Percy the Watchman
Uncle Percy was a remarkably jovial fellow, despite having a leg amputated after the Battle of the Somme, and then later, losing the sight of one eye in curious incident with a magpie. The latter, finally putting an end to his career as a watchmaker.
Percy was married to Mitzie, a small vivacious lady, now grown buxom with age. She had often recalled her life as a chorus girl in the music halls, before she became part of a novelty act – plates on bamboo poles and that sort of thing – often footing the bill at the Kingston Empire.
One Sunday, back in the mid-sixties, my wife Pat and I took a trip on our Lambretta scooter to the Devil’s Punchbowl – a well-known beauty spot near Hindhead in Surrey. And, it was whilst hiking near the top ridge I remembered that Uncle Percy, one of my maternal grandmother’s seven brothers, lived on the rim of the Punchbowl.
Eventually, for the path was both narrow and rough, we spotted a bungalow above us. Venturing forth, I recognised Percy (eye-patch and limp) out in the garden. I called out my name and introduced him to Pat.
Very soon, we were seated around the fireplace with mugs of hot tea and buttered scones. Percy asking after his younger sister, Alicia Margaret (Nan), who lived with my parents in the centre of Woking, while Mitzie took over Pat with questions about our new house in St Johns and our scooter, which we had parked a little way off. Our lively conversations, however, were punctuated by another voice – that of Henry, a large white parrot with a plumed head, who had settled on the back of Percy’s chair. Alas, his profanities overtook our pleasantries and Mitzie swiftly returned him to his cage.
After a while, I told Percy of my new job at the Horserace Betting Levy Board and to my surprise, found him to be both interested and knowledgeable on racing. It seemed he had an old friend connected with Staff Ingham’s yard in Headley and occasionally had a bet on, “Something a bit special.”
Later, we bade farewell and promised to keep in touch. However, nothing ever came of it – that was, until two years later, when one night, quite late, I had a call from Percy.
“Michael, how are you? You remember us talking about Alec, a contact of mine with Staff Ingham at Thirty Acres Barn.”
“Yes,” I answered cautiously, wondering what was to come.
“Well, I’ve got some news of a smart two-year-old; finished second at Lingfield, and they are taking it to Windsor for the ‘Star and Garter’ on Saturday.”
Continuing, his voice now wavered with anticipation, “Would you like to be there and help me get some money on? Everything’s got to be hush-hush you understand.”
“Yes, sounds exciting,” I replied.
“O.K., meet me in the Members Bar under the grandstand before racing.
“Percy, what’s the name of the horse?”
“Oh yes, Watchman, good name for me eh? They’ve booked Geoff Lewis to ride.”
That Saturday, with Pat heavily pregnant with our second child, Sarah, and me a non-driver, I set out on the convoluted journey from Woking to Windsor racecourse – two trains, sometimes an hour apart, and a boat trip. The latter, a tourist attraction, which had the ill-founded reputation for being quicker than the local bus.
Arriving 20 minutes before the first race, I quickly spotted Percy – county tweeds, eye-patch and walking stick. He told me he had spoken to Alec, and learned that Lewis had picked up a full book of rides and, apart from Watchman, Kitty’s Grey, trained at Epsom by ex-jockey Kenny Gethin, “Should do the business.” Percy’s passing shot as he went to the bar to order our lunch was, “A monkey each on Watchman and I’ll look after Kitty’s Grey myself – alright.”
Whilst devouring the sausage sandwiches, Percy revealed he had recently sold a prize antique grandfather clock and, as yet, had not been able to bank the £1,500 in cash!
Just before three o’clock, Percy went off in search of a price against Kitty’s Grey in the five-furlong Maiden. He returned saying he had just had a small bet, but I noticed, meanwhile, the price had gone from 2-1 to 7-4.
Off and running, Hen-Pecked (far from Percy’s predicament), went straight to the front and stayed there. However, soon after passing the post, the Tanoy announced haughtily, “Objection to the winner by the second,” followed by “Stewards enquiry, stewards enquiry, please retain all betting tickets…..”
Percy later learned that Geoff Lewis had objected to the winner for crossing and, in the jockey’s words, “Cutting him up.”
In the ensuing delay, bookmakers took the opportunity to make a little extra or, as they would suggest, to allow punters to hedge their bets.
