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Authors: Roy Archibald Hall

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BOOK: The Wicked Mr Hall
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There were two huge industrial-sized dustbins, behind
which were cardboard boxes and other misplaced rubbish. I squeezed in between the bins, and got behind them. I moved into the rubbish. Nestling myself in like some bug, I covered myself with other people’s shite. I was cold and shaken, and my nerves were on edge. But I would not be taken. I would sit in my own piss before I’d let that happen. Darkness was still four or five hours away. Until then, I would sit here. When the piss came, I just let it go. It ran where it ran. I was hurt, cold and rancid. But I was still free. I knew that if the great God Almighty were to appear in either George O’Neill’s or Don Whittaker’s prison cells, and ask them whether they’d like to be free, as long as they sat under rubbish with piss soaking into their crotches for a few hours, they’d have jumped at the chance. Sometimes it is good to think and be grateful for small mercies.

I sat hunched in one position, way past the falling of dusk. My joints ached and screamed for freedom of movement. My mouth was bone dry from lack of liquid and fresh oxygen. Sometimes, I think of the supposedly austere life of those Zen monks in Tibet, the ones who endure hours of stillness for spiritual enlightenment. Well, there are times when their lifestyle is no harder than that of your average Scottish villain. I must say, that as I crawled out from under the tenement garbage, I didn’t feel particularly spiritual. Fucked off is, I think, the correct term.

I enjoyed the walk to the phone box, almost as much as some Turkish baths I’ve had. To stretch my cramped muscles was almost heaven. I phoned a friend, then
stepped back into the darkness and waited. A short while later a car drew alongside the phone booth. A young man who I’d never seen before got out. He seemed to be looking for someone and he paced up and down. After what I had been through, I was feeling extremely cautious. The young man obviously had no wish to use the phone. If he was waiting for someone to call him, he wouldn’t keep wandering so far from the box. I wasn’t entirely sure but, if he had come for me, I didn’t want him to drive off. I stepped out from the shadows and crossed the road. He looked at me. Although he didn’t know me, there seemed to be some relief at my appearing. He spoke first: ‘Are you Roy?’ The words were like a fine brandy being poured down my throat. We got in the car and drove away. I read in the papers the next day about two escaped convicts who had been involved in a car accident in the city centre. One was in custody, the other had made a daring escape. I was glad they didn’t have any details. It wasn’t that glamorous.

Both my friends had been caught. The threesome was at an end. It was time for me to go my own way. Time for me to leave Scotland.

I
n London I remembered that Turkish baths were preferable to walking, stiff joints or no stiff joints. Besides the baths, I ate in nice restaurants and stayed in a decent hotel. I deserved a rest. Margaret was a lovely young girl. She was Irish, from Dublin, and twenty years my junior. I met her at the Connaught. In my life, I have been a bastard. I have killed for money or self-preservation, but there is a bit of good in the worst of us, and a bit of bad in the best.

With Margaret, I gave my best. She was a sweet, lost soul who appealed to my better instincts. I loved her, but was never ‘in love’ with her. She sat alone in the bar, nursing a martini. I have known loneliness, and that is what I sensed in her. I asked the waiter to invite her over for a drink and she accepted. We got on immediately. The next day we arranged to meet.

Her father was a headmaster, her brother a sergeant in the Irish police. This was her first time away from home and it seemed as though she had had a strict, claustrophobic upbringing. She had come to London to start a new life and had some savings, but not much. I suggested that we book into another hotel, this time with her as my guest.

That night we went to bed. It was a few days later when she told me that she was two months pregnant. She had run from shame. I have never lived by society’s rules and when I see rules and misguided beliefs that force a young girl to run from her home and community for the sin of making love, I’m glad that I don’t. When she asked me what I did for a living, I told her that I was a businessman. It was nice to have female company. I dared not think too far into the future, but if I was still around when the baby was born, I would look after it. We rented a flat off Regent Street. I was almost a family man.

When Margaret asked questions about what I was doing, where I was going, I would just say ‘business’. She would kiss me goodbye, satisfied with the explanation. I got in contact with some old friends and we robbed Gerrards, the Regent Street jewellers.

Thieves need inside information, inside help. Plenty of people have criminal tendencies if not criminal aptitude. With these people, if you pay them, you’ll get them. Cash is a great lure. If they thought for any length of time about what they were doing, they would back out in fear of court or prison. But if you say, here’s so much, just do this one thing, no one will ever know, the chances are, they’ll do it.

Two such people came to my attention in that autumn of 1964. Both were corruptible and both were employed in pertinent jobs. I’ll call them ‘X’ and ‘Y’. I won’t name them, for their families’ sakes. These people were civilians, not villains.

On a Sunday evening, with the city almost deserted, myself and two colleagues drew up outside Gerrards. It was exactly two minutes to seven. At seven o’clock, we stepped out of the car and, using keys supplied by Y, removed the padlocks, putting dummy ones in their place. A half a mile away X, who worked in the burglar alarm office that covered Regent Street, switched off the alarms. We entered.

