- No more than three customers in the shop at once between 8-10am.
- Please do not place greasy fingerprints on the glass.
- Please do not stand on the newspapers.
In addition to this, when he was in charge of the shop (my mother managed it the rest of the time and still does to this day) many customers felt that he had a real "them and us" mentality about him and felt that he was always looking down at them.
They were correct in this assumption.
As with any kind of social unrest, it was eventually decided by a select few customers that action needed to be taken. What they did next left a lasting impression on all those involved.
It was late October, 1998. For a few days I had noticed a small group of youths walking slowly past the shop. Earlier that month, the boss had decided to show off his new found philanthropic side and had installed a five-foot plastic bear outside the shop. This bear had a slot in his head into which coins and notes (and, over time, cigarette packets and chewing gum) could be placed. It was my opinion that these youths were just admiring the new feature with a feeling of awe.
I was incorrect in this assumption.
On the morning of November 1st, 1998 I arrived at work to find my boss sitting on the step near the shop entrance. It is fair to say that he was sobbing. I soon realised that he was sitting in a bear-sized space. I quickly realised what had happened, but he told me anyway.
"Somebody thought it would be a good Hallowe'en prank to steal Bertie!"
(This was the first that I had heard about any name being given to the bear, by the way).
"The worst part of it," he continued "is that they cut the chain that fastened him to the shop and they seem to have used it to carry him away. It was a very expensive chain."
At such times, it is often better to let the grief flow from the victim. I simply stood there, letting him get it all out.
"The one good thing is that I emptied the charitable donations yesterday afternoon."
It soon became clear what had happened. Those youths had not been admiring the bear with a feeling of awe. They were in fact waiting for emptying time, when they could steal it without being accused of taking from the needy. Pranksters with a conscience - the world needs more of them.
I thought nothing more of it, apart from the fact that I thought it was a superbly thought-out heist. It could really have formed the main plot line for any James Bond film. My boss on the other hand, in his typical style, took it as a personal insult and was not going to let them get away with it. Within days, a sign had been put up in the window asking for any information. A large advertisement had also been placed in the Penarth Times that read:
A charity bear has been stolen from Redlands News. No money was inside. Assistance required to secure his return. Modest reward offered.
I was quite amused that there was never any mention of the bear being plastic. I had visions of thousands of Penarthians making sure that all doors and windows were locked at night in case they received a visit from South Wales' answer to Gentle Ben.
I half expected to see a piece dedicated to the theft on ITV's Crimestoppers. I would have willingly participated in a reconstruction of the event. Instead, two weeks went by and no information had come forward. I believed that the matter was closed but things then took quite a sinister turn.
I was sitting alone one cold, dark November evening watching an edition of TOTP2 (this was in the days when it was still good - when they had the Recorded For Recall section and you didn't have to listen to Steve Wright's smug tone all over it). I was enjoying an archive performance of Marc Almond and Gene Pitney's duet of Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart.
As I read the trivia at the bottom of the screen (apparently Gene got so excited in the recording studio that he decided to take his shirt off and record his vocal topless), I was interrupted by my doorbell.
Not expecting any visitors, I gingerly opened the door to find the same gang of youths from Hallowe'en week standing in a huddle on my step.
"Oh God, they've come to kidnap me now," I thought.
However, I showed no fear.
"Hello," said I.
"Listen. We've come to you because you're one of us" said the ringleader. "We know you're alright. Not like that bloke who owns the shop. We took the bear, but we can't keep it hidden much longer. If you want it back, it's waiting for you down at Cogan playing field."
And off they ran. I was most disappointed that he chose not to follow up his sentence with the words, "you ain't seen me, right?" as he ran away. But perhaps that would have been a little too contrived.
Cogan field is reasonably close to my home. However, there was no way that I was going to walk down there alone on a freezing November night. After all, it could have been a cunning trap.
So I did the next best thing. I got on the phone to my step-father and asked him to drive me there. He may only be 5'7" but he played cricket and table tennis to a county level, so I figured that he would be pretty handy with a bat if we encountered any trouble.
It wasn't that I particularly wanted the bear back, more curiosity. Having said that, the shop had become an even more unbearable place to work since Bertie went AWOL, so maybe I had some incentive to help. Plus it was quite an ego boost that the gang had chosen to make their confession in my presence.
We arrived in Cogan approximately ten minutes later and pulled over in Penarth Leisure Centre's car park. Nobody else was about. We also couldn't see the bear. We decided to take a walk along the footpath and it was then that we found him.
Bertie was at the top of an embankment, lying on his side next to the Cardiff to Barry railway line, with a chain around his neck and one eye missing. He also seemed rather charred, as if he had been included in some of the Guy Fawkes festivities earlier in the month. We climbed up the embankment to his resting place and managed to push him back down the slope.
As he was too heavy to carry, we had to roll him all the way back to the car. I hate to think what anybody would have thought if they had seen us. When we got to the car we realised that, at five feet, Bertie was too big to fit in the boot of my step-father's Rover. One of us came up with the idea of putting the bear on the back seat. Again, because of its height, the bear's head would have been poking out of the sunroof.
Finally it was decided to heave him on to the back seat in some kind of bear recovery position.
Soon after, we were driving back through Penarth with a five-foot plastic bear lying on the back seat of the car, wearing two seat belts and his head hanging out of the right-rear window. We truly felt like heroes. As we turned on the radio, Benny Hill's theme tune began to play. Nothing could have sounded sweeter at that moment.
We let Bertie sleep off the effects of his ordeal on the back seat overnight. The next morning we drove him to the shop to be met with open arms by my boss. I felt like a returning football manager with the cup. What a morning!
Despite the state that Bertie had found himself in, my boss bought a new chain and tightly secured him in his rightful home.
We never did get our "modest reward" but standing there charred with one eye, Bertie actually received more charitable donations than ever before. That's good enough for me.