A Man of His Word by Tony Billinghurst

Charlie Hall is finally out of prison, waiting to meet a former partner-in-crime who owes him money; by Tony Billinghurst.

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It felt like I'd been walking all day and I still couldn't find the place. I asked two people but neither spoke English, so woke a dosser sleeping in a doorway and asked him for Greek Street. Eventually, he pointed down the road.

"Down there," he slurred, pointing left, "'s on the what's it - right." He held his hand out. "Spare some change, Mister, I haven't eaten all day?" Nor had I. I eventually found Greek Street; it was in the opposite direction. The restaurant was across the road; Chez something unpronounceable. I checked the note I'd been given; it said Doug Bailey had booked a table there for two at 1:00pm.

The place looked top of the market, and even at a distance oozed condescension. When I got closer, I found the framed menu hanging in the window like a work of art. I had £16, barely enough to buy a starter. It was a poncy outfit, all quasi-French; no prices, just a number by each item; not my sort of place, I'm a pie an' mash man, me - proper grub, not this foreign muck; I went in anyway. Bailey wasn't there although it was 1:15. To start with, I wasn't too concerned; I thought maybe he'd been held up. The lights were low, and they were playing Miles Davis quietly over the PA; cool. A waiter appeared, he was wearing black trousers, waistcoat and bow tie; smart. He looked at me like I was a toenail in a takeaway, and I swear he was about to say, "Deliveries at the back door," when he changed his mind; gave me a fake smile and a slight bow. Fair dos, I didn't fit, I know; my clothes were wrong, my worn trainers were wrong, and I doubt if their customers usually have a scar on their cheek and 'hate' tattooed on their knuckles, but I thought - "Ain't life a bitch," and stood my ground. The waiter hesitated - calm dignity prevailed.

"Good morning, Sir, table for one?" I nodded and he led me to a discrete table behind an enormous plant, fronds everywhere; monstrosity - it would have blocked my view; I wasn't 'aving none of that.

"No, this'll do," and before he could object, I sat at a table where I could see the whole restaurant. He handed me a large, leather-covered menu and asked if I would care for a drink whilst I decided; I ordered a large Macallan; no ice. The time was now 1:20. Anyway, I had a good look around - casing a joint is a habit, and it was better than I'd expected so I decided to play for time and sit it out. The room was a sort of rectangle with a flash bar at the end, four large mirrors behind, and an alcove either side stacked with bottles; expensive. The round tables had linen tablecloths, large turquoise plates with rolled serviettes, King's pattern cutlery and polished glasses; classy. The punters were the types you'd expect, Henrys, suited, booted and being ever so nice to popsies, probably their secretaries. I read the girl's body language and thought, "You lot are wasting your time; they've got your little game," but they wined an' dined without a care anyway; all on expenses no doubt. Bet they went back to their offices to sleep it off 'til it was time to go and tell their missus about the stressful day they'd had. On the other side was an elderly couple, straight out of Jeeves and Wooster; fossils, county types, cut glass accents, loud voices, talking tosh. He was lanky with buck teeth; she was so fat her skin struggled to keep everything in; gross. I thought, "Blimey, girl, go easy shovelling more in, the wrapping can only take so much." The old trout wore a screamingly awful luminous pink hat at the table, nearly as loud as her voice which could be heard all over the room and in the kitchen. At no time did buck teeth get a word in edgeways, doubt if he ever could; the wimp - bet she was a laugh a minute at WI meetings. Any wannabe dictator could take a master class from her on how to talk down the opposition.

The waiter sidled over but I blanked him, and he left but didn't give up, and a few minutes later came back and didn't move this time. I couldn't make sense of the menu, so took a chance and pointed to the second item on the entrée list. The waiter wrote on his pad. The mains list was a mile long, all goujons this, confits that, lardons and noisettes. I wasn't about to order any of that lot and give the waiter a laugh, so handed the menu back. "What you got that's not got garlic? Can't eat it, wrecks my guts." He showed no emotion - perfect poker face - opened the menu, handed it back and pointed to a section.

"Of course, Sir, I understand. May I suggest turbot meunière if you would care for fish, or the sirloin is especially good, Aberdeen Angus, we dry cure our own - not so much a meal, more an experience." Sounded good, so I ordered steak, medium rare. "Everything is cooked to order, so it does take a few minutes I'm afraid." Suited me.

