Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Ciggarrette runs to Europe and secret smuggling techniques

Around a week after moving in, the flat was slowly starting to come together. Despite much friction, bullshit arguments and general antagonism between me, my brother and father, it had gradually been cleaned and brightened up, and looked and felt much more habitable.

Just watching TV, listening to music or reading seemed so much more pleasurable in a sedate, settled environment. Especially since my mate Leigh had given me his mum's old leather couch, which was still in excellent condition, as well as some jazzy cushions. A nice touch.

I was adjusting several framed prints in the living room, trying to get them to hang straight, when there was a rapid, nervous-sounding knock at the flat door. It sounded like a policeman's knock - official, sharp and commanding. Not casual enough for my liking......

I slowly stepped over and opened the door. There was no-one there. I could hear footsteps tramping away, and poked my head out into the corridor, to just catch sight of Col. He saw me, and spun around, heading back towards me.

'Alright, Eric lad? Yer OK there lad?' He bounded to my door, shaking my hand frenetically.

He then dropped a plastic carrier bag he was holding to the floor, dipping into it and producing a stack of beat-up old DVD's. He grinned as he pushed them into my hands.

'Eh, Eric lad, some boss films there for yer lad. Got them from Cash Converters on London Road. Spot on lad, good action and that. Lend them lad, lend them'

I glanced at the top DVD in the stack, teetering in my hand. "Bloodsport" starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. I'd seen it when I was about 14. Even with my adolescent mind back then, I thought it was a load of shite. But I didn't have the heart to tell Col about it.

'Yeah, right...Thanks, Col....You wanna come inside for a bit? Chill out? Cup of tea or something?'

'Yeah lad, spot on lad, spot on....'

He traipsed into my living room, eyes open wide, mouth hanging loose, gawping at my bookshelf crammed with DVD's, CD's, novels, magazines and comic books. He slipped off a battered backpack from his right shoulder and slumped noisily onto my couch, clearly impressed with my new home.

'Sound in 'ere, innit Eric, lad? Really smart gaffe like....Where'd yer get all them DVD's and books from lad?'

'Oh, I've been collecting them for years, on and off you know'.

'Sound lad, sound......Who's that on that picture there, lad?' Col pointed to the abstract print on the living room wall, still hanging on a wonky angle.

'John Lyndon, Sex Pistols...I got it from the 99p shop in town' I replied as I corrected it.

'Johnny Rotten eh? Mad him, isn't he lad?' Col reached into his backpack and pulled out can of Skol Super lager, enthusiastically thrusting it towards me.

'Wanna can, Eric lad?'

I hadn't had a drink since I'd moved in, and it was a great gesture. A kind of impromptu flat-warming. But the fact it was Skol Super fair turned my stomach.

'No, no thanks Col. I'm just gonna have a cup of tea, that's all mate'

'No problems, lad, no problems'

I flicked on the TV set and hovered by the kitchen door.

It was at this time, as Col cracked open his can of lager and guzzled it noisily, whilst rolling a cigarette with his free hand, that I had a chance to properly study him up close.

It's hard to describe in words alone the strange aura he seemed to emit. His body language, sweeping physical mannerisms and chameleonic facial tics were a disturbing yet exciting peek into the inner workings of his mind. He had a naive child-like innocence to him, coupled with a really old-school, worldly attitude and outlook that that fascinated me. He obviously had some mental health issues... Not that I was the most perfectly balanced individual myself of course, but I could tell a mile off that he was damaged goods. I wondered what horrors had occurred in his past to shape him into what he had become - a nervous ball of energy, hyperactive yet always somehow upbeat. I couldn't picture what he was like in the past - he just seemed to me like one of those people who had always looked and acted the same, and never aged. I wouldn't think to ask him either. I didn't want to risk upsetting him. It would probably get messy if he were to get emotional.

Besides, he seemed a nice enough person at heart. He was what he was. No bullshit pretensions, no false image. Its true to say I thought Col was a smashing person straight away.

'So you working, Eric lad?' Col babbled through a thick cloud of yellow smoke.

'Yeah, Zavvi, music store in Clayton Square. You know it?'

'Zavvi...Yeah, been there a few times. You work there long, Eric?'

'Nah, only about 3 months. Pay isn't the greatest like but all the staff are cool and it's a pretty fun place to work'

Col took another blast from his can, savouring the taste with a lick of his quivering lips.

'So...What's it like for a graft in there, lad?'

I hesitated for a moment before I answered. Col didn't strike me as the sharpest shoplifter - he looked like he'd be an inept one at best. He'd probably attract way too much attention to himself with his outlandish behaviour. I didn't want him bursting into the store like a bulldozer, making a show of me...

