Root Memory

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Boiling A Frog

The previous evening, Aubrey had phoned ahead to a friend of his at one of the communities he’d researched for How to Survive..., arranging for Nero to go and stay at short notice.

In contrast to Nero’s expectations that the community would be located out in the wilds of the Welsh countryside – thinking perhaps of Tipi Valley, or one of the numerous raggle-taggle communities he’d viewed on ‘alternative’ websites – it instead turned out he would be travelling to the Black Country. Aubrey explained it was situated on a few acres of scrappy, levelled land at the edge of the West Midlands, in what had previously been a site of heavy industry. An open invitation; Nero could turn up when he liked. Aubrey had scribbled out a rough route on how to get there: a lengthy combination of bus and rail connections – though by car it was only around ninety minutes away. Nero felt in no great hurry, so pondered his options.

Being a Friday, the bus timetable allowed him to get all the way into Lugmede. With a couple of hours to kill, he wandered along the now familiar High Street and explored some of the sleepy side streets too. It still being too early for any pubs to be open, Nero decided to go into the library and check his email: nothing but spam. A quick check of his online bank account revealed a total of £721. What had been a useful sum to have on one side a couple or so weeks before now seemed an uncomfortably small amount to his name. Without the bolt-hole of the commune, or rather “community”, as Aubrey kept insisting he call it, seven-hundred pounds was all that was keeping him from the gutter.

Nero craved some time completely by himself before meeting these new people. Clearly, staying in hotels or guest houses would now be too expensive a luxury to consider on his limited budget. It struck him that another option would be to camp; he could be self-sufficient, and wouldn’t have to rely on others for a place to sleep – but nowhere in Lugmede appeared to sell tents.

The next stop on his trip, Leominster, proved more rewarding. He could pay as little as £25 for an “End of Season” two-man tent (the type frequently seen abandoned at music festivals) but it looked way too claustrophobic for anything more than the odd night under canvas – or more accurately, breathable polyester. Slightly higher up the price range, and larger, was a pop-up, green army camouflage tent. The manufacturers promised it would pitch in a couple of seconds. Nero wondered if it would be quite so easy to fold it up again; though it did seem it would eventually collapse small enough to strap on to his rucksack. While in the shop he bought a compact, folding solid-fuel camping stove, a small saucepan, and a few other accessories that the eager young sales assistant seemed to think would be essential. He came away nearly a hundred pounds poorer but with the liberating feeling that he was able to go anywhere, any time he wanted. Why not tonight, he’d thought; then perhaps a day or two of solitary wandering towards his destination.

As he’d nothing better to do, Nero explored the centre of Leominster before deciding on his next move. The streets were wider here than in either of the border towns he’d visited; there seemed more room to breath. The architecture was a pleasing hotchpotch of styles and eras; mainly Georgian and Victorian but with a smattering of half-timbered medieval houses sitting harmoniously between venerable rusticated columns and proudly presented mercantile arches. The town looked to have more than its fair share of antiques shops. Nero entered one of them, which turned out to have several floors, and squeezed carefully through its tightly packed corridors and rooms, fearing his bulging rucksack would leave a wake of expensive breakages. The choice on offer seemed wilfully random: model cars in a glass case; a Belfast sink containing Edwardian fiction, farming magazines and a broken cruet set. Further along were walnut wardrobes; a Bakelite telephone; fob watches, and tray after tray of old postcards. After twenty minutes or so of aimless walking up and down, Nero found the selection on offer too chaotic, so left in search of food.

The smell wafting from a nearby fish & chip shop proved beyond temptation. A few minutes later, clutching a warm white parcel, Nero went to look for somewhere to sit down and enjoy his greasy feast. Just around the corner was a wide, open grassy area, so he found a bench and took the weight off his feet. Dogs chased balls and retrieved sticks; small children darted around screaming, and old people sauntered and pointed at an impressive half-timbered Tudor-looking building at one end of the park. Photographs were taken. Brittle leaves rattled in the trees. Nero struggled to open a sachet of tomato sauce, squirting most of the contents onto his left leg. He gathered it up with one finger and then smeared it over several chips.

