Authors: Geoffrey Household
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My Dear Mayne,
You will be astonished to read that this document from, I believe, your respected friend is the confession of a sneak-thief and – at least in the eyes of North Americans
– a communist revolutionary. Your own people know my age, name and birthplace from my passport, and have no reason at all to wave goodbye to a law-abiding and favourite foreigner; on the
other hand, British police have a record of my crime but do not know my name and can have only the vaguest description of my personal appearance. So I shall never cause you any embarrassment so
long as interested parties are unable to combine the two.
My crime, anyway, was the minor one of petty larceny, of no interest to the Bank of England, the Foreign Office or MI5. One of my motives in setting down on paper a true account of its results
and my reactions to them is that you should read it, seal it and deposit it in your inviolable safe to be made public in case of my death, or that of any of my collaborators, by suspected violence.
A lesser motive is to demonstrate to the British police – should they ever discover my guilt and contemplate extradition – that my crime was purely impulsive and that I had no notion of
the value of the swag. In these days when prisons are overbooked and magistrates inclined to be lenient, I think justice might well be satisfied by a sentence of community service which could vary
– according to the skill of the defence and the after-lunch geniality of the Bench – between unblocking the drains of an Old People’s Home and sawing firewood for the Police
I was, as you know, an orphan with neither money nor influence but enough intelligence to gain a place at a provincial polytechnic from which I emerged three years later to look for a job on the
strength of some insignificant letters after my name. So I answered advertisements – among them, one from a chain of Andalucian hotels on the Costa del Sol which required a British analyst in
Their guests, it appeared, had an annoying habit of putting the blame for intestinal upheavals on the food. The Spanish medical authorities, after careful analysis, pronounced that there was
nothing whatever wrong with it. However, the gang of financial crooks, gangsters and drug smugglers who stretched themselves, luxuriously farting champagne over the once pleasant beaches of
southern Spain, put no trust in the official verdict; they demanded that an independent British analyst should be in residence. The hoteliers provided one. They knew very well that the stomach
upsets of the prejudiced Britons were not due to shellfish but to drink and the devil; and that no high-powered scientist was needed. Anyone cheap who could wear a white coat with authority and
handle a makeshift laboratory would do. They took the first who offered – me.
I settled in as comfortably as the hotel cat, well fed and housed, petted by the guests and with no serious work except to learn Spanish. I was surprisingly popular with the local doctors whose
expensive and violent remedies I recommended, though both they and I realised that the kitchens were spotlessly clean and that a plain pick-me-up would be sufficient.
Our most distinguished guest in the summer following my arrival was an African general, known as the Father of his Country, who had found that the opportunities for spending his money at home
were limited while the opportunities for accumulating it were not. He exploded on us with a small suite, male and female, and occupied half a floor of the hotel. His size and colour were both too
overwhelming for our normal collection of criminals and package-tourists but he took to me for four good reasons. I admired his genial and excellent manners; I could, by this time, speak reasonable
Spanish and he could not; he had some trouble in making water and feared that he might be incubating the clap. (My polytechnic studies were enough to assure him that he was not.) He was intrigued
by a view of the golf links from his bedroom window and I was able to give him his first lessons in that noble game.
After a month of this intimacy he offered me the post of Government Analyst at ten times the salary I was paid by the hotel with a bungalow shaded by the forest and the requisite staff. I did
not hesitate. Of course I realised that I should be dependent on a dictator’s goodwill but I was prepared to risk it, for I had gathered from his suite that the army idolised him and that
rash opponents were seen, if at all, floating downriver indistinguishable from the dung of crocodiles. I accepted the post.
