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The Oyster House Siege -- part four

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1169818388/gallery_29805_1195_25597.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Jay Rayner


Sergeant Willy Cosgrave dreamed about food much as other men dream about women. Good dishes, fully imagined, made him feel whole. By rehearsing the stages of a classic daube -- barding the beef with pork fat, enriching the wine with brandy for the marinade -- he could keep the world at bay. And when, in his imaginings, he reached the moment when he raised the casserole's lid to release the first breath of steam, a feeling of calm would overcome him. Only then could he open his eyes and face whatever irritation the commander had foisted upon him.

'My husband,' Marion Cosgrave would say to her friends, with a hand pressed to her well-fed heart, 'he's only himself by the stove.' And the rest of the time he is trying to find his way back there, Willy might have added.

He understood himself most clearly as a father in the kitchen, because that was where he had the cleanest purchase on his role in life. That was where he offered Alex the first taste of Marie Rose sauce (before the introduction of Tabasco) to be licked away by a baby's trusting tongue from his fingertip; of crisped lardons handed down to Paula's open mouth; of whipped, sugared cream from a spoon to both of them. Then the tutorials, as the children grew: the garlicky liquor about a true dauphinoise; a teaspoonful of lobster bisque as the flavours surfaced, and then again after the addition of cream.

'See what it does, Alex? See how the fishiness softens, Paula?' And the willing child's blink of recognition, better still, followed by a plea for more. His one regret as a parent, he always said, was that his shift patterns meant he could not be there to cook his children's every meal. 'This is what I do as a father,' he said one day. 'I feed.' At first he recognized this as the sacrifice a family man made to be a good staff sergeant. It was meant to be a job for up-and-comers, for those with ambitions who liked having the ear of the superior they were employed to serve. But nobody now regarded Sergeant Willy Cosgrave as an ambitious man. They did not believe he sought rank or command and he did not look like he sought them either, for, in the service of both his fantasies and his children's appetites, he had become a man of heft who wore his trousers high about his belly in a way that was unfashionable in the Metropolitan Police Service. They wanted their senior officers to look lean and hungry as the commander did and, as Willy Cosgrave said, he had not been hungry since October 1963. He liked to make these jokes about himself before anybody else thought of doing so.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1172348473/gallery_29805_4189_12555.jpg" hspace="8" align="right">It had been different once. When he left the Wiltshire force to take the job with the Met, it was with whispers in his ears from the older officers who had never made it out of the countryside. He was going to do all the things they had never managed to do. Willy was hungry for everything then, and he thought Commander Roy Peterson was eager to feed him. 'I'm here to put some city dirt under your fingernails,' he said on Willy's first day. 'You can waste valuable police time trying to stay too clean.'

A few weeks into the job Peterson had a visitor, a big man in a three-piece suit, with a flash of gold-watch chain under the jacket and the shine of silver cufflinks at his wrists. They sat facing each other in high-backed armchairs, holding tumblers of whisky and sucking on cigars, and Willy was instructed to find someone to watch over the visitor's car, which was parked illegally outside. When nobody from uniform was available Willy did it himself, and stood on the pavement for forty-five minutes calculating how long he would have to work to afford the grey Bentley in front of him. He reminded himself that, officially, this was not one of his duties. As the man climbed back into the car, lifting his stomach a little with one hand to help fit it behind the steering wheel, he tucked a roll of notes into Willy's top jacket pocket and patted it with the flat of his palm. Later, embarrassed, Willy told the commander, who said tersely, 'He was showing his gratitude. It's rude to decline.' Willy sensed he had failed a test.

