Axel Sloan whistled to himself as he studied his reflection in the Gents’ cloakroom.
Not bad, not bad, he thought.
He’d come a long way since his poor beginnings, growing up in the squalor and poverty of the East End. Against all the odds he’d won a coveted place at the local grammar school, much to his father’s socialist disdain for what he considered elitism. Axel remembered the long trolley-bus ride for the eleven-plus exam, the rubber tyres hissing on the wet roads, the overhead wires somehow just avoiding electrocuting the bedraggled passengers within.
Even now, after all these years, he remembered his first long trousers, borrowed from his dad, tightened to an inch of his life by that S-clipped black and red elastic belt. His hair had been Brylcreemed down to a glossy finish, despite various unruly stray hairs springing up at the crown.
Around his neck had been one of his dad’s regimental ties. “Got to look smart, son,” his dad had said, not realising how old-fashioned it looked on a young lad out to impress the world.
“Your mother may be the one who wants you to go to a posh school, but while I have anything to do with it, you’ll at least look the part. I’ll not have a son of mine bringing disrespect to the family.”
He’d passed and was offered a place at a brand new Grammar School for Boys. This was a school where boys were meant to use their arithmetic skills to build a career in a safe office job like accountancy, or strive to be a doctor or lawyer. This was what his mother dreamed of for her son; so much better than working in the markets, with all the attendant risk and uncertainty that came with it. She wanted something far better for her son.
“How did you get on?” his mother asked him when he’d returned from the exam.
“Oh, okay,” he replied nonchalantly.
They waited all summer to hear the results. He smiled, remembering the day they’d finally arrived. His mother had been looking out the window for the postman to turn up with the envelope. “He’s late, he’s late,” said his mother anxiously. “Look, he’s gone to John’s house over the road.” Sure enough, Axel could see his friend jumping up and down in the window, waving his envelope in the air. Then the postman came to their house and his mother opened the envelope whilst Axel looked unconcerned.
So, it was true. He’d passed for the prestigious Grammar School and found out later that John had only passed for the Comprehensive. Despite his father’s foreboding, Axel became the star of the family. He smirked to himself. He’d passed despite putting in his English essay about how to swindle money out of passersby to start your own business! Well, he shouldn’t have put the word ‘swindle’ but that was what it was, really. Nowadays he liked to call it creative entrepreneurship.
But going to grammar school had been the making of him, not so much in his exam success – which he sailed through surprisingly easily – but in how to carve out a career for himself irrespective of how many others he trampled over by so doing. He knew instinctively how to succeed.
Sometimes he’d wander, whistling, around the open-air markets, listening to the stall holders make their spiel about how cheap their goods were and what a bargain the unsuspecting customer would have. As he grew older he realised it didn’t really matter what type of goods you were trading, the same philosophy held true. Buy cheap by telling the seller what rubbish it was, then sell with a huge mark-up, telling the customer it was the bargain of the century. Simple really. All you needed was a brain and some street-wise common sense.
In later years he used the same philosophy when buying his first house. He wandered around the property, pointing out the cracks in the ceiling, the damp patches in the hallway, the ‘huge’ amount of work that was required to replace loose tiles in the roof and to fix the leaking downpipes, then offered thirty per cent below the asking price in order to do the repairs. It always worked, allowing him to sell the same house for an enormous profit several years later.........