Small Crimes
    Richard Hollins
Johnson was up at the first noise from outside. It was dark; the bedroom was cramped and chaotic. He stumbled, cursed, and caught himself before he reached the window.

"What is it?" his wife said. "What's the matter? Is it Clara?" Jo's voice was an urgent whisper. In it, Johnson detected the slight hysteria that comes from lack of sleep. He felt it himself. He had a sense that the axis of his world had been tipped by ten degrees and nothing was quite right. The house, for example, no longer smelled like his own but already had a foretaste of that baby smell, the stink of diapers barely masked by perfumed sacks. Their daughter was three days old. Johnson could see her in the Moses basket, a vague bundle of white clothing and blankets. He had no idea if she were dead or alive.

"She's fine," Johnson said. "Go back to sleep." He hoped it was true. And not just for Clara's sake but for his and for Jo's and for the sake of Annabel, their elder child. He had to keep Clara safe, though if she woke now, Johnson might just open the window and throw himself out. He and Jo had slept for less than one hour; Johnson would swap his own mother for another ten minutes.

He should have known, however, that Jo would not believe him. The bedsprings creaked as she rolled from under the covers and crouched over the basket, whispering, "What's the matter with my sweetheart?" to the silent, stationary bundle.

"Jo, stop!" Johnson said. But Clara responded to her mother's voice. A mittened hand waved above the edge of the basket. Johnson waited for her eyes to open and her mouth to twist into the shape of a howl. Then she grunted a warm, contented baby noise, and slept on.

When it was clear that their baby had reprieved them, Jo kicked aside the sleep suits and maternity pads cluttering the floor, and joined her husband at the window.

"For God's sake, Paul," she said. "What are you going to do if you catch someone? Run out in your jimjams? Beat them to death with your stiffy?" She poked the nighttime erection that was tenting his pyjamas. "I can't cope with you too," she said. "I just can't. Forget that damned car and come back to bed."

"In a second," Johnson said. He peeled back the edge of one curtain. The Johnsons' front garden was small, like most in this south west London suburb, and it was only fifteen feet to where their car was parked in the street. Up and down, on both sides, were other cars, no more than two feet between each of them. Among them was a smattering of 3 series BMWs, the occasional Mercedes and Saab. The Johnsons' Corolla was nothing special. But it was precious to Johnson: five years before, he had suffered professional difficulties; in his department of twenty-five people, he had been the sole redundancy. He’d been out of work for nine months and they had nearly lost the house. And what Johnson did lose was perhaps more important. So having the money to buy that car had proved he was back on track. It had filled him with a new sense of purpose and marked, he had hoped, a fresh chapter in their lives.

Outside, no one was visible.

Johnson waited a minute, looking for trouble. The subdued pinkish glow of the streetlights muted the cars' colors and over the houses in front of him, the sprawling mass of the capital enhanced the effect one million times, blanking out the night sky. Behind him, Jo sighed and yanked at the covers. They had lived in this suburb for almost six years, and nothing had happened. Then in the last seven days, a tsunami of small crimes had washed through the area: theft from cars, mindless damage, spray-painted hieroglyphics on previously unsullied walls. The police had caught no one. But neighborhood wisdom blamed youths from the lawless south east, traveling west to find easy targets.

None was softer than here.

Every day, Johnson scoured the newspapers. He watched TV and tuned-in the car radio. So he was perfectly aware that for every citizen who successfully defended his property, another ended up as hamburger meat in intensive care. Or worse. Things were escalating. In some parts of London, muggers carried guns. They shot people, in daylight on a busy street, for a mobile phone. For fifteen quid. Not here, not yet, but it was coming.

Then from the left a shape came, low and fast, disappearing and appearing, hurtling up and onto the wall in front of Johnson's house. It was Ratboy, their cat, living up to his name. The rat was not full grown and Johnson was pleased to see it wriggling on those penetrating teeth, a problem neatly solved. He went downstairs to lock the cat flap.

From the next street, he heard the wail of a car alarm.

* * *

It was Saturday morning: Johnson parted the curtains and checked on the car. The street was lightly dusted with frost, and the glare of the early sun forced his eyes closed. He struggled to reopen them. He had forgotten this, the bone tiredness of new parenthood. He had forgotten the panics and snappiness, the mourning for the pre-baby life. But then, he supposed, it was nine years since they'd done it.

