London, November, 2009
Chaucer's the name, writing's the game.
Currently, spread out - like a fan in the hand of a fair maiden if you're a follower of BBC period dramas - are fake letters from the Home Office, birth certificates, letters of recommendation, and a decree of refugee status from the Home Secretary herself.
When I'm done here, really done, the writing game will become a book that I'm assured will blow the minds of the populace.
Particularly mine. Assuming that we're all on the same page and understand that "blown" here can be used to refer to "having my brain splattered over the wall of my flat". Which is what will almost certainly occur, if the author photograph is ever published, and the clever bastards I work with now realise just what's been happening.
Ever since I agreed to go undercover in London's achingly prolific gang culture ten years ago, I've been collecting more anecdotes about people's bloody dogs than I have repeatable stories about what actually goes on in here. Half of the information I want to put into the book will be nipped up by the bloody police, hushed up and removed; half of the stories about me are going to have to be very heavily edited if I don't want to incriminate myself in the process.
After a decade in the business I have something quite interesting and quite sellable nudging its way over my personal horizon, just begging to be a chapter in this Great British Crime Novel.
That's if I don't get shot.
Anyway; Geoffrey Chaucer, at your service.
Scene one: we are in the Green Man on Ridinghouse Street, near but not too near to Bloomsbury, near but not too near to Soho. You'd find it if you had a map but people have a tendency to get lost around here, while they're rebuilding the Victorian hospital out on the main road. It's hard to give someone directions involving a landmark which is currently conceptual. This is a trendy pub, even if it is currently full of tinsel and paper-sculpted snowmen. We're cool people.
We like to think we're cool people.
By what logic it is that fencing stolen goods, forging documents, setting up false insurance claims, scamming old ladies, and occasionally making people's kneecaps relocate to a bucket renders us cool people, well, for that you have to know who you're dealing with.
Wat is a flame-headed fool of a man with a loud sense of humour and a face like a Spitting Image puppet. He is the first and only wideboy I have ever met who could be bought with a cream cake. Oh, you think I'm exaggerating, but that carroty bastard with his bottle of cider who is currently stabbing the wooden table top and arguing for the nine millionth time with Kate about either the off-side rule or whose round it is, he's got a terrible weakness for fancy confectionary.
I wish I was making that up. It's not good book material. Wat moves and repackages cocaine, and Wat runs errands, because he is nothing like smooth or trustworthy-looking enough to operate front-end, and he isn't scary enough to be a big man. Unless you have a massive phobia of the Riddlers, I suppose (does anyone but me even remember them? Rubber faced puppets with bright red hair and impossibly big mouths, used to be on TV in the nineties? I swear Wat looks just like one. I told him that once and he stared at me for so long that when he tried to punch me it was almost a relief).
Wat also loves cakes. We got him a huge one for his birthday last year. Decorated it ourselves.
It was fucking awful and he didn't care, but that's Wat.
Sitting next to him, since I should probably do the introductions now while everyone's in one place and no one's fighting anyone else, sitting next to him is Roland. Roland. Not Roly, not Lando (he said he tried to get people to call him that in school but it wouldn't take, too many people had seen King Roland on telly and not enough had seen Star Wars), just Roland. Roland is, and I mean him no discourtesy here because he is a top bloke in a corner, he is the kind of man you'd expect to be bought with cake.
What he actually is, is doggedly pragmatic, short, fat, and possessed of the kind of face that people automatically trust. Harmless. Hangdog. Not handsome, but then again not skeevy. He looks like your mate. And this is why he is front of house. You'd think, though, that in a business situation you'd want someone cleanshaven, or smart, or tidy, to be the shark.
And that's where Kate comes in. Yeah, Kate's the one with the Iron Maiden t-shirt on at the moment, explaining to Wat that she knows more about football than he will ever learn, that it is his round, and that if he so much as looks sideways at her chips she will brain him with a pool cue.
There's no pool table in the Green Man – that's how trendy a pub it is, media people hang out here – but have no doubt, if Kate wants to induce a concussion with a pool cue she will find one. Although her main role here is to wear a suit and tell people she knows more about finance than they do and they should completely sign this, don't worry about reading it, it's just a load of complicated legalese… she's definitely more in her element beating the living shit out of someone with a piece of sporting equipment, or a length of pipe.
If they ever make a film of the book that I only have notes for at the moment, people will be asking themselves when Chaucer and Kate are going to get together, and the answer is "when Kate stops being terrifying".
This is a timescale also known as "never".
The barman here – not the one with the skinny jeans and the eyes like a squeezed hamster, the bald guy … him, standing behind the girl with the star tattoos, wiping his hands on a dishcloth – owes us a £500 introduction fee. That's why we're in the Green Man, specifically, and not somewhere that does an egg-and-chips that both Wat and Roland approve of; because Jadranko has been tardy opening his wallet in return for the kindness that was done to him.
We're very precise here. Roland is an excellent bookkeeper. Kate will leave the table and mime a cigarette; she doesn't smoke. She'll be heading for the back entrance to the pub, round the outside of the building and over a wall, so that when Jadranko makes a break for it, when Wat has followed him out to the beer cellar's door, he won't get far.
£500 doesn't seem like a lot of money. But we're very careful here, about the books.
The evening's frivolities and business concerns are interrupted by Roland's phone. Roland takes it outside as soon as he recognises the number, which means it's important, which means the rest of us are going to peer through the windows at his breath in the air as he stamps up and down the pavement muttering into the phone. Say what you like about the criminal underbelly of London, but never call Wat and Kate subtle unless you're prepared for a crack over the head with a dictionary in short order.
Our empty glasses are removed while we're peering out of the window, and eventually Roland comes back inside looking chilled and stamping his feet. No answers to expectant eyebrows yet. He is sitting on something huger than a dinosaur egg; Roland has a good poker face, sure, but if it was tiny he'd tell us. Wat is virtually climbing the walls in frustration.
Kate goes back to her pint.
