Gabriel Krauze Shares The First Chapter Of His Debut Novel ‘Who They Was’ 📖

Already nominated for the Booker Prize 2020, Who They Was is a tale of a man seeming to co-exist in two worlds. Highlighting the grittier side to London living, author Gabriel Krauze, the son of Polish immigrants, draws on his own life of crime while making astute observations of the world around. He also happens to be studying for a degree. Hard hitting, Krauze is a writer’s writer. Hard-to-swallow imagery and ideas sit alongside an awe-inspiring use of the English and its multifaceted slanguage. Sex, drugs, rap ‘n’ roll. All present and correct.

Looking to infiltrate the literary world and beyond, Who They Was paints an authentic picture of road life, glimpses of which have previously only been seen in a handful of films and TV shows. Autobiographical fiction that resembles a world that, to some, will be more familiar than others. Largely driven by misogyny, aggression and power, it’s an exploration of morals, ethics and something of a coming-of-age saga.

Read the first chapter, DON’T WATCH FACE, exclusively below. The book is out now. (Introduction by Chantelle Fiddy)


AND JUMP OUT the whip and I’m hitting the pavement and it’s this moment – when you jump out of the car and it’s too late to go back – when you know that you’re definitely gonna do it, even though the way the adrenaline bursts through your body makes you wish for a second that you weren’t here. And now we’re creeping up the street, she’s too far ahead of us, we got the timing wrong but we can’t run to catch up because that will alert her and she’ll turn around, so we’re creeping fast. The bally is hugging my face tight and I’ve also pulled my hood over it and I feel the adrenaline explode in the pit of my chest like a dying star and it’s like my entire body has turned into the pumping of my heart.

And I’m creeping up fast to get behind her and Gotti is right there beside me and she hasn’t heard us, not the way we’re moving, low to the ground, black cotton Nike tracksuits on so there’s no sound of clothes rustling, Nike trainers silent on the pavement. And for a few heartbeats I notice how everything on the street seems like someone’s idea of a peaceful life, sun floating overhead, bulging in the sky’s belly, washing the street below in a brightness that breaks over everything; neat rows of perfect houses, polished green bushes lining the pavement, the cool metal smell of morning, and now the woman pushes a gate open and turns off the street and she’s walking up a small path to her front door.

And we’ve fucked up the timing but we can still get her on her doorstep so we start running, still tryna be stealthy but now we really have to be quick before we lose her and we turn through the little gate – she’s almost at the door, digging into her handbag for the house key – and we run up the path and then we’re right there behind her, I can reach out and touch her hair, I can smell shampoo and softness and then expensive perfume which almost makes me feel sick, and in this moment everything I’ve ever known falls away, memory, past, future, and then the street, the morning and everything else around us disappears as if I’m forgetting the world and there is only Now, crystal sharp, on the doorstep. And before I can get my arms locked around her neck to put her to sleep, she turns around.

And she screams. She sees me – or just my eyes and a bit of mouth through three holes in the black bally I’m wearing – as if realising a nightmare she didn’t know she was in and we know it’s all scatty now, fuck it, no chance of this being silent and unnoticed so I grab her anyway, my arm pushing into her throat as I turn her around and hold her tight against my chest and Gotti is trying to pop the Cartier off her wrist but he can’t for some reason, he’s proper straining and the metal is biting into her wrist and she’s screaming just take it just take it and now the pounding in my heart and belly is fully gone because we’re actually doing it, nothing else exists in this moment, everything is still and calm inside me and I say stop fucking struggling in her ear but Gotti can’t rip the watch off even though it’s like she’s giving him her wrist and I can see he’s like whatdafuck because it’s never happened before that he couldn’t pop someone’s watch off – and this one has diamonds going all round the bezel so we really want it, like it’s easily worth ten fifteen bags.

