‘I open tonight.’
‘What – an envelope, a telegram from the Pope, Blackpool illuminations?’
‘Don’t be an idiot, Pete. My pie-stall.’
‘A pie-stall – you?’
‘I make exquisite pies.’
‘Yes, John, I have tasted them, but how can you possibly make a living out of that?’
‘I don’t care. It’s something I must do.’
‘Where is this stall?’
‘Bermondsey. Down by Tower Bridge.’
‘Let’s get this straight, John – you intend to sell the type of pies you make in your kitchen here to the residents of Bermondsey?’
‘Best of luck, then. I might just pop down later and see how you’re getting on.’
‘Make it night-time, Pete. I’m serving through the night. I’ll have a monopoly. Just think of all those night shift workers, desperate for something filling to eat in the middle of their shifts. I should clean up – make some real money for a change.’
Pete left John’s house, shaking his head sadly.
It was ten that evening when John arrived at his stall, a wooden shed with a lockable fold-down counter upon which he placed forty of his pies, a small calor-gas stove to heat them, a kettle for tea or coffee-making and a few shelves. From his position behind the counter, he could see the mighty river, illuminated by pools of yellow light from the lamps
that adorned the riverbank. Lording over the Thames was the giant ghostly frame of Tower Bridge, half-lit from its base, an extravagant monolithic Meccano that made John proud to be a Londoner each time he saw it.
He had to wait an hour for his first customer, a middle-aged workman in a boilersuit, who approached the stall suspiciously, as if it might spring out and bite him.
‘You sell pies?’ asked the man in a boiler-suit.
‘Yes, this is a pie-stall.’
‘Good. I’ll have two steak and ale pies to take away.’
‘We don’t do steak and ale pies,’ said John.
The man staggered back in astonishment.
‘No steak and ale pies? What pies do you do, then?’
‘The choice is written on this blackboard here,’ said John.
The man reached into a pocket of his boilersuit, donned a pair of grimy spectacles and peered at the board.
‘Butternut, squash and goat’s cheese pie, venison and port pie, caper, lemon and dill fish pie? Look here mate, you taking the mick, or what? This is Bermondsey, not the frizzin’ Ritz.’
‘I have no intention of ‘taking the mick,’ as you so crudely put it,’ said John. ‘These are home-baked pies of premium quality and they taste heavenly.’
‘Jest a minute,’ said the man. ‘Why are the pies in two separate piles?’
‘Ah,’ said John, ‘on the left of the counter - your left, are the male pies - on the right, the female.’
‘Are you barmy? – there’s no such thing as male and female pies.’
‘No, you misunderstand me. The pies on your left are for male customers, the ones on the right are for the ladies.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘I can see you’re a man of the world,’ said John.
‘I bin places,’ said the man.
‘You’re a married man?’
‘Don’t remind me.’
‘Can you keep a secret?’
‘Come closer, then. The pies for the ladies contain a rare ingredient that is missing from the men’s.’
‘They’re different, like?’
‘The ladies’ pies contain Pechifrass, a spice that is only found in the deepest recesses of the Bolivian jungle.’
John beckoned the man to lean over the counter so the pair were almost tete-a-tete.
‘Pechifrass is an a-p-h-r-o-d-i-s-i-a-c,’ he whispered.
‘If you take one of these pies home, heat it up and let your good lady consume it, you will find it will increase her ardour. That’s why Bolivian women wear bowler hats – it wouldn’t do for them to become too passionate with their men down La Paz High Street.’
The man finally understood what John was driving at. His face twisted.
‘If you knew my other half, you wouldn’t put Pechifrass in your pies.’
‘Frizzin’ strychnine,’ said the man, as he walked away.
Minutes and hours passed with no customers. At two in the morning, an expensively dressed woman approached John’s stall.
‘I’ve been to a party,’ she said, in a very posh voice. ‘Kensington. Do you know the Cholmondly-Chalmers’s?’
‘You don’t often run into them along the Wapping Wall,’ said John.
‘A chap gave me a lift and dropped me off here. I’m miles from home.’
‘I can call for a cab for you on my mobile phone.’
‘Later. At the moment, I would just like to examine your wares.’
‘You’re only the second customer I’ve had all night,’ said John, ‘I think I might have made a serious error here.’
The woman looked at the blackboard.
‘How thrilling,’ she said, ‘no Simple Simon you – instead, a pie-man of exquisite taste.’
John’s chest swelled with pride.
‘I am a trifle peckish,’ she said. ‘I need something to complement the Krug Clos d'Ambonnay champagne I’ve been drinking. What would you recommend?’
‘For you, my dear Madam, I would suggest the Summer Isles salmon pie,’ said John.
John lit the stove and heated up the pie. He placed it on a china plate and handed it to her. She took several small bites.
‘Oh my goodness. The taste – decadent, delightful, smooth, creamy, melting, a taste that will stay with me forever. You are a genius. Quite wasted here.’
At that moment, the workman returned.
‘Guv, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I’ll take one of those frizzin’ goat pies after all.’
John wrapped one and handed it over to him.
The posh lady regarded the workman with undisguised relish.
‘My, what a handsome man,’ she said.
‘Who, me?’ said the workman, incredulously.
‘Yes, you - Clark Gable in a boilersuit. Would you care to walk with me to the taxi rank?’
‘Yus, missus, I’d be happy to do that.’
Pechifrass had done its job perfectly.