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Introducing PC Alf Ventress

In this extract from Nicholas Rhea's second "Constable" book, Constable Nick describes how night-duty patrols were made tolerable by breaks in the police office at Eltering, with its wooden chairs in front of the coal fire, and of course the company of colleagues.

It didn't take long to become acquainted with the men who shared this cosy spot on night-duty. The most fascinating was a huge, grizzle-haired constable whose name was Alf Ventress. He hailed from Malton and his night-shifts came around approximately the same as mine. This meant we often met in Eltering Police Station over our meals. He was far more experienced that I, for he must have completed more than twenty-five unglamorous years in the job. A typically dour Yorkshireman, he rarely spoke to anyone while eating, but sat in the same chair each time to munch his packed meal. His chief mission was to consume his bait and drink his coffee without interruption.

His uneventful career had not given him reason to be polite or smart, and his uniform was never tidy. It always needed pressing, his boots were for ever in need of a polish, while his shoulders and upper tunic were constantly covered with a combination of dandruff and cigarette ash. He chain smoked when he was not eating and the other lads tended to leave him alone. It was not policy to interrupt him, because he had something of a reputation for being short-tempered. No one had actually seen him angry, but it was the way he looked at trouble-makers through heavy eyebrows - it made them shrivel with anticipation of a display of anger, yet he never erupted.

For all these reasons he was nicknamed Vesuvius, the name arising from the fact that he was always covered in ash and likely to erupt at any time.

I soon learned he disliked a crowd and, if we were alone, he was good company, reminiscing and telling me yarns about his younger days in the Force. When the Scarborough motor patrol crew arrived, however, the office became alive with their chatter as they recounted hair-raising stories of their exploits and exciting dramas in which they had been involved. Their experiences made us foot patrol lads look very mundane.

Vesuvius listened but never tried to compete with them and, over the months, we all became familiar with his routine for eating his meal. His wife, whose name we never knew, always packed a cheese sandwich, two hard-boiled eggs, a piece of fruit cake and a bar of chocolate. His diet on nights never changed and he swilled it all down with a flask of steaming, dark coffee.

I can see him now. He would stride into the office, huge and menacing, as if daring anyone to occupy his fireside chair. Having settled his bulk into the seat he would stretch his legs until his feet rested on the hearth and would then open his bait tin. Out would come a clean white serviette which he spread across his lap and he would position his tin on the floor at his side. The flask of coffee stood like a sentinel beside it.

First out were the two hard-boiled eggs. He always held them aloft, one in each hand, and brought them together in front of him with a loud crack. This is known as egg jarping in the North Riding, and the action forms a type of game in some areas. This sharp action broke the shells, whereupon he peeled them and dropped the waste on to the serviette in his lap. He would then consume both eggs very rapidly before tackling the cheese sandwich. His noisy enjoyment was a treat to observe.

One night I was first into the office and within two minutes the two motor patrol lads entered. They were called Ben and Ron.

"Vesuvius in yet?" Ben asked.

"No," I said, "but he's due at any time."

He had obviously been in earlier because his bait tin stood on the counter, and so Ron lifted the lid as Ben took two eggs from his own pocket. He exchanged them with those from the bait tin, concealing Vesuvius' eggs in his coat pocket. He closed the lid and waited. Nothing more was said or done.

Five minutes later the big man entered. Without a word he sat down, lifted his bait tin from its resting-place, stretched out those huge legs towards the hearth and smiled. I watched, wondering what was going to happen next. Ben and Ron sat opposite with long, straight faces, talking earnestly about football.

Vesuvius sat back in his chair and covered his lap with the white serviette, licking his lips with anticipation. I watched him take two eggs from his tin. I was unable to turn my eyes from them as he smiled fleetingly, licked his lips again and opened his arms wide with an egg clutched in each fist. He brought them together smartly as he always did.

They were fresh eggs. There was a sickening, sploshing noise as Vesuvius was suddenly smothered in bright yellow egg yolk and streamers of uncooked egg white. His hands were dripping, while pieces of smashed shell clung to his face and hair. He roared, "That bloody woman!" and stormed out to wash himself.

Ben and Ron burst into fits of laughter and I joined in their fun, for it seemed the prank had been played upon Vesuvius many times in the past. On each occasion he blamed his wife for failing to hard-boil his eggs and we often wondered what was said to her upon his return home at six.

As my visits to Eltering grew in number I realised that poor Vesuvius was the butt of many jokes, both in the office and out of doors. I think all were designed to goad him into a display of temper, but all failed. Vesuvius never erupted. I never played jokes on him - deep down I felt sorry for this man who, in truth, had a heart of gold and a gentle word for the most deprived and depraved members of society. His bluff exterior was not a true indication of his gentle nature and he genuinely loved other people.

