Expats in a Chinese restaurant in La Corumba, Spain hear a yarn fom antique dealer Gordon about his con-man friend; by Harry Downey.
This chap was at the next table and he seemed to be putting off leaving just as we were. We didn't know him, but his efforts at trying to talk Sinshie into giving him her telephone number earlier had made quite an entertaining little side-show that kept the customers in earshot amused.
Sinshie is a charming girl, tall for a Chinese, well liked by all, and part of the pleasure of eating in her restaurant is the welcome she gives everyone - a smile from ear to ear and kisses on both cheeks. She giggles a lot, probably to cover the embarrassment she feels at the language limitation. If you bump into her anywhere down in La Corumba, in the bank or market for instance, or on the street, anywhere in the town, you get the same greeting.
Well, on this particular evening this man who turned out to be Gordon was getting nowhere. He clearly had very little Spanish, and Sinshie has what I think of as 'menu English' − so he was stymied. She knew what he was after, of course, but it was all harmless fun, at least that was the way she regarded it. He didn't know what we knew, of course, that she owns the restaurant, is quite well off we gather, married and has a young son. And the man in the kitchen - you can't really call him the chef − might be her husband for all we know. A big, burly bloke too. I've heard tales about the Chinese gangs − Tongs I think they call them - and they usually seem to settle disputes with cleavers, butchers knives and things. Or so I've read. People to be avoided I would have thought.
This chap Gordon was alone and clearly wanted to chat. It turned out that he was in the antiques trade and regularly drove through France and into Spain, going south through the Costas as far as Gibraltar and then heading up into Portugal on the return journey, doing deals on the way. That's the way he put it to us. La Corumba, it seems, was one of his occasional stops. He has a 'chum' - very wealthy, Gordon said - who has a flash villa inland at Boronda el Tillos, and that's where Gordon stays whenever he's in the area. This friend was away at present so Gordon was trying his luck for the night with Sinshie.
We were in the antiques game ourselves for many years back in the UK and know our way round the business, so with some shared background we had a pleasant chat. Knowing what we know from the inside, we could see through his tales. He wasn't telling lies; just exaggerating. Every deal was a winner, and he never made any mistakes in his trading. Of course, this was all nonsense. Everyone in the trade slips up sometimes, whatever they might say, buying the wrong piece, missing some damage or paying too much for something. Even the best aren't infallible.
His over-the-top way of telling how well he had done didn't bother us in the least as he was so like scores of people we've met over the years. Both sexes, all ages and nationalities - everyone has a tale to tell - all you have to remember is to divide everything you are told by two, and you begin to approach the truth.
I remembered meeting a lady who had for some years run a B & B place somewhere on the South coast back in England - her comment seemed apt for Gordon. What she said was, 'In my time here I've met many retired bank managers but, you know, I've yet to meet the man who was a retired bank-clerk.'
Gordon, we concluded, had told his tales so often that he had convinced himself of their truth and assumed his listeners believed him. In other words, he wasn't certain any more what was true and what was false. A nice enough fellow but not necessarily one to do business with. The sort who probably would have made a successful politician. All froth and no beer.
You've probably seen that chap 'Lovejoy' on the television - an antiques dealer who is scruffy, untidy and a bit of a sartorial mess. Much more typical of blokes we'd known who live the life Gordon leads - a life that involves a lot of time on the road and probably some occasional sleeping rough in the back of a van. Gordon, though, could have been at The Dorchester Antiques Fair on Park Lane and not looked out of place. When we met him he was dressed to suit Spain − not Bond Street − but everything he wore was spot on.
Top quality clothes and shoes, one of those frustrating hair styles that we lesser mortals with little hair left can merely dream of - you know the sort, the hair is always at just the right stage of growth between visits to the barber, and is never obviously overdue for cutting - Prince Charles is the same. Gordon's hair was very dark and thick too, damn him, and parted on the right, the side that I always associate with Conservative MPs and ex-public schoolboys. Tall, early-twenties, good looking, or so Charlotte reckoned, and with an upper crust accent, he seemed to be one of these people the fairy blessed at birth with a head-start over the rest of us lesser beings.
If he did have a problem we suspected he was a little short of the readies. Despite all his tales of deals done and won, a few comments in the conversation hinted at a man slightly down on his luck but hiding his lack of cash very well.