Stomach full, but mouth now dry, Nero next went in search of a decent pub to slake his thirst. It seemed odd drinking alone, and he felt somewhat self-conscious sitting there by himself. Back in Oxford he’d generally go into town and share a pint or a few with Kevin or another of his small band of acquaintances. Nero wondered how he’d managed to live all his adult life in the city and emerge now with only one real friend. He observed the laconic ease between regulars and the barman; a nod and the slenderest smiles of greeting. Everyone seemed to be on first name terms. After a few minutes of staring benignly into the middle-distance, Nero decided to feign interest at a food menu chalked onto a blackboard next to the bar while trying to overhear a conversation between a young couple seated at a table next to the open fire. He drank up, and rather than have another pint, he decided now was the time to hit the road; feeling an uneasy combination of excitement and apprehension at what was ahead of him. The traffic grew more dense and impatient.

The busy A49 towards Tenbury Wells hadn’t quite been what Nero had anticipated when he’d pictured his walk along country byways; heavy lorries hurtled along in both directions and buffeted him as he made his way along the footpath. On nearing the village of Stockton, and around an hour in to his walk, the road narrowed and became the A4112. There was no verge to speak of and too much traffic, now rush hour was approaching, to risk attempting to proceed further along that route. So Nero decided to consult his newly-purchased Ordnance Survey Landranger Map for Hereford & Leominster. He’d bought Kidderminster & The Wyre Forest, and Birmingham & Wolverhampton too at the same time to cover the whole of his planned route to the Black Country. It seemed there was a lane running broadly parallel to the road, leading in the general direction of Tenbury, though the detour would mean he would arrive well after dark. Nero kept a sharp lookout for likely spots he could pitch his tent. After ten minutes of having the lane to himself he stepped aside to allow a hefty Highway Maintenance truck to squeeze by.

He wondered at the correct protocol for camping on farmland. Should he knock on the door of the nearest farmhouse and ask permission, risking a surly rebuke, or perhaps try and find a more out of the way spot and simply get on with it? Twilight was edging towards darkness when he spotted a copse perched on a hillock a few yards along a track on the next bend. A startled pheasant klaxoned alarm as it franticly flapped its escape from a nearby hedge. From a creaking branch, a watchful magpie angled its head at Nero, eyeing his approach towards the lonely clump of trees. As he squelched his way along the muddy path towards his own roost for the night, Nero fancied himself as possibly being mistaken for a convict on the run; a Magwitch skulking along the dimming skyline.

As the hours passed, it became more apparent to him just how little preparation he’d put into his little adventure. For instance, he hadn’t thought to buy a torch, toilet paper, a can opener, or a water container. Therefore he had to make do with chocolate bars and a can of cola to sustain him until morning.

With darkness upon him by early evening, Nero was left to either sleep or think. Another option dawned on him: he could switch on his phone and text Kevin; surprise him with the news of him camping out in the wilds of Herefordshire in autumn. Not that remote, though; there was a signal. And one message; it had come in at 17:24 – Dixey inevitably:

Non-payment adds 10% to your debt. 8.8k now owed. Will double % each week as u know.

Nero felt a rush of panic, so he calmed himself with a breathing exercise he’d learned from The Book. Gradually, a relieved sense emerged that he was remote, both physically and emotionally, from his half-life back in Oxford; all the numbed negativity and despair with which he’d dragged himself down for all those years. In that small tent he was cast free from the cares of his world; especially from Dixey’s pernicious grip.

He tapped out a brief message to Kevin. A reply came less than a minute later: You in a tent! His friend was consistently unimpeded by any notions of social propriety and camaraderie, simply reacting to whatever came into his head at that moment. Nero envied that unaffected quality in him.

Friday night. No beer and no telly, and no Kevin, but plenty of long hours until dawn in solitude. Only a faint, dome-shaped orange glow from Leominster rising into the black gave Nero a clue to his location. By around 7pm the whoosh of far off traffic had subsided into a bustling breeze that lifted leaves and bothered the branches above his head into flexing and scraping. For want of distraction, he lay on his back in the sleeping bag, his head poking out of the zipped entrance of the tent, gazing up at unidentified stars that appeared to him briefly between clouds. The veil melted to reveal a fragment of The Plough. The constellations were familiar friends from childhood; reassuring points of reference. He recalled once more his chilly evening with Laura on the golf course, pointing at the sky and trying to impress her. So long ago, but the embers of those memories warmed him. Nero sighed his breath into the air and burrowed back inside for the night. He pressed the illuminate button on his watch for the umpteenth time to check the hour and tried to keep his thoughts buoyant and positive.

