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Me and Charlie were broke. That was nothing unusual, and I knew the answer. I had to get Charlie a job. Work was what Charlie was good at. If you want to know what Charlie Smith looked like, try to picture a tree in trousers.

Charlie was a great rugged hunk, and there wasn’t a job going that he couldn’t tackle. When Charlie got to work, he could make a bulldozer look lazy. The only trouble with Charlie was that he hadn’t got a head for business. He didn’t know how to make the best of his abilities. That’s where I came in. I was what you might call Charlie’s business manager. My name’s Pete Potts, by the way. At the time I’m telling you about, we’d reached the outskirts of a town in the Midlands. Me and Charlie liked to keep on the move. The sight of a new housing estate going up gave me an idea. “Bricklaying is a trade you can do, Charlie,” I said. “Suits me, Pete,” rumbled Charlie in that voice that seemed to start in his boots. That’s what I liked about Charlie. He was always ready to take on anything. We wandered on to the building land. Men were working on a line of new houses. I stood watching for a minute. I’d picked out the geezer I wanted. He was a big chap, nearly as big as Charlie and he was slapping down bricks on a house wall as easy as if they were cream puffs. I moved along and stood watching him. “They don’t make bricklayers like they used to do Charlie,” I remarked. I said it nice and loud, but the brickie went on laying bricks. “Slow,” I went on. “Slow and clumsy, that’s what they are nowadays. You don’t seem to see any of the old-style craftsmen about any longer.” The bricklayer was starting to go red in the face. He slapped on mortar with a flick of the wrist. “Look at this fellow, for instance,” I scoffed. “You wouldn’t have any trouble laying bricks faster than him, would you, Charlie?” “No,” said Charlie. “No, I wouldn’t, Pete.” Charlie wasn’t boasting. He knew he was speaking the truth. The bricklayer slammed down a brick. Then he looked at me in a nasty way. “Clear off, shrimp, unless you want the next brick on your bonce,” he growled. “Well I admit I’m no giant. I don’t mind being reminded of it, but Charlie took offence. “Don’t you call my pal a shrimp,” he rumbled. “That’s all right, Charlie!" I said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have made remarks about his bricklaying. Nobody likes his weaknesses being shown up.” “What do you two tramps know about bricklaying?” roared the brickie. I suppose we did look a bit down-and-out. I was wearing old slacks and the top half of an ancient Army battledress. Charlie had on the rig he always wore, winter and summer—couduroy trousers and a flannel shirt without a collar. There were no buttons on the shirt, and a lot of massive chest showed through. Charlie’s sleeves were rolled up, revealing a pair of arms that would have looked big on a gorilla. Round one wrist, Charlie wore a thick leather strap. On his arms were tattooed snakes and a Union Jack. His hair was cut to a bristle, giving his head the appearance of a cannonball. He looked what he was—a fellow who could work and fight—and eat—harder than anybody else you ever saw. “If my Charlie couldn’t lay bricks better than you, I’d eat a bag of cement,” I told the brickie. The argument was beginning to attract attention. Some of the other builders gathered round.

First episode of:

Charlie the Challenger

taken from The Rover # 1731

August 30th 1958

Then the foreman arrived. “What’s going on here?” he wanted to know. “Why don’t you hire some bricklayers on this job?” I asked him. “The houses would go up a lot faster.” The foreman nearly jumped through his bowler hat. He began to turn purple. “I’ll bet you anything you like that my pal Charlie could beat your best brickie,” I said. “And Charlie could do it with one hand behind his back!” “Too true, Pete,” nodded Charlie. The foreman spluttered. Then he looked at the big brickie I had been insulting. “You show him, Joe!” howled the foreman. “You’d lose your money,” I warned. “You just name your bet!” snapped Joe the bricklayer. The other builders crowded round. They were eager to bet that their man Joe would beat Charlie. They were pretty steamed up at my insults about their skill. That’s exactly what I’d planned, of course. The builders were keen to see me and Charlie taken down a peg or two. Joe was obviously their star performer. What’s more, they thought they were on a good thing, with Charlie having to work with one hand tied behind his back. In no time at all, I’d wagered twenty pounds with them. It was easy money. In less than an hour we’d be twenty pounds better off.


