All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, if you think the situations I describe could never happen, then you may be right – or maybe . .
There are lots of horror stories based on the entombment of some poor sod in a vault or crypt. And if you are a wee bit on the claustrophobic side, it’s one of those scenarios that can really give you the frights. Contemplating that enclosed space, walls closing in, perhaps just a hint of Gothic decoration looming out of the dark. Silence, probably broken only by the steady tick of some infernal device measuring out the breaths you have left before death overtakes you. The stuff of nightmares; something you would never want to happen to you!
Well old darlings, it happened to me, and it happened like this.
There used to be a big Edwardian pile of a police station in the small town of Halstead in Essex. A large, ugly building of dull red brick interspersed with courses of scruffy buff masonry which girded windows and doors and decorated every corner. This was a building erected as a citadel of law and order, designed to impose a dread presence on the inhabitants of the town, a stern warning in brick and mortar against any disobedience of statute or by-law. Open day and night the whole year long, it was a constant reminder that authority never sleeps. Covered in sooty encrustations, it was as warm and inviting as Colditz, but smaller and with dustbins and a bicycle shed at the rear.
You entered through a huge, dark door over which hung a large blue ‘Police’ lantern that had a wrought iron frame that looked as if it could have served as a gallows should the need arise. The door, with its massive hinges, a large black iron knocker, and a letterbox that looked like a gun emplacement, was as inviting as a lepers handshake. Inside it was cold, draughty, and smelled of drains, cigarette smoke and despair.
The only comfortable places in the building were the cells and the back kitchen. The former had to be kept warm due to Home Office Regulations and the latter was always full of coppers frying huge meals on the gas stove. The small room reeked of ancient fat, tobacco smoke and damp uniforms. Nicotine stained the painted walls a mute pustular cream colour that glistened with greasy condensation. There were various notices tacked up bearing information on pig movement orders, foot and mouth disease and other reportable hazards, their once gruesomely colourful illustrations turned sepia by the atmosphere.
Various attempts had been made to brighten the place up: postcards from coppers on leave were hung on the walls along with the obligatory girly calendar. This did not help. The only real colours in the room were from the sauce bottles. Brown and red, with crusted tops, these stood on the chipped Formica-topped table amongst the ashtrays. In the middle of it all was a large, bright red plastic tomato. This was a sauce dispenser stolen from a Wimpy Bar and used in evidence ever since.
In this dread bastion of law ruled our inspector, one Sydney Arthur Leavey, known to us, his underlings, as ‘Hissing Sid’. A first-degree bastard and a full-time shit, if he smiled in your direction you just knew something very nasty was about to enter your life.
The police station also held within its dire embrace myriad other rooms. One contained a couple of typists, another hundreds of file index cards. There was a charge room, a main office, Sid’s lair, the rural CID department and, of course, the six iron-doored cells. These last had cracked and dirty ceramic tiles from floor to ceiling and looked and smelled like gents’ urinals.
So there you have a complete description of our regional headquarters; a place we rural beat coppers visited only when absolutely necessary.
One might have thought that the CID, that hub of plain clothes detection in this bucolic sector, would be home to the sort of chap who combined the style of a ‘country gentleman’ with that of the sleuth. The sort of fellow who wore good tweeds, enjoyed field sports and was fully acquainted with the local squirearchy. A detective who would, in a soft country burr, interrogate the staff as to the whereabouts of the family silver, the butler and the young parlour maid. Someone, in fact, on whom the old families could rely for discretion when the occasional trespasser or poacher was shot or maimed in one of the vicious and highly illegal man traps they still secreted near any public footpath that crossed their land.
What they actually got was one sergeant and one detective constable, both of whom came from the urban wasteland which that class of people despised.
The sergeant was from Birmingham and had an accent so thick even he couldn’t understand it. Rejoicing in the name of Harry Munch, he was always on sick leave due to a peptic ulcer, or else away on Police Federation business for which he was our area representative. This left all the work to one detective constable from Stratford in East London who, having served time in the Metropolitan Police, had transferred into our force. His name was Dave Penny and his experience in the Met gave him an exotic reputation amongst us simple country folk. One based on television coppers who went around firing guns and shouting ‘you’re nicked’ to the villains they caught after long, exciting car chases.
