My friend the florist used to be a cocaine dealer

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I don't quite know what conclusions to draw from this story. I heard it from an acquaintance of mine - someone I see around, the friend of friends, but had never really sat down and talked to. He's the blamelessly respectable proprietor of a florist's in south London; has a wife and two children, does all right, pays his VAT. It was a long story - well, it was the story of his life, and that usually is long - and he told me one Sunday afternoon in a pub in Clapham. I still don't know whether his story has a moral.

I don't quite know what conclusions to draw from this story. I heard it from an acquaintance of mine - someone I see around, the friend of friends, but had never really sat down and talked to. He's the blamelessly respectable proprietor of a florist's in south London; has a wife and two children, does all right, pays his VAT. It was a long story - well, it was the story of his life, and that usually is long - and he told me one Sunday afternoon in a pub in Clapham. I still don't know whether his story has a moral.

"I always lived in Clapham. My mum still lives over the other side of the common. Went to school five minutes from here - when I went. I never really saw the point in it. The last year or two I never went at all, just went down the park when it wasn't raining and played the slot machines when it was. You know.

"I never really thought about it. But then I was 16 and I hadn't been to school in six months and no one seemed to care that I didn't have a CSE to my name. You couldn't do O-levels in Parklife - well, you probably can now. So I didn't know what to do. I signed on and then I thought about signing up. But then I thought, don't be thick, you'll get sent to Northern Ireland and then you'll get killed. And my mum said the same thing so I decided that wasn't the career for me.

"How old are you? Thirty-five? Same age as me. So this was '81 - I left school the same summer Charles and Diana got married. And I had to go on living at home because I didn't have no money. First I worked on a building site, then in a paper shop, then in a Wimpy, then window cleaning. One thing after another. Window cleaning was the worst - I tell you, Confessions Of A Window Cleaner - 12 January, Got up, stood on a ladder up to my arms in cold soapy water, started to snow, went home, made nine quid.

"So by the time I was 20 I was doing a bit of work on the side. Nothing too bad, you know - I wasn't knocking anything off myself, but I never minded looking after some stuff for a friend, if you know what I mean. And my friends weren't always very nice people, and they didn't always do very nice things to make a living.

"One of these not very nice people started asking me to carry little packages around London on my bike. Now, I wasn't stupid - I knew what this stuff was. And I saw he was doing all right, so I thought, well, I'll ask around, and then I'll strike out on my own. I got hold of a big delivery, and, well, to cut a long story short, what with one thing and another, I soon had myself a nice little business dealing charlie. And that's what I did for five years, six.

"I was never greedy about it, so I never got into trouble. Fifteen or 20 customers, that's the thing, all buying between a gramme and five grammes a week. Maybe some a bit more, some a bit less. I got the stuff wholesale, spent one evening a week dividing it up, and the rest of the time I couldn't have been busier. I was making a 100 per cent profit. Some weeks it was 3,000 quid, clear profit, and I was still living at my mum's. I wasn't going to go back to cleaning windows.

"So at first you go a bit mad - champagne, Caribbean, flash motor, the lot. My mum didn't ask, she didn't want to know. And I had a bit of a patch of dipping into stock. But I had enough sense to keep the business small, keep it busy. Conspicuous consumption, that's what does for you, and I kept most of it in the bank. Well, I kept some of it in the bank. What harm was it doing to anyone? The customers knew what they were doing. I wasn't selling in playgrounds or nothing. They weren't the people you would've expected. Some were, you know, red braces and that, but there was one woman, nice house in Putney, bored housewife, you know, kept it at the back of the cornflake cupboard for a rainy afternoon. Helped with the ironing.

"I was 27, and I'd been doing it for five, six years. And then I met Brenda, and I thought, I want out of this, I want roses in the front garden and I want to be washing the car on a Sunday morning, and I want a bit of the old 2.4. So I talked to her and we talked it over and I sold the business to, ah, an associate of mine, and I bought the shop for cash, and I started out again, like I should have when I was 16. Only it was different because, you know what? I had 200,000 quid. Never looked back."

"Do you ever see them - your old customers?"

"No. Never have. They wouldn't want to know me. Probably wouldn't recognise me. And you know something? I wouldn't want my girls to know them. Got me out of a mess, redistributed a bit of wealth, did nobody any harm that they wouldn't have done to themselves, and showed a bit of enterprise and initiative. Happy ending."

"And you wash your car on a Sunday morning?"

"Are you having a laugh? I take it down the car wash."

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