BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
In the late nineties, I rented a humble pied à terre in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canaries. The apartment had a balcony which hung over the edge of a deep volcanic gorge, known as the Barranco, which wound down through Santa Cruz town and into the Atlantic. From that vantage point, there was a fine view of the cruise ships, ferries and hovercraft coming into port.
The landlord of the apartment was a local architect. I visited him each month at his home up the hill to hand him the rent in fistfuls of pesetas. He and his wife would always offer me a bowl of olives and a glass of wine. We would chat amicably in Spanish about everything from football to Gibraltar. We became good pals and occasionally they’d pop round to the apartment when I was in town and drag me out for a steak stuffed with avocado or some fresh grilled swordfish at the restaurants frequented only by locals. Such happy sorties invariably ending in cognac and Cohibas.
One month I appeared at the landlord’s home with my pesetas and there was a smartly-dressed, old fellow sitting there with a pile of papers on his lap. He was introduced to me as a local judge. He seemed nervous and the landlord’s wife’s attempts to push wine in his direction recurrently failed.
Even before I’d sat down, he had embarked on a long tale in Spanish about a terrible Englishman who controlled a whole swathe of the south of the island, who had been the smelter in the 1983 Brinks Matt heist, was up to his neck in timeshare fraud in and around the town of Las Americas and owned the local police, who he reportedly paid off in a mix of laundered money and cocaine.
The judge’s voice trembled as he spoke and his tale got darker:
I was told of a dangerous Lebanese associate of the Englishman who operated an illegal arms business from the island, who buried enemies in the concrete foundations of apartment blocks and kept wardrobes of dirty money in his home for members of the Russian mafia – with whom he was associated – for when they came to the island to party (it seems the judge knew this arms trader’s child’s teacher who would occasionally double up as the nanny).
As the horrors of this Englishman were related to me, I began to wonder what the documents on the judge’s lap consisted of. After ten minutes of a description of the Englishman, who the Spanish judge kept referring to by the name Goldfinger, I was handed the files and opened them to find photographs of cracked walls, building plans and numerous letters from the local ayuntamiento (local government). I must say I was more expecting to see photos of corpses, arms manifests and microfiches of police slush accounts.
It turned out that the judge’s home in Santa Cruz was right next to a building owned by this Goldfinger character, which had been converted without the correct permissions into a bowling alley, apparently using laundered cash. Goldfinger’s use of dodgy builders and disregard for local building regulations had resulted in cracks appearing in the judge’s home. The old judge was clearly full of hate for this Goldfinger and he wanted me to help. He believed that Goldfinger would not touch a fellow Englishman and that I was well-placed to find out more. The judge needed someone English he could trust.
Still in my early twenties and dating a local nurse whose family he knew (very small island), I was green enough to assure the judge that I’d pop round there that very evening and find out what I could.
The judge seemed grateful. Happy enough to give me a hug and finally acknowledge the glass of wine and remaining olives.
Now, I’ve never been very fond of – nor good at – ten pin bowling. A kind of cricket for idiots. Nonetheless I went over to the bowling hall that evening with my girlfriend and reluctantly engaged in a few strike-free frames. The staff were all Spanish and seemed welcoming enough. The only other people in the place were in the next lane to us and seemed like tourists – a bronzed British fellow in shorts accompanied by an exotic-looking lady with a small child. There was a bouncer-type thug on the door, which seemed a bit over the top for a bowling hall.
I only noticed the cracks on the wall when I went up to the bar to order a couple of bottles of beer. They didn’t seem that remarkable. When I went to the Gents I could see the cracks were worse at the back of the establishment. I took some snaps on a disposable I’d acquired for the task. Not trained as a builder, I had no idea whether these cracks were serious or not. When I asked the staff, they didn’t know either.
My girlfriend, like most Canarians, was the chatty type. While I’d been off taking my snaps of the cracks, she’d been talking to the exotic-looking lady and was now bowling against the child. So, I took a seat behind them and chuckled at the child’s attempts to throw the huge bowling ball down at the pins.
It was then that the British fellow sat down beside me.
He asked me where in the UK I was from and cracked a joke about my public-school accent. I recall him making some complimentary male comments about the beauty of my girlfriend. Then he asked me what I was doing on the island. So, I briefly let him know.
I introduced myself first.
He then introduced himself. “Hi, I’m John. John Palmer,” he said, “nice to meet you mate”, as he leant over and banged his beer bottle neck against mine.
My facial expressions can be less than inconspicuous sometimes. Poker was never my game. He obviously noticed my eyes widening on hearing the name John Palmer.
“Ah, you know me?” Palmer laughed.
“Yes, you’re Goldfinger,” I smiled back, making sure that the disposable camera was well and truly hidden in my jeans pocket.
Again, he laughed.
We had a few beers that evening before I made our excuses, bade farewell to Palmer’s henchman on the door and headed back to my apartment.
Our brief meeting was twenty years ago. Memory fades.
I recall Palmer trying to come across as a persecuted man. He was certainly amusing and I remember him as somewhat charming. We looked each other in the eye. I do remember him remarking that the locals were people he could move around like furniture. He clearly had something of the bully about him but I’d met him in downtime, so he didn’t show me much of that side. He certainly wasn’t scary. If anything, he seemed rather sad. He talked of having an increasing number of anti-Spanish days living on that rock in the Atlantic. More the entrepreneur than the accountant; an old-school crook since eclipsed by murderous Russians and Ukrainians, I suppose.
I remember clearly his parting words to me were, “Keep that one. If you don’t, then tell her to call me.”
I didn’t. She didn’t.
I never saw or met with Palmer again after that chance meeting in the bowling alley.
I think I saw the exotic lady on a flight to Casblanca via El-Aaiún from Lanzarote a year or so later. I cannot be sure for the sunglasses.
The judge was pleased with the photographs and my representations. His wall problem, I understand, was later resolved.
John “Goldfinger” Palmer was murdered on the 24th of June 2015 at the age of 64 in his gated home of South Weald, near Brentwood in Essex, by a gunshot wound to the chest. After serving time for timeshare fraud.
Neither the landlord or the judge are any longer with us, either. I am not surprised about the judge’s death – he seemed full of hate and stress. He was wound up like a coil. He died of natural causes.
Time is a labyrinth. It occasionally presents us with wormholes. And every now and then one finds the worm is at home.