Picking A Pocket To Pick

This summer I’ve been working behind the counter in one of the kiosks along the seafront, selling doughnuts and bags of candyfloss and buckets and spades and everything to parents and tourists and children all day long.

And the tourists and the children and even the parents are fine, it’s the… fuck I don’t what you’d call them, the regulars, the arseholes and the cheats and the drunks and whathaveyou. Absolute arseholes every one of them. That’s what makes it a shit job.

That and the pay.

There’s this one guy, I see him walking up and down the seafront every day. And my boss always points him out if he’s there and says I’m allowed to take his money but never his cards.

He’s a right fucking creep, too. Not my boss, this fucking fella. He’s one of those wankers that always manages to find a way to touch you, get close to you somehow, and it disgusts me. Christ it’s just… He’ll lean over the counter and tap me on the shoulder if I’ve turned my back, he’ll pat my hands if I’m leaning on the counter at the front, put his hand round my waist if I’m standing around outside having a fag.

Actually one time I was out there smoking and I was sat on the seawall and he sat right down next to me. I mean like right fucking next to me. Closer than I’d sit next to my boyfriend when we’re at home watching something on the telly.

What did you do? I hope you fucking said something.

I didn’t do anything. Well I got up and went back to work. I didn’t say anything, though. It’s not fucking worth it. It never fucking is.

And he knows what he’s doing. It’s never obvious enough that you could tell anyone what he’s doing but well, I know what he’s doing. You’d know. But my boss… Nah.

Anyway, I went into work the other day. Wednesday, this was, or was it Tuesday? I don’t know, about then anyway, sometime in the week, and there was this girl sat on the wall there by the kiosk, bawling her fucking eyes out. This was about 10 in the morning. She only looked about fourteen or something, although tears always make you look younger, I reckon.

I asked her if she was alright and she shook her head and just kept on blubbing away. I offered her a cigarette and she actually replied to this, although she said, “Nah, “I’m only sixteen,” which threw me a bit. Seemed like a pretty random thing to say, really.

You can’t smoke until you’re 18 these days.

Yeah I know that, but still. Like that’s ever fucking stopped anyone.

Anyway she kept on crying and I left her there and went inside to work, and sat there all morning and she never stopped crying at all, not even for a minute. For like two hours!

I took her out some doughnuts when I went out there for my tea break, but she shook her head at those as well, and she’s still crying of course. Imagine how upset you’d have to be to not even accept a bunch of free bloody doughnuts.

Now, she’s got this big bag sat next to her on the wall. One of those big sturdy bag-for-life bags they try to sell you in tescos for a quid or so. She’s had it all morning, I don’t mean it’s just appeared, but anyway, it’s got some rolled up clothes in their, a jumper and a coat maybe, something like that, and sat on top of them there’s this wallet, not a purse but a wallet, a folded leather wallet, and it’s absolutely fucking bulging with notes.

“You should hide that away,” I said to her, and she’s sort of followed my cigarette to see what I’m pointing at with it, and then just shrugged again and burst into even more tears, deeper, louder tears. I had no bloody idea it was possible to cry for so long. You’d think you’d run out of tears.

The bloke I was working with that day, who was working at the other window, selling fish and chips and burgers and that, he kept muttering to me all morning and threatening to go out there and chase her away, but I told him to leave her be, the poor thing.

The poor fucking thing.

I’d spent most of my shift wondering what had happened to her. Had she run away from home? Been abandoned or stood up by her boyfriend? Maybe someone had died. Maybe she was homeless and just really fucking tired and lonely and hurt.

Maybe she’d failed her exams. Lost her phone. I don’t fucking know.

At some point in the early afternoon, about 1 o’clock maybe, that creepy fucking arsehole I mentioned earlier comes strolling down the seafront, and he clocks her straight away. Course he does. I can see his eyes light up, his whole fucking body light up, when he sees her. Like a literal shiver running through him. Expectation and delight. It’s sickening.

He comes up to where she’s sitting, and he crouches down in front of her so he’s eye level with her, just below eye level actually, so he’s looking up at her a little, ad he asks her if she’s okay, asks her what’s wrong.

