You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A real life adventure, a true Machiavellian mystery

This is the story of two retired spies, code-named Mr. Plum and Mr. Mustard. It is a true story, but like cut-diamonds that arouse desire in our hearts, the truth has many facets. 

The writer refers to himself in the second-person, so that the reader might gain some insight into what it was like to become embroiled with these two nefarious characters.

You’ve just moved into a new house. Your friend Caroline's housemate Pablo, who you've never met, has gone to Mexico, so you are paying his rent and living in his room until he returns. Some days you hallucinate that you are Pablo, and that Pablo is you: both pulled from the ranks of replaceable men.

You are living in a house of women. Three French girls and an Italian. One of the French girls is called Coco. She requires an introduction as she plays one of the main roles in this story. You’ve met her before. A few years ago you played badminton with her and Caroline. She went to your Uni, you’d occasionally said "Hi", in passing, on campus, but you’d never really gotten to know each other until now. She grew up in La Reunion, a place you'd never heard of: a tropical island, located next to Madagascar, but actually part of France and Europe.

Growing up in Reunion, when Coco would see the White-Tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) flying low to the ground, she would know it was going to rain.  

Walking back from Peckham, from under her umbrella Coco tells you of a moving experience she'd had in Solesmes, hearing the holy Gregorian chanting at the Abbey.

Coco was a student of Graphic Design and for her degree was creating a new variety of playing cards, 45 cards to the pack, with combinations of dots in place of suits. These cards linked to a story, written by a poet, in French. You helped her translate it. That is to say, you edited Coco’s original translation. It was the story of Louis: he woke up in a white room and mistakenly signed a contract on white paper in white ink, he ate steak as a red mist descended, then drifted away, eventually, as things turned black.

As the weeks pass in this new house, something that is becoming hard to bear is how often Coco is visibly upset: troubles of the heart. 

Pablo had a jigsaw collection and was a Risk aficionado. Coco loved games too, and from time to time the whole house and guests would gather to play something like Jungle Speed. It was fun. Sometimes you forget to play games. It is all too easy to neglect your inner child.

At one soirée somebody took out a deck of cards.  You suggested Poker. Coco said she didn’t like bluffing because it was like lying, and she hated lying to the point that doing so caused her physical pain. She didn't like doing magic tricks either because to her they were a form of lying. Unfortunately for her: the game that everybody eventually decided upon was Cheat, also known as Bullshit. Regardless of whether Coco liked to lie or not, she was good at Bullshit. 

Inexplicable letters

You are sat in the kitchen, about a month after moving in. Coco enters holding the post. 

“There is a letter for Mr. Mustard” she says.

You look up from your coffee: “Mr. Who?”

“Mr. Mustard... It’s from Egypt... Is it for you?” she demands.

You tell her you've never gone by the name of Mr. Mustard and ask to see the envelope. The address is written in an elegant hand and sure enough it is adorned with an Egyptian stamp.

“Have you ever received anything addressed to Mr. Mustard before?” you ask.

Coco shakes her head slightly: “No, never.” 

You look over the envelope. It begs to be opened.

“Let’s open it!” you say, “maybe we will be able to find out who this guy is, and then if it is important we can try and deliver it to him.”

Coco is apprehensive but eventually agrees that opening the letter is an appropriate course of action.

The letter, written on a typewriter, reads:

Dear Mustard 

I write to you two days before my departure, by merchant ship, from Morocco. At last I am able to leave these openly disputed lands and return to a country where things are done tidily, behind closed doors.

So long as you have not been spending all your time on crosswords, you'll have noticed that the Cairo gambit paid off. We must divide the gains on my return.

 I shan't expect a reply to this letter. We both know there is every possibility you are being observed, even after all these years. I will write again, once in London.

Consolidate your health, mon vieux, for a reunion in early April. it's overdue.


In the evening speculation runs rife around the house. Coco phones a few of her friends to ask them if they know anything about it. Pablo is suspected, but he is supposedly in Mexico. You are also accused of being Mr. Plum after, Coco recalls that you went to Egypt two years ago on holiday. The stamp was from 2011, so the years match up.

You argue: “That is ridiculous. You think I'd have bought a stamp two years ago and saved it, just to send this now.”

Caroline points out that there is no postmark. The letter hadn’t been franked. It had been hand delivered!

A week later a second letter arrived. This time with an English stamp on it. That could only mean one thing. Plum was definitely in London.

You arrive home from work one evening. Coco shows you the opened letter and tells you she has phoned the police.

"What did you say to them?" you inquire.

Holding the envelope out to you Coco says: “You have to read what the letter says first.”

