December 3, 2023

First Look: The Greater Thief

The day the man at the end of the road got shot was a fairy tale day. It was a day I’d spent in another world wondering if my prince would trot round the corner and along the grisly north London street on a white horse. I thought it all through thoroughly, as I sat on the bit of roof that jutted out below our kitchen window and blew cigarette smoke across the row of kissing terraced gardens. He’d have to stop the traffic, shout up at the window and probably enlist the help of a passer by to hold the horse so I could leap gracefully down into his free and waiting arms.

In fact the only people on horses that day were the police. And of course there was no prince, not anymore.

I’d learnt to escape into stories and fantasies when I was very young, as soon as I understood that a bedtime story stopped me being afraid of the dark. When Mum died, I used the fairy tale days to keep me going – a gentle background of magic and imagination makes everything easier.

The shooting was not part of the fantasy – was it two shots or three? I think two, but the memory is jagged, as if the edges got torn when it was ripped out of my mind and put down on paper. Written and rewritten. Contorted. Yes, two shots and the roar of a motorbike.

The day should have been average in every way. It was a Monday in May; the soundtrack of low rumbling, punctured by voices and the whine of tired busses, told me that life in the city went on as usual. I’d got up intending to make a start on an essay, but ended up reading and rereading a single poem. He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. It was in a slim paperback volume; The Collected Poems of W B Yeats, everyman edition. When I flicked through and began to read that morning I instantly fell in love, even though the poem was short and strange and it didn’t rhyme. It ambushed me, called out, harassed me, and I hadn’t got any further. I couldn’t escape the feelings that had risen up in my chest, or the compulsion to read the words one more time.


“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”


It was weird. What was it? I didn’t know that the poem would shape the week to come and change my life for ever. I couldn’t know that, but it made me feel, and that made me want to run.

That was where the prince came in, at least he was predictable. I lit another cigarette and watched the pine tree at the bottom of the garden. Foliage puffed around him and gave the impression of strength, magnitude, but his trunk was thin and it bent when strong winds bowled down between the terraces. Like an old woman in a big skirt. The tree must have seen it all. How many deaths has that tree seen? Murders. Robberies. Heart attacks, and long drawn out illnesses. I wonder if it even notices any more. The roof was warm and lumpy in the late afternoon sun. I could smell chilli, and old rubbish. Most of all I could smell the pine tree. I needed to get out.

I went to the pub across the street. There was nothing in the polished oak tables and benches, the laminated food menus, the dirty ash trays, there was still nothing in any of it to make that Monday stand out from all the other Mondays I had lived on this street. I ordered red wine and sat in the corner. I had brought the book with me, rammed into the pocket of a thick brown coat too heavy for the weather. I put it on the table and drank the wine quickly, looking around over the rim of the glass with the coat still tight around my body and heat rising through the fabric. The trapped light flailed against the doors and walls and died. A fitting resting place for The Collected Poems of W B Yeats, everyman edition. When there were more people I could leave it here and no one would notice. I would pick a different topic and start the essay again tomorrow.

There were only four other customers in the pub, plus the barman. In one corner was Donald who lived a few doors down from me. There was a couple sat at the bar between my corner and his, the man was chatting to the barman as he dried glasses. He was tall and pointy, with hair that I have to describe as ginger but it was far lighter than you’ll imagine. His legs were long and I could see from behind they were resting on the floor, not on the bar stool the way most people’s did. Now I think about it they might not have been a couple; the woman read the newspaper and drank slowly from a pint glass, barely speaking to the two men.

The one other person was sat round the corner watching footballers move silently across a big plasma screen. If the footballers in question weren’t Arsenal they were usually sentenced to silence. Especially on a Monday evening. It must have been a replay. I wondered if they recorded the matches every week and set them playing in a perpetual loop until the next new match, the losing teams destined forever to keep making the same mistakes in a never-ending testosterone fueled mime show. I thought it was a man because I could see one shoulder and arm jutting out from where the bar blocked my view of him. A dark-skinned hand, and a broad shadow sliced out of the synthetic light stickered onto the pub’s floor. I didn’t draw attention to myself, I wasn’t interested in small talk or flirting. I got a second drink from the bar and slid back into my corner, concentrating on the plan to leave the book there.

Tread Softly. Two gunshots, the roar of a motorbike and the flutter of yellow police tape. Or the flutter of torn pages in the wind.

Outside the sun was dropping away behind distant buildings. Sirens were whining. I looked out of the window at the Emirates Stadium, towering over everything like a long necked dinosaur. I like the way the setting sun lights the city. Before everything becomes dark and neon there is a moment where the horizontal light shoots colours across the skyline to ricochet off browns and greys and dirty windows and turn them into a watercolour painting. I can never resist looking at the world transformed like that. It looks much better. I’ve always thought it’s the way God wants us to see the city – the way He sees it – soft and sad and shining; broken but still beautiful in its endeavour, the hope that set it in motion and drives it day in and day out.

Sirens and shadows passing over buckled concrete. Brown stains on pavement grey.

I was thinking about the old days, when Harry was the landlord there. I got to know him pretty well during my hugging period, which came from a story Dad used to tell me called Tam Lin. It was about a girl who met her true love in an enchanted forest. He – Tam Lin – was enslaved to the fairy queen but he told her how to set him free so they could be together forever. When she saw him ride out with the fairies she had to throw her arms tight around him. First they would turn him into fire, then into ice and then into a snake but she had to hold tight if she loved him. Of course the girl didn’t let go and Tam Lin finally turned into himself; her true love. After I first heard this story was the period when I kept throwing my arms round people and holding on to see if they would turn into my true love. Dad was embarrassed so he told me I was too young to have a true love, but I didn’t believe him. Harry was one of my first victims and he used to encourage me to try it out on customers. He thought it was funny – a little girl hanging onto football shirted men no matter how they tried to shake her off. But that was a long time ago, the pub had changed and most of the important people from back then were gone, including Harry. Now it was just me and Dad. We didn’t talk much about stories any more, and we never talked about true love.