Again, he was first out of bed. Jo had the high ground: she had endured the twenty-hour birth, the stitches and drugs and the subsequent bleeding. Now her hormones were wild. She was weepy and spaced, leaking from the chest and bladder and unpredictable as a wounded dog. Jo slept with clenched fists.

Her presence in bed had encouraged Johnson to get out. How had he thought it would help, subjecting them to this?

He collected Clara, changed her, bagged the diaper and took his daughter downstairs, to where her sister was waiting.

When Jo was not around, Annabel took over. She seemed to enjoy it. Though it was hard to tell with such a serious child, a prim, grown-up set to her lips as she administered expressed milk or carried her sister from room to room, taking care to support the baby's head. Johnson dreaded Monday. With Annabel in school, he would have to brave alone the final week of paternity leave.

At eleven o'clock, Jo levered herself from bed and sloped downstairs. Johnson and his daughters sat in the kitchen, in the center of chaos. Teabags clogged the sink under six inches of gray water; newspapers and mail sat unread on the worktops; the odor of decomposing rubbish wafted from the bin. Drained milk cartons, chewed toast crusts and vomit-stiff cloths were strewn across the table.

Jo sucked air through her teeth.

"Tea," she said. "Please." And she lowered herself into a chair as if it were a scalding bath. Jo was normally an elegant woman. She took care of her skin and understood the value of expensive hair stylists. But now, Jo did not look like herself: her hair was frizzy and askew, her eyes were bagged and her face was puffy from the pregnancy. Without her nightdress, she looked worse. She was forty-one. Johnson wondered, if she stayed this way, what it meant for their marriage. Why hadn't he considered it? But then he had not considered much. The idea had come to him in the aftermath of a terrible moment, when he thought that Jo had finally had enough. Indeed, she had said as much.

Jo had rejected his idea out of hand.

Why have another child, she said, when Annabel - who they both loved intensely - could not keep them together? She doubted their accumulated disappointments and unmet needs could be solved in a simple way.

"Anyway," she said, "this marriage is making us miserable." Johnson, she noticed, had been too depressed to bathe in more than a week.

"It's fine," Johnson said. "We're fine."

Then he said he would be more depressed without her.

So the following weekend, about the time that Jo was ovulating, Johnson showered carefully then plied his wife with two bottles of Chablis. A constant hum of sexual frustration was one of their problems, and after the wine, his idea met with zero resistance.

Johnson blamed himself for the state of Jo's body, but he had an excuse: he had ruined it because he loved her.

"Annabel," he said, "keep an eye on your mother. I'm nipping outside." Before Jo could lift her head from her hands, Johnson had grabbed his coat and was on the other side of the front door.

The street was one they had aspired to live in and then been glad to move to. The houses were solid Victorian redbricks, with sound roofs, neat gardens, and well-maintained paintwork. They were comfortable homes for a family of four. It was an area where the Johnsons had imagined a happy married life was possible, though in the time they had lived there, two neighboring couples had divorced and a third had split with such acrimony that more than once, they had involved the police.

It was cold outside but the sun had thawed the overnight frost. The chilled air crept across Johnson's head and he ran his fingers over the crown, searching out the deficiencies of coverage. Then he slid his hand to his earlobe and tugged at it, feeling the hairs growing there.

Many of Johnson’s neighbors were up and out, attending to their weekend tasks. Things seemed almost normal. But up the way Johnson saw the telltale glass, two separate piles, like crushed ice littering the damp pavement. And a silver BMW sat de-eared, its wing mirror kicked and hanging by a thread. Deep key scratches were gouged in its side, right down to the metal.

"Shit," Johnson said. "Shit!" Because soon, he was sure, they would hit the Corolla. He hated the thoughtlessness, the waste, the bitter cocktail of envy and contempt that fueled these people. He hated that they despised him, without knowing who he was. And he hated the fear that these crimes were the start of something more menacing.

"Shit," he said. And after checking the Corolla thoroughly, just to make sure, he went back inside.

Jo had made tea - thick as mud, the way she liked it - emptied the bin and cleared away the rest of the mess. The washing machine churned, and the dishwasher was filling with water. Now Annabel was helping her to change Clara's diaper, the baby stretched on the table with her sticky bum in the air, as Jo gripped her ankles.

These were tasks that Johnson had intended to do.

Jo looked up as he entered, a smeared baby wipe between the tips of her fingers.

"Well," she said. "Aren't you the world's best husband and father? Look at us. Do we need this? Put your family first. Put me first. Tonight," she said, waving the wipe in his direction, "you had better forget about that crappy little car."

