We worked our way up, over the course of the summer, from flats and bedsits with broken windows, to a bungalow in the suburbs, then the big prize, the one she was so dying to do – the four storey mansion in Clifton.
I sat drumming my fingers on the steering wheel of the Mark II Golf a week beforehand, watching as she paced the tree-lined avenue outside the house, spun on her Reebok soles and came back to me. Afternoons spent sunning ourselves in St. Andrew’s park had blanched the ends of her hair. The roots were dark. I think I caught the moment she photographed the property with her mind – the bright red door, the Jag on the drive, the corners where the security lights would cast shadows, the distinct lack of an alarm. What could possibly go wrong? A group of girls trailed between us – students with shopping bags and daddy’s credit card, and for a moment I lost sight of her. I held my breath until she came bounding up to the door, eyes green as glass.
“This is the one,” she said as she shimmied in. “It won’t be easy, but we’ll do it.”
“It’s OK,” she said, running her hand over my stubble.
We watched as the family came and went, three kids in football strips, lights on and off, upstairs and down, wife running home from work in a downpour, fishing around in her handbag for her keys. They shut out their tabby cat and it sat there, pitiful and dripping on the windowsill for two hours. My hands tightened on the wheel and she slurped the dregs of a KFC coke, sniggering at Late Night Love on the radio.
August the fifteenth. We’d planned to stay in bed all morning. If only we’d stayed in bed the whole day. She always slept so intensely, one arm wrapped over her face, purring away. And why shouldn’t she have restful slumber? We had everything ready; my student loan had come through, the tool bag nestled in the boot of my (diesel-filled) car along with two pairs of gloves, hats, boots and a couple of cans of Stella in readiness for celebration.
We’d memorized every configuration of the household, allowing for a sliding scale of parameters, had it all covered. The arrivals and departures, the rituals and movements of that family in all their economic bliss. I’d also planned impeccably for nasty surprises. Phones charged, escape routes through the shrubbery careful to avoid the vegetable garden where our footprints would remain for the SOCOs. The sheets still clasped my body in an unhealthy embrace and I had to get up several times, the anxiety had loosened my bowels. I stood at the window gazing across the city at dawn, cranes and towers determining its future shape, graffiti writing over its history. I grew up in the Quantocks and it agitated me to be faced with that view every morning rather than green folds of countryside. And I still longed for travel, for adventure, heat, sand and spice. Three years previous she and I fumbled to the thump of music in a club, she’d followed me home and never really left. At noon, I rolled into what had become her side of the bed, put on my glasses and felt my legs tremble into the day I would commit a monstrous act. The ammonia stench of hair bleach reached my nostrils; I found her in the kitchen scrubbing the hob and waiting for the peroxide to take on her hair, as though looking this good was a prerequisite of robbing the rich. Next would be the blusher on the apples of her cheeks and the small gold crucifix suspended in reverence above her clavicle. I gulped back a couple of Nurofen and a multivitamin with a strong brew, it was all I could face and I’d function better that way. We could always go for a steak feast afterwards if she allowed it. She sometimes did.
She raised her chin and exposed teeth.
“Sleepy?” she asked.
“Wish I was.”
“I got up early. I’m so psyched, can’t sit still.” She jiggled in demonstration. “Keep thinking about all the stuff in that place.”
A right Aladdin’s cave of Ipads and digital SLR cameras, I was sure. Definitely no cash. We looked at each other for a few minutes. She was waiting for me to look away first.
“This is the last one, yeah?” I said, eventually.
Her half-smile didn’t answer. After the first one – a dingy flat in the block adjacent to ours from which we lifted a laptop – we agreed we’d save whatever we took and add it to the money in the ISA my gran opened for me now my parents were divorcing – swap grey skies for blue. She argued blind for Costa del Sol, because her dad (God bless him) had always taken them there on holiday. I preferred a far-flung Thai island where we could bring up our babies on the sand and die tanned and old in our beach hut, bellies full of Singha beer and noodles. Some nights I dreamt I was already on the plane. Either way, we’d give this up for good. One summer was enough. I played Grand Theft Auto III on the X-box for an hour just to waste some time. Choosing the Sabre GT, classic for hand brake turns, I threw it into the corners and knocked down cops and pedestrians as I went. She’d nicked the game for my birthday, but I didn’t enjoy it, revelling in others’ losses. As usual, I couldn’t concentrate on the screen and kept picturing all the real life ‘what ifs?’ The man returning home with a shotgun or a police chase through the city in which she kept tripping over and I had to keep pulling her up and carrying on.
We left the flat forty-five minutes after the wife of the house would depart for what we imagined was some kind of art class, and four hours before the family all got home together. It was a Thursday and the kids would be picked up, I speculated, from a childminder by dad – they’d have a takeaway in front of the TV. I’d seen the empty tubs and bags in their dustbin.
