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I am writing this in near darkness, cosily tucked up in a one-man tent that is sitting at the edge of a secret society carp lake. My laptop screen emits just enough light to see the keys, and the moon outside casts a flash of silver across the lake, revealing that the surface and everything around it is as still as a mill pond.
I'm the chief editor of an angling magazine called Hooked and this was supposed to be a journal on my experiences here at Wierwood Waters. I insisted I'd take on this review because this particular lake is situated twenty odd miles from where I grew up as a boy.
The lake has been quiet all day and I still haven't had a single bite. During my uneventful afternoon, I sat watching the glimmering water, hypnotised, and the familiar scents from the surrounding trees and shrubbery took me back to a year when I was that little boy.
So as the lake outside remains still and eerily quiet, and as I have as yet nothing of real interest or importance to note, I feel compelled to write about a summer that took place when I was eleven years old. The year was nineteen-eighty-one and something happened that was so exciting, so thrilling, that whenever I think back to it, my senses are thrown into a false belief that they are experiencing sights, sounds and smells that took place two-and-a-half decades previous. No matter how long or short these reminiscent insights are, I believe everyone has one of these special moments tucked away, hidden. Whether it's a favourite song of the time, or perhaps a forgotten scent or taste, it only takes one of these tiny familiarities to evoke vivid flashes of nostalgia.
It's like peering into a clairvoyant's crystal ball as I delve into the depths of my memory and write this. I can see a little Justin Satchel, with three weeks' school holiday left to do with what he pleased. If I gaze out into the darkness beyond the open flaps of my tent and let my mind drift, I can look down over the eight acres of fields my parents farmed; and the small lake I once fished for tench is glistening under the relentless sun.
That summer, I remember opening our kitchen door one morning and stepping out into our yard. Despite it being one of the hottest summers on record, the mornings were usually chilly and the grass was always wet with dew. Sometimes a fine mist lingered inches above the fields, and it would slowly dissipate and lift as the sun climbed the pale blue sky. I always wore a T-shirt, initially suffering goose-bumps, but safe in the knowledge that after an hour or so, I'd be sweating and glad I didn't have to lug a pullover around with me. My .22 air rifle was resting, broken over my arm, and the lead pellets rattled away in their tin as I headed into the nearest adjoining field.
Whenever I had my rifle with me I became one of the heroes who I'd idolized at the time. If I'd completed my chores on the farm, my father let me watch gangster films with him. Classics such as The Godfather and Scar Face were my favourites, and if I wasn't Al Pacino, I was DeNiro. Being an only child, I developed a big imagination, and this fantasy of impersonating was my escape from boredom. I also read up on gangsters such as Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and John Gotti, and I subscribed to a real life crime magazine called The Empty Chamber.
I always loved the bad guys. My mother didn't think my obsession with crime and guns was healthy, but what she didn't realise at the time was how much I'd learnt from it. I scanned my father's newspapers for interesting and pertinent headlines, and I still believe this helped enormously at school, because if I didn't understand certain words, out came the dictionary; I had to understand and absorb everything there was to know in the field of crime. By the time I was twelve I knew more about the disposal of corpses than Charles Manson and Ed Gein combined.
I was none of the above-mentioned heroes when I jumped the fence into the field that morning. At breakfast I'd been watching the local news on our portable TV in the kitchen. I was so captivated by what the newsreader was saying that I shushed my mother, which inadvertently earned me a clipped ear from my father.
A well-known local criminal who had been arrested on suspicion of smuggling diamonds in from Sierra Leone had had his top-floor flat raided earlier that morning. The notorious Mickey “The Magician” Garrison lived just two towns from us in the outskirts of south London, so to me this guy was the real deal. The BBC news showed clips of him as he was escorted into a police van, the whole time his face hidden under his jacket. I had read about him before and had a few pictures of him in the abundance of old newspaper clippings I had pasted into my “crime investigation” scrapbook. To me, he looked too soft to be a crook because he was old, had friendly looking eyes and a smile that reminded me of my granddad.
I loved the whole story and all the hype that surrounded Mickey Garrison, because unlike all the other big-time gangsters who'd been busted on many occasions, “The Magician” had always eluded being caught red-handed. Mickey had earned his nickname after the second time he'd been raided in nineteen-seventy-seven. Garrison had been under intensive surveillance for six weeks by the Metropolitan Police, and after they had sufficient evidence on him, an armed unit burst into his block of flats. By the time the police eventually made it to the top floor, the diamonds had vanished. The police fine-combed the building but found nothing. He was searched extensively but still nothing. The pavement outside his windows and even the garbage chute down to the basement was painstakingly searched. Nada. Rumour had it Garrison had always chosen top floor flats so he could look down on the world and see trouble coming. My father once told me that he was often seen on the flat's roof with a pair of binoculars, but again, this was probably just rumour. When you became somebody, there was always something said about you, whether it was good, bad, true or false.
