Gavin Knight offers a chapter-long extract of his gripping novel Hood Rat.
It’s a funny thing how Pilgrim’s dad always knows when he’s going to do something. The old man pauses at the front door, trying to figure out how another afternoon ended up in a carpet of discarded Ladbrokes slips at his feet. He is silhouetted against the hallway light, stares out at the car waiting, engine warm. Inside are two young black guys, known thugs in shell suits, who glower back at him. He brought his son over from Jamaica at the age of eight, out of a life without electricity or water, and now here the boy is on his nineteenth birthday, a fully-fledged man gangster. He is baffled how this happened. Pilgrim thunders down the stairs and brushes straight past him, rolling his shoulders as he storms out to the car. Something is being planned for later, a man’s amount of trouble is brewing.
‘Son, be careful,’ he says.
At the sound of his father’s reedy drawl Pilgrim turns. He scuffs the dust with his foot. His snake-eyes Avirex T-shirt shows his henched core, his bull neck. If he can credit his old man with anything, it is a canny sense for trouble. He always calls Pilgrim to check on him, just as he is tooling up for a robbery. It’s the only thing he has any sense about, Pilgrim thinks. He gambles all his foreman’s wages on the horses and gives the extra to Pilgrim’s stepmum and stepbrother. Pilgrim has made his own living on the streets, ever since he was old enough to wash his pants in the bath.
‘Yo, birthday boy, where we heading?’ Steps yells from the car. He is twenty-one, lighter skin, muscular build, always in dark clothing. A joker. His arm lolls outside, thick silver ring rapping on the black bodywork. He’s keen to keep it moving, show off his chrome rim-spinners. Pilgrim shoots his father a wide grin.
‘Old Street,’ he says.
His father drops his eyes. Pilgrim shrugs, jumps in the car. They’re celebrating his birthday.
‘Hey,’ Steps says. He punches Pilgrim on the shoulder. ‘How often will you see us three in one car?’
Pilgrim looks at him, then at Ribz in the back. Ribz is five foot four with famous green eyes that give him his reputation as a ladies’ man. His dad is black but he gets the eyes from his Indian mum.
‘It never happens,’ Ribz grins. ‘The dream team together.’
It is true. Every gang has three wanted guys at the top who never meet up with each other. Never more. It’s impossible to have more than three like that at the top. But here they are, top guys from three gangs together. Holly Street, Rowdy Bunch and Love of Money all in the same car. They are running Hackney now. They have the hood on lock. Forget Pembury, Forget London Fields. They can’t even talk to Pilgrim. No one can. Not even in the Premier League.
The city is laid out before them like a vast smouldering war zone. It’s divided into the great battlefields – South, North, East, West, a very different London from the posters on the wall in childhood Jamaica, no mention of Missus Queen, the Commonwealth, Madame Tussauds or the gold replicas of Big Ben that sat on his granny’s mantelpiece. Each region competes with tales of brutal warriors feared across several postcodes for their violence. When Sparks was shot, three hundred and fifty people came to his funeral, to show respect to a man who could knock out anyone with one punch of his anvil of a right jab. There was nothing more honourable for a young man than to be a soldier and ferociously guard his ends against incursions, protecting the drug revenue. A bus driver kidnapped and tortured with a steam iron for five days, horrifically burnt all over his body, his genitals seared – all for an unpaid drug debt. There were tales of impenetrable fortresses like Stonebridge in Brent, with black towers so high a small child had fallen to its death, and where an eight-month-old baby was left crawling for sixteen hours amongst the bullet-riddled bodies of his mother, aunt and sixty-two-year-old stepfather. Broadwater Farm in Haringey where fierce riots raged and a policeman had his head hacked off with a machete. Or Brixton where cops shot a stocky Rasta four times who was holding up a gun-shaped novelty lighter to someone’s head. These were the tales that were told of London. To be feared is to be respected. We’re not afraid of death. We’ve got your back. This is the street code. Step up and be a good soldier.
‘We don’t go up to Carnival no more,’ Pilgrim says.
Not since that man died in 2000. A group of them stamped on a guy’s head, threw a wheelie bin on him and killed him, just for a chain. It was a bit silly but that’s the way it goes.
‘You’re in prison I’m on road, you’re on road I’m in prison,’ Ribz sighs from the back.
‘Friends always missing each other like that.’
‘Apart from back in the ’90s when everyone was outside,’ Pilgrim says.
You might see them late one summer night or something, smoking under the trees in the park. Or when they come back from country, or wherever they are where they meet up. Have a little chat pretend you all like each other. Sure you all tossed coins in the street together when you were kids, but that doesn’t mean you can trust them now. If trouble comes for you those guys will be gone.
‘You won’t see it happen ever again,’ Steps says grimly, glowering through the windscreen like he has a death wish. Unless someone gets murdered, Pilgrim thinks, and everyone has to come back for the funeral. If one of them was merked, they would all big up how they were going to kill other people, but they wouldn’t bother. Steps always pretends he’s up for violence until it comes; his older brother is well known in the area. But apart from a funeral you will not get everyone in the same place. Pilgrim thinks about his father’s words. He feels the gun pressing against the upholstery into the small of his back.