Later, at the tube station, when Kate has washed the blood from her hands and patiently picked the t-shirt fabric from between Wat's teeth, and the evening's takings from the Green Man are £500 worse off than expected and Jadranko is swearing and growling and calling an ambulance on his mobile phone:
"So who was that, earlier?" Kate leans on the lift doors. We are alone. Wat has a grazed knuckle, the only man alive who will automatically injure himself while punching someone's teeth out every time. She asks casually, as if it's only just occurred to her.
Roland stares for a minute and makes wiping motions at the corner of his mouth. Kate smears the blood away with her glove and raises her eyebrows. Wat, who is as always facing the wrong way, is studying a curry menu on the wall.
"Thatcher," says Roland at last.
Thatcher is an old acquaintance of us all, in various guises. You will have heard of him. William Thatcher, professional footballer turned club manager? Like Jamie Redknapp crossed with David Beckham; he's got the looks, the brains, and the beautiful wife. Please do not mention to Jocelyn that I even implied she was like Victoria Beckham, I cannot afford having my skull pieced back together again afterward. Thatcher, William, Will. A man with a lot of money made through mostly legal means as long as you don't count the fact that he got into the business of professional sports in the first place by pretending to be someone else. It's complicated, and this section of notes will not be going into the book anyway.
"Is he alright, then?" Kate continues light and breezy and loaded with questions she's not asking.
"He's fine, one of his new players has a little issue he needs our help with," Roland says quietly. The doors ping open, and the conversation's muffled by people stepping out of the other lifts around us – did I remember to mention that we're at Goodge Street station? We're at Goodge Street station. Hence the lifts.
"The messy kind of help?" Kate asks, when the drunk students have swaggered away to the platforms ahead of us.
"The complicated kind of help," Roland says, scowling at the posters.
Wat groans. "I hate complicated."
For once I am inclined to agree with the cake-addict, but I'm not about to put myself in the position of doing so publicly.
Roland says, "I'll explain later."
So we're on tenterhooks, and firmly wedged there, for the rest of the journey.
Notes on "later", to be written up when I've finished cleaning up because the fucking fridge defrosted: Nasih Alazar (promising 18-year-old striker, Eritrean) has concerns about the safety of his family. I would too. Is hoping to bring them over to the UK. Government naturally have other ideas. Nasih is frantic. Thatcher is a nice boy and has a business partner – our ostensible boss, a patron of his – who wants to see this lamentable, player-inconveniencing situation brought to a swift end. Why the fuck did my fridge defrost, that's what I want to know. It's new. Nasih's family to be brought over and given false papers; papers are my responsibility (this part stays out of the book unless I can clear it with HarperCollins), Roland knows of some people who might be able to organise the transport side of things. There is a lot of money involved here. A lot a lot a lot a lot. JK Rowling advance money, nearly.
This is going to end badly. I can tell.
Now I'm not saying it was a stupid idea for Roland and Wat to go down to Peckham to meet these guys in a warehouse, and I'm not saying it was especially stupid of them to go on their own and without finding out anything about the place they were meeting these incredibly dodgy people-trafficking mother ... worriers. Motherworriers. I'm not saying Kate and I were concerned, just that Kate said she was going to sit in the car and wait and if they weren't out by the time she got bored she was going to go in and Have Words.
A warehouse, for fuck's sake.
You see films, and you see people having face-offs across huge empty warehouses and think to yourself (as a savvy, media-connected fellow with friends who direct films that no one who buys True Crime books will ever have heard of) that this is just for convenience in cost and continuity. That it saves on building sets, and they're easy to light. And you think real criminals cannot possibly be stupid enough to meet in huge, echoing warehouses.
The thing is, the real criminals have also seen those films, and some of them really are that stupid. And some of the others think that meeting people in cafes will allow strangers to overhear what nefarious deals are being hatched (though I have to say they probably don't use the word "nefarious". Writer's privilege. I'm sure you understand.), some of them have moral objections to meeting in pubs, and no one wants to hang around in hotel rooms because they're expensive and slightly gay.
So you come around to the idea of warehouses. Some people, who may or may not play air guitar to Iron Maiden when they're drunk and have the world's biggest collection of lucky horseshoes and play ladies' soccer in their free time and I do hope I'm painting a picture here, some people may have sat down and worked out that the odds are in favour of the largest fire power, and the early arrivers, in warehouse confrontations. Whereas in a living room or a pub or somewhere with cover, you can maybe hide out and escape. A warehouse offers no such hope. Just a long empty run with bullets at your heels.
I'm not saying it was a phenomenally stupid idea for Wat, who is, let's face it, a little slow off the mark even if he is markedly excellent at inflicting blunt head trauma, and Roland, a man for whom "run" is a foreign concept and "jog" is pushing it a little, to meet up with a selection of lean ex-military Albanians in a warehouse in Peckham.
I'm just leaving the facts there to speak for themselves.
Now Roland and Wat do not have journalistic integrity and an eye for detail, so all I can tell you about the place they met these fine upstanding gentlemen who make their living out of human misery is this: that it was a warehouse and that, at a real push, Wat and Roland might have been able to agree on whether the plastic sheeting that hung over the walls was blue or yellow. How anyone mixes these colours up is beyond me.
The gentlemen they met might as well have been cut out of cardboard. Roland says the one who did the talking had gray hair, Wat says he was wearing a black leather coat. Long, but not a trench coat. He also says he was fucking freezing and that the conversation went on far too long and Albanians are creepy, because Wat can be relied upon to remember detail if he can complain about it.
Therefore I am choosing to believe that of the Albanians my colleagues talked to, one is a shortish, slight gentleman with a smug smile and a slight mullet, and the other is a tall, heavy-set fellow with close-cropped hair and an expression of unwarranted piety. I have just described the banes of my professional existence outside this temporary relocation to the criminal underworld, but I like to think that the hallmarks of bastardry float from entity to entity and give them an easily-recognisable countenance. I know I'm wrong about that, but a man can dream.
The conversation apparently went something like this:
"We understand that you want to move some people into the country." In my imagination, this is spoken by the taller of the men. We will call him P. This is in no way connected to the arsehole who turned me down for a staff job at the Telegraph. No way at all connected.
