Book excerpt

Pirate Cinema

Cory Doctorow

Tor/Forge

Chapter 1
 
ALONE NO MORE/THE JAMMIE DODGERS/POSH DIGS/ABSTRACTION OF ELECTRICITY
 
 
My “adventure” wasn’t much fun after that. I was smart enough to find a shelter for runaways run by a church in Shoreditch, and I checked myself in that night, lying and saying I was eighteen. I was worried that they’d send me home if I said I was sixteen. I’m pretty sure the old dear behind the counter knew that I was lying, but she didn’t seem to mind. She had a strong Yorkshire accent that managed to be stern and affectionate at the same time.
My bedfellows in the shelter—all boys, girls were kept in a separate place—ranged from terrifying to terrified. Some were proper hard men, all gangster talk about knives and beatings and that. Some were even younger looking than me, with haunted eyes and quick flinches whenever anyone spoke too loud. We slept eight to a room, in bunk beds that were barely wide enough to contain my skinny shoulders, and the next day, another old dear let me pick out some clothes and a backpack from mountains of donated stuff. The clothes were actually pretty good. Better, in fact, than the clothes I’d arrived in London wearing; Bradford was a good five years behind the bleeding edge of fashion you saw on the streets of Shoreditch, so these last-year’s castoffs were smarter than anything I’d ever owned.
They fed me a tasteless but filling breakfast of oatmeal and greasy bacon that sat in my stomach like a rock after they kicked me out into the streets. It was 8:00 A.M. and everyone was marching for the tube to go to work, or queuing up for the buses, and it seemed like I was the only one with nowhere to go. I still had about forty pounds in my pocket, but that wouldn’t go very far in the posh coffee bars of Shoreditch, where even a black coffee cost three quid. And I didn’t have a laptop anymore (every time I thought of my lost video, never to be uploaded to a YouTube, gone forever, my heart cramped up in my chest).
I watched the people streaming down into Old Street Station, clattering down the stairs, dodging the men trying to hand them free newspapers (I got one of each to read later), and stepping around the tramps who rattled their cups at them, striving to puncture the goggled, headphoned solitude and impinge upon their consciousness. They were largely unsuccessful.
I thought dismally that I would probably have to join them soon. I had never had a real job and I didn’t think the nice people with the posh film companies in Soho were looking to hire a plucky, underage video editor with a thick northern accent and someone else’s clothes on his back. How the bloody hell did all those tramps earn a living? Hundreds of people had gone by and not a one of them had given a penny, as far as I could tell.
Then, without warning, they scattered, melting into the crowds and vanishing into the streets. A moment later, a flock of Community Support Police Officers in bright yellow high-visibility vests swaggered out of each of the station’s exits, each swiveling slowly so that the cameras around their bodies got a good look at the street.
I sighed and slumped. Begging was hard enough to contemplate. But begging and being on the run from the cops all the time? It was too miserable to even think about.
The PCSOs disappeared into the distance, ducking into the Starbucks or getting on buses, and the tramps trickled back from their hidey holes. A new lad stationed himself at the bottom of the stairwell where I was standing, a huge grin plastered on his face, framed by a three-day beard that was somehow rakish instead of sad. He had a sign drawn on a large sheet of white cardboard, with several things glued or duct-taped to it: a box of Kleenex, a pump-handled hand-sanitizer, a tray of breath-mints with a little single-serving lever that dropped one into your hand. Above them was written, in big, friendly graffiti letters, FREE TISSUE/SANITIZER/MINTS—HELP THE HOMELESS—FANKS, GUV!, and next to that, a cup that rattled from all the pound coins in it.
As commuters pelted out of the station and headed for the stairs, they’d stop and read his sign, laugh, drop a pound in his cup, take a squirt of sanitizer or a Kleenex or a mint (he’d urge them to do it; it seemed they were in danger of passing by without helping themselves), laugh again, and head upstairs.
I thought I was being subtle and nearly invisible, skulking at the top of the stairwell and watching, but at the next break in the commuter traffic, he looked square at me and gave me a “Come here” gesture. Caught, I made my way to him. He stuck his hand out.
“Jem Dodger,” he said. “Gentleman of leisure and lover of fine food and laughter. Pleased to make your acquaintance, guv.” He said it in a broad, comic cockney accent and even tugged at an invisible cap brim as he said it. I laughed.
“Trent McCauley,” I said. I tried to think of something as cool as “gentleman of leisure” to add, but all I came up with was “Cinema aficionado and inveterate pirate,” which sounded a lot better in my head than it did in the London air, but he smiled back at me.
“Trent,” he said. “Saw you at the shelter last night. Let me guess. First night, yeah?”
“In the shelter? Yeah.”
“In the world, son. Forgive me for saying so, but you have the look of someone who’s just got off a bus from the arse-end of East Shitshire with a hat full of dreams, a pocketful of hope, and a head full of grape jelly. Have I got that right?”
I felt a little jet of resentment, but I had to concede the point. “Technically I’ve been here for two days,” I said. “Last night was my first night in the shelter.”
He winked. “Spent the first night wandering the glittering streets of London, didn’t ya?”
I shook my head. “You certainly seem to know a lot about me.”
“Mate,” he said, and he lost the cockney accent and came across pure north, like he’d been raised on the next estate. “I am you. I was you, anyway. A few years ago. Now I’m the Jammie Dodger, Prince of the London Byways, Count of the Canalsides, Squire of the Squat, and so on and so on.”
Another train had come in, and more people were coming out of the station. He shooed me off to one side and began his smiling come-ons to the new arrivals. A minute later, he’d collected another twelve quid and he waved me back over.
“Now, Master McCauley, you may be wondering why I called you over here.”
I found his chirpy mode of speech impossible to resist, so I went with it. “Indeed I am, Mr. Dodger. Wondering that very thing, I was.”
He nodded encouragement, pleased that I was going along with the wheeze. “Right. Well, you saw all the other sorry sods holding up signs in this station, I take it?”
I nodded.
“None of ’em is making a penny. None of ’em know how to make a penny. That’s cos most of the people who end up here get here because something awful’s gone wrong with them and they don’t have the cunning and fortitude to roll with it. Mostly, people end up holding a sign and shaking a cup because someone’s done them over terribly—raped them, beat them up, given them awful head-drugs—and they don’t have the education, skills or sanity to work out how to do any better.
