Excerpt

Young Man, I Think You're Dying

Joan Fleming

The following is an exclusive excerpt from a new reissue of Young Man, I Think You’re Dying, Joan Fleming’s CWA Dagger Award-winning novel of low-lifes and criminals. Fleming’s dialogue would be right at home in a Guy Ritchie film, while her cheerfully sociopathic criminals are reminiscent of Clockwork Orange-era Malcom McDowell.

Pizzas! He adjusted his expression to one of disgust and contempt, but lovingly, in the manner of an artist, he picked up the sliced onion and arranged it down the pastry in a straight professional line next to the sliced tomato. Far back, out of sight, in his utmost mind, he loved them; the smell was, to him, entirely felicitous and it was not possible to be unhappy in an atmosphere of such sensual content.

However, in his social set work was an evil thing, something to be avoided if humanly possible; a nuisance, a drag, a bore, something that had to be put up with, like parents, until such time as one could escape to freedom. For a long time, anyway until he was fifteen, Joe had not known the meaning of the much-used word freedom—until he looked it up in a dictionary which his poor father used for crossword puzzles. It was faintly disappointing to find that this golden, glittering word which he had used liberally for so long simply meant personal liberty, non-slavery, but he had swallowed it along with the vitamin pills his mother pressed on him every morning.

Now, after working for two years for Silas d’Ambrose (he insisted on the apostrophe, he himself always making it audible) he fully realised that he was, indeed, a victim of slavery and that freedom meant having your own business, sitting with your feet up on one of the tables reading Playboy, issuing occasional reminders such as: “Have you washed your hands, Joe?” “Mind you cut the bad bits off those tomatoes!” whilst your employees slaved and slaved.

Freedom meant having your own business, sitting with your feet up on one of the tables reading Playboy, issuing occasional reminders such as: “Have you washed your hands, Joe?”

The pizza bar in which he slaved was in a house in a small eighteenth-century street in Soho, due shortly for demolition. In the flat above the bar Madame Joan, Palmist, carried on her trade. A few doors down, a shop selling rubber goods and medicines for waning sexual prowess bore the stone words on the grey brick wall above the ground floor window: exchange and bullion mart and the date 1721. There had been a crumbling notice above the pizza bar, which Silas had had taken down to make way for the word pizzas in bright blue neon electric lettering; it now hung indoors for the amusement of customers and read: m. sly corsetiere. Joe personally had no time for these kind of jokes; his own place, when he had it, would be the last word in modernity; it would have a Ladies as well as a Gents and there would be Dames and Messieurs over the doors, such as had impressed him deeply at London Air Terminus. He would not have the huge gas ovens and the slaves working behind a counter in full view of the customers, but conceal the business side behind a tasteful modern stained-glass partition; gorgeous naked girls with huge bosoms would glide in and out from behind the screens bearing plates of pizzas; or nearly naked, like the girls at the Playboy Club. He would insist that they disappear behind the screen as soon as they had served the food; this vanishing would titillate the customer so that he wouldn’t get bored staring at them for too long. Joe had a small notebook in which, when he had time, he jotted down his own “Do It Yourself Market Research,” under the simple heading Plans, keeping the book carefully locked away from his mother who, if she had found it, would have read it aloud to his father to the accompaniment of the giggling that annoyed him so much.

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It was not fashionable to like your boss and when he was with his chums Joe would be as loud as the others in protests of detestation but, in fact, his liking for Silas went beyond a mere sneaking approval. He admired him very much; his ease of manner, his good temper and, best of all, the way he paid promptly, with the occasional reminder: “And don’t forget I’ve paid the Income Tax.”

He was kind to Joe, too. When, for instance, Joe had given him a false name because he was so deeply ashamed of his own name, Silas had discovered it over the question of National Insurance and had said: “So you’re really called Joe Bogey, are you? I say, I say! With or without the e? I’d keep the e if I were you; like me, you’re descended from the Huguenots, who were immigrants to this blasted sceptered isle.”

“Oh yes?” Joe had said, looking his most gormless because he did not approve of classy language.

“We fled from oppression in France in the eighteenth century. Your name would probably have been de la Bougerie or something of the kind that the poor English clots couldn’t wrap their tongues round. So you hang on to your e. And when you give your name don’t stutter and go red and stand on one leg; say boldly and clearly Joseph Bogey, with an e. That’ll shut them up! They used to call Napoleon Buonaparte Boney, so you have an honourable precedent and don’t forget it.”