Three minutes later the burglar alarms in Regent Street were again fully functional. For two hours, we rifled through and took the most valuable gems in stock. Back in the burglar alarm office, at one minute to nine, the alarms were switched off again.

At 9.00pm exactly, the three of us coolly walked out of a much poorer Gerrards. Two minutes later, the street was again under the protection of electronic alarm systems. We had stolen hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of jewels. As I would cryptically tell Margaret, it was business! There were only a few thieves who would fit the profile for this job. I knew that I was one. The hunt for me would be stepped up. I thought it would be a good idea to leave London.

In the Cavendish Hotel, Eastbourne, I read about the Gerrards robbery. Among the items we had stolen had been a tiara, necklace, bracelet and ring, all set with
diamonds and emeralds, all belonging to the Broadway star Beatrice Lilley. Lilley’s losses were quite high that night. She wasn’t the only woman to lose a piece that was probably irreplaceable – the Marchioness of Abergavenny lost a tiara that was literally ablaze with diamonds. Putting to one side any thoughts about the sadness and loss of those I had robbed, I went out on the town with Margaret.

Margaret was well suited to me in that she loved the high life. We both adored the thrill of casino gambling, eating the best food and living life with a zest. Sex was good, her body was young and firm. She was passive and enthusiastic at the same time. I was her guide, her Svengali. The pregnancy at this stage was still not showing.

I was a forty-year-old thief on the run, pulling off good jobs, making a fortune and sleeping with a woman half my age who was in love with me. Life was picking up. To compare washing up in a prison kitchen with this just couldn’t be done.

As good as hotels are, after a while you start to tire of them and you want the privacy that only your own home can bring. I started checking the property columns in the papers. I found a farmhouse in Paddock Wood, Kent. Now we had a home with three bedrooms, large lounge, country kitchen, conservatory and fields all around us.

The owner of the farm was a lady called Mrs Nielsen. I introduced myself as Roy Philips, the same surname I had given Margaret on our first meeting. I had taken the trouble in London to dispose of all documentation that would identify me as Roy Fontaine. I told my new landlady that Margaret and I had been recently married. Nielsen
herself lived in a static caravan at the end of the garden. Close to retirement age, I felt sorry for her. Having to rent out your own home while you live in a caravan, just to make ends meet, must be hard. I would often invite her into the house for drinks. She became close to Margaret and myself, and friendship and trust soon followed.

Life at Paddock Wood soon settled into a very agreeable routine. The farm was peaceful and private. We joined the local country club, gambled at weekends and were accepted by the local community as a successful mature businessman and his young wife.

Being nosey can sometimes have its compensations. Our landlady intrigued me – there was something I wasn’t quite sure of. It could be that I can smell money. One evening, when we sat down to drinks in front of the fire, I told Margaret to keep Mrs Nielsen in conversation while I looked in her caravan. While our ageing host drank my whisky, I looked through her drawers. I found her bank statements. Not only wasn’t she poor, she was very comfortably off. My sympathy evaporated like hot air.

 

In the 1960s, there was a long-running American TV show called
The Fugitive
. This was very popular in the UK and was one of the programmes that Margaret and I took to watching. At some point during every episode, Margaret would comment: ‘Oh, I do hope he gets away.’ Now I can lie with the best of them, but when you live with someone, when you become close to someone, the truth gnaws at you. Secrets can become like burdens and, the closer we became, the heavier my load seemed to be. I longed to tell
her. Not least, so that she could be prepared if I was ever captured. As the credits rolled, I turned towards her: ‘What would you say if I told you that I was like him!’ I nodded towards the screen. She just laughed, not even bothering to look at me.

Then it just came out. I was aware that all humour had left my voice. ‘I am like him. I’m a fugitive, an escaped prisoner.’ Margaret now turned her head to look at me, her eyes searched mine for a sign that I was joking. There was none.

‘You’re serious?’ she asked.

I nodded: ‘I’m a thief. Always have been. As you may imagine, I’m very good at it.’

She laughed again. This didn’t surprise me as Margaret laughed a lot anyway. What did surprise me was her answer: ‘I don’t care what you do. I like being with you.’ The only change in her manner was when she asked me: ‘Do you ever hurt people?’

My reply was perfectly natural: ‘Never! I abhor violence!’

Later, there would come a time, sitting in a prison cell, when those words would come back to haunt me.

‘Now I have something to tell you,’ she said, touching her stomach. ‘The father of this child, he’s an Irish policeman.’ There was a certain sense of irony here.

‘That’s OK,’ I said, ‘I won’t blame the child.’ We both laughed, with a sense of relief. Now, we knew each other’s secrets.

With Margaret in my trust, it was possible to make some kind of provision for her. I bought her an expensive gold charm bracelet. At least once a month, I would buy
another charm to be added to it. I told her the saleable value of each piece. If I was behind bars, the dangling bits of gold would feed her and her child. I also made sure that she always had £500 in her handbag.

