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First episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 1001 January 14th 1956.




Clever Fingers.

One afternoon in 1943 I was mooching around Soho, London, or what was left of it after the bombing. Sometime I’ll tell you why I’m know as Charlie the Kettle, but that can wait. I was continuing on my way when round a corner came Skyscraper Selby. He was obviously in pain. His face was screwed-up like he had toothache and his right arm was in a sling. He was known as Skyscraper because of his ability to reach the sixth floor windows without using the stairs or the lift. Judging from his expression his ability had slipped for once. “Charlie,” he moaned. “Charlie,” he repeated. “I’ve bin looking for you all over the place. I’ve fallen on m’ elbow.” I did not inquire how Selby had come to fall on his elbow, but it was possible that he had come down outside of a building faster than he had gone up. I turned off the pavement and zig-zagged through some ruins with Skyscraper groaning behind me. We stopped in the shadow of a chimney which was all that was left of a shop. Selby hollered blue murder as I eased his jacket off. It was not surprising, since, falling on his elbow he had put it out of joint. It’s strange how different people have different knacks. Take an acquaintance of mine, Luke Lapino. He could write a song in five minutes and sell it down Tin Pan Alley for a hundred quid down, plus royalties, any time he was in the mood. Then there’s Jim the Nib, who could take a pen in his hand and write anybody’s signature like it was the original. My knack is that I’ve got hands that can click bones back into place and take the twists and knots out of muscles. I took hold of Skyscraper by the wrist and put my other hand behind his elbow. I gave a twist and he hollered like mad. I let go and, judging by his face, Skyscraper suddenly realised that his elbow was no longer causing him pain. “Charlie, it ain’t hurting now,” he gasped. “It’s back in place,” I said, “but don’t go hanging from window sills for a bit.” I got hold of his sling and used it to bandage his elbow up tight. He oozed gratitude and put his hand in his pocket. When he fetched it out he was holding a couple of quid that he passed over. That was not the end of his gratitude. “Charlie,” he whispered, “there’s a big job coming up. It was in casing the joint that I fell on my elbow. It’ll be a pushover when we go in and…”

“Stop nattering before you tell more than you mean to,” I injected. “Don’t you want a cut?” he asked. I shook my head, Charlie the Kettle had always been one for looking after himself and staying out of trouble. I had my hands, so I did not need to work or risk getting on the wrong side of the law. Skyscraper took himself away and I returned to the street. I was usually around here at that time of day and was sighted by a big guy named Jim Peters. I’d known him from a night a while back when the bombs were coming down and he was out with a rescue squad. Peters had his head stuck unnaturally to one side. “Charlie, I’ve never had such a stiff neck,” he groaned. “Come on suddenly this morning. I reckon I must have been in a draught.” He pulled his muffler off and I felt round his neck. There was nothing wrong there that my hands could feel. “Have you bin lugging things about?” I asked. “We had a job last night,” he replied, “when an old Delayed Action bomb went up and blew a house down.” “Let’s ‘ave your jacket off,” I said. “Oke! Now try bending!” Peters stooped. I felt down his spine and I found what was wrong. I pressed my thumbs, and the bony disk that was out of place then slipped back. He never felt a thing, and was surprised when he discovered that he could turn his head again. Peters was sticking his hand in his pocket, so I said “So long,” and slipped away across the street in front of a lorry, and got away round the corner. These rescue squad blokes were doing a great job. I didn’t want their money.

We Want You!