When you've been sharing everything, good and bad, for as long as Charlotte and I have, just a look tells me all I need to know about her views on life at any particular moment. Certainly if she is unhappy, then I can sense that in no time, so on this particular evening I knew all was well. There was none of the usual body language that, without a word being spoken, lets me know when she's had enough and it's time to go: so with us both happy I just allowed the conversation to continue.
To be honest I think Charlotte was a little infatuated with our companion, especially when he moved to our table and sat directly opposite her. My wife isn't a drinker - the odd glass of wine is enough, but that evening she was enjoying herself and when she popped off to the loo I ordered another bottle of Rioja. I don't normally drink wine myself so it was all for her - she must have noticed but chose not to comment. Well, she might need help finishing the bottle - it's always a shame to waste it.
The conversation drifted on to people in and around La Corumba. By now we know quite a number, mostly Brits, of course, and when Gordon asked us if we knew his friend Robin Matlock-Fowler we were able to recognise him from the description. We remembered seeing him in another local restaurant, very pricey and up-market, sitting at a table that had a reserved sign on it. Twice now, Charlotte reminded me.
My memory isn't great these days but I can remember faces quite well. He was rather like Gordon now that I think about it - tall, very good looking and with longish hair, blonde in Robin's case - and clearly just as concerned with his appearance as Gordon was. A man with an eye for the ladies too, I remember thinking. The red rose buttonhole in a white linen jacket was a touch flash for a small Spanish coastal town but he seemed able to carry it off.
I mentioned to Gordon that his friend Robin seemed to have a female companion with him each time we saw him and I thought that it wasn't always the same one. Gordon nodded and we settled back as Gordon began to tell us more about his friend.
'Robin,' he said, 'is another of my chums from prep-school. We both started at Eton on the same day. So did Rupert too, as it happens. Rupert's the chap whose villa I'm staying in this weekend. We've all kept in touch over the years - we still move in the same circles and see friends and friends of friends and all that. I do know that Robin comes here occasionally but it's nothing more than coincidence that we have connections in La Corumba.
'You say you've seen Robin with different women? Well, there's nothing new in that. Robin has always been a randy sod. I like the ladies too - you saw me trying it on with that Chinese waitress earlier - but Robin's really Premier League. His little red book would be worth a bomb if someone knew where he kept it. Never married; simply plays the field. Lives in London but travels a lot. Less than he used to, his people were "Names" at Lloyds and lost rather a lot of money, you probably read about it in the papers.'
It had all been big news a year or two back, and I'm sure Gordon's friends had their own viewpoint - but certainly in the less exalted circles we move in, there was no sympathy for the 'toffs who take every penny they can for years, then run whingeing to the media when the profits turn to losses.' That's a cleaned up recollection of a friend's words - reflecting a widely held view. An apparently well-heeled couple had been in a discussion programme on the telly and complaining rather bitterly about their plight, claiming to have been 'wiped out'. This was the first time I had heard the phrase used like this and it came up again the evening we met Gordon. Their tales of woe brought little sympathy from my friend, and their pleas for 'someone to do something for them' really got him going.
'Probably down to their second-last manor house in Kent, I expect.' Restrained words from Peter, a highly successful self-made businessman with abrasive opinions on bureaucracy and interfering government departments. We didn't comment and just let Gordon carry on.
'The "Names" business hit Robin badly. He personally had no direct financial involvement but his parents had, and they were pretty well wiped out.' There's that phrase again.
'Before this, Robin's future life had had been mapped out for him. He knew he would have the lot when his old man kicked the bucket; he'd inherit the title - in itself being Lord Cardingfordham means nothing, but a title does still carry weight if one cares to use it to impress - and he'd simply do as little as poss until everything became his. I know I make him sound like a lazy oik but he did have a job − "something in the city" as they say - and as long as he could have a cheque from the family to top-up his income when he needed it, he could just drift along until old Lord C - his pater − went upstairs to the House of Lords in the sky. Then everything changed and Robin had to think very seriously about his financial future.
'We had a long chat about it when Robin realised how dodgy his situation had become. OK - there was the title, of course - but the City these days isn't the place it used to be for nobs with a pedigree and not much else to offer. Just because a fellow went to a good school and his father was someone doesn't automatically open doors these days like it used to. Robin isn't thick - but he isn't a rocket scientist either.
