I dug my fingers underneath the navy-grey slate tile and tried to pry it up. A shrill screech was unleashed from a nail I’d failed to remove, piercing the night sky. I froze. Three shadowed heads whipped in my direction from their huddled positions across the roof. I could not make out their faces in the gloom, but their eyes shone at me through the dark, bright and feline.
We all waited, listening, straining our ears against the silence for any signs of movement from below. I was only a few yards from the edge, and I looked out towards it as if I would be able to see our discovery arriving.
The moments stretched out before us until the fear of an alarmed response passed us by. I raised my hand in apology to the others. I imagined that each darkened mass would be bearing a scowl, and pointing a slight shake of their head towards me by way of rebuke. I could hear the common thought that reverberated between them all. It would be one word. Idiot.
I returned to my work, eager not to rouse any more malignant feeling among my partners. I located the traitorous nail and eased it up along with the slate, removing both intact and revealing the lead that lay hidden beneath, exposed and prone now. I was careful to place the tile gently on the small stack beside me before removing the lead.
This is what we had stolen up here for. Across the roof there were four of us working steadily as the night-shrouded city stood sentinel around us. The amber glow of the surrounding street lights did not spill up here, and it was only the steady roar of distant traffic, coupled with the licentious life that teemed along the quays, that kept us reminded of the illicit nature of our evening’s toil.
Spread below us was the vast expanse of the Dublin City Fruit Market. Down there stalls stood dark and quiet beneath the great iron trusses that arched over the work floor in regimental lines, the same supports which currently held us aloft. I’d spent all of today down there, and the day before, and the day before that, working at Tom Murphy’s flower stall.
I will not complain. The work is long and hard, but it is not dirty or dangerous. I have grown to know the secret hours before the dawn much more than I should ever have liked, when the city is still growing, its bounds not set against the day to come, or the life that will crash up against it. Those hours are tolerable to me now, if not exactly pleasant. Some people have an early rise contained within their blood, but I have never gotten used to it. However, I manage, and I can think of much worse. Even the pay here is fine; Mr. Murphy pays what he owes and never leaves you waiting. The money is fair, but it is not enough.
It is as basic as that, I suppose. I earn what I can but I am in need of more. It is the simplest story ever told. People fight and die and live under the rule of such things, and I am no better. Violence is not my thing though. No. Instead I choose to steal.
I cannot rightly say the same for the other people up here with me tonight. I do not know them well enough. We drew together in a sort of spider-web series of introductions, each person bringing the next over a period of time, until there were four of us. We do not hang out together as a group. It is true that we would fear the attention that might bring, but there is more to it than that. There is only one of these people who I would call a friend, Barry Duane, who also works at a stall in the market. The other two are Simmey Fitz and Alan Reed. Alan is quiet and serious, and I wish him well when he goes about this normal business. Fitz is another story. I say this only to myself, and even then only when I’m alone, but the truth of it is, I am scared of Simmey.
Barry and I have worked here for roughly the same amount of time. We first got talking at the Christmas Mass, held in the market once a year beneath the watch of the Virgin Mary. Her statue sits inside the main entrance from Little Mary Street, nestled above the door as she looks out over all the souls that pass underneath. Stood towards the back of the crowd, we began to chat after passing some remarks about the priest. He delivered every sentence like he were going over a bump at speed, running words together before and after, with a brief pause in the middle, saying things like ‘iwouldiketo WELCOME YOU allheretoday’ and ‘wewillnowshow THE SIGN ofpeacetoeachother’. Our muffled laughter drew filthy looks from some of the older people around us. After a while all we could do not to laugh was talk to one another and ignore the Mass. We got on well after that.
‘Would you be interested in making a bit of extra cash?’ That was how it was put to me the first time. We were sat in the greasy spoon café across the road from the market. Barry had slid the question across the counter like he was offering a tip. That’s how these things are always presented. They are never direct. It’s never, ‘Would you care to become a criminal?’, or, ‘How morally flexible are you really?’ It goes straight to the need, straight to the benefit, which are usually the exact same thing. He’d watched me with one eyebrow slightly cocked. I said that I could always do with a little extra, and it began from there.
The first job was small, and almost harmless. We broke into a derelict stately house that stood empty and alone way down the country. In rooms missing walls and roofs, open to the full attack of nature, that left the place scorched and damp, we had taken out two fireplaces that lay abandoned. We’d done it in daylight one weekend. The air was warm, and I could smell the pollen as Barry unhitched a rusted gate and we drove our small open-bed van down the green canopied, dirt lane. The work was tough, and the struggle to shift the fireplaces using crowbars, hammers and box lifts was immense, but I remember the job had almost been pleasant. Halfway through the day we had stopped to eat lunch, our legs dangling from the back of the van as we unwrapped white bread sandwiches from brown paper bags. We hadn’t talked much. We just sat listening to the birds, and watching the leaves cast shadows as they rustled in the wind, our grubby hands warming in the sun.