You are breathless and dazed from working all day and aren’t ready to read it and take it in.

“Why? What does it say?” you ask.

“It gives a time and a place to meet.”

Coco goes on to say that the police told her they would have a man patrol the street at the allocated time on the designated date.

"Oh really" you say "I've just gotta go put my bag upstairs. I'll come back and read through the letter in a minute, it’s been a long day in the office.”

After dropping your bag off and getting into your brown fluffy slippers you go back down:

“Let me see this letter then.”

Dear Mustard

I've heard talk that your health has deteriorated over the years. Je le regrette mon ami.

I've wasted no time composing a game that only one of your ilk could rumble: in case these letters aren't reaching you.

If your health is as bad as they say, then send some canny representatives. The pursuit I've devised will give enough scope to furnish me with the information, without your agents ever being certain of my identity. Who would have thought that the data we collected in Cairo would have been so valuable.

The game shall begin at 14:00 hours on 10th April. you need to be opposite the George Canning (is yours still a Bombay and bitters?) The pursuie will end before dusk.



Ps: it's good to be home.

The George Canning is a pub about ten minutes walk from your house, near the train station.
There was also a cardboard sheet enclosed with the letter. Some sort of codex maybe, a clue sheet?


You start to think it must be intended for Coco, the names Plum and Mustard clearly from Cluedo: a game. The narrator even saying he had designed a game. The little flourishes of French in the letters. The use of the word 'reunion' in the original correspondence.

You tell Coco this and she admits she hasn’t actually called the police. You begin to find the whole situation very strange, like a whirlpool.

You ask Coco why she'd said she'd called the police if she hadn’t.

She looks over her shoulder at you: “I was using a lie to expose a lie.” 


Coco smiles: “I wanted to see how you would react when I told you, because I thought it might have been you... Sorry." 

“Why would I do it? Somebody has obviously done it for you. Surely you know who it is?”

“No I don’t.”

“Well it's pretty interesting. I like things like this, spies and what-not. I'll go to the meeting point on the 10th!”

As the days pass Coco makes it clear that she wants to go with you. So you discuss who the suspects could be.

The Suspects:

  • Julian: A friend of Coco’s. You've played badminton with him. Sporty and energetic. He is known to have access to typewriter.
  • Pablo: Supposedly in Mexico. Fan of boardgames.
  • Somebody connected with Monsieur Trevor Semple, your landlord: Trevor Semple receives a lot of post but never comes to pick it up. A resident of Germany. A luthier. His website shows he has visited many countries on different continents and also describes the Egyptian art of mixing different woods for decorative effect. Could he have used the moniker Mr. Mustard in the past?
  • Yourself: New to the house. Caroline knows you and although she admits you've never done anything like this before she also wouldn't put it past you. 
  • A real-life secret service agent who'd once inhabited the house but had since moved on.

(Place your bets now)

Coco's boyfriend isn't a suspect, she categorically says that he would not do something like this. You put the mystery out of your mind, but as the date approaches you become increasingly curious. Coco asks if you're still going to go. 

“Yeah. I'll call in sick at work," you remark with a grin. 

You ask if she is going to go. She says she wants to but doesn't want to go on her own, so she will only go if you do.

You confirm the arangement: "OK, lets go together then... I'm glad you are coming, because I’m sure it is a game designed for you.”

'Was Coco the one behind it all?' Is a question that probably should have been asked.

Eventually the day arrives. You feel that you are encroaching on something that was meant for Coco, but she assures you she doesn't want to go on her own. She is nervous, a bit scared even.

Coco says she will walk past the pub but has to go to Uni because the print studio is only open from 2pm until 5pm. It is just three weeks before her final university hand-in. You walk out together onto the middle class, residential streets of this quiet inner-city suburb. In the pale sunlight everybody you walk past looks suspicious. Everybody could be an extra in a film. A film you are the main characters in. Anybody could be a spy.

You are walking to the top of Dog Kennel Hill. Is one of these passers-by Plum? Was it him? Was it that rich looking man with the wavy grey hair? The man with the duffel bag? That woman pushing a pram? Surely not all of them? The guy with the long beard? ...Mr. Mustard?

Coco suggests walking in a loop around the pub because the person – Plum – would probably be expecting you to come straight down the hill.

You cut in: “Lets just go straight there. There is nothing to worry about.” although you are feeling oddly nervous yourself.

You walk straight down but Coco is determined to at least walk on the side where the buses go in the same direction that you're walking.

When you are opposite the pub she doesn't want to wait. You do. It isn’t even 2-o-clock yet. Still four minutes to go. She is getting antsy.