The foreman’s name was Murgatroyd. He took us across to a partly-built house, and pointed to one of the walls that had just been started. “You take one end, Joe the other,” he said. “All right?” “That’ll do,” I agreed. “Just one more thing,” said the foreman.

“Both men will have to do their own carrying and mixing.” There was a crafty gleam in his eye. He thought that Charlie would be hopelessly handicapped if he had to carry bricks and mix mortar one-handed. The foreman was making a big mistake. “I was going to suggest the same thing,” I said. The foreman produced a thick, tough length of rope. Charlie put his left arm behind his back, and the foreman tied it there. “Ready?” said Murgatroyd, glancing at his watch. “Go!” The builder called Joe rushed to a pile of bricks. He hurled them into a barrow, and trundled them across to his wall. Charlie made for another heap of bricks. One-handed, Charlie slung bricks into a barrow. He piled that barrow high. The foreman smirked as he watched. I knew what Murgatroyd was thinking. You’ve seen the barrows that builders use. Great metal jobs, they are, with a thick-tyred wheel. It’s as much as a fellow like me can do to shove them empty. The foreman was certain that Charlie couldn’t shift a loaded barrow one-handed. Charlie didn’t attempt to life the barrow by the handles. He could only have held one handle, of course, and that would have tipped the barrow over. Instead, his great long arm wrapped round the barrow. Charlie bent at the knees. Then he stood up again—with the barrowload of bricks tucked under his arm. Murgatroyd and the other builders goggled. Charlie strode across to his wall, carrying the barrow under his arm easily as if it had been a baby. He tipped it up by the wall, and stacked the bricks neatly with one hand. He had no trouble in mixing the mortar. He wielded a spade in his right hand using it with no effort than I’d need to lift a spoon. Charlie shoveled sand and cement together, dropped the spade, shot water from a bucket over the mixture, and stirred it up, using the spade one-handed again. He was level with Joe. They started laying bricks together. Joe tore into the work, whipping bricks into place in a steady stream. Charlie slapped on mortar with a trowel, dropped the trowel, grabbed a brick, slapped it down, and snatched up the trowel again to tap the brick home. He had stacked the bricks in the most convenient place to his hand. The bricks started flashing on to that wall as if shot out of a gun. Charlie worked like a machine, spreading mortar, lifting bricks smacking them into position. Murgatroyd was watching with his mouth open. The other builders began to yell at Joe, urging him on. Joe’s arms were going like a windmill, but Charlie still kept pace with him. Joe wasn’t giving in, but he was starting to puff. He was getting plenty of encouragement from his pals. There was a bit of anxiety behind the yells by now. The builders could see their easy money slipping away. Murgatroyd the foreman wandered over to watch Charlie. He stopped close to the wall. Charlie had the usual string line stretched along the wall. It was a guide that brickies used to help them build straight. I saw Murgatroyd edge up to the peg that held one end of the string. Mr Murgatroyd was playing dirty. He was going to nudge that peg out of place, just by ‘accident’. That would make Charlie build the wall crooked, so that he would have to take it down and rebuild it. I was just going to shout a warning to Charlie, but I didn’t have to bother. Charlie had a blob of mortar on his trowel. He gave a flick of the wrist, and the mortar sailed through the air. It spread over the foreman’s face in a soggy mess. He lost all interest in shifting Charlie’s peg. His expression was furious when he had scraped the mortar off it. “Bad luck, mate,” I said. I  shouldn’t stand so close, if I were you!” Murgatroyd stepped back. Charlie had another dollop of mortar on his trowel. Murgatroyd retreated, and Charlie picked up his rhythm again. Bricks went whistling into place. Charlie went on at the same pace when he wanted another mix of mortar, or more bricks. He rampaged about the site like a cyclone. He looked as if he could have built a pyramid by himself—and one-handed at that! The level of the wall had been down by his ankles when he started, but now he had built it up to his waist. On went Charlie. He was as strong as when he started, and not a movement was wasted. The bricks were stacked right by his hand. Every time he put the trowel down, he placed it on the wall, where he could snatch it up again without a second’s delay. There was a crash, and Joe gave a muffled yelp. He had fumbled a brick, and dropped it on his toe. He looked across at Charlie’s wall, then flung his trowel down. “All right,” he growled. “I’m licked!”