I mooched on down an alley. Suddenly a hand reached out from behind me and clamped on my shoulder like a vice. I squirmed round and found myself face to face with a cop by the name of Burton. “Leggo,” I invited him. “If you want to see me about something why not ask like a normal human being?” “Maybe I’m not normal,” he retorted. “Come on! Start walking?” He slipped a hand down inside my arm and turned me in the direction of Shaftsbury Avenue. Folk who didn’t know us might have thought we were a couple of pals. We turned a corner and came on a couple of acquaintances of mine in Fergie the Dip and Jeb Monk. Because of my knack for bone setting I know all sorts of peculiar people as perhaps you’ve realised. Fergie, who was paring his nails, nearly gave himself a dig with his knife on seeing Burton. Then he looked relieved when he saw the cop was hanging on to me. I gave them a nod to intimate that I was not worrying, but I was thinking fast. Burton usually dealt with big time stuff. He was the man who had tracked down a spy gang at Wandsworth. Various thought buzzed in my mind. Was he taking me in for questioning? There was a lot I knew which the cops would like to find out. I couldn’t help picking up scraps of information as I mooned about. I heard a lot and also possessed keen eyesight and the ability to put two and two together. Knowing was one thing. Talking to the police was another. Narks, informers, soon get marked down. To be an informer wasn’t healthy and I intended to stay healthy. We passed by a fence round a particular bombed site I had reason to remember, since I was lying in the nearby gutter when a landmine went off. I’d got buried under most of the stuff that came down. When I came round I was in hospital in the country, but I was back in London inside a week. It’s rats that desert a sinking ship and, anyway, I didn’t believe that London was sinking. Besides, London was home to me, though when I was a kid, I travelled a lot in Europe owing to my folk doing a knife slinging act in Bloin & Steigel’s International Circus. Burton lugged me out into Shaftsbury Avenue and steered me towards a police car. As soon as I was seated Burton reached across and pulled the blinds down. He also snapped down a screen at the back of the driver. “Hey, where are you taking me?” I demanded. “You’ll find out,” said Burton. It was dark when the car made its final stop. So far as I could tell when I was shoved out, we had stopped in a small square, but there was no time for looking around as Burton pushed me up three steps into a porch. One thing I knew, Burton had not brought me to a police station.

The door opened and we went through the black out curtains into a square hall. Burton turned to speak to the bloke who had let us in. He looked like a bad case of indigestion in a dark suit; pale, baggy eyed and worried. I caught sight of myself in the hall mirror and the top of my head just about came up to Burton’s shoulder. I had once been told that I had a face like a sparrow. I was startled when a voice spoke out of thin air close to my ear. “Has Tibbs arrived, Harrison?” it asked. The bad case of indigestion came across and put his mouth to a microphone set in a wall panel. “Burton has just brought Tibbs in, sir,” he said. Yes, you’ve guessed it – Tibbs is my name, but how did the owner of the mysterious voice know? I started wondering if I tripped over some security regulation. The curt voice said, “I’ll see him now.” Harrison beckoned and I followed him upstairs. I looked over my shoulder, Burton blocked the way down. A door opened and I edged into an office where the owner of the curt voice sat. He had been knocked about in his time. He had a black patch over his left eye, his face was scarred and his right arm ended in a stiff kid glove. He looked at me with his remaining eye. “Thank you for coming to see me,” he grinned. I blinked at him. “I didn’t have much choice,” I muttered. “Charlie,” he said in a friendly sort of voice, “the idea is for you to do a Secret Service job in Berlin, calling at Paris, and several other places on the way.” When the room had stopped spinning I swallowed a lump in my throat. “Sit down,” said One Eye. “I’ve been having a few inquiries made about you, Charlie. You seem to know your way about Europe, shall I say the underground of Europe…” “I used to travel wiv a circus,” I cut in quickly. “Quite,” he observed. “That circus must have performed in some unusual places. In the course of your Continental travels you picked up enough French and German to get along.” I wondered what all this nosing into my private life was leading up to. One Eye leaned back in his chair. “I’m informed that you were turned down by the doctors for military service,” he remarked. “Yes, it was on account of my ticker,” I said quickly, at the same time placing a hand over my heart. “I hope it’s better,” he replied. “I ‘ave to go carefully,” I said earnestly. “Your capacity for looking after yourself, Charlie, is one reason why we’re sending you to Berlin,” he answered. He was deadly serious. He leaned towards me and his eye had a strange glitter. “You don’t like the Huns, do you?” he rasped. “I hate the rats,” I snarled. I clenched my sweating hands as I remembered how I helped the rescue squad fetch the bodies of my folk out of the ruins of their house in Stepney. “Would you like to get even with them?” he fired at me. He had got under my guard. “Yes,” I said and my fists were still clenched. “I would.” “Righto, it’s all fixed,” said the bloke.

