The Chameleon: a new story by Gabriel Krauze
The Booker Prize longlister pens exclusively for THE FACE.
Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 005. Order your copy here.
It’s the roads that gave me a fine appreciation of jewellery. Swear down fam, no cap. I ain’t never seen so much jewels as I seen on the block. Mandem looking drippy, and I mean real drippy, everyone rocking iced-out bracelets and gold chains and diamond grillz and iced-out rings on each finger, looking like they went and raided one of Mansa Musa’s caravans forreal. You know who Mansa Musa was don’t you? Come on fam. He was that king from Mali who was the richest man alive like 600 years ago or suttin, richer than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos to rahtid.
So anyway, like I said, it’s the hood that made me appreciate ice and jewels n alladat, and what I really got into at one point was kettles. I don’t actually know why we call them kettles. Don’t ask me why, I just know that a kettle is a watch, and not just any watch coz more times man ain’t gonna make no observations about some dusty Casio or a Seiko, or anything that ticks and don’t glide. To me a kettle is a Rolly or a Cartier or a Breitling or an Audemars Piguet, you get me? Suttin that bangs, where you know a man’s dropped racks on it and more times them racks got earned with alotta pain, alotta struggle. No legal money getting dropped like that, ah lie? It was kettles that first got me wanting to learn about jewellery when I clocked how Bonez could spot one from metres away – the make, face size, model, price, alladat. More importantly, he could tell the real from the fake quicktime. So I had it in mind that one day I’d like to be working with jewellery and when a man gets it in his mind to do suttin, when he really commits to that vision, more times it’ll work out that he ends up achieving his goal, one way or another. Although not always with a happy ending to it. But we ain’t there yet, lemme take it back to talking about kettles.
What do you mean get to the point, g? Don’t interrupt me, I’m getting there. So… OK you wanna know how I lost my job? Fuck all the talk about kettles? But it’s part of the story cuz. Shit, anyone would think you had suttin better to do when all you’re waiting for is your line to start ringing. OK, well then I gotta tell you about chameleons first. I’ll tell you whatdafuck chameleons have to do with this story if you just seckle yourself and stop interrupting me. Jesus fucking Christ. Just lissen to me will you?
My boss showed me one after I’d been there for a couple months and it was a mad ting.
“Do you want to see a chameleon?” she asked one afternoon, and we said, “A chameleon?”
It was me and one other brer behind the counter, and it was a Friday afternoon, so most of the shops in Hatton Garden had closed coz all the Jews go home early on Fridays to get ready for Shabbat, which is what they call the Sabbath. Yeah fam, Shabbat. I told you I was serious about learning everything I could while I was there. Anyway. Of course we wanted to see the chameleon. She took it out of the safe on a silky-looking white cloth and put it down on the little table behind the counter.
We were in the basement of the Heart, which is the name of the jewellery emporium in Hatton Garden, all bright white lights and non-stop air conditioning and freshly painted white walls and white counters with polished glass and just this brightness everywhere, sharp and hard, anaesthetising shadows and operating on you while you work, until you feel as blank as the rest of the place, with no sense of time if you don’t keep checking your phone, and the only thing you could think of by lunchtime was the catalogue and going home. But there was this one tiny window in the corner of the basement, just behind and above our counter, and if you ever turned around to look at it during the day, you might see pairs of shoes walking by and the sun coming through like a golden yawn, reminding you that the world is just a flight of stairs away. Made me think about the Greek gods and Hades and how to them the underworld was just several layers beneath the Earth rather than in some next spiritual dimension or suttin – although obviously it wouldn’t be as brightly lit as this place.
I’m getting there fam, stop rushing me. I’m just tryna show you how I was still getting used to the place. I was finishing my second month of my three-month probationary period and everyting was bless, I was in there, I’d finally managed to secure a job in the diamond trade innit. But yeah, so she took it out of the safe and said, “This is a chameleon.”
It looked just like a normal yellow diamond. Well, when I say normal I mean normal to me, coz obviously we were selling all sorts of diamonds and gemstones from the catalogue on a daily basis, and after white diamonds the most popular colour is yellow. Fam it was yellow like juice, like sap when it’s coming out of a tree all sticky like, and she took the diamond, looked up at the little window, and there was the afternoon sun coming through, announcing itself in a small square on the table behind the counter, dust all dancing up its beam like an escalator out of there, and she put the chameleon into the patch of sunlight and said, “Watch the chameleon, just watch it now.”
The diamond held the sun within its facets, suttin like honeycomb with the real gold, the real treasure dripping inside it, the secret of honey. By the way did you know honey is actually bee vomit? OK, OK, chill fam, I’m just remembering certain tings that spring to mind as I tell you how it happened. So the sun hit the yellow diamond and we was all clocking the ting like suttin was about to pop off and then fam, no cap, the stone started changing colour right in front of our eyes, the yellow diamond going green and I don’t mean some vague yellowish shade of green, I mean the ting went fully green green like a bottle, like a green M&M or green Skittles or fizzy apple rings or those green frog-shaped gummy sweets, like it changed into a whole different stone. Mad ting ah lie? I think our boss said it’s something to do with the radioactive properties of the stone, but I might not be remembering that right. I was like rah – and then I quickly caught myself and changed into a wow that’s amaaaazing, because them people I was working with were really kinda judgemental, you know them way there? I mean they’ve probably been like that from day dot, but working in the Heart really doesn’t help. I’ll tell you why in a second bro, just relax your skin.
