The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2007 Results

The Clough Family

Copyright © Ross Duffy 2007

The Mayor was elegant in his regalia of office. He beamed at the attentive gathering before slowly drawing back the curtain to reveal the timber and brass commemorative plaque. And, standing beside him, Wally Clough stared, fascinated, the discomfort of new suit, collar and tie momentarily forgotten as he slowly absorbed every engraved word: The Walter Harold Clough...

Yes, without doubt, the highlight of his life, his one chocolate-coated bonanza. If the ground opened now and swallowed him, no one could say his presence on earth had been a total failure. More importantly, he thought, brushing aside an errant tear, here was proof that miracles really can happen. Though Wally sensed the friendly audience was eager for him to speak, he was determined to fully savour this special moment.

By profession, Wally had been a thief. As, before him, had been his father Eddy, uncle Jim, and grandfather Harry Clough. All four were cursed with the same box-like head, long, curved nose, massive freckles and mop of unruly ginger hair. But their similarities ended with the physical.

It would be reasonable to expect professional know-how to be carefully passed down from generation to generation, leading to ever-more skilled criminal performances. But with the Clough family it was the reverse. Grandfather Harry's transgressions were always on the grand scale. He was an eloquently persuasive 'con man' whose specialty was separating elderly retirees from their savings. He'd promote grandiose investment schemes that rarely delivered – in short, he was a white-collar fraudster years ahead of his time. Though Harry’s parents had never bothered to educate the young fellow, through assiduous study at the school of hard knocks he had acquired the qualifications to ensure a sound income for life.

During Harry's long, distinguished criminal career there were only a few occasions, and each the result of fickle Fate, when he'd had to confront the court system. Then, if a generous bribe to the constabulary failed, he could always engage the dearest legal mouthpiece available. In court, Edwin Smithers QC would convincingly portray Harry's fraudulent acts as little worse than Oliver Twist's call for seconds. On the two unfortunate occasions that had led to brief sojourns in Her Majesty's prison, Harry's genius for graft and cajolery soon produced the best-appointed cell, along with ample supplies of luxurious food, liquor and cigarettes.

Naturally, it was a cruel disappointment for Harry that his only sons, Eddy and Jim, were not cast in the same mould. They clearly lacked both his enthusiasm and planning skills. And because of their puny performances Harry had been unable to announce to the criminal fraternity: Look, friends, these are my boys. But, ultimately, his addiction to racecourse 'investments' convinced him of the importance of mating a top stallion with a high-class mare. And that’s when he had to concede that his wife Ethel whose weekly highlights were gin sessions at the local and Bingo nights at the Community Hall was, at best, of fourth-class pedigree.

Because each lacked the skill or drive to succeed alone, Eddy and Jim had always operated as partners. But by comparison with Harry's classy achievements, their criminal enterprises were uninspiring like pilfering firewood from the back yards of elderly widows; snatching crates of booze stacked outside hotel bottle shops; and loading up materials from building sites in the dead of night. Invariably, they used the same battered Holden ute; a sure give-away during the subsequent police enquiries. And when they sold stolen gear to a local fence, they'd be taken for a ride, generally settling for well under the going rate. "No bloody honour among thieves," they'd moan later.

Predictably, they soon became regular travellers on the crime merry-go-round: ill-planned offence, arrest, conviction and gaol. During rare bouts of rational thinking they’d admit a conventional job would have provided a better, and more secure, income. But how could a Clough possibly consider such a career path?

With these role models, it was inevitable young Wally would also turn to crime. He was shy and hesitant, and his criminal aspirations were even less pretentious than those of father and uncle. Unable to afford a vehicle, Wally confined his professional activities to petty shoplifting and indiscriminate thefts from local street markets: a truly miserable existence. And his impecunious state and frequent periods of incarceration meant he could never retain a worthwhile relationship. Yet, when well-intentioned persons suggested he at least sample conventional employment, he’d vigorously decline. Family traditions.

Not that prison greatly bothered Wally. After all, it had many advantages: healthy meals, clean clothes, a telly that worked, a gymnasium and, most importantly, binding friendships with the regulars. In many ways, it was like an exclusive men’s club.

Through the prison workshop the authorities strove to teach Wally a trade. When he showed a real talent for carpentry his parole officer confronted him. "Wally, it's time you faced facts. As a thief, you're an abject failure. But you're still young. Look, you agree to toss in crime and I'll arrange a good job in a furniture factory."

