Learning Curve

By Steve Wetherell

 

My name is Jack, and since you asked, yeah, I’ve always been a bastard.

Not in the traditional sense, mind you. Well, yeah, maybe that too. Never knew my Dad. There were a couple of stand-ins that never lasted long. Billy’s Dad, he stuck around longest. He was alright. Only ever hit me when I deserved it, which is fair enough.

Nah. What I mean is I’ve always been a professional bastard. I mean, well, I suppose I must have been an amateur at some point, but you know what they say: if you’re good at something you don’t do it for free. That’s why when most kids were trading football stickers and pick n’ mix I was already selling off stolen porn magazines and cheap foreign fags. Go where the money is, sell high buy cheap. Or sell high and don’t buy at all, I suppose.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking; “If this fucker’s such a professional, then what’s he doing hiding out in this shithole bar at the arse end of El Nowhere?” That’s a good question. I’ve got my answers, but I suppose all the other washed out wrong ‘uns have got theirs too. Best laid plans and all that shit. Let’s just say that I was playing a game, and playing it well, and then some fucker changed the rules. Leave it at that.

Where was I?

Oh yeah, always been a professional, me. I think I was about thirteen when I moved into the big leagues proper, though. I was a sharp kid, sharp enough to know that if I ever wanted to see some serious scratch I’d need to shift something harder than stale packs of Lucky Strikes and crusty copies of Reader’s Wives. Coke was coming in big back then, and for a while it was what was known as a deregulated market. Lots of producers, lots of movers, lots of people looking to lock it all down. Chaos.  And where there’s chaos you get opportunists. That was me- an opportunist. I watched the dealers, saw how they operated. It didn’t take much hanging around to learn who the players were. Learn where the weak links were in the supply chain.

So there I was on the Caulfield estate. Now, I grew up on a street where the houses would have fallen down if they weren’t propped against each other, but I was always glad I didn’t grow up in a tower block. There’s something about them, all that concrete and rust, the gangways and thick doors. They feel like prisons. No surprise they’re usually filled with criminals. Profiling, that is, but back then we just called it observation. It was half past ten and no place for a thirteen year old kid in his shit trainers with his hood up, but I wasn’t bothered, even back then. Professional, you see?

I was making my way to Lazlo’s place, climbing up the piss smelling stairwells to the top floor. Lazlo seemed to me to be an odd choice for a dealer, but he was the name I had to go on. He was this mad Russian who liked nothing more than sitting in pubs drinking bad lager until he was drunk enough to beat the shit out of a stranger, which in his case wasn’t really that drunk at all. I’d followed him about, watching him without being watched, clocking his schedule. He was the kind of guy whose whole vibe screamed “Don’t Fuck With Me.” A massive tattooed sausage of a man, with a big, red shiny head. What little English he knew he bellowed at the top of his lungs. He wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, is what I mean. People were scared of him, though. Certainly too scared to break into his flat and steal his shit.

So, I was breaking into his flat to steal his shit. Now, Lazlo may have been mad as a frog’s cock, but he wasn’t an idiot. He had one of those doors that were reinforced metal, more locks than the chastity belt on Satan’s missus. Getting into his flat through the front door would have needed a mortar round. Luckily, though, this was summer time, the proper British summer time you used to get back then, when you could fry and egg on a car bonnet by day and the nights clung to you like wet soot. The front door would be a no go, but I was willing to bet my life that the back door on the balcony would be open. Literally bet my life, seeing as Lazlo lived fifteen stories up.

Using the switchblade which was the only legacy my dad left, I fiddled the lock and broke into an empty flat four doors down. In through the front, out through the back, and then it was a bit of balcony hopping and trying not to look down at the concrete sea below. Not a fan of heights, but needs must. When I finally got to Lazlo’s balcony the back door wasn’t open, but the window by it was, so all it took was a quick reach through and I was in.

Now, I was cool, yeah, cooler than a snowman’s cold bits, but I wasn’t rash. I knew Lazlo wouldn’t be getting back in until well after the pubs shut, so I figured the place would be empty when I broke in. The place wasn’t empty, though. The telly was on, loud, and on the couch a chubby blonde woman in a greying nighty was sprawled out in a manner that left little to the imagination. There was a strong stink of weed and the air was thick and hazy, so I figured the woman was well out of it. But when I quietly closed the door behind me she shifted and moaned, her broad brow furrowing, drawn on eyebrows squeezing toward one another. She was out, but not out for the count, which put me in an awkward situation. I knew I was in there for the money, sure, but the world didn’t take kindly to peeping toms. If I’d been caught nicking I’d have had the shit kicked out of me at best, but if this lady woke up to see me staring at her unkempt muff, then It’d be a very different kind of kicking. There’s a principal, see?

That turns out to be just the start of my worries, though, because just then I hear a muffled commotion from the corridor outside, growing louder. Then keys in the door. I move behind the curtain just as the front door explodes open on a tidal wave of Russian swearing.