We’d done a few other jobs like that; two further derelict houses, an abandoned building site, and a scrappage yard so overflowing with junk that they would never have missed what we took. They were jobs that were more like salvage than theft, and I almost didn’t notice it becoming a little less innocent, a little harder to pass off as roguish behaviour or opportunism.
That really hit home when I found myself hiding in a larder of what was meant to have been an empty house. We were in there to lift some antiques. I’d felt weird about it to start with. I didn’t like the idea of actually stealing from somebody, but I’d gone along with it. We’d gotten in through a side-window and headed straight for the kitchen. Despite the house supposedly being unattended, we still felt the need to creep and whisper. We hadn’t been in there for even a minute when we heard the thump of someone pounding down the stairs. With no time to backtrack, and the back door locked, the two of us had slipped into the larder and held our breath. They, whoever they were, came straight into the kitchen and started rifling through the cupboards. I remember the navy gloom, and the smell of flour and vegetables that surrounded us in our hiding place. The only light came from the rectangle of space around the door. Eventually the person found what they had been looking for and scampered back upstairs. I never got to see who it was. We left immediately, back out through the side-window, my hands shaking as I tried not to sprint away from the scene.
After that I swore I was done with it. And for a while I was. But of course I came back to it. The need was still there. That hadn’t changed. My one concession was to never steal from somebody again. Companies and the like were fair game, but no more people. And I’ve kept to that, so far.
I shuffled along my line of tiles and began prying at the next one. My hands were cold, and the rough edge of the slate cut sharply through my numbed and callused fingers. I stopped and tried to shake some life back into them, kneading my palms together. I looked over towards the shape closest to me. The shadowed mound wavered back and forth in the murk as it too struggled to extract the lead sheeting. Judging by the size of the shape I thought it was Barry, and this relaxed me a little. It meant that Simmey Fitz was one of the shapes on the far side of the roof. I didn’t like to be too close to him, and regardless of the cloak that the night sky provided, it was impossible not to feel exposed and vulnerable up here. I turned back to my task, grimacing as the slate stung my hands anew.
Simmy Fitz is not a nice man. He’s what my father would have called, ‘a nasty piece of work’. I always thought that was the worst thing you could call anybody. It’s not vulgar or explicit, it is sincere and heartfelt, and it is all the more devastating for that. You can never use that phrase in the heat of the moment, or in a rush of blood. It can never just slip out by accident. It can only be used within a calm pool of realisation that this person is no good, no good at all. I remember my father using it only once directly to someone. I was young. He had his arm draped over my shoulders, and I had my tear-soaked cheeks buried in the leg of his trousers. I do not remember who the person was, or what they had done to cause me such distress, but I do remember that phrase. He had not yelled, or foamed at the mouth. He had simply said it, and meant it. I mean it about Simmey Fitz. He is a nasty piece of work.
He had been introduced to us through Alan Reed, and if I ever had any reason to resent Alan, it would be because of this. I couldn’t understand how someone like Alan, who I could imagine as a friend within a different set of circumstances, could know or recommend someone like Simmey. He had come in with us on a job taking rolls of copper from a builder’s supply yard. The job required four people; two inside the fence, one outside with the van, and the fourth keeping an eye on the security hut that lay near the yard gates. Simmey had volunteered up front to be one of the crew on the inside of the yard. This had impressed Barry, and meant that it would be me and Simmey on the more dangerous side of the fence, it being my turn for the greater risk amongst the rest of us. The job had gone without a hitch save for Simmey refusing to play cautious in any fashion. He talked at almost full volume, bragging about the fights he had been in and the fights he would get in. It didn’t matter if I responded or not, he would talk regardless. When I tried to reason with him that the security guard would hear us because of his chatter, he turned to me, full-bodied, and detailed at length about how little that bothered him. Through the set of his shoulders and the clench of his fist, I could see that a large part of him wanted the confrontation that discovery would bring. He goaded me to stop him. ‘I will smash them with my fist on their jaw. I will smash them to the floor.’ I remember him repeating that again and again about a wide range of people. ‘I will smash them.’
I avoided talking to him again during the job for fear that would give him the invitation to brawl he so desired, resolving instead to talk to Barry privately once the task was done. I never got that chance. Once we had finished, and tucked the fully-laden van back into the small garage Barry rented for this purpose, Simmey had cajoled the group straight into a pub he knew to still be serving. I made my excuses and left.
