The first act of thievery took place when I was still small enough to fit all of myself inside the toddler seat of the trolley, and when I turn this memory over in my mind, I can still feel the metal bars pressed against my back, keeping me intact. It was my mother’s thin fingers feeding me unwashed green grapes plucked from among the fruit. They tasted slightly sour but I opened my mouth for more. She pushed the trolley through the fruit and vegetable aisle. Looking up at her, I must have seen the gaunt shadows of hollowed cheekbones, her always-chapped lips and crooked chipped teeth, but the light in her eyes reflected my own to encourage me on. It was a petty theft, yes. But I’m still willing to suspect even the saintliest among us have dabbled in the sin of sampling.
That afternoon, we left the shop with half-empty plastic bags and sore stomachs from the bunches we’d snacked on. We giggled, wine-drunk on the act of stealing from stalks alone. She would have held my hand as we crossed the street and I would not have felt as if I were a fugitive. Instead, glorious. As bloated as if I were a Roman god laid upon a chaise longue, hand-fed grapes by a half-starved slave. Intoxicated by sickly opulence and disregarding our embezzlement of it.
When we returned to what was at that time ‘home’, I would not have known what the word ‘squat’ meant. We lay together on our mattress, huddled away from the windows. My mother and I occupying spaces we had no right belonging to. At night, she slept soundly. Meanwhile, I sat awake, listening to the pounding sound of my own stomach. Hunger rattled against my ribcage, echoing close to the skin. There was a panging groan from my core; I wanted so much more. And so, as I see it now, grapes became a gateway to my career of felony.
Once, my mother saw me try to sneak out of a chip shop with some spoons stored up my sleeve because we didn’t have any in our house. We sat in the park even though it was November. Our noses were red with cold and without coats we were shuddering. With a rasping breath, my mother told me that I was a magpie. There was a story about how magpie birds stole shining objects. From tinfoil to diamond rings, for both were equal in value to the birds. They decorated their nests as though it were Christmas, glittering and glowing with these shining stolen things. What I wanted was to watch them in their nests, as the sun soaked light through their bright little stick-built homes. I wished I could soar through the skies with them. Reached out my arms as I tried to flap like them, but I was weighed down to the ground. One for sorrow, two for joy. My mother joined me, stretched her arms out further. We beat our fingers like feathers and we tried loudly squawking until everyone around us was staring. We shut our eyes so it didn’t matter. We ran down the banks with our eyes closed, and in the seconds we jumped, I thought I could taste freedom. Until my feet were betrayed by the soil beneath them.
In the empty hours of waiting while my mother was gone, I filled the void of the dark room and the space on the mattress with thoughts of my possessions. They became an obsession as growling starvation permeated through me. Already my magpie stash was beginning to grow in a small corner of the house. Odd pennies picked from wishing fountains. Loose stationery I could pick from. A few keyrings, though we could not lock the door. A little worry doll from a market stall. With unknowing irony, a leftover packet of swiped Jammie Dodgers. I lived for the thrill of each one of the illegal items I carried upon my person. The adrenaline of temporary excitement from taking it. It was tasting forbidden fruit and draining knowledge from the tree I was told to avoid. I was Eve and Pandora; I was cursed with curiosity. Though I felt the vice of guilt wrenching afterwards, which stained my soul and would not leave. I was a coloniser. Which is to say, a child. I took what was not mine without understanding the proprietorship of what I had taken. Nor the damage it wrought in appropriation. But I still did not learn my lesson.
My mother kissed my forehead when I handed her a fiver I had snatched from the local grocery shop before cameras were directing focus on novice eight-year-old pickpockets. She promised she’d come back with something, then she shut the door. The mistake I made was in standing at the window and waving goodbye to her.
Then we were stolen from one another. Someone must have been watching. She was taken to one car, I to the other. Neither to be seen by the other again. I was placed in foster care for the crime I was unsure I had committed in revealing myself to some well-meaning neighbour stranger who had lurked. I missed my mother. I did not learn my lesson in captivity; my skills as a thief were honed all the better.
The new house was always warm. I could not sleep at night because I’d been used to the cold room. Food was always in abundance. These new parents made certain to fatten up the foster daughter until I was less of a skeletal figure, but it did not stop the hunger. These parents were not like my mother. This man was a shout and she was a frail, ragged whimper. He was not a kind or fatherly figure. The woman, nervous and uncertain. I could not breathe through his cologne, her talcum and the overwhelming scent of lilac. I longed for dank mould, smoke, the musk of our mattress in another nest.
When the woman left for bible study, his hands grazed my body. I would grit my teeth but stay fixedly where he had told me. Now that I was slowly going back to school and learning remedially how to read, I could see that the scripture engraved on the banister told me to ‘Honour thy mother and father’. But these were not my own to honour, and there were commandments against theft so already I was a sinner. So was he, in the act of adultery. Only afterwards, when I lay in the bed sobbing, would I feel the aching of loss. All the parts of me he’d felt, disposable. His to take and throw the meaning away.
In school we read Robin Hood and as an embittered beggar I decided I would do as I chose was right and deviate from the commandments nailed to the wall. I would redistribute this kingdom’s wealth to the impoverished, which was to say, myself. Hunger and hate were all I had; they hammered inside of me the nights I would stay awake praying he would not open the door.
