As the train squealed to a halt and I flung open the carriage door I was greeted immediately by the reassuringly sweet smell emanating from the nearby Shredded Wheat factory. Its magnificent white silos dominated the skyline like an immense, eerily pale Art Deco cathedral. There was no place in the entire town from where they couldn’t be seen. The delicious aroma of roasting breakfast cereal enriched every breath of air, a scent I had always associated with home. I exited the station and emerged into the familiar, bustling town centre. Although my parent’s house was a good mile and a half away from the station on the southern edge of town I shunned the short queue of taxi cabs out on the street, preferring to take my time and walk home. Carrying one kit bag on my shoulder, the other in my hand and my guitar case strapped on my back I strolled steadily away from the shops and cafés which merged into residential streets. Here I slowed my pace and took in my surroundings, passing childhood haunts where I’d learned to run and to fight. Small wastelands and wilderness areas where I’d discovered my passion for wildlife and dreamt of adventures in far flung places. More streets where the friends of my youth had lived, maybe they still did. Unpleasant and pleasant memories intertwined and flooded my thoughts. I knew none were powerful enough to tie me down there any more, not permanently. For me my home town would always be a place to remember, to reminisce about, maybe to make the occasional visit but not somewhere I wished to put down roots.
Walking in the back door and entering the kitchen I dumped my gear on the floor and yelled,
“Hello! Anybody home?”
Within seconds I was being crushed by my mother in a bear hug and over her shoulder I caught sight of my father walking down the garden path from his greenhouse. My mother was so pleased to have the third of her four sons home safe and sound at last but her joy was tempered with the knowledge that the plans for my future were to take me so very far from home, yet again. That afternoon I tried to reassure her that it wouldn’t be forever. I would be keeping in touch regularly and I promised to visit, especially in the winter months when business would be slow but in the back of my mind I knew my visits if any at all would be few and far between.
The Hollybush pub was about the nearest place to my parent’s house to get a drink. Built about twenty years previously to cater for the plethora of new council housing estates going up in the neighbourhood, it had very little going for it. The bar room was too brightly lit for there to ever be any kind of welcoming atmosphere. The jukebox was always well out of date, harshly pumping out mundane singles that had long since fallen into obscurity and which deserved to be forgotten all together. The clientèle consisted of the majority of the local piss heads and junkies to whom the miserable landlord sullenly served poor quality keg beer in between cracking a few heads together when things got out of hand.
Despite all this, because it was so convenient it was the Hollybush that I gravitated to in order to spend a few evenings reacquainting myself with old school friends while we quaffed pints of warm, flat, nondescript Worthington E. Some of the lads had hardly changed at all whereas others had joined the ever increasing ranks of the unemployed and seemed destined like so many others to become overweight, beer bellied slobs with very little pride or ambition. It wasn’t a scenario that I welcomed and so after a short while I decided to leave them all to it.
The experience inspired me to look more closely at myself. I had always enjoyed distance running since my early childhood. I had been an average student, not really excelling in anything and the same had gone for my sporting activities. I’d been OK at football, cricket and gymnastics and had actually captained the swimming team but never felt that I was anything more than average. But running was something I’d found myself to be relatively good at and could enjoy whenever I liked regardless of competition. It wasn’t a sport for which you had to be intensely coached. You didn’t require intricate skills or talent, you just went outside and ran. The more often and the further you went, the better you became. Once above a certain level of fitness the enjoyment increased immensely. I’m told it’s because of endorphins produced in the brain but all I knew was that once I was out in the countryside, loping along at a good pace up hill and down dale, I always experienced a high sense of well being. I enjoyed life more, even my food tasted better and I seemed to be less prone to minor illness. If I didn’t run regularly I missed it a lot.
Fearful of what effect I knew a dramatic change in lifestyle could have on a person I therefore took to running every day, honing my fitness and stamina that had been so important throughout my army days and which I vowed to maintain for the foreseeable future.
Each morning I rose early, donned my combat pants, army boots and a tee shirt and set off from home in the direction of Hatfield to the south. My route took me to a hamlet called Mill Green where I turned off the road and headed out west onto Woodhall farm where there were good tracks threading their way over fields, through small copses and spinneys. I revisited areas I had known like the back of my hand as a youngster, although there was now a huge new dual carriageway cutting through the once familiar land which hadn’t been there in the old days. It was the brand new six lane A1M. Miles of shimmering pristine concrete which seemed to me to be the width of an airport runway that had replaced the long and winding Great North Road. The once highly congested old main route north out of London had now become nothing more than a quiet country lane servicing small villages and hamlets yet the new monstrosity appeared to be hardly used.
