My notes on policing the underground have been published in Moxy magazine here..
Never a dull moment!
My notes on policing the underground have been published in Moxy magazine here..
Never a dull moment!
It’s a forgotten corner of the garden and the turf between is wetter than a car wash sponge.
But the snowdrops are beautiful. Their whiteness is perfect. They’re elegant and simple.
We’re no gardeners and the dog is no respecter of squirrels, lawns or shrubs. But the snowdrops continue to thrive.
They bring cheer and concentrate the mind, even for a few moments. There is beauty all around us if only we will stop to look for it.
This story is about one of the most despicable of crimes – a distraction burglary – usually targeting the most vulnerable members of society. It was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2019.
“Boiling veggies and the nip of bleach. That’s what you’ll be smelling. If you take one thing away from this chat, remember that. But, first, we got to begin with the prep. A satchel’s useful for starters. Better still, a paperboy’s bag, you know, strap over the shoulder, bright yellow for the winter nights. That’s where you stick your flyers – pizzas or taxis or curries, it don’t really matter. They’re your reason for being there, for skulking about behind folk’s hedges. See, it’s about fitting in. Trust me, the nosy buggers have got little or no imagination when it comes to spotting who’s milling about. Some of them, I reckon they’re looking for a fella in a black mask with a swag bag. They won’t notice some poor, down-trodden bastard who’s getting a tenner to carpet bomb a housing estate with dry cleaning vouchers.”
I’m hoping for a chuckle, a snort, anything. I get only silence. I glance up, fearing I’m losing them. One of them scrolls down his smartphone screen. A big fella leaning on the door jamb fiddles with his shirt cuffs. I trace my pencil notes with a fingertip, trying to find my place. One of them adjusts his bollocks in his jeans and the seat creaks as he leans back to gaze up at the ceiling. I swallow, lick my lips and press on.
“You crouch to tie a shoelace, and when you see no one’s about, you poke your fingers in the letterbox. You take a sniff. A trace of cabbage on the hob. Right enough. Maybe carrots too. You don’t need a lungful, just a trace to know you’re on the right lines. There’s always boiling veggies, damp under the stairs, the singe of dust on an electric fire. Some of them still scrub their front step or maybe they’ve doused the S-bend in bleach. At number 27 it’s textbook stuff, it’s the cabbage that does it.”
One of them writes something down. I try to see what he’s scribbled, but he angles the notebook away. At least I’m getting a reaction at long frigging last. “Veggies boiled to an inch of their lives the way your Mam used to. Know what I mean?”
She is someone’s Mam, one of them says. I think it’s the kid in sunglasses with a stripe of acne across his throat. There’s a murmur but no one nods. I shift my weight, rocking on the balls of my feet. I’d known this was a crap idea when I got the call and, really, I just want it over and done with. Sharing ideas, sharing know-how, was how it was sold. Like them talks for business execs was how the fella put it, except we’re teaching thieving, scams, fraud, you name it. Today is getting into houses, tomorrow is doing flash motors. It’s meant to be the start of something big, a university for villains, but if we’re aiming for Oxford we’re starting bloody small in the cramped upstairs of the Leopard. It’s a brown carpeted function suite and it’s sticky from spilt beer, its woodchip walls greased by shoulders and buffet snacks. A poster advertises a psychic called Alan St Pierre. And the fella whose big idea it was hasn’t even bothered to show. Least I got paid upfront.
“You have a quick recce and the signs you’ve already clocked on your walk past confirm your suspicions. You tick them off in your mind, barely seeing them as you do so, you’re so well practised.” And you will be, I say, when you’ve learned from the best. No one smiles. “So, picture this: there’s a gnome fishing, two of those huge butterflies clinging to the pebbledash. She’s got that frosty glass that’s dotted or pebble-patterned in the front door. Everything’s done out in paint colours her old fella robbed from the stores at work: pillar-box red, bottle green or battleship grey. A sign says no cold callers, but then you’re not cold, are you? You’re going to be their best friend. You’re going to be the sympathy, the bloke who nods and smiles when they talk about their bad feet, the immigrants at the launderette, their dearly departed Alfred. OK, so the house-”
I don’t need notes here, but I do gaze up at the cracked ceiling rose as I picture it – “It’s ivy stretched with cobwebs tugging on the porch. A small, neat lawn has been clipped back to a postage stamp of turf, hemmed in by brutal rosebushes. There’s no car on the drive and the carpets of moss mean there hasn’t been for years. There’s a rickety old garage – rusting corrugated iron topped off with a sagging roof – but really, you’d struggle to park a shopping trolley in it. There’s…”
“What the hell’s this meant to be?”
