go back Back to Novels for Young Adults...
Chapter One

The boundaries between our territory and the next ones were not marked on any maps I’d ever seen. The boundaries between the London boroughs were marked but they didn’t count for much. It was the bossman who counted and, so far as I knew, it was the bossmen who counted in all the territories. The bossman in our territory was the Don and he ruled.

I wasn’t a regular member of the Don’s Mob but any of the kids who lived in the Don’s territory could be called on to help out and do minor jobs whenever it suited the Don’s fixers. You didn’t argue – or at least not much. On Wednesday morning, I was on watch in the lobby of the Taggart, a twenty storey block at the edge of the territory. I had a mobile phone and my only task was to ring a number I’d been given if Jack Kenning showed up. It wasn’t for me to find out what happened next. I didn’t want to know what happened next – nor did I care very much.

Jack Kenning was from the council and would come with a police guard – if he came at all, which I doubted. It’d been some while since anyone from the council, or the police for matter, had called and I didn’t know why the Don thought they would.

‘Just do it, kid,’ I was told. ‘If Kenning comes, we want to know.’

So I kept stag as I’d been told. The lobby was cold and bleak. The last time it had been cleaned was when it had been given a coat of paint by the Don’s men but that had been a couple of years before and, in the meantime, litter and grime and other less savoury things had accumulated. The residents were supposed to keep it tidy but no-one bothered and the Don didn’t care enough to do anything about it. It stank of piss and it didn’t do to wonder too much what caused the stains on the floor.

The outer door opened and a gust of winter wind blew a scatter of leaves in. They scuttered across the floor, adding to the mess. No-one could have told there was more crud than a few minutes before unless they’d been there to see. A bit more mess made no difference – unless you thought dead leaves were better than dead condoms and last month’s newspapers. It wasn’t Kenning – just a young kid from the tenth floor. He thought his dress was pretty sharp but it was last year’s fashion, his trousers were too wide at the bottom and his shirt was buttoned down at the collar. But his tie was new – the same colour as you saw on ‘The Saints’, a group that was the top shot at the time.

He grinned at me. ‘Hi, Martin. What you doing? It’s bloody cold out,’

‘Yeah. I know. It’s bloody cold in as well.’

‘So what you doing sitting on the stairs like a prat?’

‘I’m sitting here minding my own business.’

‘You on stag?’

‘Fuck off, Tony. You don’t ask questions and you don’t get told no lies.’

‘Touchy, aren’t you?’

I liked Tony in a distant sort of way, but that didn’t mean he was a mate. He’d been a couple of years below me at school and he’d stayed on when I was kicked out and I’d sort of lost touch with him. Not that I’d ever been in close touch but he used to get bullied and he would try to walk home with me for a bit of protection. I didn’t let other guys mess with guys from the Taggart if I was around. It’d once got me a split lip and a black eye but the world has worse things than a split lip and a black eye. I gave back better than I got when I caught one of the sods who did it on his own a few days later.

I said, ‘I’m sitting here because I’m counting the number of tiles on the floor and it’s better than standing up. Trouble is, you can’t see them all for the crud everywhere. Makes it difficult. Now, mind you own business and let me mind mine.’

He gave me a friendly two fingers and buggered off.

It’s one of the things with the territory folk. I’d told him to fuck off and he’d given me two fingers and it was all smiles. If anyone from another territory had done that, it would have been a different story. My Mum doesn’t like me using words like that but it’s only a word. Doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to mean something. With Tony, it was just kidding back and forth. Good word, that. Forth. I wonder what it means? But you get the idea. I guess it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it and who you say it to. Karen used to say, ‘Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.’ It’s a funny world but, if you know how it works, you get by. I knew how the Mob worked, so I got by.

The next ‘visitor’ was an old guy who didn’t speak to me. I didn’t move over but he didn’t even look at me when he had to push past. I guess he was more savvy than Tony and knew you didn’t mix with the Mob – even little bits of the Mob like me.