‘Hold up,’ Ribz yells, whacking the back of the seat so Steps’ head snaps forward. Ribz lurches round and scopes out a wiry kid in a US aviation pilot’s jacket, wading up the street with two lanky weasel mates on each shoulder. Steps wrenches the gears to second and slows so they can ID him properly. ‘It’s that fucker that blew up Elijah’s A3.’
‘It was a big thing for him, buying that car. He put a lot of work in,’ Pilgrim says. He and Elijah have been friends since the minute they came to this country. They all know Elijah is a hard worker, a good dealer. You stay in the hood and deal, you make £500 to £1,000 a day if you are lucky. Elijah gets up seven thirty in the morning, takes the train to Colchester, Milton Keynes, wherever he can find his little spot where there’s a bunch of drug addicts. He could be earning £5,000 a day, minus the £1,000 he needs to buy back his drugs tomorrow. So he’s making £4,000 profit, paying £500 a week to one of his shotters and £350 if he has a driver. In the hood he sells 0.2 for £20, but in the country he can get £20 for 0.1. Plus the London heroin is purer, straight off the M25.
But once you start flossing, people get jealous. This guy was jealous of the A3, so he just set it alight one day. The petrol tank caught and it blew up. So Ribz now wants to kill someone, before they’ve even made it to the Old Street club.
They pull over and watch the three figures walk on down Lower Clapton Road, past torn, spilt sacks of rubbish, the neon strip lights of fast-food joints. There’s a heat haze over the surface of the ponds. Up ahead they make out the domes of the Chimes Bar and Palace Pavilion against the skyline. It is clear where they are heading.
Pilgrim cannot believe the wheels have come off his birthday plans so quickly. It has become so bad in the last few years that to go to inside Palace Pavilion is like a trip to the Death Star. Six gangland executions in Lower and Upper Clapton Road, in two years. More likely to hear gunshots here in the murder mile than anywhere else in Britain. The police loiter round the corner, in their ARVs, knowing the call out will come soon enough. These cop sharp-shooters don’t need to take the safeties off their Glock 17 self-loading pistols and Heckler and Koch MP5 carbines before they’ll have to lurch into the club’s car park to close down the latest shoot-out. They are 90 per cent accurate shooters, which is more than you can say for the Tinies and Babies, twelve-year-old wannabe gangsters out there, who’d splinter their own foot bones before they hit someone. And it’s getting worse, racking up to a frenzy like Beirut. Across the road, a man is shot in the West Indian takeaway, Too Sweet, by an assassin in an Afro wig. Two days later two motorbikes swarm a guy in his Beamer convertible and block him off. They dismount and pump shots through the window, the driver twists out the door, ploughs face forward into the grit and trodden gum of the pavement, where he dies. A week later a forty-six-year-old pedestrian is beaten purple and hurled under the wheels of a passing Routemaster bus, crushed like a Big Mac carton. Why? Well, this guy was just unlucky. Same as Pilgrim was unlucky when he had to take his beats at home. Trouble will find you. It is waiting around the corner.
They park up outside the Pavilion. Chimes Bar is next door and mainly Jamaican. Palace Pavilion is for young kids into garage, hip hop and rap. Pilgrim phones the girl who works inside and tells her they are coming in. They sit and wait for the guy with the aviator jacket to roll in. After a while they realize he isn’t going to show up.
‘Must have clocked us as we were parking up and took off,’ Ribz snaps, cracking the door open. The rubber seal sucks the air with a hiss.
‘His friends are in there,’ Pilgrim says. He saw the two lanky weasels going in. So they walk straight to the front of the line, ignoring the jeers as security, a fifteen-stone guy hopped out on steroids, bulked up with jail muscle, fresh out of Wandsworth, sees them coming and snaps the iron bar down to swing back the heavy metal door. Out of a cloud of sour sweat, mildewed damp and sweet hash smoke, a wall-eyed girl in a micro-skirt appears. She escorts them straight upstairs to the VIP area where it’s quieter. Down on the dance floor the new kids are shoving into each other to Pharoahe Monch’s ‘Fuck You’. To the untrained eye it might look like a mass fight, but it’s just the way the kids dance. As soon as the clubbers see them up there they know someone’s going to get it. They all start nodding at Pilgrim, so nervous they nod three or four times until he sees them. Pilgrim squints into the mass, scouring their faces until he finds the two weasels, leaning on their elbows at the end of the bar. He jabs Ribz. ‘Do what you’re doing and get out of here.’
Pilgrim locks onto the two guys and they bristle. His eyes burn as he pictures the charred carcass of Elijah’s A3. You don’t fuck with a man’s brand-new Audi. He wants these goons to suffer and feels the rage well. The clubbers are watching like there’s a spotlight on them. They are known guys. When they are around, bad things happen.