"Yes." Because Roland will not let Wat put his foot in it by talking, and he's not likely to gild the lily himself.
"We understand that you have an employer who is willing to pay us a lot of money, through you, to get these people safely into the country." Again there was probably not a lot more to it than this, but for the sake of variety we shall assume that this is the utterance of a short man with a slight mullet and the expression of a cat that has had all the available cream after kicking the dog hard in the balls. Or, say, firing a staff writer who looks a lot like your indignant narrator.
"Yes." Roland's economy of words is a lesson to us all.
"Can we have the name of this employer so that we know they're good to pay up." This is almost certainly not what P or his associate, whom I am deeming S for the same petty reasons, said, but this is what Roland and Wat roughly reported of the conversation. In that Roland says, and then he asked if he could have the name of the bloke hiring us so he knew he's good to pay up, and I have no other point of reference. I imagine it was a little more circumlocutory, because subtlety is a surprising facet of this business. It's to avoid self-incrimination, apparently.
"I'm afraid that's impossible." Roland worked in a call centre a few times. This is probably what he really said. Probably.
As you can see, it lacks flair and is also probably not how it actually went down, but Roland gets irritated if I ask too many questions about what's happened when I'm not there. Long story short, though, there is a deal struck. Roland and Wat come out of the warehouse in one piece and Kate does not have to Have Words with anyone and no one dies, although Wat insists on stopping at McDonald's and Kate nearly brains him with a tray. Which is at least normal.
How taken to court will I be, given that I spent the advance for this book on a Vespa, if I decide not to provide a full draft and instead go into hiding in Guatemala before I end up involved in something morally reprehensible?
For Goddes sake, as beth of bettre cheere!
It is no tyme for to studien heere.
Subject: YOU LAZY GOOD-FOR-NOTHING BASTARD ILLITERATE.
Your parents' house will be forfeit and I will tell Mr Gower how much we had to take from the kitty to cover your "research" in Vegas, Mr Quit Gamblers Anonymous Three Times. Stop pretending to have an artistic temperament, and write your fucking draft, or I will call the legions of hell onto your head and hound you to the ends of the earth, yea, even unto Guatemala or Rhyll.
Deputy Commissioning Editor, Non-Fiction
Subject: RE: YOU LAZY GOOD FOR-NOTHING BASTARD ILLITERATE.
Well that's nice and clear. Cheers, Tom.
PS: I believe I'm still owed £2,067.48 royalties and some sundry Right To Lend fees for The Book Of the Duchess.
For Goddes sake, as beth of bettre cheere!
It is no tyme for to studien heere.
Subject: YOU *GREEDY* LAZY GOOD FOR-NOTHING BASTARD ILLITERATE.
Oh take it up with accounts.
Deputy Commissioning Editor, Non-Fiction
Armoury. It's a much nicer word than "Arsenal" (I am, for my sins, a Spurs fan. I tend to stay quiet about that around conversations that involve William in any way). Alas, an armoury conjures up images of plate armour and chainmail, whereas this place has a legal storefront which demonstrates samples of Kevlar jackets and stab-proof vests for wholesale orders, and the legal storefront is not the business with which we are currently concerned.
Ms Kate Smith (no, that is not a pseudonym, yes, she is really called "Smith") is inside the basement flat of the Nice Gentleman whose bunker-like rooms conceal a graveyard of buried, greased, and swaddled firearms, who apparently lie like corpses in some ancient French plague mortuary or a war hospital somewhere circa 1918. Not that I know this from personal observation, you'll have to grant me a little poetic license here; the Nice Gentleman who owns this place doesn't know me and therefore doesn't trust me. He did, however, know Kate's late husband. She's got an in.
So she's in, choosing some sort of death machine with her usual eye for weights, balance, ballistics and various arcane things that I am going to have to research at some point if I want to sell this piece of rubbish book to someone who knows what they're talking about (do these people exist in the publishing industry? They're more the end consumers of the drugs pyramid, surely). Probably having a perfectly civil conversation with a weapons-dealer about her weapons-manufacturer husband.
I feel ill.
Yes, we probably need guns and it won't do to send Roland and Wat unarmed into any further dealings with those creepy bastards who are supposedly shipping Nasih's beloved family to health and prosperity on this sceptered isle. Wat will probably try to headbutt someone and end up in bits; give him a gun and he'll calm the fuck down.
(Wat is as discomfited by guns as I am, a lamentable quality in a dodgy geezer.)
But there is this tendency, in situations with guns, and I have had the supreme misfortune in coming across both the aftermath and the mid-flow of it, for things to escalate badly. I'm sure I don't need to paint you a picture of that, so here is where I am sitting right now; passenger seat of a new-version Volkswagen Beetle. It is Kate's pride and joy and I am under no circumstances allowed to even look like I am thinking about driving it. The street we've parked behind is a commercial one in East London, and around the back there are no barking dogs, no dead winter buddleias, no signs of life. Just large bins and an oppressive city-silence, the kind of silence that isn't really a silence at all. That's London for you.
Text from Roland to break up the monotony/introspection:
Won't bring them any further than Portsmouth but the thing is on. They're on their way.
On the one hand, good for Nasih. His family are mere agonising uncomfortable weeks away from potentially being deported again; on the other, this means we have no options now but to carry on dealing with the Scary Albanians and the Nice Gentleman in the basement flat. This means guns and more drama than Jadranko's kneecaps and who knows what.
Kate returns with a holdall and a breezy smile. She smells of grease when she opens the driver's door – it's a rare day when Kate doesn't, she keeps a hand in the family garage regardless of her more ill-gotten gains – and asks if "Roly" texted me too.
"It's on," is all I'm prepared to say, out here.
She throws the holdall on the back seat and I can hear the clank of metal against metal. The look of discomfort probably shows on my face because when I'm not actually playing poker, my poker face is atrocious (Tom will probably have something to say about the convincingness of my poker face while playing poker, too, but he's just bitter), but she ignores it and punches me in the arm instead.