He made another note. "And to accompany your steak?" I couldn't give a monkey's as long as it wasn't none of this al dente rubbish, so I shrugged my shoulders. "May I suggest petits pois, pommes frites, sautéed mushrooms and green beans perhaps?" I was impressed, this guy was the biz. Although I'd rather have a load of chips with a steak, I agreed. I couldn't see tomato sauce anywhere but didn't ask; I didn't want to look a total prat. My nerves were on edge now, beginning to get frayed 'round the edges - know what I mean? So, I downed the whisky in one for a bit of Dutch courage. The waiter had X-ray eyes and spotted my empty glass, floated over and handed me the wine list. "Would you care to order wine, sir?" I glanced at it, nothing I recognised, so turned to the reds, located the French, found the most expensive ones and ordered a bottle, no point mucking about. The waiter hesitated and looked troubled; I guessed what he was thinking - could I afford it? That was an easy fix; I told him it was one of my favourites, he looked relieved and now showed interest. "Very good, sir, an excellent choice, if I may say so." He then unrolled my serviette and lunged for my crotch. I was a split second from giving him a smack in his teeth when I realised he was only spreading the serviette on my lap; things people do for a tip; narrow squeak. The waiter left, and shortly returned and presented a bottle with a flourish, label up; he would have played a fanfare if he'd had one. I nodded; he carefully uncorked it, placed the cork by my plate and poured a little into the largest of my wine glasses. I knew the routine here; seen it on YouTube; I picked the glass up by its stem, swirled, sniffed and sipped; no doubt about it, it was red wine, so nodded and the waiter wrapped a napkin around the bottle and half-filled my glass; stingy sod. As soon as he'd gone, I filled it to the top. Eventually, my starter arrived. It looked lost on the plate; square thing with cheese stuff on top; if I'd wanted cheese on toast, I'd have ordered it; bunch of con artists. I was getting hungry by now, so knocked it off in a couple of bites then got stuck in to the wine. After I'd necked three glasses, I began to get the point of this wine game, all the same, it wasn't a real drink; not like half a dozen pints of decent bitter.

I checked the time again; it was 1:45; had something gone wrong? Maybe Bailey wasn't coming; caught Covid or something - plan B was beginning to look like a goer. I pushed my chair back to give me room to leg it if the proverbial hit the fan. It scraped on the floorboards - the whole restaurant must have heard and figured out what I was doing, but no one took any notice; 'course they didn't, the sound was drowned out by Miles Davis, humming air con, scraping plates, rattling cutlery, murmuring voices all topped off by Mrs Face Ache-Jones opposite who'd aired her views on female bishops, the European Union, the Ukraine and Vlad the Invader, immigration, declining standards in public life, and was now demolishing the Government. I told myself, don't panic, hold your nerve, you've done it a hundred times before, so I counted to ten and hung in there. Just as well, a few seconds later the waiter brought my steak, asked if I would like anything else, wished me 'bon appetite', topped my glass up, then Doug Bailey made a grand entrance followed by a face I didn't know. Got Doug at last. He was difficult to find of late, never around our old haunts, always on the move, didn't associate with the likes of us anymore, even dressed differently; he now wore a long coat over his shoulders; vintage Crombie with a velvet collar and cherry red lining, looked bespoke, 400 notes of anyone's money; carried a brief case tooled with his initials, Gothic gold letters; he'd joined the manicured nails and whitened teeth brigade; the berk. He glanced around, didn't clock me which was no surprise, I wasn't expected to be released yet. So, at last, here he was; Doug Bailey, MBE; Mr Celebrity, reformed career gangster, turned to God or so he says, done good, top guest on TV chat shows, now on a nice little earner with ten grand a pop for after dinner speeches, more than we pulled for some jobs, best-selling autobiography, consultant for gangster films, sought after for conventions, self-satisfied regular nice guy and an old partner in crime. As he slipped his coat off and held it at arm's length the diamond in his pinkie ring glittered in the light, so did his new gold tooth, always was one for a bit of glitzy tom. He'd got stockier; his close-cropped hair was greyer and he'd either acquired a beer gut or was five months pregnant. Two waiters materialised gushing charm and greeted him; he was a regular; one took his coat, the other ushered the two of them to their table and presented them with menus.