‘Whatever you feel he deserves,’ Pilgrim says to Ribz, goading him on. They have already lost their strongest weapon, the element of surprise. Ribz leans on his fists, bragging about what he’s going to do to those motherfuckers, gassing himself up. He presses his back into the leather seat so he can feel the butt of the gun. Ribz keeps outside London selling drugs. He will only really fight if his back’s against the wall. It makes him very dangerous in a fight because he’ll try to end it as fast as possible with a knife, gun or CS gas.
The more Pilgrim listens, the more a bad feeling grows in him. In this game you cannot let the minutes slide by. There are other young thugs in the club who could have stripped their pieces and cleaned them with a fucking brush by now. He stands up and goes downstairs. He doesn’t risk a trip to the john, even though he’s bursting. He could be trapped in there with no room to manoeuvre and no escape route. So he finds a pillar and leans against the wall so it blocks him off. He feels better now.
He’s been going to clubs since he was nine. It’s eleven years since his dad brought him out of Jamaica to live in this hell-hole. He brought him to his new wife’s cramped two-bedroom house to share a room with her son. They were horrified when he arrived with Pilgrim from the airport. ‘When’s he going back?’ was all Pilgrim heard; these people never wanted him in their house. You took me from Jamaica and my mum and put me in hell here, he thought. His stepbrother’s dad was still lurking around to buy his son new trainers, a computer, Game Boy and mountain bike. Pilgrim’s dad pissed his foreman’s wages away and gave the small change to his stepmum. He was the last kid in Stoke Newington to get a Game Boy.
Arguments rage in the house over money. Pilgrim can’t take living in his stepbrother’s room after a while. Two young men in one cramped room, it’s like a pressure cooker. He asks them if they could move him to his own room. The only other room is a cupboard where the freezer is kept. He moves in there. No windows, no nothing. Like Cinderella. But now he’s in his own room he’s happy. He’s downstairs by the front door, he can slip in and out whenever he wants. Living in his own room, later on bringing girls in, sneaking them in and out of the house.
Pilgrim is probably one of the best fighters at his school. No one really wants to fight him on the streets. Even though he’s in Stoke Newington, he hangs around in Pembury, and at thirteen, he is the leader of a Pembury gang. Now you hear London Fields and Tottenham, but then it was Pembury that was running the whole of Hackney, all the serious people, a few from Clapton. Pembury was the main place.
Pilgrim was well advanced in the street life when some forty-year-old white guy, Wolf, approached him. Wolf had been on the scene since the ’80s. Pilgrim was fifteen, known as muscle that would come down, rob someone and beat them up. He was like a hit man. The trail of victims meant that London Fields Boys wanted his scalp. Wolf sought Pilgrim out, because he knew he was a feared guy.
‘You are making a rep for yourself in the area,’ Wolf told him when they met.
Pilgrim looked at his slack chicken neck, the white whiskers appearing on his chin. He did not fear this old guy at all. He calculated that no one did and that was why he needed Pilgrim. His reputation was well on the wane.
‘But I can promise you the keys to the city,’ Wolf went on slyly.
‘What’s in this for me?’ Pilgrim snapped. ‘What you got that I want?’
Wolf’s eyes narrowed. His tiny black pupils stared back at the younger man, as he pumped on a roly. ‘Access to guns,’ Wolf said.
With long-standing links to organized crime, Wolf could supply Pilgrim’s crew the one thing they needed to become more powerful. So they teamed up for a while. He sent Pilgrim out to collect money from promoters, the Turkish community and strip clubs on the pay roll. Pilgrim no longer had to pay to get into clubs. Any strip club that was on the pay roll: he would always do his research, find which night the promoters were on and turn up. The other clubbers clocked the bottles of champagne being brought to his table and his respect built up. Celebrities who liked to dabble in that lifestyle and feel dangerous for a night would approach him. Pilgrim was taking girls back every night to his room. They were surprised to find it was a cupboard with a freezer in it and no windows.
Pilgrim feels a strong grip close on his shoulder. He wheels round.
‘Yo, Pilgrim. You all right?’
It’s a local bad boy with a razor cut and a large gold chain, wanting to be seen saying hello to him. The kid slips away and into urgent hand-moves on the dance floor. An angry ragga track has come on. Pilgrim flashes a look around the club. No sign of the weasels. He peers round the pillar, catches a glimpse of them, their faces set, purposeful. Pilgrim floats back and fades into the crowd, works round the edge of the dance floor in the opposite direction, then upstairs to Ribz’ booth.
‘They’re by the DJ box now. If we’re going to do something, let’s do it,’ he says. ‘We ain’t got time to think.’
That is how Pilgrim likes to work. Do what you’re doing and deal with the consequences after. The guys are now in position, scowling them up from the far wall like they know exactly what the next play is. They won’t risk firing indoors. It’s too crowded. They’ll try to draw them outside. They have become the prey. Ribz is still talking, but Pilgrim ignores him. With all his talk, Ribz has now lost them the advantage. He feels his phone vibrating in his pocket.
‘Where you at?’ It was Lil Man, one of the top Tottenham Boys. Pilgrim had forgotten that he’d arranged for Lil Man to pick him up, take him to Tottenham for his birthday.
