Col felt a solitary tear of sweat running down his cheek and onto his chin. He drummed his thumbs against the faux leather of the steering wheel and glanced again at the timer – still another minute to go and the sweltering mask was already unbearable. Glancing out of the window, he cautiously peeled the rubber upwards, careful to leave it on his head. He felt the luxury of air on his cheeks and closed his eyes to appreciate it, but peremptory tapping on the window startled him back to reality and he found himself looking, unmasked, into the concerned grey eyes of an elderly woman.
“Colin? I thought that was you, whatever are you doin’?” she questioned him, peering in with her thin hands above her face to block out the sun. Despite his delicate situation, a rush of comfort flooded through him as he recognised Mrs Koslowski, one of very few people who had cared for him as an unruly, unkempt and unloved child.
“Mrs K!” he mouthed, affection and dread mingling in his fevered brain.
All this happened in a long instant, but he came with an unpleasant jolt back to the realisation that he had now been “eyeballed” as Al would call it, and something had to be done. He turned away, his face burning with shame and confusion, put the car in gear and shot forward across the little car park and out into the street, leaving a shower of grit and a chorus of disapproval from the few shoppers out on that airless afternoon.
Panic clawing at his throat and without a plan, he drove erratically around, taking three left turns in a row and finding himself eventually in a gloomy one-way street.
As he navigated overfilled dustbins and an abandoned milkfloat, he tried not to think of the bank and of Al, who at that moment staggered through the smoked glass front door of the First Savings Bank, battling with sagging cash bags, while his fleshy accomplice Griff followed awkwardly with a sawn-off shotgun and a safety deposit box. The pair looked around wildly, while a chorus of anxious shouts and screams built up around them and passers-by scattered, fearful but eager to relay the adventure, embellished, to families at dinner.
The unfortunate disappearance of their getaway vehicle dawned quickly on Griff, who instantly dumped the box, flung the shotgun across the car park and made a surprisingly nimble run for the back of the bank, scaling a fence and melting into greenery. Mrs K, rooted to the spot at first and still in wonder at having spotted Col, watched in dizzy amazement as the bank manager, spurred on by seeing the hapless intruder now unarmed, burst through the doors and tackled Al to the ground. He held him there, cheered on by the few brave souls who had remained to see the whole show, and thin applause broke out, quickly drowned by the wail of sirens and within seconds four stolid police officers were on the scene, and Al’s first heist came to an ignoble end.
Col had made his way, more by luck than judgment, to a deserted and soulless concrete square, tucked under a flyover. Now, in what felt like relative safety he stopped the car with his hands shaking and sweat pouring down under the mask, which he had replaced in a pointless gesture of self-preservation.
He remembered suddenly that Kevin, the last of a string of kindly social workers who tried to straighten his path through life, had taught him breathing exercises and he peeled the foul rubber carefully upwards off his head and gulped air, then slumped forward onto the steering wheel, exhaustion rippling over him.
Tears stung his eyes and his mind raced, but the slow breaths brought him steadily to a place of calm thought and the seeds of a clever plan took root. He sat upright, put the car in gear and drove off purposefully.
Mrs K put her bags wearily into the boot of her scratched mini, once pillar box red and her pride and joy but these days faded and shabby, a metaphor of her life without Bart. Bartek Koslowski had been a Polish car mechanic, the love of her life, and losing him eight years ago had been almost more than she could bear at the time. His sprawling workshop and toolshed stood untouched near their home, an oily shrine to him and a memento of his long days of toil, keeping tired vans on the road and fixing up scratches to glossy perfection.
It was there that Col headed now, drawn partly by desperation, but also by memories of contented afternoons out of school, watching the morose Bart working quietly and passing him spanners, wrenches and oil. He rarely spoke to Col, but somehow he always knew his being there was acceptable, and Mrs K would feed him her apple cake and tell him he ought to have a haircut, although she knew very well that his indifferent mother would never arrange this.
Fearful that Mrs K might have arrived home first, he pulled up gingerly to the driveway and seeing no car he drove bravely onward down the side of the house to the workshop, but his heart sank when he remembered the heavy iron chain across the front, and he leapt from the car, willing it to be unlocked – it was hooked on and easily removed, and he offered a silent prayer of thanks to the long dead Bart and drove carefully in, with no time to waste.
He scratched around among sheets of plastic slung over ancient vehicles, until he found something large enough to cover a 1980 Ford Escort, then with difficulty dragged it onto the little beige car. It seemed to him that covering it somehow removed him from the whole messy affair and he felt almost absolved.
The next question was where to hide himself, and the obvious answer was the toolshed, but finding it locked and now afraid of being caught redhanded, he quickly pushed in the wobbly plastic window and jumped inside, landing awkwardly but almost ecstatic with relief. As he slumped in the corner, in the cool gloom, the utter absurdity and hopeless danger of his situation crept up, and unable to think any more he finally drifted into a stiff, cold sleep.
