The house was dark. Most people left at least one light on, usually in the hall, which was a dead giveaway. He knew the place was empty, he’d watched them leave. New Mercedes, the bloke in a DJ and her done up in her best. Dinner at least: they should be gone for a few hours. He’d got lucky. Overheard the guy telling his mate in the queue at the deli counter that he would be out that night. Followed him home and discovered the place was a gift.
Peter let himself in round the back. Easy. Old-fashioned double glazing, the sort that was put in from the outside. No alarm. None of this would last. Even without a burglary, these people who would change all that as soon as they could, but they had moved in less than a week before. Again, information gleaned from eavesdropping. Always a good time to rob someone, soon after a move. Sometimes stuff was still packed in boxes, neatly labelled with the contents. Saved time and energy, that did. He was grateful to have the chance to slip in here before they installed security lights, police linked alarms and better windows.
He took a quick glance into each room, assessing what might be good to nick. His booty should be easy to carry away and simple to get rid of, things that could guarantee big returns. He didn’t do tellies and audio equipment, unless they were very flashy high-end. The bottom of the market was swamped, not worth the aggravation. He would always take cash, obviously, even small amounts – served them right for leaving it lying about – and anything of obvious value, but Peter specialised in silver and jewellery and knew where to take it to get the best prices.
He was pleased with the house. He didn’t like minimalist places with ruddy great sofas and one painting on the wall: worth a fortune, but six feet square and difficult to shift. This was a home filled with expensive clutter, rich pickings with luck. Without checking the contents, he lifted a couple of boxes labelled ‘silver’ from the smallest bedroom and put them downstairs by the patio doors, conveniently left with a key in the lock. He smiled and shook his head. These two really were asking for it.
He was upstairs in the main bedroom when he heard the noise. Damn. This was his only worry: he wasn’t the only one who liked to rob the newly moved. He positioned himself behind the door and waited.
But it was not another burglar who entered the room. He recognised the woman: he had seen leaving the house earlier. He was about to try to slip out unnoticed when she turned. Her startled face relayed her intention to scream. He bounded across and shoved her face into the bed, burying her cry in the duvet.
‘If I keep you here like this, you’ll suffocate,’ he whispered to her struggling body. ‘I don’t want to hurt you. Lie still and promise me you won’t screech if I let you go.’ After a few moments, she stopped wriggling and nodded her head as much as was possible with his hand on her neck.
He released her and she immediately took a deep breath and opened her mouth in the beginning of a yell, drowned once more by the duvet as he thrust her back on the bed.
‘That was a bit silly, wasn’t it? Now, shall we try this again, without the shrieking?’ She nodded again. He lifted his hands away and allowed her to sit up. She massaged her neck and glared at him.
‘What do you want?’
‘Obvious, I would have thought. Your jewellery. First the necklace you’re wearing and then the jewel box you’ve stashed in the wardrobe.’
‘How do you know it’s in the wardrobe?’
‘Nowhere else to put it. No safe and it’s not in the dressing table, I’ve already checked. Nice underwear, by the way.’
She flushed and began to remove the chain from around her neck.
‘You won’t get away with this.’
‘My husband’s downstairs. He’ll be up in a minute.’
‘Shall I try in here? Ah, this looks promising.’ He smiled as he removed a black box from a shelf. ‘Suitable size, covered in leather. Shall I take the lot, or is there a little sentimental something of no value you’d rather I left behind?’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Perfectly. If you hadn’t come home, I would only have swiped the good stuff. I don’t want to pinch your personal memorabilia. Why are you back early by the way?’
‘I had a headache. You’re a funny sort of burglar.’ She took the box from him and opened the lid. ‘You seem like a nice lad. Why don’t you get a proper job?’
‘I like the hours and it pays well. Hand over the goodies.’
She took only one item: a tiny gold locket in the shape of a heart. It swung on its chain as she lifted it out. Peter stood as if transfixed.