'His temperament also is a problem. Robin's one of those chaps who needs stimulation - the mental sort. He gets bored easily and can't settle to anything unless he feels it's a challenge. That ruled out a humdrum, routine job that didn't pay well and would bore the pants off him. He felt that anything like that was beneath him. Robin's a bit of a snob, truth to tell. It's almost inevitable when you consider how he was brought up.'
I ordered another drink for Gordon. Lottie was still nursing her wine and I switched to Diet Coke. Lottie signalled a warning at me - we both had noticed that Gordon was beginning to slur his words and his face was becoming flushed. He had been drinking before we arrived and while he was with us he had had a couple of extra drinks while we sat and sipped ours. We already knew he was going to his local base by taxi later so that was safely taken care of. Normally by this stage we would have long gone, but we wanted to hear more about his friend Robin.
'Basically Robin has two things really going for him. Charm by the bucketful and he appeals to the ladies, bless 'em. He can charm the birds off a tree and the girls can't resist him. What he does nowadays is to use his biggest assets - charm and sex appeal - to live. When you saw him recently having a meal Robin was at work.
'He has a routine that goes like this. He places an advert in the English language papers here in the Costas. This is a normal enough contact type thing, men looking for women and women looking for fellas − you see columns in the press like this everywhere these days −and he collects all his answers together, groups them by region, Costa Blanca, Costa del Sol and so on, and goes up and down the coast to meet ladies from those he selects. Naturally he's very choosy and careful.'
Charlotte looked across at me. I didn't look back but I felt the beginning of a change in her opinion of Gordon. She has some very strong views on some things, and sensed the direction the monologue was heading and didn't like it.
He went on. 'Many of the people who advertise would tell you they're looking for companionship or friendship, which is often a euphemism for sex, but they won't admit it. Certainly not to themselves in my view. Not all, of course by any means - many people are genuinely looking for a companion to share a lonely life - poor sods. In Robin's case his main concern is money. If it's clear the woman wants sex and as Robin put it to me "If she's not one of the Ugly Sisters and needs a sack over her face" he'll oblige. That side of it is merely incidental as Robin can have his pick of almost any young dollies he meets.'
Gordon looked across at us. 'When you saw him, were the women "of mature years" as the phrase politely puts it?'
Sensing that Charlotte might have strong words to say to our companion once she did speak, I jumped in before she could reply.
'Well you must remember, Gordon, that we've seen him twice or three times only as far as we know, but yes - both times they were. As far as I can remember the first one we saw was probably in her mid forties and the second one much older: in her sixties I reckon. Well preserved, though, for a "mature" woman.'
I decided to press home the point. 'So, your friend chooses the older women rather than the bimbos - no doubt, they've more money, but what's his ploy then? Obviously it's a scam but how does he work it?'
I was keeping a watchful eye on my wife. Clearly Gordon wasn't an overly sensitive soul − most people would have been aware of her rapidly changing mood by now - even though she had listened without intervening so far. Not only the basic concept was upsetting her, but the increasingly sexist bias in his tone was getting through to her.
As Charlotte is herself well into her sixties, some of the comments about 'well preserved' and 'mature women' were rather too near home for not to be aware of them. Her increasingly angry reactions and body language were like water off a duck's back to Gordon as he continued in the same vein.
'You're right there, of course. He assumed the older birds' - Charlotte was near to exploding by now - 'had the money, and his ploy for getting his hands on some of it was simple enough. The way he explained it to me was like this...
'...Imagine you're a woman - let's be kind and say you're not in the first flush of youth. Not necessarily "mutton dressed as lamb" but close to it. Assume you're meeting Robin at a prearranged time and place. You turn up - don't forget your date will be a complete stranger to you - there's a reserved table for two with a very good looking, well dressed young man waiting for you. He will be wearing a red rose, as arranged, greets you with a kiss on the hand and presents you with a single rose, all the time talking in a posh accent. She'll think Christmas has come early, won't she?
'This gorgeous chap begins with an apology. He wanted to present you with a bouquet − he mentions orchids − but sadly, it can only be a single flower this evening. Why? Because that very day he has been robbed and most of his ready money has been stolen along with credit cards, driving licence, passport and a few other things. In fact, he ought at this moment to be on his way to the Police Station to give them details of the robbery, but that would have meant letting his guest down and in no way would he consider doing this on their first meeting, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
'It also meant that for this, "their first meeting" - the merest hint here of something beyond that particular evening we both thought was a clever touch - sadly he could pay only for himself. Until he sorted out something with the bank on Monday morning there was no way he could act as the host and all that implied. He was ashamed to say it but the lady would have to pay for her own meal and drinks.