By dawn, Nero was regretting his decision to save a few pounds on a cheap sleeping bag; he’d been forced to drag Aubrey’s old overcoat over his shivering body during a cold and restless night. The morning was sunny, but the grass brittle from a light ground frost. With a woolly hat pulled tight down over his ears, he went in search of water with the empty coke can. The urgency for something to drink allowed him to bypass any concerns over the purity of the water he took from a bubbling stream he found at the other side of the copse. He lit the fire-lighters under his tiny stove and made black instant coffee in the saucepan. It tasted wonderful.

Then, taking a stroll around his ephemeral kingdom, Nero climbed to the highest point of the tree-covered mound and looked over the stretch of land in the direction of his route that morning. He munched through his meagre breakfast: a packet of smoky bacon crisps; the last of his food now for the two or three hours it would take to reach Tenbury for more supplies. He heard no cars, only the muted intermittent bellows of cattle from within the spectral strands of mist which lay across the surrounding fields; the topography appearing to resolve into being for the new day minute by minute.

A few early Saturday shoppers driving towards Leominster were evident as

Nero rejoined the A4112 on the other side of Stockton. He was relieved to see a footpath. For some time, during his walks with Aubrey, the little toe of his right foot had been rubbing against the inside of his shoe, and now it was getting painful. He decided to stop and examine it. Skin had sloughed off the one side, revealing a pristine pink layer – and an unpleasant sore. With no cream or sticking plasters to protect it, he was forced to continue, though with a pronounced limp as he awkwardly angled his foot in order to reduce pressure on the troublesome side.

While driving, he’d been used to miles passing in a couple of minutes, not by the hour or more it was taking on foot. Seven miles looked a small number on the road sign but seemed unreachable to his legs. Every few minutes he shifted the straps on his rucksack an inch or so to the left or right to prevent them digging in. After an hour of this he felt exhausted and thirsty. There were clusters of houses along the road but no sign of a little shop or a petrol station where he could buy a drink or a snack. Some of this road seemed familiar from his drive in the van with Kevin to Simon’s – he couldn’t be sure just how long it had been. During the brief lulls between passing traffic Nero switched sides of the road to follow the footpath, hearing birdsong rise up from the fields and bare hedges. He grimaced and panted with the effort. Now it was six miles to Tenbury. He passed a pub; still a good three hours till opening time.

An hour further up the road, Nero decided to hitch-hike. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen anyone do it; only those weather-beaten individuals who clutch trade number plates near motorway junctions. Pride overcame pain as he resisted defeat at a task that many a group of pensionable age ramblers would consider a comfortable stroll.

Within five minutes his thumb was tentatively summoning a lift. It took another forty minutes for a response, though in an unlikely form. A farmer in a huge green John Deere tractor pulling a trailer full of anonymous-looking root vegetables halted in front of him. A number of relieved drivers shot past, released from their frustrating crawl behind the mobile chicane. A friendly looking young guy in a blue overall shouted above the clatter of diesel and roar of revving cars that he was going as far as Tenbury, and he should jump up onto the trailer. Nero attempted to convey his thanks with sign language.

On closer examination, he appeared to be sitting on turnips; it wouldn’t exactly be a comfortable or dignified arrival into the town. Nero chose to position himself at the tractor end of the trailer, imagining himself less conspicuous to the occupants of vehicles following behind. He attempted to transmit the body language of a local son of the soil casually taking stock of the passing fields before arriving at the location of his next agricultural task. He failed.

A couple of hundred yards before reaching the edge of the town, the farmer pipped his horn to catch Nero’s attention so that he leant over the front of the trailer to catch sight of a gesticulating hand in one of the large mirrors, indicating an imminent turn left – presumably into one of the fields. Nero acknowledged he understood and edged down from his precarious perch towards the road. He waved and smiled while pulling on his rucksack.

On arriving in a new town, Nero repeated his habit of firstly attending to whatever urgent task was waiting (in this case going to a chemist in search of something to sort his foot out), get something to eat and drink, do some shopping, then visit the local library to check emails. Two of interest: one from Kevin saying that a mate of his had been asked if he knew of Nero’s whereabouts. So Dixey had begun to close his net. The other email was from Alain, apologising that Flannery would be abroad longer than planned, and that he would contact Nero as soon as he knew more; his therapy would be postponed for the time being. So “The Community” looked to be the best bet for now, both as a refuge from Dixey and a chance to get some kind of perspective on what to do next.