“Now, me, I’m here because I am a gentleman of leisure, as I believe I have informed you already. Whatever happened in my past, I was clever and quick and tricksy enough to deal with it. So when I landed up holding a sign in a tube station hoping for the average Londoner to open his wallet and his heart to buy me supper, I didn’t just find any old sheet of brown cardboard box, scrawl a pathetic message on it, and hope for the best.
“No. I went out and bought all different kinds of cards—bright yellow, pink, blue, plain white—and tested each one. See?” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and drew out a small, worn notebook. He opened it to the first page and stuck it under my nose. It was headed “Colors: (HELP THE HOMELESS)” and there were two columns running its length, one listing different colored cardboards, the other showing different amounts.
“Look at that, would you? See how poorly brown performs? It’s the bottom of the barrel. People just don’t want to open their wallets to a man holding a sign that looks like it was made out of an old cardboard box. You’d think they would, right? Appearance of deserving thrift an’ all? But they don’t. They like practically any color except brown. And the best one, well, it’s good old white.” He rattled his sign. “Lots of contrast, looks clean. I buy a new one every day down at the art supply shop in Shoreditch High Street. The punters like a man what takes pride in his sign.”
Another tubeload of passengers came up, and he shooed me off again, making another twentysome pounds in just a few minutes. “Now, as to wording, just have a look.” He showed me the subsequent pages of his book. Each had a different header: HOMELESS—HELP. HUNGRY—HELP. HELP THE HUNGRY. HELP THE HOMELESS. DESPERATE. DESPERATE—HELP. “What I noticed was, people really respond to a call for action. It’s not enough to say, ‘homeless, miserable, starving’ and so on. You need to cap it off with a request of some kind, so they know what you’re after. ‘Help the Homeless’ outperforms everything else I’ve tried. Simple, to the point.”
He flipped more pages, and now I was looking at charts showing all the different things he’d given away with his signboard, and the combinations he’d tried. “You gave away liverwurst?” I stared at the page.
“Well, no,” he said. “But I tried. Turns out no one wants to accept a cracker and liver-paste from a tramp in a tube station.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t a great idea. I ended up eating liverwurst for three days. But it didn’t cost me much to try and fail. If you want to double your success rate, triple your failure rate. That’s what I always say. And sometimes, you’ve just got to be crazy about it. Every time I go into a shop, I’m on the lookout for something else I can do. See this?” He held up a tiny screwdriver. “Eyeglass tightener. You wait until sunglasses season, I’m going to be minted. ‘Free DIY Spectacle Repair. Help the Homeless.’”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
He shrugged again. “I tell anyone who’ll listen, to be honest. Breaks my heart to see those poor sods going hungry. And you seemed like you were fresh off the boat, like you probably needed a little help.”
“So you think I should go make a sign like yours?”
He nodded. “Why not? But this is just a way to get a little ready cash when I need it.” He carefully rolled up the signboard, emptying his cup into his front pocket, which bulged from the serious weight of an unthinkable quantity of pound and two-pound coins. “Come on, I’ll buy you a coffee.”
He walked us past the Starbucks and up Old Street to Shoreditch High Street, then down a small alley, to a tiny espresso stand set in the doorway of an office building. The man who ran it was ancient, with arthritic, knobby fingers and knuckles like walnuts. He accepted two pound coins from Jem and set about making us two lattes, pulling the espresso shots from a tarnished machine that looked even older than he did. The espresso ran out of the basket and into the paper cup in a golden stream, and he frothed the milk with a kind of even, unconscious swirling gesture, then combined the two with a steady hand. He handed them to us, wordlessly, then shooed us off.
“Fyodor makes the best espresso in east London,” Jem said, as he brought his cup to his lips and sipped. He closed his eyes for a second, then swallowed and opened them, wiping at the foam on his lip with the back of his hand. “Had his own shop years ago, went into retirement, got bored, set up that stand. Likes to keep his hand in. Practically no one knows about him. He’s kind of a secret. So don’t go telling all your mates, all right? Once Vice gets wind of that place, it’ll be mobbed with awful Shoreditch fashion victims. I’ve seen it happen. Fyodor wouldn’t be able to take it. It’d kill him. Promise me.”
“I promise.” I was really starting to enjoy his overblown, dramatic way of speaking. “On my life I doth swear it,” I said. I didn‘t mention that the only coffee I’d ever drunk was Nescafé.
“You’re overdoing it,” he said. “You were doing okay until you got to ‘doth.’”
“Noted,” I said. Personally, I liked “doth.”
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Most of the poor bastards who end up on the street never really think it through. It’s not a surprise, really. Like I said, people usually get here as the result of some awful trauma, and once they’re on the road, it’s hard to catch your breath and get some perspective. So nothing against them, but there’s a smart way to be homeless and a dumb way. Do you want to learn about the smart way?”
I had a pang of suspicion just then. I didn’t know this person. I hadn’t even noticed him in the shelter (but then, I’d spent my time there trying not to inadvertently provoke any of the boys with eye contact, especially the ones talking about their knives and fights). Everything I knew about being homeless I’d learned from lurid Daily Mail cover stories about poor tramps and runaway kids who’d been cut up, fouled, and left in pieces in rubbish bins all over England.
One word kept going round my head: “Groomer.” Supposedly, there was an army of groomers out there, men and women and even kids who tried to get vulnerable teens (like me, I suppose) to involve themselves with some dirty, ghastly pedophile scheme. These, too, featured prominently in the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail and the Sun, and we had an annual mandatory lecture on “network safety” that was all about these characters. I didn’t really believe in them, of course. Trying to find random kids to abuse on the net made about as much sense as calling random phone numbers until you got a child of your preferred age and sex and asking if she or he wanted to come over and touch your monkey.
I’d pointed this out once in class, right after the teacher finished showing us a slide that showed that practically every kid that was abused was abused by a family member, a teacher or some other trusted adult. “Doesn’t that slide mean that we should be spending all our time worrying about you, not some stranger on the net?” I’d got a week’s detention.
But it’s one thing to be brave and sensible in class; another thing to be ever-so-smart and brave as you’re standing on a London street with less than thirty quid to your name, a runaway in a strange city with some smart-arse offering to show you the ropes.
“You’re not going to cut me up and leave me in a lot of rubbish bins all over England are you?” I said.
He shook his head. “No, too messy. I’m more the cement-block-around-the-ankles-heave-ho-into-the-Thames sort. The eels’ll skeltonize you inside of a month. I’ll take your teeth so they can’t do the dental records thing.”
