"What do you fancy in the first?"
"I'll go for anything with Frankie Dettori on it."
"Mind my hat, would you?"
"What on earth is she wearing?"
"Anyone for champers?"
Where were all these punters coming from anyway? So many stuffed purses or wallets for the taking, Reg didn't know which pocket to pick first. Not that it was the scent of money or even the look of the people themselves which caught the eye. No. Everywhere Reg turned, it was the hats which stood out. Most worn by ladies . . . most, though not all. Feathers, frills and bows in a whole rainbow of colours and materials. It was as if every woman there was carrying on her head a bird of paradise, rich in red and gold and purple. They looked different too, the women not the hats. These women weren't like the women he saw all the time at home in the street: giggly; slight; young. No, these women were tall and elegant and when they laughed it was with a neighing sound which cut through the air like a siren. Where did they come from? Making his way through the Ascot crowds, he tried to study these women more closely and after a while decided he'd been wrong. They were the same girls he might know in normal life, but with the added advantage of posh accents and big hats; that was the only difference he could see. It gave them a dignity and style they wouldn't have had otherwise, and he wondered what they would do if someone like him tried to speak to them. Now, that would be a laugh, no question about it. But did he have the courage to try?
Before Reg could consider the matter further and drum up his spirits for the onslaught, someone bumped into him from behind - slam, right in the lower back - propelled him several steps along the path and knocked half his precious pint bought with his underhand gains onto the grass.
"Hey, watch it, won't you?" he said, licking his fingers to try and salvage some of the liquid at least.
"Sorry there. Wasn't looking where I was going, surprise, surprise. When do I ever? That's typical of me, anyone will tell you. I can only apologise. May I get you another?"
The accent of the tall, lanky stranger was as far above Reg's East Anglian burr as a racehorse was above a donkey. Funny I should think that in a place like this, Reg thought as he looked the bloke up and down and took into account the receding chin which matched the hairline. Not to mention the expensive morning suit and green-and-red spotted cravat. What sort of idiot wears get-up like that? I've got a right one here, he smiled, but maybe he's the ideal candidate for what I've got in mind, let's see.
So, nodding, Reg made his decision.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'd like another drink, ta."
"Great, great," the posh geezer rubbed his hands together before sticking out one of them and pumping Reg's hand up and down as if he'd found a long-lost friend who owed him money. Talking of which, as he did so, Reg could see a lovely, fat leather wallet peeping out of an inside pocket which was just asking to be nicked. Just asking for it. Fantastic. He was going to have a lot of fun with this one, oh yes.
"Gerald, my name's Gerald," the bloke was saying. "And you are . . . ?"
"Reg," said Reg, thinking there was no point in lying as he'd have done his business and be gone soon enough.
"Excellent. Now let me get you a drink, Reg."
Having said that, Gerald laughed, throwing his shoulders back, as if at an unheard joke. Before Reg could ask him what that joke might be, he felt himself being propelled with a force that would take no argument into the Pall Mall Bar which, as usual, was heaving with custom.
"We'll never get served here," Reg said, but Gerald just smiled.
And indeed in less than a minute, by dint of pushing and verbal manoeuvring, the two men were standing at the front of the queue. Must be what they teach you at Posh School, Reg thought as the barman approached and raised one eyebrow in the unspoken question.
"What's your poison, eh?" Gerald said, bringing out that luscious wallet into the muggy air. Such a casual action made Reg's hair stand on end. Oh to be that confident with cash, he thought. As if it didn't matter and you wouldn't miss a few pounds here and there. He himself had never been like that; every time he went out picking pockets, he always hung onto his earnings for as long as he could. Thinking of cash, he almost groaned but realised that Gerald was still waiting for him to answer.
"Pint of bitter, mate," he replied, trying not to look at what might be his source of funds for the next week or so.
"Ah, a wise choice. A man's drink, eh? Not like champers. Good for you. Though I'll have a Pernod and Black with that, please, barman."
A ponce's drink, if ever I heard one, Reg thought and gave his companion a quick glance from the corner of his eye. But Gerald didn't look as if he were about to turn into some shirt-lifter. Maybe all posh gits drank Pernod? And anyway a free drink should never be refused, no matter who it came from.
So Reg smiled, nodded and let his thoughts drift off while Gerald talked in a way which he supposed was meant to put him, a poor bloke, at his ease in the presence of greatness. In the presence of a clumsy oaf with too much cash for his own good, more like. He deserved to have his load lightened and Reg was just the sort of bloke to do it. He felt his fingers itch to grab that wallet and, while he waited for the right moment to begin, stared round the bar to size up the clientele. It was always good to work out where your next victim might be, even while you were sweet-talking the first. Or being sweet-talked by him, which was fine by Reg as it saved him the effort. And there was so much real money here, within sniffing distance that it almost made him dizzy. All those blokes in blazers or long-tailed jackets clutching wads of cash and all those women poured into sleek dresses and parading the family jewellery for all to see. It made him drool; those were the accessories he liked most. Liked to remove, that is. Everyone he could see was loaded, and rich enough not to notice if he took some of what they had. It was just a fair distribution of resources that was all. Like Communism, really. And the sooner he got his act together, the better he would like it.
