Yet you find people looking back through rose-tinted spectacles and telling you that they were the ‘good old days.’ Days when you could leave your pints of milk on your doorstop and no-one would touch them. That’s as maybe, but you’d still hear about kids going missing on their way to school. For me, childhood was a brutal time, full of bare light bulbs and angry black shadows. And I learnt from very early on that if I wanted something, I had to fight my corner or else I’d end up with nothing.
One of my earliest recollections of getting fucked over was when the Queen came to visit. The council came round to our flats and repainted all the doors and windows, then laid down turf over what was then not much more than a bomb-site. We didn’t recognise the place, so when Her Royal Highness actually turned up, we all ran out to wave flags and cheer her on. The toffee nosed bint only stayed five minutes, and never looked at any of us once. Then, the day after she left, the council came back and took up all the turf. I made up my mind there and then that if anyone ever took anything away from me ever again, I’d exact revenge tenfold.
It was about this time that I started to take pride in my appearance. I decided it was all about looking sharp. A philosophy I carried through my teenage years and made me the man I am today. And I’m still as fucking sharp as a cut-throat, even if I do say so myself. You’ve got to be, in my game. Ain’t nothing more off-putting than a scruffy gangster. You stroll about like a tramp, you ain’t going to get even a sniff of any sensible graft. Besides, sharp clothes enhance a man’s reputation, I always say. But it’s got to be dream tackle. You won’t catch this hombre dead in any shopping mall gutter schmutter. I’m strictly South Moulton Street, baby.
So, after giving my reflection the once over in the window of a feng shui shop recently gone bust and patting down the gun bulge in my jacket, I straighten my shoulders and stroll into Tipples, a yuppified boozer on the Mile End Road that’s owned by a very good pal of mine, Tiger Teeny. Tiger was a British middleweight boxing champion back in the 1950s as well as being an enforcer for the Kray Twins who, it so happens, were born less than five minutes’ walk from the bar.
The place is empty when I arrive. It’s only just past noon, but the stink of last night’s booze and fags binge lingers in the air, and I’m pleased I never had a full breakfast or I might have had trouble keeping it down. After nodding my arrival to a peroxide barmaid who’s seen better days, I make my way up two flights of polished wooden stairs and into a private function room where I catch sight of the man I’ve come to meet, Freddie Cannon. He’s slumped alone at a table looking older than hell and fiddling nervously with a half drunk glass of sweetened orange juice.
Freddie’s a very well connected wide-boy who made his money in the topsoil game before moving into ringing and pinging prestige motors and podgering the granny out of ex-page three birds on his luxury yacht down in Marbella. His younger brother, Terry, has just been stabbed to death. Twenty-one years old. Crying shame.
The kid was a bit player in the West End; flash but harmless. Seems he’d been having a quiet after-hours booze in the Kit-Kat club in Dean Street and got a little bit bolshie with someone over some bollocks on the stairs. Insults were exchanged. The other bloke pulled a blade, plunged Terry four of five times then took off into the night. Terry staggered out to his Jag meaning to get himself sorted out, but being terrified of needles, he got confused and couldn’t bring himself to make the drive to the hospital. Ended up bleeding slowly to death during the night on the front seat of his motor. And while his brother Freddie ain’t heavy in himself, he can’t hold his hands up to save his life, he’s got plenty of dough, and he’s well in with people like me, which still makes him a very dangerous kettle of fish.
‘Sorry about your brother, Freddie.’ I say, shaking his hand and taking a seat opposite.
‘Buried him yesterday, Billy. Did you know him?’
‘Harmless he was, wouldn’t harm a fly. Never, ever, carried a tool.’
‘Fucking terrible, Freddie. I mean, you can understand someone carrying a blade when there’s work to be done, but only slags carry them on a night out.’
‘Make you right, Billy. Any word on the cunt who done it?’
‘Maltese Tony Falcone.’
‘Never heard of him. What’s he like?’