I passed the rail bridge with its old Victorian brick arches beneath which filthy alcoholic tramps and homeless travellers had once resided. Memories of stealthily stalking them with my friends, all scared out of our minds while we hid and listened to their drunken banter flooded my thoughts but there was nobody living there now. The entire expanse of what had once been unspoiled wilderness between the tramp’s bridge and the old north road was now in the process of being annihilated by enormous diggers and bulldozers which were ferociously sculpting it into some kind of recreational park. It was like the end of the world over there and very sad to see. I came to realise that indeed during the handful of years that had passed since I’d been away the world of my youth actually had ended, blasted beyond recognition and there would never be any going back.
On a whim I stopped smoking, expecting to last but a few days before I succumbed to the temptation again but surprised myself at how easy it was to give up. Coupled with my increased fitness regime the beneficial effect was almost instantaneous. I slept well, relaxed and stress free after leading the inconsistent hectic existence of a serving soldier. I dreamed of far away places, mountains and lakes, wolves and bears and couldn’t wait to be on my way, not wishing to witness any further destruction of the world where I’d grown up.
One Wednesday morning soon after my return I picked up my father’s copy of the Welwyn Times and Hatfield Herald and disinterestedly opened the crumpled pages. With a jolt my heart leapt into my mouth because there staring out at me like an apparition was the snooty face of Second Lieutenant Loxley. His hair had grown fashionably long and he was dressed in a tweed hunting jacket with an open necked shirt. He was looking down his long nose directly into camera with the familiar superior expression that only toffs like him could muster, as if taunting me. I couldn’t stop myself from scanning the lengthy news article printed below.
I read that Lord Loxley senior had died suddenly some eighteen months before and his son had resigned his army commission to take over his father’s title and estate. The journalist went on to describe the family’s collection of vintage Ferraris, emphasising the value which totalled well over a million pounds. Embedded within the article there was a smaller photograph of his new Lordship straddled across the bonnet of what he described as the love of his life, an immaculate blood red 250 GT California Spyder. Loxley looked so smug sitting there that my stomach churned and I felt nauseous. I crumpled the newspaper roughly and stuffed it back into the magazine rack in disgust but then the seeds of a plan germinated in my mind. I went upstairs and donned my running kit, said goodbye to my mother on my way through the kitchen and set off at a good pace in the direction of Loxley park.
Passing beneath the newly constructed A1 flyover at Lemsford I jogged into the village itself, pleased to find that at least this village had survived relatively unscathed. Very little appeared to have changed since I’d last been there. Ahead I could hear the pleasant sound of fast gushing water and as I rounded a sharp bend in the lane I was treated to a familiar view of the old Lemsford corn mill. Beneath the tall wooden structure the river Lea flowed vigorously to turn the massive water wheel within as it had done for more than a century. At the back of the mill I clearly remembered a narrow iron gate which led into Loxley park itself which I’d often used as a kid to gain entry undetected. To my delight I discovered it was still there. Despite it being overgrown with brambles and stinging nettles I was able to pass through easily and made my way into a small patch of woodland, following a deer track in the direction of Loxley Hall. The river to my left widened as it approached rolling, manicured gardens and lawns before it formed a huge ornamental lake at the foot of a steep slope which led up to the main house. I kept out of sight and trotted to my right through the trees, emerging at the rear of the hall where I knew the outbuildings to be. I’d been in all of them before at some point during my early youth, skulking around in search of an owl’s nest or helping myself to bits and pieces of discarded horse related paraphernalia. There was a blacksmith’s workshop, several storage barns and a dairy. The largest outbuilding, a brick built barn close to the main house had always contained a few tractors and unidentifiable monstrous pieces of farming equipment but I suspected that it now housed a far more valuable collection of machinery.
Stealthily I crept around the back of the building and climbed up on a dustbin to peer through one of the windows. It appeared to be the only building that had undergone much in the way of change, internally at least. Inside the dirty glass of the window there was a grid of sturdy iron bars. I couldn’t see far beyond them into the building as it was dark inside but I did detect a glint of chrome and polished red paint within. This was definitely the place. Without doubt the window, even the skylights and certainly the sliding doors at the front would be protected by alarms but that didn’t concern me. I had one more thing to check and that was about five yards away from the rear wall, hidden in long grass and a thick stand of nettles. It was still there, a rusting manhole cover set into a thick concrete collar. It didn’t look as though it had been disturbed in years and I left it that way. Backtracking across the grounds, through the little gate and past the mill into Lemsford village, I continued my run east across Woodhall farm and over to Mill Green. Then I turned north in the direction of home where I took a bath and planned my evening’s expedition.