Other visitors came to the Commander's office. They were businessmen who owned clubs in Mayfair and Soho or who ran magazine publishing companies from industrial estates in South London. There were always clouds of cigar smoke and tumblers of whisky and jokes half heard through a closed door, which Willy thought were at his expense. Sometimes, at day's end, there was an excuse for Peterson to put on the black tie and dinner jacket that he kept hanging in the cupboard next to his dress uniform. He was off to see a boxing match in the East End with a contact. There was an invitation to dinner at the Café Royal. Once he was given a box at the Royal Albert Hall to watch Sinatra sing. 'He's an old boy now,' Peterson said the next morning. 'But he still has it.' He hummed 'My Way' to himself all morning. Later Peterson graduated to the last night of the Proms, and the big West End musicals. He thought Cats was a masterpiece and after that could be heard humming 'Memory' under his breath instead.

Peterson was less impressed by the detail of police work. Sometimes he did call up a case file, telling the detective in charge that he would 'take it from here'. Shortly afterwards, Willy would be given the file and told to 'put it away for now. Some of those boys downstairs couldn't tell a crime from their elbow.' Most of the time Peterson chaired committees and was talked of in the canteen as a future candidate for commissioner, so skilled was he at the politics of the job. But promotions were never offered and, as the rejections piled up, he took it out on his staff sergeant. Willy was sent to fetch dry-cleaning and collect unnecessary pieces of shopping. He was required to get the commander's private car into the garage for servicing. When he wasn't being forced to run around town, Peterson would lecture him. 'Up here, sergeant, you're still thinking like a country copper. There is no space for that in the Met.' And it was true that Willy didn't get on, because promotions didn't come his way either. Around the Yard it was assumed that Willy Cosgrave would not be moved elsewhere unless Commander Peterson moved too and as the years passed that seemed increasingly unlikely. 'We're growing old together,' the commander would say, irritably. On days off Willy prepared ever more complex dishes, from recipes in his copy of Larousse Gastronomique, and enjoyed the rare feeling of control that their completion gave him. He attempted Sole Veronique and Tornedos Rossini. He boned out a whole chicken and stuffed it with a light mousse of chopped pork, green herbs and morels. He discovered the secret to a good Béarnaise sauce and told his wife: 'white wine vinegar, egg yolks, a little butter, and the confidence not to let it know you are afraid', and she laughed with him. He liked having expertise for which he could be respected, if only at home.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1172348473/gallery_29805_4189_3233.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">Tonight, however, there was not enough of the evening left for an adventure at the stove, and when the Oyster House Siege began he was in the living room, dozing in an armchair, dreaming about an authentic cassoulet into its second day of preparation. On the television, men were talking excitably about exit polls and landslides. Someone in a beige suit was predicting that either Guildford or Torbay would be the first to report a result, as if those results, when they came, would have an impact on the Conservative landslide victory. Willy was not listening to any of this. He was working the breadcrumb crust back into the cassoulet, shifting the lumps of goose confit and Toulouse sausage from their sticking places and reaching into the deepest recesses of his head for the appropriate smell-memory of pig, goose and bean that he knew should be there.

The telephone rang. 'Will.' And more insistently, 'Willy!'

He opened his eyes. He knew from her face, the look maintained by a wife too accustomed to getting into bed alone, that it was New Scotland Yard. He took the call and looked at his watch as he accepted the inevitable. Peterson was on duty that night, while his colleagues policed the election, and now there was an incident from which even the commander could not escape.

'They need me,' he said to his wife afterwards, and she straightened his tie.

'At the Yard,' she said. It was a statement.

'No. Jermyn Street. Something going down.'

'On election night?'

'Criminals don't stay at home just because it's election night.'

She nodded. And then, as the thought occurred to her, she said, 'What about the steaks?'

Willy frowned. 'I'm not packing my bags. I'll be back in a few hours, I'm sure.'

'But if you're not?'

'I'll be here for dinner tomorrow night.'

'You promised you wouldn't miss our anniversary this time.'

'I'll make it home.'

'You always say that.'

'Am I boring you, love?'

She kissed him lightly on the forehead. 'Just make sure you come back in time to eat it, Willy Cosgrave.'

'It's a robbery gone wrong. That's all. I'll see you in the morning. Kiss the kids for me.'


