On Saturdays Jon and I take the bus into town and go stealing. The bus chuffs and chugs, down the small country lanes, with branches lancing out of the hedges to clatter against the windows, while everyone sits wet and hunched inside, like unhappy chickens inside the damp swelter of the coop.
Town is 60’s bleak: a concrete scab amongst all the green. And there is nothing there: a Woolworths, five inhospitable pubs, a travel agents with bright, optimistic light spilling around the destination cards stuck in its windows; a three screen cinema with red velvet seats, the arm rests all worn down to the nubby beige thread. A set of concrete blocks arranged haphazardly beside the council chambers and county courts. All of it named after a forgotten saint.
We trek round Woolworths, stuffing penny sweets into our coats, steam rising from our damp backs. Jon always braver than me, acting like he had nothing to lose; a ruffian. Underneath his lank hair: a sneer.
Me, my reality is more prosaic: I steal nothing. Instead I follow Jon down the ranks of cheap kitchenware, winding through aisles of thin, polyester pillows, my heart furious and fiery with terror, because I am secretly a civilian, a citizen. I am no more likely to shoplift from Woolies than I am to rob an old lady at gun point. Not even a lookout, because later, in the corner of the grey echoing multi-storey car park, I am almost boastful in my tales of near misses: I would of, but the man in the blue shellsuit had the look of a store detective, else I definitely would of. My mouth working to convince myself as much as Jon against the cowardice that compresses my hypocrite heart.
And one day, I know that Jon knows it too. He says:
“This is bullcrap. You’re scared. You never do anything. You’re a coward.”
My mouth works up and down, supplying the mechanism to say the words that my brain won’t supply – a piston rasping away to itself; wearing down. Why won’t my brain pull the pin and provide the words that my piston mouth needs? Because they are words that could lead to terrible things: prison and ruination; tall policemen with black hats and boots who will treat me with the polite and courteous contempt that a criminal deserves. I see my mother weeping, leaning against a white institutional wall, while road safety posters and duty rosters glare down from overcrowded notice boards.
But I am trapped. The brave person’s option is to refuse. To confess: no, I will not steal from Woolworths because I know that theft is wrong and secretly I am ashamed that I associate with someone who would flout laws and moral codes so flagrantly just to acquire sweaty fistfuls of fizzy fish. Heroes would stand now and say “I am sorry Jon, but our lives are precious, our time scarce and there is so much more to do than pilfer for petty thrills. But I am not a brave man. It is 1993 and I am uncomfortable teenager with one friend and little imagination.
We head back to Woolworths.
Jon’s voice is low and bubbles with spite: ‘you better thieve something pretty spectacular, less on Monday morning I’m telling the whole class how much of a little prick you really are.” So we got through the double doors, with their chrome frames and finger-smudged glass, back into the rank damp stink of the department store. Up and down the aisles we go, Jon behind me, the rough feel of his anger pressing against me, pushing me up and down the corridors of goods, looking for something to rob.
And what to choose for this sacrificial offering? What token to propel me from the light into the dark of being a criminal mind? We cruise the shelves of music, but there’s nothing here – the cassette cases are all empty and the kiosk is too close. Perhaps I can snatch a batch of blank tapes – five Memorex cellophaned together. But no. These are kept in the cashier’s eyeline. Too risky and a sure sign that the company knows it is an easy victim of teenage crime and protects itself accordingly. From the corner of my eye I can see the bland but eloquent warning ‘Shoplifters will be prosecuted’.
Meanwhile, all this time, my minds is narrating its rushing stream of desperate logic. If we take too long, we will look suspicious; they have seen us leave and come back again; murders always return to the scene of the crime; looking too closely will make you look guilty; not stopping at all makes you look guiltier still. And then, there is was.
We are in the kitchenware section and hanging from a long finger of metal a solitary pairing knife dangles, beckoning. Cable-tied to a rectangle of white cardboard with a drawing of tomato slices on it, the knife is perfect. After all, what boy doesn’t appreciate the potency of a knife? Jon couldn’t argue that this wasn’t a suitable object to pocket. The sharp blade added its own danger – weapon. It is also on one of the end displays so out of sight of the tills and customer browsing mugs an aisle away.
I stand there and stare at the knife and it stares back, goading me. Its dull, black plastic handle and short snub-nosed blade are as distant and precious as the crown jewels. I feel Jon’s breath on my neck as he presses over my shoulder to see what I have decided to pocket. In his dsire to see more, or to intimaidate me and prove that this act of rebellion and danger is beyond me, he is jostling, pushing me into the display. An image flashes through my head of a startled shop assistant finding me impaled on rows of hooks that jut twenty centimetres from the metal backing.
I push Jon back and he wheels back. His reaction overemphasised, almost dramatic enough to draw attention. He’s having fun and more importantly, I suspect he wants me to get caught.
“Go on, grab it.” His hiss is stagey and in my ear sounds like a shout that should echo as faraway as bedding and light fixtures, over at the other side of this store. I tell him to eff off, and nudge him backwards again.
“Give me room you git.”
