One in three men has a criminal record by the time they’re forty years old. Mark Ashworth wasn’t one of them, and as he approached his birthday, he wondered if he’d been missing something. He’d broken the law, of course. Driven without a seat belt, smoked a little weed, bought a hooky watch. But none of that counted.
One Sunday morning he lay in bed watching the rectangle of light on the duvet. His wife snuffled alongside him, and his twin sons were already moving in the next room. The strip of light stretched and thickened, like the day ahead. Mowing the grass, and a barbeque with the in-laws. And then back to work, forty-five hours of delivering parcels and getting hooted at.
The ceiling needed painting.
He hated painting.
Three options as he saw it. Stealing a car gave the tantalising possibility of a police pursuit, but was offset by the likelihood of getting caught. It also required expertise he didn’t have. He could rob a shop, a chemist or a newsagents. He wouldn’t even need a weapon, just say he had one. Even thinking about it made his pulse speed. The selection of the premises, the recce, the anticipation for days beforehand. And the moment itself: the spine-tingling shouted demand and the hotfoot escape. Its brevity was both a positive, and a negative – all that endeavour for so little cream.
Which left burgling a house. Not only did it not require special equipment or skills, but the adrenalin rush would be protracted.
His wife’s raggedy voice interrupted. ‘I’d kill for a cup of tea.’
In the kitchen Mark filled the kettle. Would night-time or daytime be better? Would he need an alibi? What about dogs? What would he steal? The kettle overflowed.
On Thursday after his shift, Mark put on his running gear and booked off with his supervisor. His boss expected it, he ran home twice a week. Halfway there, he ducked under a broken fence panel and took the cut-through behind a new estate. His usual route. As he passed the gaps between identikit houses he saw mothers with young children arriving home from nursery. The local school turned out half an hour later. He knew who walked, and who car shared. He knew who was friendly with who, who was very friendly. He knew all sorts.
At the last house, he checked behind him and stopped. The drive was empty, the woman already having left in the car to collect her two children. He felt sick. It was now or never.
He climbed over the gate and hid behind the shed. Damp logs riddled with mushrooms were piled up.
No one shouted, no dog barked.
Even so, he couldn’t move. What if they were hard up? What if one or both of them worked for a charity, or ran the local cub scouts? They were excuses. Either he was going to do it, or he wasn’t. Time was ticking. Twenty-five minutes and she’d be back.
He snuck out from the shed and walked across the grass to the conservatory at the back of the house. On Tuesday he’d checked for an alarm box and a camera. He felt hot and cold all over, like his first time with a girl.
Time slowed, each unfolding second separate, and crisp as snow.
Inside the conservatory were armchairs and a wicker divan. Magazines lay strewn on a table. A window was slightly ajar.
Mark pulled on gloves. He slid a hand under the frame, unclipped the latch, and opened the window wide. Burgling was easy.
He climbed in, feeling giddy. For a few minutes he could do what he liked. He went to the sideboard and opened a drawer. Placemats and paper napkins. No one kept anything of value in a conservatory. Cash, valuables, jewels would be upstairs, or in the cornflakes packet. He laughed at himself.
The sound shocked him. He was there, burgling. He wondered if he’d technically committed a crime if he hadn’t actually taken anything.
He opened the glass door to the hall and stepped–.
Mark came to with the worst headache he could remember. His vision was blurred and he could only see out of one eye. He couldn’t move his arms – or his legs. He was tied to a wooden chair.
A man stepped forward and punched Mark in the ear.
He felt excruciating pain. His ear rang and his head throbbed. The man feinted another strike, and Mark twisted his head away. Even that hurt. He’d never considered the woman’s husband might be at home.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ The man jabbed a finger on Mark’s forehead, then stepped back. He was bald, squat, and built like a boxer.
‘Mark – Mark Ashworth.’ Speaking hurt. ‘You don’t know me.’ He sounded whiney, like someone else.
Keeping his eye open was an effort. He could smell urine. He looked down and realised he’d pissed himself.
The man sniggered and left the room. He returned with a car battery and jump leads, then disappeared again. Making several journeys, the man brought a hammer and a pair of pliers, a bucket of water, a baseball bat. He arranged them on the tiled floor.
Mark felt sick. He wished he’d never been so stupid, so middle-aged. He should have bought a PlayStation.
The man walked forward. Swaying his head to avoid another blow, Mark saw white stars. The man rapped his head as if he were knocking at a door. ‘Who the fuck?’
‘I drive a van, deliver parcels. I live in Kellitch.’ He swallowed, desperate for a sip of water. ‘This is the first time I’ve done anything like this – I won’t do it again.’
‘I won’t do it again,’ said the man in a high-pitched voice. He sat down on the wicker divan, and see-sawed his head from side to side. Tattoos of swallows on his neck.
‘Tell me something of interest and I’ll let you go.’
‘Like a funny story?’
The man opened a can of beer and took a swig. He leant back and put an arm along the back of his chair as if he was welcoming a friend. His forearm fatty and pink as a leg of pork.
‘Is that what you think this is, a joke?’
Mark shook his head. He couldn’t think. He promised himself when he got out of this, he would buy his wife flowers and take the boys to the seaside. They’d all go, make a day of it. But first he had to get out of it.
‘What about a discount code for the company where I work? They make steel products: bars, angle iron, box sections, tubes.’
The man hurled his half-empty can at Mark, catching him under the eye. The can skittered away, spilling beer across the tiles.
His captor left the room, and clumped upstairs. Mark’s eye stung, but he tried to concentrate. He had no money, no access to any money. He had no special skills, couldn’t predict the future.
The man thudded back down the stairs and re-entered the room. He sat on the wicker divan and placed a handgun alongside him.
‘To help you focus.’
Mark looked away, and looked back. He wasn’t mistaken.
He hurt all over, and kept hoping it was all a dream and he’d wake up in a sweat. He couldn’t do any magic tricks, or sing, or tap-dance. The kids beat him at memory games at Christmas. His wife ran the household, booked their holidays, organised repairs. He delivered parcels, sometimes to the wrong address. When – if – he got out of this, he’d learn to play the piano, and take the kids camping. He’d watch less television, volunteer at a charity. Climb Ben Nevis. His life had to be worth something.
The man aimed the gun at Mark.
An idea came to him.
‘How are you defining “of interest”?’
‘Don’t get fucking smart.’
Mark knew one thing about this man – but telling him could backfire.
‘You got something?’
The balance of power had shifted, but Mark still felt uneasy. He was risking his life. No longer could he feel his bruised eye or cut face. The prickly sensation he’d felt as he approached the house returned. He wasn’t going to climb a mountain or learn to play the piano. If he got out of this, he was going to burgle again. The buzz like nothing he’d experienced. Before, he’d been scrabbling on the ground, but now he was flying around the moon.
The man picked up the gun, and pointed it at Mark.
‘Your wife’s having an affair with the young builder next door.’
The word was quiet, clipped.
‘I heard you.’
The man walked over to the window and gently headbutted the glass. He wheeled round, put the gun under his chin and fired.
A few minutes later, Mark heard the sweet song of police sirens. As they strengthened, he hummed along.
(c) James Ellson