The Pudding King

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
This story is based on my husband's experiences with an eccentric art collector named Earnest Onians, who enjoyed brief posthumous fame when a valuable painting was discovered in his estate. Reference: (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/nov/17/fiachragibbons)

Submitted: August 06, 2015

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Submitted: August 06, 2015

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The Pudding King

Only a bloke like ‘im would take on a bird like that. I never met her, but he told me many a time he was flash and all, back then. And how, you might ask?  On account of during the Wars he collected table scraps from all over London and made what we class as pig pudding. You Americans call it pig swill but the important thing was everybody’s pig was eatin’ it, and it didn’t cost him nuffink. Not a single blessed penny! He was laughin, that ’un.

When I knew him in the 80’s he was just an old boy, Ernie Ayns  or ‘the old scrooge’ to me lads at the pub. But all of us knew what he was after the wars – the Pudding King.

What made him rich, see, was his own shrewd ways. After the First World War everybody had a pig in their back garden but nuffink to feed it. What was wanting was proper feed. So he sees his chance and starts collecting the very scraps from people’s plates. Can’t say as ‘ow he went from point A to point B, but next thing you know he’s got men going ‘round to every restaurant in London collecting scraps for free, which he then has ‘em put on barges what he already has connections with and it all comes out to him at old Baylham Mill. He’s got the mill set to grind the scraps and make puddings  out of it. And all the ingredients cost ‘im nuffink save the people what picked it up and hauled it, and knowin’ him he didn’t pay pittance for that.

So there he is, V-E day over and done, and everybody’s celebrating and rebuilding, and as he says, he was right flash, dead on the money if it’s all the same to you and me. Oh, he had the best cars, suits as you only see the toffs  wear in the city council department. And her, she was posh, very upmarket. She was much younger n’him, May-December, all that sort o’ thing. You can read about them for yourself, since the Sotheby’s cock-up put it all in the papers and glossies  for everyone to see, which I can say in my case was a right shocker since I never quite believed he was that wealthy, rich as a skunk  ‘n all. My wages was always as low as he could get it.

After it all come out and since, there’s been many a time people ask me did I feel cheated. Why yes, thank you. Right cheated. But was I tempted by all them glorious possessions what he had? God, no. I ain’t no bloody tea leaf, full stop. Bloody hell. (For all you Americans, 'tea leaf' means 'thief. They rhyme, see?)

When I met the old boy his missus had been in the ground a good six, seven years. I never saw him as he was back in them glory days – and hard to imagine, mind you. He looked as poor as a porpoise, and just slightly better when he had his tuck an whistle on for the bank manager. The housekeeper said he had loads o’ dosh, but since the very day when them burglars broke in and knocked the brains outta his missus, he kitted himself out in old suits – e’en though they was proper ones; old gentleman’s button-up trousers, old jacket very tatty, weren’t very clean neither. Here he was quids in, all the while looking so skint the girls at the charity shop felt sorry for ‘im and sometimes they wouldn’t even let ‘im pay. Looks weren’t half deceiving and that’s the way he wanted it.

Now, when I met him, I wasn’t doing nuffink. Well I was fishing on his property as such, but then I told him, I was really standing on a public pathway dangling a line in the stream, which was just off the public pathway. He says right, then, on your bike, and we had a bit of an argy-bargy, then chatted a good while more about cars and motors. I come by more times after that, as he had good stories and all. (Never did so much as think on fishing in his stream, though, for all the years I was there. Cor, nobody fished on his property, he was that tight. I did do some eeling for ‘im though.)

As I say, more time goes by and he must ‘ave decided I was a bit of all right, seeing as I’d had a going concern not six months previous, doing auto body work as the owner of Tatterstone Garage – which was doing very well until it wasn’t no more, as you get my meaning, thanks to Maggie bloody Thatcher. I was worth at least two million pound before she come along. So me and Ayns was like kinfolk in a manner of speaking. Difference being I took it in the gut for me workers and lost me own home so they could have another month’s wage.

In them days I was never in a hurry to get back to me missus (she was that angry about the garage), which worked in his favor, since he always had a bit of a project going on. As such, I spent more and more time at the mill, which I fink was shut down in the early ‘60s. There was holes in the roof, all dusty, loads o’ rats. It’d been run down and what I could make out, the Historical Society was trying to make him deal with it, as it was gettin’ right dangerous.

How we fixed up the mill is another story.  What nobody knew, certainly not the Historical Society, was that the silly old fool was lettin’ the same type o’ thing happen to a whole slog of quality artworks, not to mention all them grandfather clocks (only two was working when I was there, so not as noisy as if all twenty-odd was bangin’ away), a whole stash of bloody Stradivarius violins hangin’ all about his bedroom, in addition to all the ready cash he’d stashed ‘ere and there about the place. Don’t take me as a complete idiot. I did see he had a few pound notes tucked away; but only so much as I had a few months before.

