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The Blueprint

 

THE BLUEPRINT

A novel by Marcus Bryan

 

Text copyright © 2012 Marcus Bryan

All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents

PROLOGUE 6

Act One 16

SCENE I 17

SCENE II 29

SCENE III 42

SCENE IV 60

Act Two 81

SCENE V 82

SCENE VI 103

SCENE VII 119

SCENE VIII 144

Act Three 179

SCENE IX 180

SCENE X 200

SCENE XI 224

EPILOGUE 248

 

 

So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,

Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost;

Evil be thou my good: by thee at least

Divided empire with heaven’s king I hold

By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;

As man ere long, and this new world shall know.

 

I used to have a family.

I used to have friends.

I used to have a girlfriend.

I used to have a future.

I used to attend a reasonably well-regarded university. I was once on course for an upper-second class honours degree, then – with a little help from my father, or one of his friends – a half-decent entry-level graduate position at a London IT company. With a little effort I’d have found myself on £35k a year by the time I reached my mid-to-late twenties. Thirty-five grand is nothing to sniff at. That’s a second-hand Audi kind of a salary.

I used to have freedom, in the strictly legal sense of the word.

I don’t have any of those things any more. I traded them for the chance to try my hand at armed robbery. It sounds like kind of a stupid idea, now that I see it written down; especially when one considers that the place I pulled my heist on was a Marks & Spencer mini-market. Perhaps I should’ve written it down before I went through with it.

Why did I do it? I don’t really know, to be honest. I’ve always suspected that Hollywood might be partly to blame. Maybe I’m just easily led. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all about a girl.

 

[] PROLOGUE

IN MEDIAS RES

Sixty years from now, when I’m sat in a chair at the old folks’ home and wondering when the grandchildren whose names I can’t recall will pay me a visit, I’ll still remember every detail of my seventh-year school disco. By then I was old enough that the prospect of snogging a prepubescent girl was within possibility, but young enough that the prospect of actually talking to one brought on waves of pants-soiling terror. I was not alone, either, in feeling a combination of wild excitement and crippling nerves. The opening act of the disco was spent with every male butt-cheek parked on one side of the hall, and every female one on the other. The teachers took turns sneaking out for cigarettes and standing inside, checking their watches.

I didn’t have a watch to watch, so I don’t know exactly how long everything stayed that way, but I do remember that I’d drained eight cans of Irn Bru by the time first contact was established. The most popular arses eventually unpeeled from the walls and started to drift toward the centre of the hall, and toward one another. Drunk on e-numbers and food colouring, I eventually decided to join them. I had a target in mind, as well. Lucy Cogburn. She sat four seats away from me in maths. She had a different hairband for each day of the week. I think she lent me her rubber once.

Not far into the walk my misplaced bravery jumped ship, and I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. From the way Lucy’s eyes were fixed on me, something like dread in them, she must have known what I was going to say. The problem was that I had no idea what I was going to say.

‘Hi Lucy,’ I mumbled, lips stuck together with sugar-syrup. Her friends, all gaggled around her, tittered. Lucy herself seemed to wince. No language came back at me, though, so I was forced to persist.

‘Do you want to, erm…’ The words tailed off. Want to what? Dance? Even the cool kids weren’t dancing. Fuck? I still wasn’t quite sure what that entailed.

‘Want to what?’ she asked. I desperately pushed the first thing my twelve-year-old brain could squish out through to my mouth.

‘Wannabemygirlfriend?’

Half a second before I’d blurted it out the song finished playing, and I found myself in the no-man’s-land between tracks that you tend to get with the DJs who play seventh-year discos. My words echoed throughout the school gymnasium. In the silence, I could feel the stares of my classmates welding themselves to the back of my scalp. Lucy’s face had gone all pink.

‘No. Sorry,’ she said.

Then the titters erupted into full-blown laughter, resounding front and behind me, and I had to make the long walk back to the boys’ side of the hall, where I would remain for the rest of the evening. I don’t know why that particular humiliation has stuck with me for all of these years; I’ve done plenty of embarrassing things since then – Christ, I’ve done more embarrassing things this week, even – but it has. Formative experiences and all that, I suppose. Even at the time I couldn’t have told you the name of the song that accompanied my lonely trudge back across the disco, nor who sang it, but if it ever came on the radio I’d recognise it straight away from the sudden, irrational surge of blood to my cheeks.

It’s strange how your brain works, sometimes. I remember that a few months ago my housemate and I were watching TV, and all of a sudden he started scowling. When I asked what was up with him he didn’t know, he just knew he was pissed off about something. It happened more than once; we’d be sat there trying to guess the answers to one of those four-in-the-afternoon quiz shows with a barely comprehensible rulebook when a dark shadow would come over his face and he’d spend five minutes being all morose and snappy. As it turned out, there was a new advert doing the rounds – I think it was for coffee – which made the exact same sound as his alarm clock. Not being the type to enjoy being shaken out from beneath his duvet, this sound would Pavlov my friend back into the grumpy pre-midday version of himself.

I suppose now might be a good time to explain why I’m telling you these tedious anecdotes. In part, it’s probably a half-hearted attempt to win your sympathy. If you feel sorry for me because I got rejected by a girl during secondary school, it might take the edge off when I get around to telling you about the murders. In another part, it’s because I needed to segue into the subject of Pavlovian reflexes, since this narrative begins with me adding a new one to my resume. Apparently, the sound of gunfire in movies now causes my adrenal and sweat glands to fall open and leak their contents into my veins and out of my armpits.

I discovered this fact just a couple of moments ago, when a calamitous BANG yanked me out of sleep, cracking through my dreams and flinging me back into reality. My eyes wheeled open and found a twenty-foot bald man pointing a revolver at my head. I suppose that some part of my brain had noticed the edges of the cinema screen, but I was too busy scrabbling around inside my jeans, trying to get hold of my own gun and start filling the gigantic, terrifying bastard full of lead to pay any attention to it. After a good minute of rummaging consciousness catches up with reflex, and I remember that my gun isn’t in my trousers anymore. Also, the man threatening to kill me is Jason Statham. Also, the girl sat about three seats over is wearing a disgusted look, and pointing it at me. Now I’ve got my wits halfway back, I’m not surprised by this; I am sitting on the back row of a cinema jerking my hand around in my pants, after all. I hold her gaze for a moment, then another gunshot clatters through the auditorium and I go leaping into the row in front for cover. When I’ve regained my senses for a second time, I decide that I’m in no fit state to be watching an action movie, and that it’s time for a swift exit.

My plan hits a snag when the bald fellow who had, until that point, been reclining on the seat I dove into, decides that I shouldn’t be allowed to make my exit without first receiving a few hefty blows to the skull. I can’t help but admire the fact that he unloads this beating as discreetly as possible, so as to not interrupt the movie for anyone else, first grabbing me by the neck and stuffing me into the foot well, then shooting a few short, sharp stamps into my throat and chin with the heel of his shoe, then punching me hard, twice, once in the cheek and once in the eye-socket, then giving me a toe punt while I’m crawling away, which lands in that sweet spot between my anus and scrotum.

I grope for my bag and hurry toward the fire exit, feeling humiliated. For a moment or two I consider delving inside the bag, pulling out the gun, and planting my second-last bullet into the back of his shiny head, but I quickly reject the idea. It would make a waste of those five-hundred-odd words of sympathy building I did earlier, for one thing. I do feel a strange kind of comfort, though, in knowing that I could do that, if I wanted to.

 

And so, with that sociopathic interlude, I find myself back out in the world. I’m walking down the street towards Haymarket Metro Station with blood starting to seep out of my nose and a rapidly swelling left eye, watching police cars zoom past. I have a funny, albeit entirely justified, feeling that the sirens and lights might have something to do with me. My hands won’t stop shaking. I can’t work out whether this is because of the adrenaline comedown or because it’s minus-five and I’m wearing a t-shirt. I fold my hands under my armpits and recite a calming mantra in my head:

Unless they catch somebody literally fleeing the scene with a dollar-sign bag over his shoulder, the police’s first job is to rope off the area and start gathering evidence, not to stop-and-search everyone that comes within four hundred meters who happens to be carrying a bag. Public-sector cuts and unnecessary lawsuits don’t mix.

Where did I get that? Kojak? The Wire? The Guardian? I can’t recall. I tell myself that it’s definitely true, wherever it came from, but that it can’t hurt to keep the bashed-up side of my face hidden, just in case. I briefly debate ducking into the off-license to buy cigarettes. I’ve never smoked before, but one of the many things I’ve learned from movies is that manly men fumigate stress with tobacco. I discard this idea, too: firstly because – even though I look like I’ve just lost a boxing match – ‘manly’ is not an adjective that springs to mind when I catch my reflection in the shop window, and secondly because the only money I’ve got on me is the fifty-or-so thousand pounds I’ve got in my backpack, and digging that out might cause the cashier to raise an eyebrow.

A large piece of the road has been cordoned off, pavements and all. All the way past Haymarket, I think; it’s difficult to see. As is only to be expected from our species, which has long since had to bother paying attention to its survival instincts, a large crowd is in the late staging of gathering, perhaps hoping to see some more chaos break out. The only traffic is of the blue and yellow variety, forced to creep through the gaggle of onlookers, tooting as it goes. Between brief periods of yelling at them all to go home, the policepeople mill about as though they can’t find anything particularly useful to do but don’t want to miss taking their part in all the commotion. Using the crowd as a curtain between myself and them, I too succumb to the morbid allure of the car-wreck in the distance, crouching down and peeking through a gap in the bodies and, praying that I don’t catch an errant puff of flatulence to the face, trying to piece together a narrative from the three-frame snapshots I can make out through the forest of legs and the little snippets of gossip I can discern from the background chatter.

Apparently the vehicle careened over the side of the intersection – the railings in the distance appear to be dented, and a set of traffic lights near them is bent over, like a sad tree – then, out of control, the driver must have ploughed into, and then through, the large glass building which is somehow affiliated with the university, though I never quite figured out what the how was. The biggest surviving chunk of car is now lying upside down a long way inside it. As I’m gawping, a familiar voice suddenly cuts through the generic bustle of noise.

‘[bleep]!’

Don’t say my name. No, wait; don’t shout my name.

‘Yo, [bleep]!’

Don’t say yo, either. I try to squish back through the mass of bodies and escape, but the owner of the voice has already threaded his way to my side. It’s Johnny, a friend from university with whom I’ve shared a house for the past year and a bit, and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Neither of the preceding facts means that I particularly enjoy his company, however.

‘You heard what’s happened? Some gangsters held up Marks and – Jesus, what happened to you?’

Still wondering whether it’s not too late to escape, I reply:

‘Put it this way; the next time someone in Bigg Market asks you for your wallet, just hand it over.’

He looks concerned.

‘You okay?’

I shrug.

‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘Well you’ve come to the right place, I guess.’

He turns away from me, which I find confusing until I realise what he’s about to do. By that time, however, he’s already halfway through doing it.

‘Sir? ‘Scuse me, sir! Excuse me!’ he hollers in the direction of the nearest police officer, pushing off through the crowd before I can grab hold of his arm. Feeling my adrenaline level rising again, I duck back behind the curtain of onlookers. I can still hear Johnny blabbing.

‘Sorry – er – madam; no, I’m not trying to get through, you don’t understand, it’s that my mate’s just been mugged…Yes, I know, we will report it, but it was literally two minutes ago, not even that, and if we do something now, y’know, we might actually stand a chance of catching the guy, and – whassat? His name? Yes, it’s-’

I shoot both hands past the man in front and yank Johnny back as hard and sharp as I can. As I flit out into the open for that fleeting second, I catch the briefest of glimpses at the policewoman he’s wagging his chin with. Whether she glimpses me back I don’t know; I just know I want to get the fuck out of here as fast as I can.

‘Leave it; she doesn’t care,’ I hiss into Johnny’s ear as I drag him away from the cordon.

‘But she was taking your details,’ Johnny protests.

‘She was only doing that to stop you yapping on at her,’ I tell him. ‘Can we just go home, please?’

‘Er, yeah – of course,’ he mumbles. We walk in silence along Blackett Street, towards the second-nearest Metro stop. After a long time of shooting me nervous glances, Johnny pipes up again.

‘Are you sure you’re okay, mate?’ he asks. ‘You don’t seem okay.’

I hang the back of my head against my shoulders and exhale deeply, rolling my eyes toward him and giving him a sort of sideways smirk.

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, Johnny, it’s just been a bit of a weird day, y’know?’

He smiles uneasily back. We lapse into silence once more, but now he keeps the glances as few and far-between as he can.

 

The Metro doors shut, and the stations begin to skip past, one by one. Since I’m standing up, I can read the news off the iPad of the person sat next to me.

 

Chaos in Newcastle upon Tyne

following possible terror plot

 

I feel my throat closing up, and I look away. The train doesn’t stop at Haymarket. At Jesmond, a police officer gets on. I tense up. Further up. Johnny picks this moment to resume speaking.

‘You seen ‘owt of Charlie today?’

I think the way that I’m staring into the train window like there’s a gremlin on the side of the train is unsettling him. His jovial tone sounds forced.

‘Nope,’ I murmur, still studying the policeman, getting ready to casually flick my eyes over to Johnny if he turns his head in my direction. ‘Maybe he’s been at the library.’

‘Are we talking about the same Charlie, here?’ Johnny asks, with a chuckle. When I don’t chuckle back, he adds: ‘I was there all afternoon and I didn’t see him, anyway.’

A blob of sweat trickles down my ribs. I attempt to hide the dampness of my shirt by sidling closer to the handrail. My palm is wet, and it slips down far more quickly than I’d anticipated. My knees wobble as I try to maintain balance. The cop twitches. I feel as though I’m breathing too loudly, so I stop breathing entirely. I’m too scared to chance another look in the window. My lungs hurt, but if I open my mouth now then I’d gasp and draw attention to myself. I’m going red, I think. I wish I’d at least inhaled before I started holding my breath. I count down the seconds.

‘Next stop, West Jesmond,’ says the computerised voice. As I shuffle towards the door, I keep my neck set in concrete, but my eyeballs are darting around in their sockets, trying to see if the police officer is getting off at the same time as me.

‘This isn’t ours,’ Johnny says to the back of my head. I sense an opportunity, and spin around to face him. As I do so, I see that the police officer is now standing much closer to the door than he was previously.

‘Think I’m gonna go and see Liz,’ I tell Johnny, thankful for the excuse to breathe.

The train begins to lose momentum.

‘Oh,’ Johnny replies. ‘No worries. Tell her I said hi.’

‘Will do.’ I can’t work out if it’s paranoia and peripheral vision playing tricks, but I’m sure the policeman is getting ready to leave the train at high speed. I can’t say I blame him; I’ve got one and a half carriages worth of head start. Suddenly a light bulb pings into existence above my head.

‘Do you mind taking my bag home for me?’ I ask Johnny, quietly.

There’s no way he’ll look inside it, right? Why would he?

Either way, I suppose it’s better that Johnny looks inside than the police officer.

‘Yeah, no problem,’ he replies.

I let the strap fall from one shoulder, but I don’t pass it over yet.

‘Cheers.’

As the train begins a sharp deceleration I shrug the bag off my other shoulder and catch it by the straps in my hand. I can feel the weight of the revolver inside it. Still, I don’t hand it over.

The doors open and I’ve dropped the bag and I’m walking as fast as it’s possible to walk without accidentally sprinting. I can’t tell whether it’s the policeman’s footfalls I can hear behind me, or whether it’s just the pounding of blood against my eardrums. No sooner have I rounded the corner, out of the station, than I find myself tearing away into the darkness.

 

 

[]Act One

The Big, If Not Necessarily Bright, Idea.

‘Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake by day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.’

*
p={color:#000;}. T.E. Lawrence

[] SCENE I

THE INCITING INCIDENT

Since I am, more often than not, the first one in our four-man household to get out of bed and the second-last to set out for lectures, over the last year I’ve become intimately familiar with Charlie’s morning routine. So much so that I can tell exactly what the lazy bastard is up to just from the different noises that come crashing through the sitting room doorway.

Bippippipp! Bippippipp!

That’s his alarm clock going off. Charlie is one of the few people in the world who needs to set an alarm to make sure he wakes up by midday.

[_ Keerrreuuughkk…WHUMP!!_]

That’s him falling out of bed as he stretches over to his chest of drawers, in a desperate, sleepy lunge for the snooze button. Sometimes I like to move the alarm clock just a few inches out of his reach, because I know that this will inevitably cause him to fall out of bed. Yesterday was one of those times.

‘FUCK!’

That’s him giving voice to his bewilderment at suddenly finding himself on his bedroom floor.

Clunk!

That’s him trying to stand up and careening into either his doorframe or his chest of drawers. He’s still not quite awake, bless him.

‘MOTHER FUCKER!’

Okay. He’s probably pretty well woken up, now.

[_ Psssssshhhhh…Thunk!_]

That’s him putting the kettle on.

[_ Zerrrp…Zerrrp…ZeeerChing!_]

BANG! BANG! BANG!

That was him attempting to use the tin opener, and expressing frustration at said task’s level of difficulty. Charlie, as I’m sure he’s willing to admit, has a pretty short fuse when he’s gone eight hours without a cigarette, even if he’s spent those eight hours sleeping. For this reason, I’m not going to go and wish him a cheery good-morning just yet.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Brrrrreeeeeuggggh…

That’s the microwave. I assume he’s given up on cooking anything and has opted to have last night’s leftovers for brunch instead.

Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk…Kahchook! Kearrreeekk…

That’s him traipsing past the living room and going outside – not closing the front door behind him – for the first of his dodecadaily nicotine fixes. Sure enough, a cloud of smoke and vapour soon starts to drift past the living room window. As a train pulls into the Metro station opposite our house, I can hear him trying to entice one of the Wednesday morning walk-of-shamers, tottering home in bare feet with pairs of high-heels hanging limply from their arms, into a conversation.

‘Hey!’ he shouts. ‘Just because I’m dressed this way, it doesn’t mean you’re allowed to look at me like I’m some kind of sex object!’

‘Oh fuck off, you prick,’ the girl groans back in return, her voice heavy with hangover and post-coital regret. Charlie tries again with the next one.

‘Hey! Just because I’m dressed this way, it doesn’t give you the right to look at me like I’m some kind of sex object!’

He’s never been a great one for variety. Remarkably, though, his second attempt goes over a lot better than his first one. I suppose if you tell enough people you’re the second coming of Christ you’re bound to hit upon some disciples eventually, provided that you do it in a confident-enough voice. The second girl seems far more at ease than her predecessor, as though she gets heckled by half-naked boys on a regular basis.

‘I was looking at you like you’ve got a spare cigarette, actually.’

I see her hand floating in the window as Charlie offers her the pack. I squint to make sure I’m seeing it right. I think, think, she’s got a naked woman tattooed on her hand, one leg stretched down her index finger and the other bent, with its knee resting on the knuckle of her thumb.

‘Now, forgive me if I’m wrong here, but you seem like the kind of lady who appreciates cheap booze and loud music,’ I hear Charlie say.

‘Y’know, I should be offended by that, but I just spent a forty-five minute train journey with an old woman glaring at me like I was handing out abortion clinic flyers, so I’ve decided that mankind’s opinion isn’t worth my time.’

‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Charlie replies, in a proud and happy voice. ‘Hence the attire. All I’m saying is, if my talent for sniffing out boozehounds and Clash fans has steered me right, you’re exactly the sort of person who should come down to see my band at the Governor’s Arms on Saturday night. And if I’m wrong, you can always start chucking bottles at the stage. Since you also strike me as the type to enjoy a bit of casual vandalism, it’s a win-win proposition.’

Silence.

‘Come on – help me out,’ Charlie presses. ‘The more pretty girls there are in the crowd, the easier it is for me to pretend I’m a famous person.’ He’s always been a big believer in telling girls they’re pretty. He thinks it’s less tawdry than saying they’re fit, and less disingenuous than saying they’re beautiful. He thinks ‘beauty’ is too important a word to let his penis define.

Again, there is silence. The sound of it makes me feel awkward, even with the pane of glass keeping it safely outside. Moments like this make me thank God I’ve got Liz.

‘There’s my number. Text me the address,’ I suddenly hear the girl say. I take back my thanks and curse God instead, because I know that if I’d been in Charlie’s shoes he wouldn’t have treated me quite so favourably.

After finally closing the front door and going to shuffle around in the kitchen some more, Charlie makes his entrance into the living room, carrying a pizza box and clad in his red Y-fronts with the Soviet hammer and sickle emblazoned over his package. The major impetus for this purchase was to irritate Freddy, our housemate. Freddy is one of those guys that only seem to exist at universities, who maintain that communism would have worked brilliantly if it wasn’t for Stalin’s habit of murdering anyone who looked at him sideways. But more about him later. Freddy, I mean, not Stalin. Across Charlie’s stomach is a phone number hastily scrawled in black lipstick. He stands in front of the mirror for several minutes deciphering it and transferring the data into his mobile.

‘Does that look like a one or a two to you?’ he asks.

‘It looks like she didn’t really want to give you her number,’ I reply.

‘We’ll call it a two,’ He decides, tapping the screen a couple more times and then throwing his phone onto the coffee table. He yawns, and wraps his arms round himself. ‘It’s getting to be that time of year where it’s no fun to be a smoker,’ he says, giving a small shiver.

‘I’m well aware of that,’ I reply, ‘because you never close the fucking door behind you.’

‘I like it when I have someone else to share my pain,’ he smirks.

‘Have you considered putting some clothes on?’

‘Nope. In the eternal struggle between common sense and laziness, I’ve always found that laziness comes out on top.’ He falls down onto the crappier of our two sofas. I’ve already claimed the best seat in the house; the one next to the radiator and which doesn’t have that weird smell on it from what we’ve all silently agreed is Johnny’s vomit, drunkenly half-cleaned-up and then either denied or genuinely forgotten about. Charlie opens his pizza box and grimaces to himself. ‘Speaking of laziness,’ he says, ‘can you nip to the kitchen and get me a knife and fork?’

‘It’s pizza; stop being so middle-class and eat it with your hands,’ I tell him.

‘Actually it’s beans on toast; we just ran out of plates.’

‘What did your last servant die of?’

‘I shot him in the face because he wouldn’t do as he was told.’

I sigh.

‘Fine, but if I come back in here and you’re sitting in my seat, it won’t be your lunch on the end of it.’ It’s a special kind of relationship, where you can threaten a person with a stabbing and they just giggle and tell you you’re adorable.

When I return he’s still on the vomit sofa, but he’s pulled the coffee table towards him, so now he can put his feet up and I can’t. I protest, but he waves me away.

‘Consider this pay-back for you moving my alarm clock.’

Shit. Guess I’ll have to find a new way to mess with him.

He asks what I’m doing with my morning. I hold up the DVD case I’d been excitedly tearing the cellophane off of before I started narrating his morning routine.

‘There go my lectures for today,’ Charlie smirks. He only has about six or seven hours of contact time a week, but it’s very rare – unheard of, come to think of it – that he’ll actually show up for more than half of it. Whenever Johnny or Liz confront him about his impending third-class degree, he invariably replies that he’ll be rich and famous within two years of graduation, and small trifles like university results don’t matter when you’re both of those things. To prevent any other trifling things like rational argument or common sense from casting doubt on his future of stardom, he’ll simply put his fingers in his ears and sing to himself until the end of the conversation.

‘You gonna put it on, or what?’ he inquires.

‘I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ll get up off your arse and do it for me, isn’t it?’

‘You’re right on that one. To be honest, it’ll be a fucking miracle if I even have a shower today,’ he chuckles to himself.

‘How have you ever convinced another human being to have sex with you?’

‘I just patiently explain to them that I’m gonna be rich and famous someday.’

‘That’s your answer to everything.’

‘That’s the answer to everything,’ he corrects.

 

Charlie and I have a shared love of by-the-numbers Hollywood bullshit. The more formulaic and hackneyed a storyline, the easier it is to spot the points where real-life would come and kick the protagonist in the balls, and, therefore, make yourself feel superior. Over this semester our theme has been heist movies. Today being our twenty-seventh, possibly twenty-eighth, viewing session we’ve got the heist blueprint near-enough figured out, and it’s not likely that today’s film will be throwing any spanners into the over-arching theory we’re developing. Act I starts as all the others have, by introducing us to our budding con-artist/armed robber. He is, as expected, ruggedly handsome and all-American, so as to assure us that we should remain on his side even if he starts (technically) murdering innocent bystanders later on in the movie. This is something that Charlie and I have labelled the James Bond Principle; a good-looking Western dude can get away with far worse behaviour than an ugly Eastern European can. Replace Pierce Brosnan with Gary Busey or Ivan Drago in Tomorrow Never Dies and you’ll suddenly look on him much less sympathetically.

Early on in the film, our hero’s motive for undertaking the heist will be laid out. The money tends to be a secondary factor here; greed is generally more of a villain’s character trait. Any film that trots out the old dying daughter needing funding for her operation can be safely turned off after ten minutes, in the knowledge that nothing in the following ninety will ever rise above the level of dreck. Mileage varies when it comes to One Last Job movies, but the best bet for an enjoyable and enlightening viewing experience is one where the lead character’s only motivation is to prove that he’s got a bigger dick than every other person in the cast, especially the police investigator trying to catch him, with his beaten-up car and his strained marriage.

The third box to check during the first act is to find a suitable business for our well-endowed protagonist to rob. If the screenwriter was feeling particularly lazy at the time of writing – maybe he got distracted by the never-ending labyrinth of porn and cat videos on the internet, maybe he had a Scarface-sized mound of coke to get to work on – the target will be owned by a guy who is unquestionably a worse human being than the hero, or someone who’s just as casually murderous, but is at least far more foreign. If there’s not a bad guy, per se, then the role will be filled by a high-tech security system that Biggus Dickus must out-smart. This second one is for movies where the hero and his gang are trying to steal something like a famous painting or a rare diamond – famous shit that it would, in reality, be all but impossible to sell on the black market – because it’s too difficult to make an intimidating villain out of a museum curator. They tend to avoid having their enemies fed to exotic animals.

Okay, so now we have a dashing hero, a large quantity of loot for him to get his well-manicured mitts on, and a reason for stealing said loot which demonstrates that he doesn’t really care about money. Now we can start adding some other characters for him to trade sarcastic quips with. The team is usually built out of the following mix ’n’ match elements: the femme fatale, who will inevitably end up fucking the main character, regardless of the lack of chemistry between them; the wizened veteran, who will spend the entire film resisting the temptation to say that he’s ‘too old for this shit’; the guy with obvious psychopathic tendencies which all of the other characters will seem oblivious to until he starts capping civilians; the geek, who is basically there to paper over any plot holes with computer jargon and furious keyboard tapping; and the token black guy, sometimes replaced by an Asian martial-artist if the geek character is white. Note that the character who provides the slight nod to diversity will never turn out to be the psychopath, because that would be racist, though apparently it isn’t racist to make him add “Dawg” to the end of every sentence. Last of all, there’s the rat. If there’s a character who doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned gender, age or ethnic slots, there’s a pretty high probability that he’s either an undercover cop, or at some point he’s going to announce that he’s decided to take all the loot for himself.

With all our nice, generic jigsaw pieces in place, we come to the plan. If the plan is explained before the heist itself, then the film is basically inviting you to guess at which point it will all go tits up, thus providing the screenwriter with a cheap and easy source of suspense. The ‘what goes wrong?’ question tends to be answered in one of three ways:

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The high-tech security system throws a curve ball; the alarms go off, and it looks for a moment as though our heroic protagonist and his gang are going to be caught, until someone – usually the old guy – figures out an ingenious way out. In movies where the writer was especially coked-up, the geek character might solve the problem by repeatedly slapping his palm against the keyboard.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The rat springs his or her trap. If this happens, don’t be surprised if another twist comes along, and it turns out that the hero had been expecting this the whole time. Whether through ridiculous foresight or clever improvisation, the hero will eventually send the betrayer off to the ninth circle of hell where he or she belongs. Note that the betrayer can only be a ‘her’ if there is more than one female character knocking about; otherwise the film can’t end with PG-13-style implied intercourse, and it wouldn’t be fair to the hero if, after all that work, he can’t even get laid.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. If someone towards the right hand side of the sliding scale of Hollywood disposability (Eastern Europeans of ambiguous sexuality < suspected terrorists (read ‘Arabs’) < racists < crooked cops < Mexicans < extras with their faces hidden behind helmets and windscreens < black guys < white guys < honest cops < women < children < dogs < puppies) gets their brains blown out during the heist sequence, expect the protagonist to be in one of two places by the time the credits roll: in a prison cell (a slightly more insidious implication of intercourse here), or in a blood-splattered mess on the floor. A good rule of thumb is that the lead character is only allowed to murder those who lie to his left on the scale. So Jason Statham, for example, could shoot Denzel Washington in the face and not suffer the consequences, but he wouldn’t get away with turning his shotgun on Lassie.

 

So there you have it; mine and Charlie’s tenuous formula for a heist movie. I imagine your first question after all that is, ‘Why? Dear God, Why?’ followed quickly by a suggestion that I really need to get a girlfriend. To be fair, I do actually have one of those, although to be fair again I doubt she’d be keen to remain in that arrangement if she knew that I cancelled on her last week so I could finish my graph plotting the number of people killed by various movie characters against their chances of making it to the end of the movie alive and not in prison. Possible Asperger’s syndrome aside, I guess the reason I take even the guiltiest of filmic pleasures so seriously is that they hold up a mirror to how we secretly think the world works: we’d like to believe that our crush on the popular girl will eventually be requited; we’d like to think our home nation will always triumph in the end; we’d like to think that all the people we hate will get their Karmic just-rewards; and – most importantly of all – we want our lives to follow the simple pattern of inciting incident, progressive complications, climax, resolution and happily ever after, rather than the rambling chaos that existence tends to serve us up. I think pop-culture’s what our generation has instead of scripture. I’ll probably go to hell for saying that, but I can’t be sure, because I’ve never read the Bible. I can recite Commando word for word, though.

‘Y’know what?’ Charlie says, over the din of gunfire. He turns to me. ‘I’ve just realised something.’

‘I’m all ears.’

‘I think we might be wasting our lives.’

‘You set a low fucking bar for epiphanies.’

‘Ah, but it’s not for the reason that your girlfriend would have me believe.’

I roll my eyes in a theatrical fashion.

‘Go on, then; let’s have it.’

He takes his feet down from the coffee table and leans forward with his elbows on his knees, as he is wont to do when he’s being serious. I snatch this opportunity to yank the table back in my direction. Charlie doesn’t notice; his eyes are too busy dancing in the flame of his new idea. All of a sudden he sparks into life, grabbing the pizza box and pelting it across the room. The remnants of his beans on toast slam against the window with a cartoon-sound-effect splat! My eyes stop mid-roll.

‘What the fuck did you do that for!’ I exclaim. Hence the exclamation mark.

‘Never use words to prove your point, when a grand gesture will do.’

‘I fail to see the point,’ I retort. ‘You know, unless the point was to demonstrate what a colossal prick you are.’

‘There it is!’ Charlie exclaims back at me, grinning broadly. ‘Now take that anger, that glorious, slightly effeminate anger, and ask yourself why you’re feeling it.’

‘At the risk of choosing the obvious answer; because you just threw a tin of beans across the living room, you twat! And – let’s be honest here – it’s going to be me who has to clean it up!’

Charlie is still infuriatingly calm.

‘Even if that was true – which it isn’t – it would take you, what, five minutes? Out of a day where you’ve spent two hours watching Marky Mark dig Michael Caine’s grave just so he’s got something to dance on?’

‘Still doesn’t change the fact that you’re an irritating bastard,’ I reply, my anger quickly giving way to surliness, since I know there’s sod-all I can do with the former emotion.

‘That much I’ll admit, but my act of throwing beans across the living room isn’t the reason you’ve decided that I’m a bastard. Not in and of itself, anyway.’

‘And what, pray tell, is the reason that you’re a bastard?’

‘Because it was a departure, however benign, from the established order. It’s the same reason that you get a giddy thrill from urinating in public, yet you get so weirdly offended when you see someone you don’t know doing it. We, as a species, have an unspoken agreement to not break any of these harmless little taboos, because doing so gives us permission to break the big ones, like, say, robbing a bank with a fleet of Mini Coopers. Maybe neither is wrong, from a moral standpoint; maybe it’s just that us not doing them is necessary to ensure that society continues to run like the well-oiled, grossly unfair machine that it is.’

‘You know how you said to never use words when a grand gesture will do?’

‘Yeah?’

‘How come I got stuck with both the gesture and the fucking lecture?’

‘Is that a “no”, then?’

‘To what?’

‘Robbing a bank?’

‘Less of a “no”, than a “shut up and clean the fucking window, you moron.”’

‘Come on, man! I’ve spent more time researching heist tactics than I’ve put into this semester’s coursework; by this point, if we don’t put it to any use I’ll be no better than someone who does a physics degree and then goes into accounting.’

I decide that the time has come for me to roll my eyes again. Charlie gazes back at me with a kind of mania lurking in his own.

‘In six years’ time, you’ll be sat on a sofa that cost more than you spend on food in a year, watching reruns of reality TV with a bird you’ve convinced yourself you didn’t propose to avoid being the old guy in the club on a Friday night, talking about whether you should have chicken or fish when Keith and Sandra come round for dinner next weekend, and you’re going to think: Shit, I wish I’d listened to my old friend Charlie, and exercised my God-given liberty before I had all these tedious possessions to lose,’ he says, with the bleary-eyed certainty of a drunken, homeless prophet.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ I reply, wearily. ‘If I sign up, will you shut up and watch the rest of the movie in silence?’

‘Sounds like a deal to me.’

‘Then count me in,’ I say, safe in the knowledge that within ten minutes he’ll get distracted by something shiny on the floor and forget all about it.

 

[] SCENE II

THE TARGET

Northumberland Street in Newcastle upon Tyne is a street with schizophrenia. I must confess at this point that I’m not entirely sure what schizophrenia is – I got most of my knowledge of psychiatric disorders from horror movies – so in my mind the term roughly translates as a split personality, wherein one of those personalities is a serial killer. Whether the serial killer version of Northumberland Street is the daytime one or the one that comes out at night depends on your viewpoint, I guess. The daylight one I could imagine being Freddy’s equivalent of a bad acid trip, what with the looming behemoths of capitalism flanking either side, screaming at the shambling zombie masses to come in and BUY! BUY! BUY! or, as he puts it, to ‘come in, and hand over your soul in exchange for a beef burger where “beef” is a very loose translation and some shoes from a corporation whose marketing strategy is a whispered, “We starved our infant labour force to make these, and we’re passing the savings on to YOU!”’ I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment, firstly because MacDonald’s changing their recipe is one of the few things that would get me to join a student protest, and secondly because the people working at the aforementioned clothes stores come across as too apathetic to be the minions of Satan, which I’d assume to be a pretty interesting career.

The nighttime version is the one that I find far more terrifying. Since Northumberland Street is one of the few places in town – probably even the country – where one can purchase a soul-crushing cheeseburger at four in the morning, in the last couple hours of twilight it suddenly fills up, becoming the site of a kind of pissheads’ pride parade full of indecipherable screaming and shouting, people wearing less clothes the colder it gets – as though they think the weather has called them a pussy and this is the best way to square-up to an abstract concept – and mating rituals dredged up from the shadows of our cave-dwelling past. Between the rush to get a Big Mac or a taxi and people’s panicked last attempts to ensure they don’t go another week without sex, it feels as though the normal rules of society somehow get waived. That notion gets the better of me, I’ll admit. All the more on a Friday night, since it’s the one occasion where the city’s native and student populations come into contact. Even Charlie’s insistence that he’s seen more fights on Mondays than Fridays and that this is all paranoia on my part doesn’t make the terror any less potent.

He can’t get enough of that sort of thing, though. Charlie thrives on unpredictability and booze-fuelled chaos, to the point where I sometimes think he’s counting down the days until civilisation collapses in on itself, burying those few scraps of the social contract he hasn’t yet thrown into the fire. I’d imagine it’s this aspect of his personality that leaves him unable to resist the allure of shoplifting every time we go into town together. While we’re looking around HMV, in my peripheries I notice him using one hand to bring one DVD up to his eyes for closer inspection, whilst using the other to surreptitiously slip a different one inside his coat. I tut, mostly to convince myself that I disapprove, but secretly I’m wondering whether I should ask him to nab me the Gilmore Girls box set while he’s at it.

I go back to browsing through the cavalcade of entertainments that I’ll never have the spare cash to take over to the till. When I first noticed Charlie’s kleptomania I couldn’t go into a shop in his company without my blood pressure ratcheting up several notches, but I’ve since cottoned-on to the fact that he’s got a cape of Karmic invulnerability. Not just when it comes to shoplifting, either; I’ve literally never seen him suffer any sort of consequences for his laziness, his utter lack of shame or his general lack of respect for the law; he was born with the luck of the Irish, the bastard, without getting lumbered with the traditional alcoholism and unintelligible accent. Well, without the accent, anyway. Whatever Liz says, I guarantee that he’ll end up graduating with a 2:1 and a decent paying job – you mark my words.

‘Is it coffee-date time yet?’ he asks, ambling over to me. I mime checking my watch.

‘Looks that way.’

Charlie’s been calling our little mid-afternoon meet-ups ‘dates’ ever since he found out the term sends Liz mental. About twice a week we’ll join up in town after lectures have finished – mine, not his; he’ll meet me when he’s woken up – to spend more money than we can afford on caffeine-based potions or fast food, and sit there for a couple of hours solving the world’s various problems. On occasion, Charlie might invite one of the homeless people he’s made friends with to join us: partly to get a third perspective on things; partly to boost his public image after all the shoplifting, and partly because it amuses the hell out of him to see how awkward it makes me when the other people in Starbucks stare at us.

‘What did you get, then?’ I ask, once we’re a safe distance down the street. He opens his coat. I can’t help laughing at him.

‘If you’re going to steal, at least steal something that we don’t already own.’

He looks crestfallen.

‘You’re fucking kidding me.’

‘Nope. We watched it last week.’

He bends his neck to look inside his jacket.

‘Oh, fuck!’ he exclaims. ‘I thought I got the second one!’

He drops the DVD into a passing bin.

‘We might have to pop back in on our way home; I won’t have many more chances to bulk up my DVD collection before Netflix hammers the last nail in that particular coffin.’

‘I can’t imagine you’re helping them, there,’ I reply. Charlie shrugs.

‘If they didn’t want me to steal from them, they should install CCTV.’

‘They do have CCTV.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Don’t act that surprised; there’s one up there watching us, now.’

He looks up.

‘And there, and there, and there:’ I add, pointing out the rest. ‘We’re the most watched nation on Earth, mate. Which kind-of begs the question: “How the fuck have you never been caught?”’

‘I don’t know, but in hindsight can we say I haven’t been doing it for personal gain, but to protest the fact that Britain’s turning into 1984?’

‘Have you ever noticed that you always play the Orwell card when someone’s trying to stop you from committing crime?’ I ask. ‘People who voluntarily put naked pictures of themselves up on Facebook, such as yourself, have no right to complain about invasion of privacy when they’re caught doing something wrong.’

‘Aha, but therein lies the rub,’ he says, twiddling a finger at me. ‘Who gets to decide what’s wrong and what’s right?’

‘I think even you realise that shoplifting’s wrong, deep down.’ I look up and see the mischievous grin stretching across his chops. ‘Way down, I mean.’

‘Freddy would have something to say about that,’ he returns. I can’t argue with him, there. Freddy doesn’t believe in the concept of ownership. Quite how he expects the world to function without it I’m not sure, but that is, nonetheless, what he claims to believe. One upside of having a roommate with Freddy’s, shall we say, blinkered idealism, is that it gives me and Charlie a watertight defence for the times when we come in at 4AM and steal all his food. And since Freddy’s dad is a member of one of the social classes Freddy himself claims to despise, his food is usually a great deal more interesting than our own.

‘He did tell me an interesting fact the other day,’ Charlie remembers.

‘Hmm?’

‘He reckons that the average office worker in the UK spends more on coffee a month than the people who produce it earn in a year.’

‘I neither know whether that’s true nor care enough to find out,’ I reply.

‘Pretty shocking, assuming he isn’t lying,’ Charlie remarks quietly, as we pull up outside Starbucks.

‘You want to take our money elsewhere, then?’ I ask him.

‘Nah, fuck that; I’m not doing any more fucking walking,’ he says, bowling through the big glass doors. Not having any beliefs of his own allows Charlie to pick and choose where he finds it convenient to agree with Freddy and where he doesn’t.

 

‘What are you doing?’ I ask him. He pushed forward in the queue and got his beverage before I did, and, true to form, went upstairs to look for a seat without hanging around for me afterward. I eventually followed, hot chocolate in hand, and found him hidden over in the corner. He’s not drinking his coffee; instead he’s got the cup on the table in front of him and he’s sitting, motionless, staring at it. Apparently he hasn’t heard my question.

I pull out the chair opposite and ease down onto it. Charlie doesn’t look up. He hasn’t moved since I came up here, actually.

‘Are you having a stroke?’ I ask. ‘And, if so, can I have your coffee?’

He still doesn’t react, so I reach forward to grab his mug.

‘No, no, wait. I think I’ve almost done it,’ he murmurs.

‘Done what?’

‘I’m trying to turn my coffee into wine.’

‘We’ve been through this before, Charlie. You’re not Jesus. He was less of an arsehole than you are.’

‘I don’t think I’m Jesus. Well, not when I’m sober, anyway. I don’t need God to do this; I’ve got it all worked out.’

‘You have been a fountain of great ideas lately, I’ll give you that.’

He flicks his eyes up and shoots me his idea gaze.

‘Do you believe in free will?’

‘Can’t we just we just have a normal conversation for once?’

Charlie cranes his neck around and looks out of the window.

‘Nice weather we’re having. Do you believe in free will?’

I lean back and try to give an exasperated sigh, but it comes out as a laugh instead.

‘Yes, Charlie, like everyone else on the planet, I believe in free will.’

‘Me too. See? Like this, me and you.’ He waggles his finger in the space between our foreheads. ‘Now, do you believe that human beings are built out of the same atoms as everything else?’

‘Ye-’

I haven’t even finished the syllable when he slams his fist against the table and exclaims:

‘Me too! And, last of all, do you think that atoms have free will? Of course you don’t!’

He puts his chin on his hand and stares at me in the same way he was staring at his cup of coffee.

‘You figured out the implication yet?’

I stay silent, because I know he’s planning on answering his own question.

‘If we’re built out of brainless, helpless matter, then one of two things must be true. Either we’re the same as all the dead, stupid atoms in my coffee, being kicked towards the heat death of the universe by the laws of physics, or free will exists, and the laws of physics are my bitch. If it’s the second one then I should be able to turn this coffee into wine, or at the very least into some questionable vodka.’

Finally, he picks up his cup and takes a sip.

‘Taste like alcohol?’ I ask.

‘Nope.’

‘Must be the first one, then.’

‘Looks that way. Hey, do you reckon pleading determinism will hold up in court?’

‘When you’re caught doing what?’

‘This bank heist, you idiot.’ He doesn’t hold back on the decibels as he says it. My eyes dart involuntarily from side to side.

‘If you could, like, not announce that in public, that would be great,’ I mutter.

‘If you’re this jittery about even talking about it, what’re you gonna be like when we’re doing it?’ he laughs. I’m slightly concerned, from the tone of his voice, that he’s no longer residing in the world of fantasy, that he’s really expecting me to join him in an even lower budget remake of Reservoir Dogs. Beware the dreamers of the day, and all that.

‘Isn’t the point of planning a heist that you don’t get caught?’ I contend. ‘It tends to make the police’s job a lot easier when their suspect goes around telling everyone within ten miles what crimes he’s planning on committing.’

‘Never underestimate just how little of a fuck the rest of mankind gives about your life,’ Charlie smirks. ‘Here, look; close your eyes for a sec.’

‘Last time you said to do that, it didn’t end well for me,’ I reply, with suspicion.

‘Oh, like I’m going to do that again,’ he protests. ‘Grant me at least some originality.’

Warily, I shut my eyes. The noise in the coffee shop lounge seems to ramp up, somehow, ramping up from just background chatter into a kind of tangled roar banging around inside my head.

‘Now, can you make out anything that any one person is saying? Besides me, of course.’

I strain my ears some more.

‘Nope.’

‘Let alone being able to make out an entire conversation,’ he adds. I let my eyes snap open again.

‘Alright, fair point,’ I concede. He claps his hands together.

‘Lovely. So now your fragile little nerves are eased, can we start planning this bank job?’

‘We aren’t robbing a bank,’ I tell him firmly.

‘I thought I just proved that no-one’s eavesdropping on us, didn’t I? We can at least talk about it,’ he pouts.

‘No, I said we aren’t robbing a bank. I didn’t say anything about not robbing somewhere else.’

‘Why not a bank?’

‘Because nearly every heist attempt in history has been a bank job. Or in film, come to that. It’s the first place they’d expect us to go after.’

‘That’s just because they’ve got the most money.’

‘And because they’ve got the most money, they’ve also got security systems, cameras, bullet-proof glass, big signs that say, “the tellers do not have access to the safe”, that ink stuff that explodes all over the cash if you try and steal it…’

‘So? I could use a challenge.’

‘Then do your coursework,’ I smirk back at him.

‘All those security measures just give us a chance to get creative,’ he contests.

‘Do you want to get creative, or not get caught?’

‘We won’t get caught. Not if we-’

‘There’s no way I’m spending a year of my life tunnelling into a bank vault just because you want to do things “properly”,’ I butt-in, pre-empting his response.

He rolls his eyes.

‘Okay, so what options does that leave us with? Jewel heist?’

‘Nope; all the problems you get with robbing banks apply there as well. With the added pain in the arse of trying to find someone to buy the stuff off you after you’ve gone stolen it. Same goes for museums, casinos, maybe even bookies.’ I look skyward for a minute, thinking to myself. ‘Actually, anywhere you’ve seen getting robbed in the movies is the sort of place you should wipe off your list of potential targets.’

‘So all the interesting places, basically?’

‘I’m pretty sure even a farmer’s market would be interesting when you’re robbing it at gunpoint.’

He grins.

‘Good,’ he says, ‘because caffeine isn’t doing it for me anymore.’ He glances down at his large mug of coffee with something approaching disdain. ‘I’m not even half way through this and I’m bored of it already.’

‘What did you get?’

‘Limited edition gingerbread Christmas latte; three extra shots of caramel, one extra shot of espresso.’

‘Expensive tastes.’

‘Why, how much did it cost me?’

I pinch the receipt off his saucer.

‘You don’t want to know.’

‘You’re probably right,’ he shrugs. ‘What I do want to know, though, is what places are still available for us to steal vast quantities of cash from.’

I spoon a marshmallow out of my hot chocolate and suck at it, mulling over our options.

‘Restaurant?’ Charlie suggests.

‘What did I just say about places that you’ve seen getting robbed in movies?’

‘Supermarket?’

‘Too many people, too many aisles. It’d be a great place for a gunfight, not so much for a heist.’

We sit in contemplative silence for a couple of moments. I’m pretty sure he’s daydreaming about having an action movie-worthy shoot-out in the supermarket freezer section.

‘Got it!’ he suddenly exclaims. ‘Apple store. They’ll take fucking loads of money in the run-up to Christmas, the actual shop is big, but not unmanageably big – well, at least, not when you’ve got a shotgun backing you up – plus, we can supplement whatever’s in the tills with a load of smartphones and laptops. It’s perfect!’

‘Two problems: Firstly, everything they sell in there costs at least… well, there’s a reason why we haven’t set foot in there at any point in the last two years, anyway.’

‘I fail to see the problem,’ Charlie interjects.

‘Who carries that sort of cash around with them? Shit, who even has that in their account? Anyone who’s buying anything from there over Christmas is doing it on credit.’

‘Ah,’ he mutters. ‘Shit.’

‘And secondly, have you seen the kind of brand loyalty that place has got? You’d have an easier time holding up a mosque in Gaza.’

‘Hipster suicide bombers. That would be worth seeing.’

‘What we’re looking for is a place that does good business over Christmas; that’s big, but not so big we can’t keep an eye on every person in there; that’s pricey enough to have a decent amount of transportable cash in the safe, but not so expensive that everyone pays on card…’

‘Hey, what about Topman? Those skinny-jeaned mother fuckers shouldn’t put up too much resistance.’

‘Clothes stores are a hazard, mate; some guy I went to high-school with got caught shoplifting in a clothes shop, once. He went running off, got halfway to the door, and this security guard came diving out of a rack of jumpers like a fucking jack-in-the-box.’

‘How is that not on YouTube yet?’ Charlie asks. I shrug. ‘We’re getting closer, though; it was only a minor quibble that time,’ he continues, and goes back to ruminating. I gulp down the rest of my beverage. The parameters and variables are in place, slicing away potential solutions, thinning the pool, filtering the waste – soon only the answer will remain at the bottom. Charlie gets there before I do. When he utters the correct words I stare at him for a long time from behind my cup, then I quietly mouth back:

‘That could work.’

Charlie’s face breaks out into a huge, cheek-busting grin. I find myself grinning, too, feeling that irresistible release one earns after solving a puzzle or unravelling a particularly tricky knot.

‘So it’s decided, then,’ Charlie declares. ‘We rob the John Lewis in Eldon Square, two weeks before Christmas!’ I duck as though I’m hiding from mortar fire.

Jesus!’ I hiss. ‘Keep it down, will you!

Charlie just giggles at me, but over his right shoulder I can see a kid of about eight or nine years old, dressed in a white tracksuit, staring at Charlie with slack-jawed intrigue. Charlie seems oblivious to this. I shoot the kid a quick menacing glare in the hope that it will get him to turn back around. I think this amuses him more than it intimidates him, but he soon gets bored of watching us when Charlie puts armed robbery away and takes up a less criminal line of conversation.

‘So now we’ve got that sorted,’ he says, ‘are you coming to this gig tomorrow? John and Freddy are both gonna be there.’