DC Penny always cut an interesting figure to us yokels when he appeared on the scene of a crime wearing a natty suit with flared trousers, complete with waistcoat, jacket, and a matching shirt and tie. He smoked long, slim, filter-tipped cigarettes, which, if he wasn’t careful, dropped yards of ash over his jacket. And, in fact, he was a bloody good copper. Unlike so many of his breed, he did not look down his nose at the ‘wooden tops’, as we uniform coppers were known to the elite beings in CID.
One day in late September Dave Penny ask me if I wanted some overtime: an extra night duty, ten till six. Being on a rest day, this meant double time, so I jumped at the chance.
Dave had got information that the big jewellery shop in town was going to be paid an unwelcome visit that very night. He therefore wanted a few uniforms at his disposal to back him up and do the donkey work. Crimes like this seldom happened in our sleepy market town so there was a buzz in the duty room as Dave outlined the operation. Along with Alf, my mate and mentor who was another rural beat copper, and me there were four other lads from the late shift in Halstead, which was quite a force for our rural powers of law and order.
The target was a firm of family jewellers who had occupied their High Street shop for over a hundred years. Their building was ancient and had not been updated since electric light was installed in the town. The shop was very old fashioned, with mahogany cabinets and counters around the walls inside and ornate Victorian shop windows crammed with display cards full of rings and watches and dead insects. They did a good line in inexpensive wedding rings which, it was rumoured, you could rent for the weekend.
Next door to the jewellers was ‘Canny Carpets’, a shop devoted to any form of cheap floor covering. Rolls of carpets and stacks of rugs were sold by one Maurice Stanley and his brother Percy. They shared the business, their wives, and, on alternate weeks, their toupees, which were of different lengths. This, they reasoned, would make it look as though the hair on their heads was real and subject to the normal tonsorial tides of growth and trim.
Business was good and the carpet shop had been undergoing extensive alterations. The building itself was as old as the jewellers and the two shops shared a wall. We were told that it was likely the miscreants would make their move that night because the building work on the carpet shop was due to finish and this was their last opportunity to get into the building easily. Dave’s information was that they would break through the carpet shop’s cellar into the jewellers’ cellar, which contained their vault.
When you look at it, this was actually a clever plan. The small car park was full of builders’ bits and pieces, cement mixers and the like, and the back door to the carpet shop would not be alarmed. The villains could wait until dark, break into the shop, go down some stairs into the cellar and then attack the shared wall with sledgehammers and crowbars. Noise would not be a problem because no one lived over the premises of either shop, and the adjoining cellars at the back of the buildings were not overlooked by any other property. Once through the wall they would be able to turn their attention to jewellery shop’s vault.
Dave’s problem was that there was nowhere to hide a brace of coppers in the carpet shop in case the villains did a rekky before starting, and the jewellery shop had a glass font door in the middle of two windows, which meant you could see inside from the street. He could put a couple of men upstairs because that was only offices and the toilets, but they might not be able to hear the break-in from there. He could park an unmarked police car in the High Street, but that was risky if it was too close to the shop.
So Dave decided that what was required was a copper on the inside. Right inside: a copper entombed in the vault itself, in fact. After all, it was big enough (about fifteen feet by twenty) and had lights and was allegedly not airtight. He reasoned that the demolition of the wall would be heard by the hidden guardian of the law well before the actual break into the vault itself, and said guardian could alert, by radio, his valiant colleagues, who would then leap into action.
All this cunning plan needed was someone fool enough to agree to be locked up for the night in this bloody vault. Dave outlined his strategy and looked around a room full of blue serge uniforms and anxiety. No one said a word. Blokes looked at their feet or the ceiling, rolled a fag or just quietly pretended to be somewhere else. Being the youngest in service, however, and still very keen, I put my hand up and volunteered. Alf tried to pull my arm down but Dave saw it and, beaming, told me I had the job.