I don’t make the mistake of trying to peer out from the curtain, I just keep perfectly still, holding my breath. I gently hold the hem of the curtain to stop it moving. I hear Lazlo as he crashes around the apartment, exclaiming fuck knows what in a language I’m fairly sure he’s making up on the spot. A lower, gentler voice chimes in now and then– the couch queen– but mostly Lazlo seems content with the sound of his own voice. He was agitated about something, working himself into a temper. I remember hearing his heavy footsteps stomping toward me and me clutching at the handle of my knife in my pocket, for all the good it would’ve done me. I reckon me stabbing at Lazlo would have been like trying to eat a steak with a toothpick.

So I was making like a statue when this meaty hand bursts into my view and opens up the window wide, just inches away from me. Lazlo flaps his hands, shouting over his shoulder at his woman. If he turns his head the wrong way he will see me, and I will be dead. I remember that feeling to this day. Like a cold little ball in your stomach. A queer, dread certainty. I stand utterly, utterly still.  Lazlo moves away and comes back with a tea towel, flapping air out of the window, shouting all the while as he does so. Evidently he resented his missus smoking up the place while he was out doing an honest days drinking. Nobody likes getting in the middle of a domestic argument, especially if you’re trying to rob the domicile, so I breath very quietly through my mouth.

The couch queen says something that seems to end with a question mark, and Lazlo pauses a moment then turns around with a big, broken grin on his face. I don’t need to speak Russian to guess what’s coming out of his mouth next. It’s got that universal guttural sound of the randy old sod, like a wet engine revving enthusiastically. Lazlo moves out of my sight and I’m thankful that he’s leading his missus into the bedroom, rather than shagging her right there on the couch.

At this point an amateur would have counted his blessings and made a break for it. I wasn’t an amateur. I moved slowly and carefully into the living room. I was reasonably confident that any noise I made would have been covered by the still blaring television and a background riot that sounded like someone slapping a chihuahua with a trout. But I don’t get complacent.

It doesn’t take a lot of rummaging around to find an old Adidas backpack half filled with baggies of white powder. Jackpot. That’s the thing about security, once you get past the barricades people tend to let their guard down. Lazlo’s hidden a fair old whack of coke with less proficiency than a teenager hides his jazz mags.

I put the backpack on and I pull out of that flat at roughly the same time Lazlo’s pulling out of his missus. Too late, old son, I think. By the time you realise you’ve been done I’ll be long gone.

I remember walking back that night. Not running, walking. Just another kid with a backpack out past his bed time. I dodge the street lights, keep to the quiet sides of the roads, carefully ignore every passing car, every stumbling drunk, every pack of pricks. At all times I keep one hand on the backpack strap and the other on the knife in my pocket. I get to my house, over shoot it by a good few yards, and then turn around to see if anyone’s followed. Then I go home.

My mum is asleep in front of the telly. Billy is in the crib bed that’s already too small for him, leaning over the bars with that sloppy little toddler grin all over his face. I pick him up for bit until he gets grumpy, then I put him down, and get a blanket for my mum, tuck her in and turn the telly down a bit.  Then I lock up, smoke one of my mum’s cigarettes and spend an hour or so starting out of the landing window onto the street below. It is quite, and it is dark, and I am at peace with the world.

It wasn’t quite as easy as that, obviously. I wasn’t going to shill cocaine off my own back—that’s a good way for a kid to get stabbed, that is. I took the stash to one of the movers and handed it over, no fuss no muss. That haul was my resume, see? It could’ve gone either way, I suppose; I knew the stunt would either get me an in-road to one of the more established outfits, or a kicking for being a cocky twat. Turned out to be a bit of both, but that was the day I went legitimate. Well, I say legitimate, you know what I mean. From criminal to career criminal.

I didn’t see Lazlo again until about five years later, when me and a couple of lads were tasked with putting him out of business. He was always too big, too loud, was Lazlo. When things started to tidy up a bit, you don’t want a nutter like that shouting the place down. Bad for business. So we fucked him up. It took some doing, let me tell you. I’ve still got this scar on the side of my head, see? Hell of a learning curve, was Lazlo.

Hell of learning curve.

Anyway, it’s your round, isn’t it? El roundo? I keep forgetting you don’t speak English. Well, probably just as well, I suppose, otherwise I would have had to break your head open by now. I’d rather not do that, obviously, but I’m keeping a low profile, being careful, like. I can’t stay cooped up with Billy all the time, though. It’s starting to do my head in, to be honest. It’s nice to have someone different to chat to for a change, even if this is a strictly one way conversation.

I tell you what- seeing as I’m pissed and you clearly don’t understand a word I’m saying, how’s about I tell you another story? About the time I ripped off the devil himself? It’s a bit of blinder, this one, and not one you’re likely to believe. But I’ve got the scars, see? And scars tell their own story. They don’t give a fuck if you believe them or not.

So. They say the streets of London are paved with gold. False advertising that is…

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