It’s him again, the kid who forgot to leave his conscience at the door. Fists stuffed in his jeans pockets and chewing gum. He nudges his sunglasses up his nose.
“Glare in here bothering you son?”
He grinds on the gum. “You sound like a fucking estate agent, that’s all.”
“I’m building a picture for you.”
“Bit shitty, though isn’t it?”
“Picking on old folk. Like I said, she’s someone’s Mam, isn’t she?” He glances about for support, but the others aren’t bothered. The big fella in the door has snuck off.
“Who says I’m picking on them? I’ve never laid a hand on one. Never would.”
“Top moral code you got there.”
“Who do you want to steal from? There are no rock stars round our way.”
“Stealing their life savings is low.”
“What are they going to do with that cash? Leave it to their budgie?” Patience, I think, and silently count to ten. I’ve been through it all before.
“First, as I said, I never hurt them. Second, I keep them company when their families can’t be arsed. I’ve put the hours in when no one else gives a toss.”
I’m not your crash, bang, grab it from the pantry and leg-it type. And I’m not getting painted as the bad guy in all this when I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen fellas round their houses doing pretend jobs, stuff that never needed doing, for cash. Builders and window cleaners and the like, making out there’s roof tiles missing or gaps in the double-glazing. The kid props his foot on his knee and picks at his laces. He glares at me through his eyebrows.
“You got a problem?”
Nope, he says.
“Then stop eyeballing me.”
“Stop picking on old folk.”
“If you don’t want to learn, kid, you know where the door is. We share. We don’t judge.” I take a good look at the kid, wondering what his screw is, what he’s working at. He hasn’t got the front to rob or break and enter. Something to do with computers, I’ll bet. Maybe he’s working a scam, doing porn. That’s why he’s not getting much from my talk. Maybe he’s from a family who’ve paid him in, and he’s been given no choice in coming here.
Good, I say.
I go on to tell them how I get inside, how I get the widow’s confidence; how after an hour or so they’ve got more faith in me than their kids. It’s about building trust and not rushing it. They tell me their Terry’s been promising to sort that dripping tap or leaky porch for years. Now, it’d be easy to agree, but that’s too soon and they’ll smell a rat. So, I tell them I’m sure Terry’s up to his eyeballs and to let me sort it out. ’Course, I don’t let on the good stuff, the real little clinchers. I don’t waste them on these losers for the ton I’m getting. I keep the pearls to myself. When it’s their turn to teach, I’m sure they do the same too.
“You’ve seen the signs already, like. Number 27 might as well have WIDOW flickering from the roof slates in pink neon.” I clap my hands together like a teacher. “Anyway, this morning was class study, tomorrow it’s the practical.”
I raise a finger and hover, though I’ve already decided who’s learning on the job. Kid, I say, your number has come up.
“Not a fucking chance.”
He sulks, grinds his gum, but he doesn’t argue.
Ten the next morning and he’s sitting in the bus shelter in Ackerman Street where we agreed. He’s in a grey suit, with a scarlet tie and slip-on shoes. Those sunglasses. He’s got a polished satchel, covered in buckles and zips. I nod for him to get in.
“Lose the shades.”
“I always wear them.”
“Not this morning, you don’t. Not if you’re coming with me. Old folk won’t trust you, ’less they can see your eyes.”
“I don’t want to do this.”
I’ve already decided I’m going to be patient. I snap the handbrake on, kill the engine and fold my arms.
“It’s not right. They’ve worked all their lives and…”
“Jesus, son. You should get a job at McDonalds or something.”
“They’re old and vulnerable.”
I raise a hand. “OK, OK. If we don’t take it someone else is going to. You know how much nursing homes cost? These folks who’ve scrimped and saved all their lives and stuffed it under a mattress are going to lose the lot in three months in one of those places.” I don’t tell him it happened to my Nan. God knows how much a week for microwaved fish in white sauce, cold, stewed tea and a Filipino wiping her arse crack. He stares out of the window.
“Don’t see how you getting it makes it better.”
“I give them some love.”
His nose creases and I feel like scalping the cretin.
“Not like that. I give them TLC, care and attention. Their kids don’t give a monkey’s cos family doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Bloody disgrace this country is, these days.” He’s thinking about saying something, but he doesn’t. He chews the gum. “You’ll need to spit that out too. Horrible habit.”
He opens the passenger door. Shall we crack on, he says.