For two years and more Joe had observed Silas and all his ways; disapproval and bewilderment had gradually changed to admiration. As he grew up along with his playmates who, with the passage of time, had become verbose and revolutionary, he was given to understand that his boss was someone to be despised, a member of the privileged class and thus never to be trusted; Joe did trust him all the same and looked up to him as a do-er of the Right Thing.

Even over the vexed question of length of hair Joe had, after a pretty tight struggle, meekly given in and in due course his chums had accepted his short hair as part of the slavery with which they themselves would not put up.

Silas had clapped the tall white chef ’s hat over his long, greasy brown locks and dragged him over to a looking-glass. He had laughed: “You look a right Charlie, don’t you?” The glance Joe had given himself was subliminal, a full moment of viewing would have been too horrifying; he had snatched off the starched hat and held it in front of him as though he were about to be sick into it.

“You see, long hair’s all right if you’re a bricklayer’s mate and don’t mind mortar in your hair, or if you’re a Council’s employee, bashing holes in the road and like your hair smelling of drains. But here my customers don’t want your hairs in their pizzas. Get me? So it’s either becoming an expert chef with short hair and a big future before you, or joining your chums with plenty of hair but no prospects. You can take it or leave it.”

And with the heart-warming smell of pizzas in his head and eighteen pounds a week in prospect it had seemed worth a searing visit to the barber and an acute draught round his ears for a few hours afterward.

There were two of them working in the bar, Joe being the senior boy, and they worked on a rota; one week from six p.m. to midnight and the next week a visit to the bar at six a.m. to make the dough and leave it to rise, then a return to the bar and work from twelve to three, with both of them there on a Saturday night. Two extremely plain girls did the washing up, especially chosen for their looks and figures which were unattractive beyond belief, and a very superior person indeed, called Mrs. James Trelawny, mopped the floors and wiped the Formica table tops and plastic chair seats. Silas appeared to do nothing whatever, lounging elegantly about, smoking Balkan Sobranies but making quite sure that no customer left the bar without paying him.

Like small blessings Joe dropped tiny fragments of margarine over the whole colourful tray he had now prepared with mushroom slices, tomatoes, aubergine slivers, onion, cheese, a criss-cross of anchovy fillets, and oregano herb, finely chopped and sprinkled over the whole. He opened the door of the second oven, felt the temperature with his hand, careful not to touch the hot metal, swung the heavy tray on to his shoulder and with a flourish which he had achieved only in the course of time, slid the whole into the black depths and swung the door closed. In the same operation he brought out the sizzling contents from No. 1 oven, laying it down in all its fragrant glory.

“That’s a clever boy, give us one!” The high husky voice was only too familiar, it was a red-head called W. Sledge of whom Joe had stood in some awe since he had come to live in the same tower block and share the same play-ground when they were both ten. It annoyed him that W. Sledge should have turned up on a Monday night, their not so busy time; the time made it much more difficult to give him a free meal.

“Eff off!” he said, sliding a pizza on to a plate with a large metal slice and placing it on the glass shelf for the customer to pick up.

“Don’t be like that! It’s important.”

“It would be,” Joe returned sarcastically as he slid another three-and sixpennyworth on to a plate.

Sledge folded his arms and leaned gracefully against the wall, watching his toiling friend with faint jeering amusement. Though he was not to know it, he bore a strong resemblance to the young Shelley with unhealthy pale features of rat-like proportions and a wild cacophony of tangled red hair; he was wearing skin-tight pants, an orange-coloured polo necked shirt over which was a fisher-man’s knit V-necked sweater, the tasteful ensemble finished by several rows of beads which appeared to be made of date stones or something and smelled strongly of the Middle East.