Within five minutes of Nathan James and his accomplice storming the Oyster House a cordon had been thrown around the area. Strands of striped police tape, guarded by a car and four officers, had been strung across both the eastern end of Jermyn Street where it met Regent Street and the western end at St James's Street. Police cars were lined up along the south side of Piccadilly, blue lights flashing, closing off Duke Street and the gate through to the courtyard and gardens of Christopher Wren's church of St James's. The entrance to the church led into a series of small foyers and entrance halls which also had an identical doorway on the other side out to Jermyn Street itself, seventy-five yards east of the restaurant. Closing off the southern approaches, an exclusive clutter of art galleries and expensive Georgian townhouses, was a more complex proposition. For the moment, police cars and tape stretched out across the entire distance from west to east, cutting off everything north of St James's Square.

'So the square isn't inside the cordon?'

'No, sir.'

Commander Roy Peterson nodded at the torch-lit map spread out across the bonnet of a police car which was parked on Jermyn Street alongside the eastern end of the church. Above him, in the glow of a street light, insects danced against the city's sodium-diluted night sky. 'Give thanks for small mercies,' Peterson said. 'It's mostly residential and they are not the sort of residents to take kindly to being turfed out of their homes.' He looked down Jermyn Street towards the two police vehicles blocking the road, past the shirt-makers and the milliners, the boot-makers and barbers and the cheese shop with its ancient crooked frontage; the businesses that have kept the British aristocracy clothed, shod and fed for decades. In the electric blur of the police lights, blackclad figures could be seen squatting down beside their vehicles for cover.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1172348473/gallery_29805_4189_9004.jpg" hspace="8" align="right">In a basement just behind where the cars were parked, was Tramp, the expensive members-only club, with its entrance on Jermyn Street. Peterson knew Tramp well enough and was aware that tonight, as every night, it would be full. There would be blondes with hair like spun sugar and men who were too old for them. There would be financiers and ageing aristocrats who could measure their status in the weight of the cotton shirts on their backs and the thickness of the gold rings on their fingers. The commander had spent evenings down there, sharing a bottle of champagne with a contact, and he could visualize the situation. He tapped the spot on the map.

'Has Tramp been emptied?'

'One of the clearing banks is holding an election night party down there.'

'Get them out. There aren't any other entrances apart from the one on to this street, are there?'

'The fire exit has a route out into the arcade. We can then lead them up to Piccadilly from there.'

'Do it. What about the other club?'


'That's the one.' Peterson only knew Xenon by reputation, as a disco for rich kids who liked to spend their parents' money on expensive cocktails. When it opened, a few years before, the press had made much of rumours that a star attraction would be a caged black panther wearing a diamond necklace which would be placed by the neon-lit entrance on Piccadilly. Peterson had dispatched an officer to investigate who had returned to report that he had enjoyed his night out, and that the panther was not by the door but was an occasional -- and fully licensed -- attraction on the stage. He said that, when the wild animals came on, a wire mesh was lowered to save the clubbers from a mauling. This still did not make the appeal of Xenon obvious to Peterson, who could not see why anybody would wish to visit a nightclub to see a giant cat.

He said, 'Can we leave that lot in peace?'

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1172348473/gallery_29805_4189_10619.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">The officer shook his head. 'Don't think so, sir. Their fire exits also lead out into the arcade. Actually we think it's how the gang first accessed the jewellery shop. If there's a sudden emergency in the club then we could have 400 kids trying to -- '

He didn't have to finish the sentence. Peterson could see the problem: an armed hostage situation, interrupted by a crowd of young, spoilt drunks tripping over their own heels on their way to safety. 'Clear that too.'

Peterson studied the map one last time. 'What about residential on Jermyn Street itself? How many people are there living over the restaurant or across from it?'

'Not sure, sir.' 'Well, find out. While you're at it get an ETA on the command unit. I can't run this thing from the bonnet of a squad car. And where's Cosgrave? Did anybody call Willy Cosgrave?'