It was only then that I was told the thieves had to be caught actually breaking into the vault itself in order to get the right sort of conviction. Just a little way would do it; say a leg or bit of an arm. Just enough so they couldn’t claim they were only ‘doing a bit of building work’ for a mate.
I was scheduled to ‘go in’ at eleven-thirty that night when the streets would be quiet and the pubs closed, so we had a few hours to kill. Being the fall-guy (or, as I thought, the hero of the moment), I was taken through all the radio procedures and emergency call signs that I might need. The radio was checked and I went into the canteen where the lads were waiting to be deployed.
I was welcomed warmly and, I imagine, in much the same way that other penguins regard the one they know is going to skip off the ice flow to see if there’s a sodding great Orca lurking in the water. But their welcome was welcome because I really was getting worried about being some sort of Count of Monte Cristo while a bunch of hoods smashed their way into the room I was locked in. However, after being plied with huge mugs of hot, strong tea and a nice bit of cake I felt my courage return. I even became a bit excited.
Finally it was time to go, so we loaded into cars and set off. This was ‘real’ policing, the stuff of TV drama. Dark streets, crime afoot and no serious thought about quite what I was in for. I had a bundle of sandwiches in a plastic bag, a Thermos flask of tea, a bar of chocolate liberated from the evidence locker, and my pipe and tobacco. I also had the comfortable weight of my stave (truncheon) in its special trouser pocket. Locked and bloody loaded, ready to ‘kick arse’ (or at least to seriously disaccomodate someone’s rear end), I was ready for action. Entrusted with a radio and a large battery lamp I was let in the front door of the jewellery shop by the owner. The place was in darkness and he looked terrified.
Ushered down into the cellar by Dave, I was surprised to see Alf waiting for me. He had a large blanket, a huge black rubber flashlight, and from behind his back he produced a bloody great baseball bat. He nodded to Dave, and Dave nodded to him. Not a word was spoken between them, just a nod. Without preamble Alf told me that if I heard the sound of hammering and the wall shook, I should radio in straight away, never mind if they got through. If they did get through, then as soon as a head appeared, get ready with the bat. Aim for the shoulder, not the head, you don’t want to kill anyone, just put them off coming through.
‘Right,’ I said, thinking this was all becoming a bit too serious, a bit too real.
‘Lights out if you hear anything suspicious.’
‘If someone starts to come through the wall, point your torch at their eyes. They will be like bloody moles so a bright light will stop them in their tracks and you can take your time getting a good bash in’.
‘Right. Right,’ I said and entered the vault.
In the middle of the room was an old dining chair and a small table. A strip light was on. Around the walls were shelves from floor to ceiling. The owner, hovering at the door, thanked me and then slammed the door shut. It sounded like the crack of doom. The strip light went out and I was on my own.
I don’t think I have ever felt more isolated, more cut off from the world, and I certainly had not expected the main light to be switched off. I looked at my watch: nearly midnight, six hours to go (or not, if the bad men came a knocking!).
I switched on the lantern and tested the flashlight. Both were working, thankfully. The big square lantern was old and battered, however, and its pale, jaundiced glow served only to make the shadows darker. Switching on the torch was like having a searchlight in my hand. Looking around, I saw that every shelf was stacked with stuff.
There were cardboard boxes on the lower shelves with neat labels telling what was stored inside. Above them were wooden display cases packed on top of each other. Some boxes looked as old as the building itself, their dusty brown shapes blending in with the dirty brown ceiling and the walls of old white painted brick that were now the colour of a corpse. It seemed to me an Aladdin’s cave full of precious and curious things.
And there were clocks. Side by side, row upon row of clocks, and when the strong light of my torch hit them, glowing discs of white or gold stared back at me. There were antique carriage clocks, larger ornate clocks with pillars of marble up each side, clocks of all sorts, thankfully mute.
There was another shelf that bore something even more special: a collection of beautiful cut glass decanter s which played the light back in jewelled reflections and seemed to be the friendliest objects there. They were wonderful things, if slightly dusty. Square, round, fat-bottomed, and fluted, their glass stoppers casting rays of light onto the old plaster of the ceiling above them. If I coveted anything in that vault, it was not the jewellery, the clocks or any of the other myriad items worth more than my weekly pay packet, it was those lovely glass vessels.