And I think fuck it because she’s already screaming, no point tryna put her to sleep now, might as well help Gotti. The front door – solid white with a brass knocker – opens and there’s a boy standing there, about seventeen eighteen years old and he just stares at us like frozen and says Mum and I look at him, our eyes meet and in his eyes and also over his shoulder behind him I can see a different life to my own, something better maybe, something without so many sharp edges and broken things. And we’re still tryna tear the watch off and suddenly Gotti turns round and bangs the woman’s son in the face onetime and the boy drops and Gotti slams the door shut and we’re alone with her again. And I clock she’s got a big diamond ring on her wedding finger and I try to pull it off but it’s not moving, the skin all bunches up and it hurts her and I can’t twist it off because she has a wedding band on the same finger in front of the diamond ring, basically blocking it.

So I snap her finger back, it folds straight over so the tip touches her wrist in one go and it’s strange because I always thought that if you break someone’s finger you’ll actually feel the bones break, hear it even, but I don’t feel anything at all, it’s like folding paper, as if the finger was naturally supposed to bend back like that and she’s screaming to me take it just take it but I can’t, in fact within seconds I can see the break begin to swell up the base of her finger and now I know I’m definitely not getting the ring off. And the door opens again and there’s a man standing there in a red sweater and we know it’s all fucked now, we have to get away but we’re still hoping we can at least cut out with something to show for our efforts and the man grabs his wife around her waist and pulls her towards him, drags her into the doorway while Gotti’s like Snoopz come, fuck this, we need to cut blood and he’s turning away from the door ready to duss back to the whip which is waiting in the middle of the road and in my head I’m like fuck dat I’m not leaving with nothing. And the man drags his wife into the house and as he does this he’s pulling the door shut and I can see their entrance hall is carpeted beige all thick and soft like the kind of carpet that holds the heat of a resting sunbeam so you actually wanna lie down and fall asleep on it and mad quick I reach through the door as it’s closing and manage to grab the woman by her wrist and I pull her arm out just as the door is slamming shut and the man slams the front door hard on his wife’s arm and I hear her scream.

Gotti turns and runs down the path to the gate and I see through the slightly open door that the woman’s dropped her handbag so I bend down and grab it quicktime and the door opens fully again and the man has a cricket bat which he swings at me but I’m already ducking down so it misses my head even though I feel the rush of air against my bally as it swipes past. I turn and run with the handbag, down the path, out the gate, but the getaway whip isn’t there, it’s already moving slow down the road, one of the back doors is wide open and Gotti is shouting for me to get in and the man is running after me waving the cricket bat above his head roaring mad rage – no words just pure noise – and I’m running after the whip, inhaling the morning, glass needles of sunlight piercing through the sky and falling all around me and I’m not sure I’m gonna make it, like I can’t get level with the open passenger door, like nah this is so peak, it can’t end like this, it can’t— But then I do and I dive in head first onto the backseat and Gotti grabs onto me and – with my legs still sticking out – the car bursts forward down the road, Gotti pulls me in, reaches over me, slams the door shut and now Tyrell is driving us away.

We turn out of the street onto the main road and we’re talking to Tyrell like whatdafuck, man couldn’t get the belly fam, that was a mad ting, and I pull off my balaclava and Gotti pulls off his bally and it’s like coming up for air after diving into some deep ocean and staying down there for so long that you hadn’t realised you were drowning and Gotti says blood I don’t know whatdafuck happened but I couldn’t rip her watch off, I just couldn’t, I kept trying but it wouldn’t pop, and Tyrell says swear down fam? but he says it all flat and distant coz he’s focusing mad hard on getting us out of the area quicktime, tension creasing his face and turning it ashy yellow, but on a real he’s moving smart; not driving overly fast like it’s some bate getaway, just driving like he’s got somewhere he needs to be that morning. Plus the car looks right; nothing flashy, but at the same time not too battered or fucked up looking like it’s obviously some second-hand ting that’s gonna get burned out later.