'I don't expect to have to spell it out. Most of these old birds by now had stars in their eyes with all the old-fashioned courtesy and charm from this young man with the film star looks, and they became like putty in his hands. Brilliant scheme, isn't it?'
Neither of us replied. Lottie made violent signs to catch Sinshie's eye for the bill.
Gordon, unaware of the reaction, continued. 'Where the evenings go from there he played by ear. Sometimes Robin would finish up in bed with some woman old enough to be his mother, sometimes it ended there and then with the occasional "client" smelling a rat. Normally money would change hands, purely as a loan of course, then Robin would have maybe one more "Exploratory Business Meal" as he called them in the town, then he would move on.
'He always has to be careful not to overdo an area and slip up that way. There's some sort of filing system involved somewhere: there must be. I suppose he uses a computer. He's one of those guys who know about PCs and stuff like that. Robin's so much better at that sort of thing than I am. I'm sure I'd slip up if I ever tried to do it, and I would date the same woman twice or something stupid like that.'
To me Gordon was looking more and more pathetic - a sad figure of a man on a steepening downhill slope. His earlier attempted portrayal of easy superiority and control was gone; a veneer little thicker than paper was going by the minute. A man who clearly wasn't overly blessed with brains was becoming even more stupid as he drank.
'What you really mean is that he is a con-man and a gigolo. And you seem to think it's all very clever. '
This was Charlotte. She was struggling to control herself and managing it well - certainly better than I thought she would. So many people shout and rant when they are angry but Lottie kept her voice down and her protest was all the more powerful because of it.
'What you've told us is as mean a trick as any I've heard. It's disgusting. And so are you Gordon. Early in the evening I thought you were OK − but not now. If you encourage "friends" like that you're nearly as bad as he is.' When she said 'friends' there was real contempt in her voice. I want to go home, Charles - rain or not. Now.'
Gordon seemed taken aback. His arrogance had stopped him noticing what anyone with normal feelings would have grasped much earlier, and even when his partially fuddled mind sensed all was not well, he still underestimated the strength of her feelings. He turned to Charlotte.
'I'm sorry, my dear' - a phrase he should not have used to Charlotte with the mood she was in - 'that you feel like that, and I can understand why. Any comments I made about Robin that seemed in favour of his tricks were simply respect for the cleverness of the scheme. I didn't say I approved and there is no way that I would ever do anything like it. He and I are old chums but we do have different standards.' By now the words were slurred and almost tailed off at this point.
'Spineless wimp' were the words that came into my mind as Gordon wriggled on the hook of his own making.
I felt I had to say something to show support for my wife, so I mumbled something or other vaguely disapproving about the whole affair, paid the bill and we left, having turned down an offer to meet up the next day for a drink.
Clearly Gordon was too drunk to fully understand all that he was saying, and unable to grasp that he was telling strangers that his friend was a criminal and that he was almost a party to it by not stopping it. Completely sober I would have been strongly opposed to the scheme and its deviousness and undoubtedly would have said so. As it was I should have but didn't, and next morning wasn't proud of the wishy-washy line I had taken.
Neither of us felt that Gordon really understood our disapproval. Lottie was all for going to the police and reporting Robin as a fraudster, but having slept on it we decided to leave it alone. My feeling was that eventually Robin would be caught and having a friend like Gordon would make it sooner rather than later.
Sinshie gave us a special welcome when we called in one evening several months later - our first visit after we got back to Spain the following October. We had our usual seat on the side-wall and noticed a reserved sign on the next table.
'Do you think Robin's back to his old tricks?' Charlotte whispered.
A figure appeared from the passageway leading to the toilets. It was Gordon. He was wearing a splendid black blazer of a shiny, silky material, grey trousers and had a red rose in his buttonhole. He could have stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine. Just before he sat down he saw us and came over.
'Hello, you two. Good to see you both. Can't stop to chat, my date's due any moment. I've set up in opposition to Robin. I'm making my debut tonight - wish me luck. Tell you about it later - she's just coming in.'