He bore a strong resemblance to the young Shelley with unhealthy pale features of rat-like proportions and a wild cacophony of tangled red hair…

He was extremely picturesque and added lustre to the otherwise fairly drab crowd of customers in the pizza bar. Silas, however, gave him a beady look and said: “Can we help you, sir?” though he knew him perfectly well by sight. This meant all too clearly: you-better-bloody-well-sit-down-and-behave-yourself and was by no means unjustified, as it was W. Sledge’s tendency to come in with a crowd of rowdies and there were occasionally symptoms of an inclination to break the place up. But tonight, because he wished urgently to communicate with his friend Joe, he sat down meekly and accepted the plate of hot savoury pizza which Silas banged down in front of him, together with the implements for eating it, suavely wrapped in a folded paper napkin as though they were rather indecent things, which they were not. His behaviour, in fact, was impeccable; when he had finished eating he threw one arm over the back of his chair and sat staring meaningfully at his friend, picking his teeth until the stroke of midnight, after which not another pizza was served and the unused ones were put under a plastic cover for the next day.

Joe was hustled along the overcrowded pavements through the usual cosmopolitan crowd jostling and struggling nowhere; outside Bob’s Baked Potato Bar, which in the dark backward and abysm of time had been the best restaurant in London, an elderly couple stood and shivered miserably, bitterly disappointed in the meal they had had.

“It must have changed hands, dear,” the old lady was murmuring to her husband as he beckoned a cab. But W. Sledge, too, hailed the taxi and as it drew up he snatched at the handle and pushed Joe inside whilst at the same time firmly pressing the old gentleman back on to the pavement with the sole of his foot stretched out backwards so that the taxi driver could not see it.

“He kicked you!” the old lady said indignantly.

Sledge slammed the taxi door and leaned forward to him through the driver’s small glass aperture: “Fiery Beacon!”

The taxi lurched off down the Haymarket and the old gentleman said:

“He didn’t really kick me, dear. He pushed me with his foot to be exact, but it hurts rather.”

***

But though W. Sledge had whipped up a potential event it was, in fact, disappointing in that Joe knew in advance what was expected of him. It was his turn.

It would seem that only two alternatives had presented themselves to the young Sledge in the way of a career, the first and obvious one being that of entertainer, but he had found to his chagrin that time, in respect of the beat, meant nothing at all to him. Though he was able to bang drums with great energy and enthusiasm he unfortunately always banged them at the wrong split second. Several groups had given him a trial but he had been turned down by them all. He had to face the sad fact that he was not “musical.” So there had been no alternative but for him to become what is called an entrepreneur. This word at one time applied to someone who, for instance, ran a pierrot show on some seaside pier but it has been upgraded with time and now applies simply to an organiser working for himself. W. Sledge became an organiser in that he organised himself into obtaining goods without payment and selling them at various sources of which he kept a record in a notebook, written in a code which he had invented himself. In the course of time these activities advanced, if the word is relevant, from the category of Petty Crime to that of Crime. In the same way the appellation Petty Thief advanced into Thief but since that word has been devalued W. Sledge settled for entrepreneur finding it more interesting than the ambiguous alternative: Company Director.

By sheer prestidigitation, details of which would make a useful handbook in itself for those wishing to imitate, W. Sledge had, at the age of twenty-one, achieved a pleasant flat of his own in the council tower block in which he had lived with his parents since he was ten. He had kept a beautiful Hindu mistress of fourteen whom he rented to other entrepreneurs, strictly during the day. He received unemployment benefit. He had achieved a six-year-old Jaguar which he kept in an underground garage in return for serving petrol during the early hours of the morning every other weekend when not on the parking lot by Fiery Beacon. He was also a chairman and founding member of an exclusive club with the name of The Wotchas, the membership of which never exceeded six, a brotherhood not in the least resembling but almost as closely knit as the Freemasons. Absolute loyalty was the prerequisite of this club, the joke name being the exact reason for its existence in that they were actually watchers one for another. Ten per cent, the watcher received.

This brief summing-up of W. Sledge’s career makes sad reading: he had achieved too much, too soon. An infant until his last birthday in the eyes of the law, he considered he “had everything.”

***

“It’s an old lady in Kensington, W8,” W. Sledge said as they sat back in the cab. “It’s an absolute cinch since I cleaned the windows there last week and I know my way around.”

“No, no, I wouldn’t touch it. I wouldn’t like an old lady to get hurt,” Joe returned firmly.

“There’s no question of her getting hurt,” W. Sledge reproved. “Not much, anyway.”

“Aw, Sledgey.” Joe sighed at the wickedness of it. He also used the affectionate term because none of his acquaintances was allowed to use the so-called Christian name by which he had evidently been christened: it stank. “Why pick on me?”