The main road wound hesitantly through the town, eventually reaching the River Teme – which had burst its banks only a couple of weeks previous to his visit, following a freak rain storm and leaving substantial damage in its aftermath, though the shopkeepers he met had all been eager to stress that the town was still open for business.

During his return east from the Welsh border country, Nero had noticed the reticent and inconspicuous character of those towns gradually reverting to the modest prosperity and assertive commerce he was used to back in Oxfordshire. He recalled the hush that curiously pervaded the streets of Temeton and Lugmede, as if a spell might be broken. Finding a path along the riverbank and a bench, Nero decided to sit there and attend to his foot. There seemed little point in heading off on the road again until he was confident it would stand up to more pounding on the tarmac. He considered buying new walking boots, but felt they would take some bedding in and risk rubbing his toes as much as his present ones.

There wasn’t a great deal to do in the town other than look at the river and poke around some of the shops. Several hours passed by; part of it spent in a couple of pubs and a cafe. By now his foot felt more comfortable so he decided to head out towards Kidderminster, by way of Bewdley. This was a longer stretch to cover, around fifteen miles. At his usual pace it would take six hours. Common sense would have told him to catch a bus instead, but he still yearned for solitude.

Just over an hour in, and his toe was causing trouble once again; the plaster had worked its way off. He cursed his feet; they were all that were letting him down since he’d developed the stamina for these route marches in his time alongside Aubrey. After another thirty minutes or so, Nero must have looked a forlorn sight hobbling along the side of the road. He heard a brief pip from a horn followed by a car indicating left and stopping in front of him, wheels edging onto the verge. The passenger door opened on a gunmetal grey Porsche Cayenne. Nero quickened his pace awkwardly towards the inelegant but expensive SUV and leant his head into the opening window of the vehicle to thank his good samaritan.

“Cheers for stopping.”

“No problem, mate. Get in.” The driver’s accent sounded northern; somewhere around Liverpool he reckoned. “Stick your stuff on the back seat.” He opened the rear door and flung it in, and detected an odd smell; something like compost, or perhaps wood-chip; then spotted a Little Tree freshener dangling from the rear view mirror.

Nero settled into the cream leather and fastened his seatbelt as the car accelerated forward with a distant, powerful murmur from the engine. “I don’t think I’d have made it to Bewdley.”

“Is that where you live, like?”

“No, I’m heading towards Stourbridge.”

“Right. You’re in luck. I’m going up that way, so I can drop you right close, mate.”

“Brilliant, that’d be great.” Nero felt relieved that he was no longer forced to continue his ascetic journey on failing foot; though one night under canvas wasn’t exactly the leisurely adventure in the English countryside he’d been looking forward to.

“I’m Kieran,” he said, quickly taking his left hand from where it was resting on the gear shift, and offering it to his passenger.

“Oh, I’m Nero.”

Kieran gave off an air of confidence and artful affability. He looked mid to late thirties, and obviously successful at whatever he did, going by his clothes, watch and the car. He noticed grown out blonde highlights to his curly hair, a small diamond ear stud, and an old scar leading from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbone. Nero wondered how he’d got it; a fight perhaps, or maybe a car accident? He was certainly assertive behind the wheel. As they sped along the twisting double white lines of the A-road, Nero anticipated setting up tent somewhere on the edge of the town and waiting until he was in the right frame of mind to meet a new group of people – it seemed like the best solution.

He’d felt a wall of warmth as he’d entered the car, realising just how accustomed he’d become to the chill of the outdoors in November. Sensing an uncomfortably long gap since last speaking to Kieran, and wanting to feel grateful for being picked up, he found himself justifying his presence out there to him, with an almost apologetic intonation to his voice.

“Thought I’d do a bit of camping.“

“Bit cold for all that, eh mate?”

“I don’t mind that so much, if it wasn’t for my feet playing up.”

“You looked a bit gimpy going along there, like.”

Nero felt the need to reach down and rub his foot as he spoke, emphasising his suffering. “A spur of the moment thing, I guess. Fancied getting away by myself for a while – out in the open air and stuff ...”

Kieran looked about to make another comment but looked back at the road for a few more seconds before he spoke again. “Well if you’ve got some time on your hands we might be able to help each other out. One of my guys can’t make it in today; we were gonna do some work tonight.