"Of course it's on. He texted me. It's on, and we're in the money now. Big money."
"Or shallow graves."
"Geoffrey, stop being so morbid." Kate has the engine running already, a hand on the back of my seat, and I am trying to keep an eye out of the window for upcoming wheelie bins – the massive, industrial blue ones that hang around the back of the Nice Gentleman's flat like moody teenagers – and unexpected suicidal shopworkers or anything like that. "I'm not saying this is a perfect situation, but you could stop whining for a minute and see things practically; if they don't deliver Nasih's family safely we have to blow the shit out of them so people know not to fuck us around in future, and they know that. They can't be that stupid."
You know when someone says something and you think oh that sounds familiar and this lead weight drops through your guts like a bad onion baji and you sit quietly digesting the implications and thinking about how so many people couldn't possibly be that stupid and yet they always are, look at the history of the world…
… that's more or less what I did all the way home. All the way. Including while buying cigarettes to smoke while pacing anxiously around the flat.
I am, however, not going to be able to smoke said cigarettes and it's all going to be Kate's fault.
Oh god my head. My head and my stomach. Also my sense of basic human decency. But mostly my head.
One day, my friends, I am going to write a book of advice for young men and women about town in this fair and foul city. Number one on the list will be "do not gamble in any way, shape or form. Do not play gin rummy for bottle tops when you're in school, don't play strip-poker or craps-for-beer at university, do not under any circumstances decide that a bit of a flutter on the horses with your editor at the Morning Star—" (I'm not a communist, I'm an opportunist, and the Times won't give one a job fresh out of university) "—will be a harmless exercise in workplace camaraderie. It leads to complications and embarrassing Anonymous groups and spending fifteen thousand pounds in Vegas in one weekend before someone manages to spike your drink and get you away from the tables." (I owe Tom and his friends for that). I think also on the list I would include, "no matter how much you owe someone, don't take an advance on a book that involves going undercover with people who break the kneecaps of liars", and "never let Kate choose the booze."
Kate has acquired something she claims is Hungarian-Scottish. It may be made of fermented tractor tires. It certainly tastes as if it is. It claims to be a form of whiskey, but it is utterly colourless. Perhaps Kate drained the radiator to get it. I don't know and I don't want to know.
We have a debate about football. It is determined that I am a fool for continuing to support the Spurs despite their continuing decline. I make airy remarks about finding an oil sheik or a Russian oligarch to start buying up all the best players for us, or how Spurs should maybe whore ourselves to some American company (Kate is, to everyone's disgust, a Manchester United fan; this is because of her late husband, she explains, and Celtic are her home team. We haven't mentioned it since).
Kate throws an empty Pringles tube at me and hits Wat, because I am still composed enough to duck; not because Kate is a lousy shot, because even when she is virtually unconscious she can hit you between the eyes with a shoe from across the room.
This is seized upon by Wat as an excuse to retreat to the sofa with the booze. Kate throws a bag of tortilla chips at his head, says something grand which translates to going to the lavatory, and storms off with her head held high and her hair floating around in big alcoholic waves. Kate is the kind of woman you admire from a distance and then worry you would never be good enough for.
If you're me, anyway.
Kate is a woman. Kate is a woman. Women take an extraordinarily long time in the bathroom. There is another bottle of Hungarian Tractordeath What Is This Stuff on the table; Wat has found the remote and is watching Channel 4 because the argument isn't going to go any further without Kate to drive it, and I'm not sure either of us can remember where it was going in the first place. Because of the whateverthisis. Later I am going to Google it and there will be an explanation for the poison Ms Smith is putting into my body. Must make a note of it.
Wat is by now quite drunk. It's easy to tell when Wat is drunk; the first beacon of his inebriation is the way his face goes scarlet. I'm similarly afflicted myself – the curse of fair skin and varying degrees of gingerness, although I can at least pass for blonde. Not so the red-faced, yelping Wat, who loses volume control around the third pint or measure.
He's not very very drunk, because when Wat is absolutely wrecked he likes to tell people. Wat will announce his shitfacedness while falling out of a taxi or sliding down a flight of stairs on his arse; it is invariably followed by Kate's sarcasm and Roland rolling up his sleeves for the arduous task of pouring a wobbly Wat back into his seat from whence he descended.
Currently Wat is drunk on my sofa, which came from the Salvation Army shop on Stroud Green Road and looks like someone was murdered on it. For those having their doubts about my culpability in this act let me assure you that it was like this when I got it. Apart, of course, from the pissed gingernut who is at present giving a spittle-flecked bollocking to the TV; if he'd been on the sofa at the time I'd have asked for a discount on it.
"Look at him! Just look at his face! You can tell he's lying!" Wat throws both his hands out in supplication—c'mon is his favourite gesture, short of flicking the Vs—and manages, do not ask me how, to send the Sky remote flying onto the floor.
Here I go, scrabbling on the floor to dig up my technological miracle before I forget where it went, and end up on my hands and knees.
In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I am also drunk, and that, to my eternal shame, I am something of a lightweight. This is a poor quality in both the hack journalist and the smart geezer criminal wideboy type, both of whom are habitual sots.
Listen, I'm rather … embarrassed by this evening, so you'll have to exercise a little tolerance if I become unnecessarily pompous or florid. After all, it is the English way to be circumloctutory about … well.
Where was I?
Ah yes. On the floor.
So I'm picking up the remote, and dumping it on the murder sofa with Wat, who is busy telling the TV what an arsehole he thinks Simon Cowell is; it's not one of Cowell's actual shows, just one of those Top 50, Top 100 talking heads things Channel Four excel at.
Somewhere in all this wild gesticulating and denouncing, Wat succeeds in smacking me around the head (and if I was dishonest I would try to claim that the thump was what addled me, but even I'm not that much of a wuss). He is immediately apologetic; Wat is a mercurial fuck at the best of times and more so when he's in his cups. That cross-eyed look, the one like a horse with a constipation, that's Concerned Wat. Treasure it.