‘Say no more. Fucking slag. I’ve had the Old Bill round non-stop, driving me fucking mad they are. Course, I won’t talk to them. What’s the strength of this moosh, Billy?’
‘Absolute fucking mug, no disrespect to your brother. Got a bit of a reputation for cutting people, though. Hangs around King’s Cross picking up runaways, gets them on the brown, then on the game. Proper fucking lowlife. Shouldn’t think too many people would shed a tear if he cops one in the canister. I can set him up like water. He’s on the pinball machines every night in Soho. It’d be a piece of piss.’
‘My hands are tied Billy. As you know, killing ain’t my game, and me two cousins, Jerry and Georgie, have just been weighed off with twenties. Plus, the missus’s film career’s just taking back off. If I was to even pick me hooter in public, it’ll be all over the fucking papers the next day.’
‘You want me to sub it out?’
‘Long’un. I only want proper people on it, Billy. No fucking cowboys.’
I tell him to leave it with me. Hundred grand for a hit is proper dough. I mean, you can give can any mongrel in a mac five large to top someone. But the chances are he’ll get caught. And when he does, a dime to a dozen, he’ll scream the Old Bill shop down and get everyone else in the swindle nicked. You want proper people, you’ve got to pay the proper price.
I talk the situation over with my partner, Danny. His greed finally outweighs any reservations I might have had. Which means we’ve decided to take the job on ourselves.
Five days later, I’m easing a ringed Kawasaki through the bumper to bumper traffic of Soho’s Chinatown. Danny’s riding pillion. Slung over his shoulder is a courier bag containing a silenced .32 semiautomatic. We’re both decked out in racing leathers, with our faces hidden behind full face crash helmets. It’s a good disguise: motorcycle couriers are two a penny in this neck of the woods. We’ve picked a Saturday night for the job because Old Bill will be busy with drunken pests and pickpockets. Plus the weekend gridlock will make our getaway easier.
After hooking a right into Wardour Street, I take a quick shufty in my wing-mirrors to check we’re not being tailed, then take the first right into Old Compton Street. Two hundred yards up ahead, I catch sight of our destination, Maltese Tony’s nightly hangout: The Golden Goose amusement arcade.
My stomach tenses slightly as I ease the bike towards the pavement outside. I ain’t a novice in the hit game, but I’m still shitting bricks. It’s only natural. We’re talking big bird here: all it takes is some have a go hero or nose-ointment plod to come creeping along at the wrong time, and we’ve got to shoot our way out of the West End. And if Old Bill cops a bullet while we’re doing it, well, then we’re really fucked. They don’t release cop-killers in this country.Take Harry Roberts: blew away three pigs in 1963, and he’s been banged up ever since. Each year he tells everyone he’s getting out, and each year they knock back his parole. He’s got about ten grand saved up and thinks he’s going to come out and start again. What the mug don’t realise is that grand don’t even get you a decent secondhand motor nowadays.
In case of grief, I’m tooled up myself. It’s a small sawn-off, loaded with buckshot and stashed down the front of my jacket. I park up the bike leaving the engine idling, and check my mirrors once more. I give Danny the thumbs up. He slides off of the back seat and strides purposefully past a tribal scarred Nigerian sitting at the change counter, then disappears into the clutter and headfuck of the arcade.
I can just picture the scene. One minute, Maltese Tony’s standing there with his legs splayed wide apart, sucking hard on an unfiltered Turkish tooft as he dry humps his favourite pinball machine. The next, he don’t even know what’s hit him. His face is sliding down the plate glass of the machine, and a silenced bullet is richocheting round the inside of his skull at 900 miles an hour before exploding out of his eye-socket in a mess of sinew and busted eye-ball, spraying bone splinters and bits of brain over the flickering facia. Then there’s a split second of freeze-frame stillness, a moment when the whole world holds its breath. And then Maltese Tony slumps to the floor, an undignified heap of dead ponce, his head pissing blood all over the arcade’s monogrammed carpet. Dead as a fucking dodo. No more replays, you fucking mug.