‘I remember that necklace. My mother used to wear one just like it. At night she would lean over my bed and sing to me.’ He closed his eyes, breathed in. He could smell perfume. Not this woman’s signature, which was all around him, but a lighter, more elusive fragrance from his past. Under his breath, he began to sing.
‘Sleep time, dream time, time for bed.
Lay down softly your sleepy head.
Night time, moon time, stars in the sky –’ He broke off and the woman finished the tune.
‘I will sing you a lullaby.’ There were tears in her eyes. ‘Damian,’ she said. ‘You are Damian, aren’t you?’
‘My name is Peter, not Damian. Where did you get that necklace?’ He opened his eyes again and hit the woman around the face. His voice was louder now, threatening. He grabbed her by the shoulders and the jewel box fell to the bed, the contents spilling out.
‘You’re hurting me,’ she said.
‘I asked you a question.’
‘It isn’t worth a lot, except to me. Let me keep it. Please.’
‘Where did you get it?’
‘I’ve always had it. My husband bought it for me when we were married.’ She screamed as he held up his hand as if to hit her again.
‘What the hell is going on?’ A man came into the bedroom, jacket slung over his shoulder, tie loose.
Peter dragged the woman upright, his arm around her throat.
‘She gave me away’ he said. ‘Didn’t want me.’ He turned her face towards him and shook her. ‘What was it? Loved babies but not older children? Did you know what you were selling me into? Did you? Violence and abuse, that’s what. I hope you got a good price for me, because I certainly paid one.’
He pushed her to one side suddenly and slapped her. She fell onto the bed.
‘Damian’, she said ‘We didn’t sell you.’
‘They were a right couple, they were. She was a drug addict who couldn’t give a damn about me half the time.’
‘It’s not true.’
‘He sold me over and over and over again. Once he even dressed me up in a frilly frock and tried to pass me off as a girl. Guess who got smacked around for that one when the punter realised his mistake. That’s the kind of people you sent me to.’
‘You don’t understand, we didn’t sell you, if you are Damian.’ She tried to rise from the bed.
‘Liar.’ He struck her again.
‘She’s not lying.’ The husband crossed the room and opened the top drawer of one of the bedside cabinets from which he produced a silver frame. It was about ten inches by eight inches and showed a family. Mother and father smiling, their arms around a blonde toddler with a wide grin. Another frame emerged, showing the same child, a little older this time and in school uniform.
‘We lost our son, Damian,’ the man continued. ‘On holiday in Greece. I could show you dozens of such photographs, but none of them are later than that one. Damian was five and a half when we went to Greece. We were in a crowd of people waiting to go into a swimming pool. One minute he was there and the next he was gone. We searched everywhere. The police searched. It was no good. Damian had disappeared, spirited away from underneath our noses.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Is it possible?’ The woman was sitting up now, studying him. ‘Could you be Damian?’
‘No,’ said her husband. ‘It’s a coincidence, that’s all. Helen, listen to me. Damian’s dead. Don’t do this to yourself.’
‘He knew the lullaby, my lullaby. How could he know my lullaby? I invented it for Damian. He’s about the right age. How old are you?’
‘Twenty two,’ he said and her face lit up.
‘Damian would be twenty-two next week’ she said. ‘On the fourth.’
‘My birthday is the fourth.’ Peter swallowed hard, not understanding, anger still in his fists and his throat.
Was any of this true? His story, their story, were they talking about the same child and did it matter any more if they were? He had come to steal, not to find a family he had learned to hate. Suddenly his vision blurred and he ran, pushing the man out of the way. Down the stairs and through the house to the patio windows with the key, he escaped to the safety of the outside world.
He needed to think. He had a good life now, even if his occupation was stealing. He had a girl to go home to and a small baby to care for.
It was the thought of his own child that stopped him.
Breathless, he leant on a wall. The words of the song he sang each night to his son rang in his head. Her lullaby, the woman had said.
He put his hand on the stitch in his side and smiled. He knew he would go back. One day. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week, maybe on his birthday, he would ring the bell and go back through the front door and find out what was real and what was not.