Talk is cheap, which explains a lot. Explains why every day of my life has been a shouting match, why, even with the phone held away from my ear, all I could hear was banter. White noise.
We might not have the money for much else, but we can always afford an argument.
The problem was, this noise was stopping me from focusing when I needed to be doing just that. We all stood to cash in here.
My patience stretched tight then snapped. I barked at them to shut up, or words to that effect, and was met by a moment’s silence, then . . .
‘OOOOOOOOHHH!’ Three voices, each one thick with sarcasm. I could imagine them, thirty floors below, all holding imaginary handbags in the air, waving them in my direction, before falling about laughing.
Idiots, I thought, pushing a smile off my lips, before straining back into the distance.
Where is it? It’s late. I’d been sussing this out for ages, since before Jammy and
1 Text copyright (C) Phil Earle. Courtesy of Penguin Books Ltd.
Tommo left for Afghanistan. A chance to have some fun and make a bit on the side. Not just for me. For all of us.
But we had to get it right. No mistakes, because whichever way you looked at it, there was risk involved.
I didn’t let the thought settle, but not in case it made me change my mind. I mean, it wasn’t the first time, or the last either.
It’s not breaking the law that gets to me, it’s breaking the rules. Jammy’s rules.
Never steal from your own. Sounds like one of the Ten Commandments, doesn’t it? Felt like it too, although Jamm has laid down way more than ten over the years. Sometimes I struggle to keep up with them.
But that’s the beauty of this scam; we’re not breaking the rules. Not really. We’re taking, but not from our own. None of that stuff in the van belongs to Mr De Mel till he signs for it. And he won’t sign for it, because it won’t ever reach him. Not all of it, anyway.
It’s a beautiful thing. And it’ll work as long as the idiots downstairs manage to keep their minds off passing girls and on the game.
I was starting to twitch: I knew I needed the van soon to keep the lads focused on the plan, so when the silver Transit rolled off the dual carriageway and towards the Ghost estate, I hoped we were in business. A check of the logo on the side – Fat Barry’s Cash and Carry – and bingo. Game on.
‘Right lads,’ the urgency in my voice surprised even me. ‘Target is three minutes away. Get in position and stick to what we said.’
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A series of whoops and laughter came back, but I didn’t have time to wind them in. I had thirty floors to cover before I reached the ground and, unsurprisingly, the pee-stinking lift was still out of order.
By the time I piled through the front door, skipping over a collection of drunks and smackheads, there was no time for even the briefest of pep talks. The van was turning the corner, only thirty metres from the front of Mr De Mel’s corner shop. Sucking in a lungful of air, I powered along the kerb, only skipping across the road when I’d passed the van.
Look calm. It wasn’t difficult. I wasn’t nervous, I was pumped with the knowledge that we could pull it off. Positioning myself a dozen paces behind the van, I walked slowly after it, waiting for it to draw to a halt.
The plan wasn’t difficult. Not really. Just needed a bit of play-acting and fortunately we had Wiggy to do that. Never been on a stage in his life, but I swear the boy had movie star written all over him. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t charm or scam.
I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this earlier. As the van approached him and slowed, all Wiggy had to do was step into the road, pretending to be drunk. If he timed it right, the impact would be nothing more than a kiss, but with his acting skills, he could turn it into something much more special.
I waited, heart thumping, not daring to look around the van. But then it happened: a thud, the sound of Wiggy’s arm slapping the bonnet, a horrendous groan, then shouting from two other voices as the van braked.
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Hitch and Den. Perfect. Their part was simple: turn the drama into a crisis. Make the driver feel so guilty that by the time they’d finished with him, he’d never want to drive again. But most importantly, they had to buy me time. And that’s exactly what they did. ‘WHOOOOAAAAH!’ shouted Den as he jumped into the road, arms outstretched in panic. His eyes, wide as dinner plates, flitted to Wiggy, who I guessed was writhing about like a fouled centre forward. ‘Didn’t you see him, you idiot?’ Peering round, I saw the driver’s window wind down, then a shaven head emerged to be greeted by Hitch.
‘You were driving too fast. It’s twenty down here, you know. The kid didn’t stand a chance.’ It was a bit on the dramatic side, the guy had hardly been racing, but it was enough to get the driver out of the van to see what was going on under his wheels.
Keeping low to the ground, I scuttled to his door and leaned in to find the keys waiting for me. Bingo! Snatching them from the ignition I crept back to the rear, opened the door and jumped in, pulling a laundry bag from the waistband of my jeans.
Man, this was way too easy. And inside? It was Santa’s grotto. Packed to the rafters with stuff, all of it sellable.
It looked like half of the shops in the city were waiting a delivery, but that wasn’t my problem, and anyway, I couldn’t carry it all. All I wanted was the stuff with value, the stuff people on the estate survived on. Booze and smokes basically. I found the cigarettes quickly, ramming as many as I could into my bags. I reckoned I had a minute, two at the most,
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before the driver either got fed up or cottoned on. When that happened, I had to be long gone.
Next was the booze, but I had to be picky. Beer was no good, cider neither. Smooth going down, but no resale value. What I needed was the good stuff: spirits. I wouldn’t get face value for it, but we’d get a lot more than we would for a four-pack of lager. I found a box of vodka, branded. Perfect. In a bag it went. I had no idea if I’d be able to carry it all but it was worth a go.