Now you might think I’d have classed ‘im as very, very wealthy what with all them paintings ‘e had, but they was nuffink new to the average English bloke, neither. After the wars, anyone could have an historic painting in exchange for a week’s wage. My parents had art from a manor house in Norfolk. As me dad said, everyone had a chance at the time, but it was the shrewd ones what done it.

Ayns was different in that he wasn’t just shrewd, God no. He had the dosh and his lady had a good eye. That’s how he got Richlieu’s old bit o’ canvas,  the very one what put it all in the news, which that Rothschild bloke got hold of in 1999 and now hangs in the holy bloody city of Jerusalem. There hangs an artwork what I might’a held in me own two hands. And cleaned it with vinegar too.

The housekeeper what took care of his wife (it took two years for her to die after the burglary even though she never did wake up again) took care of him afterwards. She’s got the mill house to live in all the rest of her life, see, and only because she knew he was worth somefink. She always said, “He’s got money, you know.”

Not that she got paid much neither when I was about. We both just did as we was told, and yeah it might seem odd lookin’ through the Sotheby’s book on Ayn’s collection, how could we not know the importance of all them things crowded round us? Again it’s you Americans what think like that. You don’t have all them relicks like we British have. All our old structures come with a few antiques and a ghost or two besides.

As it were, he did sometimes have us round to the secret door between the living room and the mill to clean the artworks (which the papers say was in a chicken shed, but they wasn’t). When he lost her, as I think, them paintings became her. So on those cold rainy days as we might have sometimes, the kind what make you think sad thoughts and all, he’d have us haul them paintings out to clean ‘em up a bit. I only done what I was told to do, even as today I think, I could have ruined a picture or washed it away, what somebody now enjoys in a museum.

Some of those pictures, I actually done up the missing bits in the frames with plaster of Paris, just as if it was a car what needed repairin’. I made molds to match the rest of the frame, which for one example if you look at Portrait of a Gentleman  was very detailed and elaborate. After that I would paint ‘em up and rub on gilding to match the rest. For them what’s gaspin’ ‘Good gracious me’ or laughin’ well I can only say I had to redo ‘em, or he would try with his own hand. He did sometimes rip up a bit of old blouse and paste it to a tear on a canvas from the back, and it was all I could do to keep him from getting’ out his pots o’ paint to touch up the fronts.

It was like me old body shop business, see, doing anything I was good at. So maybe I done some good, or they might find under the framework I did a cock-up on it. He was pleased with it all. Each time we worked until dark and I’d say I’ve got to go out now. He’d say all right, let’s pack this away, do it another day. I could see his eyes shining in the dark which now I come to realize what it meant, like a dragon on his hoard, he was. Surrounded by millions in just artworks alone. On top o’ that he had all them violins, which come to find out some was Stradivarius, rare as hens teeth. Then there was the car.

Sometime about 1960, he bought a 1934 Alvis 20SC for his wife. She drove it once and didn’t like it. An Alvis, only a few made and it only had somefink ridiculous like 20,000 miles on it. She was a young beauty, that car. When his missus didn’t like her, he parked it in an old Quonset hut and kept her there. I liked to look at her and he’d come up beside me, always kept saying, “I’ve got to pull that out one day.”

Never ‘ad the chance to work on her though. I remember one bloke what had always wanted it, even offered 10,000 quid for ‘er several times while I was around. At the end the bloke got it for £16,000 and the old man got nuffink. Absolutely nuffink.

He was stubborn, Aynes was. He hated ‘is nephew on account of him wanting to get clean, normal water at the house above the mill. The water authority tested it and tried to convince him to put normal water in. They said it’s got all types of bacteria but Aynes turns around and says, “I’ve been drinkin’ it all me life.” Now his nephew went on and had the water done at the house which made the old man angry, it did, as they dug up the roadway which he had no right to do. The entire time I knew him, Aynes was thinkin’ on ways to cut ‘is nephew out of the estate. Didn’t want ‘im to get nothink, just wanted to give the whole of it to the Historical Society.

Besides getting the mill to work, Aynes had loads of other projects, even tried to convince the Historical Society at Great Yarmouth I was his hired contractor to do up Market Row – the markets what Dickens wrote about in them books, and here Aynes owned the whole lot of ‘em. And it’s that same Market Row what burnt down,  and I often wonder which skinflint mighta ordered it done – ‘im or ‘is bloody nephew.

What I did do, I rebuilt a Ford tractor, probably original from the 1930s. I put in a new bottom end and bearings, head gasket. Got it all done and running right as nine pence. He drove it round the barn to be sure I done it right, then put it back under the tarp again. That was it.

There was a load of silly things he got me to do and here’s me thinkin’, is it really worth it if all of it gets put back like the tractor. I mean, it was his money, just to drive it round the barn and put it back under an old tarp and forget about it…

I suppose in the end the old git was always the same. He could afford to have pretty things close by. Cost him his dignity I guess, but what was he anyway? The Pudding King.

He was laughin’ all right. To 'is dyin’ day.


© Copyright 2019 Sally Latham Lawrence. All rights reserved.

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