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Title: Black Market
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1203921h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: October 2012
Date most recently updated: October 2012

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Arthur Gask

Published in The Mail, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 3 March, 1945.

Todhunter McStottlebaugh held quite on important position in the Income Tax Department and, contrary to what some people might have expected, his expression was a mild and gentle one. Happily married, he had a sensible, good-looking wife and three nice children. Certainly, he was a good father and, as far as the neighbors had been able to find out, a faithful husband as well.

His life was just that of the ordinary suburban dweller. Every morning he left home at a regular time and, every evening, returned at a regular time, too. At night he read or listened to the wireless, and at week-ends worked in his little garden, occasionally taking his family out for little jaunts to one of the beaches or the hills on Sundays.

In fact he was, to all appearance, a very ordinary man and, as far as I can ascertain, up to his fortieth year showed no signs of any moral or mental aberration. Then, however, came the war with its shortages, restrictions, and rationing, and almost in the twinkling of an eye, as it were, his whole outlook on life was altered.

He became a collector of things which were in short supply, a hoarder, and a crawler from shop to shop to acquire articles which he did not necessarily want but which were difficult to obtain. It became a craze, a veritable obsession with him.

It was his wife who started it all. One morning she asked him to try to get her some sago in the city on his way home, as the local grocer had got none. Accordingly, missing his usual tram that afternoon, he set out upon the quest.

The first two shops had none, but at the third, with some hesitation upon the girl's part because she did not recognise him as a regular customer, he was given a pound. Then, as she was getting him his change, he heard another girl who was serving a lady tell her she was lucky she was able to give her some prunes, as they had very few left and did not know when any more would be coming in.

Whereupon Todhunter was instantly seized with an urge for prunes, too, and he glowed with pleasure when later, to his wife's great delight, he presented her with prunes as well as the sago.

"Oh, but you're a splendid shopper, Tod, dear," she said, "and I really think I'd better get you to do all my shopping for me. Girls will give things to men when they won't to a woman."

So Todhunter was set on the downward path, and, entering into the matter with great zest, very soon there was a huge accumulation of groceries in the store-cupboard—anything which it was supposed might one day become hard to obtain.

Dozens of bottles of soup appeared, packets of peas galore, lentils, haricot beans, tinned meats of all descriptions, sauces, and preserved fruits. But it was condensed milk which for some time was his long suit, and scores and scores of tins were piled high up to the very ceiling.

Then pickles came into their own, for Todhunter heard there would shortly be no labor available to produce them, and he struck hard and heavily to get in a good supply, rarely an evening passing without his bringing home two or more bottles.

To them he was soon adding boxes and boxes of macaroni and vermicelli, because one of his colleagues at the taxation office had told him their supply was quickly running out.

To begin with, his wife had been amused, but speedily she became annoyed, telling him sharply that she was beginning to tremble every time she saw him coming home with his bag. Todhunter, however, had tasted blood and was not to be stayed, the very next evening after her reproof arriving home with three 2-oz. packets of mustard and two tins of golden syrup. A mania with him now to add to their store every day, from unrationed goods he quickly passed to rationed ones, and the acquisition of an unlawful pound of butter or a few extra ounces of tea filled him with a dreadful joy.

"But you're sure to be found out one day," protested his wife, almost tearfully, "and you know it's black marketing."

"In a very harmless way, Mary," he smiled, "and I'll take good care I'm not caught. I'm a pretty wily bird at it now."

But once having fallen to black marketing, the lure became stronger every day, and soon Todhunter took to transgressing in other ways than food.

It became a regular habit with him to have a bet at his newsagent's shop every Saturday when he was returning home from the office. Certainly, it was only a matter of a few shillings, and he was really not much interested in horses and knew little about them, but it gave him a great thrill to hand his little betting slip over the counter, with the chance always there that a policeman might rush into the shop and catch him red-handed.

Now, it happened that one evening, when waiting with a friend for a tram in Victoria square, two men came out of the watchhouse, and the friend remarked to him they were Billikin and Brown, of the lottery and gaming squad, two of the smartest detectives in the force.

With great interest Tod took good note of their faces, and, as it turned out, it was well for him that he did so, for the following Saturday, just as he was approaching the newsagent's shop to hand in his betting slip, he caught sight of a man with a smutted face and in dirty overalls lounging on the pavement a dozen or so yards away. He recognised him instantly as one of the two detectives who had been pointed out to him, and, with a quickly beating heart, passed the newsagent's shop.

Safe out of sight, he tore up his betting slip and dropped the pieces down a drain.

A good sportsman, he thought it only decent to warn the newsagent. Walking quickly back into the main street, with difficulty he suppressed a whistle when he saw on the opposite pavement the second detective in a railway porter's uniform. His knees shook under him as he went into the shop. Fortunately the newsagent was there alone.

"Detectives outside," Todhunter whispered hoarsely, "from the gaming squad!"

The newsagent's face went the color of putty and his eyes popped like corks. "Are you sure?" he whispered back.

"Quite!" breathed Todhunter. "Billikin and Brown! One's in overalls and the other's got a railway man's uniform."

Quick as the strike of a snake, the newsagent grabbed up a small box from under the counter and darted into the room behind the shop. Todhunter began turning over some Christmas cards in a tray on the counter. Two, three, almost five minutes passed, and the newsagent returned into the shop. "All serene," he grinned. "Everything gone into the kitchen fire, and I've doctored the phone so that it won't ring. Thank you very much, sir, I'm sure. I'm——"

BUT the shop door opened violently and the two detectives, accompanied by two other men burst in. "We're police," snapped one, "and we've come to search your premises. We suspect you of illegal betting. Come out from behind that counter and keep your hands out of your pockets."