This was the weak part of my plan; it was the flaw that could nause everything up and put me behind bars again. I moved my chair to the left a little to give me a completely clear sight line and bolted the steak down mega fast, all the time keeping an eye on Doug. Shame to rush it, it was ace. The face with Doug was fawning all over him; made me wanna chuck up; and they didn't stop yakking, they were giving it some, ten to the dozen. Timing was crucial if I was going to get away with this. I called the waiter and asked for the menu again. He enquired how my steak was; you gotta be fair, it was the best lump of cow I've ever had, so I told him, "Outstanding," not that I'd had one in years. He cleared the table. The dessert menu was easier to get my head around, although what on earth Balthazar chocolate truffles and glaces et sorbets maison were, I had no idea; I did recognise chocolate profiteroles, Ma used to make them at Christmas, hers looked a mess but tasted wonderful; I went for them. I really fancied a mug of builders and a fag, but opted for filter coffee and petits fours; daren't ask for tea, I knew it would turn into a flaming quiz show; "Which would you prefer, black, green, herbal, decaffeinated, chai, Assam, Darjeeling or ruddy Earl Grey?" Can't stand twenty questions about food. As I waited, I willed Doug's mate to push off, drop dead, vanish, evaporate - I wasn't fussed which; I needed Doug to be completely alone, but he didn't; just kept nattering. I finished my coffee, slowly. The waiter approached and asked if everything was satisfactory. I needed more time, so ordered a glass of Hennessy and the bill. Shortly, they both arrived; the brandy in a cut glass balloon, the bill on a small plate. I read it, my head swam - it was ten times what I'd ever paid for lunch before; I checked it again; you could nearly buy a whole caff for that down our way, it was an eye watering amount. Great!

Here it was at last, the time had come to settle our old score. I carefully looked around; no one was watching; good. I slowly slid my hand inside my jacket pocket.

After a final check around, I took the document pouch out, folded the food bill in half - then slowly sipped the brandy. I'd bought the pouch that morning from a charity shop, it was dog eared but had a strong zipper; champion. As I was about to tell the face to push off, he got up, laughed and headed to the loo for a jimmy; perfect. With my heart pounding, I drained my brandy and got to my feet; the waiter spun around and stepped towards me then stopped when I strode over to Doug's table and sat down. Doug dropped his bread knife with shock; wicked.

"Good heavens - Charlie!" He gasped, then whispered: "When did you get out - how are you - what you doing here?" I could see the cogs spinning; then he changed gear and played for time. "Good to see you - how've you been...?"

I stopped him by raising a finger. "Hello Doug, you pathetic runt, thought I'd come an' give you a couple of little prezzies." He looked confused. I handed him the pouch and my bill. As he picked the pouch up and looked inside, I asked him who the face was. "My literary agent, not that it's any business of yours; wants me to write a follow up to my biography."

I sniggered. "That's nice, I enjoy a good laugh - gonna be another work of fiction, is it?"

He ignored the jibe and showed me the empty pouch. "What's this for?"

"It's for my 40 grand cut from the Chester Street job." He looked like a cornered rat, then leant over the table towards me.

"I haven't got it..."

I interrupted him again. "Don't tell me, you put it on a collection plate somewhere."

"Don't be so bloody stupid - I haven't got it because Kenny Yates had it away on his toes."

"So, find him and get it."

"I can't," he said, "I tried, he vanished, no one knows where he is; word is he might have had it away to the Maldives."

"The what?" I asked, "Why there?"

"No extradition treaty; it's an Islamic country but they sell booze an' accept US dollars at their holiday resorts, he might have gone there; plenty of female Brits on holiday for company as well, know what I mean? Anyway, I'm straight now, forgiven him, I'm a new man, I have the Lord in my life. I've never earned so little but I'm rich in blessings; besides, I never carry that sort of dough about, too many villains around."

"Oh, don't give me that old pony," I said, "you're on a good earner here, best-selling book, guest on TV chat shows every five minutes, after dinner speeches eight days a week, an' we all know when we did jobs you skimmed off our cuts as well - you've got the dough - there's a bank on the corner, get it, I'll wait."

"Charlie, I'm telling you, I haven't got it; I'll buy you lunch for old time's sake, but that's it, no more," and he handed me the bag back.