'Here, sir.'

Peterson looked his staff sergeant up and down, as if inspecting his uniform. 'You're late.' He turned back to his map.

'Sorry, sir. Just got the call.'

The commander took off his peaked cap and ran one hand over his greying, closely cropped hair. He said, 'No flabby thinking tonight, Sergeant,' and Willy blushed. 'Do what I tell you, when I tell you.'

'Yes, sir.'

'I need you to get hold of the top man. The commissioner's people need to know that we have a situation down here. You know the drill.'

'Of course, sir.'

'Keep it pleasant and businesslike.'

'What do I tell him?'

'Bloody good question.' He turned and shouted to a cluster of officers standing by a car parked behind his own, staring at another pile of maps. 'Harris, we need a full briefing. Where's the first on scene?' An officer pointed back down the road towards the cars. 'DCI Marshall is down behind the furthest squad car, sir, weapon drawn.'

'Well, pull him out of there. Get one of the SO19 boys in to replace him and get him round here.'

'Yes, sir.' The officer muttered into the radio clipped to his lapel.

Peterson stood up straight and looked down the street, and then, as though he had only just noticed its presence, at the old church behind him. Its high, arched windows shimmered in the burst and fall of police lights. He pointed up at the building. 'Willy, we need to set up an HQ in the church. Go find the vicar, priest, whatever, and see if you can -- '

From down the street, they heard a deep, guttural roar: the muffled sound of a dozen voices crying out as one. Every police officer turned towards the noise, which was coming from the Oyster House, as if expecting to see it manifested on the road.

'Jesus! Harris, what the -- '

'Checking, sir.' The officer turned his chin urgently to his lapel again. 'Marshall, DCI Marshall…' There was a pause, and then a burst of compressed noise and static from the officer's radio. Harris looked up. 'DCI Marshall says an incident is occurring, sir, in the Oyster House, sir. He's asking for permission to go in.'

Commander Roy Peterson turned and stared down the street towards the restaurant. He pressed one open-palmed hand against the centre of his chest, let free the slightest of burps and said only, 'Why tonight?'

<div align="center">+ + + + +</div>

This is, sadly, the last part of a four-part series. Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

This extract is taken from The Oyster House Siege by Jay Rayner, published in March by Atlantic Books at £10.99. To order an advance copy at the special price of £9.99 including postage and packing, call 01903 828503 quoting reference JR1.

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One of the things I enjoy about this story are the characterizations. The people.

Sometimes I feel rather guilty when I read mysteries, or "lighter" reading rather than, you know, Great Literature of the Ages. Though some mysteries or books of their ilk, might sometimes make it into this category of critical assessment, it mostly is a different style of approach.

But then, I would hate to have to eat a formal, challenging dinner each and every day. I would rather eat what tastes good and feels good.

The serial books with continuing characters, to me, feel good, often. It is like visiting with friends.

Peterson and Cosgrave have this sense about them. A potential for being characters that could go on to other adventures, to my mind.

Willy was hungry for everything then, and he thought Commander Roy Peterson was eager to feed him. 'I'm here to put some city dirt under your fingernails,' he said on Willy's first day. 'You can waste valuable police time trying to stay too clean.'

An interesting relationship, already.

Of course one or the other might get stuck by that famous fork by the time the story ends. :sad:

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As this is the last of the four part serial I want to take the opportunity to thank Maggie and Dave of the Daily Gullet for doing such a fantastic job with these excerpts. It’s been intriguing to see the book roll out in this way, and better still to read the thoughts of others

Anybody interested in how the writing process impacted upon my eating habits might like to have a look at this piece from yesterday’s Observer.


(Apologies for just posting the url. I've spent ten minutes trying to make the hyper-link thing work and failed dismally. Any mods who want to do it for me are most welcome)

Obviously I’m still around to answer any questions but for the moment, once again, thank you.


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