Todhunter at once made himself scarce, but he heard all about it the next day. Of course, the police had found nothing.

"Not even a bit of burnt paper," grinned the newsagent, "and one of the 'tecs sat for a good half hour before the blooming phone, all ready for my customers to ring up bets, before he tumbled to it that it was out of order. Didn't I just laugh and weren't they just wild about it?"

Now it might have been thought that so narrow an escape would have warned Todhunter of the risks he was running, for he knew quite well that any public conviction for black-marketing would lose him his situation in the taxation office and all the benefits of more than 20 years' service. But no, he didn't take the warning, and his next lapse was as serious as could be, for he was hindering the war effort by buying black-market petrol.

He happened to mention where he was accustomed to get his monthly two-gallon allowance of petrol that the ration was so small he would not be able to take the usual motor holiday at Christmas.

Whereupon the garage man said that, though HE could not give him any extra spirit, he knew of a party who could, and it ended in six four-gallon tins being delivered to Todhunter, late one night, at 30/ the tin. They were hidden away under some old sacks at the back of the garage.

The man who brought the tins had furtive-looking, beady eyes, and Todhunter felt ashamed of himself for having any dealings with him. Now, for the first time, when he told his wife about the unlawful petrol, she was most angry about it.

"It isn't worth it," she said sharply, "for a man in your position can't afford to take such risks. Your whole career will be ruined if it's found out."

"I know that," admitted Todhunter uneasily, "but who's going to split on me? No, I'm quite safe."

THERE, however, he was entirely wrong, for he was reckoning without Mrs. Coshey. Mrs. Coshey was the washer-lady and, of alcoholic habits and erratic ways, there was never anything but an armed neutrality between her and Mrs. McStottlebaugh. On the Monday before Christmas she came to work an hour late, smelling strongly of malt liquor and hiccuping explosively with every word she spoke.

She was obviously in no condition to do her work properly, and was told so in no uncertain way. Whereupon she 'downed tools' instantly—in her case that meant dropping a cake of soap—demanded 'her time' and took herself off, muttering vengeance, with her hat all askew.

The next day the Liquid Fuel Board received a badly scrawled anonymous letter informing them the people at 17 Boomerang terrace had a large store of petrol in their garage, hidden under sacks.

That same afternoon two grim-faced men from the board arrived at Todhunter's house and, stating where they came from, demanded to go over the garage. His wife, who answered the door, realised at once there was no help for it and took them there, hoping against hope they would not notice the sacks. However, they pounced upon them immediately and exposed the row of neatly soldered tins. With a last desperate attempt to put them off, poor Mrs. Mac said the tins contained only water.

"WE are starting for a camping holiday on Saturday," she explained, "and always take our own water with us. When we are away my husband is most particular what water the children drink."

The men half-smiled, and one of them said gravely, "I'm sorry, Madam, but it will be our duty to open them, to see if what you say is correct."

Some three-quarters of an hour later Todhunter arrived home in a state of great jubilation, having acquired no less than three more small packets of mustard. He found his wife lying back in an armchair, looking very pale and exhausted.

"But what's the matter, Mary," he asked anxiously. "Are you feeling ill?"

"Two men from the Liquid Fuel Board have just been," she said brokenly, "and they insisted upon going into the garage."

Todhunter had gone as white as a ghost. "But did they notice the tins?" he asked hoarsely.

"That's all they came for," she nodded. "They knew they were there, and went straight to them at once. That horrible Mrs. Coshey must have given us away out of spite. Of course, she had been spying about and looked under the sacks, but I told the men the tins contained only water which we're taking away with us on our holiday at the week-end. But they didn't believe me, and said they must open them to see."

"And did they open them?" asked Todhunter, hardly able to get out his words and, when she had nodded miserably, he sank down weakly on to the sofa. "Serves me right," he choked. "Now it means disgrace and being turned out of the service. Oh. what a fool I've been!"

His wife was half-crying and half-laughing. "Yes, you have," she cried hysterically, "and such, a big one, too."

Then, to his amazement, she darted over to him and threw her arms round his neck. "But I won't punish you any more, dear," she went on, "though I wanted to scare you just a little, so that you shouldn't be so silly again. No, you're not going to be disgraced and everything is all right."

"But what do you mean?" he voiced. "You've just said they opened the tins."

"And so they did," she cried, "but they found that all they had got in them——" she paused dramatically—"was what I had said they had, just water, plain water!" She laughed merrily. "Oh, you great gaby, that black-market petrol man had cheated you and you paid him 9 for six tins of water!"

Todhunter tried hard to feel furious, but his relief was so great that he had difficulty in preventing himself from crying.

"Yes, and you should have seen their faces." his wife went on. "At first they looked thunderstruck, and were furious with me for laughing. Then, though I am sure they suspected something fishy, they had to laugh, too, and, in the end, off they went, apologising to me most politely for the annoyance they had given."

Todhunter is a reformed character now, and no longer has any dealings with the black market. Also, the provision shops know him no more. However, he is always on the look-out for the man who sold him those tins of water, though should he meet him he is not quite certain what he will do—give him a black eye or offer to stand him a drink.