Black Market by Arthur Gask
Published in The Mail, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 3 March, 1945.
Todhunter McStottlebaugh held quite on important position in the Income
Tax Department and, contrary to what some people might have expected,
his expression was a mild and gentle one. Happily married, he had a
sensible, good-looking wife and three nice children. Certainly, he was a
good father and, as far as the neighbors had been able to find out, a
faithful husband as well.
His life was just that of the ordinary suburban dweller. Every morning
he left home at a regular time and, every evening, returned at a regular
time, too. At night he read or listened to the wireless, and at
week-ends worked in his little garden, occasionally taking his family
out for little jaunts to one of the beaches or the hills on Sundays.
In fact he was, to all appearance, a very ordinary man and, as far as I
can ascertain, up to his fortieth year showed no signs of any moral or
mental aberration. Then, however, came the war with its shortages,
restrictions, and rationing, and almost in the twinkling of an eye, as
it were, his whole outlook on life was altered.
He became a collector of things which were in short supply, a hoarder,
and a crawler from shop to shop to acquire articles which he did not
necessarily want but which were difficult to obtain. It became a craze, a
veritable obsession with him.
It was his wife who started it all. One morning she asked him to try to
get her some sago in the city on his way home, as the local grocer had
got none. Accordingly, missing his usual tram that afternoon, he set out
upon the quest.
The first two shops had none, but at the third, with some hesitation
upon the girl's part because she did not recognise him as a regular
customer, he was given a pound. Then, as she was getting him his change,
he heard another girl who was serving a lady tell her she was lucky she
was able to give her some prunes, as they had very few left and did not
know when any more would be coming in.
Whereupon Todhunter was instantly seized with an urge for prunes, too,
and he glowed with pleasure when later, to his wife's great delight, he
presented her with prunes as well as the sago.
"Oh, but you're a splendid shopper, Tod, dear," she said, "and I really
think I'd better get you to do all my shopping for me. Girls will give
things to men when they won't to a woman."
So Todhunter was set on the downward path, and, entering into the matter
with great zest, very soon there was a huge accumulation of groceries in
the store-cupboard—anything which it was supposed might one day become
hard to obtain.
Dozens of bottles of soup appeared, packets of peas galore, lentils,
haricot beans, tinned meats of all descriptions, sauces, and preserved
fruits. But it was condensed milk which for some time was his long suit,
and scores and scores of tins were piled high up to the very ceiling.
Then pickles came into their own, for Todhunter heard there would
shortly be no labor available to produce them, and he struck hard and
heavily to get in a good supply, rarely an evening passing without his
bringing home two or more bottles.
To them he was soon adding boxes and boxes of macaroni and vermicelli,
because one of his colleagues at the taxation office had told him their
supply was quickly running out.
To begin with, his wife had been amused, but speedily she became
annoyed, telling him sharply that she was beginning to tremble every
time she saw him coming home with his bag. Todhunter, however, had
tasted blood and was not to be stayed, the very next evening after her
reproof arriving home with three 2-oz. packets of mustard and two tins
of golden syrup. A mania with him now to add to their store every day,
from unrationed goods he quickly passed to rationed ones, and the
acquisition of an unlawful pound of butter or a few extra ounces of tea
filled him with a dreadful joy.
"But you're sure to be found out one day," protested his wife, almost
tearfully, "and you know it's black marketing."
"In a very harmless way, Mary," he smiled, "and I'll take good care I'm
not caught. I'm a pretty wily bird at it now."
But once having fallen to black marketing, the lure became stronger
every day, and soon Todhunter took to transgressing in other ways than
It became a regular habit with him to have a bet at his newsagent's shop
every Saturday when he was returning home from the office. Certainly, it
was only a matter of a few shillings, and he was really not much
interested in horses and knew little about them, but it gave him a great
thrill to hand his little betting slip over the counter, with the chance
always there that a policeman might rush into the shop and catch him
Now, it happened that one evening, when waiting with a friend for a tram
in Victoria square, two men came out of the watchhouse, and the friend
remarked to him they were Billikin and Brown, of the lottery and gaming
squad, two of the smartest detectives in the force.
With great interest Tod took good note of their faces, and, as it turned
out, it was well for him that he did so, for the following Saturday,
just as he was approaching the newsagent's shop to hand in his betting
slip, he caught sight of a man with a smutted face and in dirty overalls
lounging on the pavement a dozen or so yards away. He recognised him
instantly as one of the two detectives who had been pointed out to him,
and, with a quickly beating heart, passed the newsagent's shop.
Safe out of sight, he tore up his betting slip and dropped the pieces
down a drain.
A good sportsman, he thought it only decent to warn the newsagent.
Walking quickly back into the main street, with difficulty he suppressed
a whistle when he saw on the opposite pavement the second detective in a
railway porter's uniform. His knees shook under him as he went into the
shop. Fortunately the newsagent was there alone.
"Detectives outside," Todhunter whispered hoarsely, "from the gaming
The newsagent's face went the color of putty and his eyes popped like
corks. "Are you sure?" he whispered back.
"Quite!" breathed Todhunter. "Billikin and Brown! One's in overalls and
the other's got a railway man's uniform."
Quick as the strike of a snake, the newsagent grabbed up a small box
from under the counter and darted into the room behind the shop.
Todhunter began turning over some Christmas cards in a tray on the
counter. Two, three, almost five minutes passed, and the newsagent
returned into the shop. "All serene," he grinned. "Everything gone into
the kitchen fire, and I've doctored the phone so that it won't ring.