“I confess that I don’t know what to say to that.”
He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t be daft, son. Look, I promise I won’t take you inside any secluded potential murder sites. This is the Jammie Dodger’s tour of London, admission free. It’s better than the Ripper tour, better than one of them blue disk walking tours, better than a pub crawl. When you’re done with the Jammie Dodger tour, you’ve got knowledge you can use. What say you, stout fellow?”
“You’re overdoing it,” I said. “You were doing okay until you got to ‘stout fellow.’”
“It’s a fair cop,” he said. “Come on.”
*   *   *
Our first stop was a Waitrose grocery store in the Barbican. It was a huge place, oozing poshness out into the street. Mums with high-tech push-chairs and well-preserved oldies cruised in and out, along with the occasional sharp-dressed man in a suit. Jem led me through the front door and told me to get a shopping cart. I did, noting that it had a working checkout screen on it—all the ones back home were perpetually broken.
As I pushed it over to him in the produce section, one of the security guards—cheap suit, bad hair, conspicuous earphone—detached himself from the wall and drifted over to us. He hung back short of actually approaching us, but made no secret of the fact that he was watching us. Jem didn’t seem to mind. He walked us straight into the fruit section, where there were ranks of carefully groomed berries and succulent delights from around the world, the packages cleverly displaying each to its best effect. I’d never seen fruit like this: it was like hyper-fruit, like the fruit from films. The carton of blackberries didn’t have a single squashed or otherwise odd-shaped one. The strawberries were so perfect they looked like they’d been cast from PVC.
Jem picked up one of each and waved it at the cart so that one of its thousands of optical sensors could identify it and add the total to a screen set into the handle. I boggled. The strawberries alone cost twelve pounds! The handle suggested some clotted cream and buns to go with them. It offered to e-mail me a recipe for strawberry shortcake. I merely goggled at the price. Jem didn’t mind. He gaily capered through the store, getting some rare pig-gall-bladder pâte (“An English Heritage Offal Classic”) for fifteen pounds; a Meltingly Lovely Chocolate Fondant (twelve pounds for a bare mouthful); hunnerwurst-style tofu wieners (six pounds); Swiss Luxury Bircher Museli (twenty-two pounds! For a tiny bag of breakfast cereal!). The screen between my hands on the handle stood at over two hundred pounds before he drew up short, a dramatic and pensive finger on his chin.
I had a sinking feeling. He was going to steal something. I knew that he was going to steal something. Of course he was going to steal something—everyone knew it. The other shoppers knew it. The security guard certainly knew it. There were hundreds of cameras on the shopping cart to make it easier to scan your groceries, each one no larger than a match-head. I didn’t care how experienced and sophisticated this guy was, he was about to get us both arrested.
But then he patted down his pockets, then said, in a showy voice, “Dearie me, forgot my wallet.” He took the cart out of my hands and wheeled it to the security guard. “Take this, would you, mate?”
And then he left so quickly I almost didn’t catch up with him. He was giggling maniacally. I grabbed his shoulder. “What the hell was that all about?” I said.
He shook my hand off. “Easy there, old son. Watch and learn.” He led me around the back of the shop, where two big skips—what they called “Dumpsters” in American films—sat, covered in safety warnings and looking slightly scary. Without pausing, Jem flipped up the lid of the first one. He peered inside. A funky, slightly off smell wafted to me, like the crisper drawer of a fridge where a cucumber’s been forgot for too long.
“Here we go,” he said. “Go get us some of those boxes, yeah?” There were stacks of flattened cardboard boxes beside the skips. I brought a bale over to him and he wrestled them free of the steel strap that tied them tight. “Assemble a couple of them,” he said.
I did as bade, and he began to hand me out neatly wrapped food packages, a near item-for-item repeat of the stuff we’d found in the store. Some of it had a little moisture on it or something slimy, but that was all on the wrapping, not on the food.
“Why is all this in the bin?” I asked as I packed it into the box.
“All past the sell-by date,” he said.
“You mean it’s spoiled?” I’d filled an entire box and was working on another one. I gagged a little at the thought of eating rotting food from the garbage, and I was pretty sure that was what Jem had in mind.
“Naw,” he said, his voice echoing weirdly off the steel walls of the skip. “The manufacturers print sell-by dates on the packages because they don’t want to get sued if someone eats bad food, so they’re very conservative. And of course no one will buy anything that’s past its sell-by date at a store. But if you think about it logically, there’s no magic event that happens at midnight on sell-by day that makes the cheese go off.” He handed me a neatly wrapped package of presliced Jarlsberg cheese. “I mean, cheese is basically spoiled milk already. Yogurt, too!”
He moved on to the next skip, carefully closing the lid. “Ooh!” he said, and handed me a case of gourmet chocolate bars, still sealed. One side of it had been squashed. “Probably fell off the stock-shelf or got squished in shipping. Those are bloody good, too—I like the ones with chili in.”
“Ooh,” he said again. “Bring me boxes, will you? More boxes.” I went and wrestled another set of cardboard flats off the pile and slipped them out of their band. Jem vaulted the skip’s edge and held a hand out. I gave him a box, listened to the sound of things being moved about inside. Then his hand came out again, and I passed him another box. Then another. “Come see,” he said, and I stood on tiptoe to peer over the edge.
Jem had used the boxes to make a sort of corridor through the food and other rubbish, like a miner’s tunnel, and he was turning over the skip’s contents, and he was building a tower of tins in one corner of it. “I was hoping for this,” he said. “Oh, yes.” He stacked more tins. I peered at the labels. GOURMET COCONUT MILK, the nearest one read. REINDEER MEAT, another read. FILIPINO SARDINES. REFRIED BEANS.
“What’s all that?”
“That,” he said, “is the remains of Global Tradewinds, Ltd. They used to tin the best gourmet delicacies from around the world and sell ’em here. But they went bust last month and all the Waitroses have been taking them off the shelves. I knew I’d find a skip full of their stuff if I waited long enough!” He rubbed his hands together.
“We’re not going to carry all that stuff out of here?” I said. There were dozens of tins.
“We certainly are,” he said. “Christ, mate, you can’t seriously think that I’d let this haul go to waste? It’d be a sin. Come on, more boxes.” He snapped his fingers.
Shaking my head, I went and got more boxes. He tossed me a roll of packing tape. “Tape up the bottoms—they’re not going to hold together just from folding, not with all this weight.”