You want her to relax: “Take it easy. Lets just wait until the right time at least... then go... if nothing happens.”

Just then the nearby payphone starts ringing.

You pick up the receiver: “Is that Mr. Plum?”

You hear a man's voice say “Yes…” and immediately you put the phone to Coco’s ear.

You look at Coco in an attempt to read her facial expressions. She gives you a nod.

You grab the phone back: “Pardon, I didn’t hear you properly.”

“There is an envelope under the shelf . Take it and go to Stationers' Hall.”

- Silence -

You hang up and peel the envelope from beneath the shelf with Coco’s protests ringing in your ears: "It could be a bomb!" 

You open the envelope and find a hand written note:

In the beginning was the Worde...

... then books... 

... then a place to read them.


You Google 'Stationers Hall' on your Smartphone. It is near City Thameslink station. Just three stops on a direct train from Denmark Hill station.

Coco is adamant that she must go to university. She hasn't got time to waste on this wild goose chase.

"But it is so obviously for you!" you tell her once more.

"Non, non." she says, adding: "You don't want to mess with Egypt, that place just had a revolution, you shouldn't get involved with spies from there, its dangerous."

"How is it dangerous..." you protest, " the middle of the day, in public places."

"Come on, these clues could lead you anywhere, probably to some backstreet or some warehouse..."

"Well I won't go anywhere that looks dodgy. Come on! Let's just see when the next train is. I'm sure this will only take an hour or so."

"But the print studio closes at five." she says while walking for a bus that has just stopped a few feet down the road.

You take her arm and lead her to the crossing in front of the train station. She follows for a moment, considering throwing caution to the wind, but then makes her final decision: "No. I have to go to uni."

"Alright," you say as she boards the bus, "I'm going to go. I'll let you know what happens."

She gets on the bus and you catch the next train into The City. She texts you telling you to be careful and that she is sorry that she didn't come.

What follows is one of the strangest experiences of your life. You collect clues along the way and take photos on your phone in order to help explain the occurrences to Coco on your return home.

"So what happened?" she says as you come through the door at around 6.32pm.

-- You begin to tell the story:

A detective's game of cat and mouse through the streets of London

"I took the train to City Thameslink and found Stationers' Hall. It was an old building with stained glass windows depicting medieval-looking crests.

On one of the walls I saw a plaque that matched the clue from the phone-box


I looked for Shoe Lane on Google Maps and saw there was a library there: 'In the beginning was the Worde... then books... then a place to read them.'


So I went into the library and had a look around. I wasn't sure what I was looking for then I remembered the Codex. I showed it to the librarian and she said that the reference code at the bottom was a shelf-mark. The book was an encyclopedia of London.




The P544 at the end was obviously the page number and when I found that page I put the card over the text.

The words left exposed read: 'next move New Square Lincoln's Inn, WC2

This piece of transparent acetate was slipped into the back of the book:

New Square was about five minutes walk away. It was a highly respectable semi-private garden surrounded by buildings owned by The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn (lawyers). I matched the line drawing up to the skyline.

I wasn't sure what to do. I stood around for a bit. Then I noticed something on the floor. It was out of place among the flowers on the well trimmed lawn. It was a mustard jar.

There was a note rolled up inside that read: 'You can't buy curiosity, But if you could, where is the first place you'd look?'

I thought about it and remembered that The Old Curiosity Shoppe was nearby, a little London landmark considered to be the inspiration for Charles Dickens' novel of the same name. When I got there I had to ring the doorbell because the door was locked. Looking into the establishment you could see shoes everywhere. An oriental man wearing a dirty green apron unlocked the door and asked if he could help. I said I was looking for a man named Mr. Plum. He looked at me for a moment, then walked down a small staircase at the back of the shop. When he returned he handed me an envelope: "He left this for you."

Go to the Olde Cheshire Cheese.
You'll find a man there, acting on my behalf.
He'll test you at a board game
I mastered in Egypt.

The Olde Cheshire Cheese was a pub a few hundred yards back along Fleet Street. It was dark inside. There were a few business men stood at the bar. I ordered a beer and had a look around. It was obvious who I was meant to be meeting. Sat at a low, embossed metal table was a tiny Indian man with a curly mustache and long beard, wearing a turban. In front of him was a game board. I asked him if he was Mr. Plum. He said he had been employed by Plum. He said he had been told to wait here until his opponent arrived. He said little else, except for explaining the rules of the ancient strategy game to me. I asked if I could take his photo: he said no. I asked if I could take a photo of the game board: he said yes.

