A Christmas Tale

It was Christmas Eve when the prison gates opened and out stepped Jack a free man after doing an eighteen month stretch for petty theft and small-time narcotics dealing.  His blue slate eyes took in everything around him. After years of thieving, Jack could spot an opportunity a mile away. He robbed food from supermarkets, stole from cars and houses, and occasionally turned the odd factory over — if it was easy enough to break into — and peddled drugs to pay his way and feed his habit. 

A biting east wind chilled his bones.  Jack paused to pull his collar up around his neck, pushed his hands into his pockets and quickly moved on.  He wasn’t happy until he had turned the corner and could no longer feel or see the steel gates and high walls that had confined him for so long.  People moved by with blank looks on their faces.  It sure didn’t seem like Christmas.  People used to be happy at Christmas.  He thought about the sign he had once seen in a café.  It was a banner strewn across the counter, which said HAPPY CHRISTMAS COURTESY OF COCA-COLA.  Well that was nice of Coca-Cola, telling us we need to drink Coke to be happy.  Maybe that’s when Christmas started to deteriorate.  Still, out here in the cold was infinitely better than being in there and locked up.  Anything was better than being locked up.  All the while Jack’s eyes — connected to some invisible antenna — moved shiftily from side to side, looking around for opportunities no matter how small.

An occasion would come sooner or later, a lucky break, an opening to make some easy money.  They usually came when you least expected it.  Jack knew this of course and so his eyes never stopped probing.  It was bound to happen sooner or later, he thought.  He looked in the windows of every parked car, furtively glanced at women’s shopping bags as they walked passed.  Might see a purse.  Some people never learn.  He hadn’t walked far before such an opening materialised.  There on the passenger seat of a parked car was a briefcase.  Looked like real leather, too.  Jack paused for a second and stooped down as if to tie a loose shoelace, one hand on the car door handle, the other fiddling with the lace.  He could hardly believe it when the handle clicked and the door opened.  A passer-by walked on without giving him a second glance.  Seizing the opportunity, he quickly opened the door, grabbed the briefcase and walked off.  Job done.

Hurrying along, he opened the briefcase and rifled through the paperwork and folders.  He felt something hard and weighty at the bottom.  Pulled it out.  It was a gold cigarette lighter.  Putting it in his pocket, Jack felt his way around the briefcase again.  A packet of filter-tipped cigarettes, a fountain pen and a few coins.  He dumped all the paperwork in a bin and walked on, the briefcase tucked under his arm.  It’s got to be worth at least twenty quid, he thought to himself.  Real leather.  He could smell it.  And the lighter, that’s got to be worth a few quid too.  Turned it around in his hand.  Heavy.  Shiny.  Probably nine carat gold but could be eighteen.  A good day’s work.  It sure is good to be free, he thought.  For the first time in a long while Jack whistled a merry tune.

He knew where he could offload his find.  There were pawnshops and shady characters who lived in squalid flats and lurked in the shadows of pubs.  The Swan and Mitre was one such pub and it wasn’t far away.  There he would most likely meet Mike the Blade, still doing deals and using the pub as an office prop.  The proprietor knew what was going on but he turned a blind eye.  Mike bunged him a few quid now and again.  Seemed like the whole world was corrupt.  Money talked and the world danced to its tune.  There are no friends in crime, though.  Criminals do not trust each other.  Even so-called friends are viewed with a degree of suspicion.

“Well if it ain’t my old mate, Jack …”

“How you doing, Mike.”

“When did you get out?” Mike asked

“An hour ago.”

“Get yourself a drink on me and come and sit down,” Mike said, passing a £5 note across the table.  “You look as though you need it.”

Jack thanked him and ordered a beer, then came back and gave Mike the change.  Lowering his voice, he said: “I’ve got a real leather briefcase here and a gold cigarette lighter …” — eyes shifting around, seeing if anybody was watching.  “How much for the two?” — sliding the briefcase across the table and palming the cigarette lighter to Mike.  He put his hand under the table and placed it between his legs.  Opening the briefcase, he looked inside.

“Good quality, eh, Mike?”

“It ain’t bad.  I’ll give you £20.”  Mike knew it was worth at least forty.

“And how much for the lighter?  It’s got to be worth at least £100.”

Mike took a close look.  Hallmarked 18 carat gold.  He balanced it in his hand, feeling its weight.  At today’s bullion prices it was worth around £250, he thought.

“I’ll give you £75.  In fact I’m feeling generous on account of the fact that you just got out and all, especially since it’s Christmas Eve, so let’s make an even £100 for the lot.”

“Come on Mike you can do better than that,” Jack pleaded. 

“No, that’s my price.”  Jack knew he was being robbed but the goods weren’t his in the first place and so with criminal grace he accepted his loss.

Mike took out his wallet and palmed £100 surreptitiously across the table, which Jack took and tucked away inside his jacket pocket.  He gulped the beer down.  “Is Jimmy still dealing?”

“Same place.  I don’t know how he’s gotten away with it for so long but, yeah, Jimmy’s still dealing,” Mike said.

Jack formed a plan.  With his newly acquired funds, he would book a room for the weekend and relax with a couple of shots of heroin.  Maybe he would sneak around the streets and get lucky again.  There was always someone out there who was just waiting to be robbed.  And there was always someone looking for that opportunity, that one occasion to get lucky.  You just had to be in the right place at the right time, just as I was with the briefcase and the lighter.  Yes, Jack thought, the briefcase and lighter on a silver platter.

He headed for a cheap, run down boarding-house where he could rent a room.  The place would never have passed a safety check but Jack took care of himself and he knew the score.  Palming the owner £40, he arranged to stay a couple of nights.