Menace From Monk.

I was still calling myself a silly mug when I drifted into a back street café near Leicester Square about an hour later. I had been trapped, that’s what it was, trapped. The bloke had baited his hook so well that I had swallowed it. It was ridiculous to expect me to go touring on the Continent. It wasn’t only ridiculous. It was impossible. One Eye had arranged that I should be sent for, “for training”, within a day or two. Then I had driven away in the car with the blinds drawn so that I did not know where I had been. I often used this café. There was such a crowd inside, that it was a wonder the walls did not bulge. I nodded to Nol Brown, the café proprietor, who was sweating behind the counter. He shoved through the crush and let me through a door marked “Private.” It led to a room Nol reserved for friends of his. I sat down and picked up a newspaper. Frog Feet, the waiter, shuffled over and I ordered a meal. A few minutes later I was eating my way through some shepherd’s pie when there were a couple of new arrivals in Fergie the Dip and Jeb Monk. The latter sauntered over and sat down by me. “Some of the boys might get rough, Charlie, if they knew you’d bin to the house in Chesterford Square,” he hissed. I have control of my facial muscles at most times. He could not have seen I was surprised at his remark. “What are you nattering about?” I asked. Monk shrugged. “We followed you and Burton, Charlie,” he drawled. “Ain’t you takin’ a risk? I’ve known of informers who’ve come to a sticky end. D’you remember how Nosey Potts had the bad luck to fall in front of a bus in the black out? The boys would take a dim view of you being a nark for them Secret Service guys.” My mind was working quicker than an adding machine. It was startling that Monk should know about the Secret Service headquarters. What stuck out like a sore toe was his anxiety about the possibility of me being an informer. The Secret Service men were not concerned with the peddling of nylons and fags. Why was Monk so concerned? Was he doing something the Secret Service were out to stop? I was not going to be shoved under a number 19 bus, so I mentally dealt myself the hand I was going to play. “Would you be surprised if I told you that them Secret Service blokes are blacking me, Jeb?” I growled. He seized on the suggestion that I was being blackmailed. “They’re holding sumpin’ over your head, are they?” he said craftily. Monk no longer eyed me suspiciously. “I’ve heard of others who’ve had the screw turned on ‘em and bin made to act as cat’s paws,” he nodded. “Can’t see no way out of it,” I grumbled. “What’ve you got to do, pal?” he inquired lightly. “I’ve got to keep m’ mouth shut,” I said savagely, “but if you’ve got any pals in Dublin I’d like to have their names and addresses.” Monk flipped an eyelid at me.

A Little Dust-Up.

Next night, round about eight o’clock, I emerged from the tube station. I had a date to keep at a spot outside Euston station. The dim lighting did not worry me as I knew my way about. I wore my cap and my new overcoat that fitted nice and tight at the waist. I carried a small suitcase. My timing was right for catching the Irish Mail. My date was with Jeb Monk under the Doric Arch. The Doric Arch is the piece of lofty architecture under which you pass into Euston station. In peace time it was floodlit. Monk had promised to introduce me to a pal of his who knew Dublin. I had about as much intention of getting on the Irish Mail as I had of going to Berlin. It was a piece of fiction intended to bluff Monk. As I turned towards Euston and the Doric Arch, three or four taxis whizzed past on their way to the station. The boys who drove them had developed night eyes. Somebody in the shadows started to whistle. “There’ll always be an England through his teeth. “That you, Jeb?” I said as that was to be his signature tune. He answered back and came up. Fergie was with him, also a big bloke whose face I could not see under the brim of his cap. “Lo, Charlie,” Monk said. “This is where you pass over the package you’re taking to Dublin.” “What package?” I exclaimed. “Stop foolin’,” he said sharply. They shuffled to form a ring round me. As if to emphasise Monk’s remarks, the big fellow let me see he was carrying a cosh. Fergie the Dip dangled his piece of cycle chain. I’d known Monk to carry a gun. “Git him,” snarled Monk. I whipped my hand out of my overcoat pocket and squeezed the bulb of the super sized water pistol I was palming. The jet got Monk slap in the eyes and he screeched with pain. The big cluck in the cloth cap was ponderous and I was quick. He was just taking aim at me with his cosh when I squirted him in the eyes. He howled, hit out blindly and smacked Monk over the nose as he got in the way. Fergie’s bike chain whistled down and I took it on my left forearm as I turned. The blow stung, and I grunted as I emptied the bulb into his face. He screamed as the squirt filled his eyes.

