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A Man of Few Words - by Swan Morrison


Declan Greenaisles waited while the grey-haired lady, of similar age to his grandmother, climbed down from the driving seat of the hired Transit and shuffled to its rear. At Declan’s request, she opened the back doors to reveal four hundred packs of toilet rolls.

‘Are these all for your own use, Madam?’

‘Not that it’s any of your business, young man, but I’m eighty-four and, as I reckon I might live for another ten years, these should see me out.’

As a customs officer at Dover, Declan was used to finding quantities of booze and cigarette in cars and unhesitatingly using his powers to confiscate the vehicles and contents. As he watched the Transit drive away, he reflected that there were no such powers in relation to bathroom products. A one-off encounter with an eccentric old woman would not have been a problem. It was, however, the fourth similar van this week, all driven by the over-eighties. He knew that hundreds of cut-price toilet rolls, bars of soap, boxes of denture cleaning tablets and incontinence pads were flowing from Calais hypermarkets onto British streets and making a tidy illegal profit for some geriatric Mafia. Intelligence reports indicated that such products were distributed nation-wide via older persons’ day centres. There remained, however, no proof.

Declan had no experience of undercover work. His Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award had equipped him to insult foreign dignitaries but not for the covert operation he now faced. Aged by fifty years by professional, theatrical makeup, he found himself being wheeled into the Golden Sunshine Day Centre. Dozens of other agents were doing likewise throughout the land.

‘A nice cup of tea before we start the bingo, Mr Smith?’

‘Yes please, my dear,’ Declan responded to his undercover name in an impersonation of an aged voice.

An old lady in the next wheelchair addressed him. ‘What did you do in the war, then?’

Declan thought quickly. ‘I drank lots of tea and sang Vera Lynne songs, just like everybody else,’ he replied in an instant, feeling slightly smug at this utilisation of his historical knowledge.

He participated in two games of bingo and feigned sleep for an hour to blend with the group. Finally one of the organisers of the centre brought him a cup of tea.

‘How are you, Mr Smith?’ she asked.

Declan seized his chance. ‘Can’t complain,’ he croaked, ‘though money’s a bit tight - what with the cost of denture cleaner and incontinence pads these days.’

‘We’ve got loads of those in the basement at discount prices,’ she confessed.

Declan was about to leap to his feet and arrest her, when the sedative in his tea took effect.

He awoke in the Orkney Home for Retired Gentlefolk, unable to easily move or speak.

‘This is Mr Smith. Poor chap, he thinks he’s a customs official on the trail of smugglers, too. He’ll be no trouble if you maintain his sedation at its current level. Just like all the others.’