I pushed some glasses and cutlery aside so I could lean closer to him. "I done five years for that job an' I kept shtum about you, kept you out of it - 'cause you told me you'd see me right, I took your word, you owe me, big time. I don't wanna blow this stroke for you but this is business an' I gotta have my cut, my lad Sam needs some expensive medical treatment; urgent like; it's not available on the NHS and I'm gonna get it... whatever it takes."

"Sorry to hear that," Doug didn't show any emotion, which was no surprise, he'd always been short on humanity, nothing new there then. He turned towards the loo hoping the face would come out so he could change the subject.

"I promised Sam we'd get him better, an' when I give anyone my word, they know they can stand on me, even a kid." I've seen Doug's stubborn look before, he didn't look like he was going to cough up easily, so I played my ace and took a photo out of my pocket. "An' we're all lucky that night watchman didn't croak; what you shoot the old geezer for? We could have handled him, no trouble."

Doug shrugged his shoulders. "I told him to freeze, he moved, it was his fault."

Now wasn't the time to argue the point. "The law an' the court leant all over me to grass up whoever did it but I never told anyone; kept my mouth shut, but that story must be worth a fair few bob, especially now..."

He bent over the table, knocked a glass over and pointed a finger at me. "Don't even think of pulling that one," he said. "Anyway, who's going to believe you, a jail bird fresh out of nick, over me, Doug Bailey; I even met the Queen, she gave me an OBE; and this isn't a gig, I have found the Lord, straight up."

"Yea, yea, yea... 'course you have, so when did you get religion then?"

"I can tell you exactly, August 8th, six years ago."

I sat back and savoured the moment. "Well, isn't that strange - you were still at it with the rest of us after you say you found God - we did the Chester Street job on November 20th six years back. You're pulling a stroke." I leant forward again and pointed at him. "But I won't blow your cover if you cough up."

That threw him off balance. "Maybe I'm a bit confused about the dates." His answer was pathetic. "Anyway, it's all behind me now."

"Doug, it's me you're talking to, not some media mug - I don't buy it." I handed him the piccy, it showed a stub barrelled .38 revolver, mean looking bit of kit. I looked around to make sure we weren't being overheard. "Meet me under the Man in the Clock outside Paddington Station, day after tomorrow, 11am, with the dosh, or this piccy goes to the filth an' my story goes to the highest bidder. People will believe me 'cause the shooter's got your dabs all over it..."

"No way have you got it," he spat, "you're bluffing; I gave it to Lee Grant and he told me he'd got rid of it." Doug sat back, looking pleased with himself. Lee Grant was the fourth member of our firm; we did a lot of blags together - he was our treasurer, raised the working capital and got rid of artefacts that could link us to the crimes. "Besides, if I go down, I'll take you with me." That was the old Doug. The face came out of the loo.

I was half expecting Doug to say something like that so I had another card up my sleeve. "No, you won't, I've already done time for that job, I'm fireproof, besides, take a closer butchers at the photo, the shooter's sitting on a copy of yesterday's Racing Post; Lee did get rid of it, he gave it to me for safe keeping, an' if you don't cough up you can watch your world go down the pan, an' that's a fact, stand on me." I got up, beckoned to the waiter who came over as rapidly as dignity would allow.

I told him, "Mr Bailey has kindly offered to pay my bill, isn't that nice of him?" I turned to Doug who'd just lost his appetite. "Give the man a nice big tip, Doug an' think on," He regained some of his bravado, quicker than I expected, and opened his briefcase; took out a bunch of booklets which he handed to me as the face reached the table.

"I have found the Lord, straight up, I turned my life around. I'm done with the past, I'm out and I'm not going back, no more running from cops, locking horns with wannabe mobsters, and no more nick, I've done all the time I'm gonna do, and you know what? At last, I can sleep easy at nights. You need Jesus in your life too, Charlie - read those." I put them in my pocket as he turned to the face. "This is Doug, an old acquaintance - Doug, Simon Harrison."

I shook his hand. "Nice to meet you."

Doug picked up his bottle of wine and filled the face's glass. "Unfortunately, Charlie's got to go, haven't you, Charlie?"

No point in staying, job done. "Yes, things to do. Think on what I said, Doug."