As he drives back down the high road, past shops and the type of normal morning life that could be anywhere, a fed car comes screaming up the road on the other side, blue lights spinning off onto buildings and windows in pale slices that disintegrate in the morning brightness and me and Gotti slide off the backseat and lie down in the footwell because we know that police car was called for us. We lie there cramped up on the floor of the car, our legs pressing against each other, making sure it looks like there’s no one on the backseat, heads down next to dirt and dust and I can see the detail of the rubber foot mat, which suddenly becomes something significant, its shape, texture, colour, its— And the fed car flies past us in the opposite direction on its way to the street we left just a minute ago and I’m surprised as well, because you always hear how police response times aren’t good enough and all that shit, but this was fast, I mean like the whole move itself couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes really, I guess the son or the husband called the feds straight away while we were still clamping up the woman tryna rip her shit off, and true it’s about ten in the morning, there’s no traffic round here and what we’ve done is kinda fucking – well, no wonder they came for us so fast. But they never even notice Tyrell, never even look in the direction of our car and we’re well down the high road now. We sit back up. We’re on our way back to the spot, we can be easy now, we’ve gotten away with it, they won’t get us now.

And now Gotti is saying you’re sick fam you’re sick, proper bigging me up to Tyrell – Snoopz is sick you know, he just wouldn’t leave he says and his eyes are wide and he smiles white white white. And I’m like fuck dat fam I wasn’t gonna cut without nuttin and Tyrell says what did you get fam? And I show him the handbag – it’s Prada, probably worth a bag on its own – and Tyrell says is there any p’s in there? So I start going through it.

It’s just the trinkets of a rich woman; perfume and expensive hand cream and some business cards and next random shit that I don’t register because it’s not like we can sell any of it. And then I get her wallet and Gotti’s talking to Tyrell saying man’s gotta phone the others coz we don’t know where they are blood, and I’m going through her wallet making sure Tyrell doesn’t clock it and I’ve just seen £700 all in £50 notes in there, so I quickly pull it out and slip it deep into my pocket because I know Tyrell and the others will want a cut but I’m thinking fuck dat, it’s mine and Gotti’s, no one risked their freedom and did any next-level madness the way me and Gotti just did – even if it did go wrong – and since it’s such a petty amount for what we’re tryna get I’m taking it and no one’s gonna know any better. Usually it’s Nightmare, Gotti and me who get the biggest cut like 30 per cent each of the lick. Nightmare for scoping the ting and putting us onto it, me and Gotti for doing the eat and taking the biggest risk, and the rest goes to Tyrell since all he really has to do is drive us to wherever the move is gonna pop off and then get us out of there. And now Tyrell says what’s in the wallet fam, any p’s? and I’m like nah g, just bare cards and I pull out a black American Express card and we’re all like shiiit, that’s how you know the watch and ring woulda been some mad p’s still, those were definitely some next-level rich people says Gotti. I mean we already knew she was mad rich from the way she dressed, the jewellery, the fact it’s a normal weekday and she was just having some casual morning not really doing anything – probably coming back from a coffee shop or maybe she’d just had her hair done because her hair really did smell good – and the yard she walked up to with the big white door, the kinda house that none of us will ever be able to afford, although we’d like to think we might get there someday. But the black American Express card is something else, it indicates another level of wealth; I’d only heard about it in certain lyrics, rappers like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, Kanye as well, stunting about how they’re balling coz they’ve got black cards – the ultimate symbol of wealth, of being part of a true social elite, of being above the majority.

I put the card in my pocket, a souvenir of today, something I’m probably never gonna have with my own name embossed on it anyway, might as well have somebody else’s, not that I’ll be able to use it, it’s probably cancelled already says Tyrell, and everything is feeling normal again; the sun is irrelevant, weather is just weather, people in the street are just people doing whatever people do on a Monday morning, there are shops and cars and noise. Whatever.

We pass through Golders Green; children are at school by now, people are having breakfast in caffs, shops are open, buses are picking up and dropping off people, all following the different and unconnected threads of their lives. Gotti is on the phone to Nightmare telling him how the move fucked up so now we’re going back to the spot in Willesden where we linked up in the morning and at a certain point I see the other whip ahead of us – I’m not even sure when they joined us, somewhere after Golders Green – and now I’m just chatting to Gotti and we’re still mad surprised about how he couldn’t pop the watch coz I’ve seen him do it on like four other occasions, always on his first go, no problem, but for some reason this time it fucked up. And we’re going through it all, what happened on the doorstep and the sound of the door slamming on her arm and laughing, like myman blatantly slammed the door on his own wife’s arm coz I managed to reach in and pull her arm out I say. And this is the thing, there’s no remorse, I don’t feel any remorse, Gotti doesn’t feel any remorse, and it’s not because we’re evil or any basic moral bullshit like that. The thing is I don’t actually feel anything about it at all. She defo doesn’t spend a second thinking about individuals like me, about what it’s like to be me. She doesn’t care about me and I don’t care about her. And it’s not that she doesn’t care about me because of what I just did. She already didn’t care about me before she encountered me and it’s all because we’re locked away in our own little worlds. So fuck remorse. No point wasting time trying to feel anything if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Anyway, so—

