Vigilant

Jerry Hamilton stands at his front door, watching the drunks straggling home. It is four in the morning and the last of the pubs have shut in town a while ago.

In his right hand, resting on the ground, is his old cricket bat. He is standing silently out of sight from the road behind a large gardenia. He can hear the approach of yet another group, and stubs out the cigarette he has been smoking. En garde, he says to himself, gripping the bat more tightly.

His house stands in the darkened area mid way between two distant street lights. He has complained to the Council about this, but they produce statistics to demonstrate that well-lit areas suffer every bit as much damage from drunken vandals as those in the darker areas between. They refuse to erect another street light. They suggest he turns on his own lights if he is so worried about it. He had done so, but finds that the lights themselves, standing in his front garden on short poles, are very soon smashed.

As the group approaches, he tenses. It sounds like a mixed group, young women as well as the usual males; in his experience a mixed group is sometimes less destructive, the women moderating the behaviour of the group. Not always, though: he has witnessed girls, sometimes looking so young they can hardly have left school, encouraging the boys to outdo each other in their vandalism.

This group seems noisier than most, but they seem to be bent more on running stupidly all over the road than they are on doing damage. Jerry watches from the shadows as the group draws closer, unaware that they are being watched. They are close enough now for him to understand what they are saying, though most of them are slurring their words. The most commonly used word is fuck in all its variations, flexibly adapted to be used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb.

If anything, the girls are using the word, amongst others, as much, if not more, than the boys, something that used to surprise Jerry. It seems, he has learned, to be ubiquitous.

Though the drunken youths are very noisy, they are not indulging in any vandalism. As they wander up the hill, quietening as the ascent robs them of sufficient breath, Jerry relaxes. It’s early yet. This group won’t be the last.

Jerry turns into the corner of his porch and lights a cigarette, cupping it in his hand to prevent the glowing tip from being seen. Already he can hear the approach of the next group, but as yet they are still a long way away, down by the roundabout. He has time to finish his cigarette.

As he smokes he listens. Uh huh, he says to himself as he hears the distant breaking of glass. Here it comes. He moves out of the shadows and along the narrow path between the small bushes and flowers that are Sally’s delight, stopping on the edge of the footpath, peering down the road. Three of them, he sees. From the way they are moving he thinks they are older than the last group, perhaps in their early twenties. He retreats to the shadows of his porch, still cupping his cigarette. There are more sounds of breaking glass, much closer now. He grips his bat more tightly and extinguishes his cigarette. He drops the remains of it into the large pot containing cumquats, aware that he’d better remove it before Sally sees it in the morning.

The three young men move slowly into the circle of light from the light pole further down the street, and he can see that they are not as boisterous as the last lot. They are talking quite loudly, drinking as they go. As each one empties a bottle it is thrown to smash in the road, and another bottle produced from a pocket or a bag. There are going to be a few punctures in the morning, Jerry thinks.

But it doesn’t take that long. Headlights circle the roundabout and head towards them, high beams sparkling on the broken glass that litters the road. Surely the driver can see the glass, Jerry thinks? But it seems not. The car stops fifty metres from Jerry’s house, and he sees all four doors open and at least six people, a mixed group, stand around looking at the three deflated tyres that have brought them to a halt.

The careless cursing of the earlier group seems quite benign now as the punctured crew let fly in high purple at the mindless bastards that did this. Jerry smiles to himself, but the three vandals, almost in front of Jerry’s house now, laugh loudly and throw more empty bottles, aimed now at the crippled car. Four of the men at the car, realising what has happened, start after the vandals, leaving two young women with the car. The vandals, jeering, set off up the hill at an easy lope. They have a good start on their pursuers. They won’t be caught.

Jerry opens his front door, then remembers his dog-end and turns back to take it with him. He goes to the telephone standing on the kitchen bench and calls the emergency number for the Council Road Maintenance crew. These days they have to keep a crew on call all night, particularly on Friday and Saturday night. Jerry tells them what has occurred.