“Where the hell are you going to keep all this junk?” I said. When I’d started boxing up food, I had a vision of feasting on it, maybe putting the rest in my backpack for a day or two. But this was a month’s worth of food, easy.
“Oh, we’re not going to keep it, no fear.”
In the end, there were eight big boxes full of food, which was about six more than we could easily carry.
“No worries,” he said. “Just form a bucket brigade.” Which is exactly what we did. I piled up seven boxes and Jem took one down to the end of the block. I picked up another box and walked toward him while he walked back to me. When we met, I gave him the box and he turned on his heel and walked back to the far end, stacking the box on top of the one he’d just put down. Meanwhile, I’d turned round and gone back to my pile, scooping another box. It was a very efficient way of doing things, since neither of us were ever sitting around idle, waiting for the other.
I worried briefly about someone stealing one of the boxes off the piles while they were unattended, but then I realized how stupid that was. These were boxes of rubbish, after all. We’d got them for free out of a skip. We could always find another skip if we needed to.
We moved the boxes one entire block in just a few minutes and regrouped. I was a bit winded and sweaty. Jem grinned and windmilled his arms. “Better than joining a gym,” he said. “Only ten more roads that way!”
I groaned. “Where are we taking these bloody things?”
He was already moving, hauling another box down the pavement. “Back to the station,” he called over his shoulder.
*   *   *
When we got to Old Street Station, he straightaway went up to two of the tramps, an elderly couple wearing heavy coats (too heavy for the weather) and guarding bundle-buggies full of junk and clothes. They didn’t smell very good, but then again, neither did I at that point, ’cos I’d forgot to pack deodorant in my runaway go-bag.
“Morning Lucy; morning, Fred,” Jem said, dropping a box at their feet. “You all right?”
“Can’t complain,” the old lady said. When I looked closer, I saw that she wasn’t as old as all that, but she was prematurely aged, made leathery by the streets. She was missing teeth, but she still had a sunny smile. “Who’s the new boy, Jem?”
“Training up an apprentice,” he said. “This is Trent. Trent, these are my friends Lucy and Fred.” I shook their rough, old hands. Lucy’s grip was so frail it was like holding a butterfly. Fred grunted and didn’t look me in the eye. He had something wrong with him, I could see that now, that weird, inexplicable wrongness that you could sense when you were around someone who was sick in the head somehow. He didn’t seem dangerous— just a bit simple. Or shy. “Brought you some grub,” Jem said, and kicked his box.
Lucy clapped and said, “You are such a good boy, Jem.” She got down on her creaky knees and opened the box, began to carefully paw through the contents, pulling out a few tins, some of the fruit and veg. She exclaimed over a wheel of cheddar and looked up at Jem with a question in her eyes.
“Go on, go on,” he said. “Much as you like. There’s more where that came from.”
In the end, the two of them relieved us of an entire boxful of food. As they squirreled it away in their bundle-buggies, I felt something enormous and good and warm swell up in my chest. It was the feeling of having done something good. Something really, really good—helping people who needed it.
They thanked us loads and we moved on through the station.
“Do they know that the food comes from a skip?” I asked quietly.
Jem shrugged. “Probably. They never asked.”
“Haven’t you taken them to see all the stuff in the skips?”
He snorted. “Fred and Lucy are two of the broken people I was telling you about. Tried to help ’em with their signs, tried to help ’em learn how to get better food, a decent squat. But it’s like talking to a wall. Lucy spent a year in hospital before she ended up out here. Her old man really beat her badly. And Fred … Well, you could see that Fred’s not all there.” He shrugged again. “Not everyone’s able to help themselves.” He socked me in the shoulder. “Lucky thing there’s us, hey?”
We came to another tramp, this one much younger and skinny, like the drug addicts I’d seen around the bus station in Bradford. His hands shook as he picked out his tins, and he muttered to himself, but he couldn’t thank us enough and shook my hand with both of his.
One by one, we covered the station exits and the tramps at each one. Jem never tried to keep anyone from taking too much, nor did he keep back the best stuff for himself. By the time we were done, we were down to a single box of food, mostly the odd tinned foreign delicacies. These were the heaviest items in the haul, of course.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Let’s have a picnic.” We walked out of the station and down the road a little way and turned into the gates of a beautiful old cemetery.
“Bunhill,” he said. “Originally ‘Bone Hill.’ It was a plague pit, you see.” The graveyard was a good meter higher than the pavement in front of it. “Masses of people killed in the plagues, all shoveled under the dirt. Brings up the grass a treat, as you can see.” He gestured at the rolling lawns to one side of the ancient, mossy, fenced-in headstones. “Nonconformist cemetery,” he went on, leading me deeper. “Unconsecrated ground. Lots of interesting folks buried here. You got your writers: like John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. You got your philosophers, like Thomas Hardy. And some real maths geniuses, like old Thomas Bayes—” He pointed to a low, mossy tomb. “He invented a branch of statistics that got built into every spam filter, a couple hundred years after they buried him.”
He sat down on a bench. It was after midday now, and only a few people were eating lunch around us, none close enough to overhear us. “It’s a grand life as a gentleman adventurer,” he said. “Nothing to do all day but pluck choice morsels out of the bin and read the signboards the local historical society puts up in the graveyard.”
He produced a tin-opener from his coat pocket and dug through the box. “Here,” he said. “You like Mexican refried beans?”
“You mean like from Taco Bell?”
He shook his head. “Nothing at all like Taco Bell. Much better than that rubbish.” Rummaging further in his pockets, he found a small glass bottle of Tabasco sauce. He opened the beans, sprinkled the hot sauce on them, and mashed it in with a bamboo fork he extracted from a neat nylon pouch. He took out another and handed it to me. “Eat,” he said. “We’re on a culinary tour of the world!”
It wasn’t the best meal I’ve ever eaten, but it was the oddest and the most entertaining. Jem narrated the contents of each tin like the announcer on a cooking show. The stodgy breakfast gruel had finally dissolved in my stomach, leaving me starving hungry, and the unfamiliar flavors went a long way toward filling the gaps. When we were done, there were only two or three tins left, which Jem offered to me. I took a tin of bamboo shoots in freshwater and left the other two for him.
He stood and stretched his arms over his head then bent down to touch his toes, straightened, and twisted from side to side. “Right then,” he said. “Basic lessons are over. What have you learned, pupil mine?”