“It’s your time round. What’s up with you anyway? Getting goose flesh?”

In an attempt to change the subject Joe asked what he thought he was up to, joining a window-cleaning firm; that was a corny old game, only fit for an elderly lag, and it meant giving up the Social Security loot.

Sledge smiled that smile he used when he was feeling the utmost superiority to the dim-wit with whom he was conversing.

“Oh my dear!” He winced at the pain the remark caused him.

“Well, I mean to say . . . are you slippin’, joinin’ a firm? You must be off your top.”

Sledge brought a pair of large dark glasses out of his hip pocket and put them on before he turned to stare at Joe, whose face was only intermittently lit as the taxi slipped past the Houses of Parliament and along to the Embankment. He was dissatisfied with his eyes which, he realised, were not compelling enough, in fact they were not compelling at all, they were shallow and poky and pale, and as he lived with a girl who had compelling dark eyes of the saucer variety he was extremely conscious of this deficiency in himself, so when he wished to be forceful he resorted to the artificiality of black dark glasses of an abnormal size.

“Who said anything about joining a firm? Haven’t you any wits at all, man?” He sighed heavily at the ennui of having to explain anything so simple. “You only need a short ladder, little more than a pair of steps; a water-proof jacket out of which there’s a washleather hanging, a cloth cap . . .” he stopped to cackle with laughter at the idea of himself in a cloth cap . . .

“Right? You park the Jag a little way off one of these old-fashioned great big blocks of flats. You must make sure it’s Kensington, though, because there’s sure to be at least one Lady something, if not three or four, in the block. You take a note of one name on the name plates in the entrance so that if there’s a porter, there nearly always is but they’re usually in their own pads, sitting in front of their fires watching telly; if there’s a porter snoopin’ around you tell him you’re going up to Lady So-and-so’s. If not, you start off up the stairs; you stump up and down, round and round and sooner or later, man, some dear old lady sees you and squeaks: ‘A window cleaner! Just what I want,’ and asks you how much you charge. Well, you think of the lowest figure and halve it . . .”

He almost, not quite, yawned at the simplicity of it all. “Well, I mean, you’re inside . . . it’s peanuts. Mind you, she’s not as green as she’s cabbage-looking, she never leaves you alone in the room, but she stands there smiling whilst you’re having a good dekko and she’s watching the marvellous shiny job you’re making of the windows. She’s always pleased with your work, maybe there’s a cuppa at the end of it or maybe a tip. She’ll always ask for your card and when you haven’t got one on you, she’ll write down your address so she can get in touch with you next time she wants her windows cleaned . . .”

They had arrived at Fiery Beacon. “Which entrance?” the cabby shouted over his shoulder.

“South.” W. Sledge gave him a five-shilling tip and the cabby grinned conspiratorially before driving off. Chaps like Sledge were always his best customers.

It was drizzling slightly but with one accord they crossed over the road and leaned against the railings, staring down into the great, grey-green, greasy river, sliding evilly seawards.

It was drizzling slightly but with one accord they crossed over the road and leaned against the railings, staring down into the great, grey-green, greasy river, sliding evilly seawards.

“In other words,” Joe said, becoming a trifle cynical because he knew his Sledge, “in other words, you’ve done it exactly once.”

“Now, now!” Sledge reproved. “Once,” Joe repeated firmly.

“What are you going on about?” Sledge asked. “It’s not a crime.”

“Not yet it isn’t, not yet.” And then Joe suddenly and angrily shouted:

“Not yet!” and his voice, tiny and ineffectual, was carried off like a fragment of paper on the surface of the swollen river.

Being able to see practically nothing, W. Sledge took off his glasses and put them back into his pocket. He leaned, back to the railings, and ignored the river. He looked at his home, his refuge, his pad, a twenty-two story block of flats in which he lived a double life. It never ceased to amuse him that he could live his own life as householder, and brothel-keeper on the side, within a hundred air, not square, air yards of his far from loving parents who firmly believed that he shared a bachelor flat with friends in Colindale. He thought it immensely clever that he should be the tenant of the council under the name of S. Ledge. He could have thought up any number of names but the near-danger of the S. Ledge gave him immense pleasure. Number 40: Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sledge. Number 102: Mr. S. Ledge.