After dinner I had a rummage around in my dad’s shed and found everything I needed including a small torch, some gaffer tape and a variety of tools from his toolbox. I wrapped them all in a canvas tool roll and mid evening I stuffed it inside my coat and left the house, telling everyone I was meeting an old mate over in Hatfield for a drink. What I actually did was to walk to Lemsford village and find myself a seat at the bar in the Long Arm and Short Arm pub, just along from the old corn mill. I spent a happy hour or so chatting to the barmaid until I was sure it was dark enough and quiet enough outside for my purposes, then I said goodnight to her and made my way into Loxley Park using the same route as earlier in the day. There was enough moonlight to find my way easily, even through the trees but it was dark enough for me to go unseen by any prying eyes from the direction of Loxley hall. I made my way to the rear of the building I’d investigated earlier and found the manhole cover I’d checked out. There I squatted and listened hard for a few minutes. I heard nothing apart from the distant sound of a gramophone playing a bit of Pavarotti somewhere in the big house. Very apt as this was all about the Italian prancing horses within the garage barn. A dog barked in the distance but I knew that they didn’t run loose in the park because there was far too much livestock.
Taking a largish screwdriver from my tool roll I poked around the rim of the rusty manhole cover until I found an indentation which enabled me to slide the blade in and put some pressure on. It was rusted tight but after a bit of prolonged leverage and a bit of verbal encouragement I detected movement. Eventually, with a crack and muted scrape the seal was broken and I was able to lift the lid clear of its housing. Inside was a corroded and frail metal ladder which led down into inky blackness. I remembered that the hole was only about eight feet deep having used the same route many years ago in an aborted attempt to break into the house. I had been about twelve years old at the time and on that occasion I had been accompanied by one of the Crawford boys, a young thug of about fifteen named Jimmy who lived nearby and had ended up not too long afterwards in borstal. I’d heard nothing of him since but his downfall and subsequent punishment had put the fear of god into me and had been instrumental in putting an end to my blossoming life of crime. Our attempt at burglary that day had ended in failure as we’d not brought a torch and had lost our bearings in the pitch blackness of the old Victorian drainage pipe. Taking a wrong turn we’d come up against a brick partition that we’d spent ages chipping away at with Jimmy’s sheath knife until finally we’d removed enough crumbling old bricks to make a hole suitable for a skinny twelve year old kid to wriggle through. Unfortunately on the other side of the partition there had been another vertical shaft which led up into the wall space of the barn, nowhere near the house. We’d already been in the barn earlier and found nothing of interest so Jimmy was not a happy little thug at all. I bore the brunt of his temper that day and still carried a small scar under my eyebrow to remind me.
This time I had a torch with me so without hesitation I tested the ladder against my weight and then carefully lowered myself into the void. When I reached the partition it was exactly how we’d left it all those years ago. Small Victorian bricks still bearing our knife marks were scattered on the ground but the gap we’d made was far too small for me to squeeze through now. Using my screwdriver again I had little trouble removing more bricks until I could scramble through comfortably. I struggled up the vertical pipe which at some time might have housed a mechanical water drainage pump but was empty now. Once I estimated that I was at the right level I drove my screwdriver through the rotten mortar between two more bricks which crumbled and came away really easily. After clearing enough of them out of the way I was presented with nothing more than a thin plasterboard skin that separated me from the interior of the barn. I was able to kick my way through the final barrier effortlessly, job done.
Once inside there was enough moonlight filtering through the skylights for me to see adequately so I extinguished my torch and stepped out into the floor space. I was able to make out a row of four sports cars to my left with another row of four facing them opposite. I couldn’t help spending a few moments admiring the beautiful vehicles, caressing the voluptuous highly polished body panels with my gloved hands and breathing in the heady aroma of turtle wax combined with grease and petrol fumes. The last car in the row nearest to me was the California Spyder which I’d seen in the newspaper photograph. This was the one I wanted. Firstly though, there was a small matter of the alarm on the barn door.