Wat is drunk. He will insist vociferously later that alcohol is responsible for what Kate calls his "fluid and fickle approach to the Kinsey scale", and it is important to remember: red-faced and concerned Wat is drunk. Whining, kneeling, face-slapped and indignant Geoff here is also drunk.
And that is why, when Wat insists on apologising for the slap by "kissing it better", your humble narrator does not object. It has nothing to do with a penchant for russet-headed individuals and existing somewhere around Π on the old Kinsey myself.
And I may be, just there, grabbing the back of his head, where the hair is just a little too long and freshly-washed and fluffy (his hair smells of cigarettes and what I suspect is one of those brightly-coloured mint-scented shampoos; either that or he keeps chewing gum behind his ears). In fact, that is undoubtedly and unavoidably what I'm doing here.
I'm kissing Wat, and Wat is kissing me.
Did I mention that I'm drunk? I want that noted. I don't usually drink much. It leads to debts, bad debts. And, apparently, to kissing.
Wat takes a breath through his nose and slides his hand into my armpit, rubbing his thumb over where he presumably imagines my nipple to be. It's actually about an inch further over. I have no idea how long Wat thinks his thumb is. His tongue is doing the do-si-do with mine and it's surprisingly pleasant. Slightly asphyxiating, but more pleasant than I would have expected if I'd previously devoted more than a cursory thought to the idea of kissing Wat.
So I'm not exactly thinking at this point. More just grabbing the back of his head and really going for it; I will blame the tractor-fuel from Hungary, and the depressing length of time it has been since anyone kissed me, and Wat, because he started this, and Kate, because she provided the hideous alcohol, and my parents for teaching me to be polite, and God, for making me enjoy this. That bastard.
I'm still feeling, well, very English about the affair, so if you don't mind I will leave you with a quick fast-forward through the events; there is rather a lot of sloppy drunken kissing, Wat tries to unbutton my shirt and fails due to me wearing a t-shirt that has no buttons, I pull his off over his head and it gets caught on the underside of his nose which would normally result in shouting and threats of a good fonging (whatever that is) but this time just leads to cotton-clad struggling.
There is a pause in which either of us could have decided to stop. We don't.
Wat's skin is very hot. His mouth is beginning to taste familiar. I am typing these words up from memory with my eyes shut and my head turned away from the keyboard on the off-chance that this will stop them from existing. Wat's hand is on my sternum.
And this is when Kate comes back from the lavatory.
We are not aware of this for a while, because one of the things about Kate is that even when she has consumed strange Hungarian whiskey made of angry tractors [Tom I don't know what this sentence means now that I've sobered up but can we keep it? Wait, scratch that. I am never letting anyone see this ever in the history of the world, and if it is not destroyed upon my death I will haunt the miserable fuck out of my solicitor] and refugee vodka wearing a hat and talking in a funny voice [can't read my own handwriting now], even then she can move like a ninja. And neither Wat nor even I am very good at paying attention to what is happening in the wider world when a man is choking me with his tongue.
And because we do not notice this for a while, Kate has time to get out her phone and start filming, because she is a being of pure evil. Don't let the fact that she's actually quite nice fool you: evil.
Traditionally when one is surprised thus the reaction is to spring back from the other person as if nothing has been happening. It's very funny in films. However, it's quite hard to spring when you're full of tractor-piss and kneeling on the floor, and when Kate already has who knows how much footage there is very little point in trying to pretend that what is happening isn't actually happening.
So all that happens is this; I stare at her over Wat's shoulder and Wat says oh fuck at my neck.
"Oh the leverage I have now," Kate says, waving her phone back and forth like a can of pepper spray at a mugger. The light in my flat is green. I have no idea how I didn't notice until now that there's this light-green tint to everything there. The brown sofa. The carpet of ambiguous hue. Everything touched with green. "Muah. Ah. Haha." She says it, rather than laughing. "My first demand as your new lord and master is that you make me a cup of tea so I can sober the fuck up." She waggles the phone. "Blackmaaaaaaail."
"Your personal private porn stash, more like," and yes, my friends, I am very proud that I can utter that entire phrase without swallowing my own tongue by this point. The world has that particular wobbliness and … squeezing instability that suggest soon it will be time to lie down and be less conscious, followed by time to feel very very unwell for many many hours.
"Now," Kate appears to be attempting an unsteady playback on her phone. It's too much to hope that she's going to erase it by accident. "What makes you think it can't be both?"
The first time I realised that writing was important was also the first time I forged my father's signature; there's nothing like having an omnipresent get-out-of-jail-free card in primary school, when you are weedy and pale and the school swimming pool is, for some mysterious reason, neither heated nor particularly clean, and you are already fastidious enough not to want to come up choking on tiny filaments of green algae.
In a possibly circular turn of events I find myself, at cough-splutter-let's-not-get-into-that years old, hunched over my kitchen table (I say kitchen table, it is actually in my living room because my kitchen is about large enough to fit one foot in and was probably intended as a broom cupboard by the Victorians who designed this building) with a selection of papers, pens, and a small hand-held copier, once again forging important signatures.
"Wat," Roland says, passing him a copy of … something. Some newspaper with small pages and big headlines and more editorial than sense. You know the sort. They charge an insultingly tiny amount for their several pages of adverts and celebrity drivel and pay comedians to write columns. "Sit down and stop doing that, you're going to drive me up the bloody wall with you."
Wat is, helpfully, pacing around my flat like a caged bear. He looks uncomfortable. I have no idea if that's because of last night, or because we're about to step into the jaws of the lions and discover whether or not we're Daniel material.
"Wat, sit the fuck down," Kate complains. She's cleaning a gun. Yes, that is why my shoulders are hunched up somewhere around my ears. I do not like the presence of firearms in my flat, because, even more so than the forgeries – which I can at least burn in short order – they will bring the weighty arm of the law around my neck like the hangman's noose. No amount of "I'm researching a book" would save my bacon, and … well. I doubt things would go well for Roland, Kate, and Wat, either.