‘I dunno if I can, mate; I’ve sacked Liz off three times in the last week to watch crappy movies with you. I’m dangerously close to having to perform a grand, romantic gesture, and I can barely afford half-arsed romance, right now, let alone “grand”.’ I look down at my empty mug like it’s a one-night stand I wish I’d never met. ‘Why’d I have to get the large one?’ I mutter, half to myself.

‘Yeah, that extra 40p would have solved all your money problems,’ Charlie remarks with heavy sarcasm.

‘I swear, if I had infinite cash I wouldn’t even spend that much,’ I say, wistfully. ‘I wouldn’t need the sports car and the solid gold watch; I’d be happy just to be able to go out on a Saturday night without having to spend the following week eating whatever I can find behind the sofa.’

‘If that’s how you’re planning on spending your share from this heist I’m not sure I’ll let you take part.’

‘Why, what are you doing with yours?’

‘Buying the world’s best racehorse, barbequing one burger’s worth then getting the rest melted down to make glue.’

‘Why?’

‘‘Cause I can,’ he shrugs, as though that answers the question.

‘You know what we were saying about movie criminals? How they always end up hiring one obvious psychopath to be part of their team?’

‘What, me?’ he exclaims. I raise my eyebrows at him. ‘Okay; maybe you’ve got a point,’ he admits. ‘I promise not to shoot you, though.’ He gives me a wink. ‘Unless, of course, you don’t turn up tomorrow; if that happens, you’re a dead man.’

‘I told you, I can’t,’ I whine, but he waves me away.

‘I’m not sure I want to be your partner in crime, if you give up on things this easily. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and where the will is Charlie’s the way tends to be of the needlessly Machiavellian variety. I’ll convince Freddy to part with a few quid out of that pile of gold his parents have stashed in the vault behind the bookcase, and you can slip a few of Johnny’s sleeping pills into Liz’s drink about an hour before we’re due to start. Job done.’

I sigh.

‘I’ll see what I can do.’

 

[] SCENE III

MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL

A lot of movies try to justify a character’s later behaviour by using a flashback to something that happened earlier in their life. I’d like to try that now, if I may, and take you on a quick detour back to my first year at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. It might not exactly justify my later behaviour, but it might at least give you some idea of what I was wildly overreacting to.

Near enough everyone, in the summer holidays before they head off to uni, spends a great deal of time deciding what identity they’re going to try and carve out amongst the imaginary group of strangers they’ll soon be calling friends. The virgins tell themselves they’re going to be sex-addicts; the vomiting drunks are going to learn how to handle their liquor; the shy guys are going to be witty raconteurs; anyone who can stumble through Seven Nation Army on guitar is going to be the soulful musician type, and so on. It’s usually at some point in freshers’ week that they are disabused of this idea. For me, the disillusionment came about forty minutes after my parents had left, after I’d taken all my clothes out of the chest of drawers and put them all back in again for the fourth or fifth time just for something to keep me busy. During the first couple of times I’d left my door open, in case any of my imaginary friends happened to be walking past, but I closed it when my pack-and-re-packing activities began to look like mental illness.

Sitting down on my bed, staring at the new posters I’d very specifically chosen to convey a certain personality – a personality which was probably not my own, I might add – I became damningly aware of just how much I’d relied on my mates at school to paper over my shitty social skills. I was never unpopular at school. In fact, by a quirk of seating arrangements on my first day in year one, I ended up being friends with what John Hughes would’ve called the ‘jocks’ and ‘cheerleaders’ – the guys who were the best at sport along with the girls who were the best at procuring adolescent erections from the school’s male contingent. Being neither a pretty girl nor competent at anything closer to a sport than Connect 4, I can’t really claim I was one of the cool kids, but I was, nonetheless, tangentially associated with them. It was only when I was stripped of this arrogance-by-association that I realised how much space shyness took up on my pie chart of character traits. Now that the inroads weren’t already paved out for me, I hadn’t just gone a rung down the social ladder; I’d dropped off it entirely. In the space of a day, I’d become, well… a nothingness, really. A blank slate.

It was about the time that I heard a gaggle of voices echoing down the corridor outside that I began to panic. Why didn’t you just go and introduce yourself to someone when you first got here? I asked myself with regret and bitterness. Why don’t you just go out there now? It’s not like anyone’s going to say, ‘Fuck off; don’t want to know you.’ In my brain, I knew these things to be true, but it didn’t change the fact that something in my bones was preventing me from going out there and giving the owners of the voices a cheery ‘hello!’ The more time went past, the more impenetrable this mental roadblock became. I’m aware that this might all sound a bit pathetic – and it is – but you’ve got to understand that asking me to go and start an unsolicited conversation with a group of strangers was a bit like me asking you to go up to a group of shaven-headed teenage lads on a bus and say, ‘Sorry guys, do you mind if I have a quick look at one of your cocks? Y’know, for comparison.’

The sight of the sun going down, which brought with it the realisation that they were soon going to be heading off for the first night of freshers’ week, leaving me here on my own, was what finally dragged me, kicking and screaming, into action. I made a quick check of my hair in the mirror, which inevitably turned into a lengthy staring contest with my own face, and then slowly, cautiously, opened my door and followed the sound of laughter down the corridor, towards what turned out to be the kitchen.

Throughout my reluctant approach to party central I was trying to come up with a witty line with which to introduce myself, and preferably one that also explained why I was turning up so late, but all that escaped my throat when I rounded the corner was an abortive ‘Ah!’ Thankfully, no-one heard my first failed attempt at communication, because the kitchen door was shut. A pair of rather tall men were leaning with their backs to the glass pane, blocking out any sight of me, so I just stood there for a moment debating between knocking and opening the door myself. I went for the knock.

The big guy on the right looked around himself as though he couldn’t work out where the sound had come from. I’d already embarked on another internal debate – more angrily argued, this time – about whether to chance a second knock or go back to my room when the door suddenly swung open, and the tall bloke’s head was there in the crack between the door and the wall. He’d hunched himself down, trying to get down to my level and not quite managing it. I could smell the Sambuca on his breath. The bottle hung in his hand. His expression was quizzical.

‘Alright mate, can I do summat for ya?’ he asked.

‘Ah – um – I…I, um…’ I replied, as eloquently as I could. My frantic gesturing somehow managed to convey the point that my vocal chords couldn’t, because he suddenly assumed a penny’s-dropped kind of face, and exclaimed:

‘Oh, are you on our floor? Sorry, I thought we were all here already! Come in, fella, come in. What’s your name? What course you doing? I’m Tim, by the way.’ I stutteringly answered both of these questions, squeezing in and finding myself a free spot in the toilet cubicle-sized kitchen. The only such spot available was wedged between the freezer and the wall, near enough out of sight.

‘Cool, man; don’t think we’ve got any of them in our collection yet,’ Tim replied. ‘Dom’s a medic, James is a mechanical engineer…Rob’s a – sorry, what are you doing again? – oh, yeah, linguistics…’ He went through the names and courses of the twelve guys packed into the tiny kitchen, and pointed the corresponding face out as he did so. I tried to keep up, but it all quickly turned into a soup of disconnected syllables and mental passport photos, floating around inside my head. ‘…and this is Gavin, who’s doing theatre studies, for reasons that I’ll never understand,’ he finished, before aiming a cheeky grin at the last guy he pointed out. ‘Although that’s probably because I plan on actually getting a job in later life.’

‘You’re one to talk!’ the other guy retorted. ‘A bio-med degree is just a polite way of saying, “I didn’t get good enough results to do medicine.”’

‘Touché,’ Tim said, as he clutched his heart sarcastically. Then he added: ‘You know. I think this might be the start of a beautiful love/hate relationship.’

The other guy raised his glass as if to agree, and pretty soon the conversation they’d put on hold after I butted in – about their respective tastes in women, sport and movies, their claimed alcohol tolerances, their disappointment at the shitty nineties’ throwback act that had been booked for Friday night, and suggestions of better places they could all go to instead – began to regather momentum.

‘[_ I’m from down South, myself,’ I say. ‘Sort of near London, but not near enough to really say, “I’m from London,” you know? I’m pretty into sport, as long as no-one asks me to play it -’ _]

[Laughter]

What sports you into?’

The old standards, really. Football’s the big one, obviously, being from England and everything, but I like a bit of tennis and F1 on the side…’

Who do you follow?’

Leeds, and I’ll never forgive my dad for it. How about you?’

Toon Army all the way. Anyone else base their choice of university solely on football?’

A couple hands go up. Feeling courageous by that point, I ask:

Sorry mate, what were you called again? I’m fucking useless with names.’

Dan. Don’t worry about forgetting it; I never even heard yours in the first place.’

Everyone laughs.

I did briefly think that everything was going rather well until I remembered that this whole vignette had gone on inside my head, and in reality I’d just been standing there, silently and awkwardly grinning to myself, for the previous twenty minutes.

 

A couple of days later I was wandering confusedly around the Student Union, walking on tip-toe in an attempt to see over the other people in the crowd and hopefully catch a glimpse of the guys from my floor, but to no avail. You’d think that a group of twelve lads, three of whom were freakishly tall, wouldn’t have been the most difficult prey to track down, but even after four laps around the three rooms of the Union’s basement floor I couldn’t find any sign of them. I was feeling depressingly sober by comparison to the rest of the people in here, but that was self-imposed. On the first night of freshers’ I had decided that the cure for a lack of social skills was to drink six double-vodka and lemonades in quick succession, whereupon I promptly threw up all over the bathroom floor after having to be put the night bus back to the halls of residence. I was finding it a difficult line to walk; to get drunk enough that I wasn’t too scared of saying something stupid to say anything at all, and not to get so drunk that I announced that I wanted to fuck Tim’s mother – I think I was trying to be funny, but it didn’t go over very well – and left my regurgitated dinner in a puddle next to the shower.

I figured I was well on the sober side of the line at that point, so I decided to go and get a beer, then hang about around the bar in the hope that one of the others would happen to be getting another round in while I was there. Of course, it had occurred to me that my new floor-mates had intentionally given me the slip and were now intentionally avoiding me – it hadn’t stopped fucking occurring, in fact – but I tried to tell myself that paranoia, even pretty well-justified paranoia, would get me nowhere, and they were bound to let me have a mulligan for the first night as long as I didn’t make an arse of myself again in the next couple of months.

I spent eleven minutes leaning against the bar, all in a panic, looking anywhere except at the staff, searching for the rest of them. Again, to no avail. It was starting to look increasingly likely that I’d been ditched.

‘You’re never going to get served if you keep acting like a meerkat,’ I heard the person next to me say.

‘Sorry,’ I muttered in reply. ‘Just looking for some people.’

‘Let me guess; it’s turned out you’re stuck in a flat full of smokers as well?’

Smoking area…’ I whispered to myself. ‘I hadn’t thought of that…’ I was just about to scarper off to follow this new lead when I heard the voice in my ear again, closer this time.

‘Sorry, the music’s quite loud; what did you say?’ When I turned to face her, I suddenly decided against repeating my previous answer.

‘Er… yeah. Yeah I am. You as well?’

She smiled.

‘Apparently so. Fancy keeping me company until they show up again?’

‘I guess I could do that,’ I replied, with a slightly unsure smile of my own. ‘Can I, er…can I get you anything to drink?’

‘I’d better take charge of that part of the operation; if you’ve been at a nearly empty bar for fifteen minutes and they still haven’t served you, I think it’s about time you took the hint.’

‘Mine’s a single vodka and lemonade, please. It was –ah – a good point, and well made.’ I was glad the lights were low, because my face went beetroot red as I said it, but fuck it – at least I said something. After three days of being essentially mute, I was engaging a real, breathing human being in conversation.

‘I hope you realise you’re still the one that’s paying for them.’

I quite happily dug a tenner out of my wallet and handed it to her.

As I’d expected, one glance from her made the barman throw down the tea towel he’d been using to wipe up spilt trebles and come rushing over to take her order. She told him it, he poured them out, she took them, he told her how much it was, she handed over the money, he handed over the change, she turned to me, passed on the change, and said:

‘One vodka and lemonade. Want to find a seat?’ I nodded and we set off towards the upstairs section, me following behind her. Where everyone else was stumbling into one another, trying to dance and drink at the same time and spilling sticky booze across the floor in the attempt, she seemed to float effortlessly through the crowd. I was having a hard time keeping up with her, but I was determined that I wasn’t going to get left on my own again, even if it meant I got a couple-hundred people’s drinks spilled over me in doing so.

I can’t recall anything we talked about that night, as we sat on the sofas tucked away in the corner of the Union, but I can’t remember many awkward pauses either. All of the questions, all of the jokes, all of the stories which I’d been mentally writing over the previous week – the previous summer, even – but hadn’t worked up the courage to say suddenly found an outlet, and yet none of them had to force their way into the conversation. Even when I’d burned through it all I found myself with a whole raft of other things I wanted to ask her, wanted to find out about her, and wanted to know her opinion about. It only was after an hour, maybe even one and a half, that either of us remembered our housemates.

‘Jesus, how long does it take to give yourself cancer?’ she wondered out loud. She didn’t seem overly concerned about going and finding them, though.

‘I know; it kind of makes me wish I was a smoker.’

‘Well thanks a lot!’ she retorted.

‘Oh, fuck, no-no-no-no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean that it’s going to be a bit of a burden to find someone interesting like you to hang out with every time they go for a fag.’

‘Not a bad recovery. Bit saccharine, though, if I might venture a criticism.’ She smiled, thoughtfully, then suggested: ‘Would this be a sign that you’re studying something either artsy or fartsy, by any chance?’

I dithered over my answer for a couple of moments, and she used this a chance to re-phrase her question:

‘Just a second, actually; if we’re going to break off this natural and spontaneous dialogue to do the obligatory, getting-to-know-you uni introduction, we need to at least do it correctly.’ She offered her hand in a mock-dignified fashion. ‘I’m Liz, and I do the paradoxical pairing of modern foreign languages and English medieval literature. And who might you be?’

At that point in time I was still fairly certain that after tonight her and I would part ways, never to bump into each another again, so I said this:

‘I’m Dorian, and I’m doing creative writing and film.’

Neither of these statements was true, and to this day, I’m not quite sure why I said them. Maybe it was the fact that she was wearing chunky plastic Austin Powers glasses.

‘Interesting!’ she replied, looking relieved that I wasn’t doing statistics and data management.

It was at that moment that I spotted Tim’s head poking out of the indeterminate mass of people downstairs. Letting my eyes drift down past his shoulders, I could recognise at least six or seven of the people from my floor standing with him.

‘I think the smokers might have returned,’ I told Liz. ‘I’d probably better get going before they disappear again.’ I held out my hand. ‘Been nice talking to you, Liz.’

‘Oh. Right. Cool,’ she replied, not shaking it in the jokey way she had done a few moments previously. ‘Catch you later.’

I hurried off down the steps, but after about three of them I caught Tim’s eye, and saw the utter indifference etched into his expression. Feeling like a switch had suddenly gone off my head, I turned around and jogged back up to where I’d just been sitting. Liz was still there, quietly finishing her drink. She looked up at me.

‘Not them after all?’ she asked.

‘Yeah, it was them,’ I replied. ‘But I was just wondering…erm, if you weren’t bored of my company yet…Whether you fancied another drink?’

‘Yeah,’ she smiled. ‘I’d like that.’

‘Cool,’ I grinned. ‘It’s your round, right?’

 

Let’s skip forward again, to the final month of my first year. It was the run-up to exam season, but no-one was doing much in the way of studying, because – medics aside – first-year exams count for something in the vicinity of ‘fuck’ and ‘all’. The first twelve months at university are essentially a social experience rather than an academic one, and I spent most of them socialising with Liz. Instead of being locked in the library revising everyone on my floor was in Tim’s room, crowded around a novelty hat he’d bought for Halloween, which had thirteen bits of scrunched-up paper in it. This was, apparently, the only fair way to decide who would be living with whom in second year; deals had been bargained for the renting of two separate houses in the most student-friendly area of the city – i.e. the place with the highest number of bars – and everyone had gotten along so famously well during our time in halls that rational debate would be useless as a tool for finding an arrangement that didn’t leave at least someone feeling as though their Siamese twin had been forcibly detached from them. There was one hitch, however; one that had injected a hefty dose of tension into proceedings. Seven-bedroom houses were damn-near impossible to find anywhere within an hour of Newcastle city centre, and absolutely impossible to find for a less than obscene monthly rent, so the two houses being vied for were six-bedders. Six plus six equals twelve. There were thirteen of us gathered around the hat. There were thirteen pieces of scrunched-up paper in the hat. The thirteenth piece of paper had a skull and crossbones drawn on it. Whoever pulled that one out would have to find some other company to keep during their last two years at university.

We were taking it in turns to pick a ball of paper, going around in a clockwise fashion. I’d been hoping for anti-clockwise, because I’d wanted to be one of the first ones up. I’d made sure I wasn’t going to be dead last, though, because I knew Tim was going to be the first to go. Tim was always the first to go at anything, so I had squeezed myself in between Daniel and Gavin, a couple places away from him, despite there clearly being a space open for me to his immediate left.

The first piece of paper came out of the hat. House A. Mike took up a spot on the left side of the room, looking relieved but anxious to see who would be joining him next year, and in which building. No-one knew which of the two houses was which yet except Tim, who had sealed a picture of each house in separate envelopes, one of which was marked ‘A’, and the other, ‘B’. The second ticket to come out of the hat was another A. Jamie jumped into Mike’s arms and they had a celebratory hug, then the next guy put his hand into the hat. B. Then the next guy. A.

B.

B.

A.

B.

A.

A.

Then it was my turn. I was very aware of my elevated breathing, but the more I tried to control it the louder it sounded. I didn’t even bother looking into the hat. I just thrust my hand in, grabbed one, yanked it out, peeled it open. My pounding heart and my twisting stomach told me what it was going to be before I even looked. When I eventually did, I saw Tim’s skull winking at me. Maybe it had been drawn it that way to rub it in, I don’t know.

‘Bad luck, mate,’ said John, putting his hand on my shoulder. He did look as though he genuinely felt pity on me.

‘Oh well,’ I replied, in as monotone a voice as I could muster. ‘I said I’d be at Liz’s half an hour ago, so I’ll leave you lads to it.’

I went to walk out, but Tim started talking.

‘I’m sorry for you, mate, but there was no way any of us could’ve afforded the seven-bed place, and you agreed to do it this way, just like everyone else.’

‘Yup,’ I said, without turning to face him. ‘I did. So don’t worry about it.’

I can’t say I’ve ever seen the appeal of smoking – I’m not even one of those people who has a cheeky one when they’re drunk – but as I marched angrily down the road towards Liz’s flat, I felt as though I needed something, otherwise I was going to start pulling my hair out in clumps. Remembering that feeling helps me sympathise with Charlie when he gets all twitchy in the mornings until he gets his fix. They fucking rigged it! I was thinking, letting the anger roll over me in pulsing waves. They folded the skull and crossbones in a special way, or put a mark on it, or something, and they made the letting agent tell me seven-bedroom places cost too much!

I told Liz what had happened, holding back on the paranoid conspiracy theories because, as with my graphing/charting habit, I didn’t want to share that part of my personality with her quite yet. Or ever, to be honest. Her response was, ‘I’m surprised you even put your name in the hat in the first place.’

‘Technically no-one put their name in the hat; there were six bits of paper with the letter ‘A’ on them, and…’

She rolled her eyes, and muttered something withering in French, as she is wont to do when she’s saying a sentence that contains a swear word. Me and Liz never really get into arguments, because if she ever says anything in anger, she says it in a language that, to me, just sounds like adorable nonsense.

‘…And, I mean, why were you surprised?’ I adjust.

‘You weren’t all that good friends with them, were you?’

‘I guess not. It was more a case of convenience, though.’

‘You sound like my parents just before they got divorced.’

‘I’m not entirely sure whether I’m allowed to laugh at that.’

‘Your call.’

‘I’m not really in a laughing mood, to be honest.’

She rolled her eyes again, more sympathetically this time.

‘Poor little Dorian,’ She cooed. The whole whimsical, made-up name thing predictably backfired on me; it took me so long to find a moment where it wouldn’t be awkward to drop into conversation that ‘Dorian’ wasn’t my actual name – or anyone’s, for that matter, because no well-meaning parent would give the other boys at primary school such an easy source of ammunition – that Liz just kept on calling me it afterwards. She said it suited me, since I was going-on twenty and I still couldn’t grow facial hair.

‘Don’t suppose you fancy shacking up together?’ I suggested. She smirked.

‘Romantic as it is that I’m your third choice, behind two houses full of people who you don’t particularly like, I’ve already paid my deposit.’

‘I was being spontaneous,’ I replied, falling backwards onto her flowery duvet. ‘That’s super romantic.’

‘Indeed it was,’ she grinned, resting her head on my stomach. ‘I can barely catch my breath.’

‘If you can come up with a solution to this housing pickle of mine, I might even propose,’ I told her. She fanned her face in a sarcastic manner. We laid there for a while, in silence, while I thought to myself that I didn’t really care that Tim and the rest weren’t my biggest fans. If I was the sort of person Liz liked – or, at least, if the person I acted as when I was with her was – then I couldn’t really have given a shit what anyone else in the world thought of me; even what I thought of myself.

‘You remember Johnny?’ she asked, when she was done with being sarcastic.

‘Brown haired guy?’

‘There’s quite a few of those knocking about.’

‘The one who came out with that lunatic who fell behind the bar when he was trying to steal drinks? The one whose mate got Jazzy-Jeffed out of the back door by the bouncer?’

‘That’s the one.’

‘Yeah, I remember him. Nice bloke. Weird taste in friends, I guess…’

‘He’s got a spare room going, apparently. You want me to put in a good word for you?’

‘Yeah, definitely!’

‘There’s one small problem, though…’

‘And what’s that?’

‘You don’t mind living with three guys your girlfriend’s slept with, right?’

‘Erm..’

‘Kidding…’ she smirked. I laid back down.

‘Expect some revenge to come your way in the near future.’

‘Can’t wait. There is genuinely a small problem, though.’

‘Fool me once, shame on me…’

‘No, seriously. That guy you were just complaining about will be living there, as well.’

I shrugged.

‘I’d rather live in a lunatic asylum than on my own in a one-bed flat.’

‘I guess I’d better give Johnny a ring then, before someone else claims your place in the nut-house.’

‘Cheers babe,’ I said. She raised her eyebrows.

‘I can’t pull that off, can I?’ I added. She whispered something in French.

‘I’ll take that as a “no”,’ I grinned. ‘When are we getting married, then? I am a man of my word, after all.’

‘Who says I’d accept?’ she called back as she fluttered out of the room with her phone in hand. ‘I don’t know if a film and creative writing graduate, such as yourself, will be able to keep me in the life of luxury to which I’ve become accustomed.’

I’d forgotten that I never got around to telling her that part was a lie, as well. Suddenly I got the feeling that my graduation ceremony was going to be an awkward moment for the two of us.

 

The whole time me and my parents were lugging my possessions down the street I was repeating over and over in my head: Please, don’t let number thirty-four be the house with the unconscious person lying on the doormat. It was mid-September, and I was moving into the place that I’d – hard as it was to imagine at that moment – be calling home for the next year and a half of my life. I could tell my parents were thinking the same thing as me. I checked the number on the next house we passed, then did a quick bit of mental maths to estimate which door was the one I was supposed to be knocking on. Shit, I thought, it is the one with the corpse on the porch. I prayed that my counting skills had failed me and it was actually the one next-door, but of course they didn’t, and it wasn’t.

The three of us stood awkwardly with the sleeping teenager at our feet, wondering what to do. At least the boy was definitely sleeping, rather than dead. His snoring gave him away. One of his arms was shoved through the letterbox, all the way past the elbow.

‘Should I knock?’ I asked my dad. I didn’t know whether to laugh at the innate ridiculousness of it all. It was certainly an interesting choice of welcome party. My dad seemed torn as well; he just shrugged in response, half of a smile and half of a grimace on his face. My mum, on the other hand, looked like she wanted to throw me over her shoulder and go sprinting back to the car.

Our collective indecision was made irrelevant when the thing on the doormat began to stir.

ARGGH!!’ he yelped, all of a sudden, causing me and my parents to jump backward in surprise, and maybe even a hint of fear. The guy at our feet wheeled his neck around, squinting in the sunlight. ‘Whass’gwan?!’ he asked. Dad and I looked at each other for a second.

‘Erm…you tell me,’ I replied, eventually, as what it appeared was my new housemate attempted to tug his arm free of the letterbox. Soon, though, he accepted failure and turned back to look at me. After several minutes of staring, the fug of confusion lifted from his features.

‘Oh, wait!’ he exclaimed. ‘You must be, er…erm…the new guy, right?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Do you, er, live here?’

‘Nah; I was just doing a bit of breaking and entering, and it hasn’t gone particularly well,’ he told us, nonchalantly.

‘Oh. Er…’

He laughed a manic, barking laugh. ‘I’m only joking, man. I’m Charlie, by the way. Nice to meet you.’

He offered his free hand to me, my mum and my dad in turn. My mum allowed as little of her fingertips as possible to come into contact with him.

‘Now the pleasantries are over, would one of you mind knocking on the door for me?’ he asked, seemingly unashamed of his situation. ‘The ol’ digits are feeling a bit numb.’

My mum and I just stood there, too dumbfounded to respond, so my dad leaned over Charlie and rapped thrice upon the door. While we waited for a response, Charlie explained how he’d got himself into such a predicament. The breaking and entering comment was technically true; he’d left his keys in his room by accident and, because the other two members of the household were out for the count by the time he’d got home, he’d hoped that he would be able to unlock the latch from the inside by reaching through the letterbox. Apparently the people who design doors were smarter than Charlie had given them credit for.

A groaning noise came wafting through the open letterbox, followed by slow, thumping footsteps. What in God’s name has Liz signed me up for? I wondered.

‘Johnny! Did Charlie not make it back last night, or are we being robbed by the world’s stupidest burglar?’ the voice inside hollered. There wasn’t any answer forthcoming, so the voice that wasn’t Johnny muttered to itself and the footsteps came a little closer.

[_ Skrunch…Skrunch…Click!_]

The door suddenly swung backwards and Charlie – after the briefest flash of horrified realisation shot across his face – went with it, clattering his shins against the doorframe and shouting, ‘Oi! Easy! Easy! I’ve had a rough night, here!’ The tall, wide, zombified-looking doorman shook his head in disdain, and then looked up at me.

‘You Johnny’s mate?’

I nodded uncertainly. He went to offer his hand, then realised that he couldn’t reach mine with Charlie huddled in between us. He paused for a second, then concluded:

‘Can we do the introductions later? I’m barely here right now.’

‘Err…okay…’ I replied.

‘Cool. For now, I’m Fred. Freddy if you’re feeling particularly jovial. Johnny’s upstairs, somewhere, but you’ve no hope of getting anything coherent out of him.’

‘Okay, thanks, I’m-’

‘Tell me later,’ he cut in. ‘I’ll only forget it, state I’m in right now, and that will just result in an embarrassing moment for the both of us.’

He looked down at Charlie.

‘Another embarassing moment, anyway.’

‘Pleasure to meet you,’ he said to my parents. ‘Hopefully, the next time we meet, you’ll be able to say the same about me.’ He then grinned, as if to add: ‘I want to go back to bed now,’ and returned to the living room.

I turned to my parents.

‘It’ll probably be easier for us to part ways here, won’t it?’ I said. My mum nodded.

After the formalities, I dragged my bag over Charlie, who was now asleep again, up the stairs onto the landing, and called Johnny’s name. No answer came back.

‘Erm, Johnny? I repeated, slightly louder.

Yeerrrreuuugggh!!’ Johnny replied, from behind the bathroom door. His shout was quickly followed by the sound of half-digested kebab and stomach acid splattering against porcelain. I decided that I should follow Fred’s advice, and leave my introductions until a bit later in the afternoon. When I got into my room, I sat on the bare mattress and pulled my phone out.

This is going to be an interesting year, I typed, sticking a couple of kisses on the end, and sent it to Liz.

 

[] SCENE IV

FEMME FATALE

There’s a knife poking through the crack in the door, jiggling against the flimsy lock. This can only mean one thing, and that one thing doesn’t bode well for me: Charlie is trying to break into the bathroom while I’m in the shower.

‘No!’ I command, as though he’ll pay the slightest bit of attention.

‘Sorry man, it’s gotta be done; I’m meant to be going to do sound-check in about, ooo…twenty minutes ago,’ he calls through the door.

Ching! goes the lock as it opens. Charlie’s methods of breaking and entering have become more sophisticated since his days of reaching through letterboxes. I put the shower on its loudest setting, hoping that this will drown out the sound of him going about his disgusting business, but the splash of turd hitting toilet water still cuts through the whining of the nozzle, and the smell of his rancid bum-crack intermingles with the warm haze of the steam.

‘God I hate you, sometimes,’ I shout at the figure silhouetted by the shower curtain.

‘I’m just trying to spend more time with you,’ he replies. ‘Oop. There’s another bit,’ he adds, mostly to himself. I gag.

My phone starts vibrating in the pocket of my jeans, which are hanging up on the radiator.

‘Don’t you dare answer -’

Beep.

‘Hey Liz; how’s it going?’ Charlie says, in a proud and happy voice. ‘Yeah, he’s at the other end of the tub. Can he call you back? He’s underwater at the moment…Yeah, no problem, I’ll tell him.’

Beep.

‘Liz says she’ll be round in half an hour,’ he tells me. ‘She’s also slightly concerned by the fact that we’re in the bath together, but I think what you need to be concerned about is that at no point did it occur to her that I might have been lying.’

‘Why are you so desperate to convince my girlfriend that the two of us are having an affair?’ I ask.

‘It gives my ego a boost that she actually considers me a threat.’

I sigh.

‘Well I hope it was worth it, because I’m definitely not sacking her off to come to your gig, now.’

‘I’d find that more believable if you weren’t making sure you’re ready to go out the second you’ve scarfed down your dinner,’ he returns. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go make sure Sid hasn’t drunk and snorted away his already pretty meagre talents on guitar. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.’

‘At least open the window and spray some air-freshener before you go,’ I plead. He obliges, and then I hear the door slam shut behind him.

Student cookery, if I’m honest, is not a complicated business. Sure, you get the occasional maverick who will attempt to do a full-on, trimmings ’n’ all Christmas dinner at some point in December, but that tends to involve less cooking than it does blaring fire alarms, smoke billowing from ovens and would-be Gordon Ramseys lying in the foetal position on the kitchen floor. Everyday student cooking, on the other hand, comes in three basic categories: the ready-meals bought at the start of a semester, when the maintenance loan has just arrived and you’re rich enough to justify being lazy, which require no more in the way of preparation than opening a microwave door and dumping the results on a plate, or a cut-up pizza box if all your unwashed crockery is growing mould colonies; the cheap cuts of meat you haggle for at the market in the middle weeks, stuck in a frying pan, heated up past the point of salmonella if you’re feeling patient enough and mixed up with rice or pasta, along with a jar of sauce if you’ve been sensible with your money or tinned tomatoes is you haven’t; then, in those penniless final weeks, the couple slices of toast with baked beans shovelled over them – enough to fight off scurvy until you make it home for the holidays, but still keeping every possible penny free for going out drinking. Of course, there’s always the few who take it to the extremes: I do – for example – know of a guy who lived entirely off of plain pasta while he was in his first year. Well, for a few months of his first year, at least. He had to spend a week in hospital after that, on a drip and a steady intake of industrial-grade laxatives. Though I’m currently languishing between stages two and three of the above-described template, tonight I’ve thought ‘fuck it’ and gone with the bung-it-in-the-oven option – a classy, Tesco Finest version of the bung-it-in-the-oven option, at that – which has left me with plenty of time to nail the first of the two bottles of cheap wine I bought this afternoon.

I think I drank the first few glasses from a lack of anything else to do, seeing as the actual cooking is taking care of itself and Liz is happily watching University Challenge in the living room, shouting out ‘Benzene! Benzene!’ to any question that sounds vaguely science-related, then swearing in French when she gets it wrong. The more I drink, however, the more convinced I become that I can get Liz to come along to the gig – or at least get permission to go by myself – and I’ve started looking at this blurred vision and overwhelming desire to sing along to the radio as a good baseline for when I go out to meet Charlie, Fred and Johnny later.

The cooker beeps. That means it’s time to get the Bombay potatoes in. I grab the packet off the counter, but I can’t get any purchase on the little cellophane tabs at each end. After however long of pinching at thin air near the edge of the packet, I think ‘fuck it’ again, and tear the last inch right off the end of the box. Unfortunately, the packet, not realising that I only wanted the last inch to come off, responds by splitting right down the middle.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ I mutter, as the sticky mush splatters against the lino. I grab my latest glass of wine to give me strength and kick the wasted food towards the back door. Oh well; at least it was only a side dish.

When I carry the curries into the living room Liz is bent over the arm of the sofa with her eyes closed, trapped halfway between breathing and snoring. I plonk her plate down on the coffee table in front of her, comb her hair out of her eyes, and say:

‘Dinner’s served, sleepyhead.’

Meurrghhh…’ Liz replies.

‘I’ll take that as “compliments to the chef”,’ I return, switching her full glass for my half-empty one. She does that Knahp! Knahp! thing that Tom and Jerry used to do when they woke up, and says:

‘Cheers, Dorian.’

She takes a couple of forkfuls, and washes them down with a sip of her wine. I neck half my glass, and follow it up with a gulp of onion bhaji.

‘Are we going out tonight, then?’

‘Nah,’ she answers through a yawn, looking like she’s a few seconds away from passing out into her curry. I’m getting sleepy just watching her. Maybe I should just stay in tonight, and contentedly fall asleep on the sofa with Liz. Then again, maybe I should just switch from wine onto something with caffeine and vodka in it.

‘What do you fancy doing, then?’ I ask.

‘Dunno; can’t we just watch, erm…whatever show this is?’ she replies, blearily.

I look up at the TV. She must’ve rolled onto the remote control when she fell asleep.

‘What, the “Channel not available” screen?’

‘Yeah…’ she murmurs, reaching out to put her fork back on her plate and falling over the armrest again. ‘Sorry…I had to spend the last three nights at the library, doing this…ess…ay…’

The effort becomes too much, and her eyelids slam shut. I smile at her for a second, then wolf down my last few bites of dinner. Johnny left his duvet down here when we were playing Xbox last night, so I cover her up with that. Then, making sure my wallet is safely crammed in my back pocket, I give myself a quick once-over in the mirror, give Liz an affectionate pat on the noodle, and head out into the cold and unforgiving Tyneside night.

I would like to stipulate, before I continue, that Liz just happened to fall asleep of her own accord. I did not, surprisingly enough, follow Charlie’s advice and slip her some sleeping pills. Would I have still gone off to the gig if she hadn’t? I don’t know, to be honest, but I do know I was glad that fate intervened and I didn’t have to make the decision myself.

 

The Governor’s Arms is more packed than I’d expected. While I’m standing in the queue, I’m half cursing Charlie for being good enough to draw a crowd that queues up to see him, and half telepathically apologising for expecting the place to be as dead as an Eastern European at the end of a heist movie. Once I make it inside I decide that my apology was premature, however, because no-one in a half-respectable musical outfit would be seen dead in this place. Broken glass crunches under-foot from the last month-or-so’s bar fights, and that familiar, terrifying sense of unpredictability hangs in the air around me – along with, I notice, what smells like either old men’s farts or gone-off beer. Johnny and Fred are nowhere to be seen amongst the debris. Amps and guitars are scattered around the stage, but their players are absent. I’m starting to wonder whether I’ve missed the gig itself. I check the time on my phone. Half-ten. Charlie said they’d be starting at half nine, ten. He’s either pushing the whole rock-star tardiness thing a bit too far or he got bottled off after a couple of songs. Neither would surprise me, to be honest. I’m not saying Charlie’s a bad guitar player, far from it, but he also left himself two hours to hang around in the pub before he was scheduled to go on, and his level of impulse control is roughly on par with an old man who masturbates at the back of a movie theatre.

Deciding that I’d rather give him the benefit of the doubt for at least one drink than walk half-an-hour through the sleet back to the house, I go over to the bar. I intend to order myself a pint, remembering the old student adage of Wine then beer, naught to fear. Or was it Beer then wine, and you’ll be fine? I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since I’ve got a couple toes over the tipsy/battered boundary already. Whichever of the rhymes is correct, I doubt I’ll be fine, and that fills me with fear. When the barman comes over, I reconsider my plan and order a shandy instead. Wine then shandy, you’ll be just dandy. The barman gives me a disgusted look and asks me how old I am. I offer him my ID, but I’m not sure that’s what he meant.

The place is filling up, and all the seating areas appear to have been claimed a long while ago, so I wander around looking for an anonymous stretch of wall to lean on while I wait for the wine-headedness to subside. No sooner have I parked myself in an acceptable spot than some goth-looking girl – all dark make-up and piercings and tattoos that’ll need a burka to cover up when she goes for a job interview – ambles over and parks herself near me. I crane my neck downwards and slurp the froth off the top of my drink, and I notice that she’s tapping her foot impatiently. I want to ask whether this means that they haven’t been on yet, but I don’t have time to draft out a list of responses to her potential responses, then more responses to her potential responses to that, and so on. I also know that if she made eye contact with me the teleprompter in my head would suddenly suffer a power-cut. I amuse myself watching the bubbles in my drink race each other to the surface, but, as I do so, I gradually develop the unshakeable sensation that I’m being stared at. I force my pupils upwards and to the side, to the point where I can make out the goth’s chin. Her mouth is moving.

‘Jesus; I’ve got half a mind to bottle ‘em even if they’re good, at this rate.’ she says, in an accent that I wasn’t expecting, like a native Geordie raised on Only Fools and Horses reruns. She throws her empty bottle up and down in her hand slightly, as though she’s checking the weight of it, and its damage potential.

Though she’s plainly shorter then me I have to lift my eyes up to meet hers, and give an obsequious smile. I then let them drop back down to my shandy, because I can’t think of something to say. I find myself scowling in frustration. When I’m talking to Charlie or Liz I don’t have to scrabble like this, like I’m held prisoner inside my own head, internally drafting and re-drafting sentences enough times that the conversation outpaces them, checking them for offensiveness or unintended meaning, analysing whether they’re funny or not, wondering if I’ve missed the subtext of what the other participant said.

She’s still staring at me. I don’t know why I know this, but I know it. I also know that she won’t stop staring until I reply to her statement. I pull some ideas together and throw them, half-digested, back over to her:

‘The amount of time a band is allowed before people start throwing bottles is directly proportional to how famous the band is,’ I say.

‘Yeah, ok,’ she replies. I suddenly get the feeling that she’s cocked her head to one side. ‘If you wanna chat a girl up, at least do your lines in fucking English.’

My scowl deepens for a couple of moments, but suddenly a retort hops into my brain. Perhaps it’s one I’d drafted in a conversation years ago and spent too long tinkering with to be able to use it. I still spend two more moments de-and-re-constructing it, and another two working up the nerve to say it. Almost as though she understands this, the goth girl waits patiently for me to spit it out.

‘That’s one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever heard someone say,’ I tell her, ‘and I live with a guy who routinely claims to be the second coming of Christ.’

She eyes me in an appraising fashion, and then, finally, a smirk creeps up one side of her face.

‘Fair enough. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.’

‘Gracious,’ I reply, hiding my relief beneath a thick lacquer of sarcasm.

‘You’re welcome.’ She stops leaning against the wall and turns to face me properly for the first time. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’

I tell her, and reverse the question. That’s an easy one.

‘Phoebe,’ she says. Lacking anything else to do, or say, I offer my hand. She holds on to my palm, giving me a strange look. I notice that she has a tattoo on the back of her hand; I can’t make sense of it from behind the half-light and drunkenness, but it looks almost as if it’s been inked-in this morning. ‘Well done,’ she says, after a few awkward moments.

‘For what?’

‘For not singing that stupid television song.’

‘The Friends one?’

She shrugs. ‘If you say so.’ I admit that the thought had crossed my mind.

‘You’d be surprised at the amount of people who can’t resist doing it,’ she replies. A mental image of Charlie briefly flashes across my mind, and I can’t help but smile. Then, as if summoned telepathically, a voice rumbles out of the speakers above our heads, echoing around the bar.

‘I know we’re a little bit on the late side…’

I turn to look at the stage, and see Charlie hoisting a guitar over his shoulders, a guy on his left doing the same thing, a bassist standing in the shadows who’s already running through scales, and a geeky-looking chap sitting down at the set of drums behind the rest of them. A group of people to the side of the stage boo Charlie’s opening words. He laughs, and even this quiet chuckle overpowers them thanks to the heavy amplification.

‘… so we’ll spare you the introductions.’

The drums, the bass, the amps, the speakers all blast out at once. The bassist and the drummer strain to hold the two guitarists together, since neither one seems to want to play the same song as the other. The other guitarist’s chin is tucked into his chest and his arm has gone staccato, moving in discrete little plucks, up and down, in vivid contrast to the way that Charlie’s wild strokes send the body of his guitar clattering against his hips, looking like it’s going to fall off at any second. When he staggers back into the light he’s yelping something I can’t hear, and probably wouldn’t understand if I could. All the people at the bar, recognising the song, have turned around to watch. Just as the instrumental starts to drag, it all drops back into quiet again, and Charlie waltzes up towards the mike and sings.

He can’t hold a tune to save his life – not if you’re using any conventional definition of ‘singing’, at least. It’s just a demented, incoherent scrawl of sound, but he delivers it as though he really means each word, even if he can’t pronounce them. As though they’re his own words, and someone else just happened to write them down first.

As Charlie stumbles back from the microphone and blunders into the solo, his attention falls away from the crowd and towards the other guitarist. A thread of doom and violence twists itself between their eyes; they’re glaring at one another as though they’re about to fall off the edge of a cliff, and each has figured he might as well drag the other one with him. The sound gathers volume and pace until the rhythm section can barely keep it from collapsing. It’s music to make you want to lose your clothes and senses – even for someone who has sex in the dark, such as me. Charlie staggers right on the edge of the stage, where a sudden blast from the amp could send him tumbling into the crowd, but he somehow holds it there, on the edge of chaos, screaming out into the darkness. I find myself overcome. The worry that came with this halfway-drunkenness flies off, along with my inhibitions, and I want to dance like Charlie sings, let the booze loosen my arms and my neck.

‘Alright Ian Curtis, calm down,’ mutters a girl in a red dress as she passes. She accompanies it with a glare of disdain – one which is, I notice, also being worn by a group of hipper-than-thous on the chairs at the side of the room. Rather than watching the band, they’re laughing at me. I stop mid-movement, as though I’m playing a one-man game of musical statues. Then a cymbal crashes, as if to punctuate the moment, and Charlie spits out his final line. The guitars fade away, leaving just the bass and drums to gently waft the song into non-existence, and the encroaching silence throws a flood of cold sobriety down the back of my neck. I glance sheepishly at Phoebe. She holds her thumb sideways for a moment, like an empress at the Coliseum, finally twisting it upwards.

‘We’ll let him live, for now,’ she smiles. ‘Your dancing, on the other hand, might warrant a bottling.’

 

‘What did you reckon?’ Freddy asks me when it’s over. Charlie’s busy dragging one of the amps off the stage. The crowd started thinning as soon as he finished, which I suppose must be a good sign.

‘As rackets go, it wasn’t too bad. What about you?’

‘Apart from the fact that he can’t dance, sing or play guitar and he dresses like shit, I’d say it was pretty good,’ he smiles. ‘By the way, I hear you need to insert twenty quid to continue the night?’

I open my wallet. An imaginary moth flies out.

‘Yeah,’ I reply. ‘You could say that.’

He hands me a note.

‘Cheers, sweetie-pie,’ I say.

‘Don’t thank me; I’m essentially lubing you up, so you’re ready to get fucked by the long dick of capitalism.’

‘See, that’s why Martin Luther King was never popular. Didn’t use enough rape metaphors.’

Freddy smirks.

‘Oh, have you met Phoebe, by the way?’ I ask, gesturing in her direction. She gives him a look like a child inspecting a creature in an aquarium. The fact that it takes a while for me to figure out why this is shows just how much of Freddy’s rhetoric I’ve been on the receiving end of over the last year or so. Marxist dick-jokes seem like a normal part of conversation to me by this point. Phoebe raises a curious eyebrow at Freddy, as if to sign-off her inspection, then tells us she’s going to go and see if her friends are still around. ‘See you later,’ she says to me.

‘You’ve got such a way with women,’ I tell Freddy, as I watch Phoebe depart.

‘You never know where the line is until you put a couple of toes over it,’ he shrugs. It irritates me that he looks perfectly untroubled by the glance Phoebe shot him, while the one I received from the girl in the red dress is still lurching around in my gut.

Charlie suddenly appears next to us, drenched in sweat, carrying a glass of wine in either hand.

‘To think I ever doubted you,’ he grins at me.

‘Is that glass of wine an apology gift?’ I venture.

‘Fucking dream on,’ he replies. ‘I see you’ve met Phoebe already.’

I give a confused expression.

‘Erm, yeah; why, where’d you know her from?’

‘She’s the owner of the lipstick I had all over my stomach the other morning,’ he says. Freddy has no frame of reference for this statement, and his brow furrows as he tries to work out what depravity Charlie’s been up to this time. I find myself vaguely disappointed that she was not, in fact, a complete stranger.

‘Seems nice,’ I say.

‘Got off to a pretty bad start with her, though, didn’t I?’ Charlie asks, not waiting for an answer. ‘I started singing “I’ll be there for you…” as soon as she told me what her name was. She didn’t look too impressed.’

‘Of course you did,’ I laugh.

‘Hopefully she’ll have forgotten about it after another couple of drinks,’ he says. ‘Anyone who still looks like that after letting Rosie the Riveter have a go on her face is worth a couple of weeks on starvation rations.’

I change the subject. I’ve no desire to hear about Charlie’s plans for later on tonight. Especially considering that I’ll probably have to listen to the live show, since my bedroom is directly above his. ‘I take it Johnny went to the library in the end, then?’

‘Nah,’ Freddy replies, ‘he’s around here somewhere. You know what he’s like when he gets off the leash, though.’

I nod. Johnny’s inability to handle alcohol is comparable to my own; maybe even worse, because I at least try to stick within my – admittedly pretty narrow – limits. Johnny only tends to go out on the last weekend of the month, though – when he’s got all his extra-credit work out of the way – so he still hasn’t got a clue where the line between drunk enough to dance and too drunk to stand lies. Instead he’ll try to keep pace with Freddy, who’s been plundering his dad’s whiskey cabinet since he was about twelve, and Charlie, who I’m fairly sure hasn’t been completely sober at any point in the fourteen months I’ve known him. And, to be fair, he does keep up with them…until about half-eleven.

We catch sight of him over in the corner of the room, flopping about on the sofa like an upturned turtle. He keeps tipping an empty bottle up against his lips, as though he still thinks there’s beer in it. Freddy and I agree that it’s probably for the best that he continues to harbour this delusion.

My phone gives a Brrriing!

‘Ahoy, ahoy,’ I answer, holding it up to my ear.

‘Hi – erm – where are you?’ Liz asks from the other end of the line.

‘You fell asleep, so I ended up going to Charlie’s gig.’

‘So dinner and the bottle of wine was less of a romantic night in and more just lining your stomach and pre-drinking?’

I laugh. ‘Well, I’d say it was six of one and half a dozen of the other.’

‘I hope you realise this counts as you ditching me for Charlie again?’ She says it in her best ‘friendly banter’ voice, but the note of irritation behind her words isn’t hard to detect.

‘In my defence, it’s hard to have a romantic night in when half the participants are kayoed on the sofa.’ I quickly try to think of a jokey rider to add that last sentence. ‘I think that’s technically just me watching you take a nap. It’s hardly a spectator sport, is it?’

‘What time are you gonna be back?’

‘About half an hour, maybe?’

I notice Charlie approaching the table, unsteadily carrying a tray that has every square inch covered in shot glasses and wearing a ‘Happy birthday, to you…’ sort of grin.

‘Actually,’ I tell Liz, ‘You’d better make that an hour.’

‘Fine. I guess I’ll go home then, shall I?’

‘Er, okay. I’ll see you tomorrow though, right?’

‘Can’t. I’ve got a load of lecture notes to type up for next week.’

‘Wanna go for a drink mid-week, then?’

‘I don’t know, maybe,’ she replies, and hangs up.

As he’s leaning down to put the tray of shots on the table, Charlie whispers in my ear:

These tequilas took a hefty chunk out of the money I got paid for tonight, so one of you guys getting laid out of it is about the least you can do to thank me.’ I take a look over his shoulder, and see Phoebe speaking to another, more conventionally attractive-looking girl and gesturing towards us. ‘And to be honest,’ Charlie continues, ‘I think you’re my only hope. Johnny looks like he’s having enough trouble keeping breathing, let alone coming up with small talk, and Fred’s more interested in recruiting people to the cause than having sex with them.

‘That was Liz, by the way,’ I reply, waggling my phone at him.

‘Just tell her what I told you,’ Charlie says, letting his voice go back to normal volume. ‘She’ll understand.’ I roll my eyes. He offers me a shot glass. I take it and quickly throw its contents over my shoulder, then wince and splutter as though my body had just tried to bounce the horrible shit back outside my insides. Charlie is spluttering, too, though I imagine that his reaction is genuine. The coughing and the streaming eyes do, at least, signify that he’s been comparatively sensible for the first part of his evening. It’s only when he starts chucking it back like it’s water that I need to start worrying. Speaking of which, when Johnny – my little canary down the mine – notices that tequila has appeared from somewhere or other, he starts reaching out his arms and moaning.

‘Giss’ saah…shhh…t??’ he inquires. Charlie and I trade a glance.

‘Yeah, mate, no problem,’ Charlie says, handing him one of the empty glasses. Johnny gives a wobbly grin, as if in thanks, and swings the glass up in the general direction of his mouth. He gives a quick grimace as the non-existent booze slides down his throat, throws the glass back on the table with a triumphant glint in his eyes, like he’s just finished drinking Clint Eastwood under the table, and goes back to sucking on his empty beer bottle.

‘I think that somehow got him more drunk,’ Freddy remarks, with disbelief. I shrug.