It was, in fact, less risky than even he thought, life itself continually offering far more coincidences than fiction, such as the announcement in the obituary column of The Times of the deaths on the same day of two unrelated people called, for instance, Kipper.

The tower block carried the name of Fiery Beacon after the public house on the site on which it was partly built. The old cracked wooden sign which had swung outside the public house for two or three hundred years now hung in the council chamber, an imaginative gesture on the part of a council chairman. Before the public house there had, in fact, been a fiery beacon, lighted when there was a fog, to warn river shipping of an obstacle of sorts which had long since been removed.

Only sometimes, in certain kinds of weather and when the sun hung low over the river on a still, still evening, did it remotely resemble a fiery beacon from some distance away. At present, late at night it was an imaginary tower of the “young-Roland-to-the-dark-tower-came” kind of tower, immensely tall and immensely black, with only here and there a lighted window, pinkish, bluish or yellowish, shining through the unlined curtains. It was most people’s bedtime.

But Joe knew with a depressed certainty that it was by no means his bedtime, he knew as sure as God made little apples that he would have to do what was required of him before he went to bed because it was His Turn, and he was bound to obey. He was only thankful that he was on a late rota. This week he was not the early-morning pastry maker in the pizza bar. Talk about slavery, he thought, there’ll always be slavery. He couldn’t formulate his opinion exactly but he meant that there would always be people who were in thrall to other people, no matter how much humanity might progress. He had watched for W. Sledge too often to be able to back out of his commitments now; W. Sledge had only to go along to the police and give Joe’s name for him to be, at the very least, put on probation instantly because of past affairs. He did not want to be on probation because he had a steady job now which, though he never admitted it, he much enjoyed, and because his boss would, he thought, sack him.

He wondered wearily just how long this thraldom would last; would he still be dogsbodying for W. Sledge when he was a middle-aged man with his own thriving business and streamlined Jaguar; a much newer model than that of W. Sledge? He said humbly:

“Well, this one and that’s it.”

“How do you mean?” W. Sledge snapped.

“You know damn’ well how I mean. I’m thinking of retiring.”

“From The Wotchas?”

“Um.”

Sledge allowed a stream of abuse to slip out between his lips as smoothly and darkly as the river flowing below but it didn’t mean anything much and he did it automatically, without thinking what he was actually saying. He was planning. He was one who preferred to take it easy, he liked a spot of luxury, not for him the petty thief ’s breathless escape from the screws, running along the top of long Kensington brick walls leading to cul-de-sacs, in his plimsolls, then flattening himself against huge black wet tree trunks trying to avoid the sweep of their powerful hand lamps.

He liked to have his car as near as possible to the job, with his chauffeur sitting patiently waiting to start off the instant he was safely inside. Besides, a car AND chauffeur was not an object of suspicion as a rule.

This job is easy, dead easy, man. There’s nothink to it. First floor apartment, flat roof jutting out at the back, a room built on years ago, studio or something, with a skylight, man, with a skylight!”

He drew in his surplus saliva with a long-drawn-out hiss. “This job is easy, dead easy, man. There’s nothink to it. First floor apartment, flat roof jutting out at the back, a room built on years ago, studio or something, with a skylight, man, with a skylight!” He did a few tap-dancing steps to show his pleasure. “The ladder’s hid in the shrubbery, and what a shrubbery, filthy! And as the ladder was nicked from a regular window cleaner and has his name stencilled on the side, it won’t do no harm when found leaning against the wall where I’ll leave it. And guess what?”

Joe couldn’t guess what, nor did he try.

“There’s one of these here old-fashioned tables inside the flat, you follow?

Glass-topped with treasure within, sheltering from the day-to-day dust.”

“Treasure?”

“Snuff-boxes, man, and other small hallmarked objects, aye-twee, they call them. This old girl’s dad or husband must have collected them and does she treasure them! Not that I had time to examine them!” He laughed raucously, “But I’ve examined others, spread out for all to see in the windows and showcases of the Bond Street dealers, Old Bond Street I should say. And in the big sale-rooms, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, for example, you can look at them close, handle them. There’s a chap watching you to see you don’t nick them mind, but you can look till your eyes fall out, there’s no harm in looking now, is there? So I know what old silver looks like, all right. I should do, by now. It’s not shiny, like new. Soft, it is, looks more like the old tins we used to have around except it’s never rusty. Tin,” he mused thoughtfully. “I’ve got so’s I can recognise it at a glance, I don’t have to squint about for the hallmark, I can see for myself what’s silver and what isn’t. Phew . . . uhu . . . Christ in spats! These snuff-boxes, I reckon there’s not a dud amongst the lot.”