So there I was, a fair-haired, five-foot Garrison strutting across our fields, heading towards the old felled oak tree that I lined tin cans up on, taking pot shots for target practise. That morning I climbed aboard my father's rusty, dilapidated Land Rover. It sat with no wheels on four stacks of bricks, and I used it as my hideout. After lining up several tins, I retreated back to the rust bucket and pretended I was in Garrison's flat. The cans were armed cops and I took them out one by one. About an hour or so went by, and after peppering the cans beyond recognition, I decided to head back to the house to fetch my fishing rod. I pushed the lid back on my tin of pellets and was about to step down, when from out of nowhere, a pigeon landed with a thump on the Land Rover's bonnet. I was initially startled and jumped back. The pigeon remained there, cooing and hopping in small circles. It was holding one of its wings lower than the other and its plumage looked ruffled. My hideout didn't have any glass in the windows and I could see the iridescent greens and purples on the bird's neck with startling clarity. Every few staggered steps the bird made, it would stop and cock its head. When it did this I could see its hazel eyes and the thin, membranous film that covered them when it blinked. It was as though those few moments lasted minutes, not seconds. To describe it, I would say it was dream-like, fuzzy, but all my senses magnified.
I was always brought up to respect and love animals. My mother adored her sheep and chickens like they were her own children. She had a vicious Persian cat called “Prince” and she treated him like… well, the name speaks volumes.
As the pigeon continued to clumsily strut around on the bonnet, I found myself removing the lid to my tin of pellets. A sudden rush of excitement I'd never felt before swept over me, and I slowly loaded my rifle. As I took aim at the bird, my bladder felt like it had been replaced with a lump of ice. I had never killed a living thing before, and with my finger on the trigger, I chastised myself, too scared to squeeze. Would Al Capone or Pacino have been too chicken to shoot? My heart was pounding, and although it was still chilly, my mouth was dry and my tongue felt like it had swelled. Eventually, I grimaced and pulled the trigger.
I wasn't expecting the loud whip crack that followed as the pellet hit the pigeon's breast. It seemed too loud. The bird squawked and fell out of site. I clambered down from my hideout and watched in horror as the pigeon flapped around, dispersing its feathers in a blurred maelstrom of white and grey. I had only winged it and in sheer panic I reloaded.
The bird continued to flail its one good wing, and it held its beak permanently open as if asking me, why? For a second time I raised my rifle; my arms were shaking, and as I closed one eye to aim, I spotted my mother heading back from the chicken coop after giving them their morning feed. She waved and called out to me, something about lunch if my memory serves me correct. I waved back and reluctantly left the pigeon as I intercepted her to the house, constantly looking back over my shoulder.
During lunch I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd done; what my mother would've said if she'd known what cruelty I was capable of. I couldn't touch my cheese and pickle doorstep sandwiches. I was truly upset about injuring a defenceless animal, and as a result I felt strongly disheartened. A true gangster wouldn't even batter an eyelid at killing a human, let alone a dumb bird. I half expected that pigeon to make its way across our yard and into the kitchen, trailing a line of bloody feathers behind it.
Of course, it didn't, and after I was excused, I grabbed my fishing rod and ran back to my hideout, desperate to find the pigeon and hide the evidence. I had morbid visions of throwing it out to the middle of our lake, an idea no doubt inspired by something I had read in one of my books.
The pigeon wasn't there. I scanned the area, and after about twenty minutes of frantic searching, I gave up and headed down to the lake.
I spent the rest of the day fishing amongst the lilies for tench, and as evening approached, greeting the afternoon with long shadows and a chilly breeze, I had forgotten all about that pigeon; there was only one thing on my mind as I packed up and made my way back to the house.
I sat at the kitchen table during dinner, watching the local evening news with my father. As I'd expected - and hoped - the police hadn't uncovered any smuggled diamonds. My father and I tried to come up with theories explaining Mickey's apparent magic. He told me he once read a story where a rare diamond was hidden in an ice-tray. I loved the idea but knew the police wouldn't have fallen for such a trick. My mother chastised him, explaining that it would put the wrong kind of ideas into my head.
Whilst I helped my mother with the washing up, my father said he would pick up the evening edition of the Standard on his way to the local pub so I could cut out the Garrison article for my scrapbook. I went to bed that evening fantasizing about diamonds and guns, gangsters and magic, and I didn't once think about that pigeon.
