By Howard Gaukrodger, 24.09.14
Practice: YA. Alternating POVs, chronology-mixing, character-building. 1,500 words.
Jimmy heard me scream: “The cops are coming!”
The word “cops” was a taser shot. How did the police know where to find us? What’ve we done? The four of us reached the grassy hillside of London’s Greenwich Park. Wasn’t Jimmy meant to protect us? He was the gang leader, wasn’t he?
“Chuck it! Get rid of it all!” I heard Jimmy shout.
I tried to fling off the paper money that Colin was crushing into my hand. But I had chocolate brownie all over my fingers and the money stuck to my skin. Behind us, the uniformed hunters charged after us. Eyes watered. Heart pounded. My legs couldn’t keep up with the need to flee. I stumbled. The freshly-cut grass rushed towards my head. The world span, fingers stubbed the ground. I screamed in pain – and fear.
But that’s how the story ended. It began at school a year earlier. I was being bullied day after day, week after week. Then, I heard about gangs. At the age of nine, I didn’t know what a gang was, but I thought it meant friends sticking up for each other. I’d be protected. That’s what I liked.
During the school holidays, I got my wish. I was part of a gang, Jimmy’s gang. To be admitted, I had to prove myself. This meant completing two dares. One: go into my neighbour’s garden, pull down my pants, and pee on their roses. Two: find an earthworm, wrench it into two parts and eat the larger part.
At the time, these dares seemed cool, even though I emptied my guts right after I gulped down the worm. But this initiation was nothing. Jimmy had much bigger things in mind for us. And that’s when my life really went down the pan…
“Yeah, I guess you’ll ‘ave to bring ‘im along. ‘e’s all right. Jus’ keep ‘im busy, OK Col?”
Where the ‘ell do these toddlers come from, eh? I can’t run no gang wiv kids wearin’ nappies. What’s this new kid called? Roger? Posh crap. We’ll ‘ave to give ‘im a proper name when we done this nex’ job.
“You told me you didn’t want no young’uns,” Paul said.
“He ain’t bin wiv us long enough to know,” I replied. “Could be useful as watch. We’ll try ‘im out later, eh?”
“OK, Jimmy, but…”
“Shut it, Paul. I told yuh, e’s comin’ wiv us.”
Now, I just ‘ave to ‘elp that little squirt, Roger. ‘e needs some excuse to bunk off from his folks. Bloody parents. Never give us no freedom. ‘old on. I got it…
“Tell your old man we’re gonna go train-spotting, Rog,” I said.
Yeah, that’s right. “OK, Jimmy”. That’s ‘ow we do it. No ‘but’s.
Jimmy’s crazy. You can’t run a gang with a toddler. I tried to tell him, but he’s got a short fuse – I know all about that. We’ve been a good team, though. No one makes fun of me for being teacher’s pet, now. I can’t help liking books. They take me away. When I’m at home, I can hide under the stairs and read something like ‘The Book Thief’, so when my dad comes home drunk and beats up my mum, I can imagine the yelling and banging is part of the story.
“You got it sorted then, Jimmy?” I asked.
“‘Course. No sweat. Meet you at 2, at the back entrance, yeah? They’ll ‘ve closed ‘n gone ‘ome by then.”
“What about you, Colin? Are you coming?” I asked.
“Course ‘e’s comin, dumbfart,” Jimmy said. “‘Ow else are we gonna carry the stuff out?”
“Yeah, guess so,” Colin said.
It was a real pain talking to Colin. Took him ages to answer the simplest question. But, Jeez, the stuff he came out with. Wasn’t a day in his life he couldn’t describe in detail. He was a walking diary. Wasn’t till much later I found out he had a condition called hyperthymesia. Poor kid. His brain was on ‘Record’ 24/7.