I stood and stretched, too. My muscles, already sore from carrying all the food, had cooled and stiffened while we ate, and I groaned as they reluctantly stretched out. “Erm,” I said. “Okay, no brown signs.” He nodded. “Don’t trust sell-by dates.” He nodded again. “Skips are good eating.” He nodded. “Well,” I said. “That’s pretty cool.”
“You’re forgetting the most important lesson,” he said. He shook his head. “And you were doing so well.”
I racked my brains. “I don’t know,” I said. “What is it?”
“You have to come up with it on your own,” he said. “Now, what are you going to do next?”
I shrugged. “I guess I’ll make a sign. I’ll find a pitch that’s not too close to you, of course. Don’t want to cut into your business.”
“I’m not bothered. But beyond that, what are you going to do? Where will you sleep tonight?”
“Back at the shelter, I suppose. Beats sleeping in a doorway.”
He nodded. “It’s better than a doorway, true. But there’s better places. Me, I’ve had my eye on a lovely pub out in Bow. All boarded up, no one’s been in for months. Looks cozy, too. Want to come have a look at it with me?”
“You’re going to break in?”
“No,” he said. “That’s illegal. Going to walk in. Front door’s off its hinges.” He tsked. “Vandals. What is this world coming to?”
“It’s not illegal to walk in?”
“Squatter’s rights, mate,” he said. “I’m going to occupy that derelict structure and beautify it, thus elevating the general timbre of the neighborhood. I’m a force for social good.”
“But will you get arrested?’
“It’s not illegal,” he said. “Don’t worry, mate. You don’t have to come, if you don’t want to. I just don’t like that shelter. It’s all right for people who can’t do any better, but I always worry that there’s someone more desperate than me who can’t get a bed ’cos I’m there.
“Plus those old pubs are just lovely—hardwood floors, brass fittings, old wainscoting. Estate agent’s dream. Just the tile on the outside is enough to break your heart.”
He stuck out his hand. “Nice to have met you, son. I expect we’ll run into each other again soon enough.”
“Wait!” I said. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t come!”
“So come, then!”
*   *   *
We caught a 55 bus from Old Street. He paid my fare, handing over a clatter of pound coins from his jingling pocket. We went upstairs to the upper deck and found a seat, right up front, by the huge picture window.
“The London channel,” he said, gesturing at the window and the streets of London whizzing past us. “In high def. Nothing like it. Love this place.”
We passed through the streets of Shoreditch and into Bow, which was a lot wilder and less rich. Mixed in among the posh shops were old family shops, bookies, seedy discount shops, and plenty of boarded-up storefronts. The people were a mix of young trendies like you’d see in Shoreditch, old people tottering down the road carrying their shopping, women in Muslim veils with kids in tow, Africans in bright colors chatting away as they walked the streets. It felt a lot more like Bradford, with all the Indians and Pakistanis, than it did like London.
We went deeper into Bow, through a few housing estates, past some tower-blocks that were taller than any apartment building I’d ever seen, some of them boarded up all the way to the sky. This was a lot less nice than the high-street we’d just passed down, proper rough. Like home. But it didn’t make me homesick.
“This is us,” Jem said, pressing the STOP REQUEST button on the pole by the seat. There was almost no one else left on the bus, and we wobbled down the steps as it braked at a bus stop where all the glass had been broken out, and recently, judging by the glittering cubes of safety glass carpeting the pavement as we got off.
We crunched over the glass and I heard a hoot—like an owl, but I was pretty sure it had come from a human throat—from off in the distance. There was an answering whistle.
“Drugs lookouts,” Jem said. “They think we might be customers. Don’t worry, they won’t bother us once they see we’re not here for sugar. Just keep walking.”
He set off across an empty lot that was littered with an old mattress, pieces of cars, shopping carts, and blowing, decomposing plastic bags. Across the lot stood a solitary brick building, three stories tall. The side facing us had a ghost staircase—the brick supports for a stairwell that once ran up that wall when it was part of the building next door. Looking around, I could see more ghosts: rectangular stone shapes set into the earth, the old foundations for a row of buildings that had once stood here. The pub—for that’s what it was—was the last building standing, the sole survivor of an entire road that had succumbed to the wrecker’s ball.
As we drew nearer, Jem stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Beautiful, innit? Wait’ll you see inside. An absolute tip, but it’ll scrub up lovely.”
We crossed to the building, and Jem entered without stopping. I followed, and my nose was assaulted with the reek of old piss and booze and smoke and shite. It was not a good smell. I gagged a bit, then switched to breathing through my mouth.
Jem, meanwhile, had shucked his backpack and dug out some paper painter’s masks. He slipped one over his head and handed the other to me. “Here,” he said, a bit muffled. “We’ll take care of the smell soon enough, no worries. But first we have to do something about this door.”
He produced a hiker’s headlamp from his bag and fitted it to his head, switching it on and sending a white beam slicing through the dusty, funky air. He shut the door with a bang, and his torch became the only source of light in the shuttered pub, save for a few chinks around the boards on the windows. I felt a moment’s fear. This is where he cuts me up and chucks me in a bin. But he didn’t show any interest in cutting me up. Instead, he was peering at the lock. He fitted a screwdriver to it and began to remove the mechanism. I could see that it was bent and broken by some ancient vandal.
“Bloody screws have rusted into place,” he muttered, dipping into his bag for a small plastic bottle with a long, thin nozzle. He dripped liquid onto the screws. “Penetrating oil,” he said. “That’ll loosen ’em up.”
“Jem,” I said, “what the hell are you doing?”
“Changing the locks. Got to establish my residency if I’m going to claim this place for my own.” He reapplied the screwdriver to the door.
“You what?” I said. “You’re going to claim this place? How do you think you’ll do that?”
“With one of these,” he said, and he handed me a folded sheet of paper. I unfolded it in the dark, then held it in the light of his torch so that I could read it.
LEGAL WARNING
Section 6 Criminal Law Act 1977
As amended by Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
TAKE NOTICE
THAT we live in this property, it is our home, and we intend to stay here.
THAT at all times there is at least one person in this property.
THAT any entry or attempt to enter into this property without our permission is a criminal offense as any one of us who is in physical possession is opposed to entry without our permission.
THAT if you attempt to enter by violence or by threatening violence we will prosecute you. You may receive a sentence of up to six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
THAT if you want to get us out you will have to issue a claim in the County Court or in the High Court, or produce to us a written statement or certificate in terms of S.12A Criminal Law Act, 1977 (as inserted by Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994).