As usual I was first up in the morning, and the only thought to enter my head was the news article I'd wanted to cut out and read, hoping there was a little more information disclosed than the news had released the night before. I headed down to the kitchen and noticed the Standard sitting on the table. Prince was being unusually vocal, and as I headed across the kitchen to investigate, I eventually discovered something that left me with the familiar feeling of pressure in my guts. An abundance of feathers were scattered across the floor, and Prince batted at a small pile that was sitting next to the back door; it was as though he was trying to make them jump and come back to life. I shooed him away and he replied with a hiss, reluctant to give up his kill. When I got within arms reach of the pile of feathers, I realised in horror that it was the remains of a pigeon. It all came flooding back to me, and although it just looked like Prince had killed it and dragged it in, I panicked, thinking that it would somehow get back to me and my rifle.
I stared at the small lump buried in feathers with my heart in my mouth, and as I contemplated my next move, I heard a toilet flush upstairs. This usually meant my mother was up, and she had no doubt heard her precious Prince whining. Without hesitating, I gathered up all the feathers and shoved them deep into the bin. Prince batted at my legs, trying to get at the bird. With the kitchen clear, I grabbed the pigeon and ran out into the yard. Prince ran ahead, his tail held high. I didn't stop until I had reached the lake. I drew the pigeon back and was about to launch it when I noticed something and paused. Prince jumped up at my legs as if realising his kill was about to disappear forever. I placed the bird on its back amongst the bracken ferns. Wrapped around one of its legs was a metal ring, and attached to the other, a black, plastic tube. Being a country boy I knew at once I'd killed a racing pigeon. The plastic tube I assumed was some sort of transmitter if the bird were to fly off course or get lost. Engraved on the ring was the following:
Realizing the owner had given it a pet name only left me feeling all the more guilty, and a thought flashed through my mind: what if they were tracking it down right now? What if they found it and discovered the lead pellet embedded in its chest? I pulled at the black tube until it came free from the bird's leg, and then, much to Prince's disgust, I lobbed the pigeon into the middle of the lake. I watched until there were only a few feathers left, dancing in small circles on the surface to the gentle breeze.
The tube had a screw cap, and I twisted, trying to remove and destroy the innards. The cap came off with little effort and I held out my hand to receive whatever electronics I thought were hidden inside.
What actually happened when I upended the tube initially left me speechless, and after realising I needed to take a breath, I gasped, incredulous. Seven shiny stones fell into my open palm. Two were the size of garden peas, whilst the rest were half that size. They sparkled as the sun reflected off the many surfaces, and as I stared, lost in the rainbow colours that perpetually flickered and changed inside, I realised what they were; whose they were.
Standing there by the lakeside, Prince giving a final whine of disdain, I, Justin Satchel had uncovered the secret behind Mickey “The Magician” Garrison's magic. The idea behind his simplistic escape plan was so ingenious that I had an enormous urge to shout, to run back to the house and tell my father.
I made it half way back before stopping. With my hands on my knees, panting for breath, part of me told me to keep the stones whilst I pondered on what to do with them. What if I'd turned them over to the police? I could've been famous, actually appeared in the papers myself. That thought crossed my mind the most, but I didn't want to grass on “The Magician”; that's just not what the bad guys did; they didn't grass, they sorted a problem out between themselves.
I stuffed the diamonds deep into the pocket of my rifle case. I pulled them out every day and always wondered if “The Magician” was still waiting on the roof, peering through his binoculars for his number two bird to come home. If Dazzler was number two, how many did he own altogether? How many diamonds were actually sky-born that morning? Did he have someone else in on his plan, someone who received the birds and diamonds for him? I guess I'll never know. What I do know, however, is why Mickey always lived on the top floor.
There were some months that went by when I completely forgot about those diamonds, especially when I started dating some of the girls in the village and got a part-time job working in the newsagent's. But as soon as I read a crime article or watched a gangster film with my father, those shiny stones glimmered somewhere in the back of mind, always reminding me of their presence. The urge to tell my father was immense, and keeping quiet was probably the hardest part. I would throw him sideways glances when we were sitting in front of the TV, and I would imagine what he would say if I presented him with the diamonds and explained how I came by them.
Garrison died during my second year at college. It wasn't from a gunshot or from the slash of a blade like a true gangster. Plain and simple liver cancer took him. I was nineteen and studied in London. I had to catch a bus from town to a train station in Croydon, and it passed Mickey's block of flats on the main road in. I would always look up to the roof, hoping to catch a glimpse of him with his binoculars, perhaps still waiting for Dazzler to come back.
I never did.
I'm going to have to stop writing soon. I don't know if the light – or lack of – is playing tricks on me, but I swear the isotope on my float just dipped. I think the fish have finally started feeding; it's about time. It would be a shame if I had to leave this lake without a catch and give it a bad review, especially since it evoked this story and so many of my childhood memories.
I hear you ask: But what did you do with the diamonds?
Well, let me put it this way: I did what you probably would have done with them.
Not a complete enough closure for you?
Okay then, I'll also go on to say that when I leave this lake and finish the review, I will dig out my “crime investigation book”; I know I have it somewhere, and when I thumb through the pages, I'll know and remember one thing: I'll always be the bad guy.
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