After a minute or two of glaring and spluttering and threats to do terrible things to Roland and Kate and I (I have looked up the verb "fong", which he uses with bewildering frequency in his threats, and the only reference I can find is that it's from Old English and means "to kick"; quite where Wat came across any Old English and quite why he decided to adopt this particular verb is beyond me), Wat settles as best he can with the tabloid and starts swearing at the contents of this instead.
Peace and quiet in these circumstances is probably less helpful than Wat's usual brand of disruption, because without him growling and glaring and carrying on like a bear with a sore head, my mind is free to wander.
God preserve those prone to introspection.
I suppose that I'm here because … things don't always go the way you'd hoped they would. It's true I always wanted to be a writer; but it's neither true nor likely that anyone in their right mind or not wants to write true crime exposés, biographies of the Duke of Edinburgh's second wife, and feature articles to various magazines and Sunday supplements (and astronomy periodicals; every boy has a hobby). It's true I always wanted to be a writer, but I never wanted to be a journalist, a columnist, or this… thing that I am now.
I wrote a book of poetry once. It was a finely-wrought adventure through the soul, about love and loss and boarding school. It was suppose to touch hearts and change minds, and it didn't. It sold about six copies, and one of those was to my grandmother, who hasn't spoken to me since.
Everything afterward has seemed a little less … important. A little less exciting. The words are just words. That's the trouble with writing; you use the same twenty-six letters for everything. Words are cheap (okay, a flat rate of 1p a word isn't great but it's better than nothing – words are so cheap at the Morning Star they're practically in negative inflation); you can use them to create magic, or to cause murder. Murder pays. The unfolding tragedy of the human soul in decay and the timeless relationship between a person and their deity, or the complex ache of a heart in love with his Latin teacher does not, I'm afraid, keep a roof over one's head or the loan sharks from one's gambling heels.
So it is. I'm a hack.
Underneath the forger and the polite face and the deception of old women and students, the hands that hold the coats of the people who remove the kneecaps of the morons of this city, these are hands that write words that don't matter. Read-once-and-discard words. I used to want so much more.
Of course I could dwell in self-pity here, but I'm not the one being shipped into the country in a metal box by a bunch of bastards. Let's get some perspective, here.
Wat is still fuming at the newspaper, and Roland is still rolling his eyes.
So I'll take a break from the internal monologue and let Wat be the recipient of a poking. He'll only try to break my nose again. The papers are nearly ready. Passports would be taking the piss a little, but indefinite leave to remain … that we can do.
"—stupid, he's not a fucking bender—" Wat shouts, stabbing at the paper with one finger. News. Footballer. Outed. Whether he is or not is largely irrelevant to the … whatever tabloid that is. Some red-top or other.
"Oh come on, Wat. It's as plain as the nose on your face," poke, poke. "Definitely as plain as the one on your face. Well, maybe not that plain…"
And he climbs over the table to try and poke me in the eye. I'm used to this. There's just the odd little additional … frisson. Because I remember him kissing me, and when he catches my eye it's clear that he remembers too.
He lunges again with his fingers clawed, and Kate bats him away.
"Wat, siddown. We have work to do. You can maim the posh boy later."
The papers are fine, which is the important part, and Roland seizes up the news and rolls it into a tube, brandishing it like a baton. "Bad Wat. No biscuit. Sit."
"Oh fuck you," Wat complains, trying to snatch the paper away. "I will fong the living daylights out of—"
"Yes, all right, later, thank you." The words are out before I'm aware I've opened my mouth; too busy concentrating on mimicking every last flick and twitch of this wretched signature, practising it until the curves and kicks are as natural as my own. Too absorbed in my illegality to notice I'm overstepping some invisible line.
The next thing that registers is Roland shoving Wat against the wall and telling him to behave himself. Kate clicks her gun back together again with the echoing snap of a coffin lid.
We are very, very stupid criminals.
NOTES FROM THE JOURNEY TO PORTSMOUTH: DISCARD.
6:45pm: I hate driving. I am not driving to Portsmouth and no one is going to make me. Pitch black already outside, streets full of wankers. This is why I have a scooter.
6:56pm: Roland reverses into a parked car. Kate takes over driving. Am relegated to the back seat because Roland is better at reading maps.
7:08pm: Wat very pointedly ignoring me.
7:39pm: Still haven't managed to escape London. Wat is ignoring me even more loudly now. Have decided that his vigorous ignoring is an excellent excuse for writing up notes. Yes, in front of other people. If anyone asks I'm drawing up a plan for the fantasy football team. Yes, we have a fantasy football league. I know.
7:50pm: I have an MA in Journalism and a 1st in English Literature, both from UCL. Why am I sitting in a fucking Vauxhall Corsa next to an angry semi-literate man with a face like a rubber portrait of himself listening to Roland and Kate fight over which road to take? Why? Why don't we have a Sat-Nav? Is everyone else undercover as well? I refuse to believe any criminal is this useless and still alive.
8:26pm: Travelsick. Wish I was dead.
8:30pm: Scratch the "wish I was dead" part. Not tempting fate.
8:40pm: Stopped to buy Kate a bottle of water because there wasn't one in the car. Wat also bought a scratchcard. BAD. BAD.
9:00pm: Not at Portsmouth yet. NOT AT PORTSMOUTH YET.
9:15pm: We are all going to die horribly and it will because we don't have a Tom-Tom. On the list of "reasons I expected to be murdered when this book was commissioned", that didn't even feature. Roland is calling the scary Albanians – it's my notebook, I will call them that if I want to – to let them know we are late because we are in traffic. There is no fucking traffic, we're just lost.
9:30pm: We are all going to die.
9:46pm: I don't wish to bring up and enforce hideous gender stereotypes but how Kate passed the parallel parking section of her driving test is currently something of a mystery.
10pm: We are actually going to die. If this turns out to be the last record of my thoughts, please tell my sister that I pissed in her fishtank when I was drunk and that I'm deeply sorry.
I am a writer, not a psychic.
Nevertheless, you don't really have to be a psychic to figure out that the course of true people trafficking ne'er did run smooth, and certainly not when you throw borderline amateurs like us into the mix, add some avaricious Albanians, and stir in a pot of money that would make Croesus wank himself to a crisis.