It was clear to both of us that Gordon was pleased with himself, as they say 'up for it', and showed not the slightest sign of embarrassment at being seen by two people who knew he was acting criminally. Afterwards we both decided that he had simply forgotten what he'd told us; or at least the part that would incriminate him. We looked towards the door where a lady was being led by Sinshie to Gordon's table. In her late-fifties, we both thought afterwards when we compared notes. Tallish, with good features and a minimum of make-up, good dress sense, and we agreed, clearly a lady with taste.
Their table was near enough for us to see and hear what was going on, but after the initial greeting and the presentation of the solitary rose by Gordon to his guest and the prepared story of the robbery and how it left him with a problem, there was no-one in the room who could have failed to hear what happened next.
The lady, a Mrs. Clayton as she had been addressed, rose to her feet and took a jug of water that she poured over Gordon's head. We heard her calling Gordon a 'con-man and rogue'; there were references to his 'smoothie friend', 'do you think I'm stupid enough to fall for the same trick twice?' and 'your crooked associate still owes me 200 euros and I want it back'.
Sinshie by now was hovering at the table, obviously uncertain what to do, and her limited English stopping her from sorting out the dispute. Mrs. Clayton turned to her and, in excellent Spanish, asked Sinshie to call the police. At this Gordon made a dash for the door, managing to burst past a customer who made an unsuccessful grab for him, and ran out on to the street. Two uniformed Garda arrived a few minutes later and took statements from Mrs. Clayton, but that seemed to end the matter as far as they were concerned. They lingered over drinks that Sinshie gave them until their radios squawked and off they went.
We introduced ourselves to Mrs. Clayton, a charming lady as it turned out, invited her to join us for a drink and told her what Gordon had told us those months previously. It added little really to what she knew - other than Robin's father's title, if that were true − but she was hoping to track down either or both of them, and was prepared to spend time and money if needed. She appeared to have plenty of each and seemed to welcome the challenge. She struck us as a resourceful, determined lady, who rather relished the challenge of finding the man who had robbed her.
All three of us agreed that any aspiring con-man who failed on his first attempt shouldn't be hard to find. Somehow Lottie and I felt that Gordon was destined to fail on his personal Day One - anything else would somehow be out of character for a man clearly predetermined to be one of life's losers.
As far as we were concerned that ended our involvement with Gordon and his 'chum' Robin. We saw neither of them again, but did come across an item in the Costa Blanca News a year or so later. Actually it was the photograph of Mrs. Clayton that Charlotte saw and recognised. It seems that she was as good as her word.
She had traced them as far as Almeria, further down the coast in Spain, and had managed to have them both arrested. There was a string of offences listed and dozens of victims had complained. Robin - whose real name was George Herring (25) - and Gordon Mason (24) were given eighteen months and twelve months prison respectively, and on release were to be handed over to the UK police for investigation of further offences.
We contacted Mrs. Clayton through the paper and congratulated her. She sent us an interesting letter back, in which she said that the time spent on tracking down the two had been among the most interesting part of her life since her husband had died some years before. She had the means and the time to do it, and the two young mens' actions had got under her skin so much that she had all the incentive she needed. A real battleaxe but very likeable.
Reading between the lines we think that she must have had what they call 'hands on' contact with the detective agency she employed. A sort of 'Money's no object - just go out and find them. And I want a twice a week update, too' approach. We felt that the two had no chance once Mrs. C was involved.
One bit of news she did pass on. Robin / George blamed Gordon for his problems and they had a fight in prison. Neither was seriously hurt but apparently extra time was added to their sentences - something that pleased Mrs. C no end. In addition to that they had, foolishly but quite in character, managed to upset some of the real Spanish hard men on the inside. Inevitably reprisals followed and from what we picked up from Mrs. C and others, afterwards Robin's face was so scarred as to mark him for life, and any future reliance on his good looks was a non-starter. Worse still, he had been blinded in one eye. The three of us felt an amount of sympathy for anyone in that position, but as Mrs. C said 'We didn't choose his life-style for him.' Gordon we gathered had come off less badly than his friend, his beating being relatively minor.
Mrs. Clayton also told us that she had been sending a single red rose to each of them once a month and she would keep doing that until their removal back to England. She didn't seem surprised when they didn't reply to thank her. She carried on sending them anyway. They're due out later this year. Then they will be charged and have separate trials with a probability of more time in prison back in the UK. Somehow I don't think they've heard the last of Mrs. Clayton. We also think that even back in England the monthly roses will still arrive for a good while yet.