So we pull up in the car park in front of the little block in Willesden where we all met up earlier this morning. I stuff my bally into the pocket with the money just so there’s a reason for that pocket to look a bit full. We get out of the whip and Tyrell and Gotti are lighting up cigarettes as the other whip pulls in, the gunmetal grey Porsche, which is what Nightmare always rolls in with his nephew Pest driving so he can spot the people worth eating. It’s an ideal car because it’s too balling – too expensive – to be associated with a scatty eat, so Nightmare can proper clock people from inside it and calculate who we should jump out on. Plus, when we drive in convoy – usually them ahead of us since they’re scoping and we’re the ones who actually do the madness – it looks as if there’s no way we could be together since their car looks cris and I mean come on, them man in a Porsche, us in some deadout second-hand ting. No one’s drawing any chicks in our whip, you get me.

It’s a good spot here, away from the ends but at the same time not too far from the blocks, none of us live anywhere on this road or have connections to it, and the car-park area is surrounded by a fence and tall bushes so no one can see us from the road. Nightmare gets out the whip with his forehead all knotted up. Pest gets out as well, asking questions, but he gets ignored as me and Gotti start chatting to Nightmare, going through it all over again, showing him the handbag and dash dat man, fuck dat he says, maybe we’ll come back for it later coz dem kinda bags go for p’s still, and I go and stash the bag under one of the tall bushes next to the fence and cover it in dead leaves. Gotti and Nightmare are talking away from everyone else, voices low, Nightmare is the big man who’s putting us onto this shit but he knows wagwan, especially with Gotti. Tyrell and Pest are just sideman really, they’re only drivers, they’re not the ones who make shit pop off, them man ain’t got the heart for it like me and Gotti do. It’s funny how they both proper care about their appearances even when they go on a move. Pest is always rocking his white gold tooth with the big diamond in it and Tyrell’s rocking some fresh white Moschino trousers like he’s going raving. It’s not like man’s gonna chirpse some peng tings and get their digits on the way to doing a move. But forreal it makes sense not to look greazy when you’re the driver since you don’t wanna draw attention or look like you can’t afford the whip you’re driving.

So Nightmare and Gotti are talking, frowns cutting up their foreheads and as I walk over I hear Nightmare saying nah Gotti we have to get a next whip right now. Nightmare hunches over, leaning in, Gotti sticking his hands down the front of his tracksuit bottoms, turning away whenever Nightmare leans in as if he doesn’t want the words coming out of Nightmare’s mouth to get too close to him and I can’t catch what’s being said. Gotti goes fuck dat blood I’m not doing that kinda bateness after what just happened, no way, and he starts talking about how the only thing he trusts is his own instinct and it just don’t feel right to go out there again. And Nightmare is rushing to get words out his mouth but Gotti turns away like nah I ain’t doing that, that’s mad bate. He draws his cigarette hard and dashes it. I say wagwan Nightmare? And he starts breaking it down; that we need to buy a next whip if we’re gonna do more moves, so he wants one of us to run up in a clothes shop in Golders Green where there’s one saleswoman who’s always rocking a Daytona Rolex and pop the watch off her wrist so that we can use the p’s from shotting it to buy a new getaway whip. Obviously we’re all gonna eat a lickle p off it for ourselves as well, he adds quickly and then looks away to spit into a bush. And Gotti’s turning to me like nah Snoopz, fuck dat, I just have this feeling like I know suttin’s gonna go wrong – and I can hear cars passing on the road beyond the bushes but it’s all distant as if the world is drifting away from me.