I drove the scenic route, taking us up Park Row, over the Triangle, the boutiques and bars smudging past, wishing that the journey would never, ever end. We meandered round the Village, much to her disgust, winding our way to where the gorge hollowed out ahead with the bridge suspended over it. We were just two young lovers out for a drive, a well-spoken lad and a girl with a startling face. I could change the story – perhaps we headed for a picnic on the downs or a trip to the zoo instead. There she is, posing next to the bars of the tiger cage with her claws outstretched and her mouth in a silent roar.
I pulled up the trusty getaway in a cul-de-sac round the corner. Everything was wrong, heat smothered me, but there was no sun. My mouth was dry and my hands wet. All this waiting and wondering was driving me up the wall. Once we were both out of the car, she kissed me for a few good minutes. Clad in denim cut-offs and my jumper, she was more than persuasive. It was a matter of biding my time with her, seeing what she’d do next.
“There’s no hurry.” I held onto her arm.
A laugh rippled through her.
“What’s up with you?” she said loudly. “You’re being a right weirdo.”
An ice cream van’s jingle echoed in the street, but no one was around to sample Mr Whippy’s delights. My hand slid into hers as we crossed the road. Measured steps, mind the cracks. I thought of the simplicity of her early crimes at seventeen – adding vodka to her orange juice from a miniature in pub, anticipating when the greengrocer’s back would be turned and half-inching a cauliflower from the rack for the thrill of it, which I went back and paid for. A mass of skin and hair hurtled towards me, violating my train of thought. An old guy on a bike, voyaging somewhere important no doubt, wobbled to a stop inches from my legs.
“Watch out,” he cried.
“Watch out yourself, you prick,” she turned and said to him.
I tugged on her hand “Sshh.”
“There’s no need for that young lady.”
He puffed out his sunburnt chest, his age-spotted forehead swelled with rage. Leave it alone, I thought, side–stepping his front wheel and manoeuvred her out of harm’s way. We stood there until he pedalled off around the corner, tutting and shaking his head.
“That’s it,” I mumbled. We edged through the gate where we found ourselves bordered by plants of rusty scab red and luminous green. The lawn had dried to a crumble. “We can’t do it now,” I remember saying. “Can we?”
She turned, looked jagged. “Why not?”
“He’ll know it was us, for a start.”
“Stop being paranoid,” she said.
My sensitive guts constricted. As we followed the path, I watched the horizon, lingering when she neared the back door and her gloved hands dipped into the bag for the crowbar. She covered her hair with the baseball cap, but strands still escaped. The boot scraper was caked in mud, but the yellow plastic and shiny screws on the door near it were recent editions. To my surprise they’d fitted a catflap.
“Yesss!” she exclaimed, becoming feline and coquettish before my eyes. “Catflaps are piss-easy, remember?” She crouched down and spied in the lock, the backs of her knees baring dewdrops of perspiration.
“Oh my god.” She turned wide-eyed. “They’re idiots! They’ve only gone and left the key on the inside. This is meant to be.”
From the bag she grabbed a length of wire, wound the end around a squashed wire coat-hanger and inserted it in the aperture. It was ingenious what we’d learned over a few months. She rattled the hanger around inside. The bolt drew back. She narrowed her eyes in concentration. Clunk – the key fell on the mat and she fished it out, stood up and unlocked the entrance. I couldn’t really believe we were in. A wasp shot past my face. The air compressed me like the tingly sweat that comes before you retch. She stepped over the threshold. I stalled, wriggling my fingers into the holes of my gloves, before making the slow passage from one world to another.
They surely employed a cleaner, but the place smelt expired. My blonde accomplice hadn’t stopped to notice anything so subtle and ran about on the kitchen tiles, whooping really loudly; I had to put my hand over her mouth to make her quiet. Reality splintered. She’d stepped into that house and something happened, a synapse flickered in her and went supernova, as suddenly as that. Euphoria like nothing I’d seen, not when drunk or high, or in bed with me, for that matter.
“C’mon, keep calm,” I turned her face towards me. “Remember why we’re here.”
She pulled away and disappeared up the stairs. I threw a Wii, some DVDs, the usual, into a couple of pillowcases, blood hammering in my head. I didn’t need any of this stuff, I suddenly thought, and let the pillowcases drop to the floor. I found her in the master bedroom where she bounced on freshly laundered bedding. She pulled me to her and kissed me again. Burrowing her nose in my ear she called me my name. Thighs hinged softly around me.
“Not here,” I said, disentangling myself from her clutches in the least hurtful way. Her pursed lips turned into a smile and it struck me that it would always take this much excitement to satisfy her girlish inclinations. Shaking bleached strands, she darted onto the landing and down the stairs, I tried to keep up, but it was like watching a gory film thundering to its denouement: you peek at it through your fingers. By the time I got back to the kitchen, the Smeg fridge was agape – she gnawed into a chicken wing and dropped jars of strawberry conserve and feta cubes on flagstones, capers and gherkins recoiled among shreds of glass. Next she took a felt tip and scribbled a frantic pattern over the children’s drawings of a house, a cat, a football match.