And here my story really begins with two famous drug companies, one American and one Swiss, in competition with each other throughout the Third World, where the liberality of the bribe slipped
by the manufacturer’s local agent to the buyer had more influence than the curative value of the product whatever their respective laboratories might claim. On this occasion the Americans
landed the contract, having very sensibly appointed as their agent the nephew of the Minister of Health. But unusual discretion was required. The Father of the Country, as the General preferred to
be called, had recently assured the commercial world that under his government the revolting vice of corruption was at an end and, if discovered, would be punished by a long term of
The shipment of Mirabiloil, the much publicised remedy for piles – an inconvenience to which the youth of the nation were very liable owing to their indelicate habits – was unloaded
into a lighter which was promptly towed upriver and consigned to the Headquarters battalion of the General’s favourite regiment. It seemed unlikely that the well-fed army should be suffering
from an epidemic fierce enough to justify such an inordinate quantity of pile lotion and so, as a moderately conscientious Government Analyst, I felt I should know the reason. I had no intention of
interfering with the General’s sources of income. What I had in mind was weedkiller and the ecology. I had begged the Father of his Country not to spread poisons about so indiscriminately and
had possibly made such an impression that he had kept the importation secret; so I borrowed the customs launch and discovered that the lighter had discharged at the remote wharf of the
General’s country estate, where he was checking a barricade of crates with an air of satisfaction.
Only then did it occur to me that instead of taking the newly forbidden bribe for signing the contract he had bought the whole shipment to be sold for his personal profit. The National Bank, of
which of course he was also a Father, could not know it. The Minister of Health and his nephew could be trusted to keep their mouths shut. I apologised for disturbing his leisure and assured him
that I was far too innocent to have ever suspected such ingenuity. That half-humorous remark was unwise. He took it as the contemptuous insolence of the white man towards the black – to which
he was always sensitive even when it didn’t exist – called me a spy and a liar and ordered me to leave for London by the next day’s plane or have my tongue analysed in my own
bloody laboratory. I prudently chose the former, abandoning the salary due to me and leaving behind my few possessions to be sold at a police auction for what they would fetch. That would be
nothing. The Chief of Police had once envied my carpets which I had too innocently shown him.
Enough of these complexities! On arrival in the centre of London I sold the contents of my travelling bag which allowed me to stay a fortnight in a cheap boarding-house. I spent the days in a
desperate search for a job and was unsuccessful; without references I could not hope for employment, and even if I was allowed to tell my story, the prospective employer cut the interview short
assuming that there was no smoke without fire. I had no family and after working abroad ever since I left the polytechnic no acquaintances to whom I could appeal, let alone close friends.
Now, this larceny which I mentioned would never have been committed if I had had anything to eat for forty-eight hours after my fortnight was up or anywhere to sleep but a park bench. It is
proudly claimed that a person cannot starve in England; nor can he if he knows the ropes. But if he doesn’t, to what charitable body should he appeal? What story, true or false, will get him
a free bed? How disgusting will it be? I accuse myself now of timidity. I should have asked some fellow sufferer sleeping rough. At least he could have directed me to a pawnshop where I could sell
my respectable suit and buy some filthy old rags to back up my claim to be utterly destitute. I shrank from any such acceptance of fate. My only asset was my appearance of prosperity. I did not fit
into any of the generous nets spread out to catch the needy, although the only possessions I had retained were shaving tackle, a toothbrush and – thank God! – a clothes brush.
My clothes were still good enough for me to appear a possible customer, so I entered Harrods and walked aimlessly through the long halls with a vague and desperate idea of finding some shining
counter where samples of exotic food – any kind from fat-free ferret livers to a small carton of camel milk – were handed out gratis. No luck. I wandered on and up in a lift, hunger for
once providing energy, until I arrived in some sort of luxurious coffee lounge, full of well-dressed women. On my way round the cake-and-coffee zone I passed close to a table where sat two of them,
evidently mother and daughter, excitedly chatting away about invitations to dinners and theatre parties which were awaiting the mother who had just flown in from South America. The daughter spoke
English, the mother American with a slight Spanish accent. They had ordered an unnecessary selection of cakes and goodies, so I loitered nearby – looking impatiently over distant tables as if
expecting to find a missing wife – in the hope that they might leave something edible on their table when they got up.