‘Palace Pavilion,’ Pilgrim says.
Pilgrim runs a risk having allies in the Tottenham Boys, given the long-standing beef with Hackney. But Lil Man was in his class once. They got on well. The Tottenham Boys are not allowed near the Palace Pavilion. Their sullen A4 mugshots are pinned to every cork-board in the corridors of Hackney police with ‘Wanted – Armed Robbery’. The most fresh-faced special or blues and twos glances at them on the way to the canteen. They are Turkish-speakers who will use knives held to people’s throats, taxing the snooker halls and hookers’ flats. But in Hackney, they are dead. Only the other day a Turkish guy was crawling along in heavy traffic when a pedestrian walked over and shot him six times through the window. He was stuck behind a bus at the junction of Lower Clapton Road. They executed him in broad daylight, on a sunny afternoon, in front of the milling women and kids.
‘I’ll call when I’m outside,’ Lil Man says.
Pilgrim shuts his phone. He gets up to leave the club. Fuck this place, he thinks, as he heads downstairs again and tenses at every young black guy he passes. He has to get out without being seen. The shootings in recent months all seem to have been guys who were walking away from the Chimes Bar next door. Across the dance floor, there is a Younger who he knows, posing in sunglasses in front of two over-made-up teenage girls. Pilgrim can tell from his body language he is giving some macho account of a shoot-out that never happened, bigging himself up as the hero. Their eyes lock. The kid bristles. A Younger has to fall in line to an Elder like Pilgrim. He’ll patrol borders, head out on incursions, collect debts, stash guns and even go to jail, all in the vain hope that one day he’ll fill Pilgrim’s shoes.
After ten minutes Pilgrim’s phone rings again. It’s Lil Man. He sounds nervous. Loitering around the Chimes Bar, waiting for Pilgrim, is putting him at risk.
‘You’re taking too long.’
‘I’m coming. I’m coming.’
‘Don’t come out the back,’ Lil Man says. ‘Five oh are here. Meet us in Ferry Lane.’
Lil Man rings off. Pilgrim bears down on the Younger in the shades.
‘Lend me those a minute, will you,’ Pilgrim says, sliding them off the kid’s nose and putting them on. The younger knows why he needs them, that he has to leave the club undetected. Despite Lil Man’s warning he comes out the front exit. The police are a risk, but a lesser one than being shot. As he homes in on the door, he sees a small table with flyers piled up, picks up two and buries his nose and mouth in them. Security snaps down the metal bolt on the fire door for him and Pilgrim pulls up the hood of his Avirex jacket and walks out. With the sunglasses, the flyers and hood no one can see who the hell he is. The heavy metal door slams behind him and the music fades to a dull thud. He senses in a second that something is not right. The car park is too still. Instinctively he looks down to his right.
There is a little kid, squatting on one knee with gloved hands around a snub-nosed gun, aiming right up at him. Pilgrim hears the bolt on the door snap shut again. He’s fucked.
The nearest cover is a hundred-yard sprint across an empty space to hurl himself behind a row of cars. By the time he’s reached for his own piece and brought it up to aim he’ll have four shots in him. He only has one option. Yelling like a banshee, his arms thrown wide, he charges down the stairs right into the face of his shooter. The kid flinches for a second like he’s facing a mad man and lets the barrel drop a nudge. He’s caught off guard. It’s only a second, but it is just long enough for Pilgrim to wrench his own gun from his waistband. He aims at the chest and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. The gun has jammed. Pilgrim doesn’t wait. Now he runs into the night. Pumping his arms like pistons, he sprints down the road and sidesteps jerkily like a quarterback he’s seen on telly. Behind him he can hear pow pow pow as the kid discharges his weapon. A bullet whips into the leaves of a tree ahead. He cuts across to the pond. The sooner he merges into the darkness the better. The rapid fire rate tells him it’s a semi-automatic. This is the moment, he thinks. His lungs are burning, there’s a metallic taste in his mouth. He can barely lift his knees. It’s like he’s wading through waist-deep water. No way can he cover the distance from here to the pond and survive. He risks a glance behind at his shooter, but all he can see is the heat rising off the ground in shimmering waves. Six shots have gone off now.
There’s another crack. Bam. Bam. He buckles and skitters. Something burns his hand. It’s like hot wax. Like someone has pressed a steam iron against it.
Pilgrim brings his hand up. It is all swollen up, looks like it’s covered in cigarette ash. He wheels round. Several hooded figures come out of the shadows and bear down on him now. Many shoot-outs end like this, with some fool with a jammed gun in his hand. When they find his body, the cops’ first guess is that the dead man was not brave enough in the heat of battle to return fire. Then they find out it was jammed. A lot of the kids out there are poor shots, who can’t hit a moving target over a hundred yards away. That’s why there are so many gunfights where someone is shot in the leg or winged. He has read in The Art of War the importance of tactics and weaponry. As his blood thuds in his temples, he knows his only hope is to fix his jammed weapon. He must be fast. The shooters may be out of range, but he can hear them covering the ground quickly. In a few seconds they will be close enough not to miss.