“Hold your horses.”
I run him through the routine. Windows and work on the roof. Him the front man in the suit and tie, me the honest working-class hero sorting the best deal. One thing, he says.
“Just so we’re clear, I’ll never ever stoop as low as to trick old folk.”
“You will today.”
“I bloody won’t. We’ll do it and you’ll put it back.”
“Give me a break.”
“I’m taking nothing.”
“Stick it in a charity box then.” Christ, kids of today. You wonder what hope there is.
We park four streets away. I’m not a fan of wasting shoe leather but, even though I’ve borrowed it, I don’t want the car connected with us. We walk in silence to Ladysmith Street and take either side of the road. I’ve let him pick the street. I’ll let him choose the house. It’s the only way he’ll learn. First lesson is getting bold, brassy. You got to look as if you belong there. I point up and down the street. He chooses a semi with three cars on the front and a brand-new porthole door.
“Christ, did you listen to anything I said?”
He trots on, moaning it’s sweltering and his shirt’s sticking to his back. Keep the jacket on, I tell him. That generation understand suffering, respect it. He points at a house in the corner, surrounded by towering, unkempt privet. It doesn’t fit with the rest of Ladysmith cos it’s an older house, pre-dating the council stock. A freight train rattles past on the embankment behind. Promising, better, I tell him. Our only witness is a tomcat rolling in a strip of sun between the shade of garage and porch, licking his paws. The drive is a carpet of moss, the front door painted thick bottle green with a panel of frosted glass. Tiles are missing from the roof and the gutter is bust. I can’t stifle a grin. It’s straight out of my notes.
“Good. You knock, try some chat. I’ll cost. Just like we agreed.”
“I thought I was costing.”
Christ, I think, we’ve been through it four times already. The gum, I say. He spits it into a hankie, scrunches it up in his pocket. I’d have drop-kicked it into the hedge. He gets a hand in the letterbox and sniffs. Nothing, he says.
“Hell, there’s got to be something.” This is the best bit. I’m like one of them blokes whiffing vintage wine or top-notch scotch here. I take a niff myself. “OK, she’s been baking. I’ll go for scones. And the lino reeks of pine disinfectant. I’ll bet my life she’s on her jack. No one else lives here. What you waiting for?”
He knocks the door, takes a step back and straightens his tie. No one in, he says. Easy, give it a minute, I tell him. A door opens down the corridor. Music drifts from a radio somewhere. The door opens a few inches on a chain. A reedy voice asks what we want. He freezes. I glare at him. Well, the smell of them scones could make a young man’s heart sing, I say. She says nothing.
“Sorry, we’re here from the council.”
He taps my arm. He’s shaking his head.
“This isn’t a council house.”
I adjust my tie. “You’re right madam. But we still have primary responsibility for health and safety.” I pause, searching for an idea when he buts in and says heavy rain has created problems with the embankment.
“Council doesn’t look after the railways, does it?” she says, but she sounds unsure.
“Ah, that’s why I’ve brought my friend Mr Tanner along,” I say, fixing him a look. “He’s from the railways and I’m-”
“I don’t care where you’re from.”
“Now, you wouldn’t want a mud slide engulfing your apple trees, would you?” he says.
I mouth he’s an idiot, thinking he’s pushing it and I could drop one on him right now, when the chain clanks against the door and she opens it. You’d best come through then, she says. We follow her into the kitchen. There’s no offer of tea, or one of the moist, steaming scones that’re cooling on a rack. She peers at us over half-moon specs and a brown-checked tabard.
“They smell divine,” I say, eyeing the scones.
“They’re for the church,” she snaps.
“Well, there’s nothing to worry about but-”
She pokes a bony finger at me. “How come your mate says mud’s going to engulf my back garden then?”
“He didn’t mean that. He gets excitable.”
She takes off her glasses, huffs on them and wipes them with a tea towel. He might be right, she says.
“Well, something’s going on, that’s for sure.”
You’ve had bother? I say.
“I’ve had bloody big cracks in my foundation walls. And we never did before.”
“The cracks are new?”
“That’s what I said. Give me a few ticks, I’ll prove it, if you don’t believe me. I’ve got photos. Before and after.”
I winked at him. He stood holding the clipboard to his chest, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. Look to it, I whispered. We had to take our chance while she rooted about in sewing boxes and sideboards for some warped old photo album. Jewellery, I reckoned, and a stash of notes stuffed in a mattress or an old pillow in the airing cupboard. She looked the type, staring down at her nose at the world through beady eyes. Not trusting the banks and not believing in cashpoints. I went into the hall and watched her trodden-down heels make their way up the last few, squeaking stairs.