I wasn't going to leave my bottle for the waiter to have away, so as I nipped back to neck the last of it, I caught Doug out of the corner of my eye as he unfolded my bill. I thought he was going to have a 911, "How much?" he yelled; I enjoyed that moment as much as the steak; good 'un. I left, went into the street, around the nearest corner, leant on the wall of an empty shop and got my breath back. That whole thing was kinda weird, scoffing a class nosebag, putting my plan into action, not getting nicked, and meeting Doug again even though he'd changed. I couldn't put my finger on quite how he had, but he was noticeably different. Maybe I had as well, after all, prison does strange things to you, and it was five years or more since I last saw him. We used to know each other well, had the same roots, went to the same school, and time was when all four of us were brothers in crime, thick as the proverbial, bit unsettling.

Doug didn't cough up the dough, time was running out so I raised it from a loan shark and got a job as a long-distance lorry driver. Doug continued to behave like nothing had changed, he even had the neck to visit jails telling the lads why they should stop being naughty boys.

I was home one evening in front of the box, channel hopping, when he was there again on the biggest TV chat show of them all, The Matthew Foster Show; laying back on the guest sofa like he owned the place. All the big names were on that show at one time or another, D-list celebs, soccer players caught in bed with someone else's squeeze, media numpties who'd said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, whole load of them, you know the form. He exuded charm with his butter wouldn't melt look, took everyone in, but I knew there was a different side to him. Way back, our firm started to do bigger jobs and other gangs began to poach on our manor, Doug went ballistic and vindictive as hell - it was outright war for a time, got so bad I had to sleep with a gun under my pillow - what a way to live; when you're not doing time, you're running from the law and waiting for a petrol bomb to come through your window, and what do you get out of it? A broken marriage, screwed up kids, dead mates and little else while, gormless actors make fortunes portraying crime as glamorous - it's not, it's grief all 'round; really tiddles me off.

One evening a few months later after a long day, I was binning my junk mail an' working through a six-pack, when there was a ferocious banging on my door. My blood ran cold - I'd heard that sort of knocking before; there's only one sort of low life who hammer on doors like that; I opened it and was right, two stuffed shirts were there brandishing police warrant cards. "What do you two comedians want?" They asked if they could come in. Experience taught me you might as well, so I pushed the door open and left them to close it. I didn't invite them to sit.

"Charles Arthur Hall? Can you tell us please, where were you on the night of Thursday 19th last month?"

I thought for a minute. "Driving, long distance, spent the night at Tebay services, Cumbria."

"Anyone who can corroborate that?" I got up, went to my file and took out a receipt. The cop made a note without thanking me and as he turned to go, he asked: "Do you happen to know Dan Mellors?"


"Danny Mellors."

I thought for a while. "Name rings a bell. Think we had a kid at school called Mellors, not sure what his first name was, bumped into him once or twice since; that the fellow your thinking of?"

The cop made another note. "When did you last see him?" He asked.

"A few years back."

"Sure not more recently?

"No, why?"

The cop gave me a straight look. "Thank you, Mr Hall - see you again, no doubt."

"Not if I see you first," I said, slamming the door. 'Course I knew Dan Mellors, he's one of your own, but I wasn't about to tell them that. The same thing happened three times or more in as many months; the last time they tried to fit me up for a blag in Kent just because one of the faces involved used a sawn off 12-bore loaded with rock salt, same as Lee used when we were at it; he preferred it 'cause it would mess you up a bit and probably wouldn't kill you and there was no need to aim as everyone in the room'd get their fair share; thoughtful. Actually, I knew all the geezers they were asking about; odds are they were all at it, 'course they were, and it started to play on my mind big time; it got to the stage I'd sit every night waiting for their knock, I was becoming a wreck. I'd done my time; I was trying to earn a legit living for once, but it was typical of the filth; do a stretch and they think you've done every similar job since. I'd had it up to here, looked as if they were going to harass me every time some toe rag so much as nicked a hub cap. Was this what my life had come to? I decided to go down the pub and drown them, but as I put my jacket on, I found Doug's leaflets in my pocket, don't know why, but I sat and started to read them.