By way of an encore, Charlie laid a few more bricks with his teeth. He held the trowel in his mouth, and smeared the mortar on like that. Then he picked up a brick on the trowel, jerked his head away, and the brick fell into place.

“Good boy, Charlie!” I said. Charlie dropped the trowel and ambled over, grinning all over his ugly mug. His wall was nearly a course higher than Joe’s. Murgatroyd made a close inspection, but he couldn’t find any fault. Charlie’s wall was as straight as a ruler, all the mortar neatly laid and wiped clean. I whipped off the foreman’s bowler, and held it out. “Pay up, gents!” I chirped. Murgatroyd looked as if he might start arguing so Charlie started to free himself from the rope that held his arm. He didn’t bother with the knots that fastened the rope round him. He just took a deep breath, and muscles swelled out all over his chest and arm like balloons. There was a snap, and the rope broke. Murgatroyd hurriedly put his contribution into the hat. The other builders followed. All that lolly was a lovely sight. I was just counting it when a big glossy car slid smoothly on to the building site. “Lummy, here’s the boss!” muttered Murgatroyd. The boss was Mr Henry Harper, who owned the firm that was building the houses. He got out of his car and stamped across. His portly figure was clothed in expensive tweeds. “What’s going on here?” demanded Mr Harper. “I don’t pay you lot for loafing around!” “There’s been no time lost,” I told him. “All your brickies together couldn’t have laid as many bricks as Joe and Charlie have put down in the last hour—especially Charlie!” I showed him the two walls. He blinked at Charlie’s effort. “He did that in an hour?” he gasped. “A bit under the hour,” I said. “Ask your foreman. He kept check on the time.” “It’s true, Mr Harper,” grunted Murgatroyd. “He wasn’t really trying,” I added. I scooped up the money, and gave the foreman his bowler. “Well good-bye all,” I said. “Thanks for a nice time.” “Just a minute!” said Harper. “Have you won all that lot off my men?” “That’s right,” I said. “We made a few bets, and they lost.” Harper rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’d like to make a bet with you,” he said. “You mean you want to challenge Charlie?” I demanded. “That’s it,” nodded Mr Harper. This sounded promising. I was always ready to back Charlie against anybody. “What’s the challenge?” I asked. “I’ve got another construction job waiting on the other side of town,” said Mr Harper. “There’s a wall there that’s got to be rebuilt. It’s about twice as long and twice as high as the one Charlie’s just built. I’ll lay twenty pounds against that twenty you’ve just won that Charlie can’t get the wall up before dark.” “One-handed?” I asked. “No, he can use both hands if he wants to,” said Harper. “It’s a piece of cake, Charlie,” I said. “I’ll reckon that’ll be easy, Pete,” rumbled Charlie. “Let’s get started, then,” said Harper. He took us across to his car. As we got in. I noticed that Murgatroyd and the other builders were not looking so miserable as you’d expect fellows to be when they’d just lost twenty pounds. In fact, they were grinning as they watched us go.