So now, we were gonna do a job at the Crossroads Cafe. They only opened till lunch. Small place, few staff, you know the kind of place. Nice for families. I didn’t really want to do it, but Jimmy talked me into it. And I needed a bit of extra cash – my girlfriend likes clothes, make-up, and all that, so I was savin’ up to get her one of those fancy gift sets from John Lewis. Pricey, but she’s really gonna like it. Yeah, she won’t run off with that dickhead from 7A now.
I’m n… not a criminal. I… I… I’m not going in. It’s d… d… dangerous, and… and it could ruin my ch… my ch… my chance of getting to university. Three weeks ago, at ten past six, I was walking p… p… past the library when two dudes from school stopped me. They wanted to… to… to sell me something. I tried to… to… to walk away, but they kept getting in front of me. No, I’m n… not a criminal. With Jimmy I feel safe. I like to st… st… stick around him. But this job, Jeez, him and Paul can do it. They… they… they can break into the Cafe. I’ll just be round the front, keepin’ an eye out.
“Paul, pass me the bloody screwdriver! No, the other one, dick’ead!”
“They must’ve changed the lock, the bastards. Looked like a piece o’ cake last week.”
“Can we go now, Jimmy?”
“Shut it, will yuh?! We ain’t done nuffing yet.”
“Got it! I love that crack of splitting wood. And the smell o’ the dust – awesome, eh, Paul?
“Look, Jimmy! They got booze! And fags! They must ‘av real money to buy all this stuff.”
“What did I tell yuh? Come on. Let’s get the till.”
“Can I take this, Jimmy?
“This tablet. Looks pretty flash. Must have…”
“Fuck it, Paul, take whatever you want. Now, ‘elp me find the bloody till. Ah, there it is. ‘old on…”
“It’s the latest Mac. I think I’ll go outside and check it out.”
With my little legs, I found it difficult getting high enough to peer through the windows. I kept running from the back of the Cafe to the front. I was scared, excited. I wanted to know what was going on, but knew I shouldn’t be there. Through the smashed door, I could hear Jimmy swearing.
“What’s this?” he screamed. “It’s fuckin’ empty! Bastards! Must have hidden it. They don’t do the bankin’ ‘til Friday. Must be round ‘ere somewhere. Oy, Col, come back ‘ere. Come ‘n find the bloody till.”
I heard more swearing. China, glasses, crashed to the ground. Chairs got kicked around. Vases and menu-holders flew across the room. Then…
“Bingo! Got it!”
Jimmy found the cash box in a recess behind the mirror. He levered it open with a carving knife.
“What?! Just 25 quid?! Who are they kiddin’?”
“Jimmy!” I screamed. “The cops are coming!”
“What? No burglar alarm?”
There was a plate of chocolate brownies on the counter. I could see them from the doorway. I haven’t the foggiest idea what made me do it, but I ran inside the Cafe – just as Jimmy ran past in the other direction – and grabbed the biggest brownie on the plate.
Panic. No one here. What to do?
“Roger! Move your arse!”
Together, we ran towards Greenwich Park. I’d never seen our gang leader so rattled, so terrified.
“Col, take this!” he shouted. “Hide it in your clothes. “Paul, stick this in your pockets! Get to the Park! I’ll see you at the bandstand!”
Colin grabbed my hand. I thought at first he wanted to help me, but he was forcing me to take the money they’d stolen from the Cafe. The police were right there. I had to run faster, faster, but then I stumbled. As my face hit the turf, my child-like eyes glimpsed the chocolate brownie in my hand. At least that was safe.
A lot of water had passed under the bridge since then, but I remember to this day how one of the police officers picked me up like a doll, her breath in my face, glossy hair tied behind her ears. They soon caught Jimmy – he wasn’t as tough as he made out. Started crying when they got him. He was sent to a youth detention centre in Norwich. Never saw him again. His friend, Roger, did well – ended up a policeman himself. There was a picture of him in the Morning Chronicle just last week. And my brother, Paul? Well, what do real brothers do? He made sure we always picked the right mates after that. The brush with the law brought us together like no amount of parental guidance could ever do.