It was a cold Saturday morning when Liam taught me how to pick pockets. We stood in the commotion of Vic Market as a sea of people meandered and swarmed at stalls before us and a warmth spread from my chest out. I figured later that this feeling was pride. Liam dropped his voice.
“It’s best to lift in the fruit and vegie sheds. People are distracted, searching apples for bruising. Once I find a mark, I’ll dip and pass-off to you, OK? Stay close.”
We’d been on the street a long time, my brother and I, and I knew how he’d come by the money to feed us. He never talked about it, but I knew and I longed for the chance to show him I could do it also. Liam was only two years older than me but he’d been like a father for a long time, and I wanted to prove that I was growing up. Just like every other fifteen-year-old did, I guess. He strutted into the crowd and I drifted in his wake. My legs weakened with fear — not of being caught, but of failing Liam. We weaved through the bodies and he nodded ahead.
“There. Grey coat.”
I saw a frail, eldery lady and gasped.
Liam’s eyes flashed angrily at me.
“C’mon. Stay close.”
I tailed him towards our mark. Her small, stooped frame leaned on a vinyl shopping cart and she stared at her phone. Liam swept past her, his coat brushing over her handbag. I slipped by him and he passed her purse off to me. I jammed it up my jumper and split through the people. Just like I was told. My heart hammered up into my head.
When I joined Liam again on the buskers’ corner, he looked around, frowning.
“Did you check if anyone followed you?”
“What do you think? You told me a hundred times.”
He broke into a smile and clapped.
“You did it! How do you feel?”
“I feel shit. That was an –“
“Old lady? Sharp one, you are.”
“We stole from an old lady. She needs her purse.”
“OK. Alright, then. Can I have it?”
I was glad Liam was going to make this right. I handed him the purse. But instead of taking it back to the old lady, he snapped it open, took out the notes and coins, and tossed the rest in the bin. He stalked over to the pizza van.
“A slice of margherita and two hawaiian, please.”
The pizza guy looked down warily at us from over the bainmaries.
Liam shoved a fifty dollar note at me. From the purse.
The pizza guy raised his eyebrows.
“Do I need to come out and get it?”
I sighed. I hated scenes. I snatched the fifty and passed it over the counter.
We sat on a bench in Flagstaff Gardens and Liam ate his pizza. I fumed as I sketched with charcoal.
“She probably really needed that money. She’s a pensioner.”
Liam mumbled through a mouthful.
“You know what you need to do? You know how you can feel better about it next time? Stop looking at the faces. Anyone could be a potential mark. It’s not about them. It’s not personal. It’s about you — us, the crew — eating tonight. Alright, let’s say, you see a middle-aged business man in a thousand dollar suit. And you see a young woman pushing a baby in a cheap stroller. Which one’s your mark?”
Liam watched me, his eyebrows raised. He rolled his eyes and answered for me.
“Whichever one is the easier lift. Whichever one is the most distracted. Whichever one has the corner of their wallet poking out. And I tell you, Evie, you gotta get used to it, because the mark usually ends up being the one with less to lose. It’s usually the young mother. Especially her, because she often has her handbag in a pouch in the stroller. She doesn’t even have body contact with it. Easy lift. So, stop making it personal or you’ll get an ulcer or something. Eat your pizza.”
I tried a mouthful. My throat was tight, but the pizza was good. Wow, I was hungry. I took another bite. It went down much easier. Liam winked.
“Good pizza, hey?”
I smiled and nodded, and took another bite. Liam leaned back and looked up through the thinning branches.
“This is great, isn’t it?”
He swept his arm across the park.
“This. Freedom. Ghosts answer to no one. We do whatever we want, whenever we want. Don’t take it for granted. Most other people would kill to be in our shoes. Appreciate your freedom, Evie.”
And that’s my brother for you. He could convince you of just about anything, and then ruin it by being a complete wanker.
We were Ghosts. Us, and others like us. Ghosts stayed out of the system. It’s what made us different to most the other kids on the street. It doesn’t take too long to spot other ghosts out there. They sleep rough to avoid registering at shelters. They beg because they won’t apply for benefits. A group like ours is perfect for those people. Out of the system, but together. Liam would narrow his eyes and give “the talk” to anyone who joined us.
“You got a meal card?”
“You registered at the Mission? You got a card there?”
“What about the Salvos?”
“Are you registered with The Salvos?”
“Oh, yeah, I am.”
“OK, see ya.”
“Oh, come on, I…”
Most kids on the street, Liam said, could be found. Tracked down through meal card and shelter registrations and all the other things they got you to sign when they’re helping you out. It meant that if someone wanted to find you, really wanted to find you, then they could. But not us. As far as records went, Liam and I were invisible. Untraceable. Ghosts. We had to be, because we didn’t want to be found, just like the other ghosts out there. They all had their own reasons for invisibility, I guess. For Liam and I, that reason was out father. He had always been involved with criminals. I sometimes wondered: “If Dad hung around with criminals, did that make Dad a criminal?” Liam nodded — he guessed it did. The problem was, Dad had turned informant for the police. There were some very bad men after him. Men, Liam told me, who would never stop looking for our father. And if those men were looking for our father, then they would be almost just as happy to find us. That’s when Dad dropped Liam and me at social housing with false names and drove off. Liam was ten years old. I was eight. I haven’t seen my father for seven years. You could say he’s a ghost himself.