Grandpa Sam was outside the Alum Ale House in South Shields with his mate, Tommy Pierrepoint.
“Wonderful!,” enthused Grandpa, pulling a small arm from behind his flapping coattails. “But our Sonia’s with us while Dottie’s in Newcastle, so we can’t go inside.”
“We’ll not mind that,” said Tommy, giving Sonia, aged five, his best beam. “You get the drinks with this,” he offered, handing Grandpa some coins, “and I’ll get us settled at the table just outside the door. “But we’ll have to keep our coats on”, he warned, peering cautiously at the watery sun. “It looks like rain.”
When Grandpa returned, Sonia was straddled on Tommy’s knee, fingering his Prince Albert pocket watch and staring helplessly, first at a piece of paper in front of her and then at a pile of chocolate pennies just beyond her grasp.
“How does an ugly dad like you have such a pretty kid?”, quipped Tommy. “She’s bright and knows all her letters and numbers up to ten. So I thought that while we play and chat, she can have a taste of ‘hangman’. I’ll give her a penny every time she gets a letter right.”
Grandpa, who’d been gassed during the Great War, started wheezing horribly.
“Er, lovely,” he spluttered, trying to change the subject as he hated falling out with anyone. “How’s business? Yanked any good necks lately?”
“Haha! Things are a bit slow, so maybe I could have a go at yours!” snorted Tommy, tracing an expert thumb up Sonia’s delicate nape, making her shiver.
“Ooh, that tickled. Can I have a chocolate now?”, she asked.
“What’s news with you, Sam?”
“Things aren’t perfect as m’chest hurts like hell. The doctor says I could do with living somewhere warmer and drier, so we’re thinking of moving to Bournemouth.”
“Really? It’s nice down there. You’ll still have the coast – so you’ll never be short of somewhere to take the bairns.”
“That’s true. I’m hoping it’ll bring us some other changes. Sonia’s older brother, Joe is also doing very well at school but he’s such a handful that –” here Grandpa, grinned weakly - “I’m thinking of calling on your services!”
“Ooh, that’s a bit drastic, But to be blunt,” confided Tommy, “I could do with extra work. I’ve made some enemies in the Prison Service, even at the Home Office and some folk are saying I’m no longer fit for the job.”
“They say I’m getting too old and my sight’s not as good as it was. There may be a grain of truth in that. But there’s more. They claim that I’m trying to – umm – polish people off too fast – that I’m being too efficient. They also don’t like how I’ve been bending the rules by touting for business.”
“How do you do that?”
“I read the newspaper court reports and when I see a capital sentence passed against a murderer, I write to the under sheriffs who are responsible for hiring me, offering to do the job. I know it's morbid but I’m not the only one who does it. We got found out as sometimes death sentences are commuted on appeal, which leaves us applying to hang prisoners before it’s definite that they’re down to swing. They’ve also accused me of drinking on the job. Now, would I do that, Sam?
”In fact, I’m going to complain. I’ll be saying that I never used to write to the sheriffs until I discovered that someone else got there first and I was not having my turn. My junior’s getting the work and I’m left waiting, idle. Does that sound fair?"
“Hmm, all else aside,” said Grandpa sympathetically, “it seems they should award you brownie points for initiative!”.
“Talking of ‘initiative’,” said Tommy, suddenly remembering Sonia, “I’d clean forgotten about everything and meanwhile the pennies have vanished most mysteriously. Any ideas?”
Sonia’s cheeks were bulging and her eyes began to swell with tears.
“Dear me,” said Tommy. “I’ve got to tell you something serious. I’d only left you four spaces to fill in - to make the word ‘L - I – F - E’. That’s what happens to some people – they spend their whole lives in prison for doing wrong.
“Liars,” continued Tommy, now in full throttle, “turn into thieves and thieves become murderers. Do you know what happens to them, Sonia?”
But Sonia couldn’t reply. She was choking on mouthfuls of half-eaten buttons and unshed sobs.
“Murderers, Sonia, are who I deal with. They get sent to the gallows and they are hanged …”
Grandpa could take no more. “Look what you’ve done. A little less pantomime might be in order, Tommy. Sonia’s going home almost hysterical and I’ll have Dottie to reckon with.
“It’s been nice to see you, but as we’re leaving Shields and Newcastle soon, I’ll just wish you goodbye and good luck.”
“Huh!,” said Grandma Dottie a couple of hours later. “Now I’m having to deal with the tantrum and what’ll probably be a sleepless night. If I hear that you’ve been out with Pierrepoint again, I’ll .. I’ll …
“Yes, our Dottie?”, asked Grandpa, ever so meekly.
“Break your flamin’ neck! Now, I’m in such a tizzy, I can’t think what to make for tea.”
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 01 September 2012)