Jono Leadbetter and Shane ‘Warmonger’ Stevenson were two crooks who had just finished a big job. It was Christmas Eve. They were having a glass of mulled wine poured from a flask that Jono’s wife, Sue, had packed for them in a hold-all. Inside the hold-all was also a Christmas cracker. Wrapped in gold paper, decorated with a red ribbon. Expensive looking, like the kind you find in Harrod’s.
‘You want to do the honours?’ Jono said, picking it out. He held it up in the thin light from the low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse they hid in while the air cleared.
Warmonger smirked. ‘Your missus is gonna make you soft in the nugget, one of these days.’ But he grabbed the tapered end, and for a moment, they eyed each other like the frontmen from two opposing tug o’ war teams before they each yanked at the cracker.
The cracker exploded, and a rolled-up sheet of paper dropped out. At first Warmonger thought it was one of those crappy jokes they always put in crackers. He picked it up and unrolled it. Read the writing. His smile left his face and he looked at Jono, a hint of fear and uncertainty entering his eyes.
‘What’s up, Warmonger?’ Jono said, sculling the remainder of his mulled wine.
‘I’m not sure you should see this,’ Warmonger replied. His voice cracked a little, which startled Jono. Jono thought Warmonger was about to cry.
‘Give that here!’ Jono snatched it out of Warmonger’s shaking hands. He glanced over the scrawl, Warmonger knowing all too well Jono couldn’t decipher the strange lettering. Jono had never attended much school. He dropped out at 14 and went to work at the Ford Motor Company with his father, sweeping floors, working his way up to screwing bolts into engine mounts.
That’s before he decked the foreman. Before his first stint in Strangeways.
‘Read it to me,’ he snapped at Warmonger.
Now Warmonger was a tough nut. His name says it all. But Warmonger suddenly felt sick. For what was written there was something he really didn’t want to share with Jono. For Jono was the tougher opponent. Jono was his mentor. His best mate all these years. Warmonger was also Jono’s best man at his wedding.
‘Nah, listen, Jono,’ Warmonger stalled for time. ‘It’s a crap joke. Nothing to even get your laughing gear excited about.’
Jono looked at Warmonger. Jono didn’t so much as crack a smile.
‘You screwing with me, Warmonger? You know I can’t read, and now you comin’ all high and mighty? What you fucking take me for? There’s a shit load of words on that page. They never put long gags like that in them Christmas crackers. Read it.’
Warmonger swallowed hard. He had to think fast. But Warmonger’s problem was that he wasn’t a thinker. Thinking wasn’t something he was expected to do, much. He was a trigger man, a back up to Jono, a getaway driver.
‘Well?’ Jono said, getting angrier by the minute. ‘Go on then. Tell me what’s in it. I can tell by your face it ain’t a fairy tale.’
Warmonger unrolled the paper. It was a letter. Not a good letter, either. It wasn’t full of goodwill to any man, especially not to Warmonger and especially not to Jono. The poor bastard, Warmonger thought at that moment. The poor, poor bastard, finding out like this. But that sympathy didn’t last for long, for then he thought of himself, and what would happen if he read out the contents of that letter. He wouldn’t get out of here alive, he was sure of it. Jono had a temper on him, one that even Warmonger couldn’t beat. Warmonger cursed God under his breath. Started cursing his own existence. Started cursing, more quietly, in fact silently so Jono wouldn’t hear, Sue, Jono’s wife. Did she want him to die? Did she want to ruin everything? Then he thought back to several nights before, when he’d left Sue at the pub. They’d all got rather drunk, and Jono had let it out about doing over the jewellery store on Christmas Eve, when the cash float was floating so much it became a river of the Queen’s Head, those fad wads of sterling, those bristling bundles of pound notes sitting in the safe in the back, ready to go to the bank the day after boxing day. Sue got angry. She pulled Warmonger aside and said that if he wanted to be with her, then he needed to get out of the game. But Sue didn’t understand. Noone, not even Warmonger, once they crossed him, walked away from Jono. She said he promised her he wasn’t going to do the jewellery shop job and if he did then she’d tell Jono about them. But Warmonger brushed her off; he guessed, wrongly it seems, that she was bluffing, that she would never do anything so stupid.