I’m straining now to hear what he’s saying, practically hanging out the little kiosk window, but I can’t hear exactly what he’s saying to her, and it’s infuriating.

It’s all infuriating. I want to go out there and tell him to fuck off and leave her alone, but there’s a sudden queue of customers, then, and I have to deal with them and over the bubbling noise of boiling doughnuts I really truly can’t hear a word of what they’re saying now.

When I’ve served everyone I quickly pull down the shutter and rush out the side door to where they’re sat and he’s giving her a great big hug and whispering something in her ear. And she’s finally stopped crying, wiping the tears out of her eyes, and nodding to whatever it is he’s saying, and I’m thinking, good christ what the fuck is this?

Then she breaks off the hug and gives him a kiss on the cheek and picks up her bag and runs off down the road.

It’s baffling. That’s what it is. Fucking baffling.

He turns round then and sees me standing there and he flashes me the most, the worst, the absolute worst and sickliest smile you have ever seen. And he steps toward me and puts a hand round my waist and says, “You aren’t going to be standing around out here long are you, love? I’ve got some money to spend.”

I pulled his hand off me and threw it back at him and stomped back inside and slammed the door shut behind me as hard as I could. Oh christ I was furious then, I was ready to quit right there and then, leave that stupid kiosk’s shutter down and fuck off back home. Leave the other guy there to do the doughnuts as well as the chips. Fuck em.

But I’m glad in the end that I didn’t.

Eventually I pull that shutter back up and he’s already standing there, a smile as wide as fucking fuck on his face, and he pulls out a wallet from his pocket. And it’s her wallet, obviously, absolutely bulging with money, and it’s obvious he’s nicked it, and it’s obvious that he knows I know he’s nicked it. And I was going to say he doesn’t even care, but he does care. He’s fucking proud of himself. He wants me to see. He wants me to know.

And he orders some doughnuts and a coffee and a load of sweets and whatever, picking everything he can, showing off. It’s completely pathetic. And I say, like I always say when he comes to the counter, “We can’t take cards, I’m afraid. Cash only.” And he says, “That’s okay, dear, I’ve got plenty of cash,” and he holds the wallet up for me to see, shakes it a little, for some fucking reason, then slowly opens it up and peels out a note. And it’s a blank sheet of paper. It’s all just blank sheets of paper.

And his face goes white, and I laugh and say, “I’m sorry we can’t take that, either,” and he’s stammering now and searching through his pockets and patting his jacket and searching around more and more frantically for his own wallet and it’s not fucking there.

There’s nothing fucking there.

And he looks like he’s going to be sick and he turns round looking up and down the seafront for any sign of the girl but she’s long fucking gone and I can’t stop laughing for the rest of the day.

__________

Notes:

1. Written between 17th July and 22nd July, 2016
2. Although it was outlined mostly in May
3. At the same time as A Mistake Of Identity
4. As I was trying to think of Essex crime tales
5. To submit to that competition
6. That I did not win
7. I don’t especially like this one either
8. I’m sorry to say
9. Please don’t hate me

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A Mistake Of Identity

I was home for the weekend for the first time in ages. My sister was working in the pub as usual, and I was sat by the bar and keeping her company. Which it seemed liked she needed, as the whole place was weirdly deserted, even for midweek in Maldon in the bleakest midwinter I could remember. There wasn’t even anyone listlessly emptying their pockets into the fruit machine in the corner.

She’d been telling me some new gossip about someone or other in the far reaches of our family when a couple came in and interrupted her by daring, outrageously, to buy themselves some drinks. My sister glared at them throughout the entire transaction – some good old fashioned Essex friendliness – and even, it seemed, for a good while afterwards, watching them like a hawk until they’d settled down at a table that was, unsurprisingly, as far from the bar as they could find.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember her from school?” my sister asked, motioning with her head at the woman who’d come in.

I shrugged, then looked around quickly at the woman for a second, then turned back towards my sister and shrugged again.

“Vaguely,” I said. “Maybe. Was she in your class?”

“Yeah, you must remember her. Her and her sister. The twins?”

“Oh, right, yeah. Was it… Carole? Carla? And George, maybe?”