‘Right,’ the man at the other end says. ‘How big an area, d’you know?’

‘Pretty big, I reckon,’ Jerry tells him.

‘Oh well, guess I’d better send a sweeper as well, then.’ He sounds resigned, not surprised. It’s a common occurrence.



Jerry and Sally live in a nice house of two storeys some distance from the city centre. They have lived there for twenty years, brought up their children there, enjoyed the very large public park on the hillside opposite, the primary school two blocks away and the high school two blocks in the other direction. They are just seven minutes on foot from a small shopping centre containing a supermarket and a post-office, amongst other things. In other words, Jerry and Sally find their house ideal.

Except that, in recent years, they discover that it seems to be a major route home for very large numbers of young and not-so-young people who, each weekend, have been enjoying themselves in the pubs and clubs of the city. Jerry and Sally have often tried to remember what it was like in their early years in the house.

Things were quite different then, in two important ways: the pubs closed much earlier, and people tended to drive home, drunk or not. As long as you kept off the roads between ten and midnight, you stood a good chance of not being involved. Of course, there were rather more deaths in those days, but a lot less vandalism.

But now! According to the local papers, the City Centre is a war-zone after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. No-one is safe. And at three am, when the last of the pubs and clubs finally close their doors, it is mayhem.

Neither Jerry nor Sally, nor any of their friends, have witnessed these scenes for themselves. But all of them have seen news-clips and photos, have read police reports of fights and muggings, have seen smashed plate-glass and boarded-up shop-fronts. How has it come to this? No-one seems to know. And what can be done about it? Apparently, nothing. Or, more correctly, nothing is being done.

And in the meantime, they are on the route home for those young people who live in the suburbs to the south of them and who, not wanting to lose their licences, and unable to get a taxi home without waiting for hours, have decided to walk. And as the majority have been drinking solidly since before midnight, a large proportion seem to find it funny to break things as they go: bottles, windows, letter-boxes, car windows and anything else they come across.Is this something new, this vandalism? No, the Romans and the Greeks complained bitterly of the same thing.



At four o’clock on Sunday morning Jerry is on watch again. The wind has been from the south all the day before, and the morning is bitterly cold. Jerry has abandoned his porch, and sits instead in his car. It is harder to stay awake, nestling into the comfort of the leather seat, but he has a flask of coffee with him and he is listening to his tiny radio through one earphone: the car radio would betray his presence, with small lights on his dashboard, and the aerial erected.

What does he hope to achieve? He’s not going to actively interfere with any vandals, not unless they actually attack his property. He’s not stupid. One old man with a cricket bat isn’t going to deter anyone. But what he can do is to observe and take notes, and perhaps inform the police and subsequently offer his witness at ensuing court appearances. He has his mobile in his pocket, ready for whatever the morning brings; and beside him on the passenger seat is a camera with which he has experimented: being digital, it can make acceptable images even in the low intensity of distant street lights. And he keeps a log, writing down everything he sees.

Sally thinks he is mad. ‘You going to spend the rest of your life guarding the street?’ she asks him. ‘Getting up in the night then sleeping most of the day, weekend after weekend?’

She’s right, of course. Mind you, that leaves five days a week for everything else, he tells himself with an inward smile. Yes, he knows it’s daft, obsessed perhaps. But he’s been lying awake in bed for years, listening for the carnage to begin. Might as well be up and watching.

When he had started he had hoped to get a few of the other old blokes, maybe some of the younger ones, too, interested. Spread the load, like. How many lived in this street? Fifty at least, he knew. If they acted together maybe they could do just one morning a month, or something like that. And maybe they could could have two blokes on at a time, offer each other a bit of protection. And what if they formed a committee, and made their watch semi official... put up signs announcing their watch, maybe get some money together to buy some of those closed circuit TV things, and erect them in the street? It would be so simple, he had thought.