Mr Harper’s expensive car hummed across town, and out into the country again. We followed a winding road that led up to a grassy mound. Harper stopped, and we got out. “There’s the job,” said Harper. There was a ruin perched up on top of the mound. By the shape of it, and the fact that a weedy moat still surrounded it, I guessed that ruin had once been a castle. “That’s Blackrock Castle,” confirmed Harper. “It used to be an important stronghold in the Middle Ages. Now the local council have taken it over, and they’re restoring it as a historical relic. My firm’s got the job of building the place up as it used to be.” We walked closer. Harper pointed. “That’s the wall that’s got to be rebuilt,” he smirked. There was a great gap in one of the walls. Maybe a cannon had done the damage in some siege or other. Anyway, the stones of the wall lay scattered around, and I began to understand what the builders had found so funny. “Well, you’ve seen those ancient castles, haven’t you? Walls about ten feet thick, made out of great blocks of stone that an elephant would have trouble in shifting. Those blocks were piled up around the gap in the wall. The council wants the castle restored exactly as it used to be,” said Harper. “The wall’s got to be rebuilt with original stones.” For once, even Charlie looked a bit flabbergasted. As for me, I was grinding my teeth down to the gums. Harper had landed me for a right mug. I’d expected the usual sort of wall of ordinary bricks. Charlie could have handled a job like that on his head, even if the wall had been a nine-inch one—that is, a double thickness of bricks. But a wall this thick, made out of whacking great lumps of rock—well, I ask you! “You remember the terms of our little wager?” cackled Harper. “Charlie finishes the wall by dark, or else you owe me twenty quid!” “You can stop laughing!” I said. “You haven’t won yet!” Charlie began to walk towards the castle. “No time to waste!” he rumbled. “Too true!” I said. “What time does it get dark around here?” “About nine o’clock,” said Harper. I heard the chiming of a clock. It came from the tower of a church that I could see across the fields. The church clock rang the hour of ten in the morning. Charlie had eleven hours. “Hear that?” said Harper. “You lose if Charlie hasn’t finished the wall when that clock strikes nine tonight.” He gave me a knowing look. “Unless you’d like to admit defeat here and now?” “Not blooming likely!” I said. “You have your twenty pounds ready, chum. Charlie will have the wall up before that clock strikes nine!” Big words, but I wasn’t so confident as I sounded, believe me. We crossed the bridge over the moat, and took a closer look at the castle wall. The geezer who had it built in the first place must have had an army of serfs on the job. All I’d got was Charlie. Charlie was by way of being a one-man army. He got stuck in with a will. Harper’s builders had already dumped some building tackle on the site and Charlie made the best use of it. He used scaffolding and rope to rig up a derrick, and then he started hauling blocks of stone into position. He fitted a rope sling round a great chunk of stone, hauled the rope back over the derrick pulley, and lifted the stone into the air. He swung the stone over the remains of the wall, and let it drop with a thud on to the foundations. Then he unfastened the sling, put his shoulder against the stone. His muscles stood out like hawsers, and veins knotted in his neck, but that stone slid where he wanted. Charlie had already mixed some mortar and trowelled a layer to hold the stone. As soon as the stone was nestling on the mortar. Charlie strode off to shift the next hunk of rock. Harper watched for a few minutes. Then he blew out a cloud of cigar smoke, and turned away to his car. “I’ll be back later,” he chortled. “Don’t let Charlie work himself to death.”


That castle was a famous historical monument apparently, and the locals seemed to be proud of it. There was a notice board at the entrance giving its history, and floodlights were placed round the building to illuminate it at night.