But here they were. Jono and Warmonger; a hold-all bulging with notes; a Christmas cracker laying in tatters on the floor; a Dear John(o) letter clutched in his hands.
‘It’s easy for you,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Being able to read those scraggly lines. I mean, how the hell is anyone supposed to decipher that shit? Nah, gimme the football on Sundays and me fags and Magners, and I’m happy.’ He picked up the hold-all and hugged it as if he hugged Sue. Warmonger felt a wave of relief, thinking he’d gotten away with it.
‘But still,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Be a pal, and read me the joke. I need cheering up.’
‘Why don’t we have some more of that wine?’ Warmonger said.
‘Fine. You pour.’
Jono and Warmonger sat down on some crates. Warmonger poured the wine into the cap and a plastic cup. ‘Cheers, pal!’ Jono said, and he chinked Jono’s cup with his. When they had taken a mouthful, Jono became serious again.
‘You know why we’re here, Warmonger?’
‘For the money.’
Jono nodded. ‘That, and a lot more. I’m here because I stood for 14 hours a day, double shifts, screwing bolts into engine mounts. Like my old man did. Like his did before him, except he worked at the foundry. I suppose we had a better life, and he always reminded me of that, every bloody day. But I never saw it like that. I wanted more. I wanted one of those new Fords we rolled off the lines. Remember, right at the end, they’d roll those brand spanking new machines off the rails and send it out to the world. To some lucky bastard who lived in a nice two up two down conversion somewhere. I always imagined being someone like that. A wife, couple of kids, packing them up on a Sunday and heading down to Dymchurch, getting the kids some ice-creams, a cool pint for myself with a good froth, then driving back again through the B roads, taking in all the scenery.’
They were silent for a while before Warmonger said, ‘Why you never have kids, Jono?’
‘Ah, never happened. Something wrong with the pipes. Or Sue’s pipes.’
‘What, you never had it checked out?’
‘Nah, all them fancy doctors prodding your gear. No way. Give me some dignity.’
A siren wailed in the distance. The two men stiffened. Jono cocked his head. The siren veered away into the night.
‘You think we’re safe?’ Warmonger said.
‘We’re never safe, lad. Ever.’ Then, after a pause: ‘You gonna read me that letter?’
‘What makes you think it’s a letter?’
‘It’s from Sue, innit?’
‘It’s from Sue. Don’t lie. You’re gonna read me that letter, then one of us is walking out of here with the bag. Just one of us, mind you.’
Warmonger didn’t often experience the sensation, but now he felt a cold worm crawl through his stomach. He thought for a moment he would throw up. He felt suddenly afraid to die, and he had to stop himself from bursting into a nervous laugh.
Jono grabbed the sawed-off shotgun they’d used to rob the jewellery shop. Now Warmonger realised why Jono insisted they only bring the one gun and he carry it and do the holding up while Warmonger filled the bag. They hadn’t needed to use it, yet. It was still loaded.
Now Jono pointed the gun at him.
‘I told you, son. Read the letter.’
‘You don’t want to know what’s in the letter.’
‘I won’t know until you read it to me, will I? Besides, maybe it’s nothing. Then we can go and have a pint. But if it’s something…’
‘What if it’s something?’
‘If it’s something I’m not gonna like, then we have a problem. Still, either way, I want you to read that letter aloud to me.’
‘And no using the Lord’s name in vain. My mother hated that.’
‘You’re going to push this?’
‘Right to the edge. And over.’
Warmonger, who’d been leaning slightly, shuffled his feet and straightened up on the crate. ‘Let me ask you one question, Jono, and then I’ll read the letter.’
‘Fire away.’ Jono laughed then. ‘Probably not the best phrase to use, eh?’
‘Put the gun down first.’
‘I ain’t putting the gun down.’
‘Alright then. Alright.’ Warmonger had started to sweat. Every now and again, his heart threw itself into a spasm. But he kept his head.
‘You and Sue.’
‘Oh you mentioning Sue again? You seem to be talking about her a lot, tonight.’
‘You and Sue. I mean, are you happy?’
‘Christ!’ Jono spat out, ignoring his own profanity law. ‘This gonna turn into a shrink session or sommin? What the fuck do you care?’
‘You’re a mate.’