But it hadn’t worked out like that. He had put a sort of flyer in every letter-box in the street inviting people to a meeting to discuss the possibility, but no-one had turned up. He had spent a month ringing doorbells and talking to people about it, but he must have made a pretty poor job of it because he couldn’t convince a single one of his neighbours. Just as well he has no ambition to be a politician!

It has been pretty low-key that morning. A bunch of girls, far too young to be out all night, had sung their way up the street, arms around each other and squawking at the top of their voices, dreadful caterwauling, really. All over the road, which was pretty typical. And a couple of shifty-looking characters who didn’t seem drunk at all, going along the street and trying the doors on all the cars... he had called that one in to the police-station. He had had the presence of mind to quickly lock the doors of his car and stay absolutely still, and they hadn’t noticed him; funny how people mostly only see what they expect to see, he thought.

Most mornings he goes back to bed at about six o’clock, but this morning he is wide awake. There have been a couple of very funny programs on the radio that morning, repeats of BBC programs from fifty years before, and he has chuckled his way through those and still feels no desire to go back to sleep. At seven he notices a lightening of the sky above the hill in front of him, and he watches as the morning almost imperceptibly creeps from black to grey, then gradually to colour.

The passenger door rattles suddenly, and he turns, surprised, to find Sally pulling at the door, two mugs in her hand steaming in the cold air. He hastily unlocks the doors.

‘What the blazes are you doing still out here at this time?’ Sally demands. She passes him one of the cups, and settles herself beside him.

‘Yeah, well...’ he begins, intending to tell her how nice the morning has been, and how wide awake he feels.

‘You’re going too far, Jerry. You’ve got to stop it. You’re starting to look obsessed.’



He is wide awake the following Saturday morning, listening to the noises progressing up the street, but Jerry is still in bed. He knows Sally, too, is awake, but she is pretending to sleep, lying curled up beside him but breathing too deeply and evenly to be asleep. He looks at the faint glow from the digital clock facing him from the other side of the room. He has to force his eyes to focus, and can just make out the time: 4.12. Time he got a clock with bigger numerals, he tells himself ruefully.

He knows Sally is right. He can see he has allowed himself to become obsessed with the idea of keeping the street safe. He knows some of his neighbours think he has gone a bit soft in the head. But to lie here in the morning and listen to the noises of wanton destruction progress, weekend after weekend, is almost too much to bear. At 4.45 he rolls out of bed and goes downstairs to make a cup of tea. He puts the teapot and milk and a couple of mugs on a tray and takes it up to the bedroom. He puts it on the table beside the window and quietly draws back the curtains. He can just make out the silhouette of the houses in the street behind theirs, the sky still seemingly black.

He pours the tea into one of the mugs. ‘Want one?’ he asks quietly.

There is a moment of silence before Sally sighs loudly. ‘Might as well,’ she says , her voice sounding just a little exasperated as she rolls over and heaves herself up to a sitting position. ‘You might as well have gone back on patrol for all the sleep I’ve been able to have.’

Jerry grunts. Hardly my fault, he thinks. But he pours Sally a mug and takes it around to put it on her bedside table.

They sit in the darkness in silence, sipping their tea. Jerry has always been a morning person anyway. He likes the silence. He likes getting up and knowing that very few others are awake.

When he awakes his mind is immediately buzzing, wondering what is going on in the world, keen to know what the weather is going to be like, formulating his plan for the day. Sally, on the other hand, is a late-night person, the first hour of awakening seeming to her as though she is in a fog of cotton wool, and she unwilling to punch her way through to clear air. Monosyllabic, she prefers to be left to emerge from this shroud in her own time.

So Jerry sits in the darkness silently, sipping his tea and worrying about what is going on in the street. Probably nothing, he tries to tell himself.

They are suddenly startled by a loud crash from the street. Jerry puts down his mug and leaps from the bed. ‘Don’t be silly,’ Sally calls after him, but he is gone, rushing carelessly down the stairs, taking them three at a time. I’m too old for this, he tells himself, but ignores his own warning and rushes to the front door, flinging it open. As he leaves the house the motion-sensor in the ceiling of the car-port switches on the outside lights, and Jerry blinks in the sudden brightness. All is still, except for the running sounds receding up the hill.