Pilgrim has taken time to look into how a gun works. His gun has a sock stretched over it, to stop any prints going on it. Under the sock is a 9mm Browning self-loading pistol. It’s standard RAF issue. He bought it in the army shop in Bethnal Green, with blanks, for £100. He drilled and reactivated it himself. Cut the plastic thing off and then put the real bullet head in there. He went to the hardware shop and bought the pipe and put it back in. Then the brush and the clip and he was ready to go. All he had to do was buy the bullets, 9mm Parabellum cartridges. All the kids think they are ballistics experts, but they know shit. Most of the guns on the streets now are imitations, starter pistols, air guns that have been converted to fire live bullets. Pilgrim has become a technician. He knows that after you have fired it a few times the pipe will swell and when it swells and cools back down it gets smaller. It either jams or backfires on you. And you can hit your finger off. When people get their hand shot off it’s because they’ve got a rebore and the pipe’s been burnt out. Sometimes it can fuck up if you put too much gunpowder in it. Or because you haven’t put the firing pin in. So many things can go wrong.
Pilgrim grips his Browning 9mm until he finds the catch. Every serrated part of a gun is a moving part. Sometimes when a gun jams the panicked shooter tries to force it, rubbing his fingers over the serrated edge, covering it in his DNA. It becomes a forensics’ dream. Pilgrim pulls back the catch and tugs it to the right. The jammed bullet drops into the sock. He’s seen too many guys sent to jail for leaving shell casings on the ground. An eagle-eyed Five Oh from ballistics picks up the casing with tweezers and sends it to the NABIS supercomputer to analyse. The striation marks are like a signature, like a fingerprint. Pilgrim cocks it again. It’s ready to fire now. He can hear his shooter’s feet thud on the hard ground, to his left. He wheels round, lifting his arm with the gun up and aims at the sound. There it is. He fires. The gun lets one off with a loud crack. The footsteps stop. Silence. Then he sees two figures duck down and scurry back to the alleyway. They thought he was unarmed, as he hadn’t returned fire. Pilgrim closes one eye and tracks them as they run. He fires again. They accelerate and scatter like deer. Pilgrim turns, shoves the gun into his waistband and jogs into the lengthening shadows.
Half an hour later, Ribz’ car pulls up two blocks away. Pilgrim steps out of an alley and slumps into the back. His hand aches like hell, but they wipe a wet rag over it and strap it up. There’s no question he can go to hospital with a gunshot wound. Same if he’d been shanked in the leg. You can’t afford to take something like that to A&E, as they report back to Five Oh. You have to sort it yourself.
Despite the pain, he can see the others are hungry for the tale, his front-line war story. This is the ritual they live for. Everything is built on reputation and Pilgrim has taken a bullet. Everyone wants to be feared, because to be feared is to be loved. Prison cells, juvenile courts, street corners echo with bragging and story-telling, as men are made.
Pilgrim’s fingertips tremble as Ribz hands him an ice-cold bottle of Red Stripe. He takes two long swigs, wipes his mouth with his knuckles, then begins to tell them. Coming out with the shades on. Seeing the crouched shooter. The dash across the car park. Fixing the jammed gun. He splays his fingers and tries to hold his hand level. It is purple, swollen like it’s infected.
‘I looked back. I couldn’t see the shooter,’ he croaks. He feels dazed. ‘All I could see was the heat-haze. Coming up in waves.’
‘That wasn’t no heat-haze,’ Ribz says ominously. The others frown at him. He wasn’t even there. ‘It was the duppies coming for you.’
But Pilgrim doesn’t do black magic. He doesn’t smoke crack, doesn’t usually drink. But most of all he doesn’t believe that evil spirits come for you like something out of Dr Who.
‘I can’t stand all that voodoo shit,’ he snaps.
‘The duppies won’t trouble you while you’re alive,’ Ribz jabbers on. ‘But when you’re close to death the duppy comes to claim your black ass. That’s the heat-haze you saw. You were that close.’
Ribz holds up his index finger and thumb for emphasis, right under Pilgrim’s nose. Pilgrim is angry now. Ribz is muscling in. This evening it is a shoot-out story, a one-on-one duel.
‘That shit is for women who go and get themselves washed down with liquids, to do black magic,’ he says. ‘That’s all nonsense. You know what is for real? That kid firing his shooter.’
‘Let the man tell the story,’ Steps says gravely.
At the end they are quiet for a moment. He has their attention.
‘Every kid in Hackney says they’ve been in a shoot-out,’ Steps sighs. ‘When they’re in a shoot-out with their friends and fifteen or thirty people – that ain’t a shoot-out. One on one with another gun man, shoot or be shot. That is respect, man.’
