“One Fight at a Time” Taster

Sergeant Major Ed Grover said ‘goodbye’ to West Berlin from the Cafe Adler; two smoky rooms on the ground floor of a shell scarred, four storey building, sitting at the junction of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. Outside it was raining, and inside, the smell of damp raincoats, beer and cooking, mingled with the cigarette smoke. The menu was written in chalk on a board behind the bar. The lunch of the day was carrot soup, followed by pork and potatoes. There was no dessert. It would have been something with fruit probably. But there had been no fruit deliveries for two days, and the Berliner’s daily ration of nine hundred and fifty calories could only be conjured out of whatever was available.

Grover wiped the condensation off the window at his shoulder. He looked across at the Soviet concrete gateposts, the barrier and the double row of barbed wire that permitted access to East Berlin. During the past four and a half years, Stalin had postured, growled and threatened from two hundred metres away. But brinkmanship had produced very little beyond frustration, misery and hunger.

He was conscious of an arm waving at him from inside the large wooden hut squatting at the side of the road a couple of metres across the pavement. He wiped the window again and stuck his face against the glass. Sergeant Leaman was the front man at Barrier C this morning. Grover waved back and hoisted his glass of schnapps in a toast. He hated schnapps. But it was the first drink he had taken on his arrival in Berlin and he had vowed it would be his last before he left. He took a deep breath and emptied the contents of the glass down his throat. The schnapps burned and made him choke, but he swallowed it and claimed victory.

He got up from the table, buttoned his greatcoat and stepped out into the rain.

A black Opel Kadett was parked road-side of the hut. Private Bowman stepped back from the driver’s door and waved the car towards the Soviet barrier. Leaman was completing the process of fastening a hand painted sign on to the side of the hut. He hammered a nail into the top right hand corner and stood back to admire his effort. Grover stood at his side and read the words Welcome to Checkpoint Charlie.

“That’s what the people round here are calling it now,” Leaman said. “Kinda catchy, don’t you think?”

Grover turned up the collar of his coat. Leaman shifted the hammer into his left hand and offered Grover his right. Grover shook it, turned and walked away, head bowed into the onslaught of rain. He found Private Kramer and his jeep parked in Potsdamer Platz and climbed aboard for the drive to Tempelhof Airport.

* * *

Bristol City Council House sat on the corner of what remained of Broad Street and Corn Street. The building was flanked by a series of craters, some of them partly filled by the debris they had disgorged when hit by the Luftwaffe. And the question which now paralysed all council action and stifled debate was – new homes or restored places of business? The problem was clear as day. People needed homes, but even pre-fabs cost money. And no money was available, because city centre business had no place to work, and the city council was earning no revenue.

Sam Nicholson was red-faced, heavily built and around five feet eight. Leader of the council, local worthy, fixer and long-time fence; he was sitting alone in the office he shared with the Mayor. He had worked hard to get the upholstery under his arse, and he was not in the sunniest of moods. He ran the fingers of his left hand through his comb-over and scratched his scalp. He could always smell trouble, and right now, the hair in his nostrils was standing on end.The phone on his desk rang. He picked up the receiver and immediately panicked.

“Why the fuck did you call me here?” He listened for a second or two. “He’s what?… Slowly, slowly…” His eyes popped and his facial muscles began to twitch. “This is no fucking way to do business.” He listened again and then yelled onto the mouthpiece. “No no no, you fucking leave me to deal with this.”

He slammed the receiver down and stared across the room. Then he got to his feet, grabbed his jacket from the bentwood coat stand near the door and left the office.Since the war, a series of one way traffic systems had grown like Topsy; devised to make journeys across the city smoother. But Bristol traffic had never been speedy before the blitz, and now the Highways Department was baffled and desperate. A smaller lobby than the citizens who had no roofs over their heads, Nicholson mused, but a bunch of irritating fuckers nonetheless. It took him forty minutes to get across the city. And less than a minute to feel his gorge rising. He parked, got out of the Rover and fell to considering, yet again, what the hell Rodney Pride was doing to repay the city council’s generosity.

Pride had persuaded the council to sell him three acres of flattened Albert Vale for ‘light industrial development’. He must have crooned better than Bing Crosby during his hour in the council chamber, because he got the three acres for a song. As yet, there was no development, save for the new headquarters of taxi company Prides Rides.Nicholson walked into the office above the garage, stood in front of Pride’s desk and bellowed at him.”It’s not what we fucking agreed. And you’re now trying to extort money out of my fucking nephew.”

The greengrocery in question, was a shop on a disputed corner in Windmill Hill. It had been designated Nicholson territory until such time as Sam no longer had any interest in it. Sam’s brother had handed the shop over to his son in law, who had put the business in his wife’s name and changed the sign above the door.

Pride leaned back in his leather swivel chair and spread his arms wide.

“Calm down Sam. It was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

Nicholson burbled into silence and sat down in the armchair facing the desk.

“That’s better.” Pride waited until Nicholson was settled. “The place changed hands and one of my associates saw an opportunity. He didn’t know the owner was a relative of yours. It’s all been ironed out now, so let’s forgive and forget eh?”

Nicholson grunted in agreement. Pride beamed at him.

“Good.”

He stood up and stepped to a sideboard with a drinks tray on it. He picked up a bottle of malt whiskey, poured a generous double, handed the glass to Nicholson and moved back to his chair.

“I’m working on the scheme of a lifetime, Sam,” he said. “It’ll make us a fortune. I just need you to rubber stamp the project.”

Nicholson looked alarmed. “What project?”

“I want to buy the old Scarlet Fever Hospital in Brockley Wood.”

This was a massive surprise. Nicholson felt his heart rate rise by fifty beats. The news that that anybody would want to buy the place was a minor miracle. The fact that it was Rodney Pride however, sucked out all the joy out of the prospect.”Why?”

“Can you make yourself available tomorrow, around noon?”Back in the street, Nicholson looked at his watch. 4.35. He decided he might as well go home. Give himself time to get into the right mood for the evening ahead. His wife had dinner planned for some relatives on the take. Another bunch of idle bastards he was expected to support.

He got into the Rover. Pride watched him from his office window.


Praise from readers

A masterly thriller. “Closing the Distance” is hard to put down. The ending could cause a few surprises.

— David Kitson