She’d acquired several strings of pearls from the bedroom which she plopped one by one into the watery deep of the downstairs loo. In the sitting room, she ran hands along the bookshelves, showering the floor with paperbacks as she went. She knocked a framed photo of an elaborate wedding and I set it straight on the mantelpiece. She growled, “Leave it!”
She ripped curtains from poles, un-potted plants, threw a vase at the flatscreen HD-TV. Bleach was emptied on the living room carpet, followed by Chanel No. 5, milk and the contents of the cat litter tray. We’d been so neat in the other places, crept in, taken a few bits and gone. I’d known she wanted to do more, mess it up, spoil what they had, and here she was, a cyclone of pale hair, dancing on broken crockery. She yanked photos from frames and tore them up, then reached into a basket and wrenched out a cherished Thomas the Tank. Quiet Sundays, cricket matches and thank-you notes for birthday presents deluged my brain. My arms shot into the air.
“What the hell are you doing?” I could hardly remember her name. I grabbed her, held her shoulder blades close against my chest.
“You’re just a tourist aren’t you? Slummin’ it with me to see what it’s like?” she yelled. I frowned.
“We’ve got to go. Now,” I said. She was immobile except for the heartbeat of a rabbit and her head quivered. In a second she was screaming again and kicking my shins.
“What are you so upset about?” I said.
“You’re gutless, Christopher.” She shouted. “Gutless!” As if the word reminded her of something. “You will be.” From her pocket the sparkle of metal, brought coolly to my neck.
“You stupid girl, why bring a knife?”
“I’m not stupid,” she snarled. “Stop saying that.”
I’d never once called her that before, but I didn’t have time to reply. I grappled her onto the carpet; we rolled to the side, cat litter stuck to my face. I pushed her wrist down and the blade must’ve scratched her arm, because blood coursed the length of it. The sight jolted me away from her.
“Let’s just go. We can leave it all here,” I said.
“No,” she said, calmer now. “I’m going to burn all of it.”
I walked away, out the back door, across the lawn, the soles of my boots breaking into a run and resonating in the road. Clouds collided in the sky: three o’clock in the afternoon and sombre as night. By the time I reached the car my windpipe was on fire. I exhaled, safe in a cocoon of German design. After the flash of lightning, I counted for the thunder; one, two, three, four, but it didn’t come. Neither did the rain. I pressed nine on the touchscreen of my phone with a trembling finger. Stopped. Pressed it twice more.
The man on the bike was never called as a witness, never came forward. Maybe he died, who knows, looked like he was on the way out. She, the angel, never mentioned my name on the police tapes or when roasted by the barristers’ cross-examination. She really had loved me. Proper love. But she knows I shopped her to the police; she must do. There were some questions over transport, but not enough to arouse suspicion and her DNA was streaked for all to see on the carpet where they found her. Having ‘self-harmed’, there was no denying it. To everyone else, it was like I was never there.
Five aggravated burglary dwellings they linked her to, including an ‘untidy’ search; assault PC (she pulled the blade on the arresting officer too). Judge Collinson made an example of her, and that, combined with a lack of remorse on her part, her unwillingness to talk, and CPS targets on house-breakers, meant she got twelve years and will probably serve six. For a short spell she was prisoner TD2946 at Eastwood Park, not that I visited and it was such a trek by train once I’d sold the car. They must’ve done a mental health assessment on her, because she was placed in a hospital for a while; then shifted back inside when they didn’t know what to do with her.
The original letters, written in a darkened room, are now streaked with sunlight. Institution paper you can see your hand through, equally spaced lines, no holes. Plagued with mistakes, no spell-check function when writing by hand. These are the 2D representations, the ordinance survey maps of her. Apologies, declarations of love, complaints about prison food. Some were redirected to my new Glasgow address.
‘…don’t know if your still living on the estate. Doubt it. I bet you got your degree by now and are travelling in Asia or sumwhere. Don’t worry about me, Im allright. Getting a NVQ in beauty, doing all the other girls nails. Got into a fight again today, cant help it….’
Most of the letters are a voice straining to be heard across a chasm, others are as though she’s right next to me shouting ‘big kisses’ and laughing. I don’t claim to know what happened to her that day in the house, but deliberating over her words brings me closer to understanding. As the months went on, so the letters got fewer. Here, bar the heather-grey clouds resting on tiles and the gullies packed with snow, my rooftop view is much the same as before. I bought myself a five-year diary and circled a speculative date in red ink. For the time being I can’t bring myself to seek her out in the system and visit. Nor can I bite the bullet, pack a rucksack and explore the world. Instead, I sit looking out over a purgatory of pebbledash and pigeon shit, paused for the day she’s released or the day we both accept the truth – whichever comes sooner.