While Gerald continued to drone on, Reg took a long gulp of his bitter and let his eyes quiver shut with the sharp satisfaction of the taste. The drink, as well as the pickings, was always good at race meetings and Ascot was one of the best. On both counts. But perhaps, as he'd promised himself earlier on, he'd better finish his drink and get on with the job at hand. And so he refocused his attention on the still gabbing Gerald and wondered how easy it would be to take his wallet and slip through the noisy crowd to safety. Should be no problem, he thought. It would give him a flying start to the afternoon and then, once the first race was under way, he could work through the punters like the true professional he was and be quids in by the end of the afternoon. It was amazing how easy his job was when people were relaxed and enjoying themselves. But if the man in front of him carried on talking at this rate, he'd never get away. What was it with the rich? To stop the stream of words threatening to carry him off, Reg finally spoke.
"You go racing a lot then?"
"Me? Why, of course," Gerald laughed. "Sport of kings, eh? I love a piece of horseflesh. Magnificent animals, would love to be an owner one of these days, finances permitting, know what I mean? Do you ride?"
Reg almost choked in mid-swallow at the thought of Gerald's finances not stretching as far as he would like, but was reluctant to lose any of the earthy liquid he hadn't bought. So instead he shook his head, wondering what he should say. But it seemed as if no reply was needed, as Gerald just surged on.
"I'd like to ride more than I do but, hey, life's too busy, isn't it? You know what they say; once you're in the City, it never lets you go. And there's no chance of getting on a horse in the middle of London, is there? Not unless you're one of those Mounted Policemen, that is."
Turning pale at the mention of the Law, Reg diverted himself by working out his escape route once he'd nicked Gerald's wallet. It was getting more difficult by the second; since they'd been there, at least another fifty people had crowded in behind them and there was no way he would be able to walk out unnoticed. It was no good, he'd just have to get rid of his would-be friend, with or without that wallet - though it made his stomach churn to think such thoughts - and go out into the open air where he'd have more luck. He glanced at his watch and saw there was only fifteen minutes to go before the Royal Parade. Best get a move on then.
"You in the Royal Enclosure?" he asked, downing the dregs of his pint.
"Absolutely. Nowhere else worth going on a day like this, is there? Will I see you inside?"
Reg clenched his fists, "What do you think, mate?"
Gerald frowned and Reg thought maybe he'd better watch it. Even though his companion was probably going to be lucky and not be a victim today, it still didn't do to upset anyone. Not in his line of business.
"Hey, forget it," Reg said, forcing a smile onto his face. "Do you want another?"
The other man shook his head, "No, thank you. I'd better find my seat. It wouldn't do to miss the Queen, you know. But nice meeting you. And the best of British for the rest of the day."
Oh, I hope so, Reg thought. I do hope so.
Gerald put down his glass, smiled and held out his hand again. As he took it, Reg wondered for a wild moment if he should toss aside professional caution for once, grab the wallet and run. Just for the hell of it and just to see the expression on ruddy Gerald's face. But no. No, he mustn't. Not if he didn't want half the Ascot security breathing down his neck. And not if he wanted to survive to fight another round; as his dad used to say, you had to let some go in order to gather more.
So he accepted the partial embrace of the other man without any sleight of hand, and bore without grimacing the slap on the back and the inevitable final guffaw.
And he was more than relieved when Gerald at last side-stepped his way through the masses and disappeared. How did he do that? Never mind, thank goodness he was gone. In spite of the free drink which, after all, he'd deserved. But Gerald had been right in one respect; he did feel lucky. It was going to be a successful afternoon, he just knew it.
The feeling of well-being lasted as he fought his way out of the Pall Mall Bar along with countless others eager to catch a distant glimpse of the Queen as she rode by. It lasted as he stood, eyes glinting in the sunlight, as a mark of respect for her years of loyal service to her country in this her Jubilee year. It lasted as he flicked through his programme in preparation for placing his first bet of the meeting; he might as well have a flutter as he was sure to be richer in one way or the other over the next few hours. It lasted as he stood in the queue for the Tote, whilst all around him, earnest men and giggling women were discussing the pros and cons of jackpots, trifectas, placepots and multibets. It lasted even as the uniformed girl behind the glass plating looked up and raised one eyebrow at him in anticipation of his requirements.
It lasted until that moment, but no further. Because it was only then that he reached into his jacket pocket and realised that he would be unable to place any bets at all; his wallet was no longer there. Instead in its place was a cream-coloured business card which, when he took it out and stared at it with disbelieving eyes, bore the following legend in dark-blue lettering:
Gerald thanks you more than kindly for your custom, which has been very much appreciated. Rest assured he will spend your money wisely. I hope that you enjoy your day as much as he will.