Thank you very much, sir, I'm sure. I'm——"
BUT the shop door opened violently and the two detectives, accompanied
by two other men burst in. "We're police," snapped one, "and we've come
to search your premises. We suspect you of illegal betting. Come out
from behind that counter and keep your hands out of your pockets."
Todhunter at once made himself scarce, but he heard all about it the
next day. Of course, the police had found nothing.
"Not even a bit of burnt paper," grinned the newsagent, "and one of the
'tecs sat for a good half hour before the blooming phone, all ready for
my customers to ring up bets, before he tumbled to it that it was out of
order. Didn't I just laugh and weren't they just wild about it?"
Now it might have been thought that so narrow an escape would have
warned Todhunter of the risks he was running, for he knew quite well
that any public conviction for black-marketing would lose him his
situation in the taxation office and all the benefits of more than 20
years' service. But no, he didn't take the warning, and his next lapse
was as serious as could be, for he was hindering the war effort by
buying black-market petrol.
He happened to mention where he was accustomed to get his monthly
two-gallon allowance of petrol that the ration was so small he would not
be able to take the usual motor holiday at Christmas.
Whereupon the garage man said that, though HE could not give him any
extra spirit, he knew of a party who could, and it ended in six
four-gallon tins being delivered to Todhunter, late one night, at 30/
the tin. They were hidden away under some old sacks at the back of the
The man who brought the tins had furtive-looking, beady eyes, and
Todhunter felt ashamed of himself for having any dealings with him. Now,
for the first time, when he told his wife about the unlawful petrol, she
was most angry about it.
"It isn't worth it," she said sharply, "for a man in your position can't
afford to take such risks. Your whole career will be ruined if it's
"I know that," admitted Todhunter uneasily, "but who's going to split on
me? No, I'm quite safe."
THERE, however, he was entirely wrong, for he was reckoning without Mrs.
Coshey. Mrs. Coshey was the washer-lady and, of alcoholic habits and
erratic ways, there was never anything but an armed neutrality between
her and Mrs. McStottlebaugh. On the Monday before Christmas she came to
work an hour late, smelling strongly of malt liquor and hiccuping
explosively with every word she spoke.
She was obviously in no condition to do her work properly, and was told
so in no uncertain way. Whereupon she 'downed tools' instantly—in her
case that meant dropping a cake of soap—demanded 'her time' and took
herself off, muttering vengeance, with her hat all askew.
The next day the Liquid Fuel Board received a badly scrawled anonymous
letter informing them the people at 17 Boomerang terrace had a large
store of petrol in their garage, hidden under sacks.
That same afternoon two grim-faced men from the board arrived at
Todhunter's house and, stating where they came from, demanded to go over
the garage. His wife, who answered the door, realised at once there was
no help for it and took them there, hoping against hope they would not
notice the sacks. However, they pounced upon them immediately and
exposed the row of neatly soldered tins. With a last desperate attempt
to put them off, poor Mrs. Mac said the tins contained only water.
"WE are starting for a camping holiday on Saturday," she explained, "and
always take our own water with us. When we are away my husband is most
particular what water the children drink."
The men half-smiled, and one of them said gravely, "I'm sorry, Madam,
but it will be our duty to open them, to see if what you say is
Some three-quarters of an hour later Todhunter arrived home in a state
of great jubilation, having acquired no less than three more small
packets of mustard. He found his wife lying back in an armchair, looking
very pale and exhausted.
"But what's the matter, Mary," he asked anxiously. "Are you feeling
"Two men from the Liquid Fuel Board have just been," she said brokenly,
"and they insisted upon going into the garage."
Todhunter had gone as white as a ghost. "But did they notice the tins?"
he asked hoarsely.
"That's all they came for," she nodded. "They knew they were there, and
went straight to them at once. That horrible Mrs. Coshey must have given
us away out of spite. Of course, she had been spying about and looked
under the sacks, but I told the men the tins contained only water which
we're taking away with us on our holiday at the week-end. But they
didn't believe me, and said they must open them to see."
"And did they open them?" asked Todhunter, hardly able to get out his
words and, when she had nodded miserably, he sank down weakly on to the
sofa. "Serves me right," he choked. "Now it means disgrace and being
turned out of the service. Oh. what a fool I've been!"
His wife was half-crying and half-laughing. "Yes, you have," she cried
hysterically, "and such, a big one, too."
Then, to his amazement, she darted over to him and threw her arms round
his neck. "But I won't punish you any more, dear," she went on, "though
I wanted to scare you just a little, so that you shouldn't be so silly
again. No, you're not going to be disgraced and everything is all
"But what do you mean?" he voiced. "You've just said they opened the
"And so they did," she cried, "but they found that all they had got in
them——" she paused dramatically—"was what I had said they had, just
water, plain water!" She laughed merrily. "Oh, you great gaby, that
black-market petrol man had cheated you and you paid him £9 for six tins
Todhunter tried hard to feel furious, but his relief was so great that
he had difficulty in preventing himself from crying.
"Yes, and you should have seen their faces." his wife went on. "At first
they looked thunderstruck, and were furious with me for laughing. Then,
though I am sure they suspected something fishy, they had to laugh, too,
and, in the end, off they went, apologising to me most politely for the
annoyance they had given."
Todhunter is a reformed character now, and no longer has any dealings
with the black market. Also, the provision shops know him no more.
However, he is always on the look-out for the man who sold him those
tins of water, though should he meet him he is not quite certain what he
will do—give him a black eye or offer to stand him a drink.