Jerry looks around him. He can see no damage anywhere. His car is standing in its usual place under the carport. The small front garden looks undamaged. His mail-box, frequently attacked and torn from its pole, looks unaffected. He walks to the pavement and looks back at his house. No windows are smashed.

He moves to the front of Barry Kerr’s house, the one next to him up the hill, and surveys it too: nothing, as far as he can see. Barry’s mail-box has frequently been attacked. It is made of small stones and pieces of slate, with a copper lid. It must weight heaps, but twice so far it has been pulled from its support, and once even carried away for some unfathomable reason, to be dumped in the next street. There’s no accounting for the workings of a drunken mind, Jerry and Barry have agreed. But Jerry can see no damage.

That noise came from somewhere, though, and Jerry goes the other way, to the house on the other side of him. The people here are renting, and only moved in a short while ago. He has seen them, but never, so far, spoken to them, a young couple with two small boys.

As soon as he reaches their driveway he sees the cubed remains of smashed toughened glass littering the ground, and in the poor light filtering through from his own carport sees the gaping hole in the rear window of their car. He hears a door opening, and looks up to see his neighbour a young man dressed only in boxer shorts, pick his way bare-footed towards him, rubbing his eyes.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ he asks, and Jerry gestures to the back of his neighbour’s car. His neighbour walks gingerly to Jerry’s side, and looks, shocked, at the damage. ‘Christ,’ he says. Not only is the window smashed, but the lid of the boot has suffered a crashing blow, as though whatever went through the back window had been bounced off the metal first. ‘Shit,’ the young man says, and runs his fingers through his hair, looking around for any further damage.

‘I guess you’d better ring the cops,’ Jerry advises, and the young man nods distractedly.

‘What is it, Tom?’ calls a woman’s voice from the darkened doorway of the house.

‘Don’t come out,’ the young man warns. ‘There’s broken glass everywhere.’

'Oh no,' she wails, and turns back into the house.

‘I’m Jerry,’ Jerry says, and he holds his hand out. ‘Jerry Hamilton. Next door.’ He gestures towards his house. ‘I heard the noise.’

The young man takes his hand and grips it firmly, but he doesn’t take his eyes from his damaged car. ‘Tom,’ he says. 'Shit, that's going to cost a bit.' He shakes his head ruefully.

Jerry nods.



Back on duty. Saturday morning is quieter than usual, but that’s probably because it is raining. Not continuously, but frequently enough to make the marauders of the night hurry home before the next shower hits.

Jerry sits in his car again. He has been there just half an hour before the motion-sensor light comes on, and he sees his neighbour, Tom, approaching. The passenger door is opened. ‘Okay if I join you?’

Frankly, Jerry would rather be alone; but he realises that he can’t say that. ‘Sure,’ he says. He moves the flask and the torch from the passenger seat, turning awkwardly to put them on the back seat. Tom slips in beside him. The light will go out automatically very shortly, so Jerry turns and takes advantage of it by looking carefully at Tom.

He is a slight young man, a little shorter than average and very lightly built. He is balding prematurely, his hair-line receding quite dramatically for such a young man. As though to counter this, Tom has a bushy moustache growing over his upper lip. He is wearing a light synthetic track-suit and white joggers. The bright colours of the track-suit look a little over the top to Jerry, and he is glad when the light cuts off with an audible click.

‘Get your car fixed?’

Tom nods dourly. ‘In the shop. Take a week to get a new back window, but they’re working on the boot lid. Buggers bent the window frame too, not just the boot.’

‘Going to cost a bit, then. Insurance?’

‘Yeah, luckily. I was about to cancel the comprehensive this year. Never made a claim on it yet.’

Jerry nods. ‘How you getting to work?’

‘They’re lending me one. Should walk, really, it’s not that far.’

