Northside - Andrew Martin watches the Man with the Fancy Cars

Why was the Man with the Fancy Cars waiting for a bus in the rain?

I am writing a historical detective novel, and one of the by-products of this is that I have begun to see the whole world in terms of clues and mysteries, the whole of London especially. London is a vast disjunction, a constant series of ellipses, interspersed with occasional, blinding revelations of truth. But let me get down to facts, and The Case of the Man with the New Dog.

A man who lives very near me, but about whom - this being London - I know absolutely nothing, always used to walk around with a Jack Russell. The dog wasn't a puppy, but it wasn't that old. It was well trained, and would follow at the man's heels. About three weeks ago, however, I saw the man walking down our high street with another dog: a brown Labrador. It was just as well trained as the Jack Russell, and, like the Jack Russell, it was following about a foot behind the man. He wasn't paying it any particular attention, as you might expect a man to do with a new dog, and, moreover, the Labrador was not a puppy.

After one of those typical London interludes of coming to a stand in the street and thinking: "What the hell is going on there?", I decided that the Jack Russell must be back at his house, and that he must be walking someone else's dog. But I have seen him several times since, always with the brown Labrador, and without the Jack Russell, which I suppose must be dead, in which case I must express my disapproval of the unseemly haste with which it was replaced.

And then there was The Case of the Man with the Fancy Cars, which I undertook to solve during the days when I lived in Camberwell. It was a real baffler, a three-pipe problem, as Holmes used to say, or, to adapt the phrase to the modern day, and to the milieu of south London, a three-crack-pipe problem.

There was a man who drank in the pub near my flat. Whenever he was in the pub there'd be one of two very fancy cars outside. The odd thing was that he didn't look particularly well off, and he didn't act particularly well off. He spent half his life in the pub, for one thing.

The mystery deepened when I saw him waiting for a bus in the rain one morning in Camberwell New Road. OK, one of his fancy cars may have been out of order, but why didn't he just use the other one?

My perplexity then reached agonising levels when I saw him in a village outside Oxford, sitting in a very ordinary, very muddy little car, and just staring into space. My conclusion was that he was probably a chauffeur who had a very tolerant boss. But if I ever see him again, I'm going to break all the London rules, and I'm going to go up and ask him.

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