You had to move the all red beans clockwise from one of your pits dropping one in each adjacent pit along the way. If you managed to land one on its own in an empty pit of yours on the middle line you would capture the corresponding beans from your opponent's side and remove them. The beans in the square pit were untouchable. The winner was he who had the most beans in his square pit at end.

The Indian man won... easily. On doing so he showed no emotion, he simply handed me an envelope.


I know now that this isn't Mustard, but bravo for being brave: you have represented him with aplomb. Go straight from here to the choir service at St Paul's, to receive a little compensation for your valiant efforts.

À tout,

I arrived at St Paul's Cathedral just as the choir service was beginning. I had the feeling that Plum was a very precise man and that I was his pawn. I sat and listened, the hymns and the grandiose setting dramatising the Machiavellian scheme that was reaching its peak. As I watched the catholic ceremony unfold I was tapped on the shoulder by one of the cathedral employees.

"I was asked to give you this." She said.

"By who!?"

She looked over her shoulder and indicated a man who was leaving. I turned and saw the back of tall man in a long coat putting on a bowler hat as he walked out the door. It was perhaps 150 metres from where I sat to the door so I had no hope of catching him.

I looked at the envelope and read the letter."

There is a stillness in the air as Coco processes the fantastical tale, finally she acknowledges: "I could have won at that board game!"

The mystery is solved

In Coco’s bedroom, two weeks later, you bring yourself to utter a phrase that indicates the second phase of this article.

After twiddling your thumbs you finally say “There is something I’ve been meaning to tell you…" and admit that: "I am Mr. Mustard.”

She stares at me blankly from beneath the covers.

“I’m Plum and Mustard,” I splutter, “I wrote those letters, you know, the letters for Mr. Mustard.”

She grabs her hair with one hand in disbelief. 

- Moments pass -

Eventually she says, “I knew it was you.”

“No you didn’t.” I contest, edging nervously out of her room.

“I thought it was you… because of the stamp, you went to Egypt in 2011.”

“I know but I didn’t get the stamp from there. That was just a strange coincidence.”

She is unconvinced: “Where did you get it from then?”

“A shop on the Strand,” I say while pulling up a chair “I wanted to get one from Morocco really, but they didn’t have any. They had a few from Egypt though. It was just a coincidence that I’d been there that year. I just wanted to create these characters, y’know, like two old retired spies. I’m sorry Coco I didn’t mean to worry you with it all… Sorry.”

“I should kill you!” she says jokingly,  “…but why did you do it?"

“I wanted to do something exciting, to make you happy. I’m sorry that it just made you nervous.”

“I wouldn’t have been nervous if I’d known who was behind it… If you’d told me it was you I would have gone.”

I shrug: “But that would have taken the excitement out of it …I thought you knew it was me after I told you what had happened. I wasn’t very convincing telling the story.”

“Yes you were. You would make a good comedian! You kept a straight face all through and it seemed like something strange had happened to you… So there was no little Indian man?”

“Well not exactly. Let me explain.”

Planning a real life adventure

I woke up one sunny morning and I couldn't stop thinking about how upset Coco had been the night before. I'd offered to talk out her problems with her but she hadn't opened up to me. With her being withholding, I knew nothing and consequently had nothing to say to console her. I'd felt sick and powerless for the rest of the evening. But as I walked along the Thames, to the boat where I work, I had a mad eureka thought. I should plan an elaborate real-life adventure, a scavenger hunt / game that would take Coco's mind off her depression. I'd speak louder than words with some action!

I looked on the internet for similar endeavors. I found this website and contacted them asking for advice. I never got a reply.

I told my colleagues about the idea, which at this stage was embryonic: just a vague notion of an immersive distraction. They said I was unstable.

After work I walked to St. Paul's Cathedral. I had a kind of Da Vinci Code backdrop in my mind. I strolled around the City looking for other suitable settings. I took notes and photos and by the end of the evening had a route and some preliminary clues planned out.

The next day I told my friend David about the idea and he was enthusiastic. He was in the process of writing a conference paper on 'playfulness in the detective story, with some glances at the interplay of factual and fictional spaces within the context.'

We sat and schemed while smoking cigarettes. We conjured up a back-story that we hoped would be intriguing enough to convince Coco to participate, but not so scary as to frighten her off. A story that would also justify her involvement. David reviews theatre productions for a web-magazine and had recently reviewed some experiential shows. He had taken part in a one-on-one adaptation Franz Kafka's The Trial. He said that no matter how realistic they tried to make the shows it was impossible to be anything other than a spectator, because of the fact that you had conscious of having entered into a performance. At one point in The Trial two male actors had dragged off an innocent female actor and beat her to death, as he and the other audience-members looked on from a first-floor window. There was no way he was going to physically intervene. We agreed that what we were planning would have to go beyond the realms of 'audience' involvement. To become truly absorbed into the plot one must not know that what is happening is an authored story. One must believe that everything that is happening is simply life unfolding, sew up the seam between script and reality.