Our boss went on to say that all now scientists don’t know why some diamonds do this, but either way it makes chameleons even more rare and valuable than normal diamonds. She moved it out of the patch of sunlight and we watched it turn back to yellow within a minute, and then she put it in the safe. She musta been as bored as we were coz I mean Friday afternoons were always deadout, but unlike a lot of the shops above ground, we always stayed open on Fridays until normal closing time, even if we didn’t get a single customer. But it was the same for the watch dealers in the basement of the Heart.
You see the Heart of Hatton Garden has like fifty different businesses arranged in stalls over two floors, like a marketplace. You’ve got gemstone shops, watch traders, jewellery makers, silver dealers, gold dealers – everyone looking to buy and sell and hustle for that bread. And that’s where the problem was. Like I told you, this company I was working for specialises in supplying diamonds and other precious stones exclusively to the trade. That means a normal person like you – well you’re not normal, but you get what I mean innit – a member of the public can’t just come to our stall in the basement and purchase a stone. You’d have to already be connected to a jewellery business in Hatton Garden and we’d have to be able to find your business on the database and look you up, and all that extra exclusive club membership bullshit that the company uses to define its sense of superiority. Only then, after passing all those checks, can you actually buy a gemstone, you get me? But the rest of the Heart of Hatton Garden? It’s a myth fam. The rest of the Heart, man are moving like shotters forreal. I swear down cuz, I’m not even gassing. Just take two steps in and I guarantee someone will lean across their counter like what you tryna buy? Or what you looking to sell? Like I told you before, it’s the only place in Hatton Garden where anyone can walk in off the street coz there’s no security doors that you have to get buzzed through, it’s basically open to the public. So upstairs you’ve got all these other gemstone sellers and precious metal counters and then in the basement there’s our company, with the biggest counter in the whole emporium, extra cameras above the stall – even though the whole place is camera’d off and there’s security guards upstairs – and then a whole bunch of different watch dealers all around us. And that’s where it gets technical fam, coz these times the company only has this counter as a temporary ting while they’re waiting to move to their own premises: a big shop space above ground, next to all the other shops selling engagement rings and sparkling dreams, with double security doors and a buzzer system and no chance for anyone from outside to even see what the company’s selling. But down there in the basement they have to share the space with all these next stalls that are always buying and shotting kettles, and my boss hated it, I mean every now and then she’d literally say, “I hate working down here,” or, “I can’t wait for us to move to our new offices.” Then she’d chew her lip and go all glassy-eyed with her arms crossed on some vexed tip. She always acted like that, especially when mandem would come into the basement, fresh from doing moves. I mean I’d see mandem come in on the regs, blatantly not more than a day after doing an eat and they’d have like two or three kettles in their hands and they’d go to the watch dealers who wouldn’t ask no questions, and two twos they’d leave with a bagful of p’s – more times stacks of twenties and fifties held together with rubber bands – and a few days later there’d be some new kettles available to purchase, sitting under the glass of one of the watch dealer’s counters. Fam, I swear down the Heart was the spot to go to after doing a lick. One time I even seen these two youts come in – couldn’t’ve been more than sixteen seventeen years old – rocking some dusty adidas trackies, and one of the youts even had motorbike grease smudged down the inside leg of his tracksuit bottoms like he hadn’t even changed his garms after the robbery. He was literally holding two eighteen karat gold Rolex Yacht-Masters – like no way did man inherit that from his grandma – coming into the basement all hungry with his face screwed up against the bright lights, against all the commotion, against the world that he couldn’t find a place in. My boss would stare at the eaters and just shake her head. But then again they’d never approach our counter coz unlike everyone else in the Heart, we were always rocking shirts and ties, looking mad smart and professional, and they could tell – same way as we could – that this wasn’t the company for them.
I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it cuz, allow me. Lemme tell the story my way and you can tell your stories your way ah lie? So that day when she showed us the chameleon, it was late in the afternoon like about four, we only had an hour left until closing time and the minutes were turning heavy and dripping by oil slow, melting on the air, and me and the next brer were leaning on the counter with our focus disintegrating in the electric brightness, while our boss was looking through her phone as she sat at the little table next to the safe.