I twirled the glass of wine and fingered the glossy cover of the book. It was smooth like a puddle. The football-watching-figure began to leave. Tread softly. He was wearing a baseball cap, hoody and jeans; unremarkable. I deliberately wasn’t looking at him as he moved towards me on his way to the door, silently dropping an empty pint glass at the bar. I was draining the last of my wine and pretending to read the book. Tread softly. The pages were open and whispering to me again of past pain and impending disaster, the words pushing into my head like sand running backwards through an hour glass.

I flicked the pages and forced myself to read. The man stopped by my table.

I looked up. It was Josh.

Josh was my very own Tam Lin; I’d found him in the place I was forbidden to go. Except in my case it wasn’t an enchanted forest, it was a North London estate. A place of toughs and thugs and ordinary hard working people. A city within a city, full of layers of life I had never known. So of course I went there. And although I hadn’t seen Josh for nearly a year he had ruptured the edges of my world for good. But I didn’t hold on, I couldn’t. The story makes it sound so simple, but what about the girl? She was probably burnt, bitten by the snake and never the same again. I thought the price I would have to pay to keep him was too high, but then I missed him every day once he was gone. I’d wanted to see him again, imagined this moment over and over, but I couldn’t make it happen myself, trapped as I was on the knife edge of my own decision. Convinced I would loose something whichever way I fell. I thought I’d lost Paul as it was, whose friendship I never valued until it was gone. I couldn’t risk any more.

I had dozens of lines ready from the imagined meetings, a whole stable of possible openers, but now it was real, now he was in front of me, I realised I’d forgotten to factor in what he would be thinking. I had no idea where I stood, no idea if he hated me or still loved me. I couldn’t speak until he did, and sat looking up over my wine glass, feeling the warmth I always felt when he was near ooze through my body.

“I’ve been around here a bit, kind of hoping I’d see you but never believing it’d happen. Now i’m standing here without a clue what to say I look like an idiot. Guess there’s too much on my mind tonight.”He smiled.

I didn’t know why I still couldn’t speak. Its like that sometimes when you want so much to say the right thing – to say anything becomes too much of a risk. When I told him it was over nine months before, I had thought it would get easier eventually. That if I left it long enough the next time I saw him it would be just like seeing anybody else.

“What’s this?” He put his hand gently onto the cover of the book.

Like no-man’s land, I thought. I mimicked the gesture as I answered him.

“Poems. W. B. Yeats. He’s Irish.”

“For an essay, is it?”

“Supposed to be.”

“Yeats is the one with Aengus right? I remember you told me, that time on the heath. The god of dreams who had to search all over for his girl.”

I nodded. I had only ever told Josh about that. Dad had pinned the poem to the board above his desk after Mum died. I remembered that I loved this about Josh; the way he knew when things were important to me and didn’t brush them away. He always had time for the things I loved.

“Is that poem in there?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t looked.”

His phone blipped the message tone. It was only then that I noticed he was holding it in his hand. Usually Josh forgot his phone at his place or someone else’s, leaving it anywhere he wasn’t. As he looked at the message, I thought his hand was shaking.

“Shit. Alice, I’m sorry I have to go.” He looked quickly to the left and right when he spoke.

“It’s alright, I mean if you have to – ”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

The weight of all the things we hadn’t said pulled tense between us, thinning into a tightrope as our minds were already leaving the conversation. I could see in his eyes he wanted to stay.

“Ok, well, maybe I’ll see you.”

I wanted to shout back yes but my mouth was heavy and dulled. He waited, then turned suddenly, as though he had to do it quickly or not at all.

“Josh?” I reached out, desperate, fumbling like a novice on the ever thinning rope. The resolve in my voice was surprising as it rang out in the near empty pub. I stood up and held out the book.

“Take it. Read the Aengus poem. Then, if you’ve got the time, maybe you could call me and tell me what you think of it?”

He grinned, and I smiled back. We might have laughed if we hadn’t both noticed everyone in the pub watching.

“Thanks.” He took book and left, putting his hood up as he stepped onto the pavement.

So that was it. I had found a poem that bewitched me and the same day I gave it away to the man who put a spell on my heart.  And still in my head all I could hear, round and round, was: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.

It was a pause moment; A funny hat with a dot under in music – the sky with me under it and still. Then suddenly everything was black. As though the dot had exploded and ripped through the world leaving nothing but black and ringing in my ears. I knew what was coming. Sirens and tape, screams, sobs and deep brown stains on faceless grey: blood on the pavement. Body bags rustling.

There was a gunshot. Close by. A gunshot outside the pub. And then another. The noise of a motor bike and a man shouting. In those few seconds only these sounds exist – when I think back there is nothing else. I can remember now.

And then noise and the city rushed back in upon us, like coming up from underwater. There was traffic, car horns, people, shouting, the unspecific drone of the city. Sirens in the distance, but nothing close. I went to the window, Josh was gone. There were people running across the road towards a lump of clothes lying on the pavement. What was Josh wearing? I tried to imagine but when I closed my eyes I was blinded by the darkness, the moment before ringing on in my mind. It didn’t look like him, but how could I tell? The man from the bar was already out the door. I needed to know what had happened, I needed to get closer. I looked at the faces around me, pointing like dogs towards the place of death, and we moved together through the right hand door, as if by some irresistible force of nature, the plug hole of curiosity and fear pulling us all down and out into the dark street.


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