You never really know what you’ll find in someone’s pocket.
When you first get good, and the uncles let you loose somewhere with lots of pockets, you tell yourself there’s opportunity in every pocket you pick. That’s how you tell yourself there’s some romance or mystery to the task you’re set. That perhaps picking pockets is a gateway to another life.
You tell yourself you might come across a piece of paper with secret information, or a telephone that’s not been released on the market yet, or some evidence that must be taken to the police, that stops a terrorist attack. Then they thank you by giving you papers and turning you from an unwanted shadow in the corner of their eye to a real person in their community.
Something out of the ordinary, in somebody’s pocket.
Maybe then you wouldn’t have to pick pockets anymore.
But what really happens is that each pocket you pick has less in it than will satisfy the uncles for the day, so you need to pick another pocket.
Your little fingers dip into each dark and private space, the scars plainly visible on the backs of your hands. One for every time you made the bells tinkle in an uncle’s pocket during the months they made you practice.
“You’ll eat when you’re good. You’ll be good when you hand me my wallet and I didn’t feel or hear you take it. Until then you’re deadweight, Ivan, and we don’t feed what can’t carry its own weight.”
Instruction like that is usually accompanied by a backhanded slap to the face. That’s why my right eyelid’s a bit swollen this week. I was short a few bills on Monday. People carry less with them this late in the month. Payday’s a few days away. The uncles don’t care.
That’s the currency. It costs a lot of scars to learn to pick pockets. And a few beatings.
That woman’s purse, this man’s billfold. That schoolkid’s lunch money. Don’t feel bad for him. He eats more in a day than I do in a week. He’s got papers, he’s got parents. The word ‘uncle’ doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to me.
We get moved on. That’s when the police come and tell us our camp can’t stay where it is. They don’t tell us where it can be, because as far as they’re concerned, it can’t be anywhere. We make a show of resisting, but the scouts will already be out there somewhere, finding the next patch of dirt.
I earn extra meat that evening by giving the uncles two of the policemen’s wallets and a canister of pepper spray. That makes them laugh. One of the rare times their laugh doesn’t scare me.
We move to a new part of town, find a bridge under which to pitch the uncle’s tents. Roll out our mattresses. Fight for the best spots. I’m not big, but I’m quick and I’m savage, so I don’t get the worst spot.
I don’t get the best spot either. There are fights I know better than to pick.
This is a new place, and so we have to learn everything again. Which spots are the best for commuters, where the cameras don’t watch. Where people live, what direction they walk in when they leave the stations. Where the buses stop and what time they’re fullest. Where the best places are to run to in case you’re spotted.
Not that I get spotted. Not for a long time now.
The first days don’t go well. They never do in a new place. By Saturday morning I’m black and blue from the beatings and I don’t know if there are any tourists in this area on a weekend, or if they have any money in this part of town. I doubt it. I decide to go to the centre, somewhere lots of people shop for their Christmas gifts.
It’s risky. Those places are patrolled. But I’m good. And I’m hungry.
There are people everywhere. Payday was Friday, Christmas is two weeks away. It’s cold and everyone’s wearing coats. Lots of pockets to choose from.
I pick one, then another. A wallet and a small leather purse which jangles with the coins it contains. It’s pretty. So was the girl I took it from. Can’t have been that much older than me. I look inside, hoping to find a few folded bills as well as the metal, and there’s a small bit of paper tucked inside. I unfold it to see what it is. Then I have to sit down.
This summer we worked near a hospital. I’d overhear the doctors talking on the terraces as they ate their meals. I know what oncology is. I know what chemotherapy is. I have a hard time associating those words to the girl whose pocket I just picked. She can’t be much more than 25 years old.
I spend most of the morning looking for her. I’ll have to make up the difference picking pockets on a Sunday. That’s almost impossible, so there’s a beating in my near future. When I find her, she’s sitting outside a coffee shop, underneath a space heater, going through her bag. She knows she’s lost something.
I take a better look. Long dark hair falls over one shoulder as she leans over her bag. Her skin is like bronze, with fine features that I guess may be of Indian origin, but I’m not sure. I don’t know if her clothes are expensive, but they’re very well chosen. She’s elegant. I spend most of my days sizing people up, so I know what I’m talking about. It’s why I chose her pocket to pick. She looks like money.
I want to slip her the purse without being seen.
I’m good, I could do it easily. Our worlds aren’t supposed to touch. She’s doesn’t know people like me exist, other than as numbers on a news program. I can’t imagine what it is to be her. What her problems, worries, anxieties must be. I assume they would appear trivial compared to a life spent between hunger and beatings. Except there’s the cancer on that piece of paper.
She looks up. Straight at me.
I’m in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by people. There’s no reason for her to look at me, and yet there’s no mistaking her intention, it’s me she’s looking at.
She smiles and beckons.
My legs move on their own, walking me out of the crowd and into the open space between us, and now it’s my turn to be anxious. I’m invisible. You’re not supposed to see me, even when you look at me. Especially when you look at me.
“I was wondering if you’d bring it back,” she says.
She sounds English. The accent is unmistakable. I’m afraid to speak. My accent is foreign, Eastern European. It’s as much a label as my ratty trainers or the frayed ends of my jeans. My language, which I speak less well than the English of my adopted country, would sound harsh and guttural to her.