The room was as he expected it: peeling wallpaper, a bed with sheets and blankets that looked as though they had never been washed.  He opened the drawer of a bedside cabinet.  Apart from a few utensils like a knife, fork and spoon, it was empty.  He pulled open the cupboard doors.  There on the top shelf was a couple of plates and a mug.  Nothing else.  The toilet was in the hallway.  Jack wondered how many people had used it and what state it was in?  Didn’t have the stomach to open the door and look.  It’ll have to do, he thought.  At least I’m a free man.  Maybe I’ll get lucky in the next couple of days.  He checked the money he had left.  £60.  Enough to buy a bullet of heroin and maybe some food and drink.  Closing the door behind him, he left the boarding-house.

Sure enough Jimmy the dealer was at home and looking much the same as ever, except he was a whole lot thinner and his teeth were blacker.  His dead eyes peered out of darkened orbs.  If ever a man looked like a ghoul it was Jimmy.

“Hey, Jack, long time no see.”

“Good to see you Jimmy.  I got out a few hours ago.”  Jack breathed in deeply, as if to savour the fresh air before stepping into Jimmy’s squalid flat.

“Come in, come in …”

He followed Jimmy into the front room — old beaten up settee, takeaway cartons strewn across the coffee table, the carpet beneath his feet frayed and worn.  Everything was the same as it was eighteen months ago except it was dirtier.  Jimmy never was one to clean up.

“Well, what can I do you for?”

Jack took out his money and said: “I want a bullet of heroin …”  A bullet would last him all weekend.  It used to be around fifty quid.  Jimmy asked for £40.  Jack gave him the money.  Jimmy produced a wrap of thick brown paper containing the heroin, then put it in a plastic bank bag.  “It’s good stuff,” he said handing it over.  If you haven’t been using, take it easy.”  Jack casually asked how he was.  Jimmy said he had developed ulcers on his legs.  “Take a look at this,” he said rolling up his left trouser leg.  Peeling back a puss-stained bandage, Jimmy proudly showed Jack the wound.  The suppurating ulcer, red with creamy-white edges, was larger than a 10p coin.  It was deep.  Looked and smelled hideous.

“Bloody hell!  How long have you had that?”

“About six months now.  Got one on the other leg, too.  They are treating it weekly down at the Urgent Care Centre.”  Rolling his trouser leg down, Jimmy said: “Take a look at my teeth.”  He opened his mouth and Jack peered in.  His molars were rotted down to the gum.

“Jesus Christ, doesn’t it hurt?”

“Can’t feel a thing.  Dead as a dodo.”

They chatted for a minute or two.  Jimmy gave him a hypodermic and a fresh needle.  Jack thanked him and left.  Outside, he could still smell the odour of Jimmy’s flat.  It clung to him like the stench of a swamp.  He ruffled his hair, hoping to dissipate the stench.  Jack couldn’t get Jimmy’s rotten teeth and ulcer out of his head.  How do you let yourself get in a state like that?  He thought.  Pulling up his collar, he headed for the nearest supermarket.

Jack loved Iron Brew.  It was laced with caffeine.  He wanted a two litre bottle, a loaf of bread, cheese and sweets.  He thought about buying a tin of beans but he didn’t have a tin opener.  The till girl: characterless, looked like she needed a break, took his money and he checked out.

It was dark by the time he got back to his room.  The radiator in the room was warm.  Well, that’s a bonus, thought Jack.  Central heating.  Can’t be bad.  He took his jacket off and sat on the bed.  He was looking forward to his first shot.  Eighteen months.  Eighteen months is a long time — time enough for his cells, neurons and synapses to detoxify a hundred times over.  Jack was clean.  A couple of shots wouldn’t hurt him.  Just a couple of shots.  Maybe in the morning, a Christmas present for myself.

Later that night Jack heard moaning coming from the room next door.  Some guy in there was in pain, he thought.  The moaning went on through the night.  Jack slept on and off.  He got up at around 7 o’clock, drank a glass of Iron Brew and made himself a cheese sandwich.  The guy in the next room was still groaning and moaning. 

Curiosity got the better of him.  He entered the passage, walked to the room next door and knocked on the door.  No answer.  The guy inside was still moaning.  Jack turned the handle.  The door open.  Inside the dimly lit room, curtain still drawn, a man in his 30s lay on the bed, his knees tucked up to his belly.  His contorted features reflected the pain he was in.  “Are you okay?” Jack asked.  The man said he had kidney stones.  The pain was unbearable.  He was waiting for an operation.  The Doctor had prescribed paracetamol but it wasn’t touching the pain.

Jack thought about his heroin.  It was his special treat for Christmas but how could he take it in all conscience knowing the agony this guy was in.  He looked at him lying in bed doubled up in agony.  Jack knew that heroin would take away his pain, give him some relief over the Christmas period.  “Hang on, buddy, I’ll fix you up.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“I’ve got some heroin.  Do you want it?”

“I ain’t never had heroin before.  Is it dangerous?” 

“No, mate, I’ll make sure you get the right dose,” Jack said.  “It will take away all your pain.”

“Okay, thanks.”  The guy looked up and tried to smile.  His grey eyes reflected his pain.

Jack went back into his room and grabbed the heroin and needle.  He would cook some up in foil, filter it and give the guy a shot.  “Yeah … a Christmas present.”  Putting the gear in his pocket, he entered the guy’s room and opened up the curtains.  Needed the light to see his veins.  “Hang on, mate, your pains will soon be far away …”  Jack glanced out of the window.  “Well how about that …”  Outside snow had begun to fall.  “A real Christmas tale this has turned out to be.”