It was only when I tried to lift the bags that I realized it was time to go. With this weight I’d be lucky to waddle across the estate, never mind run. I only wanted one more thing, and paused by the door when I saw them. Grabbing a handful of lollies, I rammed them deep into my pocket, then lowered myself back to the ground.
As I peeled away, I caught Den’s attention, and with a smile, he kicked the plan into its closing phase.
‘You got a phone, mate?’ he demanded of the driver. ‘We should get him an ambulance. I don’t like the noise he’s making.’
I don’t know what Wiggy was doing on the ground, but he’d obviously convinced the driver that it was serious. With no sign of complaint, he headed back to his cab, leaving the lads with their cue to splinter.
I took it in from the entrance to our block. They ran silently, in three completely different directions, Wiggy having made a miraculous recovery from his life- threatening injuries. It was comedy gold – the poor driver returned to nothing but the dust from their heels. All right, he could see the three of them legging it, but hadn’t a clue
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about which one to follow. Instead he swore loudly before seething in my direction. That was my cue to leave too. God knows how he’d react when he saw what I’d been up to.
I climbed the fourteen floors to the flat, barely feeling the weight I was carrying. We’d arranged to meet and split the stuff once the dust had settled, but after dumping the rest of the booty in my room, I slipped two bottles and a carton of cigs into my rucksack. Time was tight and I needed the cash now. It wouldn’t take me long to find a home for these. Back in the sunlight, I peered at my watch then stepped up the pace. Thirty minutes until it all began, and I still had plenty to do.
Fencing the gear took minutes. Two hundred cigs (minus twenty for me, call it commission) to a bunch of lads on the bench, then the vodka to a couple who were already pickled in the stuff, and my pockets were jangling and heavy. I could’ve haggled for more, but time was tight.
Instead of worrying, I ran over to the centre of the square and the statue, shaking two smokes from the packet as I stood at its feet. Strange, I’d seen these bronze soldiers every day of my life. It was the first thing I saw when I looked out of my bedroom window, but it wasn’t till you stood underneath the statue that you realized how massive it was. Beautiful too.
If ever there was a time for speed, this was it. People looked the other way on the estate, did what they had to do to get by. But no one messed with the statue. It was one of the unspoken laws of the place, separating us from the rest of the town, from the people who’d rather we didn’t exist. They’d done their best to hide us away from the fancy
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marina and the fat wallets who threw their cash about on the weekend. It didn’t bother us. We’d rather ignore their existence too.
Flicking a look over my shoulder, I sparked up the smokes, dangled them from my mouth and pulled myself carefully on to the plinth. With one foot on the first soldier’s knee and a hand on the other’s rifle, I hauled myself skywards, stopping when I reached their faces. Gripping hard with one hand, I reached for the cigarettes and pushed them inside each of the mouths till they held.
‘Knock yourselves out.’ I grinned, wishing I still had a bottle of vodka I could leave them too.
With a jump, I was back on the ground. Resisting the urge to give them a salute, I headed for town. Twenty minutes left and I had plenty of ground to cover.
Text copyright (C) Phil Earle. Courtesy of Penguin Books Ltd.
Sweat pooled on my top lip as I ran for the town centre. I licked it away, grimaced, and tried to remember if this was how the sea tasted.
I’d swum in it once, but it was so long back I couldn’t recall swallowing any. I remember bobbing next to a piece of used bog paper, but little else. Funny that.
Nerves chewed me as I checked my watch – Dad’s watch – a big-faced chrome number that had proved far more reliable than he ever had. It was the only thing he’d left behind. The telly and microwave disappeared with him but Mum never bothered pawning the watch.
‘If it was worth anything he’d have remembered it along with the remote control,’ she’d said, her words emotionless. Instead it sat on Jammy’s wrist for years, then ended up on mine once he had shipped out. It hadn’t left my skin since. Kept my brother close and in my head, despite the miles between us.
It told me I had ten minutes till the parade went through and I still had a stop to make. You didn’t turn up without flowers. It wasn’t what you did.
Our town had been ordinary. In the dictionary, under
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that word, there should have been a picture of the place in all its dull glory. In fact, the air base had been the only thing that created a bit of spice. Without the squaddies getting legless and lairy at weekends, there’d have been nothing to put in the local paper. There’s only so many car boot sales you can advertize.
Of course, everything changed when the twin towers came down. When those planes hit, we felt the tremors all the way over here. We still do.
Suddenly, there were more people in uniform than ever; in town, by the barracks, but especially on the estate: flyering, persuading, filling shaven heads full of dreams. Plenty listened, plenty signed up.
Town got quieter on a Friday night. Our lads were fighting on the other side of the world instead, without the help of booze. It didn’t hurt the newspaper though. Columns were filled by the stories of locals coming back broken. Some didn’t come home at all.
And that changed everything. Instead of being a nuisance to the town, the barracks became this almost holy place. It gave everyone a purpose, because every time a soldier was blown up, they’d parade him through the streets, Union Jack shrouding the fact that inside the coffin bits of them were mangled or missing.
Everyone turned out, the streets were always packed, people came from everywhere, even the south.
The florist had to move to a bigger shop, the undertaker doubled his fleet. The petrol station started selling bouquets of their own, bargain-basement ones that looked like they were already on the way out.
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