I put the purse on the table, looking down at my feet.
“I’m sorry.” I say.
She finds what she was looking for in her bag. It’s a wallet, thicker and larger than the purse.
She takes from it a quantity of banknotes that are as much as I could steal in a week. She puts it on the table between us.
“What’s your name?”
“Ivan,” I reply, accenting the second syllable, demonstrating how foreign my name is.
“Well, Ivan, you have a choice to make. You can either take this money, or you can sit down and tell me about those bruises on your arms. If you do, I won’t give you this money today, but I will be here again Saturday and Sunday, this week, and the week after, for you to talk to. If you like. For as long as you like.”
I should just take the money. Every part of me says I should take the money. In particular the part that doesn’t want another beating. I’d give it to the uncles and earn a reprieve and some warm meals. And yet I hesitate, and her eyes tell me she understands exactly why the decision is so hard, even without knowing anything about me.
She’s good at asking questions. Better than I am at answering them. I have to explain what an uncle is, because she thinks they’re blood relatives. They might be, for all I know, but that’s not what makes them an uncle.
A waiter comes to ask her if I’m bothering her, and she asks him to bring a hot chocolate, paying for it as it arrives with money from the purse I returned to her. It is extraordinary to me that I should drink something so very expensive. What an amazing waste of money. Decadent is how she describes it, with a smile that turns the meaning of the word upside down.
When the chocolate is gone and the light begins to fade, she gathers her coat and her kindness around her and departs with both, leaving me alone at a table in a coffee shop where I don’t belong. The waiter is of the same opinion and I’m soon chased off.
On the way home I manage to steal a little more from drunken revellers in the carriage of the train. They laugh at me and push me around, call me a tramp, tell me to get a job and punctuate their sentences with shoves. By the time I jump out of the doors to get away from them, they’re laughing at how I’m dressed, at my accent, but they’re also missing two wallets, a telephone and a watch.
The beating that night is bad. I have not brought back nearly enough to justify myself to the uncles, but it would have been worse without the wallets.
As I sit by the edge of our encampment, feeling my heart beat in the new bruises on my shoulders and back, I contemplate the guilt I feel at robbing the idiots on the train. They were fools and deserved it as much as anyone, but I don’t like that I stole from them. It is as though I am somehow tainted by it. I wonder at this train of thought. How a few moments with her have changed how I see the world.
I decide, oddly, that I like the guilt. I’ve never been a good enough person to feel guilt at thieving. It feels like a symptom of change.
I resolve to see her again.
She becomes my oxygen. She is generous with her time and I am receptive to her influence. But a change of this kind cannot happen slowly. There is no way to live in-between her way and mine. It has to be one or the other. I cannot be comfortable in her presence if I am a thief. I cannot live in my community if I do not steal. There are consequences.
I explain this to her when she asks about the welts on my shins.
“You always have a choice,” she says, kindly.
“It doesn’t feel like a choice,” I reply. Not returning to the encampment feels like the ultimate betrayal. For all of their violence towards me, these people fed me, they are my family and my countrymen.
She rolls back the sleeve of her shirt, exposing her own forearm. The skin looks soft as silk, except around the elbow, where a knot of scar tissue winds around her arm like a snake. Or a rope.
In that moment, for the first time in my life, I want to hurt someone. I look for the pain and the anger in her eyes but the gentleness and kindness are undimmed, and I wonder at where her strength comes from.
“Abuse always feels impossible to escape. I should know. I recognized it in your eyes the day I saw you watching me. But you are your own jailer, Ivan. You can, and should, walk away.”
Three years later, and we still meet every Sunday, although I wear better clothes, I no longer smell like a street rat and I buy the coffees. She taught me how to exist in her world, introduced me to the people who helped me build a life here, so it is thanks to her that I can buy anything at all. We support each other now, sharing past traumas as though we were each other's therapist. She listens to me talk of my uncles, and I listen to her speak of her husband. Despite appearances, in the lottery of abuse, she was dealt a worse hand than I. She used to speak of her chemotherapy, and for a moment, it was frightening, but she shrugged it off with more strength than I can describe. But her experience with her husband is not so easily discarded, and once the cancer is in remission, her memory of this abuse becomes the trauma she must life with in every breath.
She was right about it being a choice, all I had to do to escape my abusers was walk away. My trauma was less insidious than hers. Today I returned, for the first time in three years, to the underpass where my former family still stay, their clothes drying in the fumes of the traffic that passes above them, day and night. A final cathartic moment to realize this place holds no power over me anymore. Many faces have changed. Some are the same and those have aged. My uncles are harmless now I no longer need their permission to eat. They are cowards in the end, and will not raise a stick against anyone who might pick up a stick themselves.
She accompanied me to put images to the stories I told. Now she tells me we must give them all the freedom I found. But she knows better, as I do. It takes more than good intentions to break the cycle of abuse, and all we can do is provide opportunity, as she did for me.
Until today, putting my hand in her pocket to steal her purse was the closest I’d come to touching her. But as we look at the dirt-strewn encampment where I grew up and was beaten down, she crosses the impossible divide a second time, and slips her hand in mine.