But Wally had his values. "Fair crack of the whip!" he snapped. "How can I give it up? It's me bloody profession."

In the early days, grandfather Harry used to take Wally aside and try to pass on priceless criminal tips. Finally he gave up in disgust. "As thick as a plank!" Besides, secretly, he wished this pathetic specimen would move to another city or change his name – lest family honour were further tarnished.

It is generally accepted that many who belatedly achieve a modicum of fame can trace it back to some 'pivotal,' or even 'spiritual,' event. And so it was with Wally Clough. At the age of thirty-eight, wife-less and child-less and cooped up in a draughty room in a run-down boarding house, it seemed his journey across the ocean of life was doomed to constant failure.

Then, one sunny Saturday afternoon, in stepped capricious Fate. At a street market, an Indian trader observed Wally pocket seven gaudy wristwatches from his stall and then quickly slip away. Though the Indian's acquisition of the watches was itself of dubious legitimacy, he could not permit such blatant criminal conduct. So he set off in pursuit of Wally, yelling, "Stop, thief... stop him!"

Two uniformed police officers were slowly walking their beat nearby when the anguished cries reached their ears. They felt obligated to join in the chase, though with neither the speed nor enthusiasm of the Indian. But Wally was fleet of foot. He cut a swath through shoppers, prams, market stalls, pie carts and fortune-tellers as he headed for the wharves, where he knew of a hiding place. When he reached the steps leading to a platform suspended beneath the wharf, he had a handy break on his pursuers. There he would hide until nightfall. Only a few more paces.

But as Wally stepped onto the slimy platform his feet slipped and he plunged into the murky harbour. The oily waters were cold and choppy; and Wally could barely swim. Then Lady Luck smiled on him: he managed to grasp a rope dangling from a pylon. But the tide was strong and the rope was weak and, as he desperately clung to it, he watched the strands gradually breaking.

"Oh please, God," he cried, "help me!" This was a surprising plea, because Wally hadn't given any of the deities a thought in years. Further, he'd never done a single good deed that might justify divine intervention. Nevertheless, he instantly made his pact: "Lord, I know I"ve been a failure. And a regular sinner. But, please, give me just one chance and I promise I’ll be your loyal servant for ever."

Then, without waiting for a heavenly answer, even a minute sign, he shouted, "Help, I"m here... help," just in time for the overweight policeman to hear the call and come to his rescue.

Wally was most impressed. Strike one to the Lord. Then the Indian trader, finally realising he might also have to face the wrath of the law over his 'ownership' of the watches, declined to give a statement or press charges. Strike two. Wally only had to wait ten days for the miraculous strike three: shared first prize in Cross Lotto, $760,000. Why had he taken so long to appreciate the magical powers of the Divine?

Wally invested his funds prudently and then pondered his future. Within a remarkably short time, numerous graceful young women came to realise Wally was incredibly attractive, intelligent, humorous and charming. So he bought a beautiful mansion and then carefully selected a hot little number, Lucy, to be his bride. But, conscious of the solemn pact made as he struggled in the murky harbour, he began considering what good deeds he might perform. The answer soon arrived. Before long he was lecturing young lads from deprived backgrounds on the futility of crime as a career option.

Wally was an instant star. "You're looking at a foolish man, one who's squandered many years of his God-given life on criminal activities," he'd preach. "And spent long periods in squalid gaols. Endured the unspeakable horrors of a shared cell. Deprived of health-giving air and sunshine. Rejected by all the fair young ladies. And, of course, childless for one has no right to bring children into this troublesome world unless constantly around to nurture them. So, please believe me: there is no substitute for the joys of a Godly existence... " The words flowed freely to rapt audiences. He was disappointed when sessions had to end. And, as his fame spread, so did the demand for his services. School groups, youth clubs, soccer teams, reformatories; the list seemed endless.

Wally had never known such contentment. A wonderful house, a devoted wife, a child on the way and the immense satisfaction that his frank, revealing talks provided. Yet, somehow, it wasn't enough. His thoughts kept returning to his near-drowning experience and his solemn undertaking. Finally a solution flashed at him. He still had nearly $300,000 in short-term investments. He’d use most of this to build a fitness centre for the underprivileged youth: gymnasium, basketball and squash courts, swimming pool and sauna. "Wally," Lucy protested tearfully, ‘we'll have nothing left to live on! How will I survive? And my poor baby?" But he steeled himself to ignore such selfish pleas.