It was on a late autumn afternoon that my forage around my landlady’s caravan started to bear fruit. Margaret, now heavily pregnant, was cooking. I was sitting at the kitchen table nursing a brandy. We were chatting easily, the way that couples do. I noticed Mrs Nielsen’s head, occasionally bobbing past the open window as she went about gardening chores. I knew that she was listening to us. I started telling Margaret about some imaginary land that I had been given information about.

This land had aroused the interest of a famous garage conglomerate. My plan was to buy quickly, hold on to it for a couple of months, and then sell, at a huge profit. Lost amidst thoughts of her baby’s impending birth and the meal she was preparing, she responded only with ums and ahs.

Out in the garden, I noticed that Mrs Nielsen’s movements had almost completely ceased. There are numerous things that I have observed about human nature. One of them is that a lot of people stand still when they listen. Later that evening, our landlady came up to the house to see me. She casually mentioned that she had a pound or two in the bank that wasn’t earning much. Did I, as a businessman, have any advice for her, on how the money could be put to better use? I asked her how much she would like to invest.

The next day she gave me a cheque for £1,000. Telling
her that the money was invested, I started paying her a weekly interest rate of £20. In 1965, this was more than the average weekly wage. She was drawn in.

It was approaching Christmas when Margaret gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Caroline. I showered the both of them with expensive gifts. I hired a Rolls Royce to bring Margaret back from the nursing home I’d booked her into. To all outward appearances, we now looked like some archetypal, middle-class, country family.

Mrs Nielsen cooed over young Caroline. She also asked whether she could invest some more money. I said: ‘Certainly, how much were you thinking of?’ As she sat in front of our log fire, drinking my Scotch – for which she had a huge appetite – she contemplated the sum. She signed the cheque, then carrying on drinking, seemed to forget.

When, slightly drunk, she tottered off to the end of the garden, the cheque lay on my coffee table, her signature at the bottom, the amount left blank. Again, my earlier forage in her home paid dividends. I knew more or less what her assets were. I filled in the blank space – £12,350. I would leave her with a couple of thousand pounds in the account, just to avoid raising suspicions.

Mrs Nielsen’s bank was opposite mine in Tunbridge Wells. I was in no doubt that, in a small town such as this, the two managers would be friendly. I would have to play this very carefully.

I held off banking the cheque until just before the close of business on Tuesday. For the next three days I half expected a call of some kind, questioning what I was doing with my landlady’s life savings. None came. On the Friday,
the day before Nielsen’s cheque would clear, I visited my bank. I told the manager that I was going to buy some land from a local farmer. The only thing was, the farmer would only take cash. If I was to pop in on the Saturday morning, would there be enough money available for me to make a £15,000 withdrawal. Again, I would leave a couple of hundred in the account, just to allay suspicions. He told me there would be no problem.

My initial fear was that my landlady’s banker would question why almost all of her savings were being transferred into my account across the road. If this happened, I would have to cut and run. I couldn’t afford questions being asked about me. My luck seemed to be in, the cheque had obviously escaped his attention, and was now in the system. Now, I had one more day to go. I had to make sure that Nielsen didn’t visit her bank or, if she did, I had to know about it. At 9.30am, briefcase in hand, I went to my bank and withdrew her money. I got back to the farm as quickly as possible. I wanted to know her movements. She went out in her van delivering eggs. I followed at a discreet distance.

In the village, she called at the post office and, in a twenty-yard walk that took years off my life, went straight past her bank. When she arrived back at the farm I urged Margaret to engage her in conversation, and do whatever she had to do to keep her there. It was now 10.50am. Ten more minutes. On an instinct I called Mrs Nielsen’s bank, and asked them what time they closed. The reply was 11.30am.

I spent the next forty minutes asking my soon-to-be-ex-landlady
every conceivable question about her life, farming, her politics. As long as the old bag stood there chatting, I was going to be quids in. The minutes passed by. At 11.25am, myself, Margaret, my landlady and I all stood in the farmyard, drinking hot toddies, made with Mrs Nielsen’s favourite Scotch whisky – mine. As I said to her at the time: ‘It’s a cold day and what the hell.’

I’ve no doubt that the reason Mrs Nielsen enjoyed drinking my Scotch wasn’t so much the taste, but more that she considered it to be ‘free’. If I was to calculate how much Scotch I gave her, and how much money I took off her, each glass, and I’m guessing there were sixty, would have cost her around £240. If she had known the price, I doubt whether she would have beamed at me so appreciatively every time I gave her a refill.

When the appointed hour had been and gone, I decided to stop standing in a windy farmyard, talking shit to an old lady who bored me to death. The briefcase full of money was hidden in one of the outhouses, under logs cut for the fire. I told Margaret to get Caroline and her coat. We were going shopping.

BOOK: The Wicked Mr Hall
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