Johnson had never much liked his wife's practical side. Though it had pulled them through when he wasn't working and Jo had made some hardheaded decisions, unobstructed by sentiment. He admitted it: he was sentimental about the car. And not only because of what it represented but the way that it drew him and Annabel together, the drenched girl on the stepladder, swabbing the roof, while Johnson stood by with the hose. Those were some of their very best moments.

Jo finished cleaning Clara and with four dexterous movements, applied cream and wrapped her up in a diaper.

"Annabel," Jo said, "take Clara through to the living room. I need to talk to your father." Annabel did as she was told, smirking at Johnson the way kids do to a child in trouble.

Jo went to the sink. With her back turned, Johnson found her curiously alluring; he admired the heft of her post-natal buttocks. But beneath her nightdress, her unshaven legs protruded, veins shot.

Jo scrubbed at her hands.

"Paul," she said, "I feel like a valve is stuck. All this pressure is building and I'm going to explode and take everything with me - you, the kids, all that we've got here. And you're just turning up the heat." She reached for a towel and dried her hands. "I'm going back to bed," she said. "Consider if it's worth it." And she scooped up her tea and brushed past him, leaving him to contemplate.

Johnson did that. He possessed his own practical streak, and he drew up a plan. The plan was simple.

He made certain his camera contained plenty of film.

* * *

Johnson was up at the first noise from outside. It was dark. Three young men, loud and unclever, were weaving their way home, and he monitored them as they jostled each other along. Their laughter seemed directed at him: the square old guy who was trying to sleep, who did not know there were better things to do at quarter past three. Johnson could hear them, long after they disappeared from view.

He stayed at the window.

In her sleep, Clara stirred. Johnson wondered what experience, in her four days of life, was affecting her dreams.

Silence descended. It was the kind of quiet that tested each nerve in turn.

Then from the left, a man appeared. He was no youth. He was thin and feral, hair like rat fur cropped close to his skull. He wore big boots and tight jeans, his face half hidden by the collar of a fat black jacket. Slowly he slipped down the street, examining cars and peering in windows. He paused by the Mazda next to Johnson's Corolla. Johnson didn't much care for the owner, a single man who disliked kids and lived in a family street. But more than the Mazda was at stake. As the thin man jabbed a screwdriver into the Mazda's lock, Johnson reached for his camera. He snapped back the lens cover, and waited. He waited until the Mazda's door was open, until the thin man emerged with a sports bag and a clutch of CDs, until he had a clear shot of that pinched, ratty face. This was the plan: press the button; leap back into shadow; present the evidence to the police. It was incontrovertible. It might be enough to get this man off the streets and keep the Corolla safe, for a little while.

Johnson depressed the button and the camera emitted a stroboscopic flicker, as the red eye reducer engaged. He had forgotten to check the damned settings.

The thief glanced up.

"Paul?" Jo said.

And the flash went off.

In the unlit bedroom the flash was a lightning strike. It rebounded from the glass and annihilated Johnson's vision. Behind him, Jo screamed.

"What is it? My God! Paul, what have you done?"

The baby woke up. Her rising shriek burrowed behind Johnson's eyes, like a knitting needle thumped through his temples, and she stepped up a notch as her sister crashed into the room.

"What's wrong, mummy? What's wrong?" Annabel said, and she jumped at her mother and clung to her.

"Paul, she's trembling," Jo said. "Your daughter's shaking all over. Are you proud of yourself?"

But Johnson ignored her. As he recovered his sight, he peered into the street. The thin man stood there, pointing his screwdriver in Johnson's direction. He shook his head in a way that Johnson disliked. It was the way the exterminator shook his head at the wasps' nest in their attic, before he settled down to eradicate the problem. The thin man focused on Johnson's front door; he was checking the house number. Then he looked up at Johnson with a smile like a razor cut.

Johnson felt his scrotum contract.

The man gave Johnson a flippant salute, then swaggered off. He slipped down the street as slowly as he had arrived, bouncing in his big boots, the sports bag slung over his shoulder.

Jo picked up the howling baby.

"Shush," she said. "Everything's fine. Everything will be all right."

Johnson stared out at the ice forming on the glass of the cars.

"Sure it will," he said. "Sure it will.

Richard Hollins' stories are set in South West London, where he lives. His workk has been published in print magazines in the UK, as well as on the web, in Eclectica and Small Spiral Notebook.


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