It was a hot and sunny afternoon. Clear blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Me and Freddie were making our way down the Lane towards the river. We had passed Derek Gardens where Freddie lived and were now in the dead zone. On Sundays nothing went on in this part of the lane. There were no houses. No traffic and no noise. Bordering the United Glass Blower’s factory, a black corrugated fence ran from the offices on the opposite side of the road from Derek Gardens, all the way down the Lane to embankment of the Thames. There was an off-road parking space on the other side, flanked by a huge factory wall. The ground there was rough and full of ruts. Long open back trailers that transported propellers from the Stones Manganese factory were parked on the rough ground, single file, one after another. The whole area was quiet. The world stood still, except for me and Freddie and maybe the odd person walking down to Wally Sargent’s pub.
I was around ten years old. Freddie was a couple of years older than me. He was my best friend. I’m probably the only good friend that he’s got or has ever had. Parents considered him a troublemaker and wouldn’t let their kids play with him. One day he trashed his house after arguing with his mother. I’ve only been in his house once. There were no carpets on the floor and the furniture looked very shabby. His mum had dark rings around her eyes. Her hair looked a mess and she trembled a lot, as if she was very nervous.
Passing the trailers, we decided to climb onto one. We were just a couple of kids playing with no malicious intent. On the back of the trailer there was a huge lorry tyre. Inside the tyre there was an ingot of lead. We didn’t know it was lead. We certainly didn’t know it had a value. It was the colour of silver and very heavy, which intrigued us. We took the ingot from the tyre and threw it down from the trailer onto the road. It made a thudding noise, not like metal but like something soft and dense. Jumping down from the trailer, we took turns to see how far we could throw it.
I was quite strong for my age but the ingot was so heavy I couldn’t throw it far. Freddie was able to throw it marginally further than me. We continued to throw and carry it all the way down the Lane until we reached the river. Pausing outside Wally Sargent’s pub, The Anchor And Hope, we wondered what to do with it. Neither of us could be bothered to take it back to the trailer and so we both held it and swung it backwards and forwards, and using all our strength managed to toss it over a wooden fence and onto an area of disused ground. Then we stepped onto the concrete walkway that led down to the river’s shore, clambered up onto the wall that the fence was built on and carefully eased our way along, clinging to the fence which was at right angles to the part we threw the lead over. When we reached the edge of the fence we carefully trod round and stepped onto the disused land.
The area was about 15 feet by 15 feet. Alongside the disused land there was a pathway which took you to a long jetty where diamond tugs were moored. Diamond tugs had a huge black diamond painted on their white chimneys. Me and Freddie called them diamond tugs as a means of identification. When we saw a diamond tug going up the river we knew where they had come from. For a couple of kids, me and Freddie knew a lot about the river. Moving to the lead, we kneeled down, dug a hole with our bare hands and buried it.
Months went by. We had forgotten all about the lead. One day we were outside Wally Sargent’s pub and about to go down the concrete walkway that led to the shore when two men stopped us. They asked us if we had found a silver object in a tyre. Me and Freddie genuinely had no idea what they were talking about.
“Did you find a silver thing in a tyre?” The man kept on and on, repeatedly asking us the same thing.
The question didn’t make sense to either of us. The two men then separated us. One took Freddie about 25 feet away while the other one questioned me further. Again he kept on about a silver thing in a tyre. He never identified himself. I had no idea who he was. I felt intimidated and frightened. The man never smiled or showed any signs of friendliness. He kept aggressively asking the same question. Suddenly he said, “It was a silver thing in a tyre on the back of a trailer.”
The penny dropped. I said, “Oh, you mean the heavy metal.”
The man’s eyes lit up. “Yes, the heavy metal that looks like silver.”
“Yeah, it’s over the fence right there” — pointing to the fence. “Me and Freddie were playing with it but it was too heavy to take back to the trailer so we threw it over the fence and buried it.” We showed the men how to get to the other side of the fence.
They looked nervous as they inched their way along the narrow ledge. Avoiding a long drop to the shore, we safely reached the other side. I took them to the spot where the lead was buried. The men kneeled down, pulled the earth back and there it was. The lead looked a lot duller than it did when we took it from the tyre. The detectives smiled gleefully, as if they had found buried treasure. Carrying the lead, we carefully made our way back to the embankment.
They told us they were detectives and asked us to go with them to the police station. We didn’t realise we had committed an offence. We had no idea that we had stolen something of value. In fact we didn’t even think we had committed a crime. I mean why leave something of value on the back of an open trailer and not expect anybody to either filch it or play with it? In the police station we were charged with stealing.
A few weeks later me and Freddie stood in a court. The judge pronounced us both guilty. He sentenced Freddie to eighteen months incarceration in a borstal. I was put on probation for two years.
The detectives broke all the rules on the day we were questioned. They never let us see our parents or guardians. They never said they were detectives. They never cautioned us. We were just two kids playing. None of this came out in court. The judge wasn’t interested. It seemed like he was determined to impose a harsh sentence on us both, Freddie in particular who had a previous record for violence and petty theft.
I never felt the slightest pang of guilt or remorse for my so-called crime. How could I when I hadn’t done anything other than play with the lead? I could have lied to the detectives and got away with it, but I told the truth. Freddie had no intention of stealing the lead, either. I felt really sorry for him. Seeing the look on his face as he was led away, made me feel terrible. For the crime of amusing ourselves we had been treated harshly by the authorities and now had a criminal record.