Two twos I’m leaning on the counter and down the stairs come these three brers looking kinda drippy still, Gucci and Louis from head to toe, and already they had the kettles in their hands like they’d done this before, and they went straight to this one watch dealer whose stall was right opposite ours, on the other side of the room. And just for a second it’s like suttin gripped my ribcage and pulled it tight, coz I recognised Bonez straight away and all I could do was start praying he wouldn’t clock me, or if he did that he’d know not to approach the counter. He turned, as if to take the room in – them man are always looking over their shoulders like it’s a reflex or suttin, you know them man that only sit with their backs to the wall in restaurants n shit – and in that moment his eyes locked onto mine and the grip on my ribcage pulled my heart into my belly like a weight and the backs of my legs went all funny like trembling, coz he smiled at me.
What d’you mean I coulda excused myself? I couldn’t go anywhere bro. If I’d gone toilet, I’d still have had to walk right past him to get there and then it woulda been peak forreal coz he might even have come and clapped his arm round my shoulders. So I stood there as he walked over to the counter. I remember he was rocking these black jeans covered in some mad pattern of pink flowers and golden crowns and a thick blue Balenciaga sweater – you know how them man stay, drip hard even if it means sweating in the summer. So he walked over and bare loud went, “Bloodclaart Snoopz, is this you yeah?”
“Wagwan Bonez,” I said, kinda quiet, and I heard the chair behind me scraping the floor as my boss stood up, and I swear down that basement never felt so empty before, as if we was the only people there, real talk. Bonez looked at me with his eyes all calm like the last drops of Hennessy, leaned over the counter, staring down at all the gemstones on display – they were fake though, company policy innit, the real shit only comes out when someone’s actually copping a stone, coz the real ones stay in the safe all stacked up in sections; diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies and all the rest – then, still looking at the stones in the case he went, “So what, you working with diamonds now yeah?”
I swear that “yeah” was like pepper fam, all sharp and with a kick, and just at that moment in the corner of my eye I could see my boss watching me, doing the whole arms crossed chewing her lip routine that she reserves for when she’s staring at mandem while daydreaming about that new office where real life can’t just walk in freely. Anyway.
I said, “Yeah fam, this is me still.”
Bonez said, “Take my number bro,” and I pulled out my phone like I was on autopilot – anything to get rid of him at this point – and he took my phone and put his number in. I was so nervous I didn’t even press “save” when he gave it back to me, I just locked my phone and obviously I lost the digits. These times Bonez went to go back to his peopledem who were deep in their chat with the watch dealer who was checking out the kettles, and as he walked off he was like, “Holla at me Snoopz, it’s good to see you still.”
I turned and my boss was just standing there, staring at me. I looked away quicktime and pretended to scratch some dirt off my shirt.
Ten minutes later she said, “Right, Gabriel, can you come with me so we can have a quick chat?”
I followed her out from behind the counter and she took me into a private cubicle on the far side of the basement that was usually reserved for independent stone dealers who might want some privacy when finalising a sale. When we sat down, she said, “So, you know you’re on your probationary period.”
“And one of the main things we’re looking at during the trial period is your attendance. You can’t be coming in late to work.”
I wanted to laugh, it was so bate what was coming, especially when I’d never been late to work – apart from this one day when there was a tube strike and she’d even come in later than me.
“Unfortunately you’ve consistently failed to arrive to work on time, so we’re going to have to let you go.”
Not gonna lie, she was smooth with it still. Never even blinked as she said it. Probably spent that ten minutes after Bonez left the counter getting mentally prepped for this bullshit. She had this diary with her that she’d put on the table and I said, “If I’ve been consistently late to work, you must’ve been keeping a record of my attendance and whenever I was late, right?”
She started flicking through the diary, page after page, I woulda laughed forreal if I hadn’t been so pissed. Swear down fam I even seen some pencilled note that said take cat to vet, but nuttin about me and my attendance.
“See, there’s nothing in there about me is there?” I said.
She snapped the diary shut and said, “Well I’m not prepared to discuss it. Can you please leave your keys and pass on the counter before you go.”
Yeah bro, just like that. I told you it was fuckery. Getting fired literally coz I know mandem from the roads like Bonez. Nothing more nothing less. I mean it’s not my fucking fault who my neighbours are ah lie? And she knew she couldn’t say it how it was, coz then I coulda called her out for her prejudice and it woulda been her job on the line, so she made up some bullshit about lateness to work. Joke ting. But I wasn’t gonna cause a scene, you get me. I just did it all calm and polite, left my keys and pass on the table just like she asked me to, then went upstairs and left the building.
You see, if I’d made a whole heap of noise about it, that would make me the first person they’ll suspect when this ting pops off. I know you wanted someone on the inside, but it’s all patterned bro, it’s been patterned. Trust me. I got all the info we need, I done know the whole routine. We just need to do it asap that’s all. Friday afternoon is when they’ll least expect it and all six of us? They won’t be ready. Only thing is I ain’t opening my mouth, otherwise someone might recognise my voice. And don’t bring Sav on this one, he’s too quick to buss his gun. I know, we discussed this already. Only as a last resort. All I’m saying is that chameleon’s mine coz – alright alright bro, I’ma stop talking now, just gimme suttin to smoke…
Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted debut novel by Gabriel Krauze, is out now