Did I say I was bored? No? Well, I was. Bored out of my tiny mind. Not that my mind was tiny, mind you. I liked to think I was pretty sharp which was one of the reasons I wasn’t properly in the Mob. I didn’t have a lot against the Mob but I reckoned nothing but grief would come of getting in too close. There’d been more than one turf war in the last couple of years and, in the last one, four of the Don’s Bandits had got seriously dead and some others might have been better off if they had been too. One lost an eye and another was in a wheelchair and couldn’t even say his name. My brother, who’d told me he was a Bandit himself, said the other lot got off worse. I had no real problem with turf wars as such – it’s a free world, well sort of – but I didn’t want to get involved myself. I was too fond of my health and safety. But I reckoned a bit of ‘under cover work’ wouldn’t do me much harm and would add to my pocket money.

Someone once told me you have to describe characters in stories. I think that’s bollocks but, since I’m the main character in this story, let me tell you about me. I’m medium tall, medium build, medium good looking and medium brainy. Will do? Oh yeah, I’ve got brown eyes and brown hair.

I lived in Westferry on the seventeenth floor of the Taggart and that wasn’t so good because the lifts didn’t work and the company wouldn’t come to fix them because the council didn’t pay the lift maintenance charge. You couldn’t actually blame the council, although everyone did, because no-one paid the local council tax or rent since the Don’s Bandits had come visiting a couple of years before when I was fourteen. The Bandits said people had to pay a new levy to the Mob instead and we saved a lot of money. The Don’s levy wasn’t much more than half the council tax and rent – and it included protection against the council.

There was a downside, of course. You got reminders from the council every so often, and once in a while you got a summons, but the court was in the next territory so, of course, no-one was going there if they didn’t want to pay the tolls or get done over. For a while, the police and bailiffs used to come round but the Don saw them off and they no longer came. I didn’t know why the council kept bothering with summonses but my dad said they had to because that was the law. No-one in the block paid. It was said the Don didn’t like it if you paid. It showed you didn’t trust him or something and, of course, no-one did but no-one wanted to advertise the fact. Maybe, I thought, someone was paying and the Don wanted to find out who so he was running a check on who Jack Kenning called on. I hoped that was all it was.

If you’ve never had to climb seventeen flights of stairs to go home, I don’t recommend it as fun. I was always knackered by the time I got to the flat where I lived with my brother and sister and parents. The family used to live on the second floor but the Don moved us up to the seventeenth so the old woman who lived there could get near to the ground. The Don liked people to think he looked after the old folks – a sort of benevolent godfather even if he would do you for less than a thought. My father had tried protesting but a couple of Bandits came to ‘explain’ there was nothing in the levy to say we could have whichever flat we wanted and Mrs Collins had priority. So Ma Collins got a flat near the ground floor and a home help twice every day laid on by the Don. Some people said it was better than when the council ran things because the Don didn’t charge and the council did and the council home help only came once a week. The Don said the community could look after itself better than the council.

I wasn’t so sure. But, then again, most things seemed to work out OK with the Don in charge and I reckoned that, at least, the Don was a local person so the local people could decide things for themselves without the council saying anything. That’s what the council says, “local government for local people”. We took it bit more local – so that was a good thing, wasn’t it?

My sister, Karen, was one of Ma Collins’ home helps. She did the morning shift and helped Mrs Collins with getting up and breakfast and such. Mum said she was too young to be doing personal care for an old woman but Karen said it was better than going to school even if she wasn’t paid – not that she’d have gone to school, anyway.

It had led to one of the arguments our family went in for – the sort that don’t go anywhere.

My mum had said, ‘She should be going to school, not cleaning up after Ma Collins.’

‘She won’t go to school anyway.’ This from my dad.

‘She won’t do anything she should,’ Mum said. ‘She goes down to Ma Collins before breakfast and we don’t see her again.’

‘I wouldn’t care if that’s all she does,’ my dad replied. ‘She’s hardly ever here before breakfast. She’s out every night with Ken Davies and she doesn’t come back until she wants her lunch – if then. I don’t know what she does all night.’

I laughed. I liked Karen and didn’t like arguments. So I made it worse. ‘If you don’t know what she’s doing, Dad, you’re the only one who doesn’t. It’s the talk of the block.’

He glared at me. ‘Don’t be coarse.’ He turned to Mum. ‘She has to see to Ma Collins. You’ve got to do what the Mob says. You can’t argue with the Mob.’