Then they pull over and drop Pilgrim off. His hand is throbbing like a truck rolled over it. He feels a wave of nausea. He is dog-tired. Once inside the words ‘That is respect, man’ echo round his empty room. From the car window Ribz holds his fist aloft like some Black Power salute. Rain thuds on the bonnet as the car pulls away. Pilgrim did not tell them that when he fired at the shooters he didn’t want to kill anyone. He just wanted them to fuck off and leave him alone. Through the wall he hears a shrill smoke alarm. Then he realizes it is the persistent cry of a small baby, waking up hungry. Its mother’s voice soothes and calms it, until the wail dies down. His own mother has been dead three years now. Five foot nothing but the bravest woman he met. He used to talk to her all the time on the phone. Then when he came back from visiting her in Jamaica his father and stepmother changed the home number. They didn’t tell her. In Jamaica she didn’t have an address. She just lived ‘down the road’. She walked to the phone to call her son but couldn’t get through. She wrote him letters, but they were intercepted by his dad. She kept writing, but eventually gave up. Pilgrim was living his life in England thinking she’s dead. Whenever I see you I see you. From the age of eight he had to live with those kinds of things in his head. He lost touch.
Then at sixteen he had a call from his aunty. ‘Your mother is dying,’ she told him. She had cervical cancer. ‘They tried to laser the thing, but they were like practising on her. Ended up burning out too much of her insides. So by the time she heals up she can’t stand up or eat no more.’
He peels the sock back off his Browning 9mm, and lets the wooden stock lie flat in his open palm. If he was shot, what page would he be on in the paper, he wonders. A black-on-black teenage shooting isn’t the hot news it used to be. Just another line of chalk for Trident to sort out. If he dies he will go and see his mum. So he doesn’t care about the next shooter who comes for him. He can kill him and his friends. Inside he feels dead already.
Two days on, his hand still aches. He is already on an attempted murder charge and can barely hold the gun up to aim. He has a rep to keep up and needs money. He flicks through the numbers in his phone and dials his cousin, an old-school drug-dealer, and as his hand heals up he rides around with him. He finds the hood too crowded with other dealers so he expands into the West End even though it’s controlled by the Yardies. He buys himself a used black cab, a Fairway TX1, two-door funeral. He takes a junkie, greases his hair up and slides a pair of plain-glass spectacles on his pock-marked face old face so he looks like a real taxi driver. He pays the guy in wraps. The Yardies stand a hundred yards away, smoking. They are hard, muscled thugs straight out of Trench Town with gleaming Nikes, a Glock shoved in their tracky bottoms. Pilgrim and his cousin park up in the West End, just before eight do their drop-offs and they go. Like clockwork. They leave the Yardies standing out there trying to make their million overnight. Pilgrim continues to make his P. He hears that Steps has been arrested. He carries on riding the taxi until the scars turn purple and knot together on his hand.
One night they are out in the back of the cab when Pilgrim’s phone rings. It’s an old friend, Drek.
‘I’ve got this easy robbery,’ Drek says. ‘Come along. Do it with us.’
Pilgrim frowns and switches his phone to the other ear. Last he heard, Drek is in the second year, studying aerodynamics at university. Now he has it in his head he’s a big-time drug-dealer and is refusing to go back to uni. Well, thinks Pilgrim, good luck to him.
‘I’m into something right now,’ he says, stalling.
Ribz has disappeared off the radar. All the top boys are being rounded up. Sooner or later, I’m going to jail, he thinks. Despite himself he feels the call of the life.
‘Come over tomorrow,’ he says to Drek.
‘Kentish Town, right?’
The next day, when Pilgrim opens the door, Drek is standing there with another guy. The newcomer is dressed in a baggy grey sweatshirt like a student. He wouldn’t frighten an old lady with a £5 umbrella. Pilgrim scowls back and takes Drek aside.
‘Don’t bring people to my house, bruv.’
Drek looks blank, like Pilgrim’s having delusions of grandeur, imagining he’s on the FBI Most Wanted list. ‘Who are you – the Fugitive?’ he cracks.
‘I don’t know your friend here,’ he gestures to the newcomer, who nervously gurns back at them. ‘You and I could fall out tomorrow and this fool now knows where I live.’
‘It’s just Jimmy,’ Drek shrugs.
The robbery sounds simple enough. It is a truck of designer clothes. They hold it up at gunpoint, take the cargo off in another car. That’s it. For Pilgrim it seems pretty simple. The only problem is the match fitness of this crew – Drek and Jimmy. They are not like the real guys. He will have to watch them every inch of the way. One thing is for sure, though – this will be his last robbery. He’s had it with this nonsense.
A few days before, Drek and his pal pick Pilgrim up and drive him to Kingsdon. There they meet another guy, Obi. Pilgrim doesn’t like Obi the moment he meets him. Obi smiles too much. He’s laughing, making jokes. He’s even worse than Jimmy.
‘Why all the jokes?’ Pilgrim scowls at him.
Obi shoots him a hunted look, eyes flicking from side to side. ‘Nothing wrong with having a laugh and a joke,’ he shrugs. He’s like a school kid, praying he guessed the right answer, laughing because the whole thing scares the shit out of him. Pilgrim, the armed robber who hasn’t smiled once, scares him most of all.
‘This is a robbery here,’ Pilgrim snaps, with professional pride. ‘It’s serious. As soon as I meet you, you’re giggling. I don’t want you joking around with me.’