‘Oh, now he’s bringing in the we’re best mates bullshit. You should’ve thought of that before.’
‘Before what? You don’t know what I’m getting at?’
‘I know what you’re getting at, boy.’
Warmonger’s eyes narrowed. His own temper was surfacing, like the incoming tide filling a deep rock pool. ‘You never called me boy before. We always respected each other.’
‘Coz that’s what you are. Just a boy, a kid, a snot-nosed little arsehole. Now you cut the crap and read me the letter. Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest and rip out that fake heart of yours.’
Warmonger raised his arms up, like a cowboy in an old western. Jono looked at the damp patches under his arms. He felt satisfied that he’d cornered Warmonger and got him scared. He had him where he wanted him. He did love the lad once, like his own son, like the son he never got from Sue. But he trusted him too much, put his faith in something despite all his gut feelings that he should never put his faith in God or another person. He remembered, now, how his mother slapped him across the head each time he cussed as if each blow was a fresh nail driven into the palms of Christ. Sue, also, was a little religious. But look where that got her.
‘I’m going to have a cigarette,’ Jono said. ‘You want a cigarette?’ Warmonger nodded. ‘And put your arms down, you look like a stupid prick.’
Jono lay the shotgun across his lap. He took out a pack of Player’s, took two cigarettes out of the box, put both between his lips, struck a match and drew the flame across both, passed one over to Warmonger. All the time, his eyes never left Warmonger’s. Each sucked in a good lungful of tobacco, blew it out in the space between them. The thick smoke lingered. It seemed comforting, calming, and the nicotine put them in a better mood.
That only lasted a moment. Jono lifted the gun and pointed it back at Warmonger.
‘For the last time, Warmonger, read me the letter.’
Warmonger let out a sigh, put his cigarette between his teeth, picked up the now crumpled letter. The paper shook slightly in his hands. He was almost resigned to his fate, now. He cared no longer what Jono thought or did. He always knew things would end something like this, although he imagined a more glorious outtake, a shootout with the coppers like those jokers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Wild Bunch. He’d grown up on a diet of westerns, and it was the only time he remembered spending with his old man. Sunday afternoon westerns. Now he was Billy The Kid and Jono was Pat Garrett. Jono had led him straight into a trap.
He started reading. ‘Dear Jonathan.’
‘Ah, she always likes to use my full name,’ Jono said. ‘The only one that does, these days. Go on.’
‘We’ve been together a long time.’
‘Don’t I know it, son, don’t I bloody know it!’
‘We’ve had some good years together.’
‘Indeed we have. Indeed.’
‘But lately‑ ‘
‘Stop it there.’
‘Stop reading. There’s no point.’
‘You don’t want me to read the letter after all?’
‘Nope. Because I’ve read it.’
Warmonger sat staring at Jono. Jono sat back a little, as if he was in a recliner. He took another pull on his fag. To Warmonger, he suddenly looked way beyond his years. He didn’t look at Warmonger any longer but stared up at the ceiling.
‘I’m going to tell you a funny little story. About a year ago, I’m shopping down at the Co-Op. The one at the end of the High Street, owned by that lovely Middle Eastern couple. The one I put the word out on that if anyone tries to so much as think about doing them over, I’ll break both their legs. While I was at the counter, I stared at the notice board. Of course, I couldn’t read any of the notices, but I asked the man at the counter if there was anything of interest. I made an excuse that I’d left my glasses at home. Sometimes I do that, just to pass the time, to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. He told me of some geezers plying for work, some window washers, lawnmower rounds, that kind of carry on. But then he told me about a notice posted by a woman who was teaching the Queen’s to new immigrants. So I figure, if she teaches them to speak English, she can teach me to read it. So he gives me the number, and I memorise it – I became good at that in my life, you have to when you don’t have much schooling behind you – and so I rings her up, and she says come down and see me and let’s talk. So I goes to see her, and she lives in one of those housing estates south of the river, in a tower block, on the fourteenth floor, and the lift was out of order and the climb nearly did me in, I had to stop for a fag half-way, and when I reach her flat she opens the door, I get a shock. She ain’t even English but turns out she’s from the Sudan and has three kids and her hubby is looking for work and they need to pay the rent and buy food. Now when she sees me, she’s a little unsure. I’m a brute, these tats don’t help me and the scars on my face tell her all sorts of stories about me before I’ve even opened me gob. But she’s gracious enough to invite me in, and we get talking and she says she can teach me to read in no time, she says something about language and words being in all of us and we just have to unlock it and let it all out.