‘Mmm,’ says Jerry. They lapse into silence for a while. Years ago, Jerry remembers, he knew everybody in his street, but nowadays... well, he knows Barry on the upside quite well, and now perhaps he’ll get to know Tom and Sandra. But that’s it. He hasn’t a clue who lives on Tom’s other side. How does that work, he wonders?

‘Where d’you come from?’ he asks.

Tom looks at him. ‘Come from?’

‘Yeah, where did you live before?’

‘Oh, Victoria.’

‘What d’you do for a crust?’

Video editor. Television.’

‘Interesting,’ says Jerry.

‘Well, no, boring really. Same thing every day, always in a rush, cock-ups left, right and centre. Could be worse, I suppose.’

Jerry thinks he wouldn’t find it boring; but then, he tells himself, he doesn’t know anything about it. They sit quietly, watching as another shower dumps its load, the gutters suddenly overflowing. He realises that it is getting light.

‘How about the missus?’

‘Sandra? Teacher. Part-time at the moment, three days a week.’

‘How old are the boys?’

‘Six and four. Will is at school, of course, and Wayne will be soon. Sandra’ll be able to get back full time. That’ll help.’

Jerry looks at him. ‘Bit tough, is it?’

Toms turns his head to look out the window. ‘Had big dreams once,’ he says. ‘Films, advertising, Hollywood, Independents, stuff like that. Cannes maybe.’ He turns to look at Jerry. ‘But that was just dreams. They don’t pay much in TV, and there’s heaps of us looking for work. Got to take what you can get.’

‘Right,’ says Jerry. Not much else he can say, really.

‘I expect Sandra will do alright, once she gets back full time. She’s good, Sandra. Promotion, probably. Reckon she’ll be earning more than I do, soon.’

‘Well let’s hope so, eh?’


On the Sunday morning, Tom is already standing on Jerry’s porch as Jerry leaves the house. The car-port light is off, so he must have been there for a while.

‘Okay?’ he asks.

Jerry had been looking forward to listening to those old BBC shows on his little radio, but he smiled in the dark, his teeth white in the darkness. ‘Sure,’ he says. ‘Want to sit in the car?’

‘Nice out here, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah. Bit of moon, I see. Reckon we’ll get a few of the bastards this morning.’

‘Wish I could get my hands on the idiots that did my car in,’ Tom replies with, Jerry thinks, justifiable rancour.

‘Wish I could get the whole lot of them, and bang their heads together. Knock some sense into them.’

Jerry lights a cigarette, then remembers and offers Tom one. ‘Don’t smoke,’ Tom says. ‘Don’t smoke, don’t drink. Don’t do lots of things these days.’

Jerry feels like patting Tom on the back to make him feel better, but he does no such thing. He remembers when he and Sally were a bit hard up in the early days. ‘It’ll get better, you’ll see.’

Tom sighs, as though he’s gone through this a thousand times. Perhaps he has. ‘Yeah, I know. Mind you, I won’t go back to drinking, nor the smokes.’

Jerry can just see the top of his head shining in the moonlight. He’s taller than Tom by a head. ‘Why d’you say that?’ he asks.

‘Used to drink myself silly before I met Sandra. Smoked like a chimney, too.’

‘Hard to give up?’

Tom looked down. ‘Got into a lot of trouble. A real lot of trouble. Fighting, drugs, stuff like that.’

You’d never believe it to look at him, thinks Jerry. ‘Hard to believe, looking at you now.’

He can see Tom grinning embarrassedly, still looking down. ‘Yeah. Well. Shit happens, you know.’

‘No,’ Jerry says. ‘No, I don’t know. How does a lad like you get into that sort of trouble?’

‘Look, I shouldn’t have said anything. Just leave it, okay?’

‘Well, it was you that started it. You can’t just leave me hanging. We’ve got an hour or so.’

But it is as though Tom is saved by the bell, because just then the first rowdy group turns the corner five hundred metres away, shouting and carrying on. Jerry puts out his cigarette and walks out through his front garden, being careful not to set off the motion-sensor, and takes a look at what is going on.

