Miriam Burke



I love my job. I love standing in the darkness taking in the smell of their cooking, a whiff of perfume, or a trace of lemon fabric conditioner on a clean tea-towel. Tony and I stand very still for a few minutes to make sure we haven’t been heard. We come in the garden door which usually has a spring-latch that we can open in a few seconds with a credit card. We have a bolt cutter for patio doors.

       Tony moves the beam of his torch around the kitchen while we look for phones, tablets, and car keys. I check the sink for watches or rings. We move very quietly from room to room; we wear the rubber soled aqua shoes that people use to protect their feet from sea urchins. We’re dressed in puffer jackets and designer jeans so we can say we’re friends of the owners if a neighbour sees us. We put on latex gloves and balaclavas before we go into the house.

       Tony did a computing course so we can research our subjects; that’s what we like to call them. We nick something from their letter box to get a name and he researches them on the internet. He can get into anyone’s social media account and he finds out if they’re going away on a summer holiday or returning to another country for Christmas. We watch a house for days before paying our visit. I did a course in art appreciation to make sure we don’t miss a good painting and I once worked for a woman who has a shop selling antique jewellery in Westbourne Grove; she told me I had a good eye. Our fences don’t try to cheat us because we know what everything is worth.

       Tony is my brother. He’s black and I’m white so we didn’t have the same parents but he’s a real brother; we lived next door growing up and his mother always fed me if our fridge was empty and I slept on their sofa when I got locked out. His mother, Laticia, is from Barbados and she turned our South London council estate into a Barbadian village. She looked after strays like me and grown-ups went to her when they were in trouble. She’s a big woman with a loud voice and no-one messes with her; no one except her husband but he was hardly ever there.

       My mother was a drunk. There should be a word for a lovely, cheerful drunk because she wasn’t like the image in your head. She’d wake me by throwing her arms around me and say: ‘I love you, darling. I love, love you, love you.’ Her Longford accent never changed because she spent all her time in Irish pubs.

    ‘Get off me,’ I’d say, pulling away from her stale whiskey breath. Coke and whiskey was her drink.

    ‘Don’t you love your poor mother?’

I’d look at the clock and say: ‘I’ll be late again – the nuns will kill me.’

       ‘Feck the nuns. Stay with me today. We’ll have a little party; just the two of us.’ She’d start singing and I’d push her off me, pull on my school uniform, and run to school.

       Tony is very tall and I’m quite small. I can fit in a bathroom window and that can save us a lot of time. Tony likes men but he can never tell his mother because it would bring shame on her. She hopes he’ll marry me. I like men too but in small doses. I have a few days fun and then I don’t want to see them again. If I ever have a child, I’d like Tony to be the father.

       ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly’. That’s what the nuns used to say. And it’s why we never get caught. We don’t go for new money; they could have a gun or know how to use a knife. We like the kind of people who have always felt safe in the world; people who don’t have alarms because they live in a neighbourhood with a low crime rate, people who have inherited jewellery and paintings.

       We taught ourselves how to use knives. We studied anatomy diagrams on the internet and we practised on stuffed bin bags. We bought filleting knives from a shop that sells kitchen equipment and we keep them sharpened. We never work with anyone else and we keep our business to ourselves. People can’t grass on you if they know nothing.

       I was smart but I didn’t do any homework because there was always too much noise. My mother was either singing along to the radio or she was laughing and drinking with men she’d found in a pub. If she had a man staying the night, she locked me in my bedroom until I was old enough to lock it myself. I’d often be woken in the night by the sound of the door handle being turned.

       The nuns concentrated on the girls whose parents would complain if they didn’t get good grades. They knew what street every family lived on, the kind of car they drove. When I asked my mother why she sent me to a convent school, she said: ‘It’s good preparation for life; you’ll learn never to trust anyone in charge.’ I sat at the back of the class wearing a uniform I had outgrown and a white blouse with dirty cuffs.

       I decided to make friends with a quiet girl whose mother drove a Mercedes. She didn’t belong to any gang so she was easy picking. I got her to invite me back to her place after school by saying I’d like to hear a cd she’d bought. The house smelt of polished antique furniture mixed with freesias picked from their garden, and roasting meat. Her mother’s eyes went cold when she saw me; you can’t hide poverty, and I was never invited back.

       We change our number plates before we set out on a job. We drive a silver Golf, the kind of car a wife would use to drive children to school and we park a street away. We never do more than one job in a neighbourhood.

       We tell people we buy stuff at car boot sales and markets, do any repairs and cleaning needed, and sell on eBay for a big mark-up. We’re careful not to flash too much money about. Holidays are our thing. We’ve been everywhere; L.A., Sydney, Cape Town, Goa. We collect air miles and we always get an upgrade. We tell everyone we’re going to Ibiza.