I said, ‘You can’t argue with Karen either, Mum. Ken Davies doesn’t actually rape her, you know. She goes because she wants to. She’s fourteen, anyway. She can look after herself.’

The argument had gone on for a while before turning on me, but, it was true; you don’t argue with the Mob, and I knew my parents wouldn’t be challenging Karen about her behaviour. She might complain to Ken and then the Fixers might come and cause grief. My brother, Dave, couldn’t be trusted either. He was nineteen and, as I say, he was a member of the Mob – maybe even a full Bandit, I thought – but it didn’t do to be too critical. Not that the Mob would kill you for something like that but the grief they could inflict wasn’t worth it. My parents weren’t supposed to know Dave was in the Mob but I think they must have had a good idea.

My Dad was going on fifty and didn’t really fit in in the territory. I think he would rather have paid his local tax and rent, even if it would have cost more. I’ve heard him say he’s ‘old school’ which is another way of saying old fashioned. He doesn’t move with the times and it was obvious the Don and the Mob were there to stay – at least unless the mob from the next territory moved in and cleared out our mob. I thought that was a real possibility one day and I didn’t want to be one of those cleared out. Dad said they’d send in the army one day and sort out the Don good and proper. I think he’d have liked that.

My mum was a good bit younger than my dad – just thirty-six, so she must have been only sixteen when Dave was got. I sometimes wondered why she took so against Karen and her guy. A couple of years isn’t much so she must have known what’s what. To be fair, she looked after us all pretty well and if it had been left to Dad, we’d have been in the shit more than we were. Dad’s job didn’t pay much and Mum made out pretty well.

And me? Well, as you’ll have gathered, I’m called Martin and I was barely sixteen when all this started. I went to school until they kicked me out when they caught me and Sandy doing something we weren’t supposed to do but everyone does. What else? I’m not half bad at English, which is why this “story of my life” is at least half-way literate – but don’t expect possessive adjectives with gerunds, as if you would. I worked in the council offices, would you believe, and that was in the next territory, over the East India Dock Road.

When I’d started a few months before, I’d told them I was sixteen but, of course, they didn’t check. I got decent money but, naturally , I had to pay toll to the bossman over there and a special add-on levy to the Don for being allowed to work out of territory so it didn’t leave much – especially as the Don controlled the rate of exchange between euros and tokens which were all you could spend in the local shops. An insurance scheme, he called it, and I can’t say it didn’t work because it was a while since anyone had been done over. But, working as I did, I used to meet people from out of territory without any more hassle than a bit.

Working outside the territory did have advantages, though, and one was it got us a bit extra dosh so we could afford to buy extra insurance from the Don and no-one dared to mess with us because of this rumour (true) that Dave was in the Mob. He was always on to me about joining as well but I didn’t think so – at least not regular like Dave. He won’t mind me saying he wasn’t as good looking as Karen, especially since he’d had an argument with one of the bandits from the next territory and got cut about a bit. It was his own fault. He wasn’t very bright and he forget to get a pass in good time.

I was due to go off stag at eleven and at five to, Kenning turned up with an escort of three cops. The flaps on their holsters were unbuttoned and they had that lose-limbed, open-handed, way of walking without their arms swinging more than an inch or two from their weapons. I hadn’t moved for the old guy but I moved out of the way of the cops; I didn’t want to give them any excuse to get nervous. But they were nervous anyway and I saw one of them put his hand to his gun.

I smiled cheerfully, and gave them a ‘good morning’. They disappeared up the stairs. Then I rang the number I’d been given. I was told I could clear off, so I did, pretty smartish, before I got to know any more about it.

I headed for Sandy’s because I couldn’t face the climb to ours on the seventeenth floor and because I wanted a slash and I didn’t do slashes in the lobby.

She lived half a bock away in some old terraced houses in Balcombe Street, round the corner from the sports hall. They’ve been talking about closing the hall since lord know when but the Don had said they could only lock it, and a hammer does as well as a key on a glass door so it wouldn’t matter if they did close it. I hoped Sandy’s dad wouldn’t be in.

go to top Back to the top...
Copyright © Roger Chambers
No part of this text may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,
in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the copyright owner.