THAT it is an offence under S.12A (8) Criminal Law Act 1977 (as amended) to knowingly make a false statement to obtain a written statement for the purposes of S.12A. A person guilty of such an offense may receive a sentence of up to six months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
Signed
The Occupiers
I tried to get my head around the note. “What the hell is this?” I said.
He grunted as he twisted the screwdriver and I heard the screw he was working on rasp and begin to turn. “What’s it look like?”
“It looks,” I said carefully, “like you’re claiming that you now own this pub.”
He finished the screw he was working on and went to work on the next one. “That’s about right,” he said. “Squatter’s rights.”
“You said that before. What’s a squatter’s right?”
“Well, you know. When buildings are left derelict, like this one, the landlord gone and no one taking care of it, it’s a, you know, a blight on the neighborhood. Attracts drug users, prostitutes, gangs. Becomes an eyesore. After World War Two there were loads of these buildings, just sitting there vacant, dragging everything around them down. So families that couldn’t afford housing just moved into them. It’s not a crime, it’s a civil violation. You can’t get arrested for it, so don’t worry about that. The worst they can do is force you to move out, and to do that, they need a court order. That can take months, if not years.”
“Sounds like you’ve done this before.” It seemed too good to be true. I had no idea what a multistory pub was worth, but it had to be hundreds of thousands of pounds. Could we really just move in and take it over?
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t sleep in shelters if I can help it. I’m between squats at the moment, but not for long. Sleeping in shelters.” He shrugged, the lighting bouncing around the room. “Well, it’s not for me, like I said.”
He had the lock off now, and he withdrew a heavy new lock from his bag, lined it up with the screw holes in the door to make sure it’d fit, then filled the holes with some kind of putty and set to screwing in his lock. “That should do it for now,” he said. “Once that liquid wood sets, that lock won’t budge. They’ll have to angle-grind it off. Later, I’ll put in a few deadbolts.”
“Jem,” I said. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m establishing a squat,” he said. “Try to keep up, will you? I’m going to clean out this place, put that notice in the window, move in some beds and that, get the electricity and gas working, and I am going to live here for as long as I can. Remember what I was telling you about there being a better way to be homeless? This is it.”
I swallowed. “And what am I doing here?”
“There’s loads of room,” he said. “And it’s hard to do this alone. You’ve got to keep someone on the premises at all times, to tell them to bugger off if they turn up wanting to repossess the place. They can’t enter the place so long as there’s someone home, not without a warrant. Oh, sure, I could leave the radio on and hope that that fooled ’em but—”
He was going a mile a minute. I suddenly realized that he was even more nervous than I was. He’d had this place scouted out and all ready to move into, but he couldn’t take it over until he found a confederate—me. Someone had to stay home while he was out getting food and that.
“You want me to move in here? Jem—”
He held up both hands. “Look, the worst thing, the absolutely worst thing, right? The worst thing that could happen is that they get a court order and evict us and we’re back at the shelter. Back where you started. It might take a day, it might take years. In the meantime, what else have you got to do? Do you really want to spend the rest of your life sleeping eight to a room? Look, son, this is the chance to become a gentleman of leisure instead of, you know, a tramp. Don’t you want that? ’Course you do. Of course you do!
I took a step back into the dark of the stinking, shuttered pub. “Look, mate,” I said. “It all sounds nice, but this is really fast—”
He stood up and dusted his hands on his thighs. “Yeah, okay, fair enough. But you wouldn’t have come along if I’d told you you were going to end up living in a squat, right? I wanted you to see the place before you made up your mind. Just look at this place, son, just look at it! Think of the potential! We’ll get big comfy sofas, clean up the kitchen and get the water going, stick up a Freeview antenna, find some WiFi to nick, it’ll be a bloody palace. A bloody palace! Just think about what it could be like! We’ll get some wood polish and bring up the wainscoting and those old snugs, shine up the chrome in the kitchen. We could have dinner parties! Christ, you should see the fridge and walk-in deep-freeze they’ve got in there—we could store a year’s worth of food and still have room.”
I teetered on the edge between my anxiety and his infectious excitement. “I don’t understand,” I said. “How is it possible that this won’t get us banged up? Aren’t we trespassing?”
He shook his head. “Not until there’s a court order. Until then, we’re brave homesteaders on the wooly outer edges of property law. It’s a lovely place to be, mate. Places like this, it’s in the public interest for us to occupy ’em. The cops might show up, but so long as you don’t let ’em in and you know what to tell them, they won’t do anything except make noises. Come on, what do you say? You want to be a streetkid or do you want to be an adventurer?”
I looked around the reeking and dark pub. Now that my eyes were adjusting to the dim, I could see all the battered furnishings lurking in the shadows. It had once been a lovely place, I could see that. Nice tile work. Old wooden floors and snugs and benches. A long wooden bar with stumps where stools had been torn loose, and a broken back-mirror. I remembered how big the building had been from the outside, all the extra rooms and I wanted to explore them all, map them like a level in a game, find all their treasures and get them put to rights.
“All right,” I said. “Deal. For now, anyway. But you got to promise me you won’t get me arrested or cut me up and leave me in rubbish bins all over Bow.”
He crossed his heart. “Promise. I told you I was a brick-around-the-ankles man, didn’t I?”
*   *   *
Once he had the locks on the door—three of them, including two deadbolts that had to be slowly and painfully screwed into the jamb and door with long, sharp steel screws, a wrist-breaking task that took both of us an hour in turns—he drew a letter out of his bag, in a sealed envelope with a first-class stamp.
“Right,” he said. “This letter is addressed to me, at this address: The Three Crows pub, Bow. I’m going to nip out and find a post-box and put it in the mail. That’ll get us started on proof that we live here, which’ll be handy when and if the law shows up. I’ll also get us some dinner. You all right with pizza?”
I was well impressed. “You’ve done this before.”
“Never on my own, always as part of someone else’s gang. But yeah, once or twice. I tell you, squatting is for kings, shelters are for tramps. Once you decide to be a king, there’s no going back. So, pizza?”
My stomach leapt at the word pizza. “As the Buddha said in the kebab shop, ‘make me one with everything.’”
He snorted and left, calling out, “Lock up and don’t let anyone in until I get back, right?”