“Yeah, Carla. And Georgina,” she said. “Georgina punched me in the mouth one time. She had to go to hospital with a broken bloody hand!”

My sister found this somewhat funnier than I did.

“So which one’s that?”

“Carla. Georgina’s in prison now.”

“For punching you in the mouth?” I said with half a smile.

“No, it’s much better than that.”

My sister lapsed into a sudden self-satisfied smile, taking her time to wipe down the counter and clear away some glasses while she waited expectantly for me to ask her to explain.

Which I didn’t.

But eventually she stopped rattling glasses around and told me anyway.

“A few months ago, well, maybe a year ago now, one of the twins – no-one knows which – walked into the offie down near the hospital waving a knife about and made the bloke behind the counter give her all the cash from the register and as many packs of fags as he could grab off the racks behind him and shovel into her bag. And then she walked out and disappeared.

“Now, she hadn’t made any attempt to disguise who she was, and it didn’t take long for the police to look at the CCTV, and ask around a bit and find someone who recognised who it was. ‘It was that Carla, wasn’t it? Or Georgina, maybe. Definitely one of those twins.’

“But the man they robbed had no idea which one it was (I don’t think he had any idea who they were at all), and no-one could tell from the CCTV. And neither of them would admit they did it, or even implicate the other one. Both of them simply said, ‘I was at home that night, watching cat videos on youtube’ or whatever. And they stuck to that story

“The police never found any of the money either, or the bag full of cigarettes. Or any cigarettes at all. I don’t think either of them even smoke anyway.

“But anyway, the police couldn’t charge both of them. You can’t send two people to jail just because you know one of them has done it. And it was clearly just one of them holding the place up. But they both look the same and dress the same and have the same identical haircuts, and neither one of them has ever put on even the slightest bit of weight. I mean look at her. Sickeningly skinny.

“I’ve no idea if they planned it like that or not, or if they just stumbled across this… scam. Maybe one of them genuinely didn’t know anything about it all, and really had been at home all the time. I don’t even really know if you can call it a scam. A loophole. Some sort of legal stupidity, really, but you can’t convict on chance, they say, and as both of them just said, “No, I was at home” over and over again, they had to let them go. They knew – everyone knew – that one of them had done it. Just not which one.

“And so they got away with it.”

“But you said one of them was in jail, now?” I said. “So how did they get caught. It wasn’t something stupid like one of them being left handed and one being right handed, was it?”

“Mirror twins,” my sister said.

“What?”

“They’re called mirror twins when one of them’s left handed and the other’s right handed.”

“So it was that, then? That’s a bit disappointing.”

“Nah. And they’re both right-handed, anyway, as far as I can remember.”

We both glanced over towards Carla then, and yes, she was holding her pint in her right hand.

“Anyway, yeah, you’d have thought that would be that, wouldn’t you? You’ve got away with it once, you wouldn’t chance your arm doing it again. I mean the next time maybe the police’ll find some discrepancies in your stories, or catch you while you’re doing it, or just charge the pair of you out of spite. And they only got a couple of hundred quid, and some fags they probably had to dump somewhere.

“Better to just chalk that one up to luck, smile sweetly and innocently whenever anyone brought the subject up, and get on with your life. That’s what I’d have done.”

“Me too,” I said. “But then we’re not twins so what would we know.”

“Exactly. So then a month ago, one of them came in here, waved a knife around in my face, and stole a thousand pounds out the till.

“She came bursting in, all out of breath and with a nervous sort of worked up fury, screaming at me, waving her bloody blade around, pointing it at my heart and neck. It was pretty scary. Then she went sprinted off, and I called the police. I never told you about this, did I?”

I shook my head. I was slightly shocked, and ever so slightly furious. Although with my sister or with Georgina I couldn’t really tell.

“Were you alright?”

“Yeah, fine, fine. Anyway, this time the police went straight round to their flats and arrested the pair of them, and took them down to the cells and questioned them and bullied them and whatever else it is the police do to you when they’re pissed off with you.

“And Georgina told them, ‘Well, I was at home, again, watching all those cat videos on youtube’ and that’s all she would say. ‘I never left the house at all.’ Insistent on it.

