Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Master Criminal

As a small boy I used to attend St George’s Primary school in Shrewsbury.  The building itself has long since been converted into housing, and the playground where I used to play football and British Bulldog has been built over too.  You can still just about see the separate Boys’ and Girls’ entrances written into the brickwork, although that peculiar Victorian approach to education, in which the two sexes should be kept apart in order to concentrate young minds on learning, had been dispensed with years before I arrived in my barathea blazer and regulation grey short trousers.

Next to the school was a petrol station containing a small shop selling sweets, handy for those of us with a bit of pocket money to pop in on the way to lessons to stock up on goodies.  Penny Arrows, Black Jacks and Fruit Salads as well as the usual range of chocolate bars were available for any short-trousered man about town with ready cash in his pocket.

Sadly, money was not always in plentiful supply, even when opting to save on bus fare by walking home.  The emptiness of my pockets combined with a craving to feed my sugar addiction eventually led me into temptation, that very thing about which we were made to pray twice daily to Our Father Who Art In Heaven.  You would hope that reciting the Lord’s Prayer ten times in the course of a school week would provide some moral protection to a nine year old, but it didn’t, not nearly enough.

I wasn’t the first of the gang to dip a furtive hand into the sweet rack, but there’s no denying I quickly became bloody good at nicking stuff, even making allowances for the lack of CCTV in those days.  A selection of like minded desperados and I would walk in, and while one or two made legitimate purchases to divert the attention of the man behind the till, others would fill their pockets with as much bounty (and indeed Bounty) as possible.  In and out, as quick as you like.

We got away with it for a couple of weeks, but inevitably it all ended in tears.  Some wide boy was just a little too flash in the playground, giving it large with the Opal Fruits and Sherbet Fountains, no doubt trying to impress his moll.  Word got out to the teachers, and before long an investigation began.  We were called to the Head Teacher’s office and very soon cracked under interrogation.

Two things worried me most: first that my parents would be informed, and second that the punishment would be of a violent nature.  The Deputy Head was the school’s chief enforcer and he preferred to use ‘the slipper’.  The Head resorted to the ultimate deterrent only rarely, but his approach was more orthodox, preferring as he did the sort of cane which would feature in ‘The Beano’ (where a bit of violence never seemed to stop Dennis and Minnie getting up to their tricks).  The slipper could hurt but in truth it was administered very lightly.  The cane, which I had so far managed to avoid, promised to sting like the mother of all bees and leave marks that would have to be explained at home.

As it happens, the Head chose not to beat us, and nor amazingly were our parents informed.  Instead he compiled a list of what we admitted to having pinched, which he would hand over with a sufficient sum of money to the proprietor of the petrol station after school the next day.  We in turn were to bring along the necessary cash to make reparations.

My remorse however was not so complete as to prevent me from taking advantage of what was plain enough to a master criminal like me, namely that nobody had a clue who had stolen what.  With an expression of sincere contrition on my face, I brazenly claimed to have taken nothing more than a packet of Wrigley’s ‘Juicy Fruit’, for which I handed over sixpence from my bus fare there and then.  With one bare faced lie to the single most powerful man I knew, I had discharged all my responsibilities and simultaneously avoided having to ask my parents for the sort of money needed to meet the true extent of my Artful Dodgery.

Later that afternoon I walked home taking care to avoid so much as glancing at the crime scene.  I accepted the adventure as a warning that, while crime might pay a little bit, getting caught sure as hell makes you want to wet your pants; it was time for this Milky Bar Kid to go straight.

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