The commotion had been heard. Police whistles skirled and a couple of cops arrived. One of them grabbed hold of me but I snapped. “Before you wipe your feet on me, flattie, git on the phone and ring…” When I whispered the phone number that had been given me at the house in Chesterford Square, the copper let go. “Yessir,” he spluttered. “We thought this was a scrap among the wide boys, sir. Would you like to go and phone yourself while me and my mate take care of this lot?” It was about half an hour afterwards that the man whom I’d nicknamed the Bad Case of Indigestion took me up the stairs at the house in Chesterford Square, with a remark that Major Denton was anxious to see me. A police car, without the blinds down this time, had sped me to the house. It transpired that Major Denton was the real name of One Eye, the fellow with one eye, scarred face and dummy hand. He was just hanging up the phone as I went in. “What’s all the trouble about, Charlie?” he demanded. “I understand that you’ve knocked out three wide boys.” “The dirty Nazis,” I growled. He jerked up straight in his chair. “Nazis?” “Yeh, or stinking Fifth Columnists,” I said. “I got it into my head that Monk might be a spy, so I set a trap for him. I faked that I was taking sumpin’ to Dublin for you and he fell for it…” Major Denton shot a glance past me. “Harrison,” he squawked, “I think Charlie may have put his finger on the London spy ring that’s been giving us so much trouble…” “I think he has,” said Indigestion. “You’d like me to organise the follow up sir?” “Yes, get cracking,” rapped Major Denton. “You’ve done a grand job, Charlie.” “I wasn’t going to be pushed around by them dirty Huns,” I said. Denton regarded me with an air of inquiry. “What had you got in your water pistol?” he asked. “Acid? Ammonia?” “Naw,” I jeered. “It was only soapy water.” He started laughing. “You’ve shown we picked on the right chap for the Continental task,” he said. “Since I saw you last I’ve fixed it up for you to get some training in parachute jumping.” I nearly fainted.

The Long Drop.

I stood by a hole in the floor and Sergeant Grice, who had a chest like a barrel, shoved me a bit closer. We were in a shed at Ringdown drome not far from Manchester. “Feet and knees pressed tightly together now,” he roared at me. “Tuck your elbows in! Force your head down! Take the shock on both legs.” “I ain’t feeling too well, Sergeant,” I told him. “Mebbe it was the sausages we had for breakfast…” “Go!” he roared. I knocked my chin as I fell through the hole, and when I hit the coconut matting below I rolled over to save hurting myself worse. All I did was wind myself, get semi-concussion, nip my tongue, hurt an ankle and jar my ribs. “That was fine,” said Sergeant Grice. “I’ll pass you as ready for a jump from the balloon.” I hadn’t the breath to answer him, but they were not getting me up in their blooming balloon. No fear! I was no hero. I was a victim of circumstances, that’s what I was. When the time came I should be missing. I was meditating upon how to nip off, and lie low in Manchester, where I had pals, as we lined up to get our dinner in the canteen. Most of the persons at the drome were soldiers, but there was a sprinkling of civilians. Just in front of me in the queue was an old geyser who looked about ninety, a white collar type who looked as if butterfly catching would be too much for him. He turned to me as we were waiting for the meat, gravy and spuds to be doled out. “What’s it like?” he asked. “Arf cold and greasy,” I said, thinking he was alluding to the grub. The old boy laughed. “I mean jumping from the balloon.” “I’ve never jumped from the balloon,” I growled. “We’re in it together, then,” he said. “It’s my first jump, too!” “You—you ain’t jumping?” I spluttered. He nodded. “I’ll expect you’ll have to push me out.” I should not have enjoyed it less. How the heck could I take off for Manchester when an old geyser like that had the nerve to jump? He was obviously going to be dropped in enemy territory for the same job. An old boy like that, he looked like a Chelsea pensioner.