Somewhere about his person he found a toothpick and started to use it liberally, removing the morsels left from the pizza he had consumed a short time ago and for which he had had to pay before leaving. “Silly old trout!” he mused.

Joe leaned against the railings, holding his head in his hands, elbows on the chilly iron. He wished very much he was in bed.

“Come on, buck up, JoBo, man. The Jag’s over there, in the car park, petrol in, tyres okay.”

“You’re not going like that, I hope,” Joe fervently hoped. The rattle of his beads alone would waken the dead.

“I’m wearing my Aquascutum,” he said in an excruciatingly refined voice, “buttoned up to the neck, plenty of room in the pockets. One, just one of those snuff-boxes will fetch fifty, couldn’t fetch less. There is around a dozen at a rough guess so if I take four in each pocket, and have the goodness to leave her two, I’ll have four hundred quid or so at best,” he smiled slyly, “enough to keep you and me for a couple of weeks, eh JoBo?” He added hastily, “I don’t mean that I’m halving it, don’t get me wrong, but twenty per cent for you tonight, Jobo, just for a treat, eh?”

***

In the heart of darkest Kensington, not now so very dark because it was lit by blinding neon lighting which replaced the old hanging brackets but made it difficult to see anything at all clearly, the block of flats was red brick and the entrance was a baroque stone canopy over double half-glass swing doors. Large letters on one of the stone pillars proclaimed the numbers 1–30.

The Jaguar, driven by a young chauffeur in a peaked cap, slid to a stop; it was five minutes to one a.m.

“She’ll wake up, of course, unless she’s doped herself with the sleeping tablets the doctor’s given her, like a lot of these old things do, nowadays. But sure enough she’ll sleep with her bedroom door locked and if she hears anything she’ll put her head under the bedclothes and pray.”

“And what?”

“Pray!”

“You’d better watch it,” Joe murmured sullenly, “you’re too bloody confident, if you ask me, too cocky by a long chalk.”

Mr. W. Sledge was pulling on expensive, well-fitting black antelope gloves from a Jermyn Street glovers. “Yew-man nature is what you’ve got to study,” he advised, “you can’t get nowhere if you don’t know how people tick,” he hissed into Joe’s actual earhole so, for the moment, Joe was engaged in cleaning out his earhole and omitted to wish him luck.

Sledge vanished, not through the entrance door which would, at that time of night, be locked, but between the building and the surrounding hedge and, presumably, round the back.

Joe took off the chauffeur’s cap which he had worn before without knowing that the “badge” on the front was a coronet and that Sledge had “acquired” it from the chauffeur of a peer-of-the-realm in a public house not far from the House of Lords. He examined the greasy mark on the lining, as he had done before, and found that others must have worn it, because last time he used it, it had resembled the map of Ireland but was becoming more shapeless with the passage of time.

Ireland . . . his mother was at present there, at a little town in the south called Ballyhoola where her son-in-law was a vet, and she was due back at any moment. She had been attending the birth of her first grandchild, which had unexpectedly turned out to be two, thus prolonging her visit. “Uncle Joe!” he said aloud to try the sound, “Uncle Joe!”

He was completely relaxed, one of the attractions of the friendship of W. Sledge was that he inspired confidence and freedom from constraint in his employees. Joe felt rather less tension than the wearer of the peaked hat might have felt were he waiting for the peer-of-the-realm to come out of the dentist, much less, in fact, because the peer’s chauffeur would have been worried about such things as meters and meter-wardens.

He did not, as anyone in a state of even mild anxiety might have done, follow W. Sledge in his mind:

(1) The slipping round the back: 1 minute.

(2) Finding the ladder and putting it into position, ½ minute.

(3) Climbing ladder, 6 seconds.

(4) Covering small area on skylight with coating of putty, ½ minute.

(5) Pressing glass till it broke and picking out as much as possible without letting any fall inside, if poss., 1 minute.

(6) Gripping bar, opening skylight wide enough for entry, getting in, ½ minute at most.

