It was on a Southeastern train, not many on board, mid-morning, 20 minutes out of London, stopping at a string of towns in Kent. Across the carriage aisle from a middle-aged couple, a young man, sitting alone, started talking to somebody on his phone.
He didn’t speak loudly, like some do, but he was easily audible to the middle-aged couple and maybe others too. In relaxed, almost homely, tones, he offered his views on this or that video game, how tired he was feeling and so on, and it was quite a while before he told his interlocutor how he was planning to spend his out-of-town day.
“Yeah, we’re going to take over this estate. There’s people selling drugs there and we’re going take them over. Yeah, we’re going threaten them and sell the drugs ourselves.”
A beat, as they say in movie scripts.
“Yeah, we’re going to kick ’em out and take their customers…no, they’re not gonna like it but they aint gonna have a choice. We’ll sell the drugs instead. Nothing they can do.”
This, in a quiet railway carriage, speeding through the Garden of England, the Home Counties terrain of Snodland, Swanley and Sittingbourne.
What did the middle-aged couple do? Their eyes met across their carriage table. Were they dreaming? Was this real? Did the young man not realise that people were overhearing? Did he know and just not care? Was he a prankster from You’ve Been Framed?
It was the casualness that astonished: the way he invested his anticipation of his planned criminal enterprise, complete with threats of violence and possibly violence itself, with such genial banality; a sense that, although he was on a bit of an adventure, it was no big deal, a fairly routine expansion into a new market. Yes, there might be a bit of a negotiation, but its outcome was a foregone conclusion.
His stop approached and he popped his tablet back into his rucksack. Did he have ginger beer in there? Had his mum packed him some sandwiches? Had packed his cagoule in case it rained? And off he went, a character from a different narrative from the one his fellow passengers were part of; a figure from a TV exposé temporarily misplaced.
Normal service resumed and a Faversham state of mind swiftly restored. In low tones, the middle-aged couple compared notes. Should they have secretly recorded him or taken a sneaky photograph? Should they have called the police the second he’d left the train, giving their location and his description: white male, mid-20s, stocky build, short beard. But, you know, which number would you call for something like that, whizzing along out there in the sticks? Would the signal keep cutting out? Would you have to speak loudly, making yourself a sort of social deviant in the ears of fellow passengers by failing to pretend that nothing untoward had occurred? Would you have to interrupt your day with a visit to some police station miles from where you were going? Would the cops actually do anything?
Indecision soon succumbed to apathy and, perhaps, a lurking fearful denial. Because it was a little frightening, that passing proximity to a parallel world of unvarnished acquisitiveness and extreme viciousness, the characters from it fanning out from London across the country. Last week, two teenagers from South London were jailed for their part in a “county lines” operation that stretched all the way to Cumbria. The earlier arrest in Barrow of a vulnerable 17-year-old girl from London has been described as a “key breakthrough” in the case. The BBC reported:
When she was searched, officers found 53 wraps of ready-to-sell heroin and crack cocaine had been inserted inside her.
Makes you want to hide. Makes you want to cry.
Vintage British Rail poster by Frank Sherwin. Thanks to Malcolm Redfellow for that information.