“Right!” I called into the closing door. He’d left me with his head torch, and I strapped it on. I’d expected it to be quiet in the pub once he’d gone, but it was alive with spooky old building sounds: creaks and mysterious skittering sounds of rats in the walls. Let’s not mess about: the place was stitching me up. In my head, the clittering of mouse claws over unseen boards was the scrabbling of the local drugs lookouts—the ones we’d heard calling to one another as we made our way to the pub—clawing their way in through secret loose boards. And those creaking boards—that was some monstrous, leathery old tramp who made this place his den, holed up in some dank corner where he was now rousing himself, getting ready to cut up and eat the interlopers who’d intruded on his territory.
I have an overactive imagination. At least I’m man enough to know it. I mean, part of me knew that there was no one else in this rotten tooth of a building. And I’d spent the morning meeting and feeding a whole gang of tramps and even they had been polite, friendly, and more scared of me (and their own shadows) than I was of them. So I resettled the headlamp on my forehead and slowly began to explore the pub, making a conscious effort to keep my breathing even and my shoulders from tightening up around my ears.
Tell you what, though: there are better ways to explore a spooky abandoned building than with a headlamp. The narrow beam of light jiggles like crazy every time you move your head the slightest, teensiest bit. The beam of light that passes right in front of your face means that you have zero peripheral vision. Every time you bounce the beam off something reflective and blind yourself, it creates a swarm of squirming green after-burns that look exactly like the hands of phantoms rising out of the walls, about to strangle you. It is the perfect re-creation of every zombie film you’ve ever seen where the hero’s breath rasps in and out as he walks carefully through the halls of some blood-spattered military base, waiting for a pack of growling undead biters to boil out of a doorway and tear him to gobbets and ooze.
There’s only one thing worse: turning off the lamp.
I started off slow and careful, bent on convincing myself that I wasn’t half-mad with fear. There was a large kitchen which did have a huge walk-in deep-freezer, which smelt a bit off, but not totally rancid. The pipes rattled and groaned when I turned on the taps, but then the water began to flow, first in irregular bursts of brown, rusty stuff and then in a good, steady gush of clear London tap water, the river Thames as filtered through twenty million people’s kidneys, processed, dumped back into the Thames, filtered, and sent back to those thirsty kidneys. It’s the bloody circle of life. Reassuring.
By now, I had a genuine case of the heebie-jeebies, and I had an idea that maybe some of the upstairs windows hadn’t been quite boarded up so there might be some rooms with the light of day shining through them and chasing away the bogeymen. So I found the staircase, which creaked like one of the Foley stages they use for horror-film sound effects, and made my noisy way up to the first floor. I didn’t hang around long. Not only was it pitch-black, it also smelled even worse than the ground floor. Someone had lived here and left behind a room filled with dried-out turds and the ammonia reek of old, soaked-in piss.
You want to hear something funny? Once I’d got past my total disgust, I felt a landlord’s resentment at this abuse of “my” home. Some interloper had installed himself here and done this awful thing to my beloved home. Never mind that he’d been there first, that I hadn’t known this place existed before that afternoon, and that I had pretty much broken in and claimed it as my own. I deserved this place, I was going to take care of it in a way that the animal that had crapped all over the floor could never understand.
Yeah, it’s odd how quickly I went from squatter to owner in my head. But on the other hand, I remember the first time I mixed down my own edit of a Scot Colford clip and watched it spread all over the net, and how much I’d felt like that clip was mine, even though I’d taken it from someone else without asking. It’s a funny old world, as the grannie in Home, Home on the Strange (Scot’s first and best rom-com) used to say.
Up on the second floor, things were just as dark, but less awful. There was wax on the floor where someone had burned candles, and I kicked over a few stubs. There was a pretty horrible mattress and a litter of lager-tins in what looked like an old office—the local estate kids’ romantic getaway, I supposed—and another room stacked high with chairs and tables, all chipped and wobbly looking. I filed that away for future reference.
On the third and top story, I found some rooms whose windows were not boarded up. These let in a weak, grayish twilight, but it was a huge relief after the pitchy dark of the rooms below. I thought I’d wait there for Jem to return. How long could it take to post a letter and get a pizza? Though, from what I’d seen of Jem, I wouldn’t have been surprised if his way of posting a letter involved breaking into the central sorting office, stealing a stamp, then reverse-pickpocketing it into a letter-carrier’s bag.
The third floor was a huge, open space: dusty and grimy, but mostly free from any sign of human habitation. It was ringed with windows on all its walls, and I could imagine that it’d be a lovely penthouse someday when we’d finished doing up the place. But for now, I was more interested in the fact that the western windows were unboarded. I switched off the headlamp and examined them. They were filthy, but they looked like they might open up, letting in even more light. I yanked the painted iron handles and pushed and tugged and grunted and rattled them until they squealed to life in a shower of dried paint and fossilized mouse turds and rust-colored dust. Slowly, painfully, I cranked the windows wide open, flooding the room with London’s own dirty gray light. The fresh air was incredible, cooling and reassuring, as was the light in the room. With its help, I noted a box of candles and a stack of chairs in one corner.
I looked out the window at the bleak housing estate. It looked like a bomb site: blasted flat and partially ruined, with rotting brickwork and railings hanging free. Loads of the flats looked to be completely deserted, with their windows boarded up. We’d had some like that back on my estate in Bradford: places where the roof had caved in or the pipes had burst and the council had decided just to leave them empty instead of finding the money to fix them up. I didn’t know much about how things were run, but I knew that the council didn’t have any money and was always cutting something or other to make ends meet.
If you made a biopic of my life to that point, you could call it Not Enough Money and hire someone to write a jaunty theme song called He’s Skint (Yes, ’e is). It’d be a box-office smash.
So this bomb site was pretty familiar to me. And it looked like Jem might be the first person I’d ever met who didn’t have a problem being broke. He seemed to have figured out how to live without cash, which was a pretty neat trick.
I peered out the window again, looking for Jem. I didn’t see him (did he go to Italy for the damned pizza?), but I did spot the drugs lookouts he was talking about before. Just kids, they were, eight or nine years old, playing idle games or chatting on the balconies of the estate, sitting in doorways eating crisps, doing things that were pretty kidlike. But whenever someone new came onto the estate, they started up with their birdcalls, sending them echoing off the high towers.