‘My bank account would look a lot healthier if I could get pissed off the placebo effect,’ Charlie notes. Then he spots Phoebe and a group of three other girls coming over. ‘Aha! At last I can stop talking to you unattractive mother fuckers,’ he grins. ‘Anyone for a shot?’ I’m pretty sure his question was aimed at the girls, but that doesn’t stop Freddy leaning forward and taking another one. As Phoebe and co. take up their seats, Charlie takes up the responsibility of introducing us, because one of us is too busy coughing up tequila fumes to do it himself, and the other is staring determinedly at his shoes, because he’s just noticed that one of the girls in the group is wearing a red dress.

I lean forward and pick up Freddy’s empty glass, but since I can’t think of anything to do with it once I’m holding it I pass it to Johnny for him to play with. As he takes it, he garbles:

‘Gerrrannkshhh…Owwishh Olishberrff??’

‘Sorry mate, I didn’t quite catch that,’ I reply.

‘I believe he said, “How is Elizabeth?”’ Freddy translates. The girl in the red dress looks up with a worried expression on her face.

‘Um – how does the drunk guy know my name already?’ she demands.

‘Actually, I think he’s talking about his girlfriend,’ Freddy interjects, gesturing towards me. I nervously glance towards the girl in the red dress. Something about the glint in her eye makes me concerned for Johnny’s safety.

‘He wants to fuck her,’ Charlie explains, with his usual degree of tact. Freddy lets out a roar of laughter. The two of them have been peddling that theory ever since Johnny send Liz a quasi-romantic drunk text on his evening out last month, much to their amusement and Johnny’s mortification. I’m not all that bothered about it, to be honest; I get worse texts off Charlie when he’s sober.

‘God, uni couples don’t know how good they have it,’ Elizabeth – the new one – says, ignoring Freddy and turning towards me. ‘It’s going to cost me three figures to go down to see Alfie. I’ll be lucky if I get to see my boyfriend two weekends a month. If he was up here, he wouldn’t be ditching me to watch his mate’s shitty band.’

Charlie reaches across the table and pulls the tray of shots out of the new Elizabeth’s reach.

Personally,’ Phoebe cuts in, placing her third tequila glass back down on the table, ‘I think that if you can spend twenty-four hours a day with someone for a month and still find them interesting, you should be concerned about how easily entertained you are.’

‘You’ve used that line once already this week,’ Liz the Second cuts back, condescendingly. ‘You’ll change your tune when you grow up and fall in love with somebody.’

‘Romantics are like one-legged people, always looking out for some other one-legged mother fucker to lean up against,’ Phoebe drawls lazily. I could swear that, just for a fraction of a second, she glances in my direction.

‘Weeeelll…’ says Charlie, slapping his legs and rising up out of his chair. ‘There’s something for you all to mull over while we go get some more drinks. His gaze falls to me. ‘’Gis a hand, mate.’

As we’re stood waiting at the bar, he has a cursory look over his shoulder, then says in my ear:

‘Y’know, I think I might be in love with her.’

‘Apparently she isn’t the biggest fan of that sort of thing,’ I reply.

‘Okay, maybe not love, but I do really wanna fuck her,’ he grins.

I groan at the prospect of being kept awake all night by the relentless shaking of the walls. Charlie pinches my cheek.

‘Don’t worry; you’re still my little silver medal.’

 

Charlie pumps all the money he got paid for the gig back into the Governor’s Arms with a monomaniacal fervour which makes me hope he never discovers heroin. As the bell for last orders dingles, he pulls out his wallet, but finds only fifty pence left waiting in there for him. This quickly gets eaten by the quiz machine, as we try to use our expensive educations as a means of converting one silver coin into a last round of drinks. As you might predict from the fact that I’m studying the least trivia-friendly subject possible and Charlie’s studying as little as he physically can, this does not go particularly well.

‘So which of you girls is buying?’ Charlie asks. They all look at each other, but no volunteers emerge. He rolls his eyes. ‘What the fuck happened to feminism?’

‘I prefer not paying for drinks to gender equality, if I’m honest,’ one of them whispers to Elizbeth II. I silently admit that, yeah, I probably would as well.

‘Germaine Greer would be rolling in her grave,’ Charlie replies.

‘Germaine Greer isn’t dead,’ Freddy points out.

‘Where were you when we were doing the quiz machine, smart-arse? Fine, if nobody’s willing to be generous, shall we mosey on down to the club?’ Charlie suggests. We murmur in agreement. Phoebe picks up a leather jacket from the floor – Freddy does the same thing with Johnny – and we all file out onto the street.

‘You’re paying to get me in, right?’ Charlie asks me as we walk along the Quayside.

‘I suppose I can stretch to that,’ I smile back at him. ‘We might have to do a drinks heist when we get in there though; I think the entrance fee will basically clear me out.’

‘No worries; we’ll call it a dry run for the bank job.’

‘It’s not a bank job, remember?’ I reply, with a jocular grin.

‘Oh yeah, course.’ He lights up a cigarette, then closes his eyes for what is probably too long to be referred to as a ‘blink’. ‘We need to get in there as quick as possible,’ he says. ‘All this tequila is dangerously close to turning on me. I’d say you’ve got half an hour, tops, before I start telling you how much I love you, and start dry-humping that Phoebe bird’s leg.’

I take a moment to thank God that I dodged the shots and switched onto shandy before the band started. Even if it did cause Phoebe to label me a ‘big sissy girl’.

‘How much did all that set you back?’ I ask him.

‘However much I got paid for the gig,’ he answers. ‘Bout ninety quid, I’d say.’

‘You know, I’m starting to think Freddy might be on to something with this whole communism thing.’

‘I’m pretty sure that agreeing with Freddy on anything is grounds for me to have you sectioned.’

‘Our house is basically communist, though, isn’t it? It works pretty well for us.’

‘Yeah, but we’re also planning on doing an armed robbery next month, but I wouldn’t recommend that everyone else in the world start doing it as well. Speaking of which; we need to start getting our rag-tag band of criminals together, don’t we?’

‘You’re still maintaining we’re gonna do that, huh?’

‘The wheels are already turning, my friend.’

The tone of voice that goes along with this comment makes me somewhat uneasy, but I don’t pursue the topic any further, because the nightclub is drawing into view. The queue outside is relatively quiet, which I suppose is to be expected, since we’ve turned up to a place that closes at 4AM at half past two. As I come up alongside them, I can hear Freddy giving Johnny some last tips on masking how incredibly hammered he still is, despite having not had a drink since midnight.

‘Alright mate; you want to get your ID out ahead of time, so you’re ready to show it to the bouncer. Don’t make eye contact with him, otherwise he’ll see how out of focus your fucking eyeballs are, but you don’t want to avoid eye contact with him, either, because that looks suspicious… No – God, no – not like that. You look like someone who’s just realised he’s shat himself. I tell you what; I’ll keep talking to you as we come up to the entrance, like we’re having a conversation, so you don’t have to look at him for more than a couple of seconds. Don’t you say anything back, though, because you can hardly string two fucking words together. That sound like a plan?’

Johnny, taking the ‘no talking’ advice to heart, simply nods.

‘Good. Now, can you get your driving license out yourself, or do you need me to do it for you?’

Johnny points at Freddy. Freddy rolls his eyes.

‘Jesus, the things I do for you kids.’ He begins to reach towards Johnny’s back pocket, but his hand suddenly freezes. ‘Just to make sure,’ he asks, with his eyebrows furrowed, ‘you didn’t actually shit yourself just now, did you?’

Johnny shakes his head in an earnest, and rather adorable, fashion.

‘Just checking.’ He yanks the wallet out of Johnny’s bum, plucks out the driving license, and returns it to its original home. ‘Now, whatever you do, do not drop this, understand?’

Johnny nods determinedly. He’s got the facial expression of a man on his way to the gallows, but he is at least managing to stand up unsupported, now. How long that’ll last, though, is anyone’s guess.

The group of girls we’re with – minus Phoebe, who’s now behind me, talking to Charlie – all get safely inside, and start preening their hair in the foyer mirrors whilst they wait for Phoebe to join them. I’m the first one of the boys through the gauntlet, and I begrudgingly ask for two wristbands at a tenner a piece. That’s the thing about communism; it’s only good when it isn’t your money being handed out.

‘Got ID mate?’ I hear the bouncer say from over my shoulder. I look round just in time to see Johnny lose his purchase on his license as he goes to hand it over. It splashes into a puddle by the metal crowd barrier.

‘Sorry…rain…slipp’ry,’ Johnny mumbles as he bends down to pick it up. Half a second before it actually transpires, I realise what’s about to happen. Down Johnny tumbles, as though it’s been determined by fate, into the puddle with his driving license, taking the crowd barrier with him.

The CRASH!! of metal clattering against cobbles rings through my ears. As I go to look at Charlie, I notice that the crowd barriers – all five of them – are attached to one another. I gulp.

CRASH!!

CRASH!!

CRASH!!

Mine, Freddy and Charlie’s heads all turn towards the doorman, simultaneously, wondering which one of us he’s going to give the People’s Elbow to first.

CRASH!!

The bouncer’s face doesn’t even twitch, he just says:

‘Not tonight, lads.’

‘Guess that’s my cue to go get a cheeseburger,’ Charlie announces. ‘By the way, if anyone here caught that on video, I’d be very grateful if you could put it on the Internet for me.’

The bouncer shoots me a glare.

‘That means you, too.’

‘I don’t suppose reasoned argument is going to change your mind, is it?’ I ask. He shakes his head. I shrug. ‘Can’t blame a boy for trying.’

The other girls, laughing their arses off, beckon Phoebe to follow them inside. Shit, they’ve got two free wristbands she can have, now. Phoebe glances at me, Fred and Charlie walking off towards Northumberland Street – we’re taking Johnny with us, of course, but what he’s doing can’t really be described as ‘walking’ – and she says to her friends:

‘Actually, I quite fancy a burger now, now.’

Since my brief exchange with the bouncer left me a bit further behind than the rest of them, I’m the only one who hears Elizabeth II mutter, ‘Slag,’ as Phoebe jogs to catch up with Charlie. I stop walking, and bend down to untie and then re-tie my shoelace.

‘At least we’re rid of her, now. I think that one’s strictly a fresher’s week friend,’ the other girl still remaining in the foyer responds. ‘You know she gave that twat my phone number? It’s like being a hooker’s secretary.’

Elizabeth’s laughter disappears as they pass the velvet rope and go inside the club, and, leaving my shoelace untied, I run to catch up with Charlie before I find myself alone in the darkness.

 

[] Act Two

The Best Laid Plans.

‘You’re turning me into a criminal, when all I want to be is a petty thug!’

*
p={color:#000;}. Bart Simpson

 

[] SCENE V

RECRUITMENT

My eyes suddenly ping open. I jerk upright in my bed as my Sunday morning doze is cut short by the realisation that something incredibly embarrassing happened to me last night. Then I remember that the embarrassing thing happened to Johnny, not me, and I let my head fall back onto the pillow. A couple of, if not embarrassing, then definitely peculiar incidents did occur after I left you hanging, though, but it was getting late and I was too drunk and tired to continue narrating.

So – where were we? After half an hour of walking in the pissing sleet, we finally made it onto Northumberland Street. Freddy gave up trying to drag Johnny after ten minutes and about 100 metres, at which point he bundled the little drunk into a taxi and they both sped off into the night. It was only when we were five paces away from the golden arches of MacDonald’s that Charlie remembered he had no money left. I’d squandered all mine buying tickets to the club we never saw the inside of, and – despite the fact that she clearly said she wanted a burger earlier, and the fact that she hadn’t bought a drink all night – Phoebe’s pockets were apparently empty, too. Charlie was surprisingly undeterred by this obstacle between himself and whatever mealtime lives between three and five in the morning, because his tequila-sodden brain had provided him with a plan. He asked me and Phoebe to club together whatever spare change we had. We did – it came to just over a pound. I asked whether he was going to try to haggle with the person behind the counter, but he told me not to be so silly. He had a more Jesus Christy, loaves and fishes kind of scheme in mind.

Once he’d relieved us of our shrapnel Charlie disappeared off down the street, leaving Phoebe and I to stand alone in the drizzle.

‘So, I-’ Phoebe started to say, but at that moment Charlie reappeared, grinning and holding a guitar he’d borrowed – or perhaps even stolen – from a busker. He gave it a cursory strum, grimaced, fiddled with the tuning pegs a bit, and tested it again. After a few iterations of this he seemed happy with the sound he was getting, whereupon he plucked the bowler hat off Phoebe’s head, placed it on the driest spot of pavement he could find and threw our collection of loose change into it.

‘You need a little something to get the ball rolling,’ he explained to me, with a wink. I guess that motto applied to crowds, as well, because when he started playing the fact that we were standing there watching apparently gave the people leaving MacDonald’s permission to slow down and see what was going on. Things started off sluggishly; I could feel my cheeks getting hot as Charlie crooned his upbeat but out-of-tune little ditty, whilst those walking by turned their heads as they passed, as if to ask, ‘what is that twat doing?’ Eventually, though, a pair of drunkards came alongside and began to join in the singing. As though they’d dragged him in by the scruff of the neck another person joined in, too, and then another. The disease spread outwards from there, until even the relatively sober were adding their voices to the impromptu choir. When he could be sure he had them ensnared, Charlie unleashed the old pisshead’s serenade, ‘Wonderwall’. As the chorus came in he just stood there strumming the guitar while a dozen people bellowed the lyrics back at him.

‘I need a word with you,’ Phoebe whispered to me as Charlie was winding that song down and winding up another, amending the lyrics so he could remind people to donate generously. ‘In private.’ She grabbed me by the hand, led me down a darkened alleyway and pushed me against a wall behind some bins. The shandy suddenly seemed to turn on me as she stood there, silently staring into – and eventually through – my downturned eyes.

‘I might have underestimated you when I said you were a giant pussy earlier,’ she said. She was standing so close to me that I could feel her warm breath against my mouth, her perfume in my nostrils. I remember thinking that I didn’t have her down as the perfume-wearing type.

‘Uhh, well, technically, you said I was a “big sissy girl”,’ I replied, wishing she’d stop trying to force eye contact.

‘I must’ve underestimated you there, as well.’

‘Er…how do you mean?’ I asked, between stammers.

She took a step forward, and whispered:

‘I mean, I’m in.’

‘In with what?’

If Charlie’s tried to sign me up for a threesome, I thought to myself, I might have to kill him. But, of course, he hadn’t. The truth wasn’t much less annoying than that, though. Phoebe held her finger up to my temple like a gun, and said:

‘You’re robbing a bank.’

‘What?’

‘You’re robbing a bank,’ she repeated.

‘Uh, am I?’

‘That’s what he says,’ she said, nodding her head in what I assumed to be Charlie’s general direction. The sudden uprush of frustration allowed me to finally assert some authority over my vocal cords.

‘Considering he’s the guy who claims to be the second coming of Christ, I’d take what he says with a pretty fucking big pinch of salt!’ I retorted. With it, the breath I’d been holding came stampeding out of my lungs. Phoebe’s nose wrinkled.

‘So you’re not robbing a bank, then?’ she asked.

‘No, I’m not robbing a fucking bank!’

‘Why not?’

‘What? Because it’s illegal!’

She shrugged, and replied:

‘Nothing’s illegal if you don’t get caught.’

I opened my mouth, as if to respond, but then realised I didn’t have a response.

The acoustic guitar had stopped playing. Phoebe at last broke off from staring at me, and with a coy smile and a ‘suit yourself, then,’ she turned and wafted back around the corner to Charlie. When she disappeared from view, I cupped my hands together over my mouth, breathed, and sniffed at the trapped breath.

 

So it seems like I’m going to be seeing a lot more of Phoebe over the coming weeks. Probably starting with this morning, seeing as she stayed in Charlie’s bed last night. As soon as she leaves, though, I’m going to collar him and tell him to stop telling random strangers what laws he’s planning on breaking next. That or duct-tape a balled-up sock into his mouth, anyway.

No time like the present, I guess, I think to myself, hauling myself out of bed, pulling on a sweatshirt and some jogging bottoms and traipsing down the stairs. I was assuming I’d have to wait in the living room before ambushing Charlie once he’d let Phoebe out of the front door, but – to my shock – he’s already stretched out on the good sofa, wide awake, apparently showered, and with Phoebe nowhere to be seen.

‘Ay, lazybones; come tell me what you think of this,’ he calls as he spots me in the hallway.

‘What the hell are you doing up this early?’ I ask him, throwing myself onto the vomit sofa.

‘There’s a lewd pun about birds and worms in there somewhere, but I’m too busy to find it.’

‘Busy? Sorry, but I’ve got to ask – who are you, and what have you done with Charlie?’

‘Some unfunny cunt called; he wants his joke back,’ he replies. ‘But seriously, can you just listen to this fucking song for me? I’ve spent the last two hours writing it.’ He bangs his hand against the acoustic guitar he’s cradling.

‘Go on, then…’ I sigh.

‘Great, so before I start, I’ve just got to warn you that these won’t be the lyrics to the proper, finished version. These are just to give you an idea of how I’m gonna sing it,’ he says.

‘Yeah, yeah, just play the fucking song, already,’ I reply, with a corresponding wave of the hand.

‘Okay; here it goes.’

It starts off pretty catchy, I have to admit, but I soon work out why that is. I’ll spare you the lyrics that go along with it, suffice they say that they could have been written by a five-year-old, if a five-year-old had a comprehensive knowledge of the names and symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. That Charlie somehow manages to rhyme ‘Chlamydia’ with ‘can’t get ridda ya’ is an undeniably impressive feat, however.

‘So what do you think?’ he asks, so excited about his handiwork that I don’t know whether to mock him or cuddle him. When he catches sight of my ambivalent expression, he reminds me:

‘I know the lyrics are like a pervert’s nursery rhyme, but the riff, man! What do you think of the riff?’

‘Honestly?’

‘Yeah…’

‘I think you’ve spent the last two hours writing “Rebel, Rebel” by David Bowie.’

‘What? Fuck off!’ he protests. Rather than trying to beat him down with argument, I lean over the side of the sofa, plug my phone into the travel speakers and fiddle around with the touch screen for a few seconds.

Got your mother, in a whirl

Cos she’s, not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…

Charlie’s eyes flit between the speakers and my face. For a moment, he looks as though he’s about to resort to violence, but then he seems to deflate, slumping down into the cushions and letting the guitar fall down to the side of his seat.

You like dancing, and you look divine…

‘We’d better get planning this fucking robbery, then,’ he says. ‘Because it looks like I ain’t getting rich playing the guitar any time soon.’

‘I wanted to talk to you about that, actually…’

Right as I say it, Freddy swans in, wearing a fluffy dressing gown and a pair of slippers that look like they should have been sold with a pipe to go with them.

‘Butch. Sundance,’ he says in greeting, with a nod towards each of us. I shoot a withering glare in Charlie’s direction and deliver my – now even more pertinent – reprimand:

‘Can you please stop telling every person under the sun that we’re bank robbers? We’re gonna end up actually going through with it if we keep up at this rate.’

‘We’re not bank robbers; we’ve been over that already, remember?’

Freddy butts in before I get a chance to retort.

‘It’s too late drop out now I’ve invested all this precious time into it.’

He falls down onto the sofa and takes a large glug of the cup of tea he’s holding. I give an exasperated snort.

‘What do you even need the money for? You’re rich as fuck!’

He shakes his head, rearranging his dressing gown to protect his modesty.

‘My parents are rich as fuck. But they’re not going to pay for me to go to the Middle East and start revolutions, are they?’

‘Yeah; I’m sure you’re exactly what that fucking region needs,’ I reply, sarcastically.

‘What I do with my share of the loot is my own business; I’m not going to bitch at you for spending all yours on fizzy pop and Disney movies.’ He turns to Charlie. ‘Now, if this yellow-bellied mother fucker is done, can we get started with our first meeting?’

‘Indeed we can,’ Charlie replies. He looks around for something to use as a gavel. He settles for the TV remote, and he bangs it against the coffee table with such force that the batteries fall out. ‘Meeting adjourned.’

‘I think that means the meeting is over,’ I point out.

‘You’re in a very pessimistic mood this morning, aren’t you?’ Charlie says. ‘So are we all clear on the basics; where we’re robbing, and when?’

‘John Lewis,’ says Freddy, in response to the first part of the question.

‘Two weeks before Christmas,’ I add, because I’ve figured that if I can’t beat them I’ve either got to join them or get out of the living room, and I’m far too hung-over to seriously contemplate peeling my arse off the sofa.

‘Freddy gets a tick,’ Charlie responds. ‘Sundance over here doesn’t.’

‘That’s definitely the date we agreed,’ I contend.

‘Times change, my lad. We’re hitting the second day of the January sales now.’

‘But why?’

‘Gives us more time to plan, and there’ll probably be even more money in the tills and the safe. Plus, we won’t have to Grinch a load of kids out of their Christmas,’ he explains.

‘Oh.’

‘That not sound acceptable to you?’

‘It would have been nice to at least get a say,’ I reply, sulkily. Charlie and Freddy turn to each other and chuckle.

‘A minute ago you were trying to convince us not to do it at all! You’ve got to earn your say back, mate.’

‘Times change,’ I tell him, feeling a sense of pride kicking in. ‘So, I guess our next step is working out what we’re going to need for this little exercise in stupidity-’

‘Guns!’ Charlie suddenly jumps in.

‘Balaclavas,’ adds Freddy.

‘Grenades!’ adds Charlie.

‘Matching black trench coats,’ adds Freddy.

‘Samurai swords!’ Charlie shouts, bouncing up and down on the seat slightly.

‘I was thinking more along the lines of how many people we’re going to need,’ I say, cutting off Charlie’s train of thought before he starts surfing the internet for a place to buy SCUD missiles. ‘Charlie, what the fuck would we need samurai swords for?’

‘For when we run out of bullets,’ he shrugs.

‘To be fair,’ Freddy interjects. ‘I think my granddad actually did smuggle a grenade back from France in the forties, so that one is technically doable.’

‘Sorry, but you’ve forced me to ask:’ I say, incredulously. ‘How many people are you two planning on killing?’

‘None if we can help it, but I was just thinking we should make preparations for if it all goes a bit like the last twenty minutes of Heat,’ Charlie replies.

‘I can’t speak for you guys, but if I’ve got a dozen coppers pointing guns at me, I’m tying my soiled underpants to a stick and using them as a white flag. Armed robbery gets you eight years, parole after four if you don’t shank anybody. You blow a police offer’s brains all over a shopping mall, you’ll be lucky to ever see sunlight again.’

‘Where’d you get that from?’ Charlie asks.

‘I was doing some research the other night.’

‘I wondered where my laptop went.’

‘You can’t expect me to do it on mine, can you? The thing’s held together with scotch tape. The battery sounds like it’s powered by a load of cockroaches on treadmills. Anyway, one night without wanking won’t have hurt you.’

Charlie lays back and sighs to himself.

‘So much for the “glorious death” idea, then,’ he laments. I’m pretty sure he’s just taking the piss. I hope he’s just taking the piss, anyway.

‘I’m all for going out in a blaze of glory, as long as it doesn’t hurt and it happens when I’m eighty-five,’ I reply.

‘We’re going a bit off-point here, gentlemen,’ warns Freddy. ‘I believe we were supposed to be talking numbers?’

‘Yeah, we were,’ I say, glad to get off the subject of my own premature demise.

‘I also believe I should be the one to take over from here,’ Freddy continues, ‘because this is exactly what I’ve spent the last hour or so puzzling over.’

‘Alright, hit me.’

‘Okay, here goes. When we first get into the shop, I figure we need two people on crowd control, at least. January sales means the place is gonna be packed to the rafters, so I reckon we need to just get everyone on the ground floor the fuck out of there as soon as we can, then we can concentrate on taking everyone on the second floor as hostages to buy us some time with the police if shit goes pear-shaped. There’s only one set of stairs connecting the upper level with the lower one, so it’s just a case of parking one guy halfway up the stairwell and getting him to politely inform anyone coming to see what’s going on that they’re requested to remain quietly upstairs. You know, assuming they want to live to enjoy whatever useless shit they bought in the sales.’

‘So that’s three, so far,’ I say, wondering if there’s any less terrifying roles available.

‘Thus far, yes, but we also need one person to get a shotgun pointed in the face of whoever’s manning the cash office, preferably before anyone on the staff has worked out what’s going on and realised they should be calling the police, locking down the safe, or whatever.’

‘Four,’ mutters Charlie to himself, taking far longer on the mental arithmetic than a university student should have to. His voice picks up. ‘Well we’ve got that many people already! Us three and Phoebe! Sorted!’

‘Yep, but it’s not four people we need,’ replies Freddy grimly. ‘I’m pretty sure they’ve got CCTV in there. If they have, then within the first couple of minutes we need another person to go backstage and knock shit out, so they haven’t got the whole job on film.’

‘Can’t someone just get rid of it before we leave?’ I ask.

‘We’re gonna do that as well, but I assume it all gets backed up remotely, and I can’t run the risk of getting caught because one of you idiots shouted my name, or took your balaclava off to do your hair in the mirrors behind the checkouts.’

‘True, but the amount of people taking part in this is starting to stack up,’ says Charlie. ‘I don’t know about you two, but if we need many more I don’t know if I have enough friends to rope in.’ I agree with him.

‘Well, to be honest, I’d prefer we had six,’ Freddy replies, ‘but at a push, the CCTV guy and one of the crowd control guys can take care of any of the backroom staff, assuming the backstage area isn’t much bigger than I give it credit for. We definitely need five, though, if we’re going to empty out the safe and the tills fast enough and still keep on top of anyone in the crowd who thinks they’re Batman.’

‘Okay, so that leaves us with a few questions,’ I say.

‘Indeed it does, number one being, “Where do white, middle-class British people buy guns?” Because I can’t imagine we’re gonna keep a shop full of angry Geordies in line with just raised voices and menacing stares,’ Charlie interjects.

‘That, I’ll admit, is a puzzler,’ Freddy concedes.

‘Leave it for now, I say,’ I say. ‘First let’s go through where we’re gonna get the more easily obtainable stuff. I’m liking the whole matching uniforms thing, but I can barely afford food at the moment, let alone a new wardrobe.’

‘I think solving problems like that is Charlie’s area of expertise,’ Freddy smirks. ‘We’ll need gloves as well,’ he adds to Charlie.

‘There’s a difference between swiping the occasional DVD and nicking five separate burglar outfits,’ Charlie argues. ‘How the fuck am I supposed to slip a coat inside my coat?’

‘I thought you wanted a chance to get creative?’ I return. ‘So that’s the outfits sorted; what’s the next problem?’

‘Person number five,’ Freddy says. ‘Anyone got a suitable maniac in mind?’

The sound of Johnny puking echoes down to the living room. I glance at Charlie. Charlie glances at Freddy.

‘Worth asking him, I suppose,’ Freddy shrugs.

‘Be subtle about it though, for God’s sake,’ I groan. ‘I’ve told you enough times already about keeping this quiet, Charlie.’

‘Actually, there’s another point in there,’ says Freddy. ‘If we’re serious about doing this, we don’t want to be drawing any unnecessary attention to ourselves. That means no suspicious behaviour; we’ve all got to keep going to lectures as normal.’

‘“Normal” for me is not going to lectures at all,’ Charlie reminds him.

‘Okay, so the dog can keep eating your homework. What I’m saying, though, is that an alibi works better if you haven’t been acting out of the ordinary. Just play it like you’re having an affair and you don’t want your wife to find out, except that everyone else in the world is your wife.’

‘So I’m basically using Liz as my canary down the mine; if she doesn’t suspect anything, I’m safe in assuming the police don’t either?’ I ask.

‘Unless you think she’ll be up for taking the final place in the team?’ Freddy suggests.

‘Not a fucking chance. She’s not been in the best of moods with me lately anyway; I reckon finding out about this would be the anvil that broke the camel’s back.’

‘I might have an idea about the fifth person, actually,’ Charlie pipes up. ‘I need to give it some thought before I formally submit it, though.’

‘Intriguing. So we’ve at least got some avenues to explore for this one?’

‘Yep,’ I reply. ‘So what’s question three?’

‘This is a big one. How do we get the fuck out of Dodge when we’re done clearing the place out? ’

‘Fuck getting out of Dodge; how do we even get into Dodge? We can’t just waltz down Northumbria Street wearing balaclavas and carrying shotguns, can we now? Plus we’ll get flashed by CCTV a thousand times before we even get within a mile of the place.’

‘We’re gonna need to get a map with the location of every CCTV camera that’s anywhere near Eldon Square on it,’ Freddy ponders out-loud.

‘I checked that already,’ I say. ‘They don’t publish the locations. I guess idiots like us are probably the reason why.’

‘For someone who claims they don’t want to go through with this, you’ve put a hell of a lot of research into it,’ Charlie observes.

‘I think that’s just the OCD at work,’ I shrug.

‘And OCD is exactly the kind of mental illness that would benefit someone trying to make their own map of the area between Haymarket and Monument,’ Freddy smiles. ‘So we’ll call that your job, shall we?’

‘Rather do that than go shoplifting, I suppose.’

‘Good,’ Freddy says with a clap. ‘So that just leaves one last role for us to fill, then Charlie can bang his gavel again and we can all go to the pub.’

‘One sec – this conversation doesn’t apply to me anymore, does it? I’ve already got a job,’ Charlie interrupts.

‘I guess not.’

‘Sweet. I’m going for a fag,’ he says, and wanders off towards the front door.

‘If he leaves that open I’m locking it behind him,’ Freddy says to me. ‘It put an extra fifty quid on our heating bill last month.’

A breeze whistles through the corridor.

‘That boy will be the death of me,’ he mutters. ‘Well, either that or he’ll get me thrown in jail,’ he adds, with a smirk, standing up and going to close the front door after Charlie.

‘So what’s this last thing, then?’ I ask, when he returns.

‘We’ve got to sit around and see what time the security van pulls up to come collect the money from the safe. It’ll be just our luck that we bust in there and there’s only forty quid in the whole fucking shop.’

‘They wouldn’t be stupid enough to do the same time-slot every day, would they? Surely?’

‘Not exactly, but you can never underestimate just how much the human brain hates spontaneity. There’ll be a routine there, I guarantee it; it might just mean we have to spend a lot of time sitting around and waiting for it to emerge.’

You have to spend a lot of time sitting around. I’m already on cartographer duty, remember?’

‘Fucking hell. Can we not leave this heist thing ‘til summer? I might die of pneumonia before I even find out which entrance the mother fucker uses; it’s polar out there.’

A series of bangs crash through the house. It sounds like Charlie’s just realised that the door’s locked.

‘Apparently so,’ I remark. Freddy gets off the sofa and stretches.

‘Well, if that’s everything, I’m gonna go hit the shower.’

‘Cool man, I’m gonna give Liz a bell, ask her how long my sentence in the dog house is,’ I reply. I head up to my bedroom, because down here I won’t be able to hear her over Charlie’s banging.

 

Rather than going to the pub as Freddy suggested, we decided to get straight to work. Except Charlie, of course; when we eventually let him back in he said he was going to bed to plan a horrible revenge for me and Freddy, but, when he got the feeling back in his toes, he might consider sounding out Johnny about the possibility of joining our gang. He was at least gracious enough to agree to phone Phoebe, to make sure she was still keen on the idea of sticking a gun in an innocent civilian’s face and screaming ‘Gimmeallyourfuckingmoney!!!’

Twenty minutes later, Charlie came to use the bathroom whilst I was brushing my teeth, and I asked what Phoebe’s answer had been. It turned out that he’d spent the intervening time trying unsuccessfully to locate his phone. This was not exactly a rare occurrence; Drunk Charlie has such a prolific habit of hiding or losing Sober Charlie’s possessions that two phones ago I decided to add his number to my Find my iPhone app, so he’d at least be able to find out whether this one was under his bed or in the MacDonald’s’ toilet. Last night, thankfully, Drunk Charlie only wanted to play hide-and-seek with his morning-after counterpart, and the GPS dot on my screen eventually led us to the bin in the kitchen.

When he had finished wiping the grime off his screen and he finally managed to get an answer from Phoebe, a loud, shrieking voice erupted out of the speaker, causing Charlie to pull the phone away from his ear in confusion. It was only at this point that I remembered the conversation I overheard outside the club. I kept this information to myself, however, and instead suggested that he attempt to contact her via Facebook. Charlie replied that she didn’t appear to be on it. I congratulated him for being so bad in bed that she’d blocked him already.

Eventually Freddy admitted defeat, put on his jacket and his best hard-done-by face and trudged off in the direction of Northumbria Street. I’d decided to try and make lemonade out of lemons, convincing Liz to meet me in town when I’m meant to be doing my CCTV mapping. Of course I’m not going to actually tell her that’s what I’m doing, that would be silly, but I figure seeing her today might give me a chance to level out the downward trajectory our relationship’s been taking of late.

And this is where I am now, standing around, waiting for Liz to show up, and hoping she’s not just taking some petty form of revenge for me sacking her off last night. Deep down, though, I know she’s far too nice for that sort of thing, and after a none-too-strenuous period of tapping my foot against the floor like Sonic the Hedgehog she appears in the distance. I walk up to meet her. I can’t think of anything interesting to say, so I just say:

‘Hey.’

‘Hey,’ she replies, sullenly. ‘You have a good time last night?’

I shrug my shoulders.

‘I’ve had better. Had worse too, though, I guess.’ Changing the subject a quickly as possible, I ask: ‘Is there anywhere in particular you wanted to go today?’

‘I was thinking about getting my Christmas shopping out of the way,’ she sighs, ‘but then I checked my bank balance. It’s looking like I’ll have to throw away all my interesting gift ideas and go for the standard perfume or chocolate for the girls, and aftershave or alcohol for the boys. I’m on a low budget, this year.’

I chuckle.

‘You and I have very different definitions of the phrase “low budget”.’

‘Why, what are you getting people for Christmas?’

‘I reckon it’s going to be a hand-made card with an IOU taped inside, pretty much across the board.’

‘I’ll be cutting your gift budget in half, then,’ she replies.

‘Don’t worry, you’re above the board,’ I smirk back. ‘If it’s material possessions you desire, my dear, then it’s material possessions you shall have. I just think it defeats the point of the holiday to buy my dad’s present with money I borrowed from my mum, and my mum’s present with the money I borrowed from my dad.’

‘Have you never heard the saying, “it’s the thought that counts”?’

‘Nope, but I’ve seen Batman Begins thirty-seven times, and there’s a line in that which goes, “It’s not who I am, but what I do that defines me.” I guess that could be paraphrased as, “It’s not what you want to buy, but what you actually spend, that shows you really care about someone.’

‘Slightly cynical there,’ she replies. I shrug.

‘Freddy and Charlie must be rubbing off on me.’

We set off into Eldon Square, chatting about something or other. I’m staring at the walls and the ceiling, looking for security cameras, placing them into the map I’m building inside my head. There can’t possibly be enough of them in here to keep you on screen the whole time you’re inside – it would cost a fortune to maintain them all, and in ninety-nine cases of petty theft and anti-social behaviour, just a general idea would be enough to keep track of somebody. A cursory scan of the main lower south side lobby supports this hypothesis. That’s a start, I think to myself. Now it’s just a case of working out how to be one of the one per cent.

‘Isn’t it kind of strange how things work out?’ Liz is saying. ‘Last year you were complaining about just having to live in the same house as Charlie; now I have to compete with him to spend any time with you.’

‘Everything I was complaining about is still true about him,’ I return. ‘But being interesting helps to paper over a surprising number of personality flaws.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I think the way he put it was, “If you’re not boring, you don’t have to be nice.”’

She goes quiet for a few moments, as though part of her wants to say something, but another part is holding her back. I return to looking at cameras. The way I see it, we’d have to get the stuff stashed in Eldon Square before we get here – the guns, the trench coats, the lot of it. There are obviously some zones where the cameras can’t see you, but without an invisibility cloak it would be nigh on impossible for us to get from Haymarket to the target without being snapped at least three times. We’re going to have to admit the fact that we were in here when the robbery was happening, and hope there’s not enough evidence to prove that it was us in the balaclavas waving pistols around. Pull the old Clark Kent trick. The crowds should help out on that front.

‘So which am I?’ Liz asks.

‘Which of what?’

‘Nice, or interesting?’

I put my daydream on pause, and try to quickly think of a ‘get out of jail’ kind of an answer.

‘You’re the exception that proves the rule.’

I’ve never fully understood what that saying meant, to be honest.

I’m trying to surreptitiously steer Liz towards John Lewis, but she’s decided that she might be able to squeeze the edible and intoxicating presents into this month’s budget and that we should therefore go to the Marks & Spencer mini-market which lies outside of the shopping centre, on the road which plays the role of the DMZ between the university campus and the city proper. I point out that her wanting to go to M&S is yet more evidence that we define being ‘broke’ in very different ways.

Since me and Liz seem to have run out of things to say to one another already, once we arrive at Marks & Spencer I leave her to her shopping and go off on my own in search of a toilet. The two litres of Dr Pepper I drank this afternoon in an attempt to keep my hangover at arm’s length has finished working its way through my kidneys and is now demanding its freedom. I see a blue door and I push through it without bothering to read the sign. A blank corridor is waiting behind. I glance back at the slowly closing door and see that the outward-facing sign says ‘Staff Only’. A strange, childish impulse – the type which I imagine Charlie has spent his entire life giving into – suddenly gets the better of me; I push the door completely shut and steal off up the stairs, hoping nobody has seen me do it.

Every time I round a corner, I feel that same quickening of the heart that I usually associate with Charlie’s shoplifting, expecting there to be someone wearing one of those dull green uniforms waiting to interrogate me. It’s also not helping that I narrowly avoid wetting myself every time I lift up my leg, as my bulging bladder gets squeezed. At the very top of the staircase – which I’d guess must be the floor directly above the shop proper – I come to a T-junction. I can hear voices coming from the right, so I opt for the left hand path. This level has a very different vibe to it than the shop floor; none of the trademark green, just white walls dyed sickly yellow by the fluorescent lighting – the human battery farm look that corporate interior designers seem to have a sadistic hard-on for.

‘Excuse me!’ I hear a shrill voice say, in a slightly confused fashion. I turn to see a pudgy, middle-aged woman sitting behind reinforced glass, with one of those steel troughs for the exchange of valuables underneath it. This must be the cash office. Yep, there’s the safe, partially blocked from view by her rotund figure. I notice a keypad lock on the door into the office. With a sense of relief that quiets my heartbeat but also leaves behind a strangely disappointed aftertaste, I realise that Charlie’s plan will never be anything more than an academic exercise. They probably have the same set-up at John Lewis. With bulletproof glass and what I assume to be a pretty sturdy locked door between us and their old woman manning the cash office, even with guns, how would we ever get at the safe – let alone inside it?

‘Oh, hi!’ I say to her, in a cheery but meek tone of voice. ‘I’m sorry; I came up here looking for the toilet and I’ve ended up getting a bit lost.’ She looks at me like I’m not quite all there. ‘Yes. I am just that stupid,’ I add. Since I’d drafted that speech while I was on my way up the stairs, in case I ran into somebody, I had no trouble delivering it as long as I didn’t look directly into her eyes.

She laughs.

‘You could have tried following the signs, rather than just wandering through the first door you saw,’ she replies.

‘At least I’ve learned a lesson today. Do you know which signs I follow to get back into the actual shop? I’m scared someone might ask me to do some work if I keep wandering around here for much longer.’ I drafted that joke, too.

‘Go back down the way you came; don’t follow the corridor to the end or you’ll end up in the staff room. The staff toilets are on your left as you come back onto the ground floor,’ she replies.

‘Thanks,’ I smile.

‘You’re very welcome. Try not to get lost again.’ She says it in a kind, motherly sort of tone. I feel a twinge of guilt about having just considered the logistics of threatening to shoot her if she didn’t comply.

I shake the thought out of my head and set off in search of the toilet. It won’t come to that. We’ve already discovered four or five hurdles that will make doing this nearly impossible, and more are bound to pop up as we get closer to January. It’s only a matter of time before Charlie and Freddy give up on this fool’s errand and go back to shoplifting and proselytising, respectively. A small part of me hopes that Charlie will get busted stealing the gloves or trench coats – nothing that’ll get him taken to court or kicked off his course, just a slap on the wrist or a caution – and he’ll start to see sense. He’s never been caught before; maybe a short, sharp shock is what he needs.

A different thought, however, strikes me as I’m standing at the urinal: I haven’t seen a single CCTV camera in here. This thought drags another immediately behind it: Of course there wouldn’t be any; I’ve been so stuck in the world Hollywood heist movies that I’d expected every shop in Newcastle to be jacked-up with as much security as a mob-run casino. The amount that places like this stand to save by preventing shoplifting is fuck-all compared to how much it would be to put the systems in here in the first place, not to mention the running costs. I can’t believe that anyone, from the checkout boys to the CEO, has even considered the notion that some gun-toting maniacs might suddenly walk through the doors and hold up an M&S. Why would they? You’d have to be mad and stupid in equal measure to want to do something like that.

A sudden burst of excitement causes flecks of piss to ricochet back off the urinal and smatter my t-shirt. I glance upwards at the metal tunnels of the air conditioning system and in my mind I’m suddenly crawling through them like one of the stealthy, tactical characters I tend to opt for when I’m playing videogames. I shake off and zip up and slowly wander over to the sink. All the time my thoughts are warring between the cathartic fantasy of doing something and the terrible prospect of kicking it over the line and into reality. I spend a long time examining my face in the mirror as I’m washing my hands.

When I re-emerge onto the shop floor I wander up and down the rows of shelves in a methodical fashion, attempting to spot Liz without accidentally catching the eye of any of the massed strangers shopping around me. Since there aren’t too many aisles in this place I find her rather quickly, on my second pass of the meat, fish and poultry section.

‘Jesus, they’ve already got the Christmas tree up,’ I remark. The huge tinsel and bauble-draped evergreen, stretching halfway up the ceiling, sitting in its big porcelain pot dead in the centre of the shop floor, didn’t really irritate me, but it was the only thing I spotted whilst I was doing circuits that provided me with a means of saying hello which wasn’t merely ‘hello’.

‘Don’t be such a Grinch,’ Liz shrugs. She’s bent over at the waist, examining the items in the refrigerator, and doesn’t look up to greet me. ‘So, I’ve decided to let you earn my forgiveness for last night by cooking me dinner. And, in my infinite generosity, I’ll even let you decide what you’re cooking. Which would you rather; chicken or fish?’ she asks.

A smile creeps up one side of my cheek.

‘That’s a tough decision,’ I reply.

 

[] SCENE VI

SECOND AMENDMENT

It’s December the eleventh. The original date we had pegged for the robbery. The best part of a month of hard reconnaissance, or hard shoplifting in Charlie’s case, is starting to pay dividends. We’ve now got a meticulously drawn bird’s eye view of Eldon Square and all its surrounding areas lying on our coffee table, with all the CCTV coverage highlighted in red crayon and the most camera-free paths to the target sketched in blue ink. Lying next to it is a pile of timetables with what time the security van showed up on each day highlighted, plus one extra one that shows the general range of times that we can expect him to turn up on any given day. Freddy has also marked the security man’s most common pick-up times for not just the target building, but every shop in the Haymarket area. When he asked why he needed to bother with this – and he did so repeatedly – I replied that it’s always better to be over-informed than under-informed, and also to shut the fuck up. Upstairs, stuffed into Charlie’s wardrobe, there are three complete burglar’s outfits, plus another two with just the gloves and balaclavas missing. He’s been averaging two shoplifting sessions a week, and half an outfit per session. He reckons he’s developed a whole new technique for stealing large items, such as trench coats and bags, which he plans to use to steal himself a new games console when all of this is over.

‘Why don’t you just buy the console out of the money you get from the robbery?’ I asked him when he mentioned this idea.

‘Oh, yeah – I forgot we’re getting money out of this. I’d started thinking we were just doing it as a hobby,’ Charlie replied. It was conversations like this which had kept me feeling pretty confident that the wheels were going to fall off the whole enterprise by the time we went home for the Christmas holidays.

Until this morning, at least. That was when Charlie finally saw fit to tell us about his idea for a fifth person to add to the crew. Me, him and Phoebe were sitting around having a half-arsed kind of meeting, and using the other half of our arses to watch TV. It being his sister’s birthday, Freddy’s gone back home for the weekend, and without him to chair them our meetings have become ‘meetings’ in only the most literal sense of the word. After Phoebe got here I was roped into making everyone a mug of tea, then we decided to send Charlie out to get biscuits, but by the time he got back the tea was either finished or cold, so Phoebe was then dispatched to the kitchen to make a second round, but by the time she’d brought it in me and Charlie had polished-off all the biscuits, and…you get the idea.

So there we were, watching X Factor repeats for the giddy thrill of it – we’re not allowed to watch it when Freddy’s around, a rule that he’s very strict about policing – drinking tea, munching custard creams, and, very occasionally, throwing in a token mention of one of the problems we’re ostensibly using these meetings to discuss solutions for.

‘Getting in?’ I suggested, at least trying to pay lip-service to the agenda.

‘Fuck knows,’ Charlie replied.

‘Getting out?’

‘Fuck knows,’ Phoebe echoed.

‘Getting into the cash office?’

‘Fuck knows!’ they both shouted in unison.

‘Can’t say I didn’t try,’ I sighed, and went back to watching some sixteen-year-old explaining how her cat died and why that means she deserves a multi-million pound recording contract. I suddenly noticed that Charlie was staring at me, looking annoyed.

‘It’s typical that you’d stop asking before we get to the questions I actually have answers to,’ he said.

‘Why, have you finally convinced Johnny to get on board?’

‘Nah. I tried to do the whole “subtle hinting” thing to him, but he just thought I was trying to come on to him. But I have succeeded in finding someone who’s both stupid and greedy enough to take part in this. And someone who’s already buried in enough criminality that he might even know someone who can sell us a pistol or two, at that.’

‘I’m petrified of this guy already,’ I said. ‘Who is he?’

‘Sid.’

‘Your guitarist?’

‘That’s the one.’

‘You don’t get along all that well with him, though, do you?’

‘Nah. I hate the prick, to be honest – hence me leaving it this long to make the suggestion. But I’m pretty certain he’s our best bet – shit, he’s our only bet – for getting some guns, and if we don’t get any of those we’ve basically wasted the last three weeks of our lives playing make-believe. And since no-one’s come up with a better idea for a fifth person yet, I figure we might as well kill the two birds with one cunt.’

‘Are you going to be able to keep yourself from calling him that when we’re on the heist?’ I asked. ‘Because if the two of you start having a fist fight and I get arrested, I’m not going to feel guilty about snitching you into a life sentence.’

‘I’ve been in a band with him for over a year and we’ve only come to blows twice, so I think the odds are on our side.’

‘I think the more pertinent question is, “What makes you so sure he can get us guns?”’ Phoebe suggested.

‘Because his day job is drug dealing,’ Charlie replied. ‘And if movies have taught me anything, it’s that where there’s drug dealing, people who like shooting people won’t be too far behind.’

‘Well that all depends what you mean by “drug dealing”. If he’s selling you and your drummer half an ounce of weed a month, then the guns will be pretty fucking far out of his reach,’ Phoebe pointed out.

‘Ye of little faith,’ Charlie smirked. ‘After all we’ve been through, do you still not trust me?’

‘If your performances in bed are anything to go by, I’d say you were the kind of guy who might occasionally promise a bit more than he can deliver.’

‘Fucking hell, woman: just because you’re a sociopath doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t have feelings,’ Charlie replied. There was still the old fencer’s glint in his eye as he said it, but the gaiety was more forced than usual. Phoebe raised her arms and eyebrows slightly. I wondered if that was her guilty face.

‘And you call yourself a heartless criminal,’ she smiled. ‘Prove me wrong, then; what makes you think this guitarist of yours can get his hands on guns?’

‘Because he’s pretty far from a small-time weed dealer,’ Charlie said, aiming his words at Phoebe, almost as though he’d forgotten I was in the room at all. If I didn’t know Charlie better, I’d have thought this was a lovers’ tiff. Maybe he really likes her, I thought to myself. ‘In fact, I might even go as far as to call him a “shady mother fucker”. I reckon his coke-related outgoings alone are about as much as the lot of us pay for this place in rent. That’s got to put him a couple of levels below the murderous drug dealers, at most,’ Charlie added.

Phoebe and I traded a glance. I shrugged.

‘Worth following it up, I guess,’ she said to me.

‘I suppose so,’ I replied, feeling the adrenaline peeling out of my pituitary gland and into my bloodstream. Fuck. What if this comes off, and this Sid guy does get us a gun each? What am I going to do then?

‘Well I’m glad the brain council agrees,’ Charlie muttered. ‘Lend us your phone, Sundance; he won’t pick up if he see’s that it’s me calling.’ I figured this was as good a time as any to do another round of tea, so I heaved myself out of my seat and passed it to him on my way to the kitchen.

‘What’s you PIN, again?’ he called after me.

‘Oh-two-seven-six!’ I hollered back.

 

The phone call has been made, and the meeting arranged. Charlie put it on speaker; Sid didn’t sound all that happy to hear from him, but he couldn’t really turn down an opportunity to sell some MDMA, being a drug dealer and everything, so he agreed to meet him at his flat in Byker – of Byker Grove fame – in about an hour’s time. Charlie’s in the shower, rinsing off another night’s sins. Phoebe and I are downstairs in the sitting room – sitting around, coincidentally enough.

Suddenly I realise I’ve spent a good five minutes just blankly staring at her. I jerk my eyes back towards whatever claptrap’s coming out the TV screen, but, almost instantaneously, my neck snaps back in her direction.

‘Hey,’ I say. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘That depends entirely on what it is,’ she replies. She spins round on the sofa, and sits cross-legged – in the primary school kid way, not the Michael Corleone way – facing me.

‘I was just wondering why you’re doing this.’

‘You mean besides the money?’

‘I doubt we’ll even get enough money out of it to pay off our student loans.’

‘I wasn’t planning on doing that, anyway,’ she smiles, coyly.