Nero felt immediately on the defensive and quickly started to think up excuses why he would have to decline, but at the same time hadn’t wanted to seem unappreciative of the lift. Kieran interpreted his hesitation as a bargaining ploy. “Tell you what – Nero, isn’t it?” Nero nodded. “Hundred quid, seeing as it’s the weekend. And I’ll only need you for an hour and a half – two hours tops. How does that sound?”

He gave Kieran a weak smile. “Erm... I don’t know. What kind of work?”

“You can drive can’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, like I say, my usual guy’s off and I need someone to help out with a bit of loading, and driving the van – then you can get back to your tent or whatever.”

“Tonight?”

“Yeah. I’ve just got to pick another bloke up in Kidder’ and we can drive up to this place in Wolverhampton.”

“OK, yeah, fair enough. I’ll do it.”

“Good man.”

Crossing over the river bridge at Bewdley, Nero was struck by its passing resemblance to Henley-on-Thames; close to his own neck of the woods. Then he recalled a hot, sunny day there in ’76 with Laura, sharing their first taste of Pimms, sitting out on the decking which overlooked the Thames at The Angel on the Bridge pub. He’d taken other girlfriends there since then, but none of them lived up to the name like Laura. That day he’d said she was the real angel on the bridge, and she’d said it was a cheesy thing to say, but then kissed him. Nero wondered why thoughts of her were streaming into his head so much recently.

He half-observed the sandstone and scenery blur by as they left the town; gradually lulled into drowsiness by the banal talk show chatter on the car radio.

“Fuckin’ idiot!”

Nero abruptly arrived into the present once again; his body weight flung forward as the brakes were hurriedly applied. “What?”

“Look at that dozy mare pulling out in front of me like that! Look at her, still on her fuckin’ phone...” Nero responded with the required expression of concerned disbelief as Kieran shook his head and mumbled something incoherent under his breath aimed at the oblivious woman motorist.

The street lamps were kindling amber as they entered the Kidderminster suburbs: a tree-lined road of box hedges and bungalows which gave way to warm-bricked villas next to blunt, bland semis. The double white line was replaced with a confusing array of arrows that decorated the road ahead. Kieran entered his familiar maze of left and right turns as he squeezed the luxurious lump through narrow streets until stopping outside a neglected grey warehouse. He sounded the horn. Shortly afterwards one of the main doors edged open, grating against the uneven tarmac, and then the other, revealing a scrawny young guy wearing a black hoodie over his cap and loose-fitting track suit bottoms. The Cayenne was carefully negotiated between the doors and stopped; the squeak of the brakes reverberating in the open space.

“We’ll get out here, Nero, and carry on in the van.”

“OK.”

Oi, Bagsie, you unload this one, yeah.” The gaunt youth gave a thumbs-up and dutifully opened the rear hatch of the Porsche. Kieran got out, so Nero did the same; though there wasn’t much room to open the passenger door, as parked closely alongside was a newish white Renault van.

“You driven one of these before?”

“Yeah, but not the length of this one.”

“Sweet – Bagsie can’t drive, see.”

Kieran tossed Nero the keys and suggested he get familiar with the controls while he went and spoke to his helper. The pair of them returned a couple of minutes later, Kieran clutching a leather holdall which he stuffed in the gap between the seats, on top of Nero’s rucksack. With the three of them and their gear the cab was crammed full.

“Right then Nero, mate. Meet Bagsie.” Bagsie was nearest the passenger door and leant forward, greeting his driver with an uninterested grunt; seeming to look through him rather than at him, the way cats do. “This is Nero. He’s helping us out tonight.” Bagsie resumed his former position of vacantly looking out of the side window.

Nero responded to a series of commands from Kieran to go left here, right there, and to go into that lane or another when they arrived at the disorientating Wolverhampton inner ring road system. The shoppers were now eager to be home and squeezed their vehicles into any gap that opened up – it made for slow progress between the seemingly endless sets of traffic lights.

Apart from giving directions, Kieran rarely spoke, concentrating instead on reading or sending messages on his phone. Bagsie just stared out. As night fell, the neon and strip light glare of fast food shops set off pangs of hunger in Nero’s stomach as they inched along.

“Nero, take a right here; where that Peugeot’s going.” Cars were parked nose to tail the whole length of the tenebrous terraces, with only inches to spare either side of the van. Nero instinctively narrowed his shoulders as he carefully negotiated his way down the road. “Now left.”