Three of them, all males by the look of them. As Jerry watches from the shadows, he sees one of the young men run up to a car parked under a street light, jump onto the bonnet and then onto the roof of the car, shouting and waving. Jerry wonders who owns the car... none of the people in the street ever leave cars out over Friday or Saturday night. Must be a visitor. Someone’s going to be unhappy in the morning.

Tom joins him. He’s got something like a small base-ball bat in his hand, hanging loosely at his side. ‘Ever used something like that before?’

Tom lifts the bat. ‘Only for rounders with the kids,’ he says.

‘Let’s hope we don’t have to start now.’

They retreat to the porch and the shadows behind the gardenia, and wait for the trio to arrive. Having Tom with him alters things. Reinforcement, of course, but again he has no idea what Tom might do or say. He hopes Tom keeps his mouth shut. ‘Leave it to me, if they start something, okay?’ he whispers.

Tom nods.

As the trio draws closer, they can see that it is in fact just two blokes, and a girl dressed in jeans and a sweater, her hair in a ponytail. They are talking loudly, but Jerry can’t make out what they are saying... it’s all in some sort of shorthand. There is lots of laughter. They don’t look very drunk, moving quickly and nimbly, dancing a little as they turn to each as they walk, doing little hops and jumps as though bursting with energy. They talk non-stop, all of them at once.

As they pass Jerry’s house, one of the boys suddenly jumps onto his letter-box, a smooth, very nimble action; but his foot lands on the front edge of the box, which causes the lid to flip up and dump the boy on the pavement. He catches his elbow on the edge of the box as he falls, and though the others are laughing, he takes a step back and kicks the box hard.

Tom moves forward as though to intervene, but Jerry holds his hand across Tom’s chest to stop him. The trio laugh more loudly and the non-stop talking begins again. The trio move on.

‘No damage,’ says Jerry.

Tom nods.

‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ Jerry says.

‘Ecstasy,’ Tom says. ‘Either that or something like it. Notice they couldn’t stay still, dancing all over the place.’

‘Is that what it does?’

‘That and other things,’ Tom says.

‘How do you know?’

‘How do you think? Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it.’

They don’t have time anyway. Another disturbance starts down the street. Suddenly, there is an explosion, quite loud, and a few seconds later a second one. ‘Christ,’ Tom says. ‘Got your phone?’

‘What for?’

‘Ring the cops, of course. That’s gunfire.’

‘No it’s not. It’s too sort of...soft. Gunfire is much sharper.’

‘Oh,’ Tom says. To him it sounded like a rifle or something.

‘No,’ Jerry continues, ‘that sounded like a bunger, a firework.’

Nevertheless, in less than fifteen seconds they hear a siren blare out, either a police siren or an ambulance. As it grows nearer and nearer it grows louder and louder, and very soon they watch a police car round the roundabout and screech to a halt in the middle of the road, lights flashing and turning everything into a fairground scene. Four people lie down in the road, police with their pistols drawn snap handcuffs on them all.

‘Serve them right, I suppose,’ Jerry chuckles. ‘Must have scared the living daylights out of the people living there.’

‘Guess so,’ Tom agrees.

They watch as another police vehicle, a paddy waggon this time, screeches around the roundabout and brakes hard as it arrives on the scene. Doors open, handcuffed youths are loaded and doors are slammed. The two police vehicles move away. Onlookers hang around talking to each other, reluctant to return to bed at that hour.

Gradually they move away from the street, and silence returns.

‘So what’s all this about your past?’ asks Jerry. He knows he’s being nosy, knows that Tom has twice said he doesn’t want to talk about it; but he is intrigued.

Tom sighs. He’s been through this before, people wanting to know about the darker side of his past. His fault for bringing it up. He wonders if, deep down, he really wants to explain, even while he’s denying it.

‘Look, it was all a long time ago, right?’

‘What, before you met Sandra?’

