The 10-year old Master Criminal


Posted by in March's Magazine

It was June 1969. Late afternoon sun flooded the living room. The piano stood by the window. I plonked on it while glancing up and down the street. I was on the horns of a dilemma. Should I pinch a biscuit or make myself a jam piece? The biscuit tin was in the kitchen on top of the dresser, tricky to get to quickly, unlike the bread and jam which were on the sideboard next to the sink. But I didn’t want a jam piece I was hungry for a biscuit.

My sister Lorna was twelve, I was ten, and it was her fault I was starving. Two weeks earlier she’d bundled me into the bedroom and dragged a small blue suitcase from under her bed. “I’m running away” she said, throwing the lid of the case open to reveal a yellow plastic picnic cup and plate, a copy of Little Women, last Thursday’s Jackie and her purple cheesecloth top. “I’ve had enough of being poor!” Poor? I scowled. The Boyles at school now they were poor. They lived in a tenement in Bowling Green Street with an outside toilet that was shared with all the families on the stair – they used newspaper for toilet paper and were always in trouble with the police.

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We lived in a big house with our own toilet and had proper toilet paper and we even had a piano! But Lorna said we only lived in a big house because dad had bought it as a burnt out wreck and doing up the house while feeding nine children on a welder’s wage left very little spare money. I didn’t believe her. As for the piano, Lorna said dad had got it at the dump. That could have been true. Dad was always finding things. He once came home with an orange bath with matching sink and toilet bowl. It stayed behind the sofa for six months. Mum was understandably cross at having an orange bathroom suite in her living room but she seemed to have a soft spot for the piano.

I glanced out of the window again at the eerily quiet street and frowned. What was it to be, a biscuit or a jam piece? Pinching a biscuit was easily the worst crime. It was proper stealing because biscuits were meant for special occasions. Sneaking a jam piece was just being greedy. Mum had no time for greedy people but thieving was worse, it was dishonest, like telling lies and skipping school dinners.

Lorna would not be put off. She was going to save up her school dinner money until she could afford to leave. And she was asking me to go with her. I told her I didn’t want to run away. She said we’d have all kind of adventures and I could borrow her cheesecloth top. As soon as I agreed I knew it was a mistake. From then on, every school day instead of going to the dining hall at lunchtime we went to the post office and bought two sixpenny savings stamps. Lorna stuck the stamps in a little red savings book, which she kept hidden under her bed. I hated the sight of that book for it represented all the dinners I’d missed.

I took one last look out of the window. No one was coming. It was now or never. I hurried into the kitchen and scrambled onto the dresser, grabbing the floral biscuit tin off the top shelf. A door slammed. I froze. Someone was home. I shoved the tin back in its place jumped off the dresser and ran out of the kitchen into the living room.

Mum had her back to me. Dad’s large axe was in her hands. She hit the piano with it again and again. And again. I gasped. Splinters of wood and ivory keys flew in all directions. I suddenly felt overcome with guilt. Apart from me and Lorna skipping school dinners, I’d pinched a Toffee Cup from the sweet shop, told lies about doing my homework, spent my bus fares on chips, had a big fight with Dorothy Pretty and twice stolen a penny from mum’s purse. And that was only in the last couple of weeks. My dishonesty had obviously driven mum crazy.

Lorna said I was talking rubbish – mum had told us more than once she’d get rid of the piano if we didn’t stop plink-plonking on it – but my mind was made up. No more savings stamps. Lorna said she’d run away without me. I didn’t care. Lorna took her cheesecloth top back. She could have it. From then on I would be good. And maybe I was – for a few days anyway.

In the end Lorna didn’t run away, the moon landing happened and she became moon crazy instead. Later when I asked mum about the piano incident she laughed, it was just as Lorna said, the pair of us frenetically banging away on the keys shredded her nerves and as dad refused to get rid of it she had to take matters into her own hands.

What a relief! Mum wasn’t a psycho and I could stop feeling guilty.

Twitter: @MWheelaghan

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