It was his attitude to others that led him to organise bus outings for old-age pensioners from Malton. Vesuvius would commission a coach to take a load of old folks for a day at Scarborough, or to a theatre or zoo. He'd arrange to visit establishments like York Minster, Ampleforth College, Castle Howard, Thompsons Woodcarvers of Kilburn and other places of local interest.

His kindness led to another prank at his expense. We were in Eltering police office one night when the terrible traffic twins entered. Ben and Ron were happy and laughing as usual as they settled down for their mid-morning break. As Vesuvius entered to perform his egg-breaking ritual without mishap, Ben went into the sergeant's office next door. I heard him lift the telephone and dial an extension number; then our office telephone rang. Vesuvius answered it.

"Eltering Police," he growled in his deep voice. And I heard Ben's voice coming from the next office saying, "This is the Ryedale Coach Touring Company."

"It must be urgent to ring at this time of day," Vesuvius commented. "It's two in the morning."

And Ben replied, "It is very urgent, Mr Ventress, very urgent indeed. We've been up all night, working on revised arrangements. I'm ringing about that trip you've organised tomorrow night, to the brewery. We've had to cancel it."

"Cancel it?" bellowed Vesuvius. "Why? It's all laid on, supper an' all, for the lads. Forty lads going..."

"That's why I'm ringing you now, so you can cancel things. You didn't apply for a licence, you see," said Ben from the next office. Ron and myself sat enthralled, listening to both sides of this curious conversation. Vesuvius, of course, could only hear the voice on his telephone.

"Licence?" he snarled.

"Licence," said Ben solemnly. "You need a Customs and Excise licence to run bus-trips. It's a new law. It was introduced in the last budget and we forgot to tell you. It means your trip's illegal, Mr Ventress. We've no option, I'm afraid. It'll have to be cancelled. That's why I'm ringing late, before tomorrow, so you can do the necessary. Sorry."

"Can't I get a licence, then?" he asked, a picture of misery.

"Not in time for this one, but pop into the post office and ask for a Coach Outing Arrangers Licence application form. It costs £10 for a year and means you can organise trips by coach anywhere in England, except the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles. That's extra."

"I'll have to contact everybody that's booked, and return their money."

"Sorry, Mr Ventress, but we daren't co-operate with an illegally run bus-trip."

"Aye, all right," and the big, unhappy man put down the receiver.

"What's up, Alf?" asked Ron, a picture of innocence.

"Bus company," he said. "I've got to cancel my trip tomorrow night. It's a pity. It's a pensioners' outing - the womenfolk are all off to a bingo session, so I fixed up a trip for their husbands. We're off to a brewery at Hartlepool. Seems I need a licence to run bus-trips now. Can't get one in time.."

"Aw, Alf, what a shame!" Ben had reappeared and was having difficulty preventing himself bursting into laughter."

I didn't know what to do. I do appreciate a good joke but I don't like to see people hurt and this had clearly upset poor old Vesuvius. He produced one of his pungent cigarettes and lit it, casting clouds of foul smoke about the room as he ate his cheese sandwich in silence. I didn't find it easy to be a party to this and tried to make intelligent conversation by talking shop with Ben and Ron. Finally, the terrible twins decided to leave the office, chuckling to themselves as they went.

This left me with a great problem. Should I tell him it was all a joke?

"Tell me about the bus-trip," I began. Gently, this untidy giant of a man explained how he felt sorry for pensioners without cars and without the funds and ability to get themselves around the countryside or attend functions like concerts, pantomimes and shows. He therefore arranged outings for them. He chatted on and on about some of the more enjoyable occasions and I forgot about the time. I found him a fascinating mixture of personalities. He was a stolid, gentle Yorkshire giant with a heart of gold and a softness beneath which was totally concealed by his external appearance. He looked like a perpetually angry man, yet I don't think he had an ounce of anger in him. I decided I liked Vesuvius.

My dilemma was solved before I left because the telephone rang again. It jerked me back to reality and reminded me that I had lots of property to check before my next point. As Vesuvius answered it, I got up to rinse out my flask.

Seconds later, he was smiling all over.

"The bus company again," he told me. "That chap's rung me on his way home, from a kiosk. He's just remembered - I applied before the financial year's end, before Budget Day, so I can run trips without a licence that I'd got booked up before April 4th. It's all right, Nick, and in compensation, they're giving me the best bus, the one with the television in."

"I'm pleased," I said, leaving him to his new-found happiness.

In the weeks that followed, my talks with local bobbies told me that poor old Vesuvius had been the butt of countless pranks over the years, but not one had caused him to lose his temper, nor had he retaliated violently. There were the occasional hints of anger, like the outbursts against his wife during his egg-breaking routines, and I began to wonder if he really did have a temper. What would make him rise to the bait, I wondered?

Cover of the Black Dagger edition of Constable on the ProwlTo find out how Vesuvius took his revenge, read Constable on the Prowl, the second in Nicholas Rhea's series of Constable books.

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Read about PC Alf Ventress as played by William Simons in Heartbeat

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