'Well, to be honest Col, I wouldn't risk it. There's cameras and guards all over the store...Plus, you know what it's like in town these days. Once the alarm goes up, every security guard in every store across town is locked onto you...Believe me man, it ain't worth it'

Col nodded in total agreement, his expression switching from quizzical to benevolent in the flick of an eyelid.

'Oh aye, yeah Eric lad. Yer don't wanna be stupid and and lose your job. Sounds like a spot on job you got there, though. If yer ever do a bit of grafting in there though, always make sure you get two copies of each....One to sell to Cash Convertors, and the other one to keep in yer mam's house. So it's safe in yer mam's an that lad'

'Right, yeah....Good advice that Col'

'There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, until he slowly rose from the couch and started pacing slowly around the room, peering at the bookshelf. There were so many layers to him, I needed some answers.

'So...You working yourself, Col?'

He stared straight ahead at the bookcase, not facing me as he replied, somewhat vacant and far away.

'Nah lad, on benefits. Medication and that, for me condition'

I'd half expected such a response, but it still unsettled me somewhat. Not through being judgemental, but just through the uncertainty of what his condition actually was. It wouldn't pay to ask, I thought.

Col took a deep intake of breath, turned towards me and gave an expansive, arms outstretched gesture as he looked to the ceiling, his gaze on something only he could see.

'I got plans though, Eric lad. Gonna save up me next two giros, fly over to Lanzarote, and buy shit-loads of ciggies to bring back and sell. Make a few quid from that and then do it all again the next month. I'll throw yer a few sleeves...whatcha smoke, lad?'

Was he for real? I thought you got arrested for smuggling ciggies over...I was i just behind the times? Did he know something I didn't about customs and excise procedures?

'Erm...Yeah, that sounds sweet. Lambert and Butlers, usually like, Col. But...How you gonna get them all through the airport though?'

Col wagged his finger and shot me an all-knowing smile.

'No need to worry Eric lad, I got that boxed off. Next time you go abroad, do this yerself. Just take as many cases as you can carry, right? But before you go, buy loads of wrapping paper, yer know for presents. When yer get yer ciggies, wrap them all up, right? But make sure you buy a bottle of wine and put it in the first case. Wrap that up as well, like. Oh yeah, this is important....Make sure you put a Birthday card in the first case with the wine as well. Write it out to yer mam....'

'What a birthday card for me mam? Why?'

He grew more and more animated as he continued, the contents of his can sloshing loudly about as he virtually acted out his plan.

'Cos what is is lad, there's a loophole in the law. If the customs fella stops yer at the checkpoint, He can't open any of the wrapped boxes'

'Really? Why not?'

'Cos they're presents, Presents for yer mam!! Heeheeheeheehee!'

I burst into laughter along with him, but I realised he was serious. The laughter was because he must have thought he'd worked out a genius criminal subterfuge that would pass off without being noticed. I didn't mention x-ray machines or sniffer dogs. I didn't want to destroy his grand vision. Besides, he seemed insane enough to believe his own fantasy.

'Yeah that's a tight plan that Col. Hope you can pull it off'

'It'll be sound Eric, lad...We'll make a fortune lad, just you see...' His gaze went from me to the window, as if he he was picturing the riches he would amass and how he would blow them. He smiled to himself and slowly nodded.

The cheap digital alarm clock on the wall beeped loudly as it hit 5:00pm, snapping Col out of his fantasy. He immediately reached for his bag, pulling it over his shoulder hurriedly. It was like he was expected elsewhere, such was the frantic speed with which he made to leave.

'Say, you alright Col? Getting off?'

'Yeah, Eric lad, got to get to me mam's, having some supper there later. Gotta power-march up Scottie Road, lad. Keep-fit regime and that lad'

I felt almost guilty. Had I said something to offend him? Not that I could recall...

'You sure your alright? Don't wanna sit off here for a bit?'

He shook his head as he made for the door, swigging on his can.

'Nah, I'm sound Eric lad, really. Only stopped by to pass you them them lad, you'll enjoy them, honest...'

'Yeah, OK I will. Thanks for lending them to me...Take it easy, Col..'

He shot out of the flat and walked swiftly along the corridor, raising his can aloft like a football trophy as he shouted back to me.


He vanished around the corner, leaving me standing in the corridor. It was as if he hadn't really even been there, like he was a ghost, an apparition. Despite talking at length with him, I didn't really feel I knew him any better....

I stepped back inside, closing the door behind me, and retreated to the couch, rubbing my head as I tried to make sense of it all.