(7) Dropping lightly down, making  bee-line  for  living-room, unlocking living-room door (always locked on hall side by old ladies living alone), closing it, pressing-in glass on table top with cushion. Bringing fountain-pen-size torch out of pocket to illuminate snuff-boxes, 1 minute.

(8) Picking snuff-boxes out from amongst bits of broken glass, 2 minutes if selective.

(9) Looking round to see if anything left in the way of identification (as if there could be!), split second.

(10) Nipping out at the speed of sound, closing front door of flat quietly with the utmost caution, 2 seconds.

(11) Descending stairs, 10 seconds.

(12) Coping with inside main door catches, 10 seconds.

(13) Shutting front door quietly.

 

Operation complete in ten minutes and Bob’s your uncle.

It was a quarter-of-an-hour, in fact, but Joe was so interested in the new idea of being an uncle that though he had the engine running for a good eight minutes he had not even begun to wonder if anything had gone wrong when W. Sledge reappeared. He started off even before Sledge had shut the door with a quiet clunk.

“I’m an uncle, I forgot to tell you,” he said chattily, as they moved off: “I’ve twin nieces; they’re Irish, my sister married a vet who’s a marvellous jockey, beat that! He’s an Irish amateur, came over for the Grand National. But two nieces at once—eh?”

“Shut up about your effing relations . . .”

Startled, Joe glanced sideways at his friend W. Sledge, who had lost his usual fairly good-natured aplomb and was being sick through his gloved fingers and on to the rubber mat between his feet, splashing vilely his pointed-toed, elastic-sided boots. Alarmed now, Joe stopped the car and stared helplessly at the mess.

He began to feel rather ill himself, there were sensations such as he had never experienced in the region of his heart, not so much a pain as certain jiggings about which had the effect of making him breathless.

He became slightly dizzy, his mouth dried up, he began to shiver. He felt as he might have done if he had arrived in another country, travelling in something much faster than the Concorde; he had arrived conscious but with nothing but fear, the horrible metallic taste of fear in his mouth.

“You’ve killed her!” He knew suddenly all about the fragility of old ladies, how easily they died, how easily anyone died, in fact, if they were subjected to too great physical stress. How vile, how vile it was, he realised, to manhandle an old lady, like playing catch-as-catch-can with a piece of valuable china. How stupid, how senseless, how absolutely non-okay.

How vile, how vile it was, he realised, to manhandle an old lady, like playing catch-as-catch-can with a piece of valuable china. How stupid, how senseless, how absolutely non-okay.

He knew all about Sledge’s violent temper too, about how he sometimes tortured cats. He was wise, suddenly he knew and felt everything with a kind of uncanny out-of-this-world sensitivity. In your ordinary senses you would never kill an old lady, not unless you were a monster of sorts, but fear might make you, fear of being caught, like animal fear on the edge of being trapped.

He thought of Silas d’Ambrose and the contempt his boss would have of anything botched so disgustingly; he could see the expression on his face, that fastidious repugnance.

He thought of how he ought to have warned W. Sledge: “Don’t do the old lady any harm!” he might have said, but how out-of-tune it would have been, how gauche, clumsy and not okay at all; Sledge would have jeered at any such advice from Joe. “What do you take me for, a thug?” he might have said: “Come off it!”

“What are you stopping for?” Sledge grumbled.

There was nothing he wished to say, no comment he could make aloud; he put the car into gear and slid away from the kerb; for a moment he could not remember where they were and drove mindlessly forward but soon he had to stop at the busy, winding Kensington Church Street, and remembered. He turned south and drove slowly and carefully back home. On the rough ground where the Fiery Beacon’s cars were parked he stopped, took off his chauffeur’s cap and stowed it away under the seat. He turned and looked at his companion; their faces were greenish in the neon lighting. W. Sledge jerked his head, meaning “get out,” and this Joe did. He stood watching Sledge struggling over the gear-lever into the driving seat. He thought: Surely he’s not going to drive off without a word?

No, he wasn’t; he rolled down the window, his face near Joe’s: he looked ghastly. He said: “Be seein’ you,” and drove off. Never in Joe’s experience had W. Sledge said less.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Young Man, I Think You’re Dying by Joan Fleming, published by Dover Publications. Copyright © 2018 by the Estate of Joan Fleming.

 




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