The project was soon under way. And when word spread that a former crim was prepared to give most of his savings, the pledges and donations began to pour in. By the time of the official opening all but $80,000 of the total cost was in hand. Wally's aim was to discharge that balance.

The foyer was packed for the unveiling of the plaque to commemorate the Walter Harold Clough Youth Fitness Centre. After the Mayor lauded the remarkable drive and generosity of the principal benefactor, Wally began his address:

"Your Worship the Mayor, councillors and concerned citizens, I thank you all for attending on this memorable occasion, certainly the proudest moment of my life. This magnificent Centre will not only entertain our youngsters but, I'm confident, also divert them from the miserable path of crime." He peered at his audience and was relieved to finally locate Harry, Eddy and Jim despite their attempts to hide among the crowd at the rear. Wally's traitorous conduct had both amazed and appalled them. And they had resolved to excommunicate him. But, as Wally had hoped, curiosity impelled them to attend this opening in response to the official invitations he sent them.

By now an accomplished orator, Wally’s words flowed enchantingly. Finally, he turned to the fund raising: "As you know, another $80,000 is needed to pay for this marvellous complex. So I ask those who have not yet contributed to search their souls and then donate generously. My grandfather Harry, father Eddy and uncle Jim Clough are all here. They, too, are concerned about the problems of today's youth. To start the ball rolling, I happily announce that each has pledged $1,000." Deafening applause. Red faces and stunned disbelief from his three family members. But the gamble did the trick and over $30,000 was soon pledged.

For several months Wally basked in the after-glow of his good deeds. But then harsher aspects of life began to intrude. Alfred, the new arrival, became a powerful night-time bawler. Lucy changed into a world-class whinger and nagger. And Wally had to ration his dwindling savings because, despite continued demand for his lectures to the young, he was unable to find paid employment.

That Christmas, senior member Harry, then eighty-three, called a special meeting of the male members of his clan. "Frankly," he began, "I have to face facts: the pressures of my profession have finally taken their toll and retirement is beckoning. But, unfortunately, my superannuation bin is now somewhat depleted. So I've planned a grand finale. At a rough estimate, it could earn about a million and I'm prepared to split four ways." Three sets of eyebrows shot up at this generous proposal.

The scheme was simple. A sporting quiz, entry fee $30. Each of the first ten sets of correct entries pulled from the barrel to win an around-the-world trip for two first class flights, accommodation at top hotels in seven countries, with chauffeured side excursions. Total value of a winning prize $40,000.

"But," Wally gasped, "that means we'd be up for $400,000 just to secure the ten packages!"

"Ah, ye of little imagination," Harry snapped. "Only $40,000! Of course, we'll organise swags of photographs and publicity for the one genuine winner. As to the other nine just fictitious names and addresses."

Wally had a major struggle with his conscience. But nowadays life was very difficult. Unless he could somehow placate Lucy, he feared she would depart with Alfred. Then there was the $42,000 still owed to the bank on the Fitness Centre; he was desperate to pay that off. Besides, the entrants would only be sacrificing $30! Lord, he'd behaved perfectly for so long ... and he swore he would again, for evermore, once this last venture was over.

In his inimitable way Harry planned everything expertly including meeting the many legal guidelines. All four worked diligently and the money rolled in to the approved trust account. The delicate part of the operation would be drawing the 'winning' entries from the barrel in full public view one genuine and nine false. The way Harry engineered the swapping of the barrel containing only bogus 'entries' for the genuine barrel was sheer magic.

Harry never revealed to the others how he persuaded the deputy mayor to place his hand in the barrel of “bogus” entries whilst holding a 'genuine' entry though later they learned the lucky winner happened to be a second cousin of the deputy mayor’s wife. In his impeccable manner, Harry also organised television interviews and front-page newspaper pictures of this 'genuine' winner and his ecstatic partner.

The scam was so successful, so simple, Harry even toyed with going to the well one more time. But Wally's decision was firm and immediate: no more crime. And Eric and Jim, who had never imagined, let alone handled, such riches also announced their retirement.

Peace and harmony graced the Clough clan for several months. Then a complaint to the Consumer Affairs Department, an investigation, and the unmasking of the fraud. This time Harry's expensive barrister was glaringly ineffectual.

Still, on the positive side, Harry was finally able to rejoice. The fame of the Clough clan had been secured for posterity with an impressive entry in the Guinness Book of Records: Three generations of the same family, incarcerated in adjoining cells, serving substantial sentences for the very same crime.