‘Not that you can actually use it to pay off your loan. The reason most bank robbers get caught is that they suddenly start paying for stuff with money they can’t explain how they got. It’s either a case of spending it in such dribs and drabs you’ll barely notice you ever had it, or going to jail.’

‘Where’d you get that from?’

‘Internet. Library. Goodfellas.’

She raises her eyebrows.

‘I’m a geek,’ I explain.

‘I’d gathered that.’

‘Do you want to know what I’ve gathered about you?’

‘“Slut” is the one I usually get,’ she replies. She’s oddly comfortable saying it; I, on the other hand, go all red and embarrassed.

‘Actually,’ I say, once I’ve regained my composure, ‘I was going to say that you don’t strike me as the sort of person who really goes in for the whole opulence thing. I mean, how long have we known each other now?’

‘I wouldn’t go as far as to say we “know” each other.’

‘You also strike me an incredibly uncooperative person, by the way.’

A smirk creeps up one side of her face. I continue my line of interrogation:

‘How long would you say it was since we first began this period of mutual indifference, then? Three weeks, a month?’

‘It’s felt closer to a month.’

‘Just this conversation’s starting to feel like eternity from where I’m sitting,’ I reply. ‘But if I can actually get my point out; in the month we’ve known each other, I can’t say I’ve ever seen you buy food, drink, fags, anything. And from what I’ve seen, you can’t have more than, like, six items of clothing, tops? Aside from the few grand you must have spent on piercings and tattoos, I’d say you’d be pretty happy to live as close to free of charge as it’s possible to do, short of being a hobo. And you’re definitely not so greedy that you’d risk going to prison for the extra pocket money.’

‘Is that so?’

‘Nope. Just my impressions from the limited time we’ve been bit-characters in one another’s lives.’

‘And if you had to venture a guess, why would you say I was doing this?’

‘If I could do that, I wouldn’t have asked, now, would I? It would have spared me an excruciating conversation.’

‘It can’t be that bad, surely? It’s got to be better than having to pretend to listen while your bird complains at you for going out drinking.’

‘She wasn’t complaining, she was -’

Phoebe raises a hand.

‘I don’t care. Do you want to know the answer to your question, or what?’

‘Go on then.’

‘You’ll be disappointed.’

‘Try me.’

‘Boredom.’

‘What?’

‘“Noun, abstract: an emotional state brought about by a lack of meaningful activity, or intellectual engagement with one’s surroundings. Can be used interchangeably with the more impressive sounding French term, ennui, if one is a pretentious cunt.”’

‘I know what it means.’

‘Then why’d you ask?’

‘I’m not going to get a more helpful answer out of you any time soon, am I?’

‘Probably not. So what’s your excuse?’

‘Dunno, really. I thought this was all one of Charlie’s little jokes, then by the time I realised it wasn’t I was buried under a month’s worth of criminal conspiracy.’

Phoebe chuckles like a drunkard.

‘Fuck me, man; my motive might be shit, but at least it’s my own.’

I roll my eyes.

‘Yeah, laugh it up, ya slut.’

She leans across the sofa and punches me in the leg.

OW! Fuck!

‘You realise that all you have to do is say “I’m out” if you don’t want to go through with it?’

‘That easy, huh?’

‘Nah, only kidding. You try to get out of it now and I’ll bury you under a railway bridge just to be on the safe side.’

‘Thanks for the warning.’ I don’t know whether the face that goes along with this comment is scared or sarcastic.

‘You’re very welcome. And, for the record, now that I’ve told you that, you have no right to be angry at me when I actually do shoot you and bury you underneath a railway bridge.’

‘Sounds like a deal,’ I reply.

‘Hey, does this look like the sort of thing a cold-blooded killer would wear?’ Charlie asks, coming back into the room. He’s wearing a full suit; the tie’s tied, the jacket’s buttoned up, and so is the collar on his shirt. He’s even wearing fucking sunglasses.

‘You look like a blind person going for a job interview,’ I tell him. ‘Just wear your own clothes, you fucking idiot.’

‘Alright, Jesus; I was just trying to do things properly,’ he retorts. He slopes off back upstairs to get changed again.

‘I swear, this whole “doing things properly” is going to be the death of me,’ I mutter. Phoebe giggles.

‘Don’t fucking laugh. I wasn’t speaking figuratively,’ I add. Phoebe laughs again.

‘You know, I think Charlie might’ve been onto something when he called you a sociopath,’ I add again. Phoebe shrugs as though she doesn’t feel any need to argue. Even if she did want to, Charlie’s now returned in some more-appropriate attire, and he’s hurrying me out of the front door. When we’re outside on the porch, he turns to have a quick word with Phoebe, who is still in the hallway.

‘You don’t have to go home,’ he says. ‘You can stay here ‘til we get back, if you want.’

‘What are you talking about? I’m coming to see the drug dealer,’ she replies, looking affronted.

Charlie laughs.

‘Not a fucking chance. A crack den is no place for a lady.’

‘It’s no place for a premature ejaculator and a virgin, but you two are both going.’

‘Jesus, can you just give it a break with the “shit in bed” stuff? It’s a compliment, you ungrateful fucking toe rag,’ Charlie retorts.

‘Why are you having a go at me as well?’ I ask. ‘I didn’t fucking say anything!’

‘Fuck; hit couple of sore spots there, didn’t I?’ Phoebe smirks, looking proud of herself.

‘I’m not even a virgin,’ I point out.

‘You look like one, though,’ she replies, with a sympathetic face.

‘That’s even worse!’ I exclaim, throwing my arms up in the air.

Charlie and I silently make a pact to cut her out of the conversation for the rest of the trip, in protest. This is harder to keep up than you would imagine, since Byker is a good forty-five minute walk from our place in Jesmond, and when Phoebe gets bored after two minutes of us ignoring her, she invents a means of amusing herself at our expense. She walks just in front of us, and every now and then will suddenly stop dead with one leg stuck out to the side to see if we trip over it. Charlie, not being the most observant of guys, nor having the most reliable of memories, gets caught five times before we’ve even made it past Sandyford. At this point, Phoebe decides to move on to me, and I’m forced to adopt a weird sort of hybrid between skipping and limping for the rest of the journey.

 

‘Did you really need to bring the wife and kid along, Charlie?’ Sid asks, opening his front door just a fraction and glaring with suspicion at Phoebe and me, as all we huddle shivering in the corridor outside his flat. I can tell immediately that he’s a native, not a student – first from his accent and second from the fact that he’s dressed in a vest and shorts despite it being minus-five degrees out. I take an equally immediate dislike to him.

‘Comedy genius, as ever,’ Charlie replies, pushing past him and into the flat. Sid leans to one side and watches him walk past with narrowed eyes. Phoebe strolls in just after Charlie. She stops and inspects Sid before entering, throwing her hair back out of her face so she can get a better look. Sid adopts the expression of a man with a shit-streak just under his nostrils as Phoebe peers closely at him, but she acts as though she’s not aware of how uncomfortable she’s making him. I smirk to myself, because I know that she knows precisely how uncomfortable she’s making him. Then Sid tries to shut the door on me and I have to scrabble through the gap like a tag-along trying not to be ditched, and the social hierarchy reverts back to its normal arrangement.

‘Just so you don’t starting making a habit of this; I don’t really like selling by the gram, and I definitely don’t like people coming round my house whenever they feel like snorting some MD,’ Sid informs Charlie as he comes into the kitchen, with me straggling behind him. I notice that Phoebe has already helped herself to some weed and Rizlas she found lying on the counter and is now standing in the corner rolling herself a joint. Sid also notices this, but seems to let it go for now and instead continues his lecture to Charlie. ‘I’m only letting you get away with it this once because the two of us are…’ He goes quiet.

‘Friends?’ Charlie suggests.

‘No. Not that,’ he replies.

‘Artistic soul mates?’

‘No.’

‘Business acquaintances?’

‘That’ll do.’

‘Fair enough; do business acquaintances get cheap rates, by any chance?’

‘Behave yourself. You’re paying for the weed the bird with all the staples in her face is smoking, as well.’

Sid tosses a zip-lock baggie with a small amount of white powder in it onto the counter beside Charlie. Charlie shoves it in his right pocket and pulls his wallet out of his left one. He takes out the contents and places them where the baggie had just been.

‘There’s two ten pound notes there,’ Sid observes.

‘Yep,’ Charlie agrees. His bandmate remains eerily silent for a moment. I can hear Phoebe’s joint crackling as she inhales, followed by her erupting into a fit of coughs. I turn around to look at her; she’s holding it under her nose with a bemused look on her face.

‘Either you’re not very good at maths, or you’re trying to rip me off,’ he says finally. ‘Although I suppose it could easily be both of the above.’

‘That’s all the money I’ve got, I’m afraid,’ Charlie replies.

A crease appears at the side of Charlie’s mouth. A crinkle appears on Sid’s forehead.

‘That ain’t my fuckin’ problem. You want to buy drugs, you pay the asking price.’

‘What, is my credit no good? It’s hardly like I can avoid you for long, is it? We do band practice together on a weekly fucking basis!’

‘And yet I still don’t trust you,’ Sid replies. ‘So what does that tell you about yourself?’

Charlie doesn’t bother to answer this question. Instead, he decides that the time is right to segue into the real reason he came here today:

‘I tell you what; seeing as we’re “business acquaintances”, I’ll make you a business proposition: I pay you twenty pounds now, and then I give you ten thousand this time next month.’

‘What the fuck are you on about, Charlie?’ Sid sighs. There’s not the slightest hint of curiosity in his voice.

‘I’ve got a plan.’

‘Your last plan was supposed to end up with us headlining Glastonbury last summer, but look:’ Sid motions towards his mantelpiece. ‘Still no Grammys.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ve got no-one to blame for that except yourself and your parents. They made you ugly, and you didn’t work hard enough to make up for it,’ Charlie replies with a shrug of indifference.

‘You’re not here to argue about who spunked whose chance at fame,’ Sid mutters wearily. ‘You were supposed to be turning up, handing me fifty quid, then fucking off and letting me get on with my life.’

‘And what a life it is you’re living,’ Charlie sneers back. ‘What is that, a seventeen inch TV? It’s a good thing this place is so roomy, otherwise you’d never be able to fit all that screen in your field of vision.’

‘Your ego should be built less out of how big your TV screen is and more out of how many people turn up to your gigs.’

‘Actually, you take the amount of money in your bank account, and multiply it by how many days you can go without showering whilst still being able to convince women to sleep with you.’

‘Then how come you still walk around with that massive head perched on your shoulders, you broke mother fucker?’

Charlie smirks.

‘Having a massive dick doesn’t hurt, either.’

Phoebe lets out a cackle, apparently involuntary and to herself, but loud enough that everyone present turns to look at her. She resumes her joint without bothering to inspect the damage her outburst caused.

‘Anyway,’ Charlie says, going back to Sid. ‘If you’ll stop fucking moaning for five minutes, I’ll tell you how you can put an extra ten grand in the shoebox under your bed you call your bank account.’

‘Eleven grand,’ I butt in, eyes fixed on Sid. For the first time, a shimmer of curiosity flits over his features.

‘Why so specific?’ he asks, with a snort of laughter. He looks away from me. ‘You got a card-counting scheme all worked out, Charlie?’

‘Ten tills, average person spending fifty-odd quid, average till getting one person through every five minutes. Ten-times-fifty-times-twelve is fifty-four grand. Between five people, that’s eleven grand each. Add the money we can swipe from everyone’s wallets and you’ll probably up it to twelve.’

In unison, Charlie and Sid’s faces fall into the same Neanderthalish expression, then – after a few seconds silence – they open their mouths. I silence them both with a gesture, and quickly start talking again before either of them remembers that they don’t respect me.

‘We’re holding up the Marks and Spencer by the Haymarket Metro station. Charlie seems to think you know someone who can sell us guns.’

Sid looks confused. As does Charlie.

‘I thought we were-’ Charlie begins to exclaim, but I give him the same gesture and shoot him my most threatening look – the look I’ve been practicing in the bathroom mirror every night for the past couple of weeks, whilst I’ve been brushing my teeth.

‘Well, do you?’ I ask. I take a step toward Sid.

Sid glances at Charlie. Without letting my own gaze fall off him I bury my hand in my pocket and dig out a wedge of A3 papers. The maps of the surrounding streets, traced from Google Earth, with all of the CCTV camera hotspots highlighted; floor plans of both the shop floor and the staff-only areas, painstakingly mapped out using a combination of what I remember seeing up there and what I can infer from the structure of the building; three floors’ worth of car park, with every potential escape route neatly inked in. I’ve spend the last few weeks drafting and re-drafting these, at night and in secret, working out the kinks and marking out the movements of each participant with the kind of precision that only an obsessive-compulsive geek can muster up. I explain everything: the guns; the hostages; the thermite; the escape route; the bombs; the car. The whole plan that’s been convalescing in my mind since I went a-wandering in Marks & Spencer’s the other day. In and out in ten minutes, and the police left without a place to even start looking.

Sid doesn’t say anything for a while; he just stands with his hands on his hips, inspecting the papers. Now that I’m done Phoebe begins to roll herself another joint, a little crease forming in her cheek, but her hands won’t work for her, and she only succeeds in spilling weed all over the carpet. Charlie, never having been the biggest fan of silence, comments first.

‘Jesus Christ, you’ve thought of everything,’ he mutters.

‘Not everything,’ Sid counters. ‘First off, this plan needs five stupid people, plus me to arrange getting you guns. I see one stupid person, one person who’s stupid if she thinks she’s getting out of here without paying for that weed, and one smart person who’s pointing his smarts in a very stupid direction. Where are the other two coming from?’

Sid gives me a sly cock of the eyebrow, and goes on:

‘Then, secondly; when stupid person number one goes and leaves his driving license in the middle of the crime scene, what guarantee do I have that I’m not going to get dragged into your court case?’

‘I wasn’t even listening when you said what your name was, and, no offense, but you don’t seem interesting enough to warrant asking for it again,’ Phoebe drawls. ‘So you don’t have to worry about me.’

Sid parts his lips slightly, keeping one eye on Charlie, but appears to think better of responding. Charlie doesn’t notice; his eyes are still on my paperwork.

‘No-one knows anything about her, either,’ I stammer, my rehearsed confidence quickly unravelling now that I’ve reached the end of my script. ‘We know her first name, and Charlie knows what she looks like naked, but that’s about it. We pose her no threat, so she doesn’t have any incentive to go running to the police.’

‘Until they’ve got her in the interrogation room,’ Sid returns. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. Sid’s insecurities don’t seem to concern Phoebe.

‘Well, that’s, um…’ I’m blithering, when Charlie calls out, with his eyes still on one of the maps:

‘Oh God, be quiet, the lot of you. Here’s the truth of it; if one of us fucks up, we’ve either got to straight-up murder him before he says anything, or plead guilty and hope those rumours about prison showers aren’t true outside of the movies. If we follow the plan, we all get an anecdote to tell at our high school reunion, some extra disposable income, and no-one will end up in jail. It’s as simple as that.’

The crease in Phoebe’s cheek has now turned into a full grin. It would appear that Charlie notices this, or was even looking for it, since he glances at her rather than Sid after he says it. Sid’s brow furrows.

‘I guess that answers your second question,’ I add, with a sudden rekindling of swagger. ‘As for the first one, we’ve got one other guy signed up. He’s trustworthy, and he can get his own gun. He never even has to know your name if that makes you feel better.’

‘And the fifth?’

‘You.’

‘How did I guess?’ Sid replies, in a sarcastic tone of voice.

‘We need one more person who can pull off a Geordie accent. The police’s first thought will be that this is just some local scallywags getting overambitious. We don’t want to give them any reason to change their theory.’ I turn to Charlie. ‘This means that you’ll need to swipe some hooded sweatshirts for us – the trench coats look way too middle-class.’

Charlie cocks an eyebrow.

‘You giving me orders now?’

‘Yes.’ I give him a cocky look of my own, and then I turn and start walking towards the door. ‘And do it quick; we’ve only got seven days until the job.’

 

[] SCENE VII

MONTAGE

I can only remember the week that followed as a series of little film-reels, sliced up and spliced together by some Tyler Durden wannabe working the late-shift at the movie theatre. It began with me and Sid going over the etiquette for dealing with small-arms dealers. We were in the living room. Charlie and Phoebe were in Charlie’s bedroom, so Sid was forced to speak at a much higher volume than usual in order to make himself heard. I’ve often suggested to Charlie that he do his lovemaking at Phoebe’s place, but he says that’s she’s funny about taking him back there. Apparently he’s never even seen her bedroom, much less been naked in it.

‘When we get to his place,’ Sid shouts, ‘Let me do the talking.’ Sid has never referred to the mysterious gun-vendor – our first link between the adolescent fantasy of criminality and its scuzzy reality – by any other name but ‘him’. ‘I know him better… Well, I don’t know him, but I know the guy who knows the guy who knows him. Don’t hang back, though, or he’ll get suspicious.’

‘Yeah, bouncer psychology, I get it,’ I drawl back at him.

‘I don’t care what you call it. Just do it. Oh, and one other thing…’

 

I hear the doorbell rattling around the inside of the house, but there are no signs of life. After a couple of minutes Sid and I exchange a glance. I can’t get my head all the way around to check his expression because I’m standing closer to the door than he is.

The lock clicks.

 

‘How does my make-up look?’ Charlie asks.

‘It looks fine, just stop fucking touching it,’ Freddy replies. It turns out that Phoebe has a peculiar talent for face paint; even with Charlie’s constant poking and prodding, his KISS mask still looks as though it’s been tattooed on. Charlie insisted on being Gene Simmons. I, predictably, got lumbered with Peter Criss. Johnny dug out his old Where’s Wally? costume from first year.

‘Johnny-’

‘Wally.’

Johnny takes his fancy dressage very seriously. Freddy sighs.

‘Fine. Wally, you’d better do the knocking; you’re the only one who knows anyone here.’

‘“Know” is a strong word,’ Johnny replies. ‘I only got invited because I’m on Stephen’s course and he needs to look like he’s got friends.’

Johnny knocks once on the door. It only takes the one knock for the lock to click, and the door to swing open.

 

Johnny slams the door shut as he leaves. With him off to lectures, Sid emerges from hiding and the meeting can begin. Sid has been especially careful about not letting or neighbours catch a glimpse of him approaching our house, turning up before dawn and lurking around in the back yard until Johnny departs and either me or Freddy comes and quietly opens the door. Phoebe pretty much barges in as and when she pleases, though I suppose she has a more plausible excuse – Charlie doesn’t claim that the sight of her makes him see why so many frontmen turn to heroin.

The TV is turned off, and the remotes have been put out of everyone’s – particularly Charlie’s – reach. The maps and plans and checklists are brought in and spread across the coffee table. We’re taking these little discussion groups more seriously these days. Even Charlie did for a couple of sessions, but he’s since become distracted by his new toy.

‘Right, so where are we up to?’ Sid asks. Since joining us, he’s taken on something of a leadership role in our meetings. I glance down at the stuff on the table to remind me of some information I already know.

‘The chemicals,’ I reply. ‘Magnesium, peroxide and sulphuric acid.’

‘Two points,’ Sid replies. He turns to Charlie. ‘And where are we getting it?’

Charlie doesn’t hear; he’s too busy pulling the hammer on his gun back and letting it ping into place.

‘Oi, prick!’ Sid hisses. Charlie stirs, but, rather than answering, he points the gun at his bandmate.

‘Use that tone with me again, boy, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.’

Sid’s bottom jaw juts forward, as though a retort is trying to force its way out. For expediency’s sake, however, he swallows it and rolls his eyes in my direction.

‘Basil Exposition, will you please enlighten this fucking idiot?’

‘Our way in is Stephen Martin. He lives two streets away from the chemistry lab, and since he’s also such a geek stereotype that he’d fit in better in a John Hughes movie than reality, Johnny’s professor fixed it that his smartcard will let him in and out of the lab after hours. The plan is to tag along to a house party he’s invited Johnny to tomorrow night, swipe the card, use it to get into the lab and take what we need, then run back and replace the card before anyone is any the wiser.’

‘And how do we get the card off him?’

‘The same way Charlie got Phoebe to sleep with him; by pouring vodka down his neck.’

‘Oi.’ Charlie is now pointing the gun at me. He pulls the trigger. Click.

‘Next time,’ he says, with a smirk, ‘there’ll be a bullet in there.’

 

‘Johnny! You came!’ Stephen gushes as he wrenches the door open. His tone of voice harbours something closer to relief than joy. He stumbles forward to embrace Wally. ‘Some girls gave me some of their shots! Girls!’

‘This might be easier than we gave it credit for,’ Phoebe whispers in my ear. I notice Charlie’s eyes narrow beneath his make-up. When he has disentangled himself from Stephen’s embrace, Johnny asks:

‘What the hell are you dressed as? That rabbit thing from Donnie Darko?’

‘I’m Schrodinger’s cat! I thought you, of all people, would get the reference! Those girls didn’t, either; I even had to tell them what Schrodinger’s cat was!’

‘Yeah, girls love it when put that much effort into pointing out that you’re more intelligent than they are,’ I sneer. ‘Bouncers too.’ Stephen’s eyes fall to the floor.

‘So, do you want to come in?’ he asks Johnny sheepishly.

‘Erm, yeah, sure,’ Johnny replies, suddenly awkward. The rest of us follow the rabbit thing inside before our invitation expires. As we’re shuffling over the threshold, Charlie whispers to me:

‘Hey, aren’t I supposed to be the arsehole in the group?’

 

My heart seems to dive forwards in my ribcage as the dog comes screaming and snapping out of the front door, and my skeleton tries to leap out of my flesh and into Sid’s arms. I stiffen every muscle in my leg to stop it from taking more than one step back, and force myself to maintain eye contact with the short fellow who’s simultaneously struggling to maintain a grip on his pet/doorman’s thick rope leash and to give the outward impression that he, and not it, is the one in control of the situation. I try not to wonder how close those saliva-drooled teeth are coming to the crotch of my jeans, and I hold my tongue until I’m certain that the dog’s owner has seen me sizing him up. When I feel as though I’ve got a handle on my panic, I turn to Sid and say:

‘Could’ve let me know about the dog.’

Sid doesn’t reply; his eyes flit between the beast and its owner and me. I turn back to the stranger in the doorway and wait for him to finish dragging the mutt indoors. When its slobbering face has disappeared around the corner I let myself take a deep breath and wait for my blood pressure to fall down to non-heart-attack levels. It doesn’t, but I put a foot over the threshold anyway.

‘Wait!’ Sid hisses. ‘He hasn’t said you can come in yet!’

‘I’m not a fucking vampire, Sid,’ I reply, continuing my way down the corridor.

‘Don’t say my name, either.’

‘Sorry.’ Rule number one. No names. The fear and adrenaline are building up. My heart’s beating more quickly, not slowing down. The feeling reminds me of the look I often see Charlie wearing during the three weeks of each semester he can afford MDMA; the thick glaze of panic covering a chewy core of excitement, as he realises that he’s taken too much in too short a time and has no choice but to wait for it to hit him like a tube train on a suicide.

‘The fuck do you think you’re doing?’ says the stranger, as I materialise in front of him.

I wrench the curtains of impassivity over my expression.

‘Figured you wouldn’t want us hanging around on the doorstep for too long.’

He looks at me like he’s contemplating violence. In fact, he looks like the kind of guy who’s eternally fighting the urge to start violence, but thankfully the allure of making some money this morning seems to help him push it off.

‘Upstairs.’

 

A gallery of costumed strangers awaits us inside: Smurfs and Batmen and flapper birds and budget Batmen and Buzz Lightyears. There’s not much in the way of mingling; the entire house is knotted with little six-person bundles, their members facing inwards and chatting amongst themselves. Those in the expensive, shop-bought costumes stick together, drinking Jack and Coca-Cola out of plastic glasses, while those wrapped-up in bed-sheet capes packing cardboard tube lightsabers take turns gulping Lambrini from the bottle. The class divide in action. It shouldn’t be difficult to preserve our anonymity here. Nor should it be difficult to peel Stephen aside and get our hands on his smartcard; ever since Johnny escaped his clutches he’s been bouncing between the huddles, laughing at jokes he didn’t hear and pointing his increasingly laboured smile back at every person who throws him a ‘you’re not welcome here’ look. Thus far, no huddle has opened up and let him inside.

‘I think your mate could use a drink,’ Phoebe says to Johnny. In my peripheries I notice Stephen’s little ears prick up. He’s too afraid that he’s not the mate in question to turn around, so he continues to stand as close as possible to a middle-class group without being politely asked to fuck off.

‘Yeah, I can’t see the harm,’ says Charlie. Despite Johnny’s vigorous headshakes, the script must be adhered to. ‘Stevie, wanna drink?’ he calls, waving about his bottle of Russia’s finest. Our stooge’s face breaks into a genuine smile for the first time this evening. I can’t bring myself to smile back at him. This scene in general, and Stephen in particular, is making the bile fizzle up in my gut. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Steve waddles over. I hope that the Peter Criss mask can hide my furrowed, loathing brow.

‘H-h-hiya!’ he splutters, with a nervous glance at me.

‘Less talking, more drinking,’ Charlie returns. He takes a bold glug of vodka himself, as if to prove that it isn’t poisoned, then pushes the bottle into Stephen’s hand. Scared that he might get a fresh rejection if he fails to comply, Stephen forces a few painful swallows down his gullet before he starts to cough and splutter.

‘I’m going to find the john,’ I tell Freddy. He grunts in response, looking almost as uncomfortable as I am.

‘I’m going to see if there’s any decent whiskey in the cupboards,’ he replies. We wander off in different directions, leaving Charlie to corrupt the innocent. I thread my way between the bundles, which are by now becoming tepee-shaped, as their constituent parts lean further in on one another. I can’t work out if they’re too scared to branch out or too contemptuous to go and explore the rest of their species. By the time I’ve clambered up to the landing there’s a dull throbbing behind my temples, and it’s not until I’ve locked myself in the bathroom that I can feel my blood pressure begin to fall again.

 

If a member of the Secret Service wandered into our house right now, I imagine we’d be stuffed into the cargo bay of a plane to Guantanamo within the hour. If our landlord – or Johnny, for that matter – walked in on us, it wouldn’t add much more than thirty minutes to our departure time. The curtains of the window looking out onto the street are tightly drawn and we work in the amber half-glow of Freddy’s room, since he’s the only housemate who keeps his door shut as a matter of habit. We’ve pushed the bed to the farthest corner of the room, both to free up space and to keep the door blocked, and laid down a plastic, bed-wetter style sheet to protect the carpet from any spilled powders or potions. I didn’t ask why we had one of those laying around. If the peroxide goes over, though, the plastic won’t do anything to stop Charlie getting a peephole in his ceiling, which is why I’m nervous that it’s Charlie himself manning the acid station. It would be ironic if he did burn a hole in the floor of Freddy’s bedroom, I suppose, seeing as how the stuff he’s trying to cook is meant to be doing exactly that, albeit on a far larger scale. The stuff in question is thermite, which anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad will recognise as a mix of iron oxide and aluminium powder, which, when ignited, burns hot enough to melt steel, rock, and hopefully the floor of Marks & Spencer.

We’ve each got our own station: Freddy’s making the fake bomb casings and fuses; Phoebe’s mixing the fluid to go inside them out of various household products; Charlie’s making iron oxide by pouring hydrogen peroxide into a flower pot full of dumpster-scrounged metal, a soggy tea towel wrapped around his mouth and nose; I’m nestled in the corner with a notepad and pen, double-checking my calculations and making sure that each of my little chipmunks are using the right ratios of ingredients.

We’re going over the plan as we work. Since revision – even that relating to a criminal conspiracy – becomes tedious frightfully quickly, we’ve begun making our own game shows out of it. Sometimes we play along with the ones on daytime TV, shouting our own questions over the presenter. Sid, our usual bellicose host, couldn’t make it today, so at least every ‘umm’ or ‘ah’ isn’t being punished with a disparaging remark. He’s a bit too serious for my tastes, Sid; I’d imagine he’s already budgeted out a way to live off his share of the heist takings for the next five years. I’m not sure that anyone else has even thought of something to spend theirs on. With his role vacant, we’re doing an ask-and-answer question relay.

‘Sundance! What’s your alibi in case somebody squeals?’

In every game show, there’s one irritating contestant who insists on detailing the entire thought-process that led to their answer.

‘Well, seeing as we already know each other’s names and addresses, the aliases are only there to keep innocent bystanders off the scent. If we want an actual alibi, we’ve either got to find someone old enough and respectable enough to lie for us in court, or find three doppelgängers who can turn up to lectures in our place. Since no-one has a twin stashed under the floorboards, and since Charlie doesn’t trust respectable people on general principle, I guess we’ve just got to rely on each other to do the decent, moral thing, and shut the fuck up.’

‘Morality’s never been my strong point,’ Charlie interjects, his voice muffled by his face-rag.

‘Butch!’ I call back, in my best Chris Tarrant voice. ‘Who are the only people allowed to give orders when we’re on the job?’

‘Phoebe, CM and Charles Bronstein,’ he replies, referring to Freddy and Sid by their alter-ego names. Phoebe insisted on hers being ‘Dave’, and while I understand that this is a wise decision on her part, I also understand Charlie’s reticence about using it in conversation.

‘And why is that?’

‘Because they’re the only ones either born with Geordie accents or able to do a passable impression of one; if all anyone hears from us is local-speak, the natural assumption will be that we’re just some ruffians from round the block. Same reason I had to go out and swipe a load of hoodies to replace the dapper jackets I got before.’

He goes back to his work. The rest of us look at each other, confused.

‘Yo Butch,’ Freddy says. ‘It’s your turn to ask a question, man.’

Butch looks up at Bronstein, then at Dave.

‘Fine,’ he mutters. ‘Phoebe, what were you and Sundance doing upstairs at that party?’

As I sidle out of the toilet I notice a fellow glam-rock wannabe lurking in one of the bedrooms down the hall.

‘Found anything that’s not bolted down?’ I ask.

‘Nothing worth taking,’ Phoebe replies.

‘You never seemed the type to let that stop you.’

She stops eyeing up potential loot and steps closer to me. She moves slowly but continuously, until I can smell the metallic face paint on her, until I can feel the heat emanating from her parted lips. You would think I’d be used to Phoebe pulling this trick on me by now, but it still takes an enormous effort to hold her gaze.

‘You’re not wrong there, I’ll give you that,’ she says. The words flutter against my nostrils. ‘In fact, if it was bolted-down, even being the worthless shit that it is, I don’t think I could stop myself from taking it. There’s something about being told I can’t do something which makes it impossible to resist doing. Know what I mean?’

For just a shadow of a second, I’m alive in a world where I was the one waiting outside the house that morning, rather than Charlie. As though this traitorous thought has summoned him, Charlie appears in the corner of my vision, pushing me out of that happy universe and back into this one.

‘What are you doing?’ It’s an accusation, not an inquiry. I know Phoebe won’t bother to say anything, so I dredge up a response.

‘I need a favour,’ I say.

‘From me, or from her?’ I can see the hurt and anger emblazoned on Charlie’s face, as though the old sheen of mischief has cracked and peeled away.

‘Charlie, if you’re going to get paranoid about something, get paranoid about ways the police might be able to track us down,’ I reply, rolling my eyes so that I don’t have to look into his. ‘I want to swap places; I go to the lab and nick all this stuff, and you stay here and get that little toss-bag downstairs drunk. If I stay here much longer I’m gonna have a brain aneurysm.’

‘Why should I stay? Why can’t she?’

‘For fuck’s sake, Charlie; I don’t care who stays, as long as it isn’t me! Toss a coin, arm wrestle, Russian Roulette; I don’t give a shit. Just get me the fuck out of here.’

‘Fine. I’m going then,’ Charlie announces, stepping forward. I notice that he makes a deferential, almost fearful glance towards Phoebe as he does it. Phoebe waves her hand, as though to show the world that she’s giving him permission.

‘Fair enough,’ she smirks. ‘I’d still better get the smart card off him though; pissed as he is, I’d imagine that I’m still the only one who can get away with slipping my hand in his back pocket.’ As she says this Charlie’s nostrils dilate ever so slightly, but he doesn’t say anything in return.

I’d never understood why anyone would use the level-creator function in a videogame. I guess it seemed like doing the developer’s work for them. If you ever want to do a trial run of an upcoming robbery in a perfect digital model of your target building, however, there’s really nothing more useful. Unless, of course, you have a friend who was curious to see what would happen if you turned up to the aforementioned robbery sporting bazookas.

Phoebe declared that she had better things to do than sit around playing ‘Sega’ (her words). This was something of a blessing in disguise, firstly because split-screen only goes four ways, and secondly because anyone who didn’t go into a six-month period of mourning when the Dreamcast flopped is no friend of mine. I must confess, though, that Phoebe’s recent behaviour makes me curious about what those ‘better things’ are.

Phoebe’s absence has at least given Charlie something more exciting to do, since his role in the main event consists mostly of standing around outside, by the exit point. Meanwhile, the rest of us bust in the front entrance, each firing a warning shot into the rafters and screaming disorientating nonsense to the customers. I slip off to the right, and politely explain to the staff working the tills that they’ll be getting the rest of the day off work, and to please leave promptly and quietly via the entrance. Of course, since the only phrase I can manage in a convincing Geordie accent is ‘GIMMEALLYOURFUCKINMONEY!!!’ this explanation will be done mostly by waving a revolver in their faces.

While I’m testing the cashiers’ commitment to the company, the other three are moving left. Dave and Sid – or ‘Cuntmonkey’, as Charlie has so eloquently dubbed him in his absence – trap the crowd in a pincer movement. Dave goes down the near aisle and Bronstein down the far one, and together they sheepdog all of the shoppers into the middle. They march the flock towards the tills, where I’m waiting with my best Bad Motherfucker face to direct the evacuees towards the door and push the hostages off to one side.

By the time we’ve filtered out the hostages, Bronstein has made it up the stairs to the cash office. The plan is for him to have a gun pointed at the nice lady behind the bulletproof glass before she figures out that something’s gone horribly wrong with her day. In the digital dry run, this plan goes to plan. Standing behind bulletproof glass tends to make a gun seem underwhelming, however, so I was forced to invent a grimly elegant solution to this predicament. As Freddy previously mentioned, when he’d finished defending the free world from Hitler and co. his granddad managed to sneak a grenade-shaped souvenir back from France. At my behest, when he’d finished cleaning up the sick from his sister’s seventeenth birthday party Freddy managed to sneak it, along with a now sawn-off shotgun, back to Newcastle. He can therefore threaten to pull the pin and send it through the money drawer of the cash office, unless the nice lady decides to open the door and let him into the safe.

Back on the shop floor, Dave, Cuntmonkey and myself have now gathered twenty or-so hostages and barricaded the front doors. We part ways, with the other two escorting the hostages upstairs to the staff break room whilst me and the thermite go to burn our way through the floor of the supermarket and into the basement floor of the six-story car park below, where – assuming we haven’t gone over the time-limit – Butch will be waiting with the getaway vehicle. While we’re collecting the money and rounding up the innocents, he will be skulking around the car park, looking for something with a good engine and bad locks; preferably a car whose parking ticket suggests that the owners are going to be absent for a long while. We all agreed that if there’s anyone suited to grand theft auto amongst our number, it’s him. Once he’s got his hands on a suitable automobile, he’ll outfit the boot with our fake bomb.

We’re not the ones who’ll be driving the getaway vehicle, however; the fake explosives are there to convince three lucky hostages that pulling on balaclavas, getting in the car and speeding off into the horizon, potentially with police cars in pursuit, is a preferable option to pulling over and handing themselves in to the authorities. We’ve already agreed that the best candidates for such a task would be young and female. It’s a shame for an enlightened man like myself to fall back on such lazy gender stereotypes, but common sense and screenwriting 101 suggest that they’ll be most likely to believe we’ve rigged the bomb to go off if they drop below sixty miles an hour. The diversion that their ‘getaway’ provides should give us real criminals a window of opportunity to each slink out, unnoticed and unmolested, through one of the many escape routes that the car park has to offer. From there, we’ll blend in with the crowds, go for coffee, grab a movie, whatever, until it’s our turn to make our way back home to count the takings.

That’s how the virtual rehearsal says it should go, anyway.

 

‘Do you want bullets?’ asks Sid’s friend. He’s drawn the curtains – oddly the only item of furniture in the place – which only serves to make the whole endeavour feel more shady. I wonder if the pun was intended.

‘Why wouldn’t we?’ Sid returns, his face quizzical.

‘If you weren’t planning on killing anybody.’

The silence hangs over us.

‘We want bullets,’ Sid admits, finally.

‘How many?’

‘How many have you got?’

‘Twelve for the handguns; five for the magnum.’

Sid frowns.

‘That’s not very much.’

‘Depends what you’re doing with them.’

‘It’s enough,’ I mutter, then go back to coaxing the dog over with one of the smoky bacon crisps I bought for my breakfast. The arms dealer gives me a weirdly offended look, and says:

‘Dogs die if they eat crisps.’

‘You’re thinking of chocolate,’ I reply, crossing my legs in the Godfather way – something which doesn’t project quite the same air of authority when one is sat on the floor as it does when one is sat on a chair – and gingerly scratching his scary dog behind the ears.

‘Just don’t do it,’ he replies, in a stern and ominous tone. I’m struck by the notion that, though I doubt he’s killed anyone himself, he probably knows someone that has. I know that, rationally speaking, no one would throw away nearly a grand’s-worth of business for the sake of something so petty, but this guy doesn’t quite strike me as a rational agent.

‘Sorry,’ I concede, albeit sarcastically. ‘Your house, your rules.’

‘Fucking right,’ he sneers. He doesn’t even have a TV to watch, to take my mind off of the ensuing awkward silence. With nothing better to do, I decide to break that silence.

‘So I’ll assume you’ve got some more questions, otherwise you’d just sell us the guns and get back to filling in your application for the Jeremy Kyle Show,’ I say.

‘I’ve got more questions,’ he replies. ‘What are you planning on doing with them?

‘We’re assassinating one of the royals,’ I interject, before Sid can get any syllables out. ‘We just haven’t decided which one yet. What does it matter, anyway? I’m guessing this isn’t literally your house, considering there’s no furniture in here and a “for let” sign outside; neither of us knows your name; I couldn’t get any more specific with your description than “brown hair, none too pretty” – Sherlock fucking Holmes couldn’t find you with just that to go on.’

I watch his rusty cogs clanking around in his head. After a minute or two, he asks:

‘And have you got the money?’

I pull the wedge of twenties and tens, all wrapped up in an elastic band, out of my pocket and hand it over to him. As he slowly counts it up, my mind goes back to the conversation I had with the Barclays customer service department earlier in the week. I asked them to extend my overdraft by five-hundred pounds. Until recently, it had been a point of pride that my bank balance had never gone lower than zero. The woman on the other end asked what I wanted it for; I said that I wanted books to revise from over Christmas. I heard her stifle a derisive snort. I wondered if she thought I’d be spending it on treble vodkas.

‘There’s only nine-hundred here.’

Sid shoots me a look. I shrug as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me; I don’t know’, but really I’m thinking, ‘For fuck’s sake Charlie,’ and cursing myself for not counting the money before I left the house this morning.

‘Not a big fan of haggling, I take it?’

His eyebrows narrow. Taking this to be a ‘no’, I glance towards Sid, and ask:

‘Got any money on you?’

‘Couple of twenties. You?’

‘Left my phone and wallet at home,’ I reply. ‘I thought you would have as well, considering how careful you’ve been lately.’

‘It’s a reflex thing; I feel like I’m naked if my pockets are empty.’ I raise my eyebrows, so he adds with a note of irritation: ‘I’m not going to leave them lying about anywhere suspicious, am I? Grant me at least some intelligence.’

I’m about to reply when our low-budget arms dealer makes his presence known again.

‘If the next words out of your mouth aren’t “I’ve just found a hundred quid in my pocket”, I’m taking this,’ he waves the stack of notes about, ‘and I’m going home,’ he says.

‘Look, wait,’ I splutter. ‘We can work something out. Take half the bullets out. I mean, we only need…’ I start going over the plan in my head, counting out each shot on my fingers.

Click.

I look up, and I see him pointing the gun at me.

‘I only need one,’ he says, with a smirk. I can feel the blood curdle in my veins. The heat seems to have got up and left the room, along with the oxygen. I fight for breath, but I can’t find it anywhere. Sid is flattened against the wall beside me, as though he’s trying to push his way through it, and escape.

‘W-wait man,’ I plead. The words barely find their way out. ‘You’re not going to murder us over nine hundred quid, surely?’

‘Nope,’ he replies. He doesn’t lower the gun. ‘I’m going to murder you because you’re a cocky little prick. The nine-hundred and forty quid is just a bonus.’ The smirk crawls even wider up his cheek. ‘Like you said, who the fuck’s gonna know?’

I can feel the skin on my face beginning to sag, while tears build up behind my eyes. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

‘Don’t,’ Sid whispers. ‘Please. Don’t.’ It’s not a demand; it’s a feeble request. I can’t believe I handed the better part of a grand to an armed stranger and expected him not to just take it. And yet, right now, I could happily admit to the others that I got up early to attend my own mugging and still consider today a rousing success, provided I don’t get murdered immediately afterward. My atheism is busy falling apart, as I pray to God that the friends Sid knows this guy through are close enough to make him reconsider shooting me. That’s the only chance I’ve got, after all: I turned up here without a soul knowing where I was off to, except Sid; there’s no connection to be traced between me and my killer; we’re out in an abandoned house in the middle of working-class nowhere. Basically, it all comes down to his conscience or Sid’s friends. The long arm of the law is well out of reach now. My fate is well out of my hands.

‘You done pretending you’re a hard man?’ he asks me. I don’t need any prompting from Sid to start nodding furiously.

‘Prove it,’ his continues. ‘Get on the floor and kiss my fucking feet.’

I try to turn to Sid for advice, but I can’t take my eyes off the gun. Three-quarters of my brain – the part that would rather keep my skull intact than my ego – screams at me to collapse onto all-fours. And yet, all the while, there’s another voice in my head that tells me he’s bluffing.

‘Fucking do it!’ Sid finally screeches, and it’s as though a giant hand is pressing down on my shoulders. As my hands thump against the carpet, the dealer lets his dog’s lead go slack, jabbing it in the bollocks with his toe as he does it, and the slathering beast explodes into action: it shoots forward, snapping its jaws; I bring my elbows up to try to protect my face and its teeth clamp into my forearm; I scream and scramble desperately backwards and clatter the side of my head against the wall.

‘Who’s in fucking charge here?’ the salesman bellows, his northern accent becoming more prominent with the increase in volume. If he lets go of the last half-a-foot of the dog’s leash, my throat gets detached from my neck.

‘You!’ I scream back. ‘Just get this fucking dog off me!’

‘And are you gonna get me another five hundred by the end of the month?’

‘Yes! Yes!’

At last the fucking mutt is yanked away, but I don’t uncurl from the foetal position. I hear him tell Sid to send to send the extra money through Ray, whoever the fuck Ray is, and that he’s taking half of the handgun bullets to teach me a lesson in manners. Something falls onto the floor with a thunk a few steps from me, then I hear the arms dealer’s feet trampling the stairs.

I peek out from behind my torn sleeves and watch Sid sliding down the wall. He’s whiter than teeth in Los Angeles.

‘You alright?’ he whispers.

‘Think my jumper took the worst of it,’ I stammer back.

‘At least he left the guns.’

I look at the bag the salesman dropped.

‘At least we’re still alive.’

Sid gives a bad impression of a chuckle.

‘Yeah,’ he replies. ‘Hopefully we can still say that this time next week.’

I sit up. Despite myself, and despite the fact that Sid plainly wasn’t joking, I smirk. The smirk becomes a grin; the grin becomes a chortle. Suddenly my head rolls back, involuntarily, and I erupt into adrenaline-fuelled laughter. Through the rolls of psychotic mirth, I squeeze out:

‘If you tell anyone about what just happened, you might not even make it till then!’

Phoebe has already slipped Stephen’s wallet out of his pocket, swiped the student card and replaced the wallet again in the time it took me and Charlie to get back downstairs. She deftly hands it off to me as I walk by, distracting the others with the bottle of vodka, and Charlie provides our cover by announcing that he’s going out for a fag. As I follow him, I hear Johnny ask Fred when I started smoking.

We designed our costumes to be taken on and off with relative ease, so within twenty seconds of getting out of the door me and Charlie are striding down the street in black jeans and T-shirts, and all the more garish parts of our outfits, save for the make-up, are stored in a nearby wheelie bin.

‘So – think Johnny’s gonna rat me out to Liz for smoking?’ I ask, since we’ve walked eight of the ten minutes it takes to get to the lab and Charlie hasn’t said a word yet. The trick is usually in getting him to shut the fuck up.

‘Didn’t know you were even seeing her anymore,’ he mutters.

‘What? Why?’

‘When was the last time you saw her?’

‘Uhm, well there was… uhh…’ It suddenly hits me that I haven’t been with Liz since we went Christmas shopping three weeks ago. I’ve spoken to her on the phone a couple of times, maybe, read a couple of the texts she’s sent me, but I haven’t cast my eyes on her in the best part of a month – I’ve not even checked her Facebook profile to see whether she’s still down as ‘in a relationship’.

‘Just because I haven’t seen her, doesn’t mean I’m not seeing her,’ I tell him, in a dismissive tone.

‘I think she’d be more worried about you and Phoebe than you smoking, anyway.’

‘God, I never had you down as the jealous boyfriend type.’

‘I never said she was my girlfriend.’

‘Well, whatever you kids are calling it, if you see me as a threat, you’re standing somewhere between “9/11 was an inside job” and “Martians are stealing my pubic hair” on the paranoia scale.’

Charlie nods, more to himself than to me, and lights up a cigarette. A few times he slows his pace and takes it out of his mouth without inhaling any smoke, but then he quickly frowns, shakes his head and shuffles on again. Eventually he plucks up enough courage to say what’s on his mind:

‘Have you ever been in love?’

It’s my turn to slow my pace.

‘I – uhm – I dunno, really. I-’

‘You didn’t let me finish,’ he interrupts. ‘Have you ever been in love with someone who you, like, fucking hate?’

‘Can’t say I have; I always thought the two were mutually exclusive.’

He doesn’t answer, so I leave him to his thoughts. The lab is closing in on us and he hasn’t finished his cigarette yet. I don’t want to be forced to wait outside, where we might be seen by prying eyes. I don’t want to tell Charlie to ditch the fag either, though, what with the sulk he’s got going. It’s with no small amount of relief, as I’m mulling my options over, that I see him flick the butt aside, half-smoked. This brief hit of good karma lets me swipe the stolen card against the lab’s entry scanner without the idea that it might not work even crossing my mind. As the glass doors swoosh open, Charlie and I bow our heads into our chests, and pull the black balaclavas out of our back pockets in unison. The headgear, if I’m honest, isn’t necessary – the chances of there being CCTV in the lab are slim at best – but I’ve been getting caught up in all this ‘Sundance’ role-play. Embarrassingly so, now that you mention it. Not that you did.

‘So why do you hate her?’ I ask. I draft the sentence out in my head before uttering it to make sure that I don’t accidentally use someone’s name, on the off-chance that this place is wired for sound.

‘There’s something off about her,’ he replies, with a meekness that seems off in itself. ‘I don’t think she is who she says she is.’

‘You got any evidence for that theory?’

‘…She hasn’t seen Star Wars, for one thing.’

I forget about the whole Solid Snake, stealth mission thing we had going, and I burst out laughing.

‘Well case fucking closed! You know, Liz refused to come when they screened the original trilogy at the art-house cinema the other month. Maybe they’re in on it together? Maybe they’re gonna rob our broke asses and elope to Sunderland with the proceeds?’

‘I’ll ask you this nicely: stop being a cunt,’ he replies, in a sterner tone than the one in which he usually calls me a cunt. ‘You don’t understand; she hasn’t seen anything. Hasn’t heard of Pulp Fiction; not heard of Back to the Future; can’t name a player in the England squad; even fucking Harry Potter, man. I mean, sometimes it’s like we’re speaking the same language, but we still can’t understand a fucking word the other one says. You were there when she was watching X Factor, right?’

‘When she asked who that flat-top guy with hitched up pants was?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Alright, I’ll grant you, that is a bit weird. She’s probably just one of those hippy, free spirit types, though, right? Refuses to listen to any band with more than four fans, unless it’s The Smiths.’

‘She hasn’t heard of the Smiths, either.’

That one stumps me, I must confess.

 

Over the last few weeks, Phoebe has gradually been replacing me as Charlie’s coffee-date companion of choice. As might be guessed from the gaping void of emptiness where her pop-culture lobe should be, a coffee-date with Phoebe does not feature much discussion of the incompatibility of Freudian psychoanalysis with Inception or the implications of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics on the Terminator franchise as one with me does. Phoebe has never been a great one for discussion. What she is one for, however, is action. Action, and casual psychopathy. While this combination does make it easier to understand why Charlie’s romantic feelings for her are somewhat marred by the fact that he’s also fucking terrified of her, it does mean that she’s good for an anecdote or two.

The most blatant example of the aforementioned psychopathy was committed on the afternoon before Stephen’s party. Charlie, perhaps in a bid to keep things interesting, had switched from taking Phoebe to his usual haunt – Starbucks – and instead took her to Shakeaholic. Shakeaholic, for those of you who a.) aren’t from the north of England, and b.) can’t decipher lexical clues, is a sort of Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour milkshake establishment. More importantly for this tale, though, it is also an establishment whose entrance lies at the top of a flight of about ten or fifteen concrete steps.

This being the first Saturday in the school holidays, it’s hardly surprising that Charlie and Phoebe arrived to find a gaggle of thirteen year-old kids queuing in front of them. And, because thirteen year-olds are generally horrible people, it’s hardly surprising that one of them was making a spectacle of himself.

‘Oi, lend us a quid,’ demanded the spectacular kid – the one with the tracksuit, the belly and the slicked-back hair – in a voice several octaves lower than the one he would use in front of his mother. The ‘Oi’ in question was a gangly youth who, until that point, had been standing apart from the rest of the group, quietly inspecting the list of flavours. His long neck suddenly stood erect, and his eye caught the short kid peeking at him from behind the armpit of the fat kid. The midget wore a gleeful, anticipatory grin.