I'd often wondered about this evolution lark, and one thing always puzzled me; if things did evolve, where did the original stuff come from? Saying it came from nothing doesn't bring it home for me, I mean, try telling a judge your loot came from nothing and see where it gets you. After I'd read the second booklet, I started to think a creator God made a lot of sense. It was 2am when I put the last booklet down, and my head was spinning. Maybe, just maybe, there was something in this religion stuff. Trouble was, I now had a load more questions than when I started, and I wanted answers.

The following morning, it came to me out of the blue; there was a guy on the manor called Holy Joe, bit of an oddball; he'd been to theological college or something but wasn't a vicar or priest, maybe he could answer my questions. That night I found him in a back street drinker leaning on the bar. I explained about my questions. He emptied his glass of lager, told me answering questions was thirsty work but if I kept him topped up, he'd have a go. We went to a table and by closing time he'd answered pretty well all of the things on my mind, but for some questions, he just said, "Dunno, ask God, he might tell you." As we were leaving, he said, "Charlie, go on the way you are and in ten years' time you'll either be doing life or dead. You're asking the right questions and you've got a good brain but think on this: either there is a God, or there isn't. When you get home, ask him to make himself real to you - he will; and when he does, you'll know, believe me; then get yourself a decent education. He'll guide you what to do next, trust me," so I did both an' that's why I'm here, a changed man with a new life.

Matthew Foster smiled to camera then faced me as I sat on the guest sofa. "Well, Charlie, that's an amazing testimony, so, your new life was all down to Doug Bailey?" He held a book up and camera two panned in for a close-up. "You can read all the facts of Charlie's amazing life in his autobiography, 'A Man Of My Word,' out now." He turned to me. "Do you see Doug Bailey often these days?"

"Now an' then."

"Where is he?"

"He's just been moved from Belmarsh to Long Lartin, still doing time for shooting the night watchman on the Chester Street job; he's got another three years to go."

Matthew Foster pointed at me, leant forward in his arm chair and turned to the studio audience. "Ladies and Gentlemen, a big hand for tonight's special guest, Charlie Hall; reformed career criminal, after dinner speaker, now working with schools and prisons and CEO of his new charity, 'Out', which helps recently released prisoners to go straight - Charlie Hall."


  1. Some writers find themselves delving into the same kinds of topics several times. One instance is Doug Hawley, who pens futuristic stories of great humor; less fortunate, perhaps, is my own case, where the stories are too often infused with addled stoners from the 1970s; but I digress. I only raise this notion on order to point out that Tony Billinghurst is NOT a niche writer, unless his niche contains stories which have terrific plots, fascinating characters and leave you screaming for more. His latest, “A Man of His Word,” is just that sort of fiction. When I first beheld the image of the inked character at the beginning of the story I thought Yikes! I don’t wanna read about no lurid ex-con. But, the plot unfolds through the jaded eyes of his MC and it is very funny. All the street jargon threw me a little, but I’m a Yank, so I can be excused, I guess. I always love surprise endings—I’m an O. Henry fan at heart—and this story did not disappoint. The story also had a moral—a little twisted, it’s true, but I like them like that. Nice job, Tony.

    1. Greetings, Bill, Thank you for your comments, they're very much appreciated. Yes - I raised an eyebrow at the inked up diner as well. True, I've had a stab at several genre; surprised anyone noticed. I'm glad you got the humour, I thought it would only appeal to British readers; that's encouraging. William Sidney Porter - now there's an interesting character; I've read many of his stories; must read them again sometime.
      All the best, Tony

  2. I just love this story. Such a strong narrator and a very original entertaining story

    1. Thank you, I enjoyed writing this piece, glad you liked it.

  3. This is an entertaining story. Charlie reminded me of a character out of a Guy Ritchie film. Well done, Tony.

    1. Hi, Rozanne, Thank you for your kind comments. A Guy Ritchie character...that's praise indeed. I've only seen Lock, Stock and that must be 20 years ago - guess I need to get out a bit more.

  4. Nice story Tony. I really liked the character and the restaurant. Great description. I also liked the twist at the end. It made a good, inspiring, Sunday read.

    1. Hello, Jay, Crime is too often portrayed as glamorous when in reality it's the opposite; a subject I haven't tackled before. 'Charlie Hall' amused me as I was writing the story; I'm delighted you enjoyed it. Thank you for your kind comment.
      Regards, Tony