He awoke confused and dry mouthed, realising to his surprise that darkness had fallen, but he suddenly had a sickening thought – the chain! He had not replaced it when he drove in and if Mrs K had noticed, the game was up. He cautiously pushed his head out of the window hole, and saw that all was quiet and black, but for a faint square of warm yellowish light from Mrs K’s distant kitchen. He was overcome with weariness and hunger, wishing that he could spend one minute on the three-legged stool in there while she baked and scolded him for his dirty hands.
He scrambled out, replaced the heavy chain and stood for a moment in the crisp night air, his eyes drawn wistfully again to the golden window, where he could just make out Mrs K seated at her kitchen table.
She suddenly stood and moved toward the door and he scampered back to the shed, and slumped against the wall furthest from the house. In his pocket he felt a handful of change, all he had in the world at present and it would have to feed him somehow. The cheap scratched watch on his wrist showed 9:50 pm, too late for any shops, even if he had more cash. Weariness again came over him and he threw himself back through the small hole and lay down on a tarpaulin, by now feeling chilled to the bone and sick with fear.
He allowed himself at last now to remember the boys and what they must be thinking – were they in dank police cells, or on the loose searching for him, thirsty for revenge? He recollected dimly that police sirens had sounded as he had been driving mindlessly away from the scene of the crime, and he shuddered.
In the grey morning light, he peered out to see a lacy mist everywhere – good cover he thought, and set off, padding along a footpath he knew well from childhood, toward shops and food. His mouth was parched and his stomach ached fiercely.
He had found an ancient donkey jacket of Bart’s and he was glad of the warmth now, though aware that he looked boyishly comical in a jacket for a man twice his size. The giant pockets might come in handy if he decided to resume his shoplifting career, he thought gloomily, as he fingered the copper coins in his trouser pockets.
A cheerful milkman was dropping four pints outside a house he remembered well and fighting back guilt, he waited until the coast was clear and helped himself to two pints, which he downed with greedy satisfaction, leaving the empty bottles carefully back on the step.
At the supermarket, he realised sadly how little he could buy with his meagre funds, and resorted to stashing extras in the oversized coat, ashamed but driven by aching hunger. He chose the quieter exit, and hurried out, but his path was suddenly blocked by a police officer and through the sound of his own heart beating in his ears, he heard her ask kindly if she might show him a picture, to see if he recognised the man in it? He nodded dumbly, unsure whether relief was appropriate, but when she produced a crude photo-fit of Griff, a combination of nerves, hunger and the ridiculous image of his accomplice made him giggle. She eyed him, “Something funny?”
“Uh no, sorry never seen him” he replied, hurriedly.
“We’re also looking for the driver of a light brown car, seen near here yesterday afternoon, seen anything like that?”
“I…I can’t drive…” he lied, avoiding her gaze, but she laughed merrily and said she was only asking, not saying it was him.
She shook her head a little and added, “Off you go then, and enjoy that lemonade” with a nod toward the stolen bottle protruding from his coat pocket. She winked, and moved quickly on to question others, leaving him trembling but free.
Before long he was back in the safety of his grimy den, and the day dragged on, as he nibbled cautiously at the mixture of food and wondered if he could get away with the theft of more milk tomorrow.
By midday he was bored and sleepy and he felt himself drifting off into an uneasy slumber. This time he awoke to a strange sensation, and as he opened his eyes, his mind filled with horror as he realised that the cold barrel of a gun was touching his forehead and behind it stood a grubby, dishevelled man in his forties.
“Wakey wakey, Colin”
The gun moved to his chest and the man grinned mirthlessly. Col shrank backwards and stammered, “What do you want?”
“It ain’t what I want, it’s what Al wants, you sneaky little wretch!”
Col turned away, petrified but eager to know how things stood, and asked “Where is he, then?”
“In the nick, thanks to you, but ‘e passed me a message to deal with you. So I have my mission” he stated, in a grandiose manner, “An’ I ‘ave to report later on the situation, like.”
He moved the gun again to Col’s head, still smiling his grotesque smile. “Get on your knees, you pathetic little…..” but there came a sudden sickening crump, and the beast fell forward, head first into Col’s lap. Disgusted, he pushed him away and looking up he saw Mrs K, brandishing a large black skillet, her peachy face alight with triumph and terror in equal measure.
Afterwards, they could never say why they both laughed then but they did, for a long minute, helplessly, while the stranger lay silently on the floor and Mrs K carefully took the gun from his floppy hand. Wiping his eyes Col stood up, unsure what to do next, but Mrs K simply squeezed his arm, told him he needed a haircut and nodded towards the house, saying there was apple cake for him.
As he finished his third slice, the police cars pulled onto the driveway, and Col knew that now the heist was really over.