Nobody would notice a pen or two missing. A pencil case, though, would cause suspicion in the classroom. A bottle of nail polish from the chemist’s in town would go unnoticed, but a noise would go off when I wore new clothes out of a shop. I had to know what the boundaries were. What was it all for? It did not fill the emptiness wholly. But when I took something new, it would release some temporary dopamine trembling through me. It was a heart palpitation which reminded me that he was not in control of all of me. I was not yet caught. And in that regard only, I was free.
Eventually they found my collection of her diamond rings among the other things. So I was sent on my way. I was never around one place for long; I was the usual suspect to be rounded up and sent packing. Now a round-faced teenager with glass spectacles framing how I saw the world as I knew it then. My pockets full of pocket money, but also loose tea bags, lip balms, sweet wrappers, unlit cigarettes. From place to place there was no other stability but the pervasive habit of stealing. I began to line shelves with former library books I would never again be able to return without some heavy fee. There were also multiple DVDs I had never had the intention of returning after renting. My wardrobe was full of clothes I had thrifted and lifted. With each family, every new house in a different town, I became more disillusioned by the newness and disconnected from the pattern I would fall into yet again. By then I could barely remember who my mother had been and wondered if I would ever see her again. Social workers told me it would not be advisable until I was eighteen. But I fought and sought to see her until they finally said she did not wish to have contact from me again. Perhaps this was simply a lie – I had learnt to distrust authority as soon as she had left me. They wanted me to be happy. Or perhaps this was reality, a punishment against me. Did she feel the remorse of being a bad influence who couldn’t provide? Or was she ashamed of what she’d heard of her thieving daughter who lied to get by?
At the age of eighteen, when I’d saved up enough funds, which did not feel like they were mine, I left the city. Decided upon a small cottage in a hamlet in the countryside among green fields, opened wide. Unlocking the door with my own key was a stolen opportunity. There was a rush that I was renting all of the rooms for myself to roost inside. They had given me my mother’s address and I had written a letter. Until I could receive a reply, I would take ownership. Fill the rooms with shining things and wait until sun eclipsed the windows. Eventually, the letter was returned to sender.
Thievery did not leave me. I worked in an office job in the city, commuting on country bus routes. Doing so by sneaking single tickets as return trips. I could not drive very far; all I had was a matchbox car I’d managed to grab from a toyshop once. I remember the little boy in front of me whose eyes widened watching me. Focused on my hands as I held it in a firm grasp, he said nothing. But delighted in it. It would be our secret. From my employer I would not have stolen any more than the oxygen I breathed when I worked there. I was not the pauper lifting loaves of bread. Instead, it was only in the modest things I could not declare. Perhaps I hadn’t got the grades or the money for a university degree, but I could snag an education from five-finger-discount magazines. The next-door neighbours’ internet connection opened up the world to streams of films and songs to fish in. At night, I was haunted by my rake-thin mother’s ghostly figure. She’d handed me her portions when we were starving. Would she ever wish to find me? As I saved up every extra penny of my earnings on food, rent, the occasional item of clothing.
I was struck by the irony that I was being stolen from. How could anyone own the land I rented? Surely all forms of ownership were in some way renting. Food in particular, grown from the earth, why was that not a human right? The clothes that hung against my skin, protecting my modesty, like how Adam and Eve clung to leaves. Why did we ever have to choose between necessity and luxury?
There are places in the world where they can cut off your hands for the crimes I’ve committed, and at this point I would probably be entirely limbless with nothing left, so they would have to settle for cutting out my tongue. I would probably still find a way of concealing something else on my person. In Britain I would spend seven years maximum in prison. However, in my own defence, all I did was borrow. For I cannot keep all of these belongings forever. We come into the world with nothing and leave much the same way; why should the material possessions we accumulate matter anyway? Our bodies return to the earth we have no right to own. Death itself thieves life from breathing bodies.
One morning on a bus I read someone else’s leftover morning paper. Only to find the obituary I had always feared but expected for years. It did not list her as a mother. Did not tell you where to send flowers or condolence cards. The service had been small. It would no longer matter to her. As though I had stored those soured grapes inside of me, fermenting for all those years, I began to expel bile all over myself. The people on the bus watching as my skin turned as pale as hers would be now, coated in myself. I apologised profusely to the sympathetic driver, who was willing to drop me home after.
It was then that I stopped my petty phase of pilfering. Keeping my secret never told, I tried to pay back all that I owed. I had taken so much; now I was ready to give. Now, I wanted for nothing, coveting only relief from the grief which visited in the quiet evenings.
One early August morning, I stood in the small field outside of my garden. To look ahead, if it were not for the telephone wires cutting against the sky the scene could have been a hundred years or more ago. Soon the harvesting would begin and farmers would reap the seeds they’d sown here. A tiding of seven magpies judging along the black line wrought chilling laughter in my throat. I wondered what she would have made of it. If she would even have remembered telling me that story. I did not know who she had been, in that moment, in all the years of my life. But for the paper-frail woman who wanted better for her daughter. I did not know if she would ever have an answer but I hoped I was trying to reach my own. I had no desire any longer for material possessions to prove my own existence. I was determined now to live as we all do, on borrowed time which is not our own and to which we do not belong, in the hope nothing will take us from it.
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