The silence was absolute: no rumbling traffic noise, no sound of humanity. Any noise I made was deadened by the boxes stacked on the shelves all around me. The dim light of my lamp created shadows that somehow seemed to extend into dark shapes that morphed together menacingly. With the torch switched off to save the battery, I sat and tried to read an old copy of The Police Gazette, which was the only thing I could find in the nick apart from the sort of picture books you wouldn’t want your mother to discover. The latter were always to be found littering the canteen. They acted as aides-memoire for the older officers and instructional manuals for the younger ones. No one ever admitted to buying them; they just appeared. Often, if the periodical featured a ‘reader’s wives’ spot, helpful comments were written on them along with the possible identities of other constables’ or sergeants’ companions of the marital couch. Thankfully, graffiti, coffee and grease stains soon rendered the dear ladies, if not decent, then at least gynaecologically obscure.
It had been decided there was to be no verbal radio traffic in case it could be overheard. I would signal one click every hour so they knew I was not asleep or asphyxiated, and they would make one click back in return. And so the night wore on. Except that it didn’t ‘wear’ at all, it just seemed endless. Time stood as still, with all those sodding clocks staring down at me. My chocolate bar soon went. Regular sips of tea from my flask provided some comfort. My pipe filled the room with smoke, but I had to ration its pleasures as tobacco was expensive and the night was long. I got up periodically to walk around and keep the circulation moving as it was getting chill.
The wall mostly likely to be broken into by the thieves had shelves full of boxes across it. I moved them all off and stacked them elsewhere so I could put my hands on the wall to feel for vibrations that might signal any demolition work going on next door. That done, I sat down in the gloom again, wrapped in my blanket. If time passed, it did it slowly and with dragging feet. The joys of the Police Gazette were minimal at the best of times. Faces of old coppers who had gone to that great ‘beat’ in the sky where it never rained and a pint was left out for you in every pub smiled out of obituaries. Letters from widows thanking the federation for the hamper at Christmas or some other fraternal service made sorry reading.
The adverts were a bit more entertaining. You could buy your own hand-cuffs. Not the huge metal shackles I was issued that were new in 1920, but flash stainless steel jobs that were ‘easy to put on’, ‘ratchet-closed’, lightweight, and cost a week’s bloody wage. You could get your uniform tailored by the same firm that advertised Masonic regalia. “Save time,” I thought. “Have your masonic pinny attached to the inside of your tunic and just pull it out over your trousers if you feel the need for a quick lodge meeting in the back of the police van with others of your ilk.”
Then there were the adverts for ‘personal items’. Pile cream, guaranteed to banish those ‘grapes of wrath’ from any sufferer, be he inspector or humble constable. One advert showed the happy face of a copper as he contemplated a life without a hernia thanks to the ‘Eddy and Baker ball and socket truss’. This one stumped me. I just could not imagine what a ‘ball and socket truss’ was. It sounded like something horribly industrial to have in close contact with your groin. Did it move? Would it squeak if not oiled regularly?
Time crawled by. I had exchanged three signals with the outside world, managed to stay awake, and had consumed all of my sandwiches and most of my flask. My imagination, if not running riot, was certainly causing an affray. Shadows danced as I did an occasional sweep with the big torch. All alone, Mrs Pearson’s little boy locked up with hours to go before release. Release. Not just as in ‘open the bloody door’, but my bladder was now sending out messages that it was really quite full. I needed a pee. All those mugs of tea back at the station plus most of the contents of my flask had all gone in and now wanted out.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 3:30. Two and a half hours to go at least unless the bad guys broke in. And, of course, the more I thought about the state of my bladder, the more immediate the problem became. Crossed-legged, I sat and tried to think of something else, anything to distract me from the half gallon of tea sloshing around inside me.
