Today I present for your consideration another short story from last month. The inspiration came from a bit of graffiti I noticed one day on my walk home from work. I am a fan of graffiti, but I’ve got no idea what the deal is with this particular tag. You see it all the time around Edinburgh, though.
I can see the concentration in his shoulders as he marks the last letter of his tag on the door. He’s using silver marker pen to painstakingly write each letter, S-I-N-E.
In broad daylight. Near a busy train station.
Something tells me he’s not a seasoned pro.
I nearly walk away and leave him to it, but suddenly he turns and sees me, which means I probably ought to act.
He freezes, a rabbit dazzled by the fluorescent yellow headlights of my vest. There’s a white scarf pulled up over his nose, so the only visible part of his face is the wide, surprised eyes.
He looks as if he’s about to run, but for some reason thinks better of it.
“Alright pal,” I say reluctantly, “and whit would your faither dae if he caught you at this?”
In my mind I’m cringing, my voice sounds fake after years of being telt tae speak right. This kid is going to laugh at me, or stab me, or something. That’s what youngsters are like these days, you read about it in the papers all the time.
The youth relaxes, which isn’t quite the reaction I was hoping for but I’ll take it over being chibbed.
“He wouldnae care,” comes the reply, nonchalant but strangely unconvincing.
“Ah, would he no?”
My brain is reaching for something clever to say and coming up short. And then it hits me, the perfect riposte:
“Aye he wid.”
Fucksake, my inner monologue shakes its head despairingly.
“Nah mate,” the youth is looking at his feet, “he’s deid.”
“Your mum then.”
“In the jail.”
“So who looks aifter ye?”
The boy shrugs.
This changes everything.
“You need tae come wi me,” I inform him, knocking my pager into action to alert the others as to where I am.
I move towards him and he steps back, bumping into the door he’s just defaced. His eyes dart wildly back and forth, looking for an escape route, but I’m not worried about him making a run for it. All I need to do is get close enough to touch his arm, and he’s ours.
All alone in the world, is it? Perfect.
“You can’t do anything to me,” he says, although he doesn’t sound totally sure about this, “you’re no even polis.”
“Never said I was,” I point out calmly, placing a hand on his shoulder. His eyes roll back in his skull and he crumples to the ground, limp as a rag doll.
I glance around for witnesses but as usual the street is empty. Nobody would choose to walk along this way for fun, it’s very much the type of road you use as a means to an end.
It’s only a couple of minutes before Jake appears to help.
He’s the newest recruit – or he was till today – only a little bit older than our graffiti artist and the gangliest person I’ve ever met. We had to send away to get longer trousers for Jake’s ungainly legs, and the fluorescent uniform vest sits on him like a crop top.
“Alright,” he says, gazing at the unconscious body through a thick curtain of hair, “who’s this?”
He doesn’t express surprise at this, merely nods and picks up our cargo under the arms.
We carry the lad the few hundred feet to our portakabin office in silence and bundle him inside. Jake props him up on a chair and de-scarves him, whilst I busy myself looking out pieces of uniform that will fit.
“Kenny,” he says, “c’mere a minute.”
Most of the others would tut at this, but I think you should be nice to the newbies. It isn’t really their choice to be here, after all. I put down the box of sensible walking shoes and turn to see what he wants.
Jake is gazing at the face of the new boy, except that now it’s uncovered, it would appear that in actual fact we’ve got ourselves a new girl. She was so bundled up it was impossible to tell.
“Oh,” I say.
“Yeah.” Jake is nothing if not diplomatic.
There aren’t any women on our team, but neither of us actually knows if this is policy or coincidence. I think the most likely explanation is just that when we come across people to turn, they’re usually young lads that are up to no good. When girls are up to no good they do it in gangs, which makes it impossible to steal them.
“Well she’s here now,” I say, pulling out the smallest of the white shirts I can find (which is still going to be enormous on her but there’s not much we can do at this point). Jake helps me to get her changed, which we do as quickly and silently, as possible; and we check her for ID so we can get her console registered.
She doesn’t have anything on her.
“What shall we name her?” I ask. It seems like a nice idea to let Jake come up with an identity, it’ll make him feel more like part of the team.
Not that I feel a part of the team. When they set off in the morning they all walk really slowly and make me go just ahead so that by the bottom of the street I’m totally on my own. Part of me is really just hoping that if I’m nice to him, Jake will be my friend, and maybe I’ll get to talk to him sometimes when we walk down the road.
Not that I have anything that interesting to say. You don’t get out much in our line of work – it’s the recruitment technique that does it.
“How about Tallulah?” says Jake, unexpectedly.
I thought he’d come up with something a bit more normal, like Karen. Shows what a good judge of character I am, doesn’t it.
“OK,” I nod, typing it in. People are going to double take when they see they’ve been ticketed by Tallulah, it’s the sort of name that might make them wonder if they’re being filmed by a secret camera show. A bit too glamorous for someone in our line of work.
“That’s her set up now.”
We look at each other, and at Tallulah’s sleeping face.
“Now what do we do?” Jake asks. It is his first time, after all.
“Get back to work,” I explain, “she won’t be ready to start till tomorrow so we just leave her here for the moment to rest.”
“What happens when she wakes up?”
“We give her some coffee and show her the ropes. Just like Brian and Larry did with you.”
“They didn’t give me coffee,” Jake informs me. “I don’t think they showed me the ropes, either, not really. They said I could watch them work as long as I stayed far enough away that people didn’t think we were all together.”
“That figures,” I say. I probably don’t need to work too hard to get Jake to be pals with me, then. He’s in the same boat as I am.
“What if someone recognises her?” he asks.
“They won’t,” I say with certainty, “nobody ever looks us in the eye. They’re frightened it’ll jinx them.”
He nods, he already knew this, but it’s a shame to think that Tallulah might have had friends somewhere who will never find out what happened to her. Still, at least she will be fulfilling a useful public service now, instead of defacing other people’s property.
Even though she’ll be more unpopular than she ever has been before – being a young tearaway with a marker pen ain’t got nothing on us.
That is just the Traffic Warden’s lot.