He is so far into this thing now he cannot pull out. His only hope is to drill some sense into these fools. If only he had someone like Marlon with him on this. Marlon was two years older and took Pilgrim under his wing. He was prolific offender and he’d been going in prison and robbing banks from year eight and all that. Started off snatching women’s handbags. It was fun. Quick money. Adrenalin. Some of them would chase, some of them wouldn’t chase.
Sometimes you would get the jackpot of £50 and a mobile. You went and sold the credit cards to the African guys, you were all right for the week. Nigerian fraudsters – the uncles. Even better if there’s a cheque book in the bag. They don’t ask no questions. They all do their fraud and turn it into something else. Obviously more than the £100 they are giving you for the card. As a kid you don’t really ask nothing. You’ve got £100, you can go and buy whatever you want.
He is very clear. ‘Take the drivers’ mobile phones away.’
‘Wear tights over your face.’
They nod again.
‘We need a van to shift the stuff from the truck.’
They nod. The group breaks up.
When the day comes Pilgrim waits on the corner. It’s early evening and on either side of him school kids tear past. One has a white skull mask on. Their shirts are untucked, heads thrown back in laughter. A few yards away a bus door opens with a loud hiss and the kids shove on. Pilgrim could step on and never look back. In minutes he’d be lost in the streets. A car horn goes off. He turns to see Jimmy behind the wheel. It’s a Mitsubishi Colt, a small car with a boot big enough for a few Tesco bags. They are robbing a whole lorry. Pilgrim climbs in, slams the door.
‘I told you to bring a van,’ he says, turning to glare at Jimmy.
‘We’ll drive to the van,’ Jimmy says.
Pilgrim stares ahead at the bus as its indicator blinks and it sways heavily out into the traffic.
‘How are we going to fit a fucking lorry worth of goods in this small car?’
‘The van’s parked near uni.’
Fucking students, Pilgrim thinks, they think they’re moving house. It’s all going to take too long. A sullen silence hangs in the car as they edge through traffic towards the meet. They round a corner into a deserted industrial estate. The lorry is parked up ahead.
‘When I get my thing out, pull the tights over your head and come out,’ Pilgrim says. He glances round at Drek and Obi to check. They are wide-eyed like kids. As they draw near, the lorry looms up above the car like an iceberg. Pilgrim erupts out the car and marches over to the driver’s door. The driver climbs down from his cab, tosses away his half-smoked cigarette and squints his craggy face at Pilgrim.
‘Was it jeans you wanted?’ the driver asks. He is under the impression he is going to make a quick sale on the side, before he delivers it to the depot. ‘What size are you?’
‘Thirty-six waist,’ Pilgrim says. The driver leads him round the back as he hauls up the tarpaulin, muttering something about the labels. Pilgrim pulls his gun and presses the barrel into the back of his neck.
‘You know what – I’m taking your van,’ Pilgrim says. ‘Get your friend out.’
He gets the second driver out of the lorry at gunpoint. Pilgrim signals for Obi and Drek to start unloading the cargo. He stands training the gun on the drivers as the others cram the goods into the tiny boot of the Mitsubishi. He moves round to the passenger side, keeping the gun up above the car’s roof, yanks open the door, then dives in. Jimmy guns the engine and they roar off. The car rockets out of the estate, burns down a row of parked cars, still in first gear. They are pumped up.
‘Throw them mobiles out,’ Pilgrim yells, cranking down his window. Nothing happens. There’s silence in the back. He wheels round, shoves his open palm in Obi’s face. Drek and Obi look down at their knees, unable to catch his eye. Their faces are covered in such fine-denier tights that their features are clearly visible. They might as well be wearing cobwebs.
‘What the fuck you wearing?’ he shouts at them as the car lurches from side to side. ‘You couldn’t find anything thicker? My grandma could pick you out of a line-up without her glasses on.’
Pilgrim gestures at them to hand over the mobiles. Obi scowls out the window, screwing his face up.
‘Don’t tell me you forgot,’ Pilgrim says in disbelief. He leans forward and sinks his head into his hands. Then he rubs his scalp feverishly, gripped by a spasm of rage. It’s like his hair is alive with fleas.
‘They called Five Oh already. For sure,’ he says. Then he slams his hand down on the dashboard. They drive back to their uni to meet up with the van. Pilgrim looks at his watch. If he’s not in and out of a place in five minutes he’s going to jail. That’s his rule. His watch says six minutes and counting. The others are too scared to speak up as the car pulls in. Pilgrim looks around at the university campus. Students mill around carrying lever-arch files, with sensible trainers and rucksacks. They are all white kids, wearing pastel colours from Gap, chewing gum and listening to their iPods.
‘Where’s the van, Jimmy?’ Pilgrim asks.