Now, on a plane or a train there is always a place of relief, even if it is not as savoury as you might wish. On a bus, perhaps not, but you can always get off at the next stop. In a car there is usually a hedge or a lay-by if things get really ‘immediate’. But in a locked vault full of boxes of jewellery and stuff . . . no chance.
However, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, as they say, so I bent my mind to the problem. By now I was up on my feet and slowly, without realising it at first, doing what we call in our family ‘the wee wee dance’. With legs clenched together like braided string, my sons endeavoured to postpone the inevitable by jigging around, putting off for as long as possible that dash to the toilet or wall that ended in relief and, all to often, soaking underpants.
My fevered brain ran through the possibilities. My flask? No, it still had some tea in it and that was all I had to drink till being let out. My lunch bag? Yes, yes, yes, brilliant, my polythene lunch bag, that would do it! I shook out the crumbs, looked closely and saw . . . holes. Many small bloody holes. This was a ‘child friendly’ bag. CHILD BLOODY FRIENDLY! How about ‘man-needing-a-pee friendly’! Devastated, and now sweating with the strain of holding it in, I looked around. There above me in glittering ranks were those beautiful EMPTY cut glass decanters.
Sacrilege, yes, but by now any scruples I might normally have had were far outweighed by the fear of my bladder going critical and giving me a soggy crotch for the remainder of my shift. A fate too dreadful to contemplate, not just for the chaffing of the parts and the horrid moist embrace of serge trousers, but the smell. The smell as it all warmed up on the drive home and filled the police car. My shame would linger for as long as the cloth seats held the stain on my character. Not only that, every one would know. All the nick would know, and I could only imagine the amount of ridicule I’d be in for. It would last forever.
No, it had to be the decanters, and there like a fat man amidst a bunch of anorexics stood a suitable candidate. Its vast girth was engraved with a ship in full sail under which was a scroll bearing the title ‘HMS Victory’. With a large, accommodating neck and a nicely smooth lip, it would do the job. I lifted this magnificent example of the glass blowers’ and engravers’ art down from the shelf and commenced the proceedings. Not a drop was spilled (I was proud of that) and, as the amber ocean rose well above the topsail and over the admirals flag, I knew that this day at least one man had done his duty. Placing the warm and sloshing container on the table, I adjusted my dress, saluted and said, ‘for this relief, Horatio, we thank you.’
The relief, the blessed relief! Even this dark, nasty tomb was transformed into somewhere almost like home. I placed the sacred vessel back on the shelf and sat down, lit a pipe and looked again at the smiling faces of the obituaries page of the Police Gazette. ‘Our little secret, lads’, I thought. ‘I bet you’ve never flapped yer haddock in such a strange place or in such a splendid receptacle, unless of course you were on Royal Palace duty.’
The hours dragged on, marked by the clicks of the radio. Them, then me; me, then them. Even the slow filling of the bladder did not excite or worry. It was merely the choice of a suitable decanter; a choice now made on aesthetic terms rather than capacity. Whiskey or brandy, sir? Perhaps this delightful ship’s decanter with its large, flat bottom and fluted neck? So elegant, but no, sadly too small an opening. The next libation was made in a square engraved job and to amuse myself I created a sort of son et lumiere by placing the big torch on the table and revolving the decanter in the bright light as I filled it. Reflections of amber and silver light danced around the room. I whistled a merry tune.
I gave no real thought as to how these things were going to be emptied and cleaned. I assumed there would be time when my incarceration was over and I could somehow empty the contents and no one would ever be the wiser. If not, quite what I would say to the owner I hadn’t worked out. But with luck those burglars would break in and I could empty the contents over them.
Of course they didn’t, though. At half past five the door was opened by the owner, with Alf standing at his side. I gathered my belongings and made my exit. The decanters, well, they stayed on the shelf where I had put them. The owner was too preoccupied to notice and I was too tired to care. I just wanted to get out into the fresh air and then wash the dust from hands and face, light a pipe and go home.
Dave reckoned the crooks must have got wind of our trap. Either that or they just decided not to bother. The jeweller was grateful enough, but had a moan to Dave about the vault smelling of tobacco smoke. I never mentioned the decanters. My secret. Now yours as well.