Lord of London Town - Tillie Cole



Aged thirteen

I stared into the fire.

The flames grew higher and higher, crawling up the stone chimney. I felt the blistering heat on my forehead and cheeks, felt my eyebrows begin to singe. I leaned in even closer. I wanted to know what it felt like when the flames licked my skin.

I wanted to know what they had felt when they were trapped, when the fire had burned them alive. I reached out my hand, my fingers moving closer to the flames. Their dance was reflected in my glasses. All I could see was an aura of orange and red and yellow. My skin started to burn as my fingertips almost touched the flame. I smelled my arm hair burning. I moved closer and closer, almost touching it—

“Arthur!” Someone pulled on my shoulder, wrenching me back into the ancient wingback chair. “What the fuck, son?” My dad crouched before me. I looked into his eyes but could still see the flames beckoning me closer from the corner of my eye. “What the hell were you doing?” He took hold of my upper arms, then my throbbing hand. It was bright red where the flames had got too close. “Christ, Arthur! Look at the bloody state of your hand!”

“I wanted to know what they felt,” I said, staring at my red and bubbled skin. Dad got up and walked into the kitchen. When he came back, he was holding a bag of frozen peas. He pressed it to my palm. It hurt like a bitch, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I didn’t care if it hurt.

I wanted it to hurt.

“Keep that pressed on there,” Dad said, then moved to the bucket of water beside the fire and threw it on the raging flames. The fire instantly died down until it hissed as it lost its breath and black smoke raced up the chimney. I watched the blackness rush away. But the darkness in my heart and head never went away.

I saw our country cottage in my mind. Our family cottage when all that was left was burnt bricks and charred wood … and only the teeth of my mum and little sister. Bodies burnt to nothing. Fire had eaten their flesh like a demon from the depths of hell.

Dad crouched down again and held my chin. I met his eyes. “I know it’s hard, son. You lost your mum, you lost Pearl.” I thought of Mum and Pearl. Pearl annoyed me. Always a shadow behind me and my friends. Always wanting to be in my room, in my fucking life. She was only a year younger than me, but she was still my little sister. I always protected her. In our life, I had to. But I hadn’t protected her in the end. When she needed me most.

When I closed my eyes, I pictured her holding on to Mum in the middle of the living room in the cottage, the fire knocking the door down to get them, to consume them, to fucking burn them alive. I could hear their screams in my ears. Could hear Pearl calling for me to save her.

I’d failed her. Her and Mum.

“If you’d gone with them, I would’ve lost you too, son.” My dad’s voice was tight, low. He never showed emotion—he was an ice box when it came to his feelings. He was hard and brutal. Never spoke about love and shit. But when he mentioned Mum and Pearl, I heard the slight crack. Even though he hardly ever talked about them, I knew he missed them too.

His hand moved from my chin to the back of my head. He pulled me to his chest. He smelled of tobacco and mint. Dad had kept me from going to the cottage a month ago. He’d had business here in town. I’d just turned thirteen. He’d wanted me with him; my time had come to be shown the family business.

I could still feel the knife in my hand. Feel my fingers wrapped around its handle as I stood in front of our enemy in our deserted warehouse in Mile End. I didn’t even flinch as I rushed forward and plunged the knife straight into the fucker’s chest. He was one of the Yakuza. He’d ratted us out to an enemy. He’d deserved to die.

It was my introduction to our way of life.

I was a true Adley now, legitimately part of the firm.

As I’d killed the enemy, my baptism into our notorious crime family’s legacy, my mum and