“Thanks for looking after the place,” Fiona called, getting into the car. “You know how Henry worries about the new flat. Just treat it as if it’s your own, OK?”
As the Jaguar purred away David and Lynn looked at each other in silence for a second then collapsed with laughter.
“As if it’s your own! Did you see Henry’s face? He looked like he’d swallowed a spider.”
That evening they stood on the balcony looking up river to Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s. “You’ve got to hand it to Henry. He may be an old woman but he knows how to make money. Seven hundred thousand this cost him.”
“It certainly beats a basement flat in Romford. Never mind - one day, maybe. Come in, darling. It’s turning chilly.”
“So it is.” he replied, with a meaningful look. “Time for bed.”
“You’re incorrigible - it’s only nine o’clock. Anyway, I’ve a better idea.”
“There are no better ideas.”
“Oh no? How about the rug?”
“Rug? Oh, that rug. In front of the fire…”
“Why don’t you light it then join me in the jacuzzi?” She kissed him then wriggled out of his grasp and ran off, invitingly.
The fireplace was huge, built into the old warehouse wall. It was carefully stacked with kindling and logs. He knew before he looked that matches would be to hand and they were, on the mantelpiece in a lacquered box with an exquisite miniature of bears in a forest scene. Fiona must have brought that back from her Russian tour, he thought, and sighed enviously - God, it must be good to be talented. Moving the fire guard, he set light to the kindling and watched until the fire took. Then he set off greedily after Lynn.
“Oh my God!” They had come downstairs sharing a bath robe but suddenly Lynn was gone, sprinting naked across the room. And then he saw why. A log had rolled from the fire and was smouldering its way through the rug.
“Bloody hell!” He followed, panicking.
She grabbed the tongs while he juggled with the poker and they manoeuvred the log back into place. He poked at the charred edges of the hole. “Can’t you… patch it or something?” he asked, then wondered how anybody could be so stupid. They spent a wretched, sleepless night.
“Ali Pasha’s Oriental Rug Company.” It was morning and Lynn was reading the label. “104-108, Commercial Road, Stepney.”
It took him a few seconds to catch on…
“Come on, David.”
“And what can I do for you then, darlin’?” ‘Ali Pasha’ was a plump, middle-aged, east-end Jewish cockney with a rasping cough and nicotine-stained fingers. Behind thick glasses the eyes were shrewd. Lynn unrolled the remains of Henry’s priceless rug on the floor.
“Oh dear oh dear. That,” Ali observed lugubriously, “is what we in the rug trade call an ’ole. A fifteen hundred quid ’ole.”
Lynn looked as though she might cry.
“Fifteen hundred pounds!” David said. “For a two by one hearth-rug?”
Ali Pasha looked hurt. “’arth rug! Bleedin’ ’arth rug! That, my son, is a work of art. And ’enry will not be best pleased when ’e finds out you’ve burnt an ’ole in it, neither. Will ’e, Joe?”
Joe, a thin, gangling youth with a gormless expression had appeared, tea slopping from an over-full mug inscribed ‘Stay cool, man!’.
“Wha’? Oh, the old fart. Is that ’is rug then?”
“Look, we’re really in the cart.” David had a sudden instinct about Ali. “Henry’s my boss. We’re flat-sitting while they’re away skiing and we… that is I…”
“Lit a fire on ’is collector’s item,” Ali supplied, helpfully.
“Well… yes. More or less.”
“And you want me to sell you a replacement.”
“Yes. That is… no - not if it’s fifteen hundred pounds. The car didn’t cost us that much.”
Ali lit yet another cigarette. He looked at David for a long time then at Lynn for even longer. He turned to Joe. “What you think, then?” David assumed the question was rhetorical but Joe missed the point and answered it: “I fink she’s gorgeous.”
From anyone else the remark would have roused David to some anger but from Joe it was no more than a simple, unthreatening truth. Lynn blushed.
“The thing is with Joe,” said Ali, looking at Lynn, “’e says what everybody else just thinks. And ’e’s right an’ all. So I’m goin’ to tell you som’ing I only tell to gorgeous girls what’s short o’ the readies. That rug cost me just fifty quid. And there’s a dozen more exactly like it out the back. Go on, Joe. Fetch me a nice rug for the lady.”
While Joe was out the back, Ali explained. “Old ’enry may be a good lawyer but with rugs he’s a schlemiel. Tuesday ’e ponces in ’ere, gives me ’is bleedin’ card! Starts askin’ lots of complicated questions about Bokharas and knots per inch and stuff. Well, ’e’s just askin’ for it. I show ’im this rug and tell ’im it’s a one-off, specially imported - load of cobblers but ’e falls for it. So ’e beats me down from three grand to one and an’ ’alf so ’e can tell ’is missus what a sharp geezer ’e is.” He shrugged. “Everybody’s ’appy.”
Joe re-appeared and, with a magnificent gesture, unrolled the ruined rug’s twin.
“To you,” pronounced Ali, splendidly, “fifty-five quid.”
“No problems, then?” Henry asked, anxiously, as Fiona struggled in with their bags.
“None at all,” said David. “Well, we were a bit concerned about the rug…”
“What?” Henry exploded.
“Oh, don’t worry. A spark from the fire but it did no harm. Honestly, no harm at all.”
Henry was on his knees, fumbling with his spectacles. He examined the rug minutely then stood up with a sigh of relief. “Really, David, if you had any conception of what that rug cost, you’d be more careful.” He shook his head ruefully. “But I suppose it takes experience to recognise a collector’s item.”
© Edwin Alexander 1996
Causes Ted Davison Supports
Médécins sans Frontieres [Doctors without Borders]
Various animal charities