Kieran reached across to his bag on the dashboard, pulled it down onto his lap and unzipped it. Out of the corner of his eye, Nero made several cautious attempts to see what he was doing. Bagsie gave a stifled donkey-like guffaw as Kieran strapped some kind of bizarre apparatus onto his head. “Just carry on driving, Nero mate; I’ll let you know when we need to stop.”

He wasn’t sure what to ask Kieran first: why was he wearing that thing? why didn’t he know where they were going? “I know this is might be a stupid question, but –“

“We’re checking these houses, like, to see what insulation they’ve got.” Kieran joined in laughing with Bagsie. Nero was obviously being left out of some kind of in-joke between the two of them. The device looked like a pair of binoculars attached to a telephoto lens. Kieran fiddled with the eyepieces as he spoke, sounding distracted as he concentrated on pressing buttons and focussing. “It’s one of these thermal cameras, you know; shows up the heat coming from the houses, yeah.”

“I still don’t understand ...”

“Somewhere around here one of these houses will light up white on this thing, and that’s the one we want. Then we go and give them a visit.” Nero obviously still looked puzzled so Kieran spun out his explanation some more: “Every town’s got them, sort of – there’s nothing down here, take the next left – sort of little factories, like. The neighbours most likely haven’t a clue they’re doing it, yeah.” Nero swung the vehicle round and the headlights revealed an avenue of post war houses with large front gardens and cars mostly parked in drives.

“Doing what?”

“You’ll see.”

Nero had the curious feeling he was being led down a rabbit hole.

Twenty minutes or so and three streets later Kieran slapped the dashboard like a driving instructor ordering an emergency stop. “There! There! That one on the left.”

Nero had no clue which house he meant. “Which one?”

Kieran pushed the device up onto his forehead and rubbed his eyes, then pointed ahead. “Not this one. Two more up”. Nero braked and then idled the engine so that the van crept slowly forward until Kieran confirmed his target. “That’s the one. Pull in here.”

Bagsie got out and approached the house as Kieran returned the thermal camera to his bag. Then he turned to Nero.

“They’re nearly all rented, these places. You won’t see any lights on; the windows are always blacked-out. Generally you’ll get one bloke looking after it all in there. He won’t want any trouble; chances are he’s an illegal anyway. But we can’t let him know we’re here till the last minute, like.”

“What, you’re going to break-in? Look, I didn’t agree to – “

“Look, calm down, mate. If the police knew what they were up to in there they’d have ’em and take it all anyway.”

“What? You still haven’t said what you’re doing!”

“Blimey, mate, where have you been? It’s a fuckin’ cannabis factory. These gangs grow the stuff – loads of it – in houses like this all over; make a fortune, don’t they. Me and Bagsie get rid of their weed problem before they can sell it, or the bizzies get there hands on it.”

“But it’s still illegal. If we get caught we could all go down for something like this!” Nero felt his anxiety rising and instinctively wanted to get out and run off, but he was unsure if Kieran would react violently if he tried.

“Well we’re not gonna get caught, are we.” Kieran’s mobile vibrated. “Bagsie’s in. Look, Nero mate, all you need to do is sit here and wait for us to load up.”

As Kieran got out of the van, grabbing a roll of black bin liners as he left, Nero wondered if he should just get the hell out of there, ditch the van, and disappear. But the uncertainty and myriad worries over what might happen to him if he did instead resulted in paralysis.

Within seconds he heard the front door of the house open with a juddering crash and a man dashed out, shouting something in a foreign language as he sprinted down the drive and into the road, then disappeared into the shadows. He was followed a few moments later by Kieran, who cursed all the way to the van.

“The little bastard got a call out before we could stop him. We’ll have company before too long. Look, keep your eyes open. Give us a blow on the horn if you see anything suspicious, yeah?” Petrified, Nero didn’t respond, but thought to himself that they were the most suspicious thing going on in that road. “Look, do you fuckin’ understand? Get on that horn, right, if you see anything!

“Yeah, yeah. I will.”

Kieran slammed shut the door and hurried back towards the house. Bagsie was in the doorway holding two full bin liners. Kieran snatched them off him and dashed back towards the van, opened the rear doors and threw them in. Hyper-vigilant, Nero’s finger hovered millimetres above the end of the horn button, constantly scanning up and down the street and in the mirrors for movement: the dog walker, the couple setting out for the evening, the old bloke reversing his ageing Rover into its garage.