The next morning at the market Barry had obviously not slept. After our shift he was fulsome in his praise for Simmey over the fry he purchased to help soak up the dregs of his hangover. ‘A good sort’, was all I could get from him when I tried to direct the subject towards my reservations.
From then on he’d become one of the crew. He was never openly hostile to me, but I always thought my first refusal to go drinking with him after the copper roll job had marked me as an enemy, as someone to be watched. While his words were innocuous, I could never shake the idea that his eyes held the sharp edge of a hungry jackal watching the animals on the fringes of a herd. Occasionally I caught him looking at me from over the heads of Barry and Alan. He would always nod and smile, and look away, but it was a smile that said, ‘I know.’
We worked steadily for over an hour. My breath was a small cloud in front of me. The noise from the quays was gone now, and a full silence had settled over the city, the sort of sound that is not possible amongst the rustle and shift of a green countryside. It was broken only by the infrequent thrum of an engine as it passed beside the river a few streets over. I had a tile halfway up when a frantic shout started below us.
‘Hey. HEY!’ cried the voice beneath, followed by the sound of running footsteps.
We held fast, paused in whatever motion we had been caught in. I dared to look around towards the other lads and saw them all with their ears to the air. A crash and clatter erupted from the market and the footsteps ceased.
We waited. The blood in my ears was a pulse so loud I could hear nothing else through the void. My arms began to shake from the pressure of holding such an unnatural, mid-motion pose for so long. We could not move. We strained to hear the outcome of the commotion. Had we been rumbled or was something else in motion? We didn’t know. We were caught in between. Our waiting could bring our capture closer, but it we moved before we were sure, we could draw attention down upon us where it had not previously existed. We waited.
After an interminable amount of time, in which it seemed the city around us grew old, decayed and fell to rubble, a grunt came from just outside the market, and footsteps sprinted off down the street, fading off into the distance.
What did that mean? Was there still someone below? We had to stay quiet and still. My hands were shaking badly now, and sweat had sprung up across my brow like mushrooms in the night. I couldn’t stay like this. I needed to do something. I decided to try and ease the slate all the way up. With slow concern my trembling arms guided it out of its resting place, willing no rogue nail to sound its shrill alarm.
Nothing came, and shortly I had the slate in my arms. I breathed deep, relief filling my lungs, and moved to place it carefully on the stack of slate beside me. As I reached out my tired arms twitched and the slate slipped from my grasp. It dropped only a short height, but bounced horribly on its side, sliding off the stack and onto the roof, sending up a cacophonous announcement to the world of our position and activity.
I scrambled to halt the slate’s rattle, only succeeding in making things worse. All heads turned as one to look at me. From below a clatter began afresh, sounding like things being shoved aside, followed by the echo of running footfall. The iron glare of the other lads skewered me in place, and we listened to the fast-paced sound of fate as it reached the gate.
‘HEY. Stop right there, you bastard’, the voice called from below.
I closed my eyes, but no axe fell. The sentry below followed in hot pursuit down the road, also fading out of our world.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and looked over to the shape nearest me for some support. It unfolded itself from its huddle and marched directly over to me, navigating the tilt of the roof like it didn’t exist. Halfway through its travel, I realised it was the bulk of Simmey Fitz that was bearing down upon me. I could see his fist clenched tight by his side, but I could do nothing, only stare dumbly as it swung through the air and landed with a crack down on my cheek. I reeled backwards into the slant of roof behind.
Stars burst through my eyes and across the navy blue shadows of the cityscape. Simmey stood over me, haloed in sparks, waiting for me to regain my feet, as if it were beneath him come down and continue the beating at my level. I would have to come up to him to get what was coming.
I raised my hand to my cheek and looked at my fingers for blood. There was none yet, but I could feel the small sting through the sharp hum of Simmey’s strike that would form into a steady flow. I looked up at him and met his jackal-eyes.
‘Get up until I smash you, you weak fucking idiot’, he spat at me.
I am not an angry man. I have never thrown a punch in anger. This is a fact I am proud of. But a red river of boiling rage seemed to break over my skull, washing down through my sinews and synapses, swirling into the torrent of my stomach. I don’t know why, but maybe it was the way he stood over me, or the look in his eyes that said, ‘finally’. I braced my hands against the roof and launched myself upwards and at him. He seemed surprised as I sprung, and he didn’t get his hands up in time. I didn’t punch him. I didn’t have the presence of mind or the skill of experience for that. Instead, I tore at him, grabbing him by his chest, and pushing and thrusting up into his face all at once. The effect was to send him stumbling into my pile of slates, which then pitched him backwards at full force. He sort of skidded as he reached the edge of the roof, and I thought I saw surprise in his eyes before he dropped out of sight.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe / Illustrations by Sinead Fox / ©2015 Project Bowes