‘I was – umm – I’m not sure I’m gonna have enough change,’ he muttered.

‘Stop being such a stingy little prick,’ Fatty spat back, ‘No-one even wanted you here anyway, so make yourself useful.’

‘I can get a small one if you need the money,’ Gangly conceded, in a meek little voice.

‘I don’t need your fuckin’ money,’ Fatty returned. ‘You’re the one whose mum’s an alkie skank; you’re the one that needs money.’ He turned to the midget. ‘I think we need to start a Jim fund, so the smelly little prick can afford some new pants. Don’t we?’

‘Yeah!’ the midget acquiesced, so the fat one dug a couple of coins out of his trousers. He plucked the pound out of his chubby palm and put it back into his pocket, then held up the two pence in his forefinger and thumb.

‘Here you go; buy yourself some pants, stinky,’ he sneered, and threw the coin against the gangly kid’s cheek. The midget clutched onto him, as though he could no longer stand up from the sheer hilarity of it all. Looking satisfied with his day’s work, Fatty waddled out through the door. He stopped at the top of the stone steps, looking out over the Christmas shoppers, and lit up a cigarette.

Gangly hung back as his companions made their departure, taking a moment to fight off his tears and reconcile himself to his meagre lot in life. When he eventually trudged off in Fatty’s direction, Phoebe told Charlie that she was going to buy some fags, and to meet her around the corner, and to get her one of ‘those peanut butter flavour ones’. Charlie, as he is now wont to do around Phoebe, did as he was told.

As Phoebe came up behind the fat kid, who was loudly making some boasts to the girls in his entourage, she appeared to notice that her shoelace was untied, and bent down to rectify the situation. Fatty, too caught up in his delusions of grandeur, didn’t notice that she also took a moment to tie a lace from each of his shoes, one to the other. Just a single bow; tight enough that a sharp tug would cause him to trip, but lose enough that the same tug would pull the knot undone and destroy any evidence of her action. Foul play accomplished, Phoebe hopped down the steps and made her way around the corner, to the off-license.

Charlie, feeling disappointed that he and his girlfriend weren’t going to sit down and share conversation over their milkshakes, after all, trudged out of the shake-shop and down the steps. As he heard Fatty’s latest boast go up an octave and transform into a squeal, he turned around. As he heard the first crack of skull against jagged concrete, he dropped the drinks. As he saw the blood leaking out of the lump now crumpled and unconscious at the foot of the steps, he felt sick, because he knew who had made it happen. As he saw the crowds run towards the lump, looking afraid for his life, even the gangly kid following suit, Charlie could only stand and stare, because he knew he was partly responsible.

What the fuck did you do?’ he hissed at Phoebe, when she emerged from the off-license with a fag already pinched between her teeth. He made sure that he hissed quietly enough that no-one would hear.

‘I don’t know,’ Phoebe replied. ‘What did I do?’

You know what I mean!’ Charlie hissed. ‘The kid around the corner! You might’ve fucking killed him!

‘I didn’t kill him,’ she shrugged. ‘I just tied his shoelaces together.’

 

I throw Charlie’s concerns about psychopathy and pop-culture illiteracy to one side for the moment, because I’m trying to get my head around the filing system they use in this place, and I’m keeping an eye out for anything that’s on my shopping list.

‘Think I’ve got peroxide over here!’ Charlie yells from the other side of the lab.

‘You’re in the bit where they do experiments,’ I call back. ‘They’ll notice if we take that; and, besides, we need to buy in bulk.’

‘How much of this stuff are we planning on taking?’ he asks, poking his balaclavaed head around the corner.

‘Here’s the list,’ I reply, taking it out of my pocket, scrunching it up into a ball and chucking it over to him.

‘I’m not a numbers man,’ Charlie shrugs, not even glancing the list over. It gashes me somewhat to have ruined my perfectly folded piece of paper for him, for him to then not even read it. ‘How deep a hole is all this gonna burn?’

‘Let’s just say that if we fancy a trip to New Zealand when we’re done with the robbery, we’ll have shaved a couple-thousand miles off our journey.’

‘Good; I could use a holiday.’

I give him a wry smile.

‘Well, you do live a very stressful life…’

‘Fuck you, man.’

‘You’re not getting cold feet, are you? This whole thing was your idea.’

He marches across the laboratory floor towards me, only stopping once he’s well inside my comfort zone.

‘That gonna be your defence in court? Just following orders?’

I keep smiling as he gets closer, even beginning to lean towards him myself.

‘I’m not gonna need a defence, because we’re not gonna get caught. You said it yourself. Follow my plan, and you’re good.’

Charlie’s shoulders sag.

‘What the fuck do I know? I also said I was gonna be famous.’

‘What happened to the whole “exercise your God-given liberty” thing you had going?’

‘Fine, it was my idea. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a stupid idea.’

‘Well I now owe a potentially murderous drug-dealer five-hundred quid thanks to you, so I’m afraid it’s an idea that we’re going to have to follow to its conclusion.’

‘So much for liberty,’ he mutters.

 

[] SCENE VIII

THE DREAMERS OF THE DAY

Quick question: if you were threading your way through a city with a revolver tucked into the waistband of your jeans and a balaclava rolled-up to your hairline so that it doesn’t show beneath your hood, what album would you have playing on your iPod? The oncoming situation is far too serious for pop-music, obviously. It can’t be anything too introspective, though, either: An Ian Curtis mind-set is the last thing you need when you’re metres away from acts that would prickle the guilt-strings of anyone whose last name isn’t, well, whatever Phoebe’s last name is. You might imagine that rap, specifically gangster rap, would be the perfect choice. Upbeat tales about crime paying well and the joys of gunning-down home invaders; what could suit the mood better? That’s what I thought, initially, but then it came to selecting an artist. Tupac comes dangerously close to introspective at times, and Biggie’s best album begins with a scene of him leaving prison – not a reminder that you welcome when you’re trying to psyche yourself up for armed robbery. Everyone else, in my white, middle-class, English opinion, is just a less-good version of one or the other of those two, and this is no time for the best of the rest.

So what does that leave? In the end, I went with the Sex Pistols. Scuzzy and aggressive enough that you want to hold up a middle-class stronghold at gunpoint; deluded and stupid enough to make you think you might get away with it. By the time I’ve narrowed down my soundtrack, however, I’m already reaching the edge of university territory, so I have to shut it off five seconds into track one. Not far from my mark I stop, lean against a lamppost and check my watch. I had to buy a cheap digital one, because I haven’t owned a proper watch in so long that I’ve forgotten how to tell time, and Charlie refused to steal me one. Three and a half minutes until go-time. The others should all be in place – though I suppose there’s a great many possible futures lurking inside that should. Charlie should be getting into the car park right about now; he needs the extra time in case a suitable getaway vehicle takes longer than expected to find. Besides, I’ve always found that I need to tell him to meet me half an hour earlier than I intend to turn up somewhere, and I’m not stupid enough to think he’ll miraculously improve his timekeeping skills just because being late today might result in all of us going to prison.

Three minutes. I begin to doubt the wisdom of having each of us approach from a different angle, unaccompanied. It’s a long walk into town, long enough for those pesky, shoulder-perched better angels to start making sense.

 

This is your last chance to walk away…

 

Everyone else will chicken out, and you’ll walk in there alone. They’re probably not even at their marks. Then you’ll go to prison, alone.

 

I know that this is what’s going on in their heads, because the exact same thing is going on inside my own. Two minutes. It will take me thirty seconds to get from this lamppost to the entrance of the shop. One minute, forty-five seconds. If the others don’t leave their marks with thirty seconds to spare, I’ll be in the shop by myself. One minute, thirty seconds. Even with a gun in my hand, I don’t cut an intimidating enough presence to act out the opening phase on my own. One minute, fifteen seconds. I pull the balaclava down. My face disappears.

With slow, deliberate steps, I move out into the open. Having the mask on means that people will already be gazing at me with inquisitive eyes. This is not just paranoia; I can see the cars slowing down as they pass by. Usually they speed up, as though getting hit at a measly twenty-five miles-per-hour isn’t a harsh enough punishment for jaywalking. It was for a good reason that we’d planned on moving from the go-points to the shop at high speed; right this second, a passenger in any one of those cars could be phoning the authorities. Every second I add to the walk over is a second less that we’ve got to herd out the stragglers and get the target building – and the hostages – locked-down. The slow walk seems like a necessary evil right now, though, as long as it spurs the others into action.

And what if it doesn’t? asks the angel on my shoulder.

It’s a bit too fucking late for that, I think back.

I vault over the railings, praying that the gun doesn’t get caught on my belt and accidentally blow an extra hole in my arse. When I land, and it doesn’t, I start praying that one of those bastards will appear in my peripheral vision sometime soon. Then I remember that God probably isn’t on my side right now. The giant Marks & Spencer sign looms out before me. Still nothing. If I took the balaclava off right now and walked away, it might look suspicious, but I think I’d still get off without punishment.

Then a figure emerges. Even out of the corner of my eye I can tell that it’s one of us. The figure’s size tells me that it’s Freddy. Our eyes meet for just a moment, and I cannot help but raise a smile. He doesn’t smile back, but the hard, determined element in his eyes burns away my own self-doubts. I never quite worked out Freddy’s motivation for doing this. Maybe he actually believes all those things he says. Maybe he never planned on going through with it until he saw me striding out into the middle of the road. I guess it doesn’t matter now. I can’t see the other two yet, but I can feel them closing in behind me, backing me up, bolstering my resolve. I pull the revolver out of my waistband.

The doors swoosh open. I raise the gun in the air. I pull the trigger. A shattering BAKKHOOM!! blasts backwards into my shoulder blade, and deafness rings into my ears. A shower of glass splashes down over me. My shot must’ve taken out one of the lights. Blundering forward, I can see the customers ducking and screaming and covering their heads. Already a few of them have blood gushing out of their scalps and down their faces. Over my shoulder I can hear Sid shrieking incomprehensible, albeit threatening, gibberish.

I can’t hear the words Sid is using, thanks to the general commotion and the fact that I’ve blown both of my eardrums clean out of my head, but I know exactly what he’s saying. The blueprint is now branded with searing clarity into my thoughts. I now understand why it is that Charlie can only do essays with punk music blaring away in the background. The chaos going on around me allows my mind to focus, somehow. It wipes out all distractions, and I can only see the next stage of the plan. One move at a time. The next one will appear when it’s needed, but not until then.

With purposeful strides, I approach the nearest cashier and press my revolver against the side of her head. She makes no attempt to duck or run, she just raises her hands slightly and her eyes go wide. She’s halfway through a transaction, so all I have to do is press the relevant button and the register pings open. A sudden jolt in the pressure of the gun barrel into her temple convinces her to move aside. The next cashier pings open the register before I even reach her, and the other three follow suit as though they’re part of some inexorable chemical chain reaction.

Leaving Sid and Phoebe to their part of the job, I start collecting the money from the tills. It’s small change, a few hundred a go, coming out at about four grand in total, or a semester of university studies. I leave the coins. When I’ve bundled all of this into my black backpack I take up my position at the end of the middle aisle, and put on the most menacing glare I have in my arsenal. Admittedly, this is not all that menacing, but I’d assume that most of them will be looking at the revolver in my hand, not the panic in my eyes. The herd of customers is rushing towards me, obscuring Sid and Phoebe from view, but I can hear Sid’s voice booming over the top of them, telling them to drop their wallets and purses at the feet of the nice gentleman by the tills. He adds that some paper, plastic and leather is not worth being shot over – an argument that Phoebe punctuates with a blast from her pistol. With a sound like lightning in a James Joyce novel, a shelf’s-worth of fizzy drinks explodes. The herd screams as one. Strangers huddle together like shy children clinging to their mothers’ legs. I can’t help but notice how close Phoebe’s shot must have come to the customers on the outer edge of the crowd.

I debate letting off a persuasion shot of my own, but my ears are still ringing from the first time I pulled the trigger. It feels as though my shoulder’s been twisted out of the socket. You’re not John McLane, I remind myself. Don’t fire guns one-handed.

Before the wallet collection begins, I sneak a quick glance at my watch. Two minutes down already. My eyes flick towards the glass doors, behind which the real world is still obliviously shuffling on, and the nighttime shutters above them. We need to get this place on lockdown, fast.

My heart is pumping. My arteries feel as though they’ll burst. My hand grips the gun-handle so hard that the knuckles tingle, trying to vent out all this excess energy, but it’s not enough. I lash out at the first person in the herd to come close, a young professional-looking type, mid-twenties, handsome. Before I quite work out that I’ve done it, I’ve belted him as hard as I can around his cheekbone with the butt of the revolver. He doesn’t cry out in pain, but instead lets out a little whimper, and his body goes slack as I grab him by the collar and toss him to the side. His head bounces against the till as he goes down, and he crumples to a heap on the floor. Our first hostage is in place.

‘Wallets over there, mother fuckers,’ Phoebe announces, in a voice low enough to be confused with that of a man, if one’s expectations were lined-up that way. She appears not to trust them to comprehend the instruction, because she throws someone’s purse to my feet in order to illustrate. The ones who came within a hair of taking a bullet from her are the first to comply. Further swayed by the bleeding, moaning fellow by the cash register, a few more follow suit, but I suspect I’ll need to apply some more pressure if I want to get the rest of them going. This doesn’t really feel like a conscious choice – I’m just aware that it has to be done, and that I’m the guy in the right place to do it. I know exactly where this pressure should be applied, as well – the customer standing on the far right of the huddle. He’s a head and shoulders taller than the rest of the fifty-odd captives, so when they see him crumble the rest of them will fall into line.

With soft footsteps, taking advantage of the fact that he’s still staring at the bloody ghoul on the floor, I sneak up beside him and jab the gun barrel into his temple with just enough force to let him know that I mean business. I give Phoebe a significant glance. Or maybe it’s Sid. It’s difficult to tell underneath the balaclavas. It doesn’t matter either way; Sid or Phoebe reads the cue instantly, and rams his or her gun into the back of his head. The height difference means that he or she has to aim upwards, and I get a mental image of the shower of blood and brains that would fly up and splatter down over everyone if he or she were to pull the trigger.

‘Alright, listen up!’ booms out the balaclava-wearer. I can’t even tell if it’s Sid’s normal voice or Phoebe’s man-voice anymore. ‘We’ll give you all a choice: which one of us do you want to blow this cunt’s brains out?’

The crowd, understandably, remains silent. The tall guy tries to turn around, perhaps to plead. I sidestep to avoid his gaze.

‘Or,’ Sid/Phoebe continues, in a much lower register, so that only the tall guy can hear, ‘you could start valuing what’s in your skull a bit more than what’s in your pockets. It’s up to you, man. I don’t care; I get the wallet either way.’

Big fellow takes more time than I’d hoped in coming to a decision, but eventually he begins to move his hand towards his pocket and slowly plucks out his wallet. Just as slowly, and all too confidently, he re-raises his hand back into the surrender position. It’s at this point I realise that Pulp Fiction is the bane of every would-be hostage-taker’s life. You always end up with some mother fucker who thinks he’s Samuel L Jackson.

This realisation is soon made insignificant, however, when the big guy turns around and I discover that he’s Tim, my flat-mate from first year. Tim hands the wallet to me, and our eyes lock for a moment. I should look away in case he recognises me, but instead I find myself staring right into his, actively searching out the very look of recognition I’m supposed to be avoiding. Finding not that, but rather a look of pitying magnanimity, in them, I get a sudden urge to shoot him right through the stomach. My arm spasms, as the angel scrabbles down from my shoulder and desperately clings to my trigger-finger.

This sudden lust for petty, psychopathic revenge instead finds a less murderous outlet and I give Tim a sharp kick to the back of the knee as Phoebe or Sid orders him to leave. His gait buckles in a goofy and satisfying fashion, but he keeps walking and staring straight ahead. The further away of my co-robbers does shoot me a glare, however, as though to ask why I’m taking such pleasure in tormenting this one particular escapee. The necessity of keeping silent in order to cover up my southern accent prevents me from explaining, so I turn my back.

Leaving the other two to prune down the herd, I busy myself with sorting through the gigantic mound of purses and wallets. The threats worked; some people have even thrown in their house keys. I toss aside everything except the cash, which I stuff into my backpack. Phoebe and Sid are picking out the weakest members of the crowd and putting them over to the side, ready to be frogmarched up to the employee break room, and telling the braver-looking ones to get out of the door. One of them does the selecting while the other keeps their gun trained on the rest of them, watching out for any signs of burgeoning heroism. We agreed to take any couples we found as part of the hostage group, for two reasons: because heroism is more easily doused by putting a gun on the hero’s spouse’s head than his own, and secondly because a group composed entirely out of strangers is more likely to band together and take us on than people who are only concerned with getting their loved one out of the situation alive.

I check my watch again. We’ve been here for three minutes and twenty-six seconds. Six minutes, thirty-four until we should be ready to leave. Eleven minutes, thirty-four seconds until it’s Charlie’s cue to bail out on us. I look back up at the filtering process, which is nearing completion. A guilty sort of pride swells up in my ribcage about how well our little strategies are blooming. Removing a pair of hostages from the herd at a time is having the desired effect. All of the unfortunate couples are clinging to each other, keeping a significant distance from their neighbouring hostages. A bearded boyfriend bends down to whisper something in his girlfriend’s ear. Maybe he’s telling her that everything’s going to be okay. Maybe he’s come up with a plan to overthrow us. It doesn’t matter either way. Three bad guys with guns will always beat two good guys without them.

‘And the final lucky couple!’ one of my fellow bad guys announces. He or she drags one of the pair in question – a redhead – over to the side and her friend – a brunette – stumbles after her, drawn out of the herd by the redhead’s terrified eyes.

The next stage direction is mine. Every member of the two herds is focused on Sid and Phoebe, so I’ve got all the time I need. Gripping the revolver firmly in both hands, I aim at the rectangular fluorescent light hanging above all of them. This time I’m braced for the KABLOOM!!, but the crowd isn’t braced for the second shower of glass that comes tumbling over their heads.

‘MUSH!’ A balaclava screeches, and the lucky half of the crowd flees for the automatic doors. I chase after them brandishing the revolver, but it’s not as though they need the extra persuasion. Good riddance, too: it won’t be long before the police show up, and I’ve yet to lock the glass doors and throw down the shutters.

Once the stragglers have taken their leave, I make an inspection of the door controls on the wall next to the entrance. I haven’t been able to rehearse this part of the job, and I’m not particularly happy about having to work them out with the hostages leering at me. If they catch on to the fact that we’re amateurs – or, more precisely, that we haven’t got a fucking clue what we’re doing – it might stir insurrection in their ranks. That’s not even the most pressing danger; every second that the doors stay open is another second in which a SWAT team could come barrelling through them. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. When I open them, the directions are still gibberish. I jab what I think is the automatic door button, the one with the two rectangles and a padlock stamped next to it, then amble over to the door. Obediently, it swooshes open before me. I start to panic.

The world behind the swooshing doors is no longer oblivious. There’s a yellow and blue car parked on the other side of the road, by the same lamppost that Phoebe was waiting at four minutes and fifty-three seconds ago. Even through my gunpowder-deafened ears, I can make out the sound of sirens. More must be coming. The pit drops out of my stomach. The panic redoubles. The time for worrying about my accent is over.

‘We got company!’ I yell in the most booming yell I can muster. ‘Get those cunts upstairs, now!’

‘MUSH!’ I hear one of the other two shout, in an excited kind of a voice. The hostages begin to shuffle down the aisle, towards the staircase. A few of them make desperate glances towards the exit, but by this point the fear has got them all in step and no-one makes a dash for it.

‘Cuntmonkey!’ I boom. One of the balaclavaed creatures reappears from behind the first row of shelves. ‘Forgetting something?’ I hoist the backpack from my shoulders and toss it to him. He catches it, and slides his own, much larger, one across the slick floor towards me. He’ll pass the moneybag on to Freddy, who should be waiting in the cash office, ready to add the contents of the safe to what I plundered from the tills. Inside the bag Sid gave me are the tools necessary for our escape, key among them being the thermite.

‘When you get up there, check the woman in the cash office for keys. We need them to work the door controls.’

‘We could’ve used that information before we kicked all the other employees out…’

I feel my cheeks flush pink beneath the mask.

‘My fault – didn’t notice it before,’ I mutter. Sid pulls a grimace.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ he spits, at an intentionally audible volume. ‘Do your fuckin’ job.’ I can tell that he’s already dreaming up ways to throw me under the bus in order to save himself. I suppose that’s natural, what with him being the biggest unknown quantity in the group; it bodes well for him to look after number one.

‘Just get the fucking keys,’ I tell him as he jogs off after Phoebe. The eerie silence left behind by the departed customers, the disparaging glint in Sid’s eye, the ever-increasing number of police officers waiting outside, ready to subject us all to a bludgeon-heavy arrest; recent events have served to put me in an irritable mood. I’m losing my focus; I nearly set off to plant the thermite without first posting the ransom notice. I curse under my breath and slap my palm dully against my wool-clad face. Get your head back in the game.

I remove the blu-tac from the front pocket of my new backpack. It’s still sealed, to prevent any stray hairs or other DNA-related bits and bobs from getting caught up in it. I pull off a few pieces and roll them up between my gloved fingers. Also in the front of the bag is an A2 sheet of paper with a message scrawled on it in marker pen, all-caps like a YouTube racist:

WE HAVE TWENTY HOSTAGES. ONE OF THEM HAS BEEN SHOT IN THE STOMACH AND NEEDS MEDICAL ATTENTION. IF YOU DO WHAT WE SAY SHE WILL LIVE. IF YOU DONT SHE WONT BE THE ONLY ONE WHO DIES. YOU WILL DELIVER £2MILLION IN UNMARKED BILLS WITHIN THE NEXT 2 HOURS. THIS WILL BE DELIVERED BY THE MANAGER OF M&S FOR THE NORTH EAST. WE ALSO DEMAND A CLEAR PASSAGE TO THE AIRPORT. IF THE 2 HOUR DEADLINE PASSES PEOPLE WILL DIE. IF ANY MEMBER OF THE POLICE OR THE PUBLIC COMES WITHIN 100 METRES OF THE BUILDING IN ANY DIRECTION PEOPLE WILL DIE. YOU HAVE TWO HOURS.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE. £100000 PER HOSTAGE IS A BARGAIN COMPARED TO WHAT SOMALIAN PIRATES CHARGE.

Reading it over again, I breathe a sigh of relief that the lie about a girl being shot in the stomach didn’t become a hideously ironic truth.

Having affixed our message for the police to the inside of the automatic door – albeit on the second attempt, since the automatic doors still aren’t behaving themselves – I head towards the stock area. The place in my brain where all my nagging doubts live tries to make me go and wait at the bottom of the stairs for Sid to come back with the keys, but the budding psychopath assures me that, if he knows the plan well enough, he’ll know where to find me when he’s finished locking the door. Time’s a-ticking, after all; we’re six minutes and twenty-two seconds in and we don’t yet have an escape route. I can’t worry about what the others are doing. My responsibility is the thermite.

From my experiments I ascertained that a small amount of thermite would burn a noticeable dent in the paving slab outside our back door. Extrapolating from this, I calculated that a massive amount of the stuff would, in turn, bore a person-sized hole through the foot-and-a half of concrete between the stock room and the car park below. By ‘massive’, I mean a ninety-litre traveller’s backpack full. It took a lot of scrap metal. It probably took a few years out of Sid’s spine to carry it all the way here.

One cannot simply throw a WMD-sized pile of thermite onto the floor, light it and hope for the best. Without a concentration mechanism of some sort the heat would dissipate, and the thermite would lose that glorious ability to eat through any substance short of a nuclear bunker which makes it the morally upstanding chemist’s best friend. Ceramics should keep the 8000°C fireball in place for enough time for it to do its dirty work. Not if gravity’s pushing the fire against it, but the sides of a ceramic container should survive the ordeal even if the bottom gives out in less than ten seconds.

The above-stated facts mean that a plant pot is the ideal complement for the heavy bag of thermite that I’m now lugging towards the stock room. Of course, a pot with a base wide enough for Freddy to fit through is not exactly a practical item to lug across Newcastle, which is why I had to make sure that we pulled our heist before they took the Christmas tree down.

After throwing the bag in the stock room, I return to the shop floor. The big fir tree, draped in tinsel and baubles, reminds me of the one my mum will probably have waiting for me if I make it home for the holidays. Mum always placed her wood-carved baby Jesus figurine beneath the branches. There are only fake presents underneath this one. I kick them out of the way and grab the base of the trunk in a bear hug.

Lift with the legs, not with the back. As I brace myself, spread my knees and heave, I let out an involuntary, none-too-masculine little squeak, and the decade I spent being picked last in PE lessons suddenly comes parading back through my memory. After an embarrassingly short time I give in, panting. The pent-up sweat that all the adrenaline has been threatening to unleash for the last – I check my watch – eight minutes bursts out, soaking the inside of my balaclava. The thermite is still in the backpack, unignited. The hostages are still upstairs in the staffroom. According to the script, we should be out of the shop and stuffing some unlucky bastards into the diversionary getaway car by now. The outrush of sweat intensifies. My lower jaw juts out. My eyebrows narrow. I charge forward and thump into the tree trunk again. My calves squeeze, and my thighs, and my arms, and my neck and my arse and my back, but the fucking thing still doesn’t budge. It would be a very ‘me’ thing to do, I suppose, getting us all imprisoned because I was too weak to pull a plant out of its pot.

You could always ask Freddy for help…

I press my face as hard as I can against the bark, and wrench my spine to the side. The time for health and safety measures is past. I sweat some more; I scrape my exposed neck against the tree trunk; the tendons at the back of my knees threaten to snap; my teeth seem to be trying to crack, but I can feel the wood starting to budge…the roots trying to work themselves free of the soil…the trunk is getting wobbly, like a stubborn baby tooth still clinging-on to the gums, waiting for the final-

BAKKHOOM!!

In a shower of soil the trunk comes free, and its centre of gravity suddenly shifts from the bottom of the pot to my spinal column. I topple backwards, my back arching involuntarily as I attempt to avoid being crushed by the timbering tree.

CRASH!!

I could swear that was a gunshot. Surely the hostages can’t need any more intimidation? The theory was sound; split them into pairs and avoid insurrection. Once again, and with greater force than ever, I hurl these extraneous thoughts to the back of my skull and make myself concentrate on the plan. I clamber to my feet, and plant both hands on the edge of the ceramic pot. Using my own weight as a kind of a lever I manage to roll it onto its side and then upside-down to empty out the soil inside, then rock it forward onto its base. I grip the lip of it between my thumbs and my fingers, and start dragging it towards the staff area. Every couple of shuffling steps I have to wince as it bangs into one of my kneecaps, but slowly and hastily I keep pressing on. The entire time I’m lugging it, the alarm clock in my head is ringing:

Eight minutes and thirty seconds…

Eight minutes and thirty-five seconds…

Eight minutes and forty seconds…

Where the fuck is Freddy?

Eight minutes and forty-five seconds…

Eight minutes and fifty seconds…

As long as he plucks out three hostages and brings them down here by the time the escape route is done…

Nine minutes…

The scrape of the pot against the floor ceases. It occurs to me, far too late, that I could’ve rolled it in here in half the time if I’d just left the pot on its side. The heavy metal door of the stock room clanks shut behind me. I’m enveloped by silence and darkness. My hand reflexively goes to my pocket as I think to use the torch on my phone, but then I remember that my phone isn’t in there. I fumble around blindly for the zip on the backpack. I don’t want to tear the plastic bag and risk squandering any of the thermite, so instead of pulling it out I tease the mouth of the backpack downwards around it. As a further timesaving measure, I dump the plastic bag directly into the plant pot.

One hand rummages in my jeans for the lighter and the other rummages in the side pocket of the backpack for the fuses. I try to compact the bag of thermite, pushing it as far down into the pot as I can, then I tear a small hole in the plastic with my teeth. The bitter, unnatural taste of the rust and silver languishes at the back of my tongue. It doesn’t compare to the sensation which lurks in the pit of my stomach, as I wonder whether the fuses – even the thermite itself – will ignite.

With the lighter clamped between my teeth, I paw for the incision I made in the plastic and plant the fuse. The quiet in the stock room has allowed my adrenaline levels to fall back down, and I suddenly notice that I’m shivering. My eyes are starting to adjust to the darkness. I squint around. That looks like a whole leg of lamb, over there. All of the shelves, actually, are stacked high with meat. Fuck – this is the walk-in freezer. I briefly consider dragging the pot back outside and taking it to the right place, but then I recall that thermite burns at the same temperature as the surface of the sun, so a few refrigerators aren’t going to make any difference to the overall outcome.

I check my watch. Nearly ten minutes gone. Fuck.

I click the lighter. Sparks. I click it again. Still only sparks. I’m on the brink of screaming. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Nothing. Nothing. Fuck-all. Nothing. My thumb stings from the friction. I’m beginning to wonder if the cold is affecting it, or whether Charlie gave me a dud lighter. Despite the fact that I’m inside a freezer, the inside of my gloves are becoming clammy.

Then the flame erupts into life. The fuse sparks, wriggling towards the thermite. The thermite ignites. I stand there for a moment feeling like Prometheus, basking in the glorious light and heat I’ve created, but it’s not long until I realise that I’ve created a monster. Eight thousand degrees. Enough light to burn my retinas free of my eyeballs. Enough smoke to make my lungs forget what oxygen tasted like.

Coughing, holding my arms over my face, I flail backwards, praying desperately that this is the way to the door. My chest tears up the lining of my lungs and throat in the attempt to purge me of smoke. I blindly grope for the door handle. I can feel the searing heat of the fire clawing at my back. Where the fuck is the door handle? It’s fucking massive! It’s not even a handle; it’s a bar, for fuck’s sake! So where the fuck is it!

A World’s Dumbest Criminals segment, with my charred remains as its star, suddenly pops into my head.

Fuck!

By a huge force of will, I open my eyes. As it turns out, I was grasping thin air about three feet to the right of the door. I correct my shoulder angle and let my eyes slam shut again. With a clank and a screech, the twenty-one degree air hits me, and I immediately know that the exposed skin over my tailbone is blistering.

Blundering out through the staff door, I allow myself a few moments to gasp for air before I let my eyelids peel upwards. I do it slowly, allowing all of the fumes and soot to unstick themselves. Equally slowly, the outlines of the shop floor make themselves comprehensible. The lights, the walls, the shelves, the fallen Christmas tree…the girl, standing, staring at me.

What the fuck?

The first thing that strikes me as my vision unfogs is that she’s pretty. Really pretty. Blonde hair, which can’t decide if it wants to be short or long. Green eyes; the type that used to have some spark in them, but which has since been crushed and given way to meek subservience, as though she’s a Joss Whedon character being forced to play a role in a Dickens novel. As my irises narrow a touch more I realise that it was one of our number who crushed her; there’s blood flowing freely from her nose, and tears streaming down her cheeks.

I’m still gasping, and I want to murder whoever broke that skinny, pale little creature’s nose, but my mind has cleared enough for me to know that needs to think I’m willing to finish the job Sid, Freddy or Phoebe started. I go for my gun, still tucked in the back of my jeans. I intend to grab it and point it at the spot between those deep, green eyes, but I don’t realise that it’s scalding hot until it’s already gone flying out of my hand. In one spasmodic motion I try to clutch my burnt hand and duck in case the gun goes off when it hits the floor.

Clack.

The girl doesn’t duck or dive; she simply points her big, watery eyes at the place where the gun bounced, unperturbed, against the tiles. I guess she doesn’t watch as many movies as I do. A dropped gun always goes off in the movies. I stagger back to my feet and tell her:

‘Yeah, well; still put your hands in the air.’ The words come out in a much higher register than I’d planned, but – despite this – she acquiesces. I suppose the balaclava and the accidental Batman eye make-up caused by the soot from the fire must be intimidating enough to make up for my personality. As she stands, rooted to the spot, I bend down to pick up the gun. It’s still hot, even through the gloves, but now that I know what’s coming I can deal with the pain. I keep an eye on the girl as I’m bending down, but she’s still like a mannequin. Shell-shock. The glimmer I thought I saw behind her eyes is buried too far down now. Even the irises seem to have darkened in colour. She doesn’t pose any threat, and there’s no point in trying to keep up the scare tactics.

‘Come on; let’s go,’ I tell her. She obeys.

Ten minutes, thirty seconds down. It takes us thirty seconds more to climb the stairs. Eleven minutes.

‘What the fuck is that?’ Freddy asks as I reach the landing, and he sees the girl trailing me. Something’s wrong. He’s not using the northern accent he spent so much time perfecting.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I reply. I feel bitter resentment gurgling in my throat, and a burning desire to chastise the other three both for letting a hostage slip through the cracks, but I swallow it. I can’t understand why Freddy would give me the same angry look when our eyes meet; after all, I’ve done my fucking job, and I haven’t hit any fucking women. I grab the girl by the wrist and drag her to the employee break room. I fling the door open, and my gritted jaw suddenly falls open.

All of the hostages, except one, are huddled in the far right corner of the room; even the big, heavy-set guy with the beard is cowering, clutching his girlfriend. The left-hand wall is splattered with a huge, grotesque asterisk of blood. Slumped against the floor beneath it is a person-shaped bundle. The head isn’t the right shape anymore. The remaining eyeball stares blindly at the ceiling. Before my brain can put all of these pieces together and form a reaction, the girl with the bloody nose makes one for me. She screams. She screams the kind of scream that draws a sharp and brutal contrast between my silence and her terror, between her innocence and my guilt. I respond by doing the only thing I can think of doing; I hurl the crying girl into the blood-splattered room with the other hostages and slam the door behind her.

As I turn to Freddy he quickly reads the question hanging from my expression, underneath the soot and the mask.

‘Phoebe shot one of them,’ he says, in a monotone.

I don’t know what to say, so I check my watch. Eleven twenty-five. Thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. Forty-five.

‘You got the money?’ I ask Freddy.

‘Yes,’ he replies. There’s something of an attitude in his answer this time, but I’m past caring.

‘Then let’s go. You get the others; I’ll find some getaway drivers.’

I look around.

‘Where are they, by the way?’

‘Sid wants to bail. He’s seeing if we can get out through the fire escape without the police catching on.’

‘And Phoebe?’

‘Fuck Phoebe.’

‘Just get Sid and meet me at the walk-in freezer. Charlie will be wondering why there’s a hole in the ceiling with no-one coming through it. It’s nearly over.’

He turns to go.

‘Oh, and chuck me the keys, will you?’ I quickly add.

Freddy looks over his shoulder at me.

‘This will never be over,’ he mutters. He throws me the keys, and then disappears down the stairs. I never had Freddy down as the melodramatic type. It’s easier to be a hard-nosed dialectical materialist in the midst of a politics lecture than in the midst of a bloodbath, I suppose.

This is no time for philosophising, you tit, the devil on my shoulder reminds me. I nod in assent, and turn back to the door of the employee break room. I rap thrice, hard enough to make my knuckles sting. Not surprisingly, no-one answers, so I fling the door open without invitation. The hostages jump back as one, as though each person is a spine on the back of a cowering hedgehog. I run my eyes over them all, stopping when the corpse begins to slither into my peripheral vision. It’s not difficult to pick the two best candidates for the job: the girl I saw at the beginning of the robbery, now being cradled in her bearded boyfriend’s arms, and the girl with the bloody nose I picked up downstairs, who’s still violently blubbing. Those are two of the psychological categories we’re looking for, abandonment and hysteria, but where’s the third? We need someone who’ll keep their shit together well enough to actually drive the getaway car, combined with a misplaced sense of duty that will make her feel as though it’s her job to keep the other two safe, and alive – even if that means disobeying the law.

On my third scan over the crowd I’m close to conceding that there is no fitting candidate among them, but then I’m struck by an idea. Maybe I can manufacture one. There’s a slightly pudgy, Asian-looking girl sitting alone, close to the edge of the group, staring blankly at the left-hand wall. Since we took the hostages in pairs, it’s not difficult to guess who she came shopping with today.

I raise my gun, in what is fast becoming my trademark way of introducing myself, and stride towards the crowd. The Asian-looking girl is the furthest out of the bubble, so I go for her first. When I try to ease her up by her t-shirt sleeve, she stiffens. A hint of a backbone. That’s a good sign. In reply to such reticence I clamp her bicep with my gloved hand, digging my fingers into the nerves so that she can really feel it, and yank her into the corner beside the door.

‘Stay there,’ I growl in my Batman voice. She nods. Suddenly I feel like a racist for being scared that she wouldn’t speak English. Then I look at the corpse and remember that I’ve got far worse things to feel guilty for. It barely takes more than a glance to get the sobbing broken-nosed girl to come and take her place with the getaway driver. Despite knowing that there’s no-one guarding the stairs, that they could easily run off and escape through the fire escape or the unlocked front door, that there are now hostages both in front and behind me, that it’s twenty-one to one against me, and that there are only three bullets left in my revolver, I turn my back on the pair of them, and hope that they’ll all stay in line through sheer force of personality. I keep my pistol arm hanging at an odd angle, however, so that I can easily fire off a shot at the Asian girl if she makes any aggressive moves. The fact that she still seems to have her wits about her after her friend was murdered before her eyes means that she’s exactly the type of person who might throw self-preservation to the wind in the name of revenge.

It is with caution, therefore, that I approach the final girl. As expected, her boyfriend does not give her up easily. Swift and ruthless as a bolt of lightning, I bring the butt of my gun crashing down into the top of his skull and then swing it back around to point at the Asian girl. The bearded guy groans, his grip loosens and I pluck the final girl out of his clutches and pull her towards the door. When I turn around, I adjust my pistol arm so that it points at the wounded boyfriend.

‘Down the stairs. Move,’ I tell the three girls. They do as they’re told, but Duty gives me a vitriolic look as she does so. I smirk to myself as I’m locking the break-room door behind me and follow them down towards the shop floor. Hysteria has gone back from sobbing to howling. Sensing an opportunity, I call to Duty:

‘You! Tell her to shut her fucking noise!’

I get another glower for my trouble, but she puts her arm around Hysteria and begins to whisper in her ear. Her words are too quiet for me to make out, but that doesn’t matter. The words, whatever they are, turn the howling into a quiet whimper, and, more importantly, they make the speaker start to believe that she is the only protection that the other two have against me. I notice that Abandonment has edged slightly closer to Duty.

The wheels are in motion. The destination is set. Now I’ve just got to get them in the car. I check my watch. Thirteen minutes and twenty-five seconds. Judging by how jittery Freddy and Sid seem to be, I wouldn’t put it past Charlie to bail out before the fifteen-minute mark. If anyone does that before the diversion goes off they’ll get picked up by the police, and then we’ll all go to prison.

‘Faster! Go!’ I screech at my captives. They scuttle onwards, following the direction of my outstretched arm, to the staff-only area.

I know that everything’s gone to shit as soon as I come through the no-entry-staff-only doors, because Freddy and Sid are behind them. If the escape route was open, they would’ve gone through it. Neither of them says a word as I push past the hostages towards the open walk-in freezer. I stop dead. Inside, illuminated by the lights in the corridor, is a small dent in the blackened concrete, about a foot in diameter and half a foot deep.

The thermite didn’t work.

I guess that’s why they build nuclear bunkers out of concrete.

‘We’re fucked,’ Freddy whispers.

‘No. I’ve got an idea,’ Sid interjects. ‘He pulls his phone out of his pocket and prods his thumb at the keypad. ‘We call-’

‘NO!’ I bellow. ‘Don’t touch that fucking phone! And for fuck’s sake, don’t say any fucking names!’ The Batman voice is gone, now. My tone is all panic.

‘Then what the fuck else can we do?’ Sid cries back.

Duty steps forward, turning the triangle of me, Sid and Freddy into a square.

‘You can hand yourselves in,’ she says. ‘You’re all cornered, all you’re going to do now is get yourselves longer prison sentences, or-’

SHUT THE FUCK UP!’ I scream.

She takes another step forward.

‘No.’

I raise my gun, but not at her. Instead I lunge forward and grab Hysteria by the waist. As I pull her towards me, I look Duty dead in the eye.

‘What’s about to happen happened because of you,’ I tell her. ‘As long as you live, never forget that. If you say another word, I’ll do the same to her.’ I gesture towards Abandonment. ‘If you say something after that, I’ll go upstairs and kill one more person up there, then another, then another, then another, until your big mouth has got twenty people killed. But whatever happens here, I’m going to leave you alive, so that every night, when you close your eyes, you’ll see the faces of all those people. Do you understand?’

Tears are welling up underneath her eyelids. She nods, and takes two steps back. Her mouth opens, ready to plead for the life of the girl I’ve taken away from her, but I cut her off:

‘Good.’ Next, I turn to Freddy and Sid. ‘Stay here,’ I say, ‘and make sure these two don’t go anywhere. Do not say a word to them. Do that, and I guarantee I’ll get you both out of this.’

I don’t wait for their reactions; there’s no time. I drag Hysteria into the stock room, where the thermite fire was originally supposed to have taken place, and close the door behind us. I lower my voice to a shade of a whisper, and tell her:

‘Don’t say a word, and you’ll live. I don’t want to kill you.’ I put the gun on the floor beside me, so she knows that I mean what I say. To my surprise – and God knows I’ve had enough of those lately – she replies:

‘You’re not going to do it?’

It strikes me as a strange way to phrase it. I would’ve expected her to say: ‘You’re not going to kill me?’

‘Not if I don’t have to.’

‘But you do have to; they won’t believe you if you just take me out of sight and then tell them you murdered me. They won’t believe it unless they see it.’

‘Are you trying to get yourself killed?’

‘No, I’m just stating the facts. So do it. It’s me or you. Make your choice. I won’t hold it against you.’

I sigh inwardly. Of all the people to do this with, I had to get a budding student suicide statistic.

‘Look,’ I say. ‘I don’t have time to give you counselling right now, so you’re just going to have to take my word for this. You want to live. All you need to do in order to live is be quiet. So just fucking do it.’

She stares blankly at me. I lower my voice to barely-audible.

‘I’m going to fire my gun now. Don’t scream. If you scream, you’ll leave me no choice but to put the next bullet in your heart.’ I stare as hard as I can into her eyes. I’m struck by a sudden urge to confess everything to her: that this is just a stupid idea that got out of hand; that I’m not a killer, I’m just a kid who watches too many movies; that I’m on the brink of tears, but I force the urge back. ‘I’m asking you; please don’t make me do that.’

She nods. The strange glimmer I thought I saw in her eyes is back, suddenly. She leans forward, and I can smell the fragrance of her skin in my nostrils. I raise the gun into the air and pull the trigger. The fragrance, and the moment, is lost, replaced by the stench of gunpowder and the ringing of my ears.

 

‘Have you still got the grenade with you?’ I ask Freddy the second that I emerge from the stock room. All eight eyes are looking at me in horror. The ruse must’ve worked. In Freddy’s eyes I’m a murderer now, but that’s just collateral damage. He removes the grenade from his pocket and hands it to me.

‘Go to the Christmas display. Get as much ribbon as you can and tie the ends together, then bring it back here. Make sure it’s not the flimsy shit. Double it up if need be. I need two kilometres of it. Do it fast.’

Freddy turns and starts to run, as though keen to get out of my presence.

‘Wait!’ I shout. He turns. ‘Give me the shotgun first; I’m going to need it.’ Without a word he hands it over, then scarpers off to the shop floor. I turn to Sid.

‘Go into the walk-in freezer and take your hoody and balaclava off, then hand them to me. Stay behind the door, though; these two can’t see your face.’

Every drug-dealing, would-be hard-man inch of him obeys.

The two girls and I stand in silence. Duty is cradling Abandonment in her arms. Abandonment is weeping. I check my watch. Charlie should’ve bolted by now, if he hadn’t left five minutes ago.

‘Okay, here’s what’s going to happen,’ I say to the girls. ‘You,’ I point to Duty, ‘are going to put on my partner’s outfit. I’m going to shoot out one of the windows at the front of the shop, Then you’re going to take her,’ I point to Abandonment, ‘as your hostage, and point the gun I give you at someone driving by. There are plenty of cars you can steal on the other side of the police cordon. Then you’re going to drive away from here, at high speed, towards the motorway.’

She stays silent, so I ask her question for her.

‘Why would you do that, instead of just giving yourself up to the nearest police officer and telling him that you’re one of the hostages?’

Freddy returns, in perfect time for once.

‘Because he’s tied together two kilometres of ribbon.’ I say, holding my hand out to Freddy. I pinch one end of the ribbon between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and bring my left hand, which holds the grenade, up to meet it.

‘And now I’ve tied the end of the ribbon to the pin of the grenade,’ I continue, as I tie the end of the ribbon to the pin of the grenade, ‘I’ve got two kilometres in which I can kill you any time I want, just by yanking the ribbon backwards.’ As I’m telling her, I’m shoving the grenade into her back pocket.

‘If you slow down, I’ll know. If you throw the grenade out onto the road, I’ll pull the pin, and you’ll be responsible for the deaths of a family going to visit their grandparents for the weekend. If you think you’re safe once you’re more than two kilometres away, bear in mind that your ID is in your purse, which is in the pile by the checkouts. We know your name, and where you live. If you’re not at home, we’ll find your parents, or your housemates, and we’ll kill them instead. Got it?’

Duty nods.

‘Good,’ I say. I hold her eyes, and gesture for Freddy to grab the hoody and balaclava that Sid is dangling out of the walk-in freezer door. Freddy hands them to Duty, and Duty, easing Abandonment to the side for a moment, squeezes them on. There will almost certainly be DNA evidence on them, but if we never become suspects that won’t matter, since they won’t have anything to match it with. When Duty has suited up, she holds Abandonment around the neck, and holds her hand out for the gun. I tuck my revolver into the back of my jeans and stride over to the walk-in freezer. I shoot Sid a glare through the crack in the door.

‘Give me your gun,’ I order him. He hands it over quickly, as though he’s glad to get rid of it. I eject the magazine, fire it once into the air and hand it to Duty.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

With me following close behind, shotgun in my hands and the ribbon pinched firmly between my fingers, she barges through the double-doors and back onto the shop floor. We go past the first set of shelves and I duck to the left, hiding behind the world foods section as she keeps walking towards the glass front of the store. There are four police cars outside now; one on the left, one down the road that I used to walk here, and two on the right. There’s a junction to the right of the store, though, which should provide Duty with plenty of space to slip past them, especially seeing as she’s got a hostage in tow. English police are far more concerned about collateral damage than their American equivalents, so they’ll hopefully see no option but to let them through. The only thing I care about is that they distract the police helicopter.

Duty and Abandonment are only about ten feet from the window, now. Time for action. Like the cover system in a thousand videogames taught me to, I swing my right leg around 180 degrees so that I’m facing the police cars, and I let off a blast from the shotgun. The glass spiders as the buckshot clatters into it, and shatters at the second. I swing my leg back around so that I’m once more hidden behind the shelves. I’ll never see Duty or Abandonment again; at this point, I’ve just got to hope that the threats keep them towing the line.

‘We’ve got maybe two minutes until the police get their hands on that bird and realise she isn’t one of us,’ I gush to Freddy between pumping breaths when I make it back to the staff area. ‘We need to get out of here while the helicopter’s still following her!’

Sid has emerged from the walk-in freezer. He slides the big backpack over to Freddy, and Freddy kicks it towards me.

‘Bit burned, but everything’s in one piece,’ he mutters. I know that tone of voice. It’s the voice he uses when Johnny has come downstairs the morning after plastering the living room in vomit, or when Charlie has emerged the morning after bringing home a girl who was too drunk to give convincing consent. I keep my balaclava on for the moment, but Freddy tears off his hoody and mask and throws them towards the bag. I dive into the big rucksack and pull out the smaller, blue and red, rucksacks, then I roll up the big backpack and shove it into the blue one, stuffing Fred’s mask, gloves and hoody in after it, then, with difficulty, I zip it up.

‘You not taking yours off?’ asks Sid.

‘Not yet,’ I return. ‘That reminds me. Bronstein, you’re going to take the blue one; my stuff won’t fit in here.’

He eyes me with suspicion. I assure him that I’m not going to run off with the takings, but he rolls his eyes as if to assure me, in turn, that’s he’s suspicious for much grander reasons than that. Freddy throws the money bag at me and I toss him back the blue one, then I zip the money bag up in its red disguise.

‘So, did you find a way onto the fire escape?’ I ask Sid.

‘There’s a window in the cash office. Bit of a drop, but it doesn’t look out onto the street. If the helicopter’s not there, we might just get through.’

‘It leads down onto the street eventually, though,’ Freddy interjects. ‘I, for one, am not strolling down to make small talk with a dozen police officers when I’ve got an orgy of evidence strapped to my back.’

‘We’re not going down,’ I tell him. ‘We’re going up. Head across the rooftops, into the car park, down the stairs and out through the shopping centre. By the time you get snapped by your first CCTV cameras, you’ll just be two more nobodies in a Saturday afternoon full of them.’

Despite myself, I smile.

‘Oh, and I know this goes without saying,’ I add, ‘but whichever of you is going out second, don’t wait around for me.’

For a fraction of a slice of a second, it looks as though Freddy is about to protest, but he puts it to one side and gives me a curt nod instead.

‘Then let’s fucking go!’ I shout. Sid jumps, spins on his heel and runs off. Freddy holds my eye for a couple of moments longer, but then he’s gone too. I’m alone. Fear starts bubbling up inside my capillaries, but I push it back down and hope it won’t resurface as an aneurysm later on. Time for the next wave of diversions.

The blonde girl appears to be meditating when I open the door to the stock room; her eyes are closed and she’s sitting on the floor with her legs crossed.

‘Can I go now?’ she asks, without lifting the lids. She still speaks with the same meek vocal chords as our last two encounters, but the way that she’s sitting has changed the way her voice strikes me. It’s not quite meekness anymore, but rather an eerie detachment.

‘Go ahead,’ I reply. ‘The front door’s open.’