The minutes ticked by and Nero’s grip grew tighter on the steering wheel as load after load arrived; he felt sure he was about to soil himself. Seconds later he was instantly distracted from his worries over the resulting mess and smell it might cause by the menacing shriek of tyres on tarmac and hurrying headlights closing in on him in the mirrors. Without delay he pressed the horn button again and again. Kieran had only just dumped off another load, so he’d also seen the fast approaching large, dark vehicle. He jumped into the passenger side.

“Fuckin go! Go!

For a frantic few seconds Nero forgot where to find the key; even how to drive. Then self preservation kicked in and he screeched away, grinding the gears. He turned briefly to Kieran. “What about Bagsie?”

“He knows what to do. Just go!“

The van sped away, tyres smoking, closely followed by a sprinting Bagsie; for once his sportswear was appropriate clothing for the occasion. He struggled to keep up with the van as Kieran held the door open for him to jump in. Nero’s eyes were wide and watchful as his attention switched between the road ahead and the car in his mirrors. “He’s too quick for us; we’ll never get away from him in this! What do you want me to do?”

Kieran didn’t reply, he just reached down with his right hand and wrenched the handbrake on. Behind them the load of potted cannabis plants smashed against the bulkhead as the vehicle slammed to a halt and the engine raced. No strangers to this outcome, both Kieran and Bagsie had swiftly belted-up.

“Put it in reverse. Now!” Nero obeyed and a stench of burned rubber once again filled the air as he flung the van backwards, smashing into the front end of their pursuers’ vehicle; a sickening impact of metal on metal accompanied by the sound of another shift in their load, this time in the opposite direction, hitting the back doors of the van.

Nero saw steam rising from the crumpled nose of the Audi A6 and the occupants flinging the doors open. “They’re out. They’re coming for us!”

“Just stick it in first and go.”

Bagsie shouted something unintelligible as he pounded the dashboard. Nero mashed the gears again as he trembled, palsied with elemental fear. He accelerated away again while keeping a close eye on the mirrors to see if they were making ground. The figures were dashing back to their vehicle. Watching them, and a fraction of a second too late, Nero realised he was drifting too far left and was unable to avoid grinding his way along the sides of three parked cars; alarms blaring out, seemingly in pain from the impacts. Kieran reached for the steering wheel and corrected Nero’s course. A few hundred yards further down the road Nero felt brave enough to risk another look in the mirror: “They’re still going, they’re keeping with us.” This time he didn’t wait for advice but instead acted instinctively, slamming on the brakes once again, pulling at the handbrake too for good measure. The collision proved to be much heavier than the one before and Nero’s head was snapped back with the recoil of the impact. The Audi was dead. No movement.

Dazed but victorious, Nero shouted an exultant “Yes!”.

“Well done, mate. Result! Now get this thing going”.

The three of them put a good mile on the Audi guys before they felt confident enough to stop. They found a secluded spot and got out to assess the damage to the van. Surprisingly, in spite of both rear doors and plastic bumper being badly mangled, both lights were still working. That was the main thing for Kieran, he didn’t want to attract unwanted attention from any police that might be about.

Still shaking, Nero felt an unusual combination of exultation and fear. The other two shared high fives and were whooping their joy at pulling off another successful job, and Nero too had some insight into the buzz they must get from pulling off this kind of thing, though it was tempered by the nagging worries of an imminent arrest, court case and a lengthy stretch in prison. Kieran returned to the van and returned holding a wad of cash, counting out some notes. “Here you go, mate. There’s two hundred there. You did great.”

Nero held out his hand to accept the money with a certain reluctance. “But you said a hundred before didn’t you?”

“Go on, you earned the extra. Take it.”

“Thanks... but the van... the state of it.”

“We’ll burn it; there’ll be no prints.”

The cogs whirred round in Nero’s head until the penny finally dropped that it was stolen. “But … that means...

“Yeah, pal. I know we didn’t spell it out, like; I thought it was obvious.” He raised incredulous eyebrows as he said it. “Look, where do you want to be dropped? We’re off back to the warehouse. Stourbridge way wasn’t it?”

Nero looked dazed. He answered in a distracted monotone. “Right... yeah, if you could.”

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