Over the next week the plan became more concrete.

I based the timings of the pursuit around the evening choral service, held daily, in St. Paul's Cathedral - a suitably atmospheric conclusion. 

I booked the day off work.

David and I walked the proposed route. We visited the library and made the codex. I spoke to Daita, the master cobbler based in the Old Curiosity Shop, he was a man of few words, but on hearing my intentions and motivation he graciously agreed to help out.


Buying a foreign stamp was tricky but fun. After looking for shops that we discovered had recently closed down we were led into the basement of a stamp collectors' emporium that was accustomed to selling stamps worth a small fortune. The manager laughed with us as he neatly placed the stamp into a presentation sheaf and I handed him a £1 coin.

 David was particularly amused by this task, in his paper he wrote:

'we actually found a use for the shop described by Louis Aragon in Paris Peasant, whose sole service was to have any letter, provided by the customer, sent back to a Parisian address from any other location in the world.'

If only such a service existed in London, then my ruse would not have been foiled by the letter having not been franked.

I bought some clear acetate and sketched the skyline at the precise spot in New Square where I'd told David to drop the mustard pot.

David drafted the clues in his enigmatic handwriting as we ate cod and chips at Masters Super Fish.

A friend of a friend had a typewriter - it was needed to add weight to the characterization of Mr. Plum the old-school spy.

I dictated as she typed, with songs from past Eurovision song contests providing a surreal soundtrack. 

I was determined to get a 'mature' individual to play the game, somebody too old to have been recruited from my circle of friends.

I posted an ad on Gumtree

Looking for an older lady or gentleman (Age 45+) to act for an hour or two as part of a role play treasure hunt.

You will be required to play a strategy board game, then hand over a clue if your opponent wins.

Reimbursement to be discussed. Date not finalized. Sometime during the daytime (around 4pm) during the next month.

I had a few replies but only one stood out: The actor Trevor Allman had applied and had sent me his show-reel.

I was immediately attracted by Trevor's ability to play the part of someone playing a part. Any fans of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace will immediately recognise his genius.

I ordered a Mancala board, and as we counted down the days to the adventure Trevor and I exchanged some heart-warming correspondence:


Thanks for the "Mancala" instructions.

It turns out the "Mancala" game on my phone did work, and I didn't understand it !!
I have now become an addict!!

To recap. You want me to liaise with your friend  in "Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese", who will supply me with a "Mancala" Board and a sign saying "Mr Mustard". I then await your arrival.

When Coco and yourself arrive, Coco should ask if I'm Mr Plum's agent. I will answer in the affirmative.
If Coco says anything else, asks any questions, I'm to state that I probably know less than she does.

I then suggest playing "Mancala", which Coco doesn't know how to play. I act very surprised at this and proceed to teach her.



I took down the number of the phonebox and sourced some fake moustaches for David to 'go incognito' when he delivered us the final envelope in St. Pauls. David was to be the key collaborator, always one step ahead, laying the clues.


By the day before everything was set, except that the Mancala board hadn't arrived. Luckily the receptionists at work had become interested in what it was I'd ordered that I was so anxious to receive. I briefly explained my scheme to them, and that having the Mancala board was essential. By chance one of them said she had such a board that she had purchased while on holiday on an island off the coast of Ghana. She would bring it in the next day, allowing David to pick it up. As it turns out her board was not exactly the same as the one I had described to Trevor, making game-play slightly different. If Coco had gotten to that stage it is hard to tell how Trevor would have dealt with the situation. 

David was preoccupied by a minor crisis of his own. In case Coco might recognize his voice, he tried to get a Big Issue seller to make the 2pm phonecall. On giving the man the script he found it incredibly difficult to convince the poor man that he wasn't a spy cleverly pretending not to be a spy!

When Coco rode away on the bus I phoned Trevor. He was not too angry at the job being called off at the last minute. All I can say is I would highly recommend hiring this man for any stage work. I couldn't have asked for a more pleasant candidate.

In the end, the journey being its own reward was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although it hadn't achieved what I had hoped for Coco, the attempt alone had been a rewarding experience for myself. It was worth it just to have created and met such an array of colourful characters. I also like to think that everybody involved got a little something out of it, a tiny spark of contagious playfulness, a reminder that mischief can be altruistic, or just a little confusion that elevated one day slightly above the control of routine.

1 comment: