As Tony, the narrator of the story, is leaving the warehouse where he works as a cheese loader, the police question him about a suitcase that he is carrying out. It is empty, as it happens—returned by a friend who had borrowed it and had been hoping to keep it for himself.
This short opening episode, embellished with some pithy references to the police, economically establishes that Tony and his workmates are no respecters of private property and that the police are their common enemy. Tony elaborates his attitude toward the law in a comic account of cheese stealing and of the relish with which he and his family savor the stolen food, thus revealing himself as a married man with a poorly paid job and with a history of lawbreaking.
He then looks back to his childhood and explains his development as a habitual thief, starting with his experience in the infants’ school when, sensing something morally wrong with the idea of a “buying and selling” lesson, he pocketed the token coins without detection or punishment. Subsequent childish experiments taught him that, although “money was trouble,” it was safer to steal money than things, and that it was best to keep silent. Petty thieving soon became a way of life.
Tony’s account of the delight with which he used to plunge the goods he had stolen into the river demonstrates his contempt for possessions and consumerism and, by implication, for an unjust and hypocritical society. He expresses his notions of an ideal society, in which everyone is equally provided for and equally treated, in the only terms with which he is familiar: like a prison, but with everyone free.
The evolution of his antiauthoritarian philosophy is essential to an understanding of his relationship with Doris, whom, in the recollected part of the narrative, he meets at a fish-and-chip shop, and who agrees to accompany him on his thieving “expeditions” (her word). Doris, who is still at school, has no need to steal; her father is a prosperous scrap merchant. She does it “for...
(The entire section is 840 words.)