‘Well yeah, sort of. I suppose it started at Uni, you know, the binge drinking, the late nights. Everyone was doing it.’

Jerry nods. It wasn’t like that when he was a youngster, but he had heard of the way they go at it nowadays.

‘It sort of got to be a habit, sinking a load of beer before going out at ten or eleven, then drinking again until chuck-out. A bit of a rumble outside, maybe the cops turning up, the long walk home.’

Tom stops, as though recognising the irony of the situation. ‘Well,’ he continues eventually, ‘I guess I became one of these guys.’ He gestured to the road.

Jerry stares at him. ‘Get away!’

Tom nods. He is silent for a few minutes. Jerry lights another cigarette. The morning is upon them, and he looks at Tom in, literally and figuratively, a new light. ‘So,’ says Jerry slowly as though feeling his way, ‘you sort of got your just deserts, your car being done and that.’

‘Reckon.’ Then, ‘Well, not really. See, I did a heck of a lot more than that.’

Jerry is really surprised now. A niggling little voice tells him to let it rest, not to encourage Tom further. But he can’t help himself. ‘What d’you mean, more than that?’

‘Alcohol’s a bugger. Allows you to do things you’d never dream of doing when you’re sober.’

Jerry nods. He’s seen enough of that in his time. Pals drinking together and suddenly fighting, doing their best to smash, destroy... happens all the time.

‘So I was doing this sort of thing,’ gesturing to the street again, ‘thinking it was funny and clever. Then one day, I can’t even remember it, they told me I threw a rock at a passing car, right through the windscreen. Girl driver. Hit her in the face. Car swerves into the on-coming traffic... ‘

Jerry puts his hand on Tom’s shoulder. ‘Shit,’ he says.

‘Yeah, it was shit. I was in it, up to my neck. Witnesses, cars everywhere, police and ambulances. She survived, but only just. Lost an eye.’

‘Christ!’

‘Yeah. I went to jail. Well, weekend detention anyway, eighteen months. Nowhere near as bad as real jail.’

Jerry doesn’t know what to say. He is shocked. He knows this sort of thing happens, sees it on the news almost daily, or reads about it in the papers. But, as far as he can tell he’s never met anyone who has done it. He feels a little... well, unsettled, at having Tom on his porch. He takes half a step away from him, then regrets it.

Tom is hanging his head, looking at his feet, as though re-living the shame of prison. ‘Yeah,’ he mutters, ‘I know how you feel. I guess that’s why I didn’t want to tell you. Anyway, now you know.’ He looks up and around him, as though just realising that it is light. He steps off the porch, and flaps his hand as though in farewell, but without looking back. ‘See you,’ he says.

Jerry watches him go. He’d never have believed it.



He tells Sally about it when he takes a tray up to her, and her eyes widen. She eats her toast thoughtfully. ‘D’you reckon it’s safe, then? Having him next door?’

Jerry thinks about it. ‘You know, I think it is.’ He can hardly claim to know Tom, but once he had got over the first surprise, he realises that Tom clearly regrets his past. He could swear that Tom has learned his lesson. ‘He doesn’t drink at all now, he says. No, he’s done his time, and I reckon he deserves a chance.’

‘What about his wife, this Sandra. She knew him then, it seems. Is she another one, just like him?’

‘How would I know?’



Three days pass. Sally goes out to check the letter-box, and as she does she sees a woman approaching carrying shopping bags, two small boys with her. Sally watches as she stops at the house next door and checks her letter-box too. The boys go on to the front door impatiently while the woman looks down at her mail. Her long hair falls around her face. Sally, mail in her hand, moves towards her. ‘You must be Tom’s wife. Sandra, is it?’

The woman looks up from her mail. Her shopping bags are at her feet. She seems distracted. ‘What?’ she says, as though just realising what Sally has said.

Sally stops a metre from Sandra. Her jaw drops slightly in surprise. Sandra’s face is badly scarred, and she wears an eye-patch over one eye.