Considering the value of what it was supposed to be protecting, the alarm system was pitifully inadequate. Rich people were often like that, never spending more of their money than they considered absolutely necessary. I’d noticed that they often seemed to wear their clothes until they fell apart before investing in anything new and it appeared that the alarm system had been given similar priority. Perhaps from outside it would have been more difficult to disable but from inside it was just a matter of easing back a couple of plungers with my screw driver from the barn door top and bottom and securing them with tape so that when the door was slid open, contacts didn’t close the circuit and the alarm wasn’t activated. The door was quite robust, made of hard wood with steel insets and of course locked securely but the locking mechanism again was easily forced from inside with the aid of a jemmy bar found on a work bench at the back of the barn. Having slid open the door I paused and listened carefully again. From the house I could hear Pavarotti working his way towards the money note at the end of Nessun Dorma but nothing else stirred. I wasted no time in gathering together everything I’d brought with me, wrapped it all carefully in the tool roll and then pushed the Spyder silently out of the barn onto the tarmac forecourt, leaving behind in its place a small preprepared sheet of paper on the floor which read simply ‘This is for Private Sullivan’. Then I quietly slid the door shut behind me.
My first thought when planning my escapade had been to roll the car down the slope, dump it in the ornamental lake and then leg it but I couldn’t bring myself to destroy what was one of the most beautiful machines I’d ever seen, so I went for Plan B.
Being at the top of a steep slope I was able to push the stunning little sports coupé into motion, jump in and free wheel for about half a mile away from the hall before the ground levelled out and it lost momentum. I pulled over about four hundred yards from one of the smaller exits from the park which led out into a sleepy hamlet called Ayot Green.
In the 1950s car electronics, even in supercars such as the Ferrari were amazingly straight forward and I had no trouble at all in delving behind the simple dashboard with my pliers and hotwiring the ignition circuit. The magnificent V12 engine burst into life with the kind of spine tingling, throaty rumble that could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I cruised out of Loxley park, making my way through quiet country lanes to a place I knew between the villages of Knebworth and Codicote. The journey was one of the most enjoyable I’d ever made if a little short and I had to fight the inclination to give the fabulous machine its head. I didn’t want to risk attracting any attention, even though the route I chose was unlit and totally deserted.
Within twenty minutes I pulled into a driveway and parked the car outside a pair of massive iron gates. Far enough away from the road so as to be unnoticeable, it was the entrance to a vast scrapyard where I happened to know that the proprietors were a pair of brothers about as honest as the Kray twins. When they arrived for work in the morning one of two things was going to happen. Either Loxley was going to have the shock of his life when he awoke to realise that the love of his life had been stolen, only to have it returned safe and sound a day or so later, or a second and more likely scenario would occur. The scrapyard owners would normally strip down any stolen vehicle that came into their possession faster than a shoal of piranha fish could strip the meat from a dead rat. The vehicle would remain untraceable as the parts would be be spread far and wide within days. It was how they made the majority of their profits.
A valuable and rare treasure such as the Ferrari though would more than likely find itself loaded into a shipping container and on its way to the middle east before Loxley had time to fill out his insurance claim form. His Lordship would be crying into his Pimms for many weeks to come while some millionaire Arab in a far away desert was thrashing the living daylights out of his pride and joy. I wasn’t a hundred percent proud of what I’d done that evening. It was spiteful and verging on the cowardly but I could live with it and I was certain that it was what Sully would have wanted.
With that thought in mind I walked back the couple of miles or so to Codicote and had another pint in the first pub I reached, just beating last orders before calling a taxi to take me home. I slept like a baby that night, karma tends to have that effect on me. I had no worries about leaving any incriminating traces of myself behind during the previous evening’s exploits. I had been very careful apart from the note I’d left and I was convinced that Loxley wouldn’t remember a nonentity like me clearly enough to put two and two together. Even if he did, soon I was going to be off to virtually the other side of the world where I doubted anyone would come looking for me.
On Friday morning my father pointed out a story in the Daily Express which he thought might interest me. I took the newspaper from him and studied it in disbelief. The headline read ‘VALUABLE EXOTIC CAR COLLECTION STOLEN FROM WELL KNOWN HERTFORDSHIRE ESTATE’. Intrigued I read on. That bastard Loxley had reported the entire collection of eight Ferraris missing! There was a list of the models accompanied by their huge financial value. A witness stated that he’d heard a heavy goods vehicle being driven through the park during the night but had thought little of it as there was construction work going on within the park’s perimeter where a new golf course was being created. There was no mention of my note or any news of the Spyder being found. It was an obvious insurance fraud and I had difficulty concealing my agitation but there was little I could do without incriminating myself.
