Hugo Whitgift worked at one of the many branches of the Doubleday Wine Company. It was not a hard job. It was one of those wine shops where the price label on the wine bottle does not have the price on it at all, but the shop's code for that wine, so that when Hugo Whitgift totted up the bill at the till, he did not tap in the price, he tapped in the code.
This meant that when the customer got home and was sipping the wine with his wife, and the wife said, "Oh, this is nice, how much did this cost?'' or even, "Blimey, how much did they rook you for this lot?", the customer would look at the label and say, "It cost me 027458, hold on that must be the code, they haven't put the price on, why haven't they put the price on?"
The answer, of course, was that the system was devised to make things easier for the Doubleday Wine Company, not to make it more informative for the customer. But there were one or two things that the company offered which were for the sake of the customer. One was a rubber stamp.
I think we all know what I'm talking about.
The stamp that the man in the shop always produces just after you have started writing the name of the payee. You have got as far as "Pay the Doubleday ..." and the man says, "Don't worry, I've got a stamp."
Once, a customer said to him: "I really ought to have a stamp for my signature," and Hugo laughed politely at the idea of them both stamping the cheque and nobody writing anything on it.
But he thought about this later, and what he thought was this: If a customer could have a stamp for his own use, so could Hugo ...
Hugo had often noticed that the customers were very careful about the date on the cheque and the amount on the cheque and, of course, the signature on the cheque, but they did not seem to care much about reading what he, Hugo, had stamped on the cheque. They assumed automatically that his stamp read THE DOUBLEDAY WINE COMPANY LTD. But what if it didn't? What if it read HUGO WHITGIFT? What if Hugo had his own stamp and made some of the cheques payable to him? What if Hugo diverted some of the unnecessary profit made by the Doubleday Wine Company into Hugo's all-too-small bank account?
Reader, I will not keep you in suspense. This is what Hugo did. He had a stamp made in his name, and when a customer looked either extremely well-off or extremely unobservant - the two things often coincided - Hugo would, at the last moment, stamp HUGO WHITGIFT on the cheque.
Later, he would carefully sift out the cheques to him from the cheques made out to the company, and later still he would pay them into his own bank account.
He felt nervous about it, chiefly because he could not believe that it was so simple, and only partly because he felt he might be caught. I have to tell you in all honesty that this wicked young man felt no remorse otherwise and enjoyed the extra fruits of his labour.
It did not escape the notice of head office, however, that takings at Hugo's branch were suddenly down a bit, so they dispatched a man from head office to go and keep an eye on the shop for a while to see if there was anything obviously wrong with the retail display configuration, as they had been taught to call the shop lay-out.
Hugo was alarmed when this overseer arrived, but soon realised he was not under suspicion. The man was concerned only with shop display.
He moved around some of the discount bins, swapped the beer with the water, and got Hugo to rearrange the shop according to his own ideas. This Hugo did, and lo and behold, the profits went up again.
This, of course, was because Hugo had put away his little rubber stamp, but head office thought it was because of Hugo's initiative. So they promoted him and gave him a rise and Hugo didn't need his rubber stamp any more and rose through the organisation so steadily that one day some years hence he arrived on the board of the company.
One of the first things the board did, in view of rising profits, was to vote themselves a whacking great bonus.
"Don't worry, Hugo," they chuckled. "This is quite normal practice."
But Hugo wasn't worried. He was merely surprised to find that the board of directors also had their own little rubber stamps.