Geoffrey Knowles admits me to the interview room like the ex-copper he is. "Go in now, go in now," he commands, pressing a switch that springs a lock. Inside is a mean little chair and a counter. I brace myself for Knowles to set a tape recorder running with the words, "Geoffrey Knowles entered the room at 14.15 . . ."
Knowles appears on the other side of the counter. He's a big man, with a co-ordinating tie and breast-hankie combo. I see immediately that he's the withholding type. This makes sense. How much has he sweated out of rattled villains and, in another life, the foot soldiers of the IRA, by forcing them to talk before he'd ever say a word?
Now he manages a safe deposit company. He leads me into the vault. We step through a door like the hatch of a Trident submarine.
The atmosphere is uninviting. You might almost say furtive, or ashamed. There are no soft furnishings or fountains or piped music or ziggurats of complimentary Ferrero Rocher. This might be the locker room of a police station. There are holes in some lockers where boxes have been drilled out. The client may have lost his key, or detectives may have demanded a look inside.
"Believe me, we've got everything here," says Knowles, more expansive now. The safe deposit was once frequented by butlers of the aristocracy, storing the silver overnight. Now it's patronised by gem dealers and people safeguarding documents.
"And fences stashing moody gear?"
"Obviously, we don't condone anything illegal, but our clients have complete confidentiality," says Knowles, "unless the police arrive with a warrant." A judge kept a cache of "Evelyn Waugh-ish" letters, he says, which chronicled his weekends in Brighton with a prostitute.
Knowles recounts what he calls the "macabre" story of a woman who visited the vaults every year on the same day in June. She would take a box into a private cubicle for an hour, and then return it. The woman grew old and entered a nursing home. The matron of the home began coming on the same date in June. She would remove the contents of the box, returning with them the following day. On the woman's death, the secret of the box was revealed: a plait of dark hair.
The woman had been incarcerated in a concentration camp with her daughter. The Nazis had cut off the girl's plait before killing her. The mother had saved it, smuggled it away somehow in her clothes. She came to look at it every year on the girl's birthday.
These cells could hardly be more functional. If they had a window in them, they would be peep-show booths, or prison-visit hutches. You thought of that woman, the former client, stroking her daughter's hair in there.