Percy felt he was now between ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’ – he could back Hen-Pecked and so negate most of his winnings, or do nothing and hope the result didn’t reduce his intended stake on Watchman.
As the runners for the next race were going down, a crackly Tanoy interrupted with authority, “Objection sustained, objection sustained……first Kitty’s Grey, second Hen-Pecked, third…..the rest was drowned by Percy’s cheering – more than usual for “Just a small bet,” I thought.
Time for a celebratory drink, before Watchman’s race at four o‘clock.
Percy, flushed with excitement, insisted we both downed double whiskies, before dividing up his grand into two five-hundreds for us to bet on Watchman.
I knew there were only five runners, but the odds of 8-13 were disappointing; worst still, by the time we went forward, it had gone to 4-7. However, we got on at opposite ends of the line at exactly the same time to get £285 to £500 twice.
The race was a complete joy. After settling Watchman down, Lewis took him to the front and won in a canter by six lengths.
From then on, we planned to spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar, rather joyously, I’d hoped, but strangely, not so.
Suddenly, Percy caught sight of Alec hovering in the doorway and after quickly pushing back his chair, he said nervously, “I need to disappear for a while; I think Alec’s come to put the bite on me.”
“Perhaps I can help,” I feebly suggested, “I’ll, I’ll, h-hold him up for a w-while,” I stammered. But Percy was in full flight now, leaving me to choose whether to hold-up or not to hold-up – that was the question?
Out of family loyalty to Percy, I made the effort and while Alec was furtively scanning the room for Percy, I approached.
“Excuse me,” I politely asked,“Who won the last?”
“Err Watchman, Geoff Lewis up,” he replied.
“What price was that?” I persisted.
Alec, now looking agitated, ignored me, until….
“Haven’t I seen you with Percy,” he questioned – he’s got an eye-patch and a bit of a limp?”
Still giving Percy a chance to get away, I replied, “Was that one eye patch or two?
Alec looked angry and I thought at one point he was going to hit me, but he didn’t.
“If you see him,” he said, scowling, “tell him, Alec would like a word and, odds to a ton – tell him.”
“Bloody hell,” so that’s why Percy wanted to scarper. Even so, a ton at 4-7 wasn’t going to hurt him, but, if Kitty’s Grey was part of the deal, then that was a different kettle. Meanwhile, Geoff Lewis continued his rich vein of form winning the next race at 6-1 and so, landing me three S.P. doubles. But was that another of Alec’s tips, I wondered?
Needing to allow time for the situation to resolve, I went out to the paddock and then watched a race from the terraces. When I returned to the Members Bar, Percy had got there before me and, had continued with the double whiskies.
Strange as it may seem, this turned out to be a blessing for all concerned. For soon after insisting that he drove me back to Woking, Percy slumped forward onto the bar and passed out.
At that moment, I caught sight of Alec enquiring at the other end of the bar. Thinking quickly, I called him over. He surely couldn’t put the finger on Percy in this state and, it might defuse an ugly confrontation.
“Is he alright?” Alec enquired, looking down at an unconscious Percy.
I gave him a look of disbelief.
“We’ve got to get him home,” I said.
“You knew him after all then,” Alec said, revising his take on the situation.
“Who, Percy?” I retorted, still hoping to buy some time.
In the end, I came clean with Alec and to my surprise, he came clean with me.
“Look, I don’t know your connection, but Percy and I go back a long way. Leave him to me, I’ll run him home.”
“But why was he worried about paying odds to a £100?” I asked.
“No, that wouldn’t bother him. He’s been desperate to avoid me because he knows he sold me a fake antique grandfather clock – the bloody thing’s quartz.”
I helped Alec drag Percy back to his car. Percy suspended between us with his arms drooped round our necks.
After propping Percy in the back seat, Alec said, “Don’t worry Michael, I’ll get him home alright.”
I was in no position to argue, but I dare not tell Alec, that not only had Percy won around one and a half grand, but he also had his pockets stuffed with the fifteen hundred that Alec had given him for the clock!
The following day, I telephoned Mitzie to find out if Percy got back all right.
“Oh he’s fine, thankyou.” she said breezily, “He’s out celebrating with Alec at the moment,” and put the phone down.
Celebrating, celebrating – no mention of the clock – and sadly, there never was, because to this day, I never, saw or heard from either Percy, Alec, or Mitzie, ever again.
This short story is from Michael’s book Black Horse – Red Dog ,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.