Soon after Charlie had started work a bunch of schoolkids arrived, with their teacher to have a history lesson on the spot. They goggled when they saw Charlie in action. Charlie was really going by now, and he was a sight worth watching. He was slinging blocks of stone around like marbles. The kids would rather have watched Charlie than have their lesson, but at last their teacher drove them away. They must have spread the word though. Kids and grown-ups began to drift along to the castle to watch Charlie at work. Harper kept popping up, too. When he wasn’t around, his foreman or one of his men was keeping an eye on us. I suppose they wanted to make sure Charlie wasn’t getting any help. Well, there wasn’t much help I could have given. Brains not brawn, that’s my line. Charlie liked his grub, but this time he didn’t stop for a meal. I found a café down the road and brought him jugs of tea. He would knock off a jug at one long gulp, rest for a few minutes, then get right back at the job. But all the time I could hear that darned steeple clock booming out the hours. It was a race against the clock. Charlie was doing as much as two men, but even Charlie had his limitations. As the wall got higher, he had to build a platform to work from. That lost him more time. He got a cheer from the spectators when he started shoving stones into place again. The crowd grew bigger as the evening wore on. The news of Charlie’s challenge was getting around. In the front row, smirking behind his cigar, was Mr Harper. The light began to fade. With dusk coming down, Charlie was still working as hard as ever. He swung stones into the air with his derrick, dumped them on top of the wall, shouldered them into position. There was a click, and the floodlights came on. They were worked with a time switch. The lights were a help to Charlie, but Harper nudged me. “Won’t do him any good!” he said. “Can you hear the clock?” I heard the clock clang out the half-hour. It was half-past eight. “Charlie can’t do it!” said Harper. “When that clock strikes nine, I collect. I looked at the wall, and I knew he was right. Charlie had worked all day at a pace nobody else could have kept up, but he was licked. There was too much of the wall still to finish in half an hour. I was pretty mad at my pal Charlie being beaten by a swindle. Harper had tricked us by not telling us what sort of a wall it was that Charlie had to tackle. And that got the old brain buzzing. If Harper could be tricky, couldn’t I? I began to edge away among the crowd. By this time there was a big audience. They were cheering Charlie on. I got the idea that quite a few of them weren’t too keen on Mr Harper. I waited until I heard the church clock chime a quarter to nine. Charlie was still going strong. He wasn’t the boy to give up. I slipped away into the darkness. Nobody noticed me. They were all watching Charlie. I pelted across the fields in the direction of the church. In a minute or two, I was tearing back to the castle. I could hear the noise from the crowd. They were getting really excited by now. Charlie was going like a machine, but the time was ticking away. I got my breath back, and wormed through to the front. Harper saw me and waved a gold wrist-watch in front of my nose. “One-minute to nine!” he gloated. “Have you got the money ready?” “It isn’t time yet.” I said. The seconds ticked away. Harper frowned, and looked at his watch. The crowd began to mutter. Charlie slammed another block into place. “It’s after nine!” yelled Harper. “I haven’t heard the clock,” I said. I turned to the crowd. “Has anybody heard the church clock strike nine?” I roared. “No!” yelled the crowd. “Look at my watch!” shouted Harper. It’s three minutes past!” “We’re not going by your watch,” I stated. “We agreed that Charlie worked until the church clock struck nine.” Harper nearly blew steam out of his ears. It was five past nine by now, and not a solitary tinkle from the church clock. “Get over there!” Harper yelled at his foreman. “Find out what’s wrong with that clock!” Murgatroyd hurried away. The crowd gave a great yell. They were urging Charlie on. He answered with a burst of speed that beat anything so far. Those lumps of stone rattled into place like a set of baby’s building bricks. The half-hour arrived, without a chime from the clock. On went Charlie. The gap in the wall had now dwindled to a small strip now. Charlie heaved another block into position. The minutes ticked by. Harper blew sparks from his cigar. I saw Murgatroyd forcing his way back through the crowd. A cheer brought my attention back to the floodlit wall. Charlie was heaving the last block into position. The block nestled into place. Charlie gave it a triumphant tap with his trowel. A roar went up from the crowd. When it died away, I heard Murgatroyd spluttering at Harper. “The bell striker won’t work!” panted the foreman. “I tried to fix it, but I couldn’t. A metal pin that holds the striker is missing!” Harper swung round on me, but before he could say anything I gave Charlie a shout to pull me up to the top of the wall. I put up a hand. Charlie grabbed me, and hauled me to the platform at his side. From here I addressed the crowd. “I’ll tell you about the terms of the bet,” I shouted. I explained in detail the arrangements. “But when Mr Harper made the challenge,” I continued, “he didn’t say what sort of wall Charlie was tackling. He let us think it was an ordinary modern brick one. So he can’t complain! Charlie finished before the church clock struck nine, and that’s what we agreed!” There were guffaws from the crowd. “Anyway, he’s getting off lightly,” I added. “How else could he have got this done in a day? It would have cost him a lot more than twenty pounds if Charlie hadn’t done it for him.” The crowd gave a shout of agreement. “I’m not paying!” yelled Harper. The crowd moved towards him. There were hostile shouts. “Pay up, Harper!” yelled a voice. “Charlie’s earned his twenty quid!” shouted somebody else. Harper gulped. The crowd was certainly on our side. He hesitated, then flung a wad of notes up at me. He slunk away to his car, and Charlie and me climbed off the platform. The crowd seemed to want to chair Charlie for his performance, but nobody was strong enough to lift him. So after three rousing cheers, they began to disperse. “I could do with some grub, Pete,” rumbled Charlie. “You shall have the best meal money can buy, chum,” I told him. “But first of all we’ve got to visit the church.” I pulled a metal pin from my pocket. “When I’ve put this back in the striker arm, the church clock can start chiming again! You see, Charlie, that time I went across the fields, I fixed the church clock so that nine wouldn’t strike.

CHARLIE THE CHALLENGER 6 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1731 – 1736 (1958)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2005