“But Carla, she says, ‘Well, actually officers, I was down in the pubs by the Hythe all night, having a drink with my boyfriend.’ And they checked the CCTV and asked the bar staff and sure enough there she was, flitting occasionally between the two pubs down there. Making an almost conspicuous show of herself.

“So there’s her alibi. And there goes her sister’s. So now Georgina’s up for armed robbery, although only the one count, rather than two.”

“That was quick,” I said. “Did she plead guilty then?”

“Nah, she’s still claiming she was at home all night. That she didn’t do it all. But she can’t make bail, or they won’t give it to her, or whatever it is, and so she’s in jail while she’s awaiting trial.”

“She must be absolutely furious with her sister for fucking it all up,” I said.

“Well, it’s funny you should say that. Because, like I said, I was here that night. And the thing is, I know I was scared, but also… I know these two girls. I’ve known them for years. And I’m almost certain it was Carla with the knife that night.”

“But then, why would Georgina say she was at home when she was clowning around down the pub?” I asked. “That’s a pretty bloody stupid thing to do.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she was telling the truth.

“I tried it out the other day, you see, and you could climb out the windows in the toilets down there and no-one would see you, and then you could sprint along Down’s Road you can get here in about five minutes. Although of course you’d be pretty out of breath by the time you got here…”

“But why would you do that to your own bloody sister?”

“Well, I was thinking about that, too. I might be able tell the difference between them, but…” She glanced over one last time at Carla and her boyfriend in the corner. “There’s no guarantee that he ever could.”

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Notes:

1. Written on the 19th and 20th May, 2016
2. I don’t really like this that much
3. But I’ve included it here because it’s the only thing I’ve ever had shortlisted for an award
4. It didn’t win, obviously

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Velvet

I walked out into the garden and saw my sister standing under the leafless tree, reaching up into the vines that had grown out across from next door’s fence and entwined themselves in the branches there. She was swaying slightly back and forth, lost in some unfathomable reverie.

“What are you doing?” I said and she jumped at the sound of my voice, turning sheepishly to look at me, pulling her hands out of the air and putting them back into the pockets of her jumper.

“Have you seen these?” she said, pointing up at some bulbous swellings hanging from the vines. “They look like runner beans but…” She rubbed her fingers delicately down the side of one them. “But they feel like… velvet. The purest velvet I’ve ever felt.”

I saw a shiver run through her entire body, from the brain on down.

I didn’t move. I didn’t even say anything. Just watched her fondle a runner bean for longer than I should have. Than she should have, too.

“Go on, feel one. They’re…incredible.”

She stepped up onto her toes and whispered the last word in my ear.

“They’re just fucking runner beans,” I said. “How incredible can a runner bean feel.”

My sister grabbed my hand and brought it up to the thing and I felt it and it was everything she had said and more. It looked like a swollen runner bean yet it felt like heaven beneath my fingertips.

I took my hand away and felt a moment of loss and then I reached up again and stroked another one and everything was okay everything was better than okay everything was perfect as long as I could feel the touch of it against my skin.

“What are you to doing?” screamed our mother from the back door.

We both flinched and turned and looked at her as if we were waking from a dream.

“Have you seen these runner beans?” we said. “Have you seen what they feel like? It’s really strange. It’s amazing.”

Mother dried her hands on her pinny and stepped out into the garden towards us. Towards the beans hanging bulbous from our dead tree.

In this way, they enslaved the earth. Only the handless were spared.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on September 6th, 2017
2. Based on a true story

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The Silent Sky

This is the one thing I really, properly, remember from when I was a child. It’s not very interesting, it’s not even really a single memory — more likely it is a set of memories, overlaid on top of each other like the layers of paint built up over the years on our living room walls, on the window frames through which I so often used to look outside — but it’s so clear and total, a visceral genuine thing, in which I can see and feel everything in an incredibly solid way, rather than just in the abstract, rather than just as a story I’ve told over and over again until all I have left are the words of it.

Because of this I often wonder whether it is genuine at all.

When I was about five my bed was put in the living room for a while, at the front of the house where it loomed up near the pavement and looked out over the road. I’d broken my ankle falling off a wall, and my mother didn’t want me to have to hobble up and down the stairs.