With the winch clattering, the balloon lifted our cage up into the sir. It swung about crazily and I clung on to a handle to avoid being shot out through the big hole in the floor. Sergeant Grice was keeping the pensioner and me company. The winch stopped and the gasbag yawed clumsily. The cage tilted and I held on tighter. Father Time adjusted his helmet and stood at the edge of the hole. He winked at me and went. I squinted down and saw him tumbling. Then the parachute pulled open and dwindled to a dot. “Go!” rapped the sergeant. I dropped through the hole. The world turned somersaults. I knew my parachute was not going to open. We had been told that there was a four seconds lapse before it opened, but I knew mine never would—There was a jerk and I discovered I was floating. I made a grab for the liftwebs and somebody on the ground bawled “Feet together,” through a loudspeaker. I wedged my feet together and then hit the ground with a thump that rattled every bone in my body. The pensioner was lighting a battered old pipe. He didn’t look at all ruffled.

No Escape.

I had hardly stepped out of the train at Euston a couple of days later when I found myself face to face with Burton. “Hello, Charlie, I’ve got the car,” he said. “I’ve got several dates to keep,” I retorted. “Well, come along and have a talk with Major Denton first,” he replied. Twenty minutes later I was having another confab with One Eye. “Now that you’ve been trained in parachute jumping we can get down to brass tacks,” he said. “I’ve had your documents prepared in the name of Charles Tibeux. When you’ve done your work in Paris, move out of France. You’ll have to make your own arrangements. We’ll give you plenty of money.” I let him talk but I’d made up my mind. I wasn’t going to Paris, or anywhere else abroad. Denton turned in his chair and opened a safe. He fetched a belt that was shiny as if it were made of celluloid. The belt had six compartments. Each contained a tiny spool, no bigger than the reels you see on a toy sewing machine. I also observed a stud that could be pressed down a slide. “These spools, Charlie, are microfilms,” he said slowly. “You are to take them to Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, Munich, Vienna and Berlin. The stud here is a safety device. If you press it down the belt will catch fire—” “With me wearing it?” I squawked. “If necessary,” he said and his one eye glittered like an icicle. “Charlie, these films can win the war for us, but there’s a time limit to work to.

The last film must reach our agent in Berlin inside a month! You will work on the relay system. I’m only going to tell you who to find in Paris. He is Claude de Vacher…” “Wot?” I gasped. “Old Claude? Have they let him outa jail!” The major grinned. “De Vacher is your contact man in Paris.” He did some more talking, and then produced a pill box and shoved it at me. The major took the lid off the box. It contained a little brown pill. “I don’t want to be gloomy, Charlie,” he said, quietly, “but if there’s no other way out, if you’re absolutely cornered, this will give you a painless exit from this world in six seconds,” he said. “Thanks very much,” I answered. He stood up and so did I “Best of luck, Charlie! A lot depends on you,” he said. Harrison opened the door and looked in. “Have you finished with Charlie, sir?” he asked. “Yes, the briefing is over,” said Major Denton. “The R.A.F. car has just arrived to take him to the drome,” stated Harrison. “Burton and I will go and see him off, now.” I staggered. The room swam. I’m sure it did for I saw fish flapping round my head. I’d been victimized! If I’d realised that I was bound for France that night I should have been out of the train at Rugby! In the whole of London there was not another fool as big as Charlie the Kettle. An hour afterwards, with the motors roaring in my ears I was squatting in a draughty metal box like a coffin—the fuselage of a Whitley bomber heading for France!

CHARLIE THE KETTLE 20 Episodes appeared in The Hotspur issues 1001 – 1020 (1956)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007