole mess cleared up. It looks very bad for . . ..”

“For you, sir?” I said. “Politically?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, yes.”

Silence spread over the world. I saw that the silence was good and let it spread some more.

“Lovejoy, if some divvy like you, who can tell forgeries from genuine antiques, offered help, I should be truly grateful.” He gave a smarmy smile. “And I mean that most sincerely.”

I nearly told him that was my line but instead I said, “I’d like to help, sir, but I’ve too much work on this week.”

“I’m sure that a small ex-gratia payment could be arranged.”

“How small?” I asked. I love moments like this, when my natural gift for divvying earns its keep.

Then the world imploded and my smile froze as Elisha’s voice said, “He’ll do it for free, sir.”

I gaped, stunned. She was there, fresh as a daisy.

“Lovejoy’s fee can go to the Children’s Hospice, sir.”

“That’s it!” The serfs relaxed. The mayor came round the desk to buss Elisha. “Perfect!” Then he smiled and added, “You shall be awarded a Mayoral Medal of Distinction, my dear.”

“What about the profit on those antiques after I sort out the forgeries from the genuine articles?” I asked, my life shattered.

“It can go to the charity too,” Elisha said sweetly. I was sick of her being sweet all the time.

“Like I intended all along!” I said, trying to look worthy of a medal.

“Good, good.” The mayor and his serfs left then, chatting amiably. They didn’t even glance my way.

“Your turn to pay for supper, Lovejoy.” Elisha linked her arm with mine. “To celebrate!”

“Great,” I said gloomily. “Any chance of a small loan?”

We left. It’s the sincere people who come off worst, I often find. One day I must stop myself doing so much good. I honestly think I’d be the better for it.

The End

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