It’s never been a problem before. Nightmare always cops our getaway whips just like he bought the one we were driving in this morning; I mean he’s the one who put this team together in the first place so it shouldn’t be an issue. He knows me and Gotti are certified eaters, knows we’re on this ting, if anything this is the first move that’s proper gone wrong, he should know that we’ll make back the loss and more next time. But now he wants us to go and do a proper madness – I mean going back to Golders Green which is basically where we just came from – and all just to get money for a next whip. Gotti’s right as well, it’s gonna be bate round there now, feds are definitely gonna be looking for man. And then running up in a shop in broad daylight? Robbing a sales assistant inside a shop? No creep up, no stealth, no nothing. Just straight in there, rago, clamping her up all scatty n shit, and I won’t be able to rock my bally coz I’ll probably get noticed before I even get in the shop and I don’t know where the cameras are and alladat.

I look at Gotti and Nightmare puts his arm around me and walks with me to the side, away from the others, but his arm feels too tight around my neck and the sleeve of his leather jacket creaks like a snake shedding its skin and he smells of stale cigarettes and aftershave, and he goes Snoopz I know you’re on it, it’s nuttin, all you have to do is go in the shop; when you see the woman, walk up to her on a calm ting and then quickly pop the watch off her wrist.

I’m always hungry, even though I’ve got p’s stacked, but I always want more so I let him walk me to the side, although his arm across my shoulders feels heavier and heavier. So I ask Nightmare how do I do it exactly? He starts showing me on his Rolly how I have to grab the watch face and jerk it at an angle, explaining how the sudden pressure will break the bit where the strap is attached to the face. I’m trying out the way he’s shown me to do it on his wrist but then I think fuck dat, if Gotti’s not doing it, nah, this is how I’m gonna end up getting shift for all the madness I’ve been doing. I let go of his watch and say nah man this shit seems too bate to me, too many tings that could go wrong, I’m not doing it.

I turn around so I don’t have to see Nightmare’s face and walk over to Gotti. For a moment, behind me is only silence and then the world drifts back in, noisy, rushing, constant. I get close to Gotti and he already knows I’ve said no and his face is all calm now and the blackness of his eyes has melted and he says trust me Snoopz, it’s better to listen to your instinct and don’t watch face. Don’t watch face. Who gives a fuck what them man think, you ain’t got nuttin to prove brudda, man already know you’re on this ting. It’s a bad idea to do that shit brudda, I just know it’s gonna go wrong.

I don’t really notice how we leave them. Nightmare says something about how he’ll phone us later and we spud Pest and Tyrell. Tyrell walks off towards Cricklewood, Nightmare and his nephew drive off in the Porsche and me and Gotti make our way back to South Kilburn. I tell him what I was thinking, that Nightmare shoulda just bought a next whip so we could go out there again and wagwan with dat fam? I thought my man’s supposed to be on some boss shit organising the whole ting and instead he’s moving like he ain’t got p’s, fuck dat I say. And Gotti’s nodding his head going forreal forreal, and I think we both know – although we don’t say it – that we won’t be doing moves with Nightmare ever again.

Grey clouds like heavy sponges tug on the sky’s skin and the sun hides its face from the city as we get close to South Kilburn. I give Gotti his half of the seven hundred that I slipped out of the wallet, which raises his spirits a bit, and he tells me to dash the black American Express card as we walk down Kilburn Lane. I crouch next to a drain and pretend to drop the card down it, tucking it up into my sleeve instead. I want something to remember this day. No way can it be used to trace us unless it gets found and I’m not planning to let that happen. We carry on back towards South Kilburn, back to the blocks, to go and cotch in Bimz’s yard. We can buy a draw or two now, or maybe we’ll get a q, get proper faded, and then jump on the tube all high and numb and go back to east London. As I told Gotti this morning when we set out to do the mad ting, I have to make sure I’m up nice and early tomorrow, full of energy for my 9 a.m. uni lecture.

[Thumbnail image c/o Amit Lennon]

Posted on September 14, 2020