‘Okay.’ She lifts herself to her feet and glides past me without a second glance. Myself, I find myself transfixed as I watch her depart. For just a fraction of a moment the fear disappears and I forget all of the terrible left-turns that my life has taken today. This might be the last such moment that I ever have, I think to myself; the last chance that I’ll have to pretend that all these sins never happened, how irrevocably stained I’ve become. Maybe the only people who can really appreciate beauty are those who are ugly inside.

 

By the time I make it back up the stairs I’m breathing heavily again, and that brief reprieve feels like forever ago.

‘Ladies; gentlemen,’ I announce. ‘The time has come for us to part company. I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…’

I, along with everyone else in the room, glance shiftily at the corpse.

‘But anyway,’ I resume. ‘That aside, the first five of you will be going back down the stairs and out of the front door. Then three will go out of the window in the cash office, down the fire escape and out onto the street. Then four more go: two out of the front door; two out of the window. Then the last five go out the front. Oh, and before you leave, I think it’s only fair to warn you that we’ve had someone check all of the IDs in the purses and wallets you gave us, and, thanks to the wonder of the internet, we now have enough information to hunt down and exact painful retribution on anyone who says anything more eloquent than “I didn’t see nuffink” to the police.’

It’s a big lie for them all to swallow, but it can’t hurt to try the bluff. After all, thanks to Phoebe, they’ve seen that we’re willing to murder with little to no provocation. With the fear of God hopefully set ablaze in them, I mush my first set of lambs off down the stairs. I check my watch. Seventeen minutes gone. We’re well into Plan B territory, here. Maybe even Plan C. My chance to get the fuck out of this place won’t be coming for another couple of minutes, either; I’ve got to time it so the police have just spotted the first lot when the second wave is being released. Increase the confusion, increase the chaos; create a curtain behind which the criminals can escape.

‘Okay, next lot out!’ I shout, opening the door but not bothering to look inside. One, two three, four forlorn hostages shuffle past me. I snap at them to hurry up, and their shuffles turn into limp scuttles. I don’t think that Army Drill Instructor is ever going to be a viable career option for me.

I bet the fucking helicopter’s back, I think to myself as I’m waiting for the chance to release the last of the hostages. I strain my ear for the sound of propeller blades, but all I can make out is some vague commotion in the distance. I don’t know what it is, but it must be pretty damn commotional to reach me all the way up here. Enough to lure the chopper back, perhaps. Of course, it might just be the sound of the blood pounding through the capillaries in my brain.

The very second my hand clamps back on the staff room door-handle, a new idea jolts through me. It’s last-ditch, for sure, but, if the chopper has come back overhead, it might just be the last half-inch of protection which keeps me out of the hands of the law. I open the door, fix my eyes onto the remaining guy, and say:

‘You. Give me your coat.’

No sooner has he handed it over than I’ve slammed the door again. I don’t lock it this time, however. I still need them to make their way outside to distract the police whilst I’m retreating. Remembering my own advice about getting a sub-life prison sentence rather than gunning down the two police officers my remaining ammo can take care of, I break the shotgun, pull the revolver out of my waistband and thrust them both in the space between the two layers of backpack. I swap my hoody for the stolen mac and put the hoody on top of the other, more incriminating stuff, then zip it shut. Time to go.

The fire escape rattles and sways precariously as I land; the panic swirls up, making me attempt to sprint off before I’ve made it to back to my feet and I careen face-first into the railing. I know I’ll feel the after-effects of that impact tomorrow, but right now the adrenaline’s flowing thick and firm through my bloodstream. I might as well have taken the balaclava off and played it like I was one of the hostages; this is exactly how you’d expect someone who just escaped the clutches of a gang of murderers to look.

As I’m clambering upwards, an odd sense of foreboding begins to diffuse into the panic. I can’t quite place where it comes from until I’ve clattered up another couple of stories, and I find that there’s nothing above me but sky. My blood freezes. My eyes dart around for the helicopter. Without knowing that I’m doing it, I throw myself back down to the level below of the fire escape, where any eyes that might be in the sky won’t be able to see me. I crumble into a heap as I land, and, once more, I bash into the side of the railing. Groaning, holding my forehead, I scan the clouds through the gaps in the railings. No helicopter, yet.

I guess I must’ve taken the ‘escape’ part of ‘fire escape’ too seriously. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I’d have to make a mad dash across the rooftops to reach the car park; I just assumed that once I got to the top of the railings I’d be home free, or near-enough at least. I must’ve got so caught up in this idea of writing my own destiny that I thought I could bend not just other people but reality itself to my will, and move the car park onto the near-side of Marks and Spencer, where it would be better suited to my needs.

I curl up into a ball and put my face in my hands. It seems dumb that after going through all of this, after doing all of this, I can’t take one more leap into action, but I can’t. My free will is spent, and all I want to do is hide here in the foetal position and wait for the police to come and collect me, or my parents to come and rescue me, or maybe God. My chest starts to judder. My gloved hands claw uselessly at my face. I close my eyes, peering into the silence for the sound of rotor blades, or booted feet, but neither is here yet. Nor can I hear the sound of Freddy and Sid, which can mean only one thing: both of them must’ve braved the rooftop dash.

This thought spurs me back to my feet, but my resolve soon tries to buckle when I peek over the top of the building. It’s the same no-man’s land that I anticipated. And yet there’s nothing left to do but wait here or go over the top.

So just fucking do it!

My feet scramble against the side of the building as I try to drag myself up onto the roof. No sooner am I up than I’m off, streaking across the gravel with the mac flapping behind me like the cape on a particularly low-budget superhero and the breath pumping out of me like the engine on a steampunk train. I vault over an air-vent, though not with the casual elegance that the word ‘vault’ implies, and, barely able to maintain my balance, careen off the side of the building and land with a WHAM on what is, thankfully, not the pavement but another section of roof just a few feet closer to sea-level. Panting lustily, I crawl towards another air-vent and press my back against it, ears still craning for the helicopter. It’s a regrettable coincidence that the blood pounding through my eardrums sounds eerily similar to the sound of rotor blades. I suppose if the helicopter is overhead I’ll be fucked regardless of whether I stay here in the relative cover or take another plunge into no-man’s-land.

So just fucking do it!

I tuck my chin into my ribcage, say a few prayers, and sprint. As I weave past a chimneystack the car park suddenly bursts into view. There’s barely a second into which to react, to decide whether to jump up to the top level or dive through the gap between the bars and the wall into the level below, and ten feet of wide-open air and a three-story fall ready to punish bad decision-making. I choose the latter.

My pelvis clangs against the metal bars, bringing my lower half to an abrupt and agonising stop, but the momentum from the jump keeps the upper half of my body going and my face plants straight into a car bonnet. The car breaks out screaming as my legs swing up over the top of me and for the third time in as many minutes I fall, crumpled, into a heap on the floor. The hooting of the car alarm injects a further dose of urgency into my bones. I crawl like a crab around the bumpers of two cars and duck behind the front wheel of some four-wheel-drive monstrosity, out of the sight of both anyone who happens to be lurking in the car park and any helicopter pilots who might be trying to peek in through the railings, to nurse my wounds.

While I’m pretty sure that, in this day and age, no-one hears a car alarm and believes that a car is actually being stolen, I’m also pretty sure that this particular day is not my lucky one. Sure enough, karma wraps a leash around the nearest pedestrian’s neck and drags him or her towards the scene of the commotion. As the alarm suddenly dies, I can hear footfalls approaching.

‘There’s a dent in the bonnet,’ a male voice calls, apparently to someone a long distance from him. I can hear him circling the car I headbutted. ‘Hmm…’ he muses to himself. Internally I debate whether I’ll be able to unzip the backpack and tease out the revolver without him hearing, but the answer is obvious. I hardly dare to breathe, let alone start fiddling around with the bag. What will I do if he does come a-looking, though? It’s not like the hostages, where I had threats of calling on them in future to hold over their heads. There’s nothing to stop this guy running down to the police the second he sees me in my outlaw get-up. Shit; I can’t even see him yet and I’d bet a sizeable portion of the cash in my backpack that he’d be able to throw me in a headlock and drag me down to them himself.

If he spots me, then, I guess I’ll have to kill him. Could I kill him? I mean, it’s not his fault that I’m backed into a corner, but the fact remains that I’ve got a choice between a lengthy prison sentence, or murder – and a slightly smaller chance of a lengthy prison sentence. Is a stranger’s life worth my own freedom? What if it only ends up being for a few more hours?

The man is skirting around the back of the four-by-four, now. Looks as though it’s time to find out where I stand on the murder question. As his shoes clack against the stone floor, my hand creeps around my backpack. He can’t be more than two footsteps away from my line of sight. One footstep. My fingers clasp the zipper, ready to tear open the bag and tear out the gun before he’s had a chance to-

‘Come the fuck on, David!’ A female voice screeches. ‘We’ve got an hour until we’ve got to be at my mum’s to pick up the kids, and you’re running around playing Sherlock fucking Holmes! Let them figure out how their own car got dented!’

Jesus, it’s not even his car? This guy needs to take note of what happened to the curious cat. He’s taken another step closer to me. I can see the shadow of one of his shoes stretching underneath the car, and the top of his balding head through the driver’s side window. My diaphragm freezes. The air goes slack in my throat.

‘OI!’ the woman screeches again.

‘Yeah, yeah; I’m fucking coming,’ the fellow moans back. Their footsteps tap away into the distance, and when the sound finally disappears I let out a series of desperate, explosive breaths. I can’t be far out of heart-attack territory now.

As I’m stumbling down the last floor’s worth of steps, with my gloves, mac and balaclava removed, the soot wiped off my face using spit and my hair ruffled into something approaching a style, I smile to myself. He’ll never know that his wife or girlfriend’s nagging saved his life.

As I come through the doors connecting the car park to the Eldon Square shopping centre, praying that the cameras will see me as just another face in a faceless crowd, I can’t help but wonder: Did she save his life? Would I really have killed another human being, just to save my own skin?

Reality’s drawing too close. I need a world in which the murder victims wear Stormtrooper masks. I need a world where the protagonist, me, is labelled ‘good’ by default. I need to go to the cinema.

 

[] Act Three

Of Mice and Men who Watch Too Many Movies.

‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.’

*
p={color:#000;}. Robert DeNiro

 

 

 

[] SCENE IX

LOOSE ENDS

Liz’ reaction when she opens the door is not exactly surprising, considering the toll that the day’s shenanigans have taken on my face.

‘What the hell happened to you?’ she asks. Either the look or the tone alone would’ve told me that she has no sympathy for my predicament – opting for both was overkill, plain and simple.

‘What happened to friendly greetings?’ I return, with an unconvincing attempt at a grin. Her face and tone remain the same as she replies:

‘I figured that I might as well dispense with them, seeing as you’ve pretty much dispensed with me entirely.’

I give up on the grin.

‘I know. I’m sorry,’ I sigh in an overly dramatic fashion. ‘For a lot of things, actually.’

Her eyes narrow. She puts her hand on her hip.

What things?’

Suddenly I remember the police officer from the Metro.

‘Could I – erm – could I just come in for a bit?’

She turns and walks away in silence, but she leaves the door ajar. I take this as a mark of acquiescence and follow her upstairs. I’ve seen her room a thousand times – I practically lived here for the first semester of my second year, before it became clear that Charlie wasn’t going to murder me in my sleep, and was, in fact, quite entertaining at times – but right now it feels like occupied territory.

‘So,’ she says, eyeing me suspiciously. The other hand is on her other hip as well, now. She’s standing over by the window, so that the bed forms a barrier between us. ‘Would you rather start with what happened to your face, or what you’re sorry for? Or are the two intertwined?’

‘I got mugged,’ I say. I don’t add anything else for a while, partly to allow the news to sink in, partly to buy myself some space in which to think of an answer for the second, more difficult question, and partly to give her time to start feeling sorry for me. ‘Some guy tried to take my wallet and I, stupidly, refused to give it to him.’

No answer.

‘So he threw me to the floor and stamped on my head a few times,’ I add, by way of explanation. She opens her mouth, but it takes a while for any sound to follow the movement. She must be choosing her next words carefully.

‘So – uh – why didn’t you just hand over your wallet?’ she says it in a purposefully non-accusatory tone, but the underlying sentiment is obvious. Refusing to hand over the wallet is out of character for me. The me that she knows, anyway. She smells a rat. The fact that the only response I can give to this query is a weak shrug doesn’t exactly cover the scent, but I’m too burned-out to come up with any more off-the-cuff cover stories today.

The exhaustion that’s been relentlessly chasing me ever since I walked back into the freezer and saw that the thermite hadn’t worked finally catches up. I pirouette onto the bed and lean my neck back so I can gaze up at her. One thing I always loved about Liz was that she has a perfect face to look up at, especially when your head’s resting in her lap. Most faces look ghoulish and threatening from below, but not hers. The barbs of a wild, sudden urge to confess everything to her jab into my sides. I could take the world’s disdain; I could take the papers calling me a monster; I could even take my parents thinking that I was the one who pulled the trigger on that hostage, if I could confess it all to her right now and know that she’d still love me.

‘So why didn’t you just hand over your wallet?’ she asks again. The underlying sentiment has now worked its way into her tone. For a long time I don’t answer; I just lie there, staring at the bottom of her chin like a besotted tween, wishing that somehow she could make the past go away.

‘I did it because I’m sick of being a coward. I’m sick of being too afraid of what other people might think of me or what they might do to me. I wanted to -’ I draw breath, and it rattles with the snot and juddering diaphragm of someone about to start sobbing. ‘But now I’m-’

I roll over and jam my face into her duvet.

But now you’re fucked.

I’d give ten years of my life, right now, to feel the soft pressure of her hand on my shoulders. Thirty if it turns out that I’m going to be spending them in prison. All that she gives me, though, is that same icy tone:

‘You know what you sound like?’ she asks. I don’t answer, partly because I’m still trying to rein-in the sobs, and partly because I know she wants to answer the question herself. ‘You sound like someone who fucked some other girl, and regrets it.’

That might be the first time I’ve ever heard her swear, I think to myself. The shock of it cuts off the burgeoning tears, and I sit up in one sudden, purposeful movement.

‘I didn’t cheat on you,’ I say, blankly, burying the last lurking shadow of a sob. It’s true, in the strictly physical sense of the word. ‘I just took you for granted. No, not even that. The opposite of that.’ I fear that I might be blithering now. ‘I always felt as though meeting you was the end of my script. Do you know what I mean? Like the rest of my life is just the end credits and the happily ever after. The proposal, the wedding, the kids, the job that buys us a second-hand Audi – after that moment, all that other stuff was already written, and I was just waiting to live it.’

I sigh.

‘You know today was only the second real decision I’ve ever made in my life?’ I say, wrenching my neck backwards again, this time to look at the ceiling. ‘The first one was walking back over to you and asking if you wanted a drink. Remember the night we met, back in first year?’

A small movement in that takes place in my peripheral vision suggests that she’s nodding.

‘I guess I wanted to make another decision. Even if it was a stupid one,’ I finish. I try to shrug, but my shoulders have gone on strike. My head rolls forward as my neck suddenly throws in the towel, as well. Liz is taking a moment to compose herself. Her chest swells, like Freddy’s does when he’s about to give a particularly self-important speech.

‘So what you’re saying is, now that you’ve got other options, spending time with me was becoming an inconvenience, and instead of being a man about it and breaking up with me, you lashed out…’ Her lip curls, despite her obvious anger. ‘…by heroically standing up to a mugger. Or – alternatively – by having sex with that slutty-looking girl that Johnny says you’re always hanging out with these days. And since Johnny also told me she’s been sleeping with Charlie too, it wouldn’t a wild conjecture to say that you two had a little fight – or, more accurately, that he punched you a couple of times – so now that your housemates don’t want to talk to you you’ve had a convenient attack of conscience and come running back to me.’

‘Liz, I-’ I start, but she waves the protest away with her hand and turns her back on me.

‘…Or maybe you were one of the terrorists in Haymarket today,’ she says, tossing her hair to the side and giving a snort of incredulity. ‘How the fuck should I know?’ I’m aware that she’s joking, but I can’t help the involuntary jolt in my ribcage. My legs are unsteady as I climb off the bed and creep up to her.

‘Elizabeth,’ I whisper. ‘I swear I haven’t touched anyone else. You are what I want; just let me prove it. I know I’ve been distant lately. I just – I don’t know – I just thought, me and you…’

‘The problem’s not with us,’ she interrupts. ‘The problem’s with you, looking for something to blame for all the bits of yourself you don’t like and landing on us. You feel like a coward for studying statistics, because it’s what your parents told you to, instead of film studies, because you find it interesting.’

Huh. Guess she had that worked out, after all.

‘So you lash out at me, because I’m the easiest thing to blame. Then you’re scared about growing up and getting a job because Hollywood told you that it would steal your soul, and you don’t know whether to get rid of me because you think I’m going to drag you down the aisle and through the maternity ward, or whether to stay with me because you’re afraid of going back to what your first year would’ve been if you hadn’t had me to cling to. So you lash out with some stupid half-measure, like cheating on me or ditching me to play videogames with your other girlfriend.’

She doesn’t know how right she is. Shit, I’m not sure I knew it myself, until she spelled it out for me. The only thing she missed was quite how stupid my outward lash was. Liz suddenly whips around to face me.

‘And just so you’re aware,’ she continues, her cheeks an indignant red, ‘while you’ve been doing that, I’ve spent the last two years busting my arse doing work experience, freelancing and studying so I can get a job as a journalist after I graduate, and before that I’m not planning a wedding, I’m planning to go to South America for six months with Sophia and Olivia, if you even know who they are?’

The last clause spits violent, angry tears into her eyes. There’s nothing I can say back; she’s psychologically split me open, hung me up for all the world to see, and there are no words with which I can zip myself up again. Just like how there are no words which can bring back that person in the Marks & Spencer staff room back to life. Intellectually, I know all of this, and I know I should look contrite, but for some reason I can’t untangle my face from a snarl.

I feel the snarl gathering momentum in my chest as we stare at each other through the thick fog of silence, drowning the shame that Liz has inflicted on me. Just as the wave gets ready to break, just as I open my mouth to say something I’ll never be able to take back, Liz’ phone starts to vibrate. As it does, something odd clicks in my brain; a fact I always knew at a subconscious level suddenly hopping over the boundary and into the sentient part of my mind.

‘Hello?’ Liz says. Her face screws up slightly. ‘Sorry; who is this?’ She glances at me. ‘Oh, right. Yes, he’s here; I’ll hand him over.’ She offers me the phone, with a tut in her gesture. Before I put it to my ear, I check the name on the screen. Johnny. A twisting feeling seizes at my insides, and cold, clammy hands squeeze at my lungs. Did he look inside the bag? The coward in me wants to double over in response to these sensations, but the part that came alive when I pulled the balaclava over my face this morning, the part that is snarling at Liz, tingles with a new sense of bold, dark purpose.

‘Hello?’ I ask. The voice on the other end is Freddy’s, not Johnny’s.

‘Alright, mate?’ he chirps back. The chirpiness is obviously forced, but he masks this lack of enthusiasm with an excess of volume. ‘You’re supposed to be coming back for the Star Wars marathon! Me, Charlie and Johnny have been sat here for an hour waiting for you! I think Charlie’s scared you’re trying to break up with him!’

My eyes flick towards Liz. The tut has made its way to her eyebrows. A shuffling of movement and the creak of a door opening and then slamming comes out of the phone, then Freddy comes back on the line. His voice is much quieter now, so that neither Liz nor – I’m assuming – Johnny can hear. The strain of accusation, which had been masked by the chirpiness, now cuts through every syllable he utters:

‘Where the fuck have you been?’ he hisses. ‘I’m sat here with Sherlock fucking Holmes on one side and Crime and fucking Punishment on the other, and for all I know you’ve either been arrested or gone on the lam.’

‘Pipe down,’ I say, with forced calm and unconvincing colloquialism. ‘I came to Liz’ for a bit. I’ll be home in about half an hour.’

‘Half an hour’s too fucking long!’ Freddy seethes. He’s clearly struggling to keep his voice down. ‘Seeing you on the train has got Johnny suspicious; he knows something’s up. He keeps trying to look in your bag.’

‘So put it in my room.’

‘That would make him more suspicious! You’re just lucky curiosity didn’t get the better of him when he was carrying it home! Charlie’s not helping. He’s – well – I think he’s lost it, to be honest. When I told him what that cunt did back there… He’s been on the edge for a while, I guess. Maybe we shouldn’t have brought him along. Maybe we shouldn’t have-’

I hear a muffled yelp in the background.

‘Shit,’ Freddy says. ‘Look, I can’t leave him alone for much longer. Just get the fuck back here. We need to get rid of all this evidence – tonight – and we need to work out what we’re going to do about the Phoebe situation. You’re a part of this, too; you can’t just run off without helping tie up the loose ends.’

‘What situation?’ I ask.

‘What to do when she comes round here and kills us, you fucking idiot!’ Freddy retorts. A fire alarm suddenly erupts out of the receiver. I hold it away from my ear and look up at Liz, attempting to apologise with just my eyes. She rolls her own. I can make out some panicked voices on Freddy’s end before the line goes dead. I wonder what Charlie’s done now.

‘Got somewhere better to be?’ Liz asks, her eyebrows raised. There’s even a hint of amusement about her now. I hand her the phone back.

‘Not better,’ I reply. I’m wary of lying to her, knowing that Johnny will always be there to contradict me. ‘I might have to get going, though. Freddy sounds pissed off about something. My best guess is that the something in question is Charlie.’

‘So all that connerie you were just talking about, proving to me that I’m what you want, was just that, then?’

‘Depends what “Connery” means.’

‘It means “bullshit”. Note the fucking context.’

The calmness, the sense of purpose implanted in me by Elizabeth’s ringing phone must be visible behind my eyes and buried in my voice, because the anger seems to die in her the very moment I start speaking.

‘Believe that it’s all bullshit if you want. Believe that I cheated on you if you want to be that fucking paranoid. Just promise that you’ll meet with me tomorrow. I’ll get us a table at that Italian place. If you still believe I’m full of shit afterwards, I’ll never bother you again.’

‘Dorian, I-’

‘Although, in the interests of openness, please note that I didn’t say anything about stalking.’

She smiles, despite herself. I smile back at her.

‘Don’t worry; I’ll let myself out,’ I tell her. ‘Remember, Liz; the future starts tomorrow.’

I swirl my shoulders away and saunter off. It’s not until I’m out of sight of the streetlights that I allow myself the briefest backwards glance towards her bedroom window. The light’s still on. It’s only from a distance that I can admit the dark reciprocal of my last words to Liz: If the future’s starting tomorrow, tonight the past has to die.

 

Thankfully, there aren’t any police on the train going back. Not that I need a police officer to make me a twitchy, sweaty wreck any more. Even if Liz does take me back into her warm embrace, I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never again be more than a sudden noise away from mental breakdown. Maybe even on our wedding night I’ll be fucking with one eye on the door, waiting for Interpol to come bursting through it.

Speaking of things that are going to give me a mental breakdown, I still haven’t worked out what’s going to greet me when I wade through the door of number thirty-four, Ilford Road, Newcastle. Might Freddy have gagged and bound Johnny in order to keep him quiet, after he opened my bag to find the gun and the money and threatened to phone the police? Might Charlie have experienced an attack of conscience, and called the police over himself? Might Phoebe have shown up and murdered the lot of them? Might I come back to a house where corpses start falling out of the cupboards and wardrobes like the last ten minutes of a Halloween movie?

I sigh as the train rattles to a halt and I step back out into the north-England chill. There’s a nugget of anger hidden behind the nerves and exhaustion. Whatever situation those idiots have got themselves into, it’s going to be me who has to sort it all out. I’ve accepted that fact, as well. If Johnny finds out what we’ve been up to, it’ll be me who has to convince him to keep quiet. If Charlie and Freddy get dragged into prison, it’ll be me who has to get them back over the fence. If Phoebe shows up, well, I guess I’ll just have to kill her, before she kills us.

 

The commotion, alas, seems to have petered down at some point between Freddy hanging up on me and me walking through the front door, but the acrid tension characteristic of a place where an argument has recently occurred still lingers in the air.

‘Genetlemen?’ I inquire as I enter the living room, raising my eyebrows as if to add, ‘well, well, well; what’s going on here, then?’

All three of them look up and left in unison, as though they’re manual labourers past whom an attractive girl has just walked. Sitting in a line on the sofa as they are, the synchronised movement initially makes them look like meerkats, but then I see the expressions on their faces and I realise that they’re more like men on the way to the gallows. Johnny included, strangely enough.

‘God, that mugger did a right number on you,’ Freddy remarks. He was forced to acknowledge the bruises, despite having no interest in where they came from, just as I’m obligated to make a comment on the air of tension that lurks above the three of them. The quotation marks around the word ‘mugger’ are subtle, making it difficult to tell if they’re really there, or if I’m only hearing them because I expect them to be.

‘He did indeed. Desecrated a masterpiece,’ I reply, turning to inspect my battered reflection in the window. I could care less about the desecration, personally, but it’s the stage direction which accompanies my words. I then turn back to survey the three of them – again, not because I have any interest in doing so, but because it simply needs to be done. ‘So,’ I say, ‘what’s been going on here, then?’

‘Nowt,’ mutters Freddy, though his eyes dart from Charlie, on his left, to Johnny, on his right, as he says it. There’s an almost negative value of curiosity behind Charlie’s eyes as he slouches, half-dead, against the arm of the sofa. His foot is propped lazily up on the coffee table, coming dangerously close to knocking a little plate off the table as he waggles it. The plate, I notice, has four spent fag-ends on it. He looks as though he can barely see his surroundings.

Knowing that I’m not going to get any more than tenacious denial from Fred, and nothing better than blank incomprehension from Charlie, I direct my next question to the other end of the sofa:

‘You agree with that assessment?’

Johnny scowls. Such an expression looks so foreign on his usually meek little features that it provokes the first unforced expression on my own since walking in here.

‘Charlie’s being a dick,’ he says, firmly and loudly, as though he’d been rehearsing this for some time, trying to pluck up the courage to say it.

‘How so?’ I reply, the calm façade back across my brow. Johnny directs his answer at Charlie himself, though Charlie appears not to notice.

‘I mean, how hard is it to walk outside if you want to have a cigarette?’ he asks.

‘What does it matter?’ Charlie replies, in a dull, vacant kind of voice. He continues to look off into the distance.

‘It matters because it makes the house stink! Because it makes the fire alarm go off! Come on, Freddy, back me up here! Because it shows that he doesn’t give the slightest shit about any of the rest of us!’

At these words, Charlie smiles. A vein is popping in Freddy’s forehead, but he remains stubbornly silent.

‘You don’t show any consideration to me, making me stand outside to have a fag,’ he replies. ‘It’s cold out there.’ It’s clear that he doesn’t want a rational debate; he just wants to poke at Johnny’s temper with a stick.

‘Don’t fucking smoke, then! It’s not hard!’

‘We just happen to live in a time where it’s fashionable to be offended by smoking,’ Charlie replies. There’s nothing dancing in his eyes. ‘The fire alarm can be unplugged, and no-one found the smell unattractive fifty years ago, just like how no-one found the smell of sweat obtrusive until some cunt started marketing deodorant…’

‘So that’s why you never fucking shower,’ Johnny interjects with a relish that I’ve never heard in his voice before.

‘My nihilism has its limits, Johnny,’ Charlie recites airily. His soul seems to have escaped out of a side door, leaving just a sequence of voice recordings behind. ‘But that isn’t one of them.’

‘You’re not a nihilist, Charlie,’ Johnny replies. ‘You’re just an arsehole.’

‘Maybe so,’ Charlie mutters, thoughtfully. He turns to me, and suddenly we’re the only two people in the room. ‘Do you want to know a terrifying thought?’ he asks. ‘What if turns out that God not only exists, but that he was right all along?’

I smile, mostly to myself. I half understand what he’s talking about. Even that much has to provide the grounds to have me sectioned. ‘What if the sun really goes around the earth, but they knew we’d never bother to check?’ I reply.

Charlie looks back at me for a few moments like a puppy trying to work out a sleight-of-hand, then he nods in a way that could be described as enlightened were it not for the thick veins of drunken self-loathing branching through it. ‘What does that make us?’ he asks the air. ‘Stuck choosing between being arseholes and being slaves?’

He goes quiet for a moment, then he mutters:

‘Fuckin’ organic tomatoes. Jesus.’

At this point Johnny sees fit to pipe back up:

‘What the fuck are you two talking about?’

‘I lost track somewhere around “organic tomatoes”,’ I shrug.

‘Right.’ Johnny’s pupils flick momentarily to the rucksack in the corner. As far as I’m concerned, Charlie can play Dostoyevsky fan-fiction around Johnny as much as he wants, as long as there’s no evidence lying around for the latter’s suspicions to lead him to. It’s for this reason that I suggest we all go up to bed and discuss it tomorrow, when Johnny’s calmed down and Charlie has lost interest in horticulture – and when the bag, along with its contents, is safely out of the house. Murmurs of dissent arise from either side of the sofa, what with it being only ten o’clock, so I shoot Freddy a significant glance – one which I’m sure Johnny picks up on – and he stands up and announces that this is a very good idea. Johnny picks up on Freddy’s strange tone, as well, and as he files out his gaze locks on to the incriminating backpack. I’ve seen him hold Liz with a similar gaze numerous times before.

 

Four hours later, I’m sitting in the same armchair I was sitting in, watching the same film I was watching when Charlie first set this ball rolling, weeks and weeks ago. The TV is blasting light and colour into the room, but the volume is so low that it might as well be on mute.

I check the time. It’s still too early to go and wake the other two. I remind myself to ask Freddy for one of the plastic storage crates he uses to ferry his books home for the holidays. Now we’ll be keeping our secret in it.

A stair creaks. Reflexively my hand goes to the ‘off’ button on the TV remote, and the room goes dark. The door handle squeaks, and a figure shuffles into the room. Suddenly the shuffling stops. My eyes haven’t had time to adjust to the darkness yet, but I can still feel him looking at me.

‘Go back to bed, Johnny,’ I intone. For ten seconds or so, he doesn’t move; I imagine him glancing back and forth between me and the bag, wondering if he should grab it and run, knowing that his looking inside is an act that, once done, can’t be undone.

The handle squeaks as he shuts the door behind him. The same stair squeaks under his foot on the way back up.

 

Thankfully for the burgeoning length of this chapter, we didn’t have any unscheduled encounters on our way to the moor. The lack of encounters is also handy because the cover story we came up with for any policemen we met on the way – that we were carrying equipment home after a session of circuit training, after midnight, in jeans – was so hideously unbelievable. A less favourable circumstance, however, is that if we aren’t the types to have a pair of jogging bottoms spare to shore up our alibi, we’re hardly the types to have a shovel knocking about on the off-chance that we need to bury a chest full of evidence. To make things worse, this is December, in the north of England, so the only things stiffer than the ground are my nipples. The plastic crate which me and Freddy are carrying between us – Charlie is walking on ahead – contains a wide variety of kitchenware, with which we hope to pierce the Geordie permafrost and dig a grave for all the cash, clothing and weaponry that represents our crime.

‘What do you think’s up with him?’ I ask Freddy as we’re climbing up the grassy hill towards the cover of the woods. The words come out as fog. Out of reach of the streetlamps, I can barely make out Charlie’s figure up ahead.

‘Probably got high to take his mind off things,’ Freddy replies. ‘He’ll be fine tomorrow.’

‘You know something weird?’ I say. ‘It’s much less worrying to hear you say the dumb things you actually believe than the sensible things you don’t.’

‘What dumb things do I believe?’ Freddy hits back, with a sudden spark of anger.

‘How about the part where you’re going to the Middle East to start revolutions? That was pretty dumb. Also, while I’m at it, kind-of racist.’

‘That’s not a belief; that was just a plan,’ he explains, drawing himself up to full height. ‘We’ve all had our share of stupid plans lately. The only difference is that I didn’t put mine into action.’

I aim my snort of laughter upwards at him.

‘You put that plan into action every bit as much as the rest of us did.’

‘I was just saying, it wasn’t my plan,’ Freddy shrugs.

‘So that makes you innocent? No one put a fucking gun to your head; you put a gun to other peoples’ heads, remember?’

‘I didn’t pull the trigger, though.’

I could tell him that the blonde girl walked out of the front door without a scratch on her, but my neck is beginning to ache from pointing my face up to meet the condescending bastard.

‘We’re all arseholes; how’s that for a compromise?’ says Charlie, suddenly appearing out of the fog. He’s wearing a smile, and his arms are stretched wide in a parody of embrace. ‘You’re not a racist, though,’ he adds, kindly, to Freddy.

‘Well thanks a fucking lot,’ he mutters, back, sarcastically.

‘But you are an arsehole,’ Charlie reiterates, sounding positively gleeful about it, ‘and a hypocrite, and a murderer, and, if not exactly stupid, then, at the very least, more forgetful than all those quotations on your on Twitter feed would have us believe. Remind me: How was it that I managed to con you into taking part in this stupid escapade? Because I’m pretty sure it was just by repeating back to you some of the things you claim to believe. What were they, again? The things you believe?’

‘That we’re better governed by ideas than laws, and that the idea of ownership necessarily leads to exploitation,’ Freddy retorts. His eyebrows are knit defiantly, but the words come out as though he’s reading from a manifesto. Which I suppose he probably is, albeit one scrawled into the back of a schoolbook.

‘Look where our ideas got us,’ Charlie replies, still wearing that curious smile. I’d imagine that Freddy is now feeling the same way about Charlie as I did about him a few sentences ago, when I called him a condescending bastard.

‘Look where your fucking girlfriend got us!’ he spits back. His hissing words sing out across the open moor. My mind starts to place policemen lurking out just behind the fog, ready to pounce on us now that we’ve given our position away. I’d say my blood suddenly runs cold, but it’s the middle of the night in the middle of December and we’re on a moor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so my blood is too cold in the literal sense for me to worry about anything figurative.

‘We were governed by ideas,’ Charlie says. ‘Ideas made us do this, despite it being illegal. Or maybe because of it being illegal. We couldn’t give her any reason why it wasn’t wrong to walk into the shop carrying a gun, but why it was wrong to pull the trigger. We allowed a murder to happen, so we might as well have pulled the trigger ourselves. So, Fred, yes: you are an arsehole, a hypocrite and a murderer.’

‘Am I only an arsehole, still?’ I ask, in an attempt to lighten the mood.

 

You know something that movies have over real life? Editing. If this was a movie, you would only see my first three futile attempts to pierce the frozen earth with the rusty trowel, I’d say something withering, like, ‘This is gonna be a loooong night,’ in voiceover, then we’d cut to me lying dirty, shivering and exhausted with a deep, square grave carved into the ground beside me. That shit might be economical, but it doesn’t come close to giving an accurate impression of what it’s like to spend over four hours digging a three-by-three-by-three-foot hole in frozen ground with only kitchen utensils. I’m half-tempted to give you a minute-by-minute account of the whole endeavour: of all the times my hand slipped as the trowel thudded ineffectually against the ground and the blunt metal raked up my palm and cracked into my knobbly wrist bone, replacing dull, cold numbness with seething agony; of the uncontrollable shivering, which made me feel as though my body was conspiring to prevent the task being finished; of the knowledge that, no matter how much I wanted to go home, the task had to be done, and done before the sun rose; of the knowledge that Charlie and Freddy were feeling just as miserable as I was, but still hating them for slacking off and for giving me shirty looks because they thought I was slacking off; of the feeling of elation when I felt the rain start to break through the treetops, thinking that it would soften the soil, then the realisation that merely being cold is downright comfortable compared to being cold and wet. By the time my socks were finished soaking through, I was ready for them to throw me in the fucking hole along with the evidence. But, since I’m a slave to narrative economics myself, I’ll leave it at that and skip forward to the part where it gets interesting.

It all began when the low, distant hint of a ‘woof!’ slithered out of the fog and into our midst. I guess the incident with the arms-dealer left me with some kind of conditioned response, because I knew at that first ‘woof!’ that we were in big fucking trouble.

Get in the hole!’ I hiss at them. The dog barks again, but Freddy and Charlie remain oblivious. Apparently their hearing isn’t as good as the dog’s – either that or they’re less inclined to listen to me. I sense an opportunity to unburden myself of the frustration which has been steadily brewing over the last couple of hours, and stealthily position myself behind Freddy. I’m aware of the vast gulf in strength between the two of us, so rather than simply pushing him I spring from the knees and thrust my shoulder into his thigh. He gives a dumb ‘eh?!’ as he crumples and twirls around on top of me and we go tumbling over the lip of the hole. My lungs are squeezed empty as I crash through the freezing water and hit the hard earth behind it. Freddy’s massive bulk then thumps on top of me, forcing my face under the water. Icy liquid churns into my throat as I reflexively gasp for air. I start to freak out, which only means I choke more of it in. I can feel myself turning cold from the inside. My eyes snap open in terror, and I can make out the blurry pinpricks of stars, framed by the sides of the hole I’ve just dug. The inference is not lost on me.

At the very moment when I start believe I might actually drown in half a foot of water, Freddy sits up and the pressure on my chest is eased. I thrust my chin upwards, desperately coughing out rain and gulping in air. I wipe my eyes with my numb fingers, and see Charlie and Freddy squatting in the hole alongside me. Well, Freddy is squatting, at least; Charlie is sat cross-legged in the puddle with the plastic crate in his lap. The crate is open and he’s digging through it.

‘What are you doing?’ I ask. The words have to force their way out through my chattering teeth.

‘There’s a dog coming over,’ he replies, tonelessly. ‘I figured you’d want the gun.’

‘What? Why?’

‘To shoot it with, obviously.’

‘What? Why would I shoot it?’

‘Why not?’ Charlie, with the revolver now in his hands, flicks open the cylinder and inspects its contents. ‘Two rounds left. One for the dog, and one for the owner.’ He clicks it back shut and hands the gun to me. I look at him with bemusement.

‘Why would I shoot the dog?’

His bemusement mirrors my own.

‘It’s odd that you would ask that about the dog, but not the owner.’

‘It just seemed weird; the dog can’t rat us out, can it?’

‘Okay, just kill the owner, then.’

‘I’m not fucking killing either of them.’

‘So what, you’re just going to leave it up to fate?’

‘Yup.’

‘What if he comes over?’

‘Then I’ll just ask him nicely to not inquire as to why we’re out here digging a hole at five in the morning.’

‘Think he’ll keep quiet?’

‘He might do.’

‘Or he might ring the police and tell them exactly where we buried this orgy of evidence.’

‘He might do that, too.’

‘You ready to take that risk?’

I’m too cold to play this fucking game with him, right now.

‘Look, if you want him dead so fucking much, fucking kill him yourself.’

‘I don’t want him dead. I just want to make sure you understand the implications of leaving him alive, so you can make an informed decision about whether you’re going to kill him.’

‘And why the dog?’

‘Because it might bite me if you kill its master,’ he replies. ‘It’s a dog; who gives a shit?’

‘Hollywood.’

He chuckles.

‘This is England, bitch.’ Suddenly his pupils dart over my shoulder, and he adds: ‘Now’s your chance.’

I jump and spin as I feel the dog’s nose rub against the back of my neck. Its keen, inquisitive eyes stare back into my own, the brain behind them being smart enough, apparently, to realise that finding three young men crouched in a freshly-dug grave is not a normal occurrence, and yet innocent enough to not suspect that we’re up to no good. It’s a scruffy little creature; one of those mutts who makes up for his lack of poise and grace by letting passing children pat him with their little sticky hands. I raise the gun.

‘Rufus!’ a gruff voice calls from beyond the trees. It’s not the kind of voice whose owner would be easily threatened into silence. ‘Ere boy!’

Even though my brain immediately dismisses the idea as a crazy one, I could swear that the dog gives me a curt nod, as if to say, ‘about your business,’ before it turns tail and leaves. As it disappears into the fog, another idea occurs, one which my brain can’t discard quite so easily. The dog walking away, the guy in the car park walking away, even Liz falling asleep on my sofa that time; over and over I keep being brought to the precipice, only to have fate pull me back before I can jump. I can’t rely on the whims of fate to keep me safe forever.

 

 

 

 

[] SCENE X

THE RAT

Way back in seventh year, when the worst thing I had hanging over my conscience was Lucy Cogburn shooting me down, I would react to problems in much same fashion as I do today; curl into a ball and hide under my duvet. This is, of course, the dumbest course of action one can take when faced with such a predicament, since blocking out all sight and sound only serves to make the memories louder by comparison, and the voices in your head are always worse than the piss-taking or telling off you would get from your friends or your parents, respectively. The smartest course of action, right now, would be to get out of bed, take a shower, book a restaurant, get out of the house and spend as much time with Liz as I can before the hammer falls. So why am I still lying in my pants in the foetal position, sniffling from the pneumonia I probably contracted whilst walking home sopping wet last night, and rubbing my swollen left-knee in a pathetic attempt to convince it to stop hurting me? Because I know the whole thing would be an act, a hollow sham of normal life? That can’t be true. I love movies, after all, and especially the ones which are nothing more than a hollow sham of reality. Perhaps the sad truth is that I prefer my duvet and my self-loathing and my crappy movies to the normal life I could’ve had. That sounds more like me.

At a couple of hours past sunset I finally throw off the covers. My knee-joint grinds painfully as I shuffle, zombie-like, out of my bedroom and onto the landing. I do this mostly through guilt; my conscience can’t quite bear the idea of Liz standing around, alone, in the cold. Considering all the shit I’ve done to her of late, not to mention the fact that I am, as Charlie so convincingly argued, a murderer, this clearly suggests that there is some bad wiring going on in my head.

I don’t bother with the shower and head straight downstairs, transferring as much of my weight as I can from my left leg to the bannister. Charlie and Freddy are bunched together on the sofa, staring at Charlie’s laptop. Johnny, it would appear, is at the library or with friends or has found some other excuse to not be around us. Stretching a mocking grin across my cheeks, I make an educated guess about what they’re reading:

‘So. We famous yet?’

Freddy looks up without so much as a charade of mirth. With one hand he spins the screen around to face me:

21-YEAR-OLD MAN FOUND DEAD, SUSPECTED MURDERERED

A picture of a much younger version of Sid stares back at me from under the headline. He looks much happier than usual, or much less surly, at least. Half of my brain, and all of my stomach, wants to flee back upstairs and once again take refuge under my duvet, but instead I bend down and crane my neck to within a couple of inches of the screen.

A 21-year-old man was shot dead at his home in Byker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early hours of this morning, BBC News can report. The victim has been named as Sidney Quinn, an unemployed father of one. There was no sign of forced entry at Mr Quinn’s home, and police have received reports of a person dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt, around 5’4” in height, leaving the scene shortly after a gunshot was heard. Anyone with information or sightings of a person fitting this description in the vicinity of Byker are urged to contact police as soon as possible.

In the ‘Most Popular Stories’ section at the side of the page, I spot a link entitled ‘One dead after hostages taken in Newcastle’. At least we’re not being labelled as terrorists anymore.

‘You never said he had a kid,’ I say to Charlie.

Charlie shrugs, and heaves himself to his feet.

‘Neither did he. Can I get anyone a drink?’

‘We got any Dr Pepper left?’ I ask.

‘Nope. We’ve got either single-malt or champagne.’

I sigh. It’s a more rock-and-roll approach than the duvet, I guess.

‘Champagne, then.’

‘Freddy?’

Freddy declines to answer. Charlie gives an inebriated titter and ambles off towards the kitchen. The very second he vacates the room, Freddy rounds on me:

‘You know we’re next, right?’ The whisper comes out louder than regular speech. ‘Black hoody? “Person”, not “man”? About five-foot four? Ring any fucking bells? She’s coming back for us next!’

I look appraisingly at him. Even by his standards, this is far-fetched. Why would Phoebe kill Sid? Sid doesn’t have the first clue who she is. Me and Freddy know barely any more than he did. If she was going to kill anyone first, it would be Charlie.

‘Lots of people wear black hoodies,’ I tell him. ‘I’d bet the guy who sold us the guns has a few in his wardrobe.’

Freddy stands up. He puts his hand on my shoulder, in a fatherly kind of way.

‘Look, I owe you an apology. I know you didn’t kill that girl in the storeroom. I know you couldn’t do that. But she can. I’ve fucking seen her do it, just…just blow someone away to make a point, like they were the full stop at the end of a fucking sentence. Whoever the guy who sold you the guns is, he’s not that. He’s just a kid who listens to too much Wu Tang Clan. Phoebe; she’s the fucking devil. She did Sid, and she’ll do the three of us without a second thought.’

I’m not sure why, but I have to stifle a laugh as I recall something Phoebe said to me a long time ago. Freddy notices this, and affixes me with a disparaging, albeit inquisitive, scowl.

‘She told me she’d bury me under a railway bridge if she thought I’d talk,’ I tell him.

‘She meant it,’ Freddy says, with deadly seriousness. A pained expression suddenly crumples his face, as though he has either forgotten something or is trying to forget something. ‘[bleep], I’m sorry,’ he says.

‘What the fuck are you sorry for now?’ I ask.

‘Charlie came up with this idea, then he actually went through with it to try and impress her. I did it to prove to him that I’m not just big words and white guilt, but you… we just kind-of dragged you along for the ride. I’m sorry, man.’

‘You said it yourself; It was my plan,’ I reply darkly.

‘Yeah, but-’

‘No buts,’ I retort. ‘Let me make this very clear…’

But I don’t get to make anything clear, because Charlie suddenly announces something from the kitchen. He’s too drunk for his slurred words to make any sense, but the announcement holds a strange portent somewhere within it, nonetheless. Me and Freddy glance at each other.

‘What?!’ we shout back in unison. Charlie emerges into the doorway, swigging from a large mug of what for his sake I hope is tea and not whiskey.

‘I said, I think the devil might be on our doorstep.’

Before I know what’s going on, Freddy’s yanked me by the collar and tossed me across the hall, like Charlie with a dish of baked beans. I splat against the wall, bounce off, and careen into the bannister. From the heap I land in at the foot of the stairs, cradling my knee, I whimper:

‘Were you holding a grudge from last night?’

Shut up – she’ll hear you!’ Freddy responds, this time in an honest-to-God whisper. Personally, I think that all the shouting and banging about we were doing just a few seconds ago renders the whispering now a bit redundant, but I obey all the same. Freddy inches up to the peephole. The sudden tensing of his shoulders tells us that Phoebe’s on the other side. I can literally see the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Standing there, motionless, impotent, I watch a single pinprick of sweat at the tip of Freddy’s spine swelling into a bead, then a blob, then a trickle as it slips down under its own weight and into his t-shirt…

And then his shoulders deflate. She must’ve moved on. When he turns away from the peephole, the transparent relief on Freddy’s face is enough to confirm this suspicion.

‘You know what, Charlie?’ he says. ‘I think I might need that drink, now.’

Charlie hands one of the mugs over. Seeing as how he’s suddenly in a position to be buying champagne I’d assume that the whiskey inside the mug is worth a fair bit, but as it passes under my nose all I can smell is paint thinner. I guess I wasn’t built to be rich. The funk of Freddy’s terror-sweat forms the aftertaste, and that’s only a slightly less pleasant aroma.

‘So we got away with it that time,’ Freddy says, after a generous glug of Glen-something, ‘but she’ll be back. I don’t know why she didn’t try to force her way in, though. That would’ve been more her style.’ He addresses these musings to me, since Charlie has migrated back to the kitchen for a fresh drink. I’m barely listening, though; the smell of Freddy’s sweat – or, at least, I think it’s Freddy’s sweat – has unlocked some strange, Pavlovian canal in my brain. The smell of it makes me nostalgic, almost, for something I never realised I had.

‘Because she had a feeling that someone’s bedroom window would be unlocked,’ a voice mutters in response to Freddy’s enquiry, as Charlie’s bedroom door opens to reveal Phoebe behind it.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ Charlie exclaims, returning to the hallway just as she makes her appearance. ‘Have I got to pour you a drink now, as well?’

Charlie’s nonchalance throws an even starker light onto Freddy’s reaction. The tension which clasped his shoulders at the peephole has now taken his entire body prisoner. Even the muscles around his eyeballs seem to have tightened, pulling the glassy orbs back into his skull. Along with the deathly shade of white his skin has taken on and the black hoody that Phoebe is wearing, it’s like watching the Grim Reaper coming to collect a fresh corpse. Phoebe, being Phoebe, examines Freddy with mild, mischievous curiosity. Freddy, despite being large enough to pick her up by an ankle and shake her like a disobedient puppy, looks as if he’d abandon me and Charlie and flee for his life if she were to make any sudden moves.

‘So I guess I’d better get this out in the open,’ Charlie says. ‘Phoebe; are you planning on murdering any of us? Because if you are, it would be very poor etiquette not to give us some kind of warning beforehand.’

A very slight shift takes place in Phoebe’s features. It’s not quite anger, it’s something more controlled than that, more threatening. A twinge of a tendon here and there and I can suddenly understand why Freddy is so terrified of her. Only Charlie remains unabashed.

‘Is this about the guy in the breakroom?’ she enquires.

‘Him, and anyone else you’ve murdered,’ Charlie replies.

Phoebe shrugs.

‘He wouldn’t have cared if I’d lived or died, and the feeling was mutual. If he wanted to live, he should’ve killed me first.’

‘And what about us?’ Charlie asks. There’s still an eerie casualness to his manner. ‘Are you going to off us, just in case we decide to do you first?’ Freddy, though trembling, raises his hands slightly and forces himself within throttling range of her, in case she goes for a weapon. Phoebe fixes him with a glare, but doesn’t bother to move anything more than her pupils.

‘I wasn’t planning on it.’

‘Well that’s good enough for me,’ Charlie whoops. ‘Anyone fancy a pint?’

 

‘So answer me this,’ I say to Phoebe, as I walk to the restaurant to meet Liz and her and Charlie walk towards a pub which happens to be on the same route. Freddy elected to stay at home. ‘Where the fuck did you go?’

‘You said we’d be in and out in under ten minutes,’ she replies. ‘I gave you just under ten minutes.’