They began to coo and call and I thought That must be Jem. About bloody time. But when I looked out, it wasn’t Jem: it was a huge, shambling man with long dreads and a black duffel bag that he hauled as if it weighed a ton. He was wearing scuffed boots, greasy blue-jeans, a beaten wind-cheater—he looked like a tramp. Or maybe a killer who hunted tramps and dismembered them and carried them around in a duffel bag.
And he was headed straight for the pub.
I mean, it wasn’t like there was anywhere else he could be headed for. The pub stood alone in the wasted field, like the lone tooth in a bleached skull. The man bounced when he walked, dreads shaking, arm penduluming back and forth with that weighty bag.
My first thought was that this was some kind of goon sent by the owner to beat the hell out of me and toss me out. But there was no way that the landlord could know what we were up to. Jem hadn’t even put up the sign yet.
Then I thought he must be a dealer, alerted by the lookout. Maybe one of these loose floorboards disguised a secret stash with millions in sugar or smack or something even more exotic—a cache of guns?
Then I thought he might just be someone who had got here before us, someone who lived here and did such a good job of covering up for himself when he was out that I couldn’t find his nest.
Then I stopped thinking because he was standing at the door, thudding rhythmically with a meaty fist, making the whole building shake. My guts squirmed with terror. I thought I’d been afraid before, but that was the nameless, almost delicious fear of something in the dark. Now I had the very pointed, very specific terror of a giant, rough-looking bloke hammering at my door. I didn’t know what to do.
Seemingly of their own accord, my feet propelled me back downstairs into the pub’s main room, where my headlamp was the only light. It made sense, right? After all, when someone knocks at the door, you answer it.
He was still thudding at it, but then he stopped.
“Open up, come on!” he shouted in a rough voice. “Haven’t got all bloody night.”
I cowered in one of the snugs.
“Jem, damn it, it’s me, open the goddamned door!”
He knew Jem’s name. That was odd.
“Jem’s not home,” I said in my bravest voice, but it came out like a terrified squeak.
There was silence from the other side of the door.
“What do you mean he’s not home? I just crossed the whole bloody city. Jem, is that you? Look, mate, I don’t want to play silly buggers. Open the damned door, or—”
My balls shrank back up against my abdominal cavity. It was a curious sensation, and not pleasant.
“It’s not Jem. He should be back soon. Sorry,” I squeaked.
“Look, I’m the spark, all right? Jem asked me to come round and get you switched on. I’ve got loads of other things I could be doing, so if you want to sit in the dark, that’s up to you. Your choice.” A spark—an electrician! Jem hadn’t mentioned this, but he had said something about getting the electricity switched on. I’d assumed he’d meant convincing the power company to switch us on, but that wasn’t really Jem’s style, was it?
Cautiously, I made my way to the door and shot all the bolts and turned the lock.
The man loomed over me, at least six foot six, with red-rimmed eyes. He wasn’t white and he wasn’t black—but he wasn’t Indian or Pakistani, either. He smelled of machine oil and sweet ganja, and his free hand was big and knuckly and spotted with oil. He pushed past me without saying a word and strode boldly into the middle of the pub.
He sniffed disapprovingly. “Doesn’t half pong, does it? My advice: scatter some fresh coffee grounds right away, that covers practically everfing. But I bet this place has a evil great extractor fan in the kitchen, you run that for a couple days and you’ll get it smelling better.” He turned to face me. “You’ll be wanting to close that door, Sunshine. Never know what sort of villains are lurking around in bad old east London.”
I closed the door. I was still wearing my headlamp, and its beam showed my shaking hands as I worked the locks.
“I’m Dodger,” he said as he clicked on a big torch and wandered behind the bar with it, shining it underneath the counter. “The spark.” He stood up and headed for the kitchen. “You ain’t seen the mains-junction for this place, have you?”
“No,” I managed, still squeaking. “I’m Trent,” I said. “I’m Jem’s friend.”
“That’s nice,” he said. He was in the kitchen now, and I could hear him moving things, looking behind things. “Lucky you.”
“It’s got to be in the cellar,” he said. “Where’s the door?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just got here.”
“Never mind, found it. Come here, Jem’s friend.” He was kneeling in the middle of the kitchen floor, torch in one hand, the other gripping the ring of a trapdoor set into the floor. I accidentally blinded him with my light and he let go of the ring and shielded his face. “Careful, right? Christ, those headlamps are utter toss.” He handed me his torch, heavy with all the batteries in it. “Shine that where I’m working, and not in my eyes. Douse that ridiculous thing on your noggin.”
I did as bid, and watched in fascination as he hauled and strained at the ring, lifting the trapdoor and letting it fall open with an ear-shattering crash. A ladder descended into the darkness of a cellar. “Okay,” he said, “mission accomplished, time for a break.” He fished in his pocket and brought out a packet of rolling papers and a baggie of something—weed, as it turned out, strong enough to break the stink of the pub as soon as he opened the bag. “Let’s improve the air quality, right? Hold the light, that’s a good lad.” He laid the paper on the thigh of his jeans, smoothed it out, then pulled out another and carefully joined it to the first, making a double-wide paper. He sprinkled a mammoth helping of weed into the center of the paper and then quickly skinned up a spliff so neat it looked as if it might be factory made. He twisted the ends, stuck it in his mouth and struck a match on the floor and lit it.
He toked heavily and let out a huge cloud of fragrant smoke. “Want some?” he said, holding out the joint and streaming more smoke out of his nostrils.
Like one of those kids in an advert about the dangers of peer pressure, I took it and smoked it. As I inhaled, my mind was filled with paranoid fantasies about all the things the grass might be laced with: horse tranquilizers, rat poison, exotic hallucinogens, synthetic heroin. But it tasted and went down like the weed I’d smoked every now and again at school. I took one more sip of smoke, careful not to get the paper soggy, and passed it back.
He took another gigantic toke, then one more. He passed it back to me. I didn’t seem to be feeling any effects, so I drew in a deep double-lungful, handed it back, then took it again once he’d done with it. We’d smoked it halfway down and he waved at me and croaked, “Keep it, mate, gotta do some work.” I still wasn’t feeling it, which was weird, because normally I was the first one to get all silly when there was a spliff going around. Shrugging, I toked some more and held the lamp while he went down the rickety ladder CORY DOCTOROW is a coeditor of Boing Boing and a columnist for multiple publications including the Guardian, Locus, and Publishers Weekly. He was named one of the Web’s twenty-five influencers by Forbes magazine and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.  His award-winning novel Little Brother was a New York Times bestseller. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.