Years later I heard that the fraud had in fact been detected eventually and the authorities had thrown the book at Loxley. He’d been sentenced to five years in prison. He had been shamed, just about ruined and been forced to lease the Loxley estate to a private American company who turned it into a high class hotel and conference centre. I doubted that he’d really struggle to bounce back given time, people like him always did but it certainly made me feel good to know I’d been instrumental in giving him such a rough ride.
As my time in Hertfordshire drew to a close my brothers were anxious about whether or not I knew what I was doing. Admittedly there were still times when I wondered the same thing but I was committed to follow through with my plans. The only concession I made on my oldest brother’s insistence was to open a joint bank account with him and leave the majority of my savings in it which would be more than enough to finance a return trip in the unlikely event that everything went tits up across the pond. It was undoubtedly a good idea.
It had been a torturous period I’d spent in Welwyn Garden City, repeatedly having to explain to one old friend or relative after another, what I was going to be doing and where I was to be doing it. Eventually I grew tired of the sound of my own voice. I felt as though I was treading water and impatience began to bubble under the surface. The urge to get moving was overwhelming.
The final week crawled by at a snail’s pace but at long last the time came for me to say goodbye to my family. My mother was in tears, fussing around like only mothers can do as I got myself up and ready to leave at the crack of dawn one Monday morning. Dad was pottering away in his greenhouse even though it was still fairly dark. I walked up the garden path and tapped on the glass door to get his attention. Feigning surprise and at the same time acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be pinching off poppy seed heads from wilting plants and gathering the seeds at seven thirty in the morning, he came out brushing off his corduroy gardening trousers nervously with his hands. Never a man of many words he detested situations where any show of emotion might be expected. We shook hands firmly and I drew confidence from the roughness of his skin and the strength of his grip. He didn’t say much but forced himself to wish me luck as I gave him the little white box containing my GSM and bronze oak leaf, along with the certificate explaining my MID. Despite his own heroics during the second world war and the medals he’d earned for far greater deeds, I knew how much mileage he’d get from showing mine off down the local Trades and Labour club to his old cronies.
I didn’t have a lot of luggage to take, my plan being to kit myself out properly once I arrived in Washington State. With a tinge of regret I left my guitar leaning against the wall in the living room. To me it was too precious to risk its destruction at the hands of some hungover baggage handler in a bad mood at the airport, so I planned to pick up something else once I’d settled in to my new home. I had doled out the majority of my summer clothing to one of my older brothers who was of a similar size and build to me. Most of the space in my baggage was taken up with items such as my ex-army parka and a few other items of cold weather gear. I was pleased that I’d managed to hang on to a lot of the top quality army kit which had seen me through several German winters and always performed well. The next winter was on the horizon and where I was heading it was likely to be the coldest I had ever experienced. To that end I also found room for a catering sized carton of Horniman’s tea, my brand of choice and one which I thought I was unlikely to find in the shops abroad. I also left room for a couple of duty free bottles of whisky that I would purchase on the flight out.
I treated myself to a taxi to run me to the railway station which I’d ordered the night before as the weather forecast was bad and I didn’t want to begin what promised to be an energy sapping, possibly twenty four hour journey with a lousy soaking. Sure enough, as I climbed in beside my driver the early morning sky turned a darker shade of slate grey and it began to drizzle with rain. I had a short wait on the station platform during which I lost a shilling, or five ‘pee’ as it had become known while I’d been away, trying to extract a bar of Fry’s Five Boys from an uncooperative chocolate machine in the waiting room. No amount of thumping and swearing at the thieving device had any affect before my train pulled in, so under the threatening glare of a burly looking British Rail worker I admitted defeat and boarded. I settled into a window seat for the ride back into London thinking my journey had got off to a poor start. A whole shilling! Looking out at the familiar buildings sliding by as the train eased away I wondered when I’d next see them, if I ever did at all. The face that looked back at me from my reflection in the glass was a very different one from that which had arrived from the opposite direction just a fortnight or so previously. It appeared less downtrodden and there was a renewed brightness in the eyes. I snapped out of the despondency caused by my failure to relieve my sugar craving. Fate was leading me in a new direction and I felt more than ready to crack on.