“Now, you search the drawers.” I point at my eyes. “And keep them peeled on the door. I’ll take the pantry.” I push through a ribbon curtain and lift tin after tin from the shelves. They’re rammed with birthday cake candles, matches, spent batteries, old coins and broken pencils and crayons. Beneath the bottom shelf there’s a crisp box taped down at the seams. I glance through the stripy curtain and, seeing there’s no sign of her coming down, I tear the tape back and rummage about inside. Bingo! I get hold of a chain, tugging it free. It’s old gold, heavy and clunky in my palm. I take out rings too, shaking them in my fist for their weight, and a gold watch. It has a square dial, tiny hands and an inscription ‘for Victor’ on the back. I stuff them in my pockets. An old tea tin is wedged behind the box. I jiggle it this way and that to get it free and shake it, testing its weight. The lid is rusty and tight, but I get my blade into it for leverage and get it free. A tight roll of fifties and twenties are inside, held by a withered elastic band. Floorboards creak above me and a faint, pink dust falls form the plaster. I snap the lid back on the tin and replace everything as it was. I duck through the pantry curtain and creep along the hallway. I’m easing the door open when a shadow appears, a figure standing, arms folded in the porch. It doesn’t move. “We’re in here,” the kid says. “You’d better come in.” I peer through the crack in the lounge door and see he’s sitting in a chair beside the electric fire. I shove through the door, stumbling as it snags on a draught excluder. I freeze, seeing the old woman is sitting on the settee, her face set in a pout, glaring at me. “What’s going on?” I say. My pulse thuds in my throat.
“What did you get?”
I look from her to him. “We got to make tracks,” I say.
I hear the door latch go. Police? I mouth.
He smirks and shakes his head. “But you’ll wish it was.”
He shakes out a blanket that he’s folded on the settee, spreading it before the hearth.
“Now take out what you stole and put it there, so’s we can all see it. So’s we can all see you for what you are.” I glance at the doorway. A bloke with broad shoulders and no neck stands, arms clasped at his belt buckle, staring straight ahead like a bouncer on a nightclub door. He isn’t police. My brother, the kid says.
“I’d have put it back,” I say. “It was just a training exercise, that’s all.”
I toss the watch and the rings and the chain onto the blanket. The old woman dabs at her eyes with a hankie, muttering that I’m all the names under the sun.
“I wanted to see if you’d go through with it,” he says.
“I told you, it was just training.”
“And who do you think set up that training exercise? I knew you liked showing off, playing the big man and letting your trap run away with you. Well, it did, didn’t it?” His eyes narrow.
“I don’t get you,” I say.
He stands up, fidgeting with his cuffs.
“I’m Charlie Yates. This is my gran, Elsie Yates. Does that name mean anything to you?”
“Yeah, thought it would. See, you kept saying Number 27 and my gran’s sister lived at a number 27. Some fella came in, all the charm in the world and some chat about trimming the conifers, else she’d get sued. He took her life savings from an old tea tin she kept stuffed in the airing cupboard. The exact same tea tin you just robbed three K from.”
I swallow, fiddle with my collar. I take the bundle of notes from my shirt pocket and toss it onto the blanket.
“Too late, much too late. You know the shock got her. Shock and shame. She died three weeks later.”
I know then that there won’t be any police. He grins at me, cracking his knuckles. He nods to his brother.
Do you still have your first book? What is it?
I’ve still got my first and second books. They’re on a shelf in the kitchen. My first book, printed locally by Children’s Books Stafford, is Rocky Looks for a Friend.
It’s a short moral story about a homeless dog (Rocky) who wants to find a friend but ends up hanging about with a scruffy terrier who pinches pork chops.
It’s basically Oliver with wire-haired terriers. And, yes, it had a huge impact on my life. I still refuse to hang out with anyone who shoplifts rump steak from high street butcher’s.
Rocky works it out in the end. My second book was Chicken Licken. More of that later.
I’ve got the name of the sitcom while out walking the dog this morning.
Now I just need to write the first six episodes and see if Matt Berry is available to play Widgeon.
Perhaps inspired by yesterday’s viral hit (Handforth parish council) I see Widgeon as a local authority big hitter from London who thinks he’s in for a relaxing retirement in the rural Midlands.
When he joins the parish council to ‘keep his hand in’ he has no idea what’s in store…
There’s certainly no rest for the Widgeon….