And I realise that if I pull this stunt off, I have beaten him. Anyone can rob fistfuls of pick n mix: reach a grubby hand beyond the ranks of plastics lids to squelch together gummy sweets. But this. This is something real and serious, beyond playing at tough. An action that might even stretch outwards away from my awkward, sweaty, uncomfortable self and towards that shimmering other, the willow o’ wisp of Cool. Not cold, like September mornings huddling towards school. But Cool, with it’s capital C and its undefined promise of a sweeter life. What happens in Cool is nebulous and unreal on the outside, but it’s rewards and riches, I’m sure, would swim drastically into life once you have arrived there. A psychic Brigadoon that straightens your back, makes your long hair less greasy, clears the galaxies of blackheads that sprawled across the map of your face.
My hand travels a million miles to get to the knife. It takes years. Civilisations rise, prosper and crumble in the time it takes for my arm to extend and my fingers to open and touch the mat roughness of the card backing.
And the knife fights back. The friction between the card and the metal hanger it is suspended from, means I have to wiggle it along the length of the hook. At the end of the hook, it turns up slightly towards the bulbous rubber tip at its end. Like a tired child, the knife sits at the bottom of this small slope and refuses to go any further, no matter how hard I tug.
Suddenly everything, I mean everything, rushes in. Space puckers around me, the shop’s lights get brighter, the shushing noise of people shopping becomes a clamour. Above it all the PA system announcing “Patricia to Aisle 3, please” screams above everything else. Are we in aisle three? Have I been discovered? Patricia flashes in my mind as having forearms that bulge with muscles, like Popeye’s. In fact even the two anchor tattoos are there. Her hands like steel grabbers grasping me firmly by the throat. I gag as I feel them clamp down on me. Quick, my heart yammers, quick.
A final yank and the knife lurches over the upturn and rubber stopper and comes free.
In my hand, the knife and its packaging feel huge: too big to fit in any of my pockets. Pulling up my jacket and T-shirt to stuff it down my jeans seems too ostentatious a gesture, especially with Patricia and her car-crusher hands coming my way. Pushing the knife down my top also feels like it would draw attention as well. I curse myself for having not planned this better. There’s no option but to hold the knife in my hand as discretely as possible and just walk out of the shop. So that’s what I do.
With every step, the exit shrinks further away from me. Shoppers crowd aisles and lurch in front of me, like so many obstacles. Where’s Jon? I can’t bear to turn my head to see if he’s following me. I imagine him behind me, making exaggerated pointing signs, leaping and waving, miming look look, thief. Inside my chest I feel a flush of hatred. I hate Jon so much that for a second it’s so hot that the fear shrinks back, my breathing stills, I feel calm. Knowing that I am going to effing kill that prick becomes a boost, a charge of calm, and I am out.
Wet September rain slaps me, tugs my coat. I ma outside and still calmly walking – fast yes, but calm – past the butchers, past the Lord Harding public house, past the travel agent with its Corfu package holidays and cut out palm trees, to the carpark, lower level two.
“Man, that was a rush” Jon is shouting. My breath is coming in huge gasps, as if I have run miles. “Let’s see it,” Jon says, and I hold out my hand, with the purloined knife sitting on my palm. The card backing is squashed and soggy where I have grasped it so tightly. We both stand and stare at this stolen article, as if it was some alien emblem, out of place and disturbing, like a sunbather in the Arctic.
It is five o’clock and autumnal dark is seeping through the cloth of the sky. Our corner of the car park is becoming a square of darkness. As a car swings past, its lights wash us and Jon and I turn our faces up in surprise. The white Os of our surprised faces are a guilty white. We run to the bus station.
For days I wait to feel different, for the miasma to part like a curtain so I can enter the realm of cool. But the shimmer never recedes. Jon tells people at school. He at least is impressed, but no one else is. Sarah Black and Tracy Bills jeer ‘thief, thief, thief’ at me in the corridor on Tuesday as I walk past them on the way to Maths. The words tear at me and panic dives into my chest causing a splash I thing the whole school will hear. I look around to see if any teachers have heard, but the corridor is a huddle of children. Even so the fear continues to do back stroke up and down my heart for the rest of the day. Now I’m also terrified that Thief might become a nickname.
I’ve kept the knife in the back of a draw in my bedroom. It’s still attached to its cardboard backing. I’m unsure what to do with it. I worry that if I remove the packaing my mum might discover it in the bin. I can’t face that confrontation – why do you need a pairing knife? Me: wordless and shifting from foot to foot under her concerned gaze. It sits there like the key to a lock that has been lost. Somehow this cheap kitchen utensil grants me access to a place I desperately want to be but don’t understand. Sometimes I take it out of its hiding place and just stare at it. If it looks back at all, it’s to accuse me of some stupidity. It goads me, reminding me that I own something sacred and precious but am too callow, too ignorant, to know how to use it.
Jon telephones the next Saturday and the Saturday after asking if I want to catch the bus into town to go shopping. He adds an emphasis to the word shopping. I say no; make my excuses.