For all of his seventy-seven years, my Great Uncle James Penderbell suffered from cold feet. Every winter, and almost every night, his toes became an icy Arctic blue, and they burned, itched and stung. His brothers might scoff that James was stiff at both ends and could only expect to have one bright idea every twenty years, but they hadn’t understood his cold feet; without them, Uncle James would have been a very different man.
Once he sat in an office, but only briefly. After three weeks’ apprenticeship in a place where a tiny paraffin stove struggled vainly against wintry draughts, James was brought home with his feet more or less enveloped in icicles. The very next day, on his seventeenth birthday, he was inspired to trudge on his ten blue toes across the Pennines to move in with his deaf sister Tabitha, who kept a guesthouse in Blackpool. Aunt Tabitha was the only family member who believed that James had potential. She installed him in her cheapest room on credit, fed him on hot muffins, knitted him bed socks and provided sisterly advice. “Wiggle yer toes Jim – keeps the blood flowin’,” she told him – which James duly did; his toes became much more agile, but they were still cold.
For the next twenty years, James held down a variety of jobs, ending up in a well-warmed chemist’s shop, where even the Cold Cream was dispensed hot. Here he specialised in selling corn plasters, chilblain comforters and the new-fangled rubber hot water bottles. The bottles, alas, leaked, and clients soon came back complaining of scalded feet – which caused James to hit upon his next bright idea. The Penderbell Hot Water Bottle, as he designated it, was a marvel. It could never leak, and when it was emptied it did not produce the sad Glug-Glug noises that came when emptying lesser bottles. With a loan from Aunt Tabitha he put the bottle into production and soon conquered the market.
As smoothly as the water streamed out, so smoothly did the money roll in. Aunt Tabitha, by now rheumaticky but with a good head for business, rented her entire first floor to James for fifty guineas a week. Not trusting the banks, James installed in his living room a large Safe with five mighty locks and was soon filling it with fifty-pound notes and gold sovereigns. He had a large Persian carpet installed, and then demanded that it be dyed red to make his feet feel warmer.
The Great Penderbell Burglary took place on the eve of Uncle James’ seventy-seventh birthday. James was sitting there, admiring his Safe, and with his bare feet resting on a Penderbell Hot Water Bottle, when the door behind him burst open. Within seconds a gag was pushed into his mouth and a pimply red-haired figure was tying his wrists to the chair.
“Not to be afeared, grandfather,” lisped the pimply one. “For its only the keys that I’m after and the money will all go to the poor….”
Uncle James chewed and gurgled helplessly on his gag; he had hope that Aunt Tabitha might be at hand, but she was playing the Dead March in Saul on her harmonium, and at such moments she set aside her ear trumpet, reducing her hearing range to a matter of inches,
The pimply one, finding no keys in James’ pockets, unpacked his own burglary tools and went to work on the five locks. The first two yielded only slowly and unwillingly to the wrench and the drill; but it was at that moment that Uncle James had one of his rare bright ideas. He looped his left big toe through the Penderbell Insulated Handle and raised the Bottle, then with his right big toe he began to screw off the Penderbell Anti-Leak Cap.
The first two locks of the safe at last surrendered; the third lock virtually fell off while the pimply one was looking at it and Uncle James resolved to sue the Safe people. The fourth and fifth locks were less obliging; finally the pimply one had to drill them to pieces; and it was just as they gave up the ghost, and the safe door swung ponderously open, that Uncle James’ toes pulled off the Anti-Leak Cap, so that the contents of the Bottle that never made Glug-Glug noises streamed silently out under the table and sank into the red-dyed carpet.
By now the pimply one was hurriedly loading sovereigns and fifty-pound notes into his swag bag. He was only half done when three swarthy policemen burst in and took him. He went like a lamb; he was too astonished to do anything else.
The tale hit the headlines next day, but no-one had reckoned with Aunt Tabitha. With her head for business, she turned her living room into the best sixpenny side-show in Blackpool. There she displayed James’ broken-down safe; she provided hot muffins for all comers; she played the Dead March in Saul on her harmonium; and she pointed to the red patch of the ceiling where, as she declared, the blood had come dripping through, causing her to ring 999 for the police.
James tried to correct the tale now and again. But she wasn’t having any of it; at sixpence a time, her version was much too profitable.