We arrive late. P is not convinced by our apologies but nor is he especially concerned by our tardiness. The much waited-for nearest and dearest of our promising young Eritrean striker are, he explains, waiting in the warehouse. These bastards really do love warehouses. I'm starting to wonder if they're pumped out of little cloning factories in warehouses and then gravitate toward them because if you're a soulless money-grubbing bastard they feel like home.
"I hope he doesn't mean still in the fucking container," Roland mutters when a suspiciously dark warehouse floor is opened up to us. I can't hear Kate withdrawing her gun, but I know her and I know that's almost certainly what she's done.
"I hope they know we don't have the pissing money on us," Kate replies from what sounds like the corner of her mouth. No one is stupid enough to bring that much cash anywhere, and certainly not to a rendezvous with men who ooze disreputability like these do.
And I just hope they're going to turn a light on before I trip over and break my face, and before Wat starts talking.
The lights go on a minute later, just after I stub my toe on what turns out to be the back of Wat's shoe. He's too wound up about the presence of the Scary Albanians to do anything much besides glare at this point, which is a blessing – albeit the kind of blessing you don't actually want; I'd rather we weren't in a warehouse full of probably-armed pricks and Wat was yelling rather than vice versa.
It's … well, it's a fairly typical port-town warehouse. The steel containers were in the yard outside, so what's in here is presumably – when it's full – the smaller packing crates from inside them, ready for redistribution. What is currently inside this warehouse is nothing. Just some smug-looking bastards in leather three-quarter coats (none of whom is short and slightly mulleted after all, but all of whom look like they would disembowel you and then shoot you in the head for getting blood on their shoes. These are not nice men.) and a conspicuous absence of any kind of Eritrean family unit.
"Where's the cargo?" Roland asks, gruff and convincing as a gangland hard man, unless you know him.
The tallest of the Albanians, the one I immediately know is the one I'd thought of as being just like P (because he has the same rotten expression), smiles a shit-eating smile and says, "The price just went up."
As if this wasn't predictable.
"Not paying you at all if they're not here, alive, and in good condition." It's my turn to start making pointless threats, apparently, "The deal is for the safe and healthy delivery of the young man's relatives, and if you can't hold up your end of the bargain then, well …" holding my breath, sucking saliva through my teeth like a mechanic. The lack of subtlety or real rhetoric in these discussions is balanced by the amount of performance involved, I find, "… everyone will find out."
As expected, P yells something in Albanian…ese… (I will look up the name of the language on the draft copy of the manuscript) and one of his unpleasant friends pokes a woman, three girls, and a little boy out into the light from one of the adjacent doorways. They look alive and in one peace and unsurprisingly unhappy about being shoved around by a man who is holding a gun.
I'll look up the make and model for the fucking gun-fetishists who buy these books later. Or someone in editorial can do it.
Wat mutters Oh Jesus under his breath, and there's tension in the air so thick you could probably chew on it. Well, Wat might not be able to …
"So you can see," P says, because he is obviously the kind of man who feels the need to dickwave during negotiations, "we have upheld our end of the bargain."
"If you were upholding it you wouldn't be holding them to ransom." Correct, that is my smart mouth still talking.
"If you were clever men you would pay up, call your boss for more money," P says, smiling one of those I Have You By The Balls smiles. An editorial smile. A loan shark smile. "It is all the same to me if they die. Who cares about dead immigrants?"
"It won't be all the fucking same to you when--fmmmrggggghh—"
Thank God for Roland, who has the presence of mind to slap his hand over Wat's mouth hard enough that the sound reverberates through the whole warehouse and Wat, from the looks of things, is too injured and scandalised to think about biting him on it.
"Please do not think about making threats," P says with another of his horrible loan-shark smirks, although it's a little late for that; if Wat ever thinks at all he's definitely thinking about threatening all kinds of graphic and incoherent violence by now. "We are equipped to fuck you, and we will go on fucking you until your employer provides us with the same amount again."
Kate says, "Your justification is, let me get this straight …"
Oh no no no.
"… you're reneging on your promise and demanding a hundred percent pay hike …"
No no no no Kate shut up stop it.
"… and your justification is, I have guns and you don't?"
"Yes," P says with another of his fucking fucking smiles, "that is what I am saying."
"No," Kate says.
There is a very, very loud noise, and one of the Albanians looks at his shoulder as if he's confused by it. And startled by it. His shoulder flinches back as if it's been hit by a very tiny train, or a hundred-mile-an-hour fist. There's a long, empty pause where one of Nasih's sisters turns her head away from the rest of us and looks at the ceiling as if she's waiting for everything to be over. I'm going to pretend that her shoulders were moving like that because of the cold in the warehouse.
For a moment everything is happening in … not so much slow motion as stupid-motion; I know my brain's running on half-power from sheer dread. They … usually keep me away from the bits that involve people getting shot, the others; I exude "lover, not fighter" the way sewers spew methane and Wat discharges sweat.
So the gout of blood which slowly trickles down the Albanian's arm and off his fingers, falls, and leaves a pattern of expanding circles on the concrete floor, that is paralysingly clear; the conversation Kate is apparently having with P and his horrid friends is over my head and might as well be taking place in Mandarin.
As far as I can ascertain, hypnotised by the falling blood, the man Kate has shot is very angry and demanding that we all be killed; P is a businessman and feels that only one of us needs to die. Maybe only lose a limb. How comforting. Someone else is suggesting that one of us and one of the children should lose a limb each to show that they are serious.
You know, I'm quite convinced they're serious already. This is unnecessary.
P grabs my throat.
Now, if I were an action hero – which I am expressly not – at this point I would karate-chop his wrist and spring back, possibly ninja some unarmed people, and generally save the day with my unarmed combat skills. However, I am a writer. My unarmed combat skills consist of sarcasm and occasionally throwing my drink in someone's eyes so I can run away, and the latter makes my heart pound for about an hour afterward.