‘And a dead body,’ I reply. She raises her eyebrows, then quickens her pace to catch up with Charlie. A homeless man they pass asks for spare change, and I notice Charlie surreptitiously remove a large wad of bills from his back pocket, fold it in half and toss it into the man’s lap, all without the slightest break in his conversation with Phoebe. The homeless man barely seems to notice; either that or he’s – understandably – assumed he’s hallucinating. I wonder to myself how much of the takings Charlie pocketed last night. All of it? Even with the strange way he’s been acting over the last twenty-four hours, I can’t see Charlie stealing mine and Freddy’s shares, right from under our noses. Phoebe, however…

Despite the fact that I can feel my knee angrily protesting at even my current, meandering pace, I force myself into a stumbling jog until I’m back alongside her.

‘You know,’ I say, ‘you never struck me as someone who takes losing particularly well.’

‘Actually, I think she’s someone who doesn’t take other people winning particularly well,’ Charlie corrects.

‘Whatever gave you that impression?’ Phoebe asks me.

‘Every conversation we’ve ever had.’

‘What, all four of them?’

‘Don’t dodge the question,’ I reply. ‘You wouldn’t have bailed out without taking the money first. I wouldn’t have put it past you to burn it once you’d got your hands on it, but I’m fucking positive you would’ve wanted to get your hands on it first.’

She smiles.

‘You want the truth?’

‘I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.’

She lifts her arms up slightly, as though in a half-arsed gesture of surrender.

‘I was planning on shooting the tall guy – just a gut-shot, of course, nothing too serious – then I was going to take the money off him and stuff it in an air vent, where I could come back a few days later to collect it. Unfortunately for this dastardly plan, I only realised you’d rationed me out three fucking bullets when I pulled the trigger on him.’

I wonder if Charlie has gone so pale because he’s realised that if he’d paid his share towards the guns, Freddy might be dead right now. God works in mysterious ways, I suppose.

‘I wondered why Freddy didn’t seem so happy to see you,’ I remark. Phoebe shrugs.

‘You win some, you lose some. I don’t see why he has to hold a grudge.’

 

Since I already told Liz that I’d get us in at the Italian place, then stupidly left my phone at home so I won’t be able to tell her if there’s a sudden change of plans, it is with no small amount of trepidation that I ask the Maître d’ whether he has a spare table for two available. He says that they’re all booked up. I look around the empty restaurant and ask if he’s sure. He informs me that every table in the place is booked from fifteen-to-thirty minutes hence until closing time. Rather that call him out on this lie, I slip my hand into my back pocket, into my wallet, and tease the fifty quid I had budgeted for tonight into my fist.

‘Are you sure you can’t find anything?’ I ask mischievously, bringing my hand up to shake his. The three balled-up notes fall out of my hand and onto the carpet between us. We both glance down for a few conspicuous moments at the scrunches of money, and then we glance back up at one another.

‘You get the gist,’ I mutter. He gives me an almost sarcastic appraisal, then grunts:

‘The table by the window. Over there.’ I follow his gesture, take off my coat, sling it over the back of the chair and sit myself down. After a couple of minutes’ silence, I call to him:

‘I wouldn’t mind a beer, to start me off.’ I give a very deliberate look around the empty restaurant. ‘If you’re not too busy, that is.’

 

Liz is led over to the table by the waiter. She walks in the ethereal, gliding fashion that first made me fall in love with her on that night in the student union. Being in her company has instilled so much unease in me lately that I’d begun to forget just how gorgeous she is: her eyebrows, which can, with the slightest movement, convey even the slightest hint of emotion; the brown-in-darkness, blonde-in-sunlight hair she’s always made such an effort to tame, but which retains just a hint of disobedience, as if it has its own unshakeable character and cannot be cowed by any mere appliance; that peculiar way her toes point inwards when she’s abashed, like Tommy from Rugrats. All these small things, and all the others, adding up to something that will always and forever be her, no matter how much the years may grey and wrinkle the details. Something that I, in all honesty, never had any right to claim as my own. The waiter, who had continued standing quietly polishing glasses when I asked for a beer, now puts on all the bells and whistles that his employment demands, pulling out her chair and offering to take her coat. ‘Noting’ that my trench coat is slung over the back of my seat, he offers to take it as well. I refuse.

‘Please, sir; it’s the restaurant’s policy to leave coats at the door.’

‘It’s my policy to keep my possessions where I can see them,’ I reply, firmly. For a moment his mask of propriety slips, but he quickly hoists it back up when Liz looks up at him. ‘Now, could we make a drinks order?’

‘By all means, sir.’

‘Great. I’ll have a pint of beer, and Liz…’ I pick up the cocktail menu and look it up and down in a theatrical fashion. ‘…Liz will have a Bellini.’ Liz raises her eyebrow ever so slightly. I wonder if I’ll be able to pop to the bathroom between courses and apply for an overdraft extension without her picking up on it.

‘Very good, sir,’ the waiter responds. I watch him walk away, and try to imagine the look on his face now that I can’t see it.

‘So,’ Liz begins. ‘Why are you here?’

‘Why am I here, specifically?’ I ask. I pick up the cocktail menu again. ‘Apparently, because I’m sixty-grand deep in student debt, but I’ve still got more money than sense.’

 

Twenty minutes later, the whole thing is going so well that I don’t even notice the restaurant filling up around us, nor the fact that the waiter hasn’t even taken our orders yet. I zone out of the finer details of what we’re talking about and allow the sensation of the conversation to take over me. This must be the reason why some people treat dating like a more expensive drug habit, as they scrounge for a hit of: I think this person might want to fuck me! Please God, let him or her want to fuck me!

The slightest of twinges on Liz’ expression brings the whole illusion suddenly crashing to the ground. I follow her grinding gaze over my shoulder and see Charlie and Phoebe chatting to the Maître d’. Charlie’s bleary eye meets my own, and the contents of my stomach flop down into my bowels.

‘Ah, the lovely [bleep]!’ he exclaims jovially, wandering over like George Plimpton dressed in a tuxedo when he’s in fact rather drunk, dressed in a T-shirt and torn-up jeans. ‘Ah, and Liz, who is so very much lovelier that I’m forced to amend my previous comment!’ He turns back to me, and – with his sincerest commiserations – informs me that, by comparison, I look like an aspiring crack-whore who was never quite pretty enough to join the professional ranks. As he unravels this spiel of greeting, he drags the empty table next-door up beside ours. He then pulls over a chair and sits down, leaving Phoebe to drag over her own. The Maître d’ suddenly materialises at the table – or tables – but Charlie heads him off before he can even open his mouth:

‘So sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,’ he claps the Maître d’s hand in both of his and shakes it passionately, ‘but I was simply excited to see these great friends of mine; I haven’t seen them in a very long time, you must understand, and I don’t want to waste this chance to be in their company. I do hope you can accommodate us.’ He lets his hand fall gracefully southwards and allows it to caress the stem of his wine glass, leaving several notes poking out of the Maître d’s fist. Smooth prick, I think to myself. Even blind drunk, he pulled it off far better than I did. The Maître d’ looks torn, for a moment, between his principles and the potential tip he’ll be getting at the end of the meal. The moment doesn’t last long.

‘Not a problem at all, sir,’ he responds, with a simpering smile.

‘Wonderful,’ Charlie grins back. He picks up Liz’ unfinished Bellini and hands it to him. ‘Would you please take this away, and replace it with a bottle of your second-most expensive champagne, and four chilled glasses. I always find that the second-most expensive one is the best, don’t you, Liz?’

Liz seems half-confused, half-annoyed, half-intrigued.

‘I wouldn’t know,’ she replies.

‘Oh, but you will,’ Charlie winks back. He plucks our menus from the empty place settings in front of us and hands them to the Maître d’. ‘On the food front, we’ll defer to your judgement.’

A smile creeps up one side of the increasingly well-off Maître d’s face. If he’s buying, at least I won’t have to extend my overdraft, I think to myself. As the Maître d departs Charlie goes quiet, leaving poor Liz to force conversation:

‘So Charlie, what’s with the sudden wealth?’ she asks.

‘I will never be wealthy, Elizabeth,’ he replies, holding up his empty wine glass and inspecting it for some reason. ‘You’ve spent enough time in my company to realise that much. And, as such, I would like the chance to play the part of a rich man, just once, before I drop dead.’

He leaves no avenue down which to pursue this conversation, and doesn’t seem all that inclined to provide Liz with another, so she instead turns to Phoebe:

‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’

‘Daphne,’ Phoebe replies. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you, Liz.’

‘I dread to think,’ Liz chuckles. The chuckle is forced. ‘So, you’re the one who finally tamed Charlie.’

‘“Tamed” is a strong word,’ Phoebe remarks, with a wry glance at me. Again, the false laugh from Liz.

‘Then I’ve heard a fair amount about you, too. So, Charlie has a girlfriend; I never thought I’d see the day.’

‘Girlfriend?’ Phoebe replies, with a smirk.

‘Well, Johnny seems to think so.’ A pause. ‘Is he mistaken?’

‘I’ve never quite understood what being a girlfriend entails,’ Phoebe/Daphne answers. Liz looks at her as though she’s a caveman she’s just defrosted, and Charlie butts-in to translate:

‘It means you have a verbal contract with someone that says neither of you will fuck anyone else.’ Phoebe raises her eyebrows in amusement, like a parent surveying a macaroni picture their kid threw together.

‘Well, I wouldn’t exactly…’ Liz begins, but I interject:

‘Nah, nah; it’s where you can spend half your time telling someone how perfect they are, and the other half telling them how much of an arsehole they are.’ Liz shoots me a glance before responding, half-smirking and half in a growl:

‘Don’t be an arsehole.’ All of the tension I’d been holding in since I first spotted Charlie walk in here bursts out in my laughter:

‘Ha! Told you.’

Liz leans back on her chair, like a high-rolling gambler, and throws her own witticism onto the table.

‘It’s that thing men are most afraid of, until they get old enough to worry about dying alone,’ she declares. Charlie raises his glass at her, as if to agree.

‘Hilarious though I’m sure all those are,’ Phoebe drawls, ‘it still doesn’t bring me any closer to a definition.’

‘You want to be serious?’ Liz asks. ‘Fair enough: it’s when someone you’ll admit to being in love with will admit the same thing about you.’

‘I’ve never quite understood what that means, either,’ Phoebe shrugs. Once again, I burst out laughing.

‘What are you, the fucking Terminator?’

‘The what?’ Phoebe enquires.

‘You’re trying to bail the Atlantic Ocean with a pint glass here, Liz,’ Charlie comments, taking the bottle of champagne from the Maitre D’, pulling out the cork with his teeth and pouring the overflowing bubbly liquid into each of our glasses. ‘When I sat her down and made her watch Star Wars the other day I actually had to explain to her which ones were the bad guys. That’s the level of sociopathy you’re up against.’

Phoebe shrugs.

‘One side blew up a planet full of people; the other blew up a space station full of people. I don’t see the difference.’

‘I’m not so hot on Star Wars,’ Liz admits, ‘but I’ve watched too many French films to not know what love is. Love is when someone sees you for what you are – the real you, buried under all the make-up and sexy accents – and still likes you more than anyone else on the planet.’

‘There is no real you. How you act is determined by context,’ Phoebe returns.

‘How you act is, but not who you are.’

‘What’s the difference?’ Phoebe shrugs. ‘Except for the fact that you’re the same person, you share less in common with the kid in the picture on your parents’ mantelpiece than you do with the person who sits next to you in your literature lectures. So why pretend otherwise? Don’t stay shackled to people when you’ve heard every tedious word that can come out of their mouths, just so you can say you’ve got friends and a family; don’t tie yourself to a place for so long that you might as well be a part of the fucking brickwork, just so you can call somewhere “home”; don’t try to dress up working in data management as something fulfilling, just so you can convince the kid on the mantelpiece that you’re not what he was afraid of growing up into, and so you’ve got something to say when a grown-up asks, “so, what do you do?”’

‘Seriously, what have you fucking art students got against data management? Did John Nash fuck you and never call you again, or something?’ I ask, throwing my hands up in the air. No-one responds. Phoebe leans across the table, inspecting Liz in that characteristic way which is rapidly becoming something of a tired gimmick. As she does so, her scent again floats past my nostrils. That sense of nostalgia for something I never possessed, which I felt back when we were at the house, engulfs me once more. The memory attached to it, however, remains infuriatingly out of arm’s length.

‘Why not be free, instead?’ Phoebe asks Liz, as a psot-script.

‘You sound like a kid eating bubble gum,’ Liz replies. ‘Chew people up and spit them out when they’ve run out of flavour.’

Phoebe grins wolfishly.

‘That’s a pretty apt metaphor.’

‘Life’s about more than what you can chew out of someone.’

I’m expecting Phoebe to say, ‘no, it’s not,’ but she doesn’t.

‘Fuck it, maybe I’m wrong,’ she concedes, allowing her shoulders to slink back and her arse to slide forward in the chair. ‘But you can’t help what you believe. It all depends on when and where your mother spat you out. A quirk of geography could’ve seen you strapping TNT to your chest and blowing up shopping centres.’

‘No offense, but I don’t think you believe in anything,’ Liz returns.

‘I never knew my mother, and I’ve never had a place to call home,’ Phoebe answers sullenly. With a dismissive wave of the hand, though, she perks herself back up. ‘But, to be honest, I think you’re the ones who don’t believe in anything. You just pretend you do, so you can tell yourselves you’re consistent; so you can tell yourself that you don’t just do things because you’re hungry, or bored, or angry, or horny, or lonely.’

Liz smirks, and raises her glass in a mock-toast. The effect, however, is somewhat marred by the pink glare in her cheeks. ‘I suppose you’re lucky you’re still a university student; we’re the only people on the planet with enough free time to pretend we believe in things.’

‘Who ever said I was a university student?’ Phoebe asks.

Liz raises her eyebrows. Charlie does not.

‘No-one, I suppose. I just assumed.’

‘You want to be careful with that,’ Phoebe warns. There’s a certain viciousness, a sort of hunger or lust in the way that she runs the tip of her tongue across her top teeth after letting go of the final syllable. Liz either doesn’t cotton-on or isn’t intimidated by it.

‘I guess that raises a question, then.’ she says. ‘So, Daphne, what do you do?’

‘Depends in what sense you’re asking.’

‘Well, I’d hope that, after that rousing speech about freedom and not needing to rely on anyone, it doesn’t turn out that our parents’ taxes are paying to keep you fed and sheltered?’

Phoebe’s black lips curl backwards. She’s almost panting.

‘Not their taxes,’ she sneers. ‘Paperwork’s not really my thing.’

‘So, what, robbery?’ Liz asks. ‘Ah… So when you said you weren’t Charlie’s girlfriend, what you actually meant was that you’re just buttering him up until you get the chance to empty his bank account?’ I recognise her tone of voice. It’s the one she used when she was speculating about me having been one of the Haymarket terrorists.

‘Well, maybe not his. He’s kind-of cute,’ Phoebe replies. ‘I’d prefer to call it “redistribution”, anyway. “Robbery” implies that you spoiled fucks did something to earn it.’

The pink flush in Liz’ cheeks grows darker.

‘Alright, Robin Hood,’ she scowls, derisively, ‘if that’s true, what would stop me from calling the police and telling them what you just told us?’ She still carries the last hint of mockery in her brow, pinning back the mounting rage. Charlie looks far less sceptical. Phoebe reapplies her dismissive hand-wave. This time she adds a hyena-esque cackle to go along with it.

‘What would you tell them? A girl called Daphne with black hair and tattoos told you she was a criminal? By the time they’d bothered to chase it up, I’d be in a different city, with a different name, looking different enough that he -’ she jabs a thumb towards Charlie - ‘wouldn’t recognise me if I was serving him from behind a bar.’ Charlie lets out a bitter hiss masquerading as a snigger. ‘A splash of make-up here, a few less swear words there, and you three would never look twice at me, because you just think of me as that goth girl.’ She wags her finger. ‘See, you’ve assigned me an identity, and that makes you all too easy to dupe.’

I look at her, and something strikes me. Phoebe has fewer tattoos than I gave her credit for. Only three small ones, but they’re placed in such a way as to create an impression of her as a ‘tattooed person’, rather than ‘a person with tattoos’.

Phoebe crams both the first and last forkful of her entrée into her mouth, standing up as she does so, and announces to the table:

‘And with that little revelation, I’m off to the shitter. Liz, what’s say you don’t call the police just yet, so we can continue this enthralling discussion?’ She winks, casually tosses the fork onto the table, then turns and walks away. In doing so, she allows her eyes to meet mine, for just a snatch of a second. For the first time, I notice that Phoebe has green eyes. As if it’s tethered, my neck turns upwards to watch her go. The strange, airy gait. The oddly familiar scent. I know why I recognise them. I can grasp the memory in both hands, now.

‘I might go for a piss, as well,’ I declare to the other two, jerking out of my chair and following Phoebe down the corridor. Social protocol tries to hold back my hand as I catch the door to the female toilet, but I force my body into obedience. I push it back open. I’m expecting a screaming girl to jump out and Benny Hill chase to start up at any second, so I swiftly make for the locked cubicle at the far end of the bathroom, kick down the door, and drag Phoebe out by the back of her sweater. She’d been trying to clamber out of the window. Clamping my hand firmly around her forearm, I wheel her around, push her towards the sink, squeeze some soap onto the inside of my cuff, and scrub it furiously against the naked woman ‘tattoo’ on her wrist. She winces in pain and anger but I pay no heed, stopping only to rinse it under the tap and check to see if the mark has begun to fade. On the fourth rinse, I notice that the naked woman’s belly button has disappeared. Despite the fact that Phoebe’s skin is going red, I give it one last malicious burst of effort with my cuff, to make sure, then I let go of her arm. She lets it fall to her side.

‘So that was you, the girl in the storeroom,’ I say.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ she replies.

‘I assume the police spoke to you after you left?’

‘Yep.’

‘What did you tell them?’

‘That I just wanted to go home.’

‘And they let you go?’

‘They phoned my parents. But the parents of the person whose driver’s license I’d stolen live a long way away, so – once the girl you sent out in the getaway car confirmed my identity, and they’d taken a statement – they let me go, and said they’d call me again in a day or so. I’m guessing by now the parents have told them that their daughter has no recollection of being at the police station yesterday.’

‘Guess that leaves you with about 24 hours to skip town and find a new identity, all that stuff you were just talking about.’

‘Guess it does,’ she replies.

‘You know this is the equivalent of the bad guy in a movie telling the hero his plan, rather than using that time just to kill him?’ I ask.

BAM. With what seems like steel-toe-caps, Phoebe gives me a good, hard punt to the groin. With a pathetic squeak I fall to the floor at her feet.

‘I don’t really watch movies,’ she smiles. ‘See you around, Sundance.’ She heads back towards the cubicle I dragged her out of. As she reaches the window, she turns back to me. ‘I wouldn’t exactly call you a “hero”, but – for what it’s worth – you guys were the most interesting group I’ve ever ripped-off.’

And with that, she’s gone. As I’m rolling around on the floor, wondering which of my bollocks has been kicked up into my stomach, and which of my organs has jumped up into my throat to make room, Typically, it’s at this, my most humiliating moment, that I hear door swing open.

‘What are you doing in the women’s bathroom?’ Liz enquires, in a tone halfway between anger and weary resignation. I try to clamber up to my feet, but I can’t get any further than doubled-over, with one hand clutching at the crotch of my jeans.

‘She was running out on the bill,’ I gasp. ‘I tried to stop her.’

Liz’ face crumples up.

Oh, for Christ’s – what is wrong with your…’ Her voice trails off. She pushes both her arms down tight by her sides and takes a deep breath. ‘Look, if I go back out there and Charlie’s disappeared too, I’m giving them his name and address. I’m not doubling my student loan just because he’s decided he’s got expensive tastes.’

‘And so you should,’ I reply, through a wince. Personally, I’d be relieved to go out there and find an empty table waiting for us. At least that would put a glass ceiling on what can go wrong tonight. ‘Shall I meet you back in the restaurant?’

‘No,’ she replies.

‘I assumed you were taking a piss,’ I say.

‘I can hold it. I need to make sure that you don’t disappear, too.’ There’s none of the old wry humour in her voice.

‘Fair enough,’ I shrug, still holding on to my balls.

As I feared, Charlie is slumped at the table, with his wine glass hanging from his fingers and his arm hanging over the side of his chair. With the other hand, he languidly plucks items of food from the four plates in front of him, everyone else having been absent when the main course was served, leaving him with a buffet. As Liz and I retake our seats he lifts the glass back up to the table and reaches for a bottle of red wine – one of the many unfinished ones strewn across the table. Examining the label, he says, half to himself:

‘You know, I don’t think I was built for opulence.’

‘And it only took a two-grand dinner bill to help you figure that out,’ Liz mutters, sarcastically.

‘What were you built for, Charlie?’ I ask. He puts the wine back on the table in front of him, resting his hand beside it. His fingers tap against the rim of a plate.

‘Bargain-basement excess, maybe. That and bullshitting about movies,’ he replies. ‘Remember the theory I had a few months ago? The one which necessitated throwing my lunch against the wall?’

‘I vaguely recall it,’ I concede. Liz cocks an eyebrow. ‘“Most of what we call morals and ethics is just arbitrary cultural bullshit, put there to prevent us from really going off the rails.” Something like that?’

‘Something like that,’ he repeats, nodding with dead-eyed acquiescence. ‘But I missed the point of the point I was making. Or part of it, at least. Tell me; why didn’t you stop me from throwing beans at the window?’

‘Because I’d momentarily forgotten that you were dumb enough to actually do it.’

‘Nope, because you couldn’t convince me that it was the wrong thing to do, and I wasn’t afraid of the consequences you would be able to bring down on my head if I did it.’

‘I’m not the most imposing of people,’ I admit, smirking.

‘You want to be, though,’ he returns, sternly. ‘I can shoplift because I’m not afraid of being caught.’ He gestures around the restaurant. ‘I can make a fool out of myself tonight, because I’m not afraid of these mother fuckers judging me.’ His face snaps back to me. ‘But you are. I think you’re sick of being afraid, and now you want to be the one all these mother fuckers are scared of.’

His hand closes around the bottle of red wine. He lifts it up and down, slowly, a couple of times, as though checking its weight.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Charlie,’ I groan. ‘Don’t fucking do it.’

He shoots me a resolute, mischievous grin.

‘Are you going to stop me?’ he asks.

Maybe I could wrestle him to the floor. Maybe I could grab the wine bottle off him. It would still cause a scene, and it would mean that the aforementioned mother fuckers would be staring at me, too, rather than only at him.

‘No, Charlie,’ I say. ‘I can’t stop you.’

With one last glance at me, he whips around and hurls the bottle of wine across the room. It hits the wall with a terrible CRASH! and the restaurant instantly erupts into pandemonium. Charlie has already stood up, tucked-in his chair and given me a theatrical bow of goodbye before I’ve even had time to look away from the claret asterisk on the wall and form a reaction. As soon as my wits re-establish themselves, I grab Liz’ hand and hiss:

Let’s go!

As I’m dragging her over to the door, my coat flailing from my trailing hand, I see that Charlie has gone to talk to the Maitre d’, who is standing behind the bar. He opens his wallet and removes a large stack of notes from within.

‘This is for the bill;’ he says, slapping a good couple-thousand pounds down onto the bar. ‘This is for the tip.’ A grand or so more. ‘This is for the damage.’ A further couple-thousand is laid down next to the second pile. He appraises what is left – three notes – slaps two down on the bar and puts the last back into his pocket. ‘And that’s for the pint I’m going to swipe on my way out.’

With that, he strides off towards the door, picking up a grey-haired gentleman’s half-full pint glass as he passes his table. Pushing Liz through the exit ahead of me and ignoring the noises she’s making about her coat, I stalk after him.

I see Charlie amble off down a side street ahead. I make chase, partly because I’m concerned for his mental wellbeing and partly because, if we go our separate ways, it’ll be me and not him who stumbles into the lights of a police waggon. Liz is peculiarly quiet, and lags behind me as I trot after my drunk, possibly insane housemate. She still holds on to my hand, but the tightness with which she clasps it has nothing, I fear, to do with affection.

‘Sorry about that,’ Charlie mutters as I pull up alongside him. ‘Just wanted to prove my point.’

‘Why use words, when a grand gesture will do?’ I reply, in an attempt at humour.

‘Exactly. You’re still getting the speech, though. What I was trying to say was that there are no real laws; there are only people who tell you what to do, and people who make you afraid to not do as they say.’

‘What about your conscience?’ I ask, sarcastically.

‘Like a quadruple amputee thrown in a river, who convinces himself that he’s swimming,’ Charlie replies. Suddenly, his eyes lock-on to a girl with a ponytail tied at the top of her head, who is lurking under a streetlight flanked by two teenaged boys built out of fat, muscle, acne and barely-suppressed rage. ‘Oi!’ he calls out to her. ‘Just because I’m pretty, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to stare at me like I’m some kind of sex object!’

‘What the fuck did you just say?’ asks the larger of the two large male companions.

‘Ah, the lawmakers of a very specific sub-section of our society,’ Charlie says, striding up to meet him. ‘Tell me; did you actually not hear what I said, or are you just looking for an excuse to beat me up?’

It’s the latter. The quiet Crack of the boy’s forehead hitting the bridge of Charlie’s nose has none of the panache of a wine bottle hitting the wall of a restaurant. Charlie lands against the floor with a thud. The other boy, who has come over to join in the festivities, pulls the pint glass out of Charlie’s hand and slams it against the side of his face. Charlie doesn’t make a sound. A white light appears beside me – Liz is keying ’9-9-9’ into her phone.

‘No!’ I demand. ‘Go home, Liz; I’ll sort this out.’

‘No!’ she replies, with even more force, and presses the call button. I snatch the phone out of her hand and slam it shut.

‘Leave, now!’ I tell her.

‘No! They’re going to kill him! He’s your friend! Call the police!’

‘What the fuck did this bitch say?’ screeches the girl with the ponytail on the top of her head. I look away from Liz, and see the two boys taking it in turns to kick a prone Charlie. I look at the young girl advancing towards her and hate bubbles up in my soul. Almost outside of myself, as though I’m playing a videogame, I watch my fist slam into the side of her face. She hits the deck.

‘What the fuck did you just-’ the larger boy says, as though that’s the trio’s catchphrase. He advances on me. My hand goes into my coat pocket, and pulls out the revolver. Charlie wasn’t the only one who kept hold of some of the evidence. The moment he recognises what I’m pointing at him the teen freezes. The colour drains from the few acne-free areas of his face. His snarl disappears, and suddenly his youth becomes much more pronounced in his features. His hands raise and his knees slump involuntarily. With one hand I grab the back of his neck and with the other I thrust the gun into his mouth.

‘You taste that?’ I ask him. ‘That’s gunpowder, from the last bullet I fired out of this gun. The next one’s going straight out the back of your head.’

The other boy has stopped hurting Charlie, now.

‘Then the one after that’s going right between your tits, you fat fuck,’ I call to him. ‘That is unless all three of you cunts run away from here, right this second.’

By the time I’ve finished the sentence, the girl and the smaller boy have faded away into the dusk. I know the bigger one will do the same the second that I take my hand off the back of his neck, but I can’t quite bring myself to let go.

‘You ever touch anyone I know again, and I’ll kill you,’ I spit at him. Twenty years of being the little-guy parade through my jugular. He coughs and splutters and tears flop down his cheeks. I increase the pressure on the back of his neck, and force the gun past his tonsils. ‘Your friends ever touch anyone I know, and I’ll kill you. A friend of mine gets hit by a bus and I just want someone to blame for it, I’ll kill you.’ I take a deep, hard breath and scream: ‘ARE WE FUCKING CLEAR?!’ He tries to nod, but can’t do much more than tremble and gag on the barrel.

‘Then off you fuck,’ I say to him, allowing my lips to curl at the corners.

I pull the phlegm-drenched revolver out of his mouth and he staggers backwards, awkwardly turns, stumbles, and scrabbles off into the darkness, tripping over Charlie’s body and falling over once more in his haste to escape. I turn to hand Liz’ phone back to her, but she, too is gone.

 

 

[] SCENE XI

ON THE LAM

At first Charlie tried to refuse my help in getting home, but it wasn’t long before the effects of a probable concussion and twelve solid hours of alcohol abuse got the better of him and he staggered into my arms. A frankly embarrassingly long time later, I’m finally slouching on our doorstep with him draped over one shoulder, fumbling for the keys with my spare hand. After much scraping against the lock I eventually get the key into the hole, the door open, and Charlie deposited onto the sofa.

‘I’ll have a whiskey,’ he slurs as I head to the kitchen.

‘As long as you don’t throw it anywhere,’ I whisper back. Hoping that there’s some orange juice left in there for me, I open the fridge. It’s all champagne. Cheap, Tesco-brand champagne, but what Charlie neglected in quality he made up for in quantity. There’s not a single inch of shelf-space left. I would even go as far as to suspect that he threw out any food we had in there, to make room for more booze. This suspicion is compounded by the only non-alcoholic item in the fridge, a post-it note stuck to the inside of the door, which says:

Dear Charlie,

What the actual fuck?

*
p)<>{color:#000;}. Johnny

I go to the cupboard, hoping to find some squash, but the cupboard is full of whiskey. It’s not as jam-packed as the fridge, but – despite my lack of education in the language of liquor – I can tell that it’s here, and not on the contents of the fridge, that Charlie really splurged. Two of the eight bottles are near-enough empty. I pick up the unopened one with the Japanese label, peel the foil off the neck, and pull out the cork. Feeling vaguely classy, I waft the bottle under my nose. It wrinkles reflexively, so with a gleeful sense of abandon I put it to my lips and throw my head backwards. I immediately come to regret this decision. Through coughs, splutters, dry heaves and finally vomit, I ask the plughole:

‘What the fuck is wrong with rich people?!’

Deciding then and there that I don’t want Charlie polishing off a third bottle of this repugnant shit, I pour the tiniest sliver into a glass, for flavour, and top it off from the tap. I pour myself a glass of pure, god-fearing tap water.

As I turn the living room light on, it becomes clear exactly how much damage Charlie absorbed down that alleyway. His left eyelid is a deep purple and sags halfway down his cheek; the right half of his face is a mess of grazes and cuts, probably from where it scraped against the pavement each time they kicked him; his bottom lip is near-enough torn in two, and there are dark scabs clogging-up either nostril. I examine my own face in the window. By comparison, I don’t look half bad.

‘What a pair we make,’ I say, plonking the ‘whiskey’ down on the table in front of him. I sit down and take a sip of my water. I can’t quite work out if I’ve got our drinks the wrong way round or whether the aftertaste of the slug of whiskey is coming back to haunt me. Charlie knocks back half his glass, surveys the remaining liquid for a moment, then says:

‘You know, I think I prefer cheap vodka to this stuff.’

I laugh. He doesn’t know how right he is. I stretch my neck out until it clicks and slide down into the armchair and play with Liz’ mobile, flipping it open and closed in my pocket, and a realisation suddenly strikes me.

‘Have you seen my phone?’ I ask Charlie. ‘I haven’t seen it in the last couple of days.’ He shakes his head. ‘Can you ring it for me?’

‘What did your last servant die of?’ he asks. His grin pulls the sides of his split lip open, and a trickle of blood slips down his chin. He doesn’t appear to notice. The grin makes me uneasy.

‘Some unfunny cunt called; he wants his joke back.’ I try to deliver this line with a wry smile, but I can’t quite manage to paint over the grimace that his frenzied glare and blood-tinged teeth provoke. ‘Seriously, though, I need to find it. I need to tell my mum I’ve added a lawyer to my Christmas list.’

‘Maybe I should’ve put you on my Find my iPhone, too,’ he remarks, digging the hand that isn’t holding his whiskey into his jeans.

‘It’ll be around here somewhere,’ I reply, dismissively. He throws over his phone; it sails through my outstretched hands and bounces off the arm of the chair, into my lap. As I pick it up and press the home button, I see that Charlie’s screensaver is a photo of the back of Phoebe’s head. ‘Is that the best picture you have of her?’ I ask.

‘She was never fond of photographs,’ he explains. I shrug.

‘Figures. What’s your PIN?’

‘Don’t have one. As was made so abundantly clear this evening, I don’t have a girlfriend, which means that, unlike you, I don’t have anyone to hide anything from.’

‘Except the police,’ I mutter back, barely audibly, fiddling with the phone as I do so. ‘Fuck. Straight to voicemail.’

‘Ah, well,’ Charlie replies. ‘At least you can afford another one, now.’

I throw the phone back at him, slump further down in the chair and stretch out my spine.

‘Look at the state of us. What a fucking pair,’ I say, being unable and even less inclined, by now, to muster up any original conversation. He smiles at me.

‘You shouldn’t have stepped-in, you know.’

‘What? I wasn’t going to let them do that to you.’

Charlie stares airily at the ceiling.

‘Because Liz was there?’ I press, confused. ‘I think that bridge was well and truly burnt by the time they started going after you.’

‘Not because of Liz. You just should’ve let them finish the job.’

I sigh.

‘Just because you’ve got a death-wish, mate, doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand there and watch it come true.’

‘You and your gun can’t protect me for the rest of my life.’

‘Maybe not, but-’ I start, but he interrupts.

‘Did I ever tell you I had a sister?’ he asks. The sudden change of subject takes me aback.

‘What’s with all the secret family members crawling out of the woodwork today?’ I wonder out-loud, but Charlie’s already begun to narrate his flashback.

‘She was fucking cool, Penny,’ he says. ‘Or, at least, she was whatever passed for cool in 2009. I always thought she was, anyway. I mean, there’s not much about me to be proud of, but I’d say I’m pretty good at shit-talking, aren’t I?’

I’m forced to agree.

‘I got that from her. Gave no quarter, took no quarter. There was no fucker in high-school, and certainly not in fuckin’ university, who could say anything that will make me feel bad about myself, because I know it all already, and I’m ready with a fucking comeback. Having someone like Penny in your life; it feels like a curse when you’re twelve, but it’s not, it’s a blessing.’

He puts the empty glass to his lips. Realising its emptiness, he holds it in front of his eyes for a couple of seconds and places it back down onto the table. With nothing left to imbibe, he leans back on the sofa, raises his busted face to the ceiling and takes another deep breath.

‘I’m a junky scumbag?’ he asks no-one in particular. ‘If you were forced to hang out with you, you’d need to be fucked-up, too. I’m a sleazy whore? At least I don’t find my own company so fucking dull that I have to stretch out every one night stand I have over two years.’

His eyes are more focused than I’ve seen them since he started drinking yesterday.

‘You know, I used to think that I didn’t care what people thought of me because one day I was going to write a pop song so fucking good that nothing else I ever did in my life would matter, not in the long run. It turns out I don’t need it; I never gave a shit in the first place. I got that from Penny. I thought she was the same way.

‘I mean, I saw her friends taking shots at her every now and then, but I thought nothing of it. I mean, one time when our Nan was babysitting she tied me to my bed, and, my Nan being half-deaf, I was left up there for three hours calling for help. Don’t get mad, I thought, get even. And I did. You’d think that, after the shit we did to each other…’

He takes a third deep breath.

‘I feel guilty for the stuff I did to her. The dumb, tit-for-tat shit, like swapping the sugar for the salt so she’d put it in her porridge.’

‘The salt-for-sugar gag never did anything worse than prove how fucking dreary you are when it comes to practical jokes,’ I assure him. The bleak, clawing desperation in his eyes tells me that the witticism hasn’t landed.

‘Can you get me another whiskey?’ he asks.

‘Maybe later,’ I reply. ‘So what happened to Penny?’

Charlie sighs, from the tar-flooded bottoms of his lungs.

‘I don’t know, man. First thing any of us noticed was this time she came back from a night out with blood on her jeans. My dad spotted it and made her show him her leg, right in front of all of us. She was about sixteen; I must’ve been about twelve, thirteen, I guess. She had this gash on her leg, only about an inch long, but it was the way the skin had split apart that was worrying, y’know? Like a canoe. Showed that whoever did it really wanted to inflict some damage.

‘For the next few days I kept overhearing my parents trying to work out who’d done it to her: Angela; Pamela; Sandra; Rita; the only one they never accused was Penny herself. It wasn’t long until it became obvious who was doing it, though.

‘It was like my parents opened the box, that night. After that, the secret was out, so I guess she didn’t have to hold back anymore. It started out being every month my parents would find a new scar, then every week, then every fucking day. There was even this one time where she poured boiling water over herself; she got away from it without needing a skin graft, but the dry pus on the bandage stank the house up for weeks. So my mum and dad did what any parents would do; they stopped her going out, except to school, and when it turned out that there was a three-month waiting list to get counselling on the NHS, they spent all the money they didn’t have on getting her in with someone private. They just wanted her fixed, y’know? And when she didn’t get fixed even I could tell they were frustrated, maybe even angry, with her, so I’m fucking certain that she felt it.’ Suddenly he snarls, as though someone has just contradicted him. ‘And when she didn’t get better, what, were they supposed to just set her loose, knowing that she’d come home with more stubbed-out fags on her arms, and a stomach full of painkillers? And what was she supposed to do with that guilt; knowing that every bad thing she thought about herself only served to make the people she loved feel like failures? Both sides just got worse. Mum and Dad stopped her leaving the house for anything other than college or counselling, and told her teachers to keep an eye on her. Then, for her part, Penny did what any teenage rebel would do when Big Brother’s got them under his thumb; she just got smarter about it. Self-harm turned to starvation. For a while, mum and dad thought she was making progress.’

Charlie plucks a cigarette out of the pack with his teeth, wearing a pensive expression.

‘Have you got a condom on you?’ I ask him.

‘Um, yeah, sure,’ he replies, the pensive expression giving way to a quizzical one. He fumbles around in his back pocket, wrenches out his wallet and removes a square, foil parcel from it. He hands it to me. I pull it open with my teeth and spit the foil out onto the coffee table. With a smirk, I say:

‘They’re going to wonder what we’ve been up to down here.’

For the second time, my joke doesn’t land. I roll my eyes and, as Charlie is lighting his cigarette, peel the condom over the fire alarm. Through a cloud of smoke and vapour, he continues his tale. I jump down off the coffee table and flop back into my seat.

‘I think the anorexia was always there, you know, but she was able to keep a lid on it until the point where Mum and Dad had her under watch. Looking back, it’s obvious to see that she didn’t like her body; she’d always brush her teeth in front of the mirror, but her eyes would never be looking at her face; she would always save her dinner money at school instead of having lunch; she claimed she didn’t have a sweet-tooth, but every now and then a whole pack of biscuits would mysteriously go missing from the cupboard, then she’d mysteriously start running the shower at three in the afternoon. Until the self-harm came out, though, I guess it was under control. Maybe the self-harming and the not eating kind-of balanced each other out. Maybe I should’ve worked that out earlier. Maybe that could’ve saved her.

‘I caught her throwing up a few times, when my parents went out to the shop or somewhere like that. She made me promise not to tell them about it, so I didn’t. I couldn’t betray her like that, but I had to do something, so I – being a dumb fourteen-year-old – told her I thought she was cool.’

He laughs.

‘That’s literally all I had to offer: “Hey, so I know you’re absolutely dead-set on slowly killing yourself, but your little brother thinks you’re cool.”’

He pulls the cigarette out of his mouth to make room for the laughter, which has now become slightly manic. It bursts out in billows of fag-smoke and tar.

‘Not much, but I kept trying it. Even with all the shit we pulled on each other, even with all the arguments, I always felt as though me and Penny could talk about things. Even if we had to add “you cunt” to the end of every sentence – you know, to keep up appearances. Eventually, though, she just took to telling me to fuck off whenever I came near her room. It’s kind-of ironic, actually; right around the time I started masturbating was the most impotent I’ve ever felt in my life.’ He looks away from the ceiling and smirks at me. ‘Well, up until this week, anyway.’

The smirk finally dies. He leans forward, and runs his hands through his hair.

‘She died in the summer holiday before she was supposed to go to university. Even with all the shit she was going through, she still got two A’s and a B at A-level,’ he utters, as though reporting the football scores. He doesn’t cry, but his fists clench at his scalp and he pulls his hair forward.

‘Charlie?’ I ask. ‘Do you want that whiskey now?’

Charlie nods. After I get it, I put a shitty movie on, though I make sure it’s not one with any gunfire in it. We don’t converse any further. I can’t work out quite when it is that I fall asleep, and the hazy image of the television screen turns into a hazy dream of being told by Charlie to kill a girl who is, by turns, Liz and Phoebe. As opposed to yesterday, it’s a relief to be woken up by the phone in my back pocket vibrating. As I open my eyes, I find myself slumped over the arm of the chair. My hand goes searching for the pocket of my jeans, which by this point are somewhere around the back of my knees, and pulls out Liz’ phone. She’s got a new text from Sophia, one of those people I’ve never heard of who she mentioned going travelling with. I key in her password, and open the message:

Peter, I don’t know what it is you’ve done, and I don’t want to know. Never contact me again.

I could’ve worked that much out for myself. Whether it’s because I’m still a bit pissed from last night or because I’m beyond the point of giving a shit, I can’t resist the urge to send a response:

‘For the record, I fucking like statistics and data management,’ I type. I press ‘send’, then throw the phone in the general direction of the corridor. It clatters against the bannister and I glance upwards to check that this sudden noise hasn’t woken Charlie, but the glance turns into a stare when I see that he’s not only awake, but that he’s pointing a revolver at me. Stupidly, my hand scrabbles around in the side of my coat, searching for my gun as though it’s not the one in his hands.

‘There were two bullets left in this when we were up on the moor,’ he says. ‘There’s one in it, now. Forgive me for prying, but where did the other one go?’

My hand stops scrabbling. I briefly debate pleading ignorance.

‘You know where it went, Charlie,’ I say, eventually.

His eyes hint at the answer his lips and mind don’t want to provide. I nod.

Charlie cocks the revolver.

 

When we got back to the house the other morning, knackered, wet and mud-covered, Charlie and Freddy went straight to their rooms and passed out. I didn’t. Instead, I put on the gloves, and hoody which I’d told the other two I’d put into the plastic crate along with theirs, checked the waistband of my jeans for the gun which I told them I’d buried along with theirs, clambered out of my bedroom window and dropped back down onto the street. I stacked the landing, but my body had been so battered in the preceding hours that the extra pain in my knees didn’t even cause me to yelp. After lurching back to my feet, I made my way towards Byker, trying to infer the time from the burgeoning light, since I had neither a watch nor a phone anymore.

The lack of a phone was particularly irritating, since I had no idea how to get to Sid’s flat. With the sun threatening to poke its head over the horizon, and without Google Maps to lead my way, I was on the business end of a tantrum by the time I’d completed my third lap of Byker. Then, all of a sudden, the view of a block of flats in the distance aligned itself with a snapshot filed away somewhere in my memory, and the frustration turned to fear. Sid was somewhere up there.

I passed someone on the stairs. I turned my head to the side, but he seemed too pissed-off that he had to get up for work at such an hour to be concerned about memorising my face. When I reached the third floor I pulled back my hood and rapped thrice on Sid’s door. It took a conspicuously short time for him to open it, almost as though he was expecting company.

‘You coming in?’ he asked.

‘Seeing as I’ve walked all this way, I guess it would be rude not to,’ I replied, pushing past him. By the time I’d finished my response I was already slouched on his sofa. It had been such a long time since I’d slept that I could’ve fallen asleep then and there. I also could’ve sworn that there was a black cat wandering around in his kitchen, but when I screwed-up my eyes it disappeared again.

‘So, what can I do for you?’ Sid asked. He remained standing, leaning against the kitchen cupboards and the counter. He was being oddly polite, as if he knew what was coming. Maybe I was just twitchy from the lack of sleep, maybe I just didn’t want to take any chances, but by the time I’d gotten halfway through this train of thought I’d already pulled the gun on him. Weirdly enough, Sid smiled.

‘So, did Charlie put you up to this?’ he asked.

‘You did this to yourself, Sid,’ I replied.

‘How so?’

‘You brought a phone. I told you not to bring a phone.’

‘Then it’s a good thing you didn’t let me dial out,’ he replied. ‘So what’s the deal? Tell you who I was going to call or I get my head blown off?’

I cocked the gun, even though I knew it doesn’t serve any real function.

‘Just the second part.’

The self-satisfied smirk fell off of Sid’s face. For a moment, the only sounds I could hear were the tap, dripping, like a heartbeat, in the sink, and the music playing softly in his bedroom.

‘What?’ he said, finally.

I leaned forward.

‘The fact that you brought the phone is what matters.’ I screwed my face up again, trying to keep a handle on what I was saying. The ends of each sentence, like little wisps of smoke, kept trying to flit through my tired fingers. ‘Who gives a fuck if you made a call? You didn’t have to make a call. For something bad to happen, I mean. If you had your phone on you, and your phone had signal, it was pinging your location straight back to them. To your network provider. They know you were there when the robbery was happening, and it’s only a matter of time before they figure out you weren’t one of the hostages. The police. When they pull the records.’

Sid looked at me with his eyebrows bent.

‘How do you know that?’

‘I think I read it somewhere.’

‘And you’re going to murder me over, “I think I read it somewhere”?’ he exclaimed. ‘What if you’re wrong?’

‘Being wrong in the other direction costs me a lot more,’ I replied.

‘So murder’s no big deal, but the possibility of the police tracking me down, and of me – the only one of us who isn’t a middle-class, student pussy, by the way – being the one to spill everything to them, is a risk you can’t afford to take? What are you, a fucking psychopath?’

‘You were about to phone someone,’ I told him, ‘which suggests that you went into the job with a plan B in mind. And forgive me for not being naïve, but I can’t imagine that your plan involved getting the rest of us out with you. And, as you say, the rest of us student pussies would probably spill your name to the police, unless you knew someone who could take care of us first.’ I put my hand on my chin, feigning contemplation. ‘Hmmm, who do you know who would murder someone for a few hundred pounds?’

Again, the dripping tap and the music provided a soundtrack to our shared silence.

‘Well?’ I demanded, getting more emotional than I’d planned to. ‘Am I right?’ I couldn’t quite recall what it was that I thought I was right about.

Eventually, a sneer began to surface on Sid’s face. He looked dead into my eyes with the damning superiority of hatred, and replied:

‘Don’t play this like I struck first. If you want to kill me, at least be a fucking man abou-’

Looking back, I can’t remember whether his hand twitched, or whether I just wanted it to. Either way, I suppose, it doesn’t matter now. I pulled the trigger. The back of his head exploded in a fountain of blood and brains. His expression didn’t change, exactly, but it froze in its place. Propped up by the kitchen counter, for a moment he almost looked like he was still standing up. Were it not for the small hole in his forehead, I might’ve wondered whether I’d missed. He stared at me for a moment with those horrible, bulbous, astounded eyes, then he slumped to the side, bounced against the kitchen counter and fell to the floor. His cheek hit the lino with an understated slap.

The song continued to waft in from Sid’s bedroom. I didn’t recognise the melody from anywhere, and after a few moments it dawned on me that Sid himself was the one singing. It was, admittedly, a better tune than any of the many that Charlie has played me over the years. Catchy, but with a melancholic edge. Maybe not good enough to render everything else he ever did irrelevant, but enough, perhaps, to suggest that he could’ve got there, one day. I looked down at the corpse, and the pool of blood seeping outwards around his open skull. I didn’t even have the common courtesy to vomit, or scream. Maybe Sid was right, I thought. Maybe I am a psychopath. Maybe I really did want to kill him all along, just to see if I could. Maybe it’s better to hate yourself for being evil than for being weak.

At a certain point, the echoes of the gunshot began to bleed into the music, and I realised that if I didn’t leave now, I’d get caught. The angel on one shoulder screamed in support of the latter. The devil on the other screamed back. I strode past Sid’s corpse, rolled the balaclava back down and clambered onto the kitchen counter. As I looked down at the grass, three stories below, the angel and devil broke off their argument and screamed out in unison not to jump. I ignored them.

 

An amount of time I neither knew nor cared to know later, my lungs and teeth were burning, and I’d adopted a weird hybrid of skipping and sprinting because my left leg had taken the brunt of the fall, and this time the fall was heavy enough that no amount of exhaustion or adrenaline could mask the pain. I was so tired that I couldn’t help hallucinating blue flashing lights around every street corner. It doesn’t matter, I kept thinking, just get home, and you can sleep this all off.

I could tell that I’d reached Jesmond because all of the wheelie-bins were out in the street. It was rubbish day in Jesmond. The sun was almost up, so I guessed I didn’t have much time until the bin-men finished clearing out the whole place and went home. After making sure that there were no CCTV cameras or windows with the curtains undrawn, I went to a bin, heaved off the blood-stained hoody and gloves, and threw them inside. Within half an hour, it will be in the back of garbage truck. Within two it will be at the tip, never to be seen of again.

So why didn’t I put the gun in there with it?

 

That’s the question I’m asking myself, as I stare down the barrel of the gun I should’ve thrown away twenty-four hours ago. But it’s too late for that.

‘Yeah,’ I say, putting my hands up. ‘I killed him. I’m sorry, Charlie.’

‘What are you apologising to me for?’ Charlie replies.

To my surprise, he laughs. Well, it would’ve been a surprise if it was anyone other than Charlie. He’s the type with whom nothing is a surprise.

‘So, are you going to kill me?’ I ask him.

He laughs, again.

‘Did I not tell you last night that I don’t give a shit about anything?’ he replies. ‘We’re all impotent, Sundance.’ The laugh settles down into a smirk. ‘Six chambers, one bullet. There’s no God up there to reward or punish us, and no judge or jury down here whose opinion is worth caring about, so what’s say we give blind chance a go?’

‘Charlie…’ I begin, but he interrupts me.

‘You don’t have a choice in this, mate; just like Sid didn’t.’

He takes a drink from his glass, which I notice is once again full of whiskey. A pissed-up nihilist with a gun in his hand. That’s all I need.

‘Fine, Charlie. Do it,’ I tell him.

‘As you wish,’ he replies.

A bead of sweat runs down my cheek.

Click.

And with that, my life is spared. No fanfare, just a click. Charlie points the gun at his own head. It’s funny; even though I believe him when he says he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, the colour still drains from his face and his finger shivers on the trigger. Even against the mind, the dumb body will scrabble to the corner and cower in the face of death.