‘So I tell her about Sue and that it’s our silver wedding anniversary in a year and I want to write and read her some new vows. And she starts showing me the alphabet, what all those letters mean, and putting them in some sort of order, and then pinning that order onto objects, things. She’s patient. Her husband goes out and hunts for work each day. She looks after the kids, gets a few students, not many, and I go twice a week. I tell Sue I’m at the pub, that’s easy. Meanwhile, Akifa – that’s her name, Akifa, and I add it took me a while to get my head around it – patiently taught an old crim like me to read. Something no one else has ever been able to do or tried much.
‘Anyway, Akifa helps me put together my vow renewals, and I’m ready to go home and surprise Sue with tickets to Majorca where I’ll propose to her all over again. I come home, and she’s at the kitchen table, writing something. She ain’t that pleased to see me. I sense something’s wrong. I see her tuck the letter away and I don’t say anything. I keep the peace. But I don’t forget the letter, either, and later when she’s having a bath I take the letter out from her mother’s bureau, and I read the letter. It takes me a while to get through it, and I don’t get all the words, but I get the gist.’
Jono paused, and he ran his hand along the gun like a fascinated kid who runs their finger down a wet window.
‘I don’t blame Sue, really. I was never a good husband to her. No kids, three stretches in The Big House, never owned our own place. All those jobs, and look at us. Flat bleeding broke. So I had an idea. For once, I’m going to do some good. I want to leave a legacy for someone. Was going to be Sue, but buggar that now for a game of soldiers. So I set up the jewellery number. Dragged you into it, of course. But the money’s not going to you, and not Sue, and not me either. It’s going to Akifa. It’s going to put a deposit on a house for them and maybe buy them a little run-around. Nothing much, let’s admit it we didn’t get a great haul.’
Warmonger flinched as if to grab something. Jono fingered at the trigger.
‘You dirty bastard,’ Warmonger spat out. ‘You strung me along. You knew about me and Sue. That’s the lowest a man can go with a mate.’
‘Don’t worry, Warmonger. You went lower. To the bottom of the stinking Thames. Maybe that’s where you belong.’ Jono stood up then, grabbed the hold-all, backed away a little. ‘It’s time for me to leave.’
But Warmonger was in a sea of red mist. He lunged at Jono. Jono was expecting this, and he swung the shotgun around and thumped Warmonger in the cheek with the butt. An almighty crack sounded out into the empty warehouse, and Warmonger kissed the concrete.
‘Stay down!’ Jono shouted. ‘Stay down! I don’t want to kill you, but I will!’ and he was shouting so loud the steel walls seemed to vibrate as if a lorry with a blown exhaust had driven by. He pointed the gun at Warmonger; Warmonger clutched his bloodied cheek, and he felt as if everything had broken inside his head.
Jono ran to the door. Suddenly the area filled with light. A torch blazed in through a skylight in the ceiling. A thunder rolled out across the warehouse. A helicopter hovered above them. Red and blue and white lights flashed in through the windows. Someone shouted something through a tannoy, but Jono wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Akifa, how she first taught him C-A-T and all those three-lettered words, and between teaching him how she told him that her brother and father had been taken from their village one night and she had never seen them again. And he thought how sad, how terribly sad that was, and that he’d never heard anything sadder in his entire life. Then he remembered how all those many small words she taught him grew into longer words and made sense, and he could write them out and finally how he wrote the new vows for Sue and how Sue betrayed him. And Warmonger. Now he was desperate to get the bag of money to Akifa and her kids and her husband, who couldn’t find work but who always offered him a meal when he came for lessons.
He looked back to see if Warmonger was still there, but Warmonger had gone. He was alone as he’d always been alone. He dropped the hold-all and he dropped the gun. He looked up into the light and thought how very lovely the light was, and wondered if this was the sort of light they always talked about. He willed himself into the light and wished more than anything the light would lift him up. He turned his body upwards, stretched out his arms to see how far he could reach.