So what I am actually going to do is stand very still while Kate points a gun at P's face and shouts that she's going to give him a third nostril if he doesn't let go, and P's horrible friends or associates point guns at us and point out that if she moves, I am dead and so is she.
In the business this is known by many names: Mexican stand-off, a quandary, and "you're fucked."
The door shakes on its hinges. I confess that I am about the only person looking at the door, and that is because everyone else is too tense, too professional to notice those tiresome writerly details. The door is shaking. It's windy outside. This is displacement activity, of course; there's a hand squeezing my windpipe and if I grab at his wrist he'll shoot me in the face. Why not concentrate on the door jumping?
The door, it turns out, is worthy of this attention. It validates itself by smashing off its restraints and sliding like a beermat over a bartop to a rest several feet inside the warehouse.
It is almost magical how quickly you get put down when the door of a warehouse is kicked onto the floor and the room fills up with rather intimidating, shadowy, balaclava'd-and-booted individuals; P dumps me onto the floor like an unsuccessful betting slip, and backs away. We will gloss over my undignified scrabbling to my feet, and the way my arse hurt through the entire rest of this conversation, and the sweat on my palms.
One of the black-clad commando-esque gun-toting lunatics pulls his balaclava up to reveal a familiar, scarred, bizarrely handsome face. "So nice of you to put my boy down. Now, stand back or I will shoot you in the knee."
P does as he is told; I can't see his expression thanks to still being on the floor, and it's Kate and Roland who help me to my feet. Wat is evidently too busy gaping at everything like a hungry frog, the way he does when something comes out of nowhere.
"Problems, problems," he sighs. Edward. Edward is as close to royalty as you can get in these circles without being Russian or Chinese or possibly actual royalty from some perpetually war-torn little African nation. There are about forty men with guns in here and I am starting to feel like this is a nasty funfair game: shoot all the little men and you can take home the prize.
I have never been more uncomfortable in my life to be one of the "little men".
"Problems with the new order," Edward continues. He has this gun that looks like black death. I'm not the firearms expert. I'll look it up at some point, find out what it is the Black Prince (A confusing name; Edward is whiter than white, he's not even Irish, I have no idea where the moniker comes from and I'll be buggered if I'm going to ask, I like my insides on my inside.) is pointing at the aggrieved-looking, twitchy Albanians.
The idea that I'm not going to die is quite comforting.
The man Kate shot, I suspect, is not going to be so lucky. He is still bleeding and has gone quite pale; that face looks suspiciously like the mask of waxy death. There's a lot of blood dribbling out of his coat sleeve, and now from the bottom hem too.
"The thing about you Johnny-come-latelys is that you're such small thinkers. You have no faith in the essential nature of trade. For all you knew, I could have been after several groupings of people. I might want," here he spreads his arms and grins as if we're all friends. Edward has an electrifying grin with the kind of charm that makes James Bond seem crude and any legion of crooners utterly impotent by comparison. It is the smile of a lion faced with some quavering Christians. "To introduce a virtual multitude of friends to the shores of this happy nation via your route. And look at you. You're greedy and you fucked it up."
The Albanians are sporting an expression that looks like defiance had a drunken fumble with sheepishness and knicker-wetting terror stole in through the side door and caught them at it. Nasih's family are suffering from no such internal conflict; I have no idea how much English they understand but they seem resigned to this showdown ending badly; standing in a group, the youngest of the little girls is holding her mother's hand and they are looking at the floor. I have this horrible feeling they're used to being pushed around by rich men with guns.
Please God never let me take another job like this again. I will write all the stupid biographies of vain Royals you can throw at me. I will copy-write for NHS information leaflets, anything. Just no more standing in warehouses thinking, they're probably used to being pushed around by men with guns, please. That little girl cannot be older than six.
"Come on, boys," Edward says in that friendly-matey-threatening voice he does so well, the one which conceals violence just beneath the camaraderie like poison beneath the frothy surface of a latte (believe me, it happens). "You're not cut out to play big boys' games. You're unsophisticated. Crude. You've left me in a position where I have no choice but to fuck you up and fuck up your lovely families, just to make sure people know not to pull the same stupid stunt." He gestures with his gun. Two or three of the apparently endlessly multiplying black-clad men flank the Albanians, who look like they're intending to shoot and then don't.
Some guns fall on the floor. Nasih's family draw tighter together. The smallest of his sisters puts her face against her mother's stomach.
A few more of Edward's men go over to the Albanians. This is the point at which I would like to put my hands over my eyes and pretend none of this is happening; it looks very fine on the television screen and unbearably tense in person. I think I can feel my heartbeat in my nose somewhere.
"Be nice and take them outside, would you?" Edward asks in a lazy, offhand manner, removing an empty clip from his gun. He can afford to be casual with this many men who are prepared. "There are ladies present."
We all assume he means Nasih's mother and sisters, because anyone calling Kate a lady would find himself looking for his teeth in his shit.
Edward passes his gun to me.
Not to Kate, not to any of his men, but to me. Without looking. He just passes it backward into my hands, and doesn't spare a glance for my fumble-fingered cack-handed Oh God I'm Holding A Gun panic. Instead he's crouching down beside the smallest of the girls, addressing Nasih's mother, though he's talking to the little girl (I don't think she understands English). He's telling them everything is going to be okay, that they're going to see Nasih very shortly, and that if they need or want anything they should tell – he gestures around the warehouse – one of these men in black, and they'll make sure that they have it.
There's a muffled bang from outside.
The gun feels like a bad joke in my hands. I can't help wondering which of the Albanians just ingested lead.
Edward gets up and nods to more of his men. "Geoff, gun, please." As soon as it's out of my hands he slots another clip into it without looking. His hands are used to this weapon in a way that mine will never be, if I can help it.
That's my boss. Nominally. Obviously I still work for The Independent and HarperCollins publishing until my book is actually written. But until that time, this man is my boss. I have to say, if I was in a tight spot with the commissioning editor, I'd still rather have the Black Prince on my side than my bloody agent; Edward takes care of his own.
... and there's no doubt he regards me as his own.
POST SCRIPT: Things are about to get a lot more interesting.