Because of the injury I didn’t have to go to school, although as I’d only just started I didn’t really appreciate this fact in the way I would have done had I been older. In the mornings I’d be left in bed while my brothers and sisters would get ready for school (although my mother would still come in and open the curtains like she always did in her sweep of the house), and I’d lay there listening to them all getting ready, listen to the bickering, the radios and tape-players going on and off in their rooms, listen to them leaving, listen to them and all the other kids on the street talking to each other as they walked past my window.

It was sunny. It was always sunny.

(It was – it must have been – October. It was not always sunny.)

It was sunny. My bed was shoved up tight against the radiator by the window, and I’d lay there, bathed in heat from the sun shining in through the window and from the radiator heating its way through the quilt and the sheets. I’d lay there on my back, below the level of the window, looking up at this odd angle at the sky and the birds and the branches of next door’s tree, listening to the disembodied voices of all the other children fading away as they passed through our street, their dying laughter, their ever more distant shouts.

And then the silence. Inside the house and out.

Every day, I had this fifteen or twenty minute gap, this space of my own, before my mother got back from walking my brother to school, before she got me up and got me cleaned and dressed and fed.

These fifteen minutes where I’d be left all alone. Completely alone. Listening to the silence of the house, the silence of the street. Looking up at nothing, at the pale and silent sky.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on 27th April, 2015

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London

I went to London once.

I’d never been before and everyone always used to say to me, “Oh, have you been to London?” and “You should go to London, it’s brilliant,” and “I can’t believe you’ve never been to London.”

“London,” they’d say. “It’s fucking amazing.” And then they’d tell me all the ways it was amazing.

There were a lot of ways it was amazing.

Once I admitted that I’d never even heard of London and they looked at me as if I was mad. “What?! How? That’s impossible!” and “You must at least have seen it on the telly?” and “What about that film that came out last year? You must have seen that!” and I said what film and they said, “That one about London,” and so in the end I said “Oh that one! Of course I’ve seen that!” but of course I hadn’t seen it at all.

So I went to London.

And it really was incredible and I’m glad I went.

They had all these buildings and there were so many of them and so close together and they were huge and weird and all sort of knotted and woven together so you couldn’t see where one finished and the others started and they all glittered like jewels in the sun so the longer you looked at them the longer they stayed with you when you looked away.

And there were hundreds of people everywhere, thousands maybe, all going all over the place like they knew where they were and where they needed to be but they all looked kind of dry somehow, all brittle and faded like old newspapers, and when you spoke to them they’d shift and shimmer and get all scared and fly away into the sky in great directionless flocks.

I bought some food in one of their shops but instead of money they had a system based around physical punishment so after that I didn’t buy anything else although I was too polite to put the sandwich back and too cowardly to show them how cowardly I was and so I stuck out my hand and accepted the sharp cuts across the knuckles that it cost me.

In the evening I found this town square and there was a huge unlit pyre of bodies at the centre and more and more people kept stumbling out of the restaurants and the bars and the theatres all around and collapsing against the mass of it and in this way it grew and grew. I danced beside it for a while with a three-armed girl and we danced and danced and kissed and more and at the end I held out my hand so she could inflict her price but she just laughed and said “It’s not there you pay it’s here” and she tapped me on my belly and cavorted away.

I wondered what she meant at first but then I began to feel queasy and dizzy and unwell and eventually I fell to my knees by the empty horse’s trough at the entranceway to the square and began to vomit up my lunch into it, and then my breakfast and then everything else that came before and after that some blood and then more blood and organs and old tin cans and some pieces of string and misshapen lumps of glass that looked like malformed bones and one that looked somehow like a skull and then a few more drops of blood and then it stopped and I spat and spat out all the saliva I had left into that trough of filth and I wiped the tears away from my eyes and I thought I was going to be okay I thought that wasn’t so bad was it and I looked at the blood in the trough and I thought I saw it ripple and I thought I saw it move and then two hands came out and grabbed me round my neck and pulled me down towards whatever it was they belonged to down towards the blood and into the blood and the rubbish and the half-digested food down and down endlessly into the dark.

I think it was London.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on March 17th, 2016

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