‘Don’t do it, Charlie,’ I tell him. ‘You haven’t done anything.’

He doesn’t reply; he just fixes me with a thick, determined stare. The wrinkles in his forehead grow deeper and deeper until they force his eyes to close, and his jaw gets tighter and tighter until his lips peel back to the gums.

Click.

Simultaneously we exhale. I half-smile at him, in relief, but he looks at me with something approaching anti-climax in his eyes. The fear which put such crevasses in his expression turns into anger; the anger escalates; the knuckles wrapped around the gun turn whiter…

Jason Statham appears on the TV screen, and something in Charlie seems to snap. He points the gun at the television and pulls the trigger. Click. The anger escalates further. Click. The anger escalates further.

BOOM.

Jason Statham – and the television containing him – explodes in a hail of sparks and that now-familiar lightning clap. The rush of sweat out of my armpits seems instantaneous. The muscles controlling my jaw go slack, and my mouth falls open. Three things occur in what I assume to be a short space of time, though I can’t tell in what order they happen: I notice that Charlie’s attention is focused on neither me, nor the television, but rather a spot exactly in the middle of me and it; a shard of glass from the television screen nicks a slight but stinging cut just beneath my eyelid, and a female voice lets out a scream. My nicked eye closes, but the open eye follows Charlie’s line of sight, out of the window. After leaning forward slightly, I catch a glimpse of the owner of the scream. And her friend. I quickly snap my head back, hoping they were too fixated on Charlie and the revolver to notice my face pop quickly in and out of frame. My body stiffens as the pair of witnesses scuttle off down the street, and their screams grow more and more distant. I can feel the searing clarity and purpose take hold of me, once more. I stand up, and the jeans fall down from my knees to my ankles.

‘We need to go,’ I tell Charlie. ‘Now!’

No,’ he replies.

‘Charlie, the police will be here any fucking minute!’ I exclaim. ‘We need to get the fuck out of here!’

‘No, I don’t,’ he reiterates.

‘This is your fucking freedom!’ I exclaim, again. ‘It’s years, decades, in prison we’re facing, here!’

‘It’s my choice to make,’ he says, firmly but quietly. For the first time in a long time, he appears stone-cold sober, and I know that there’s no point in further argument.

‘I need the gun,’ I say instead. He tosses it to me with the glaze of drunkenness back in his eyes. I fumblingly catch it and tuck it into the waistband of my jeans as I pull them back up. One last time, I look my best friend up and down as he’s lying sprawled on the couch, pissed.

‘Bye, Charlie.’

‘Bye, Peter.’

 

If my life was a movie, this is the part where we’d jump-cut to a low-shot of me sprinting down the street and something heavy on the drums and bass guitar would erupt in the background. In reality, the only sound I can hear is my brain screaming ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’

My last-pick-in-PE fitness levels quickly bottom-out and I stagger into an alleyway and collapse down beside a dumpster, pulling some rubbish bags around me in a half-arsed attempt to prevent detection, to plan my next move. I try to view things at a distance, as a mathematical puzzle, rather than the ugly mess it actually is. My goal is to get out of the reach of the law; my parameter is that no-one can see me on the way – or, more accurately, that no-one can recognise me. The cover of darkness will make that recognition much easier to avoid, and until then it would be prudent not to move out in the open. But, then again, staying put until darkness falls means somehow staying out of sight for another five or six hours.

I look up at the dumpster with a grimace. As if waiting for its cue, the stench of garbage emanating from it rushes up my nose. Sometimes lucky coincidences can be such a pain in the arse.

 

I spent the summer before my first year at university working for a catering company. Not being the owner of a particularly infectious or charming personality, I found myself stuck in back-of-house, washing up, by myself. I hated it. Not because I hated being alone – I’d rather daydream whilst scrubbing plates than attempt to make chitchat whilst serving them up – but because the place seemed to have such a strange effect on the flow of time. I’d be in at 10AM and immediately get to work scrubbing at the yolk-stained china left over from breakfast. To pass the time, I played through the improved version of the Star Wars prequels I’d spent all summer writing in my head. I’d run it over, scene-by-scene, occasionally tracking back to edit a shot or a piece of dialogue, telling myself I’d reward myself with a peek at clock on my phone when I got to the end credits of Episode I. But then, when the John Williams came in, I’d think: ‘No; I’ll hold off until the end of the second movie.’ By that time, I figured I’d be able to toddle off for lunch, sit on the grass on my own and maybe Facebook-stalk whatever girl I happened to be in love with at the time. I’d redo scenes again and again and again, as much to pad out the running time of my daydream as from some Kubrickesque sense of perfectionism. Even when I was sure I’d accidentally worked through my lunch-break I waited until the last tea-boy’s credit rolled before I allowed myself my well-earned peek. Finally, with a flourish of self-satisfaction, I’d whip out my phone, and discover that it was ten-thirty-five.

So why do I tell you this tedious anecdote? Because lying in a dumpster in the dark, hidden under bags of weeks’ old food and feeling cold garbage juice seeping into my clothes, with the only moments of excitement coming when the lid suddenly opens and I experience a trill of terror that the person opening it might spot the edge of my trainer poking out from my putrid duvet, followed by an oomph! of pain as yet another sack of rubbish lands heavily on top of me, is a lot like the experience of working on the pot-wash that summer. The six or seven hours until sundown unravel themselves into weeks. I lie there, contemplating phoning Freddy to warn him that the police would be coming for him, then remember that I don’t have my phone. I try to count up what evidence was left in the house, and how it could be used against me in court. I squeeze an arm up through the filth and lift the lid of the dumpster, just a crack. Still light. I wonder how to get out of her majesty’s reach with no money and no passport, and decide that I’ll have to go and dig up the stashed takings from the moor, because – fuck it – it’s each man for himself, now. I wonder how the fuck my life has come to this. I squeeze an arm up through the filth and lift the lid of the dumpster, just a crack. Still light. For what seems like hours, I think about how my fucking life has come to this. I lift the lid. It’s still light. Then I fantasise about lying with Liz on my sofa, watching a movie. Then an image of the look on Sid’s face when he realised I’d murdered him flashes in front of my eyes, like a crackle of lightning. I slam them shut, but the gory spectacle remains projected onto the back of my eyelids.

The deeper I bury myself into the garbage bags, the more insane I turn, and the more looped and knotted time becomes. Memories begin to transform into presents. Images of Sid against closed eyes transform into the unshakeable sensation of his presence, lying twisted up in all the refuse beside me. The wafting scent of rotting food becomes his last, lukewarm, stinking breaths, seeping out of his now-quiet lungs. As if to prove to myself that he isn’t there, I wriggle a hand across my chest and attempt to feel where his head would, but shouldn’t, be. My fingers slip into something wet and sticky. With a jolt I snatch them back to my side. Something sharp jaggedly slices across my forearm. It’s one of those small but piercing pains that you’d probably let coax you into tears if only you were still young enough to get away with it.

And with that I’m a child again. Curled-up in a dumpster just off the school field. The lid has just slammed shut, and I can hear a gaggle of my howling friends attempting to heft a breeze-block on top, because they know that I’m too weak to push the lid back open with a relatively heavy object holding it down. Desperate, feral, I pound my fists at the plastic, making obscene threats, which lose most of their potency due to the fact that I’m shouting them through tears.

I soon realise that they’re no longer within earshot, and that I’m alone, shouting into nothing. I stop trying to push open the lid, and I stop trying to rock the dumpster until it falls onto its side. I do this because I no longer want to get out; I want to remain in the dark, and go back to solving the maths problem I’d been stuck on before the bell rang to signal lunch. I know that, sooner or later, conscience will get the better of one of them and they’ll come to rescue me; that I’ll probably have to go into my science lesson smelling faintly of yesterday’s school dinners; that the whole story will eventually unravel itself; that I’ll have to try to explain to the deputy headmistress that it isn’t through fear that I’m refusing to tell her the names of the people who did this to me; that this explanation will fall on deaf ears, and that I’ll be able to sense her frustration, bordering on anger, which makes me feel almost as though I’m the guilty party. Which I am, in a way, I suppose.

I suddenly find that I’m not myself anymore. I’m Charlie, thinking Charlie’s thoughts. I don’t want to live as a person; I want to live as a pop-song. I want to be three minutes long, and last forever at the same time. I want to be a perfect artifice of rhythm and lyrics and melody, all coming together to form one perfect idea. I want to project that idea out into the world, as my replacement, and then I want to die, because I wasn’t built for real life.

I thrust an arm up through the filth and lift the lid of the dumpster, just a crack. The sun has gone down. I peek out in a meerkat-fashion and search through the darkness for passers-by. The cold wind rushes over my face, reminding me of who I am, and what I’ve done. The coast looks clear, so I squeeze myself out of the bundle of garbage bags and flop over the side of the dumpster. The floor seems to jump up to greet me. Clutching a hand to the lump forming on my head and lurching up to my feet, I suddenly spot two dark figures at the end of the alley. It’s difficult make out their faces, but I could swear that they’re staring back at me. I perform a swift about-face and march away from them as fast as I can get away with, throwing in a drunken stumble in an attempt cover my tracks.

I ram my hands in my pockets and my chin to my chest as I walk down the street, keeping my pupils strained upwards so I’ll be able to catch anyone approaching before they get close enough to recognise me. Though I’m sticking to the least well-lit areas, what with this being Newcastle I can’t help stumbling across a pub before too long. I go to hang a left down an adjacent street so the smokers can’t catch a glimpse of me, but something stops me in my tracks. Through the window, I can see that Sky News is playing on the TV in the pub, and plastered across the screen of that TV is my Facebook profile picture. Suddenly it hits me that my parents are probably looking at the same image right now. I wonder what the banner below it says; I’m too far away to make out the words properly, but one of them looks suspiciously like ‘manhunt’.

There’s a scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt says, ‘It’s only when we have nothing, that we’re free to do anything.’ Yet here I am: no girlfriend, no friends who want to keep being friends, and parents who are at this very minute wondering whether it’s too late to get an abortion, and I don’t feel free. I feel lonely. I feel cold. My leg is hurting. Is this how Phoebe feels all the time? How the hell does she do it?

You’d better work that out fast, or you’re going to prison for a long fucking time, my brain responds.

I jog off down the adjacent street, towards the moor. One person looking out of their window and phoning the police could put an end to my freedom. Could someone recognise me from that photo, in this darkness? Even if they could, won’t the police be getting hundreds of calls from overeager Samaritans at this very minute, placing me in every corner of Newcastle? One call that happens to identify me correctly would surely be a drop of blood in the ocean.

I try to talk myself out of my paranoia, insisting that if I’ve made it through without being spotted, my chances are good of escaping the outskirts and making it to the moor. Behind all of it, though, I’m internally writing my Christmas list, and all that’s on it is another year, another week, another day of freedom. I can’t shake the feeling that all Santa’s going to bring me is coal.

As if to prove that my paranoia isn’t going to be discouraged so easily, a sudden change of lighting in the distance sends my body hurtling to the tarmac and rolls it under a parked car. When my mind has time to catch up to my eyes, I realise that the paranoia had a point. There’s a car approaching at a pace which I’d find curious even if there wasn’t a flashlight beam poking out of the passenger-side window, I tease my body closer to the kerb as the beam creeps towards me, wishing to God that I’d gotten rid of the gun when I had the chance, and praying that my shadow won’t betray me.

The car goes by, and my desire to get rid of the revolver diminishes instantly. I roll back out from under the car and, despite the throbbing pain in my knee, I pick up my pace to a run. For some reason I’ve got it in my head that if I can reach the spot on the moor where we buried the loot, I’ll get out of this. I’m now chasing that feeling, like a smackhead chases the dragon or a lonely man chases a girl who showed him some small token of pity. It’s only now, when I’ve brought myself to the brink of losing it, that I understand the value of freedom. My picture is plastered across television screens all over the country; to the world, I’m no more than a criminal, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I can be. In an instant, my petty, provincial concerns fall away, and for a snatch of a second I can understand Phoebe, or whatever her name is now. Then the understanding rolls back, and the fear crashes over it.

Like a pirate at the X-marked spot of buried treasure or, better yet, a starving dog discovering some discarded scraps of food, I fall to my knees and scrape at the dirt with my hands. Great clumps of it come away in my fists, despite it being so cold that the soil should be frozen solid, like it was when we were digging the hole in the first place. My fingers hit plastic. I grope around through the dirt for the sides of the box, and, finding them, drag it out of the earth.

I pop the top off and throw it aside.

It’s my phone. I don’t know what my phone is doing there, but I know for damn sure what it’s been traded for, and by whom. I dig around inside the box. My phone; the shotgun; a hoody; my watch; another hoody; the pistol… and one five-pound note, probably left there to mock me. But why did she take my phone?

Like the dumb kid at school waving his hand around, clamouring for the chance to finally answer a question, my mind throws me back to the morning after I met her:

Drunk Charlie has such a prolific habit of hiding or losing Sober Charlie’s possessions that two phones ago I decided to add his number to my Find my iPhone app.

Charlie had his phone on him when we buried the evidence.

What’s you PIN, again?’ he called after me.

Oh-two-seven-six!’ I hollered back.

I thought she took losing out on the loot remarkably lightly.

Because she had a feeling that someone’s bedroom window would be unlocked…

She knew the house would be empty, and that my phone would be there on my bedside table, ripe for the taking. So she took it. Then she was able to follow us here, without even having to follow us.

I wouldn’t exactly call you a “hero”, but you guys were the most interesting group I’ve ever ripped-off.

She saw exactly where we buried the money.

FREEZE!’

Even with all my supposed nerdiness, I’ve been outfoxed by a girl who’s never even heard of Star Trek. Never used a computer. Doesn’t have a Facebook account.

HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!’

You win some, you lose some, I guess.

I can see the police officers emerging from shadows, now.

Fuck Steve Jobs.

He tells me to raise my hands again. I raise my hands.

A sudden convulsion hits my chest, but it’s not a sob, it’s a laugh. It spreads up from my chest to my throat and my shoulders, and down to my stomach and knees. I fall down, paralysed by the spasms of psychotic mirth. Even after they’ve finished dragging me the back down the moor and they’re throwing me into the back of the waggon, the night still resounds with the sound of my laughter. As the HA’s echo back off the inside walls of the police van, it’s as though the whole world is laughing with me.

 

[] EPILOGUE

HAPPILY EVER AFTER

Thankfully, it turned out that the prison rape rumours Hollywood insists on spreading are mostly bullshit. Less thankfully, the stuff about other forms of assault is most certainly not. Perhaps it says something about my looks that the men I share a jail with would rather kick the shit out of me than fuck the shit out of me, but I’d hate to think that Liz had less discerning tastes than a swarm of convicts.

My case got a fair amount of play in the media – especially after I made a plea of diminished responsibility at trial, on the grounds of determinism – so I came into prison with an aura of infamy surrounding me like the stench of decay, attracting hyenas. I think it was the combination of the big aura and the small, weak body it surrounded that made me such a perfect target for inmates with rage issues. God knows those weren’t in short supply. There were two incidents in my first week alone. The first wasn’t too serious; I managed to scrabble free before they’d left anything worse than cuts and bruises on me. The following incident, however, caused me to spend my second week at her majesty’s pleasure in the hospital wing.

The first month of my incarceration was quite similar in tone to my first month at university, if Tim and company had hunted me for sport instead of just shunning me at social functions. Much in the same way as at university, I didn’t help myself out by pathologically keeping myself to myself and then acting silent but creepy on the rare occasions where I did find myself in company. Rather than salvation coming from a girl, as it did in my first year, in prison my salvation came from confinement. After my second spell in the hospital wing I was transferred to a solitary cell and put on lockdown for 23 hours a day. I don’t know if this was a pity move on the guard’s part or an attempt to dodge the bad press that would come from me being murdered whilst my name still held some cultural currency.

The period I spent in confinement gave me plenty of time alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t on speaking terms with my thoughts – it was them who got me into this mess in the first place – so I did push-ups to distract myself. Prison had been a new and scary environment, and I’d allowed myself to fall back into the old, scared skin I’d uncomfortably inhabited for twenty years prior to the whole armed robbery thing. I hated that dude. I wasn’t going to let a bunch of East London tough-guys turn me back into him.

An entirely press-up and prison food-based regimen takes a few months to kick in; I was only on lockdown for a few weeks – pesky human rights legislation puts a cap on that sort of thing – so I didn’t come out with any more dangerous tools than I went in with. I did, however, come out with a far more dangerous mindset. When the bell for the second round sounded, I came out swinging.

This isn’t to say that many swings landed. At least not to begin with. And it was most definitely not as though I was winning any – or, indeed, any – of my fights in the time after I got out of solitary. It was interesting, however, to see how many of my would-be bullies found better ways to entertain themselves once I began standing up for myself. I soon found out that it isn’t about winning; it’s about causing enough damage, and not showing enough fear, that in future your opponent will decide you’re not worth the effort.

For the more tenacious characters who decided that I was worth the effort, I made sure that every time they went after me I’d be stronger, I’d fight dirtier, I’d be more creative in my use of weaponry, and my general outlook on life would be just that little bit more psychotic. Towards the end of my first year inside I was put back on lockdown, but this time it wasn’t for my protection, it was for biting a chunk out of a fellow inmate’s ear. I’d become quite the little savage.

I’m now five years into my sentence. I’m not sure whether it’s because my infamy has faded or because I’ve proven myself willing and occasionally capable of inflicting damage, but it’s been a long time since I felt uneasy in the lunch queue. I choose to believe it’s for the latter reason. It feels like a victory that way. Since such victories are the closest one gets to controlling one’s destiny in a place like this, I’ve found myself almost missing those five-minute windows of terror and mayhem. Without them, there’s nothing to distract me from the fifteen hours and fifty-five minutes-a-day of lining-up for sub-school-dinner grade food, sitting in my cell in silence, communal showers and shitting in front of my cellmate. As for the eight hours I spend sleeping, the last nine months have been an endless repeat of the same nightmare. That’s the thing about prison; your waking life is so regimented, so mundane, that before long even your subconscious follows suit. The nightmare in question consists of me sharing a sofa with Liz, watching one of those police-chase reality TV shows. More often than not, my head’s in her lap. Lately I’ve noticed a bassinette in the corner of the room, but every time I get up and go to look inside, I wake up.

I once overheard a guy whose incarceration had forced him to go cold-turkey off heroin describing to another inmate how every night he dreamt about holding a spoon between a lighter and a lump of brown, sucking it up into a syringe, tying off his arm and plunging the needle into his vein, then, at the exact moment he was about to press down on the plunger, he’d wake up. Every night, without fail, he’d get to the precipice of smack-addled nirvana, then find himself suddenly dragged back into the world of the living – into a dank, prison cell, sweating and yearning for something he’d never find again. If I hadn’t built up a reputation for silence, I might’ve put a hand on his shoulder and assured him that he wasn’t alone.

I’ll be in my mid-forties by the time I’m eligible for parole, so it’s not like the domesticated nightmare-fantasy is entirely outside the realm of the possible. Even if I made parole the first time around, though, it still wouldn’t leave much of a window in which to re-civilise myself, build a life from scratch and find a wife. And, given the inclination towards violence that I’ve shown over my time here, making parole on my first attempt is an unlikely scenario.

It’s thoughts like this which make me wish I hadn’t been such a pretentious dickhead in court. If I’d played the game and pled guilty, like Charlie, there would’ve been less use of adjectives such as ‘unrepentant’ in the press, and there might’ve been some incentive for the judge to serve me the sort of justice that would’ve seen me stepping into free air again when I was in my early thirties. Instead of grabbing one of life’s better decades back like a scrap from the master’s table, I chose to represent myself at trial. My defence, in essence, was a reiteration of the ‘if we’re made of atoms, we’re being toe-punted towards the heat-death of the universe’ school of determinism preached to me by Charlie all those years and months ago. Every time the prosecution tried to ruin my flow by bringing up the pertinent facts of the case, I’d plead the Fifth. When the prosecution pointed out that the Fifth Amendment wasn’t something that held any relevance in a British courtroom, I would point out that I couldn’t be held responsible for the stupidity of my remarks if I was predestined to give them, and the whole cycle would repeat itself. Eventually I think the judge sentenced me to 25 years just to get me to shut the fuck up.

Well, I think it was partly that, and partly because of the overwhelming physical evidence against me. Perhaps the evidence even weighed slightly more heavily. The gun found on me at the time of my arrest matched the bullets dug out of both the ceiling of Marks & Spencer and Sid’s kitchen cupboards. The phone records placed Sid at the scene of the robbery. I was apprehended whilst digging up a box containing a map of Marks & Spencer with the entire robbery scrawled across it. They even found traces of my DNA at the scene, from when I scraped my hand on the Christmas tree. Lionel Hutz could’ve scored a conviction. So why didn’t I play the game? Why did I save the silent tears for the nights in the cell, rather than the days in court?

I ask myself those questions every night, when the lights go off and I count off in my head the days left until I’m eligible for parole, the days left until I’m likely to get it, and the days left until I’m likely to die.

I wonder if Freddy gets the questions, too. I know Charlie does. This is not merely because the latter went to prison and the former escaped it. If anything, I’d think that a more draconian punishment would quiet down the voices trashing hotel rooms up in Charlie’s head. He was the only one to plead guilty to the charges levelled at us. The only problem was that there weren’t all that many charges for him to be found guilty of: He never took a hostage; he never even set foot in the building Freddy claimed we didn’t rob; as it turned out he hadn’t even broken into a car, like he was supposed to. For all I know, he stayed at home and watched movies on the day of the robbery itself. He played a significant part in the conspiracy, of course, and he spent a significant part of the gains, and he did a significant amount of shoplifting in the run-up to the job, but those things – again – turned out to be somewhat difficult to prove.

The powers that be offered Charlie a reduced sentence if he would add his testimony against the rest of us to the confession he made against himself. Had it not been for the overabundance of other evidence I still had to weasel my way out of, I might’ve seen that as my deliverance. Even if Charlie was tempted to rat me out, he wanted the punishment far more. Shit, he might’ve asked for the death penalty if they still offered it.

It’s somewhat ironic that the only one of the three of us involved who actually wanted to go to prison was the one who would’ve had the easiest time drilling a reasonable doubt into the heads of the jury. Freddy, on the other hand, must’ve breathed a gargantuan sigh of relief when he found out that Charlie wouldn’t be testifying. Despite playing against the parallel justice system for rich white men and their sons, I doubt that even Freddy’s lawyer – or, more precisely, Freddy’s father’s lawyer – could’ve jury-tampered his way out that one.

Johnny was probably justified in proclaiming his innocence, seeing as how he had nothing to do with any part of the enterprise. Perversely, and maliciously, I found myself half-hoping that he’d be found guilty. Why? Lingering resentment over his feelings for Liz? No. Not having the balls to do anything about that was its own punishment. A desire to see an innocent man punished, to prove that the system which put me away was just as corrupt and malignant as myself? No again. I could just as easily play that card with Charlie, since – morally if not strictly legally speaking – he didn’t do anything wrong either.

My abject certainty of Charlie’s innocence makes it much harder to understand why he would plead guilty. I understand why I should feel guilty; I murdered Sid in cold blood. The more time I’ve spent in here, surrounded by the only people in the civilised world who wouldn’t judge me too harshly for such a thing, the sicker I’ve felt at the memory of it. The facial expression I recall wearing at the moment I pulled the trigger. Knowing how futile it turned out to be. Seeing the poorly-repressed disgust etched into the creases of my father’s face when he came to visit. Would I still feel guilty if that one murder had kept me out of prison, or if my father had never found out what he spawned? Is it a selfish guilt, in that I didn’t regret what I did to him, but rather what it did to me?

Perhaps the most pathetic thing is that I keep asking these questions, in an attempt to convince myself that I don’t have the answers. At the bottom of the whirlpool lies the obvious, inexorable truth: Out of my entire life, I spent about a week of it free, and, in that week, I murdered someone. I don’t deserve freedom. I deserve punishment. The conclusion follows, inevitably, from the premise.

In that answer must also be contained the reason I claimed determinism at trial. A part of me wanted it to be true, wanted that week of liberty to have been nothing more than a lucid dream. Again, I try to make myself believe it, but the belief never quite comes.

 

Movies and television have taught me three things about prison: that it turns even civilised men into savages, or else it drives them to suicide, or else they get shanked in the shower; that it carves routine and discipline so deeply into you that even after your release you can’t piss without say-so; and that the identity you brought in with you will be checked-in at the gate along with the lighter you had in your pocket, and will be misplaced just the same, as the grey walls and fluorescent lights grind you down into nothing more than a number.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case only the first two of these are true. I may be a savage, and I might not be able to take a shit without permission, but I’m certainly not a number. If anything, incarceration has only served to freeze my half-formed character in carbonite. My descent into savagery has shown me what I’m really capable of doing when my surroundings call for it. The enforced discipline has only served to prove that discipline can’t quiet what goes on in my head, nor impose order upon it. My isolation from family and friends, both the fictitious friends and the factual, has turned me even further inwards than I was before. No longer do I have to moderate my thoughts to fit the mould they’d have me fill – and, indeed, nor could I, even if I wanted to. I haven’t read an argument about politics on Facebook in half a decade. I couldn’t tell you who the president of the United States of America is, nor what bands the kids are listening to nowadays, but God damn it, I know what sort of creature I am.

Much as the knowledge of my own guilt has rendered Charlie more and more incomprehensible to me as time has gone on, so the knowledge of the solid, unchanging ‘me’ at the centre of my existence has made Phoebe ever more alien, more inscrutable the more that I think about her. You might’ve noticed that Phoebe didn’t feature in my recollection of the court cases, and that’s for the simple reason that, what with me pleading the Fifth, Charlie forgoing his chance to testify, Freddy feigning ignorance and Johnny actually being in possession of said ignorance, she didn’t feature in the court cases themselves. She flitted out of our lives just as quickly as she’d flitted into them, like a spectre whose name we were all afraid to mention, in case it summoned her back.

These are the questions I will never have the answers to, no matter how deep down in my psyche I burrow: Is she really that spectre, taking on a new form with every new group of people she falls in with? Is it just the veneer that changes, or does she look upon those discarded personalities in the same way that I do the old friends and enemies I’ve left by the wayside over the years? Is there really no anchor at the centre of her: no love, guilt nor shame, holding it all together? Do the old memories come back to haunt her at night, or is she like a Buddhist tree, or a sub-atomic particle, only existing when observed? When the acid rain has finished washing all the letters off my grave, in what sense can it be said that I ever existed at all, and, in that case, in what sense can it be said that ‘Phoebe’ ever existed, either?

A thought like that could break your brain. Or maybe it’s a stupid thought, to be dismissed after a moment’s consideration, and ‘Phoebe’ was nothing more than your garden-variety psychopath. It’s hard for me to tell, cut off as I am from the outside world – and the Internet – where there are always people on hand to let you know how dumb your ideas are.

The door to that outside would was slammed definitively shut when my parents stopped visiting. For the first year that I was in here, on the third Sunday of every month, their names would appear on the visitor’s list. The fact that their appearances were so rigidly scheduled suggested to me that they were done more out a misplaced sense of duty than any lingering sense of affection. It certainly wasn’t for the conversation, which would usually centre around whatever injuries I’d picked-up over the previous month, or my father’s incomprehension of why I hadn’t let him assist with my legal representation. My mother would inevitably begin crying right at the beginning of each visit, as she tried to choke out a ‘hello’, and I would almost never be able to tease anything further out of her until it was time for my father to lead her back to her life, and the guard to lead me back to my cell, whereupon she’d manage to choke out a ‘goodbye’. The one exception to this pattern was when she, in fits and starts, informed me that she didn’t feel as though there was any of ‘my baby’ left in there. The choked ‘goodbye’ which followed that pronouncement was the one that stuck. When the next third-Sunday rolled around, I refused to leave my cell. Two third-Sundays after that, their names stopped appearing on the list of visitors.

 

That was four years ago. Only once since then has a name appeared adjacent to my own on the list of visitors. It wasn’t either of my parents; it wasn’t Liz; it wasn’t an old friend or acquaintance; it wasn’t anyone, in fact, who I could recall having encountered before. Had this been during the first six months of my sentence, this might not have struck me as odd; during that period, when my dubious celebrity had not yet waned, there were rumblings of journalists trying to secure an interview with me, but being barred by the authorities. Presumably they thought I’d use an interview, and the corresponding opportunity to publish a picture of my many injuries, as propaganda against the prison system. They needn’t have bothered; I had no desire to keep my face in the papers for any longer than I could avoid. This student, though – I found out that she was a Masters student from the letter asking for the interview, which I abandoned a few lines into reading – managed to seek me at the moment when the boredom and the loneliness of life at Her Majesty’s pleasure were beginning to get the better of me, and the opportunity was too much to turn down.

Somehow, even amongst the crowd of people filing into the visiting hall, and despite having never met her before, I recognised her immediately. She was beautiful in exact proportion to my loneliness, and meek in exact proportion to my scarred savagery. As she walked towards me with fast, short steps I tried to scrutinise her, but it soon devolved into a leer. She had dark patches beneath her eyelids, as though she hadn’t slept too well the previous night, and the chair trembled slightly as she tried to pull it out. She was wearing an engagement ring on one finger. She didn’t shuffle the chair back up to the table after sitting on it; it took me a few moments to realise that this was probably because I was leaning almost the entire way across to her side. I forced myself backwards into my seat.

When she finally spoke, her words were lost in the scent. After five years, the sickly-stale funk of male sweat, the fetid stench of male breath, the oppressive, oily blandness of the prison food and the acidic twinge of the urine which hung permanently in my cell had beaten my sense of smell into a coma. Now, as her scent wafted across them, my nostrils jolted back into furious life. I had to dig my nails into my thigh to suppress the urge to jerk hungrily forward once more.

‘I… I believe -’ she began, in a fidgety voice. ‘Did you receive my letter?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, still more interested in looking at her than in talking to her. ‘But I’m afraid I haven’t got around to finishing it yet.’

‘Oh.’ There was an awkward silence. ‘So are you willing to be interviewed as part of my dissertation? I had to make a lot of inquiries in order to…’

‘We’ll see how things go from here,’ I said, with a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘Was that an essay you’d attached to it?’

‘Yes… I take it that means you didn’t read it?’

‘Honestly? I was making an attempt at sarcasm.’

She threw out a chuckle.

‘I can have a flick through it now, if you’ve got a copy with you,’ I told her, in a conciliatory tone.

She gave murmuring assent, and went rifling through her bag. The folded pieces of paper she extracted came sliding across the table, and I was suddenly reminded of the scene in The Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster delivers Hannibal Lecter a document through the clanking feeding tray. I put the tip of one of my fingers to my tongue and skimmed past the cover page, on which was written the name Jennifer Green, followed by one of those unwieldy, thirty-word titles that academics use through fear of their work being mistaken as entertaining. Without looking up at her, I began to read:

For two hours on December 18th 2012, a headline on the BBC News website spoke of a suspected terror attack in Newcastle upon Tyne1. As more facts relating to the incident which took place in the Marks & Spencer mini-market on that Sunday morning came to light, the phrase ‘terrorist attack’ was rescinded, and replaced by the phrase ‘armed robbery’2. However, given the subsequent testimony of the two convicted perpetrators, as well as the available information concerning their characters and socio-economic backgrounds, I would contend that the original term was, in fact, the correct one. It is indisputable, given the facts of the case and the relevant background information, that robbery was not the primary motive for the perpetrators’ actions, and it is only by viewing the incident through the framework of the psychology of terrorism that these actions can be satisfactorily understood. Moreover, an understanding of the Newcastle 2012 incident shows that the impulse which leads certain individuals – usually young males – into fanaticism and terrorism does not emanate from a strict adherence to a defective ideology, such as radical Islam or Marxism, but instead emerges from social and psychological pressures which can be found across all levels of society. Though terrorism may appeal to those in a very specific position within society, this appeal operates across a far wider spectrum than is traditionally assumed. Ideology is not the inciting influence for terrorist actions; it is the final step, the moral justification for a course of action which the perpetrator may well have committed without recourse to an ideological framework. Indeed, the very label of ‘terrorism’ has been applied inconsistently in order to differentiate near-identical behaviours, most often to serve ends which are political or ideological in themselves.

I looked up from the table and caught her scruntising me.

‘You shouldn’t use the first person in an academic essay,’ I told her. ‘You should use “the evidence suggests that…” or “this would indicate that…” instead of “I would contend…” Gives the impression of scholarly detachment.’ She raised her eyebrows and smiled in a very over-the-top fashion, as if to cover the involuntary furrow and snarl which preceded it. Had I not been so suspicious of her motives in coming here, I might have dismissed the darkening of her features, which only lasted for a snatch of a second, as paranoia, or even missed it entirely. Allowing my eyes to fall back downwards, I thumbed through the pages on the table, reading only the titles of each section:

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. Arriving at a Definition of ‘Terrorism’

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. The appeal of Terrorism to the Young

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. The Relationship Between Terrorism and Minority-Group Allegiance

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. The Appeal of Terrorism to the Middle-Class

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. The Appeal of Terrorism to the Proto-Intelligentsia

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. Differentiating Between ‘Terrorism’ and ‘Mass Killing’

#
p)<>{color:#000;}. Ideology as Justification, Not Motivation

I skip forward, to a point around halfway through the final section.

Soldiers are far easier to recruit than suicide bombers. In the insurrectionary stage of a revolutionary movement, when adherents to an ideology have yet to overthrow an existing regime, the vast majority of its sympathisers cannot be swayed into violent ‘extremism’, even if this is preached by the leaders of the movement. In terms of the use of revolutionary violence, the delineation between the Bolsheviki and the less militant socialist groups within Russia, for example, was not especially pronounced until the breakdown of the provincial government17. Furthermore, once a successful insurrection has consolidated itself into a bonified regime, the ideological impulse ceases to be a necessary means of coercing individuals into acts of violence against those whom they have no personal motive. This fact was best demonstrated during the Milgram experiments of the 1960s18.

An ‘underdog’ ideology, therefore, is insufficient to produce acts of terrorism, and within a ruling ideology, simple self-interest and even self-preservation are more important than adherence. However, though I hope I have shown that the precedence of ideology as a motivating factor for acts commonly labelled as terrorism is a political narrative unsubstantiated by the available evidence, we have not yet seen whether it is a necessary factor; that is, can an act of terrorism be committed in the absence of an ideology?

Though one could argue that the ‘terror-ish’ actions described in section VI above could be categorised as such, my examination of the perpetrators’ testimonies heavily implies that their motives were primarily personal ones, which contradicts the definition of ‘terrorism’ we arrived at earlier. The testimony of Peter Thompson following the Newcastle 2012 incident provides a far more clear-cut example of terrorism in an ideological vacuum. Indeed, his defence, in which he argued that a strictly materialist conception of reality proved that he had no control over – and therefore no responsibility for – his actions, a viewpoint which ironically allowed him complete liberty to do as he pleased, seemed to some to be a deliberate satire of the notion of an ideological justification for impersonal violence19. We saw in section III that numerous proponents of revolutionary violence have told themselves, ‘I have the authority to change the world’; Thompson distilled this down to its essential meaning: ‘I have the authority to break the rules’. Likewise, in place of the grand ideological narrative that most individuals guilty of similar acts have constructed, placing themselves and their victims in a comrade-enemy dynamic and thereby justifying their violence against them, Thompson, in effect, reduced all of these arguments down to their logical derivation: ‘They don’t care if I live or die, and the feeling is mutual.’

I slowly lifted my eyes up from the table again. At the same time, a malevolent smirk crept up my cheek. Very deliberately, I turned over the pages I skipped past and placed them back on top of the pages I no longer needed to read.

‘So who exactly is it you’re psychoanalysing here?’ I asked. ‘Because as far as I can recall, it was you who – what was it?’ I lifted up the corner of the stack of pages and peeked at her words, for effect, ‘“killed without any personal motivation”, not me.’

I could tell she was tensing-up in preparation for this, but the preparation could not protect her from the involuntary, almost Pavlovian spasm that my remark provoked. She gripped the side of her chair, perhaps to suppress the urge to turn tail and run. Her pupils bounced around in their sockets for a few seconds, checking to see if the guard was approaching, before she finally got them under control.

‘For a minute there I thought you were going to miss the reference,’ she muttered. ‘No such luck, I guess.’

‘If you didn’t want me to get it, you wouldn’t have come here in the first place,’ I countered.

‘True, but we both know that, sometimes, you can only spot a bad idea after you’ve drop-kicked it into reality.’ She tried to force a laugh, but couldn’t quite get it past her gullet.

‘Also true,’ I replied. I leaned back on my chair and examined her features, trying to compare them with the old, faded memories of the girl I met at university, and the girl I met in the store room at Marks and Spencer on December the Eighteenth, Two-Thousand and Twelve. I squinted, searching for some kind of distinguishing feature that would bind the three guises together, but couldn’t find one. The three instances of her looked alike, of course, in a generically attractive kind of a way, but there was nothing to hang a tag on except maybe the smell.

‘So, I guess I’ll have to rephrase my first question: What can I do for you, Phoebe?’

Her hand again clutched the chair and her eyes again went shooting off in every direction. I was tempted to say it again, just a bit louder, but I put the impulse to one side. The conversation – at that point at least – seemed more intriguing than the opportunity to exert some power over her. Phoebe, likewise, put away the expression her face had tried to spring into, which was that of a leashed pit-bull terrier being teased. She shrugged as best she could, but her whitening knuckles were still clamped around the underside of her seat.

‘I don’t know exactly,’ she admitted. ‘I just knew I had to talk to you before all this drives me insane.’

‘So you not only posed as a university student, but you also wrote a fake ten-thousand-word essay so that you had a plausible excuse to come and see me? I’m touched that you went to so much effort, Phoebes, but there are easier ways.’

‘No, I am a sociology student,’ she replied. ‘That’s my actual dissertation. I hope you don’t mind, but I made up your quotes in advance, so we’d have more time to talk properly.’

‘You?’ I asked, my head askance. ‘Sociology?’

She indulged herself in a very long and unnecessary pause. Then she shrugged again.

‘I find it interesting.’ There was a hint of grumble in her voice as she said it.

‘I suppose I’m hardly one to talk,’ I conceded. ‘I used to find data management interesting.’

A very slight ripple in the air behind me told me that the guard had just walked past, at the one moment where we were discussing something innocuous. Though the mischievous impulse rose back to the surface, I held it in check and gestured towards her notepad.

‘Next question, if you don’t mind.’ Without so much as a crack appearing in her performance, she asked:

‘How affluent do you remember being, growing up? Would you say you ever wanted for anything? Erm, and – err – if so, were those things necessities, like, such as food, or luxuries, such as – I don’t know – a videogame console?’

I watched the guard getting smaller in my peripheral vision. When I was sure that he was out of the range of my whispers, I replied:

‘I was affluent for a couple of days, back when I was at university, but then someone robbed it all from me.’ The smile crept up my cheek once again. ‘Is that what brought you here, Phoebe? Did come to pay me back my share?’

‘I’ve been staying in one place lately. The longer I stay put, the more I get scared of the past catching up with me. That’s what brought me here.’

‘It has a habit of doing that,’ I agreed, with grim humour. ‘Out of curiosity, did the decision to stay put come before or after that?’ I gestured towards her gleaming, diamond-ringed finger. She cocked her head sideways, in the way a cat does when it walks in on you masturbating and you can tell that it’s thinking, what is that stupid human doing now?

‘He wouldn’t have decided to marry me if I hadn’t been around for a while, would he?’

‘That doesn’t mean you’d decided to stay there, long-term,’ I returned. ‘You might’ve just been waiting to pawn off the engagement ring.’

Her neck snapped back into the upright position.

‘Fuck you,’ she spat at me. I clapped my hands together and grinned broadly.

‘That’s the spirit! For a minute there, I thought you’d gone fucking soft on me.’ She didn’t grin back. ‘So who’s the lucky fellow? Charlie?’ She shook her head, and I sighed theatrically. ‘Poor guy; he deserved a chance of domestic bliss.’

‘And what about me?’ she asked, colour suddenly leaking into her pale cheeks. ‘Do I deserve it?’ I reapplied the mocking grin, but this time there was no streak of humour behind it.

‘No. No you fucking don’t. But that never seemed to bother you before.’

The crimson flush in her cheeks turned a shade darker. Were such a thing possible, I would’ve thought she was indignant. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, as though daring herself to say something, but that something never managed to force its way out.

‘So is that all you came here for?’ I asked. ‘To show me an essay and to invite me to your wedding? Because unless you’re planning on a twenty-five-year-long engagement, I’d imagine I’ll be busy that weekend.’

She shook her head, and then – very suddenly, as though she was trying to slip it past a blockade – blurted out:

‘Don’t rat me out.’

No sooner had she said it than the hand had gripped the chair and the eyes gone darting around her face. Even her neck, this time, forced itself free of composure. The guard noticed. He didn’t come over, but the slight and momentary angling of his eyebrows told me that from that moment on he would be trying to mentally filter out all of the other white noise in the room and hone in on our conversation. It struck me once more that what I chose as my next sentence could determine whether ‘Jennifer Green’ left this building in custody or as a free woman. Judging by her eyes, she knew it too.

The innocent have nothing to fear from the truth, I thought to myself. But, then again, neither do those who’ve already been found guilty.

I raised the volume of my voice just a fraction, and said:

‘You’re not very good with prisons, are you, Ms. Green?’

I held her gaze very deliberately, so that she wouldn’t succumb to the urge to turn and look at the guard. She shook her head. As though disconnected from her thoughts, her hand grabbed her pen and scribbled something down in her notebook. I let my eyes fall down to the pages, and saw that they were plastered with tight, neat handwriting. Had she been writing the entire time? Or, more accurately, was she transcribing a different conversation, a fictitious interview with a convicted murderer, conducted by an innocent student? Even then, when she was finally giving into emotion, had she managed to confine it to her face and the hand gripping the chair? Was her writing hand still keeping up the act?

‘I would’ve thought the answer to that question was obvious,’ I continued, making sure not to let my pupils flick towards the guard I knew to be watching us, even for an instant. ‘I’ve been in this prison for far longer than I knew any of the people who were part of the robbery. If I haven’t grassed any of them up by now, the conclusion is clear; I’m not going to. It doesn’t matter if that’s because I don’t know their identities or because I want to protect them.’

In my peripheries, I watched the blurred figure of the guard reluctantly moving out of earshot. She watched me watching him go, and when my facial expression indicated that he was on the far side of the room, she asked:

‘Was that answer for his benefit or mine?’

‘I haven’t decided, yet,’ I replied. ‘But, like I said, that type of thing never seemed to worry you before.’

‘It worries me now. Fucking hell, Sundance, look at my eyes!’ she hissed. I did. There was a wild, uncaged desperation gleaming out from her irises, accentuated by the black circles on the lids and the inflamed capillaries crawling over the orbs that encased them. ‘I haven’t slept since he asked me to marry him, because I know that one day you’re going to come along and take away everything that I’ve spent the last year building up. My fiancée thinks I’m about to call the wedding off!’

‘And why shouldn’t I?’ I contested, at the same time trying to figure out what exactly it was that she thought I had on her. ‘I took away everything Sid had spent his life building, and I’m damn sure you didn’t give a second thought to the guy you killed, whatever his name was.’

‘Simon something,’ she answered, dully.

‘Why do you get a chance, and not him?’ I probed. ‘Why not me, for that matter? I might’ve escaped if you hadn’t pulled that shit with my phone.’ I was still racking my brains, trying to uncover what evidence I could’ve used against her. She wouldn’t have lured me into police custody if she knew I could prove who she was. It must be something she’d overlooked until later. It has to be something only I could know, and not Freddy or Charlie. Then again, maybe she’s just getting paranoid in her old age.

‘I figured you’d appreciate the irony,’ she shrugged.

‘I figured you’d just kill me, instead of waiting five years to come back and play on my heartstrings. If you wanted to bury the past so badly, I doubt throwing one more body in the hole would’ve made that much of an impression on you.’

The malevolent shadow slipped back down over her features. For just a moment, I could see Phoebe staring back at me.

‘You don’t know the first thing about my past,’ she hissed, through gritted teeth. ‘At least I’ve got good reason for wanting to bury mine; you’re just a poor little rich boy whose mummy told him he was special, who then threw a tantrum when he found out the world didn’t agree. If you knew half of what I’ve…’ She seemed to lose the thread of the point she was making. She stopped and regathered her thoughts, and then muttered: ‘I was never given a chance, until now. Do I not at least deserve that?’

‘Fuck deserve,’ I spat back at her. ‘Maybe you were just a product of your environment. Maybe someone else wrote the blueprint for what you grew up to be. But maybe that’s the case for me, too. Maybe we’re all just helpless clusters of atoms being drop-kicked towards the heat-death of the universe.’

‘So you’re going to rat on me?’ she asked, with feeble acceptance in her voice.

‘Even if I say “no” now, what’s to say I won’t wake up tomorrow and feel different?’

‘I guess I’ll never know,’ she conceded.

‘Unless I’ve read this wrong, and what you’re really asking me is to kill myself to put your mind at rest?’

I examined her features, looking for the answer that I knew her lips would never let past, but couldn’t find it. Eventually, she lifted her face up to meet my own, and I saw that tears had begun to swell up in her eyes.

‘I just don’t want you to hate me, that’s all,’ she whispered. I couldn’t prevent a snort of laughter from leaping out of my nose. This mocking snort only served to squeeze the tears out onto her cheeks. Then it didn’t seem very funny. We fell into silence.

‘I never hated you,’ I told her, eventually. ‘I actually quite liked you – that was what always concerned me.’

Another silence fell down over us. This time it was her who broke it.

‘Sorry I called you a poor little rich boy.’

‘It’s hardly the worst thing you’ve ever done.’

‘I guess not.’

‘So you’ve finally found a life worth keeping?’

‘I guess so.’

‘Tell me about it.’

 

And she did. For the first time since she sat down, she spoke without falter or script. The pen even fell onto the table. She told me of how she struck up a conversation with a classically handsome, bespectacled man with the idea of making him her next stooge; how when he asked what she did for a living and where she was from she was struck by a strange compulsion to tell him the truth, or at least a small part of it; how when he asked what she wanted to do for a living and where she wanted to go, she couldn’t find an answer; how she’d confessed on her first date that she didn’t have anywhere to stay the night, and she couldn’t work out whether it was a ploy or a plea; how he’d still asked her to move in with him, despite the fact that she’d been sleeping on his apartment sofa for the previous month; how she’d woken up beside him in the early hours of the morning after one of the increasingly frequent nightmares in which I played the role of the bad guy, and tried to sneak away, never to see him again; how the downstairs light has sprung on as she turned the key in the back door; how he wasn’t angry, but understanding; how she’d confessed that she’d spent the best part of the previous decade moving from place to place, subsisting on whatever she could con or steal; how he’d asked her what he life was like before that decade, and what she had fled that made such a life preferable; how he’d asked her again what she wanted to do with her life, and how he’d helped her work out the answer.

After too long anger caused my attention to waver, little bubbles of it effervescing in my sinuses, sending prickling pains into the bone behind my brow. Initially, I wondered if these were the symptoms of jealousy; that, after enduring months of teasing dreams of domestication, to have this stranger come to boast at me about her happy life was like watching a sibling eat an ice cream after I’ve just dropped my own. And yet as I sank down, involuntarily, into my chair and the pain began to recede, I realised that it wasn’t anger or jealousy, it was sadness. Or perhaps it was disappointment; I’d been running on hate for so long that it was becoming difficult to recognise the other emotions when they hit me. I was telling the truth when I said that, despite everything, I liked Phoebe. Now all that was left of her was that wistful, nostalgic scent, and the rest had been replaced by that perfectly amiable creature, who I had nothing against, but whose company, even after five years of isolation, couldn’t keep the loneliness out for more than ten minutes.

When her monologue was cut short by the striking of the clock, we parted ways; her back to her life and me back to my cell. I noticed that the guard’s eyes flickered over her as she passed, and I wondered whether he would pursue that moment of suspicion to its conclusion. The classic trope: the criminal who can’t resist going back to the scene of the crime. It’s been the undoing of many a fictitious character. I hoped it wouldn’t be hers.

Perhaps I should’ve ended this story a few paragraphs earlier, when I asked her to tell me about her new, happy life; It might’ve even made me look noble, in a strange kind of way, as though I’d sacrificed my own freedom, my own happiness, for hers. I could even have slipped in a witty aside about how ironic it was that she’d been rehabilitated, while the yocorrective system had turned me into a monster. However, I think I’ve given enough evidence over the course of this tale to counter any accusations of nobility.

I began that course by asking for your sympathy, but, now that I’ve reached its end, I’m not sure that I want it. I’m not a victim. My past didn’t make me do the things I did. I chose to do them. Because of those choices, I no longer have a family, and I no longer have friends, and I no longer have a girlfriend. But can I still have a future?

 

That night, as I lay there staring up at the underside of my cellmate’s bunk, I played through the old jailbreak movies I used to watch with my dad, back in my teens. Slowly but surely, a plan began to form inside my head.


The Blueprint

I used to have a family. I used to have friends. I used to have a girlfriend. I used to have a future. I used to attend a reasonably well-regarded university. I was once on course for an upper-second class honours degree, then - with a little help from my father, or one of his friends - a half-decent entry-level graduate position at a London IT company. With a little effort I’d have found myself on £35k a year by the time I reached my mid-to-late twenties. Thirty-five grand is nothing to sniff at. That’s a second-hand Audi kind of a salary. I used to have freedom, in the strictly legal sense of the word. I don’t have any of those things any more. I traded them for the chance to try my hand at armed robbery. It sounds like kind of a stupid idea, now that I see it written down; especially when one considers that the place I pulled my heist on was a Marks & Spencer mini-market. Perhaps I should’ve written it down before I went through with it. Why did I do it? I don’t really know, to be honest. I’ve always suspected that Hollywood might be partly to blame. Maybe I’m just easily led. Or maybe, just maybe, it was all about a girl.

  • Author: Marcus Bryan
  • Published: 2016-09-06 15:50:18
  • Words: 85647
The Blueprint The Blueprint