       Tony’s Dad was Nigerian and he would appear every few years when some woman had thrown him out and Tony’s mother would take him back because her pastor told her it was her Christian duty. His sons hated their father because he made them treat him as if he was a tribal chief. When they complained to their mother, she’d tell them they had to honour their father.

       I have no idea who my father is. All I know is that when things got so bad my mother was pawning our furniture, a cheque would arrive. I figure she was blackmailing my father because she came over from Ireland to have me when she was only just sixteen which means my father was a child abuser. He must have been a teacher, a married friend of the family, or maybe a priest; someone with a reputation to lose. I don’t think she would have loved me so much if her father or brother was my father.

       We store everything in a lock-up garage near our estate. We keep things a while before we pass them on to our fences. The only thing we have to shift quickly is cars. We have a contact who has them out of the country within twenty-four hours. We make serious money from luxury cars. Our fences know nothing about us so we don’t worry if they get nicked. We take it in turns to contact them and they don’t know we’re working together.

       My mother’s memory was shot by the time she was fifty. I took her out of the nursing home the council put her in because I didn’t like how the staff talked to her. I found a private home with a bar for the residents and I top up the fees paid by the council. She started singing again when she moved there. She thinks I’m one of the nurses.

       Tony moved into the flat with me when my mother was taken away. We spent two weeks scrubbing the floors, and painting walls. And we ordered a truck full of furniture from a Danish design shop after we nicked a BMW convertible that was only a few months old. I worry sometimes that Tony will meet someone and move out but the kind of guys he likes aren’t interested in marrying a black boy from a council estate.

       We’re doing a big detached red brick house near Wandsworth Common tonight. We watched the family load their suitcases into a four-wheel drive a few days ago. The garden door is so easy, it’s insulting. Tony decides the downstairs toilet is the easiest way in so he jimmies it open and gives me a leg up after we’ve put on our gloves and balaclavas. I slide over the toilet onto the floor and do a handstand to celebrate. I let Tony in through the sliding door that leads from the kitchen diner into the garden.

       Tony turns on his torch as soon as he gets in because we know the family is away. We’re not expecting phones or computers so we’re looking for jewellery, paintings, and anything gold or silver. I’ve been researching valuable books so I might have a look for some first editions. The steel kitchen counters are clear and the polished concrete floor is spotless. I open the fridge door and see there’s no fresh food or milk.

       Rugs with brightly coloured geometric shapes cover the floor boards in the dining area. We move quietly around the huge room. I stop to look at photos on the piano: children are riding horses through a wood and skiing down a mountain. There’s a wedding photo and I imagine the expression on the couple’s faces when they get back from their holiday.

       Tony lifts up paintings to see if there’s a safe in the wall. I’m walking towards a bookshelf when I trip on a small plastic car and knock over a standard lamp; the metal lamp makes a loud noise when it hits an uncovered floor board.

    ‘It’s just as well there’s no one here,’ I say.

       A landing light comes on before Tony has a chance to answer. He switches off his torch and we both open our jackets to pull out knives from inside pockets. We stand very still, holding the knives. I feel excited, like a footballer waiting for the whistle at the start of a cup final.

    ‘Is there someone there?’

       A man in burgundy silk pyjamas walks slowly down the stairs; he’s the man in the wedding photo. He puts on the light switch next to the bottom step. When he sees us in our balaclavas holding knives, he says: ‘Oh God, I have children. You can take anything you like. Please don’t kill me.’ We move quickly; we’ve rehearsed it over and over. We work in silence. Tony pulls handcuffs from his pocket and locks the man’s hands behind his back. I put tape over his mouth, leaving his nose free to breathe. We lead him to the sofa and make him lie down while Tony puts a second set of handcuffs on his feet. Tony nods towards the stairs to let me know he’s going up to see what he can find.

       I know Tony will be gone for a while; he’s very thorough. I stand over the man with the knife in my hands and I look at his chest, remembering the anatomical diagrams. He sees where my eyes are focussed. He tries to speak through the tape. I bring the knife closer and he goes quiet. With one jab, I can wipe out everything he is; all his memories, his feelings, and his thoughts. I can take away his past, his present, and his future. I’m enjoying the fear in his eyes. I touch the blade of the knife with a finger and I smile. He thinks he’s done no harm, he thinks he’s led a good life but he’s guilty, guilty as hell.

       Tony comes back down ten minutes later and his eyes tell me he’s happy. The rucksack on his back is bulging. He moves quickly to the back door and I follow him. I open the fridge on my way out and take out a bottle of champagne I spotted earlier.

       We can’t wait to start celebrating but Tony drives carefully because we know this is when we could easily blow it by getting caught for speeding or drink driving. I turn on the car stereo system and find Tony’s favourite; ‘Nessun Dorma’. We sing along at the top of our voices: Vincerò, vincerò.


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