Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 12 January 2017

The man who lived next door to my inlaws may have been a murderer but he was a jolly good neighbour

Wild life | 12 January 2017
Text settings

We had my parents-in-law Gerry and Jean to stay with us on the farm over Christmas and being in a remote place in Africa, things often go wrong. A few days into the festivities the solar-powered electricity broke down and so did the solar water-heater. As we sat in darkness, after cold showers, Gerry said, ‘It reminds me of Ronnie and Doreen.’ In 1968, Gerry said, he was working for Kellogg’s, selling cornflakes all over the British Isles, Jean was raising two children and they lived in a semi in Billingshurst. Ronnie next door used to fiddle the electric meter. He offered, ‘Shall I do yours, Gerry?’ ‘No thank you, Ronnie,’ said Gerry, who has played a straight bat all his life.

In the early summer of that torrid year Gerry was struggling with his hand-pushed lawnmower in front of his house when Ronnie peered out of his window next door and said, ‘I know just the thing you need, Gerry.’ The next day he turned up with two walk-behind motorised mowers. ‘One for me and one for you.’ After that Gerry mowed his lawn in a trice. Ronnie’s mower lay abandoned in the tall grass. Another day Jean saw Ronnie building a low wall between their gardens. He laid the bricks beautifully. ‘Where did you learn how to do that, Ronnie?’ ‘On holiday — you know, in the Scrubs.’

At work Gerry was given a bottle of Chivas Regal. He and Jean hardly drink so they invited their neighbours around and Doreen polished off most of it. The two men had to carry Doreen home, but she was so heavy they couldn’t get her up the stairs so they deposited her on a landing halfway up to the bedroom where she passed out. The next morning my father-in-law saw Ronnie and asked, ‘How is Doreen?’ ‘Dunno, mate. She’s still on the landing.’ The neighbours always had all their lights on, plus the radio, and they never locked their front door. When they went off to watch a boxing match in London once, Doreen asked if she could put her full-length sable coat in Jean’s wardrobe for safekeeping and Ronnie deposited a black suitcase with them. On their return Ronnie asked, ‘Did you have a look in the bag, Jean?’ ‘Certainly not!’ said my mother-in-law, who is almost painfully correct in her very English behaviour. Ronnie opened the bag’s zipper to reveal that it was stuffed with £5 notes.

In May 1968 West Bromwich Albion played Everton in the FA Cup Final and Gerry, who is keen on his football, saw that his TV was on the blink. ‘May I watch the match on your television?’ he asked Ronnie. ‘Here, mate, take one. I got several.’ West Bromwich Albion won 1–0 and after the game Gerry couldn’t help but notice a label on the back of the TV that said ‘Property of Rediffusion’. Another day Ronnie knocked on the door and presented Gerry with a suit. It had a chalk stripe, with padded shoulders and gold satin lining. My father-in-law was a very handsome man and 37 at the time. I have seen photographs of him wearing this get-up, which always struck me as being a bit flash for my wife Claire’s father.

‘Gerry,’ said Ronnie one day. ‘If anybody gives you any trouble, you send him to me. After I talk to him you won’t have no trouble no more.’ Gerry thanked him and assured him that nobody was giving him any kind of trouble. Having been raised in India, with service in the Royal Navy in hot spots like Malaya — and travels all round the world as an accomplished sportsman, playing cricket, hockey and squash — Gerry was the kind of man who could take care of himself and tended not to have trouble from people. Yet Ronnie and Doreen, who were younger, clearly liked their neighbours and wanted to protect them. ‘I’ve got a shooter, mate,’ said Ronnie.

At some stage Ronnie confided that he and Doreen had moved to Billingshurst to lie low for a bit, because things had become ‘a bit hot’ where they came from in London. ‘Have you heard about Jack “the Hat” McVitie?’ Ronnie asked Gerry. ‘Well. I suppose I have.’ ‘Yeah, well that’s my lot, mate,’ said Ronnie. In October the year before, in Stoke Newington, Reggie Kray had viciously stabbed his fellow gangster Jack ‘the Hat’ in the face and body and one supposes Ronnie and Doreen — clearly not their real names — had decided to hop it to Sussex and enjoy a spell of the country life.

Sitting in the African darkness, Gerry mused, ‘We liked them very much and they were very good neighbours.’ ‘Yes, they were,’ said Jean.