Before I know it, Danny’s out of the arcade and back on the bike. I gun the throttle and we’re off, chucking a left into St Martin’s Lane. By the time plod gets to finish his bacon sandwich, we’ll be out of Soho and on our way back home. Danny’s definitely the man when it comes to killing. Cool as cucumber and cold as ice. Ain’t no blood running through those veins, just hatred and greed. For which, at this moment, I’m truly thankful.
We reach the safety of Canning Town without a glitch. At a pre-arranged meeting place we hook up with a trusted pal, Monksie, who’s on hand to take our guns and clobber. After sending the bike for a swim in the docks, Danny scrubs up roadside, in case of gunpowder residue. Then we put on clean clothes and go our separate ways.
That’s how easy it is to set up a hit. All you need is plenty of bottle and the right tools. It ain’t rocket science. It ain’t any kind of science. It’s just killing. It’s what we do.
Woke this morning in a stinking sweat. Had a terrible night’s sleep. Maltese Tony? Couldn’t give a toss about that mug. Mullering a maggot for money ain’t no harder than wiping shit off your shoes. He was over twenty-one, he knew the rules. And carrying on like that, he was never going to make old bones. Nah, the reason I woke up in such a state is that I’m still a prisoner of my past. The ghosts just won’t let me be. And it ain’t even like they only come when I’m asleep, they’re with me all day, every day. Very rare that I get respite: childhood guilt can be such a destructive emotion. But I have to be strong and keep moving forward. Let’s face it, faint heart never won fuck-all, let alone fair lady.
Having shitted and showered, I’m in serious need of a livener. I bang up a couple of smallish hits of charlie. Don’t want to be acting like no junkie; discreetly wired is the order of the day. Of course, I ain’t always been putting this shit up my hooter. Never took anything until a few years ago. But I need it now. Not only does it ease the pain, it also helps deaden the remorse, which is more important for me. It’s all right for Danny, he’s a psychopath; ain’t got no worries in the hurting department. But me, I feel bad about some of the people we’ve had to give it to. Not all of them, mind. Most of them are slags and I don’t give them a second thought. But when you’ve got to hurt a good man, it can be painful. For both parties. Believe me, the charlie does help.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m pulling out of my dockside apartment’s underground car park in my Porsche. Top down, stereo on full blast and John Coltrane blowing super spade madness out of his tenor horn. Ain’t been a white jazzman ever lived that was fit to lick the spit off Coltrane’s mouthpiece. I need another line. Fuck being discreetly wired.
I hit Tower Bridge. It’s empty, save for a couple of coachloads of polyestered yanks on a whistle-stop tour of London. Beefeaters then beefburgers. Don’t know why they bother. Motoring on around the Minories, I pull up outside Tubby Isaac’s world-famous jellied eel stall, at the bottom end of long demolished back-alleys where Jack did his ripping.
A man I recognise approaches from a side-street. He’s casually dressed and carrying a sports holdall. He nods at me and I nod back. He gets into the car, and we shake hands. Then I move forward past the traffic lights and pull over again. Out he gets, leaving the holdall.
For topping Maltese Tony, a hundred grand.
The scenery starts to deteriorate at the Aldgate end of Whitechapel Road. It’s changed since I was a kid. The Jews have moved to Golders Green, and the Irish have assimilated. Only the blacks have stayed behind, and they’ve grown bitter. Bloom’s, my favourite Jewish restaurant, has long since closed. It’s a Burger King now. As my best pal, Jewish Dave, said to me, ‘Jesus Christ, Billy. How fucking kosher’s that?’ As he’s always reminding me, this area used to be full of Stars of David. Now all you see is graffiti calling for Jihad.