‘Let me phone him,’ Jimmy replies nervously. The van driver hasn’t been told he was going to be part of a robbery. By the time he comes back more minutes have gone past. The students stop chewing their gum, put their iPods on pause. It’s growing dark but they still stare over at the three black boys, bundling designer clothes from a Mitsubishi Colt into a van. Before they’ve even finished Pilgrim stops and listens for the sound he’s been expecting. A siren wails from a block away. They give each other one final reproachful scowl, each one blaming the other, then scatter. Pilgrim is legging it down the street. The air is swarming with sirens now. The drivers must have been on their mobiles seconds after it happened. Ahead of him is a cul-de-sac, with no clear way out. He stops and looks around. Behind him he can see the pulsing light of the blues and twos, flashing against the walls of the houses. The street is bordered with wooden fences, topped with barbed wire into front gardens. Pilgrim refuses to go to jail. Not like this. Not with a bunch of amateurs in some bungled robbery.
He makes a split-second decision to go right, sprints at the fence, leaps up onto a green municipal bin and vaults up over it. His momentum is not enough to carry him clean over the top, so he grabs at the post to propel him. Barbed wire slices into his hand. His body keeps going, spinning over, feet first, twisting in the air. He hears the fence splinter, as he crashes heavily to the ground, scraping his shin. He’s up again and running. Above him he can hear the powerful whir of rotor blades as the police chopper hovers into position. The white glare of its searchlight rakes the ground. Behind him dogs yawp, straining away from their handlers. Dogs are the thing Jamaicans fear the most, he remembers his father telling him. They are probably German shepherds, trained to chew off his gun hand. He cannot face jail. Not like this. The circle of white light swoops back and stays on him. The whole yard is lit up like a football stadium. Every rubbish sack, every line of graffiti dazzles and blinds him. Above him the rotor blades throb. Lights are going on inside houses. Windows are flung open as the whole neighbourhood is woken up. How long can he keep running? Has anyone outrun a police chopper? It’s impossible. He has seconds left to come up with something, some ace up his sleeve. Fifty yards ahead of him on the road is a row of manhole covers. He runs over and bends down on one knee. From his pocket he takes the key to his flat, a Chubb, and levers it under the lid. With his good hand, he heaves up the metal slab. Then he eases himself stiffly into the darkness of the hole, his trainers feeling out the rungs.
At the bottom he lurches away down the tunnel. His hand, raised above him, feels ahead, his fingertips grazing on the sharp concrete. He runs blindly in the dark, listening to the echo of his feet hitting the water. Every twenty yards he stops, doubles over and heaves until it is an empty dry air heave. Then he carries on tumbling forward. He can’t remember how long he is underground, how much distance he’s covered in the dark stench. A tide of rage rises up and keeps him going.
Finally, his abs aching from the contractions, his fingers find a hole in the roof. He grasps around until they close on a metal rung embedded in the brick. Just below the street, he listens. No sound of traffic. He doesn’t want to clamber into a busy road, lit by street lamps. With a final effort he eases up the deadweight of the manhole cover and hauls himself out.
After an hour of weaving through back streets, he finds himself outside an entryphone in Tottenham. He’s stayed over at this girl’s place a couple of times recently. She knows what he is. He’s come to surprise her. Pilgrim is buzzed in and he tells her he has to lie low at her place. The cops will not think to look for a Hackney boy in enemy territory.
Early in the small hours police circle around his house in Kentish Town and lie in wait for him. His housing benefit is stated as this address. The next day word reaches Pilgrim that the others have been arrested. The witnesses only report seeing three guys. Pilgrim stops using his cash card, and sends the girl out for supplies. He leaves no paper trail now. On the third day after the robbery he calls his father.
‘The police are round here every day asking for you.’
Pilgrim can hear the strain in his father’s voice. He had not anticipated how he would feel hearing him.
‘Did you kill someone?’ he asks.
Pilgrim sighs long and hard through his nose. ‘No.’
‘What did you do?’
He leans his head back and rubs the sleep out of his eyes. How long can he keep running? He remembers his father’s face as he stood silhouetted at the door. He looked so old. He thinks about the stress on him of the life his son leads.
‘I’m just going to go to prison,’ he tells his father. ‘Go and do my sentence.’
So that afternoon he walks through the front door of the station and turns himself in. The cops read him his rights. He sits in a bare room with a strip light, a mug of coffee and a tape recorder. A bald cop in a black Polartec fleece and jeans sits opposite him.
‘The other three, Drek, Obi and Jimmy, are pleading duress,’ the cop says. ‘They will stand up in court and say you did all sorts of things to them to coerce them to carry out this robbery.’
Pilgrim gives a wry smile and shakes his head. He would expect as much.
‘Let’s talk about Elijah,’ the cop says. They want Pilgrim to give up Elijah, the guy who had his Audi A3 blown up. They went into the Palace Pavilion to kill that boy for Elijah. Elijah is wanted for attempted murder.
‘I’m not giving him up,’ he tells the cops. ‘I’ll go to jail and do my sentence.’
Pilgrim goes to court, where he is tried as an adult and sentenced to six years for armed robbery. First, he is transferred to Portland Young Offenders Institute. On the cliffs of Portland Island in Dorset, Pilgrim finds himself amongst young teenagers. He hears rumours about the violence, the bullying, the brutal guards. As the door closes he thinks how he’ll spend his twenty-first birthday in a place like this.
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