In 1978, as the pedophile Roman Polanksi was fleeing justice, and Charlie Chaplin’s remains were being raced away by thieves in Corsier-sur-Vevey, another crime was taking place on the backstreets of Marylebone, in London.
This particular crime also involved a speedy escape, to avoid being captured, not for being a child rapist or a grave-robber, but for being a thief, or, in Cockney parlance, a tea leaf.
In fact, this particular thief was commonly known as Tony Tealeaf, which I thought, for a substantial part of my early teen years, was actually his name.
It sounded quite genteel, which, of course, he was. Tony Tealeaf’s brand of thievery was quite sophisticated.
It involved a snipers-eye approach to obtaining goods by way of a shopping list. That list was a work of genius, created with the consultative input of Tony’s years of experience and expertise, and was formed in a sprint, from a blank sheet of A4 to a geographically-optimized itinerary of gathering. Illegally.
How I know all this, you may be thinking, if you haven’t already gone off to grab a pen, is that it all happened in front of me, in the open, without fear, over the counter of my father’s shop.
As I sat on a stool behind the laminated surfaces and next to the shiny register, clutching a Doctor Who book, Doctor Who And The Unconscionable Invasion Of An Innocent Sovereign Nation, or something, and watched as the diminutive Tony leaned over the counter from the customer side while my father did the same from the serving side, they both looked at me as if to say that book will be more relevant one day, and began to make that month’s list.
‘A hi-fi system would be good,’ says my father.
‘The whole system? With an amp and everything,’ says Tony, twitching a little.
‘Yes,’ says my father, having no clue what an amp was.
‘What kina turntable?’
‘One that plays records,’ replies my father.
‘Ok,’ says Tony, looking up from the list at his idiot client. ‘Brand?’
My father looks stumped. ‘Grundig?’
‘How about NAD or Bang and Olufsen,’ Tony suggests.
‘Yes, NAD is good,’ my father responds, unable to pronounce the other one.
‘Got it. Right. Whelse,’ asks Tony, sniffing too strongly.
As I observed this exchange, I watched them agree on a slew of records for my father, as my mother was, and still is as far as I know, allergic to music of any sort, a set of decanters for the upstairs ‘best room’, and a rug, ‘an Indian-looking one’ my father said.
When the list reached a tipping point - where Tony felt he could achieve the end-goal in the time he had and make enough margin to support his dream of opening an artisan bakery - he straightened up, folded the list, popped it into his back pocket next to his plastic comb, and reached down for his dirty duffle on the floor.
Lifting the swag bag onto the counter, Tony unzipped it and smiled at my father.
‘Here ya go,’ he said, giving me a cursory glance as I watched him, only slightly pretending to travel through time and space with Tom Baker, and reached deep into the Tardis-like Adidas sports bag to pull out a Swan Teasmade.
‘Ah,’ my father murmured, as if he’d just been given the Hope Diamond to caress, and smiled back at Tony Tealeaf, dreaming of how he could now set a timer so his tea would make itself just before he awoke each morning.
I’m not sure how that all made me feel at the time, but I rarely drink tea, ever.
Over the next few months, maybe longer, Tony arrived on a Tuesday around lunchtime for the list meeting, and was back again Saturday morning with the Adidas duffle.
The ‘hi-fi’ and teasmade was followed by a kettle, a toasted sandwich maker, patent leather shoes, several shell suits in different sizes and bright enough to receive satellite images, Betamax tapes and a Betamax player (yes, we were the family that bought it), a typewriter for my mother to create her literary legacy, a dictaphone, more records, socks, shirts, a car battery, and a camcorder that accompanied us to Portugal in the shit-brown Austin Ambassador - the car being one of the only items we owned that Tony hadn’t sourced for my father on-the-cheap.
I remember clearly one of the last times I saw Tony enter the shop and stoop to the counter under a heavy load of rolled up carpet.
‘Dud,’ he called, for my father was at that moment in the back room doctoring the stocktake before sending it to head-office.
My father came back through the doorless doorway and approached Tony and his latest acquisition.
‘Let's have a look then,’ he said in excitement, and Tony laid the rug down on the shop floor, and my father ushered a customer to the end area to make room.
I put down my latest Doctor Who adventure, Doctor Who And The Barbaric Atrocities Of An Alien Madman, and stood to peer over the counter. The customer, a man in a tan trenchcoat and one of those shopping trolleys that elderly people pull along in case a bit of them falls off and they need to get it back safely, also peered at the rug as Tony unfurled it, replacing the Learyesque shop floor tiles with an even more horrific pseudo-Indian rug, which appeared to have been made with shiny polyester fibers rather than, say, silk or wool.
‘What d'ya think,’ said Tony, in anticipation of a warm response, a pat on his bony scapula, and a mucky palm greased with sterling for the bakery.
In 1978 I was only twelve.
I’d lived mostly in my room, which was set out as a cross between Liverpool football club and the Swiss-English Ryness Valley model railway, and decorated in that weird wallpaper that actually had bits of material in that you could scratch at while lying in bed. It had a shag-pile carpet and beige walls, and curtains that, rather than inducing vomiting, appeared to have been modeled on vomit itself, replete with the carrots, which always come up whether you’ve ever eaten them or not.
So, I was not the best judge of style, decor, fashion, or ‘Indian-looking’ rugs. But this looked awful, even to me.
The trenchcoat customer visibly shook and pulled back, wondering perhaps how far it was to the nearest playground and whether there was a sweet shop on the way. I nearly dropped Jon Pertwee and the alien invaders, and my father, removing the Rothmans stubby that I thought was welded to the corner of his mouth, shrugged.
He knelt down, smoothed his hand over the faux surface, and looked up at Tony.
Tony, seeing spelt croissants in his future, held his breath.
My father smiled and said, ‘It’s beautiful, how much Tony?’
Then Tony smiled, and they came together like old friends, as if they’d just robbed Brinks-Mat and were dreaming of spending their thirty-four million dollars.
The trenchcoat man walked out and I returned to my book, hoping that the rug wouldn’t somehow end up in my perfectly-adorned room, and that I might be blessed with a little more stylistic discernment than my father, and left the shop to go upstairs to my room, and play records on my NAD hi-fi with the Dual 505 turntable, both of which were excellent product choices.
Photo by Koolshooters