Not that he’s absolutely one hundred per cent kosher himself. Dave’s a long-firmer. That’s to say, he’s a slippery bastard. What he does is buys up companies that ain’t worth a carrot and then rebuilds their credit by pumping his own dough through them. Then he worms his way into suppliers and wholesalers and gains their confidence to run up huge debts before pulling the rug from underneath them and then having it on his toes. But Dave’s a conman not a villain: he won’t mix it in the ring with the likes of us. In fact, apart from the fact that he walks a crooked mile, he ain’t got a bad bone in his entire body. He’s all about the bubbly and the craic. He’ll do anything to raise a laugh. His old man, who’s some top Rabbi, cut him out of his will because he’d shacked up with a shiksa from the Roman Road. So to spite him, Dave became a ‘tugger’ – that’s to say, he tied one end of a piece of elastic to the top of his corey and the other end to his right thigh, and then walked around with it tugging at his manhood for eighteen months. And when he was satisfied that the sheathing had been stretched far enough over his helmet to constitute a foreskin, he went straight round to his old man’s synagogue and waggled his newly-restored corey at him through the letter box. After catching sight of his son’s new uncut corey poking at him, Dave’s old man cast a desperate look skywards for some help from the almighty, gave out a quick, ‘Oi Vey!’ and then keeled over onto the carpet with a suspected heart attack. Priceless entertainment, that’s why I love Dave to death. In fact, I’m godfather to his kids.
Danny despises him. Firstly, because he’s a Jew. Secondly, he’s cleverer than Danny. And thirdly, his house is bigger. Come to think of it, his nose is bigger as well, but I don’t think that’s a bone of contention there.
Bethnal Green. Another khazi. Boarded up buildings and swag-shops fronted by a few manky fruit and veg stalls run by sour-faced cockneys with bulging wallets and caravans in Clacton. This has always been a poxy part of town. Swinging London? The only thing that’s ever swung round here was on the end of the hangman’s rope.
I’m now in sight of my destination: a mock Tudor two up-two down just behind Plaistow station. I keep my eyes peeled, not just for Old Bill but also for Danny’s wife, Tina. This ain’t just our safe house. It’s also where Danny keeps his moll, Shani-Pearl, shackled and under the cosh. Nearly every married East End gangster I know has a moll. Basically they’re just expensively painted fuck-pieces, whose only purpose in life is keeping house, staying schtummo and swallowing, not necessarily in that order. The only difference with Danny’s set up is that Shani-Pearl’s his first cousin. In straight terms, that means that he’s slipping a goldfish to his own flesh and blood. Personally, I don’t think that’s right, but it’s horses for courses, I suppose.
I ring the bell. It plays the opening bars of Evita before opening. Shani-Pearl’s standing there, done up to the normal nines and peering out from under the roof of a strawberry blonde beehive that reminds me of fairground candy-floss. Every day’s a bad hair day in gangsterland. ‘Hello Shani,’ I murmur, strolling straight through into the living room.
I find Danny, sitting alone in the dark as usual, staring at his reflection in a turned off large screen TV. I flop down into an oversized Chesterfield chair opposite, letting the holdall fall to my side. My mind is flicking through last night’s work.
‘How’d you sleep?’ says, Danny, making no attempt at eye-contact.
‘Not all that,’ I tell him.
‘Coffee!’ he calls out loudly. In no time at all, Shani-Pearl appears, dutifully proffering two beverages.
‘Too fucking hot,’ he growls, thrusting his cup back at her to blow on, which she does.
‘How did I sleep last night, Shani?’ he growls again.
‘Like a baby… Why?’
‘Don’t ask silly fucking questions. Now, get back in the kitchen. We’re talking business.’ She hands Danny back the cooled coffee and does as she’s told. I detest this man’s lack of manners sometimes, but while I appreciate that silence equals compliance, I never say anything. But Shani suffers it. I don’t know how, I’m fucked if I would. Probably writes the constant humiliation off against the fox fur coats and Cartier watches. Who am I to judge?
‘Easy bit of work last night or what, Billy?’ says, Danny.
‘In and out,’ I say.
‘Yeah! In the back of his head and out the fucking front.’