A silky square of material, to be worn around the neck, it looks like an innocent addition to anyone’s wardrobe, but it isn’t. I know, because I stole it.
Central London, October 2019
I was half-way down Oxford Street when I noticed something flapping on my coat sleeve – a small scarf, the label still attached. Picked up, but not paid for. An hour or so before, I’d seen a nice sweater in a shop window. It took a while to locate it on the rails and at some point I noticed another item dangling from a rack and slipped it on my arm. The sweater was nothing special, so decided against buying it and swanned out of the shop as only an accidental shoplifter can….
When I told my cousin this story, she confessed to a similar crime. She once paid for everything in her supermarket trolley, but not for the loose carrots in the plastic bag hanging on her arm….Perhaps we shared criminal tendencies. There’s the odd skeleton rattling in the family closet of course, but no recent scandals or skulduggery. Putting some money in a charity box would surely keep the Universe happy. We were hardly a menace to society, but many pensioners are.
A lot of them are prisoners. Mostly men, in cells for offences committed years before. Thousands of them over 60 – and hundreds over 70 – a growing proportion of the prison population. Some British jails have even installed stair-lifts and there must be a few elderly inmates who’ve forgotten what they were actually locked up for...
The woman in Oxford Street didn’t mean to do anything wrong, but the teenage student in 1960s Sussex, did. The book had lovely pictures of famous paintings, so I smuggled it out of the library under my duffle coat. A couple of pages turned out to be missing, cut out by another art lover…and when I later lent the book to another student, she ‘forgot’ to give it back. My room-mate said it was Karma.
A boyfriend of the time despised such petty crimes of passion. A lanky, Socialist soul, he stole on principle. Big stores like Marks and Spencer were Enemies of the People, symbols of the System it was his duty to subvert. He’d ‘try on’ several items of clothing – one shirt on top of another, then – Michelin Man descending an escalator – he’d walk out of the shop. No one ever challenged him. He’d give some of the spoils to other, poorer people, like local beggars. A Re-distribution of Wealth, he called it. The things he kept were always in awful taste, in tragic patterns and colours – a crime of another kind – so he didn’t last long.
Books and clothes, watches, wallets and bikes. Treasures from an ancient site, other people’s paintings. A vast and shifting mountain of stolen goods. And that’s not counting the unromantic stuff that seems to find its own way out of the office, staff-room, hotel or cafe. Articles indifferent to history – like pens and paper, bars of soap or sachets of sugar, that may – or may not – come with the cost of a bed or a coffee. In grey areas, the lines blur…
Elsewhere, someone draws his own. He maps out a territory, then makes an age-old calculation. Is the prize worth the risk of being caught and convicted? The answer for a career criminal, with a lifestyle to maintain, must be yes, I suppose. I’ve never actually met one, unless you count the retired banker of the sub-prime sort, now a local councillor. This man’s no Legend, not like the masked robber who once stole millions from a Royal Mail train – in nice, used, untraceable notes – and they’re both miles away from the cyber scammer in a boiler room, faceless in front of a screen – but all three akin in their appetite for the Most Wanted item of them all. Money. It’s also what drew a small-time intruder through a council block window in London. I’d been the victim of crime before – a snatch and grab in the street – but this was worse.
Holborn, August, 2002
The kitchen looked out onto a walkway that other residents could use, but rarely did. The entrance to the block was meant to be secure, by coded fob only. The flat was always warm – communal boilers in the basement, pipes in every room – and in hot weather, near-unbearable… and one night I left the kitchen window down, just a fraction, maybe by mistake – and while my sons and I were sleeping, someone slight and agile climbed in…
The next morning, the window was wide open. My handbag, hanging in the hall, had gone – but apart from a sandwich in the fridge, nothing else was taken. I was in pieces, but the boys went to school quite cheerfully; they both enjoyed Drama. A policeman came and dusted the glass for prints. An inside job, he thought, too kind to add the obvious. The unlocked window had been if not an invitation, an opportunity. We’d been lucky – we could have been murdered in our beds… The bag, quite empty, was later found in a bush.
If the peckish Person Unknown had felt bad or afraid, it hadn’t stopped him – while my ability to beat myself up about any Error of Judgement was and is second to none. Though not a Catholic, I’m very good at Guilt, so when I swindled a partner of the 1970s, the real victim was me. The last Confession, for now.
A man with musical hands and sudden flashes of temper, he owed me a lot of money – a loan made years before – but made no attempt to repay it and refused even to discuss the matter. I felt: cheated. The basic household expenses, like food and drink, were my department and one day, behind a closed door, I began to inflate the total – fiddle the books – just now and again – so that the half he handed over was much larger than it should have been, thus making at least a dent in the debt. The figures were never questioned and he never found out – but I knew, and the price was far too high.
‘Oh do yourself a favour, darling!’ My hairdresser-guru of the time thought my angst was extreme. ‘After all,’ he said, lifting my flowing locks, ‘no one died!’ In his world-view, Straight-and-Narrow was not the only Path and Guilty Secrets were the spice of life; everyone should have a few. But sitting in the adjustable chair that day, scissors were the only solution. I left the salon, my hair cut penitentially short.
I now live in a low-crime area, but here, like everywhere, theft is the commonest crime. The usual targets: car keys, phones and jewellery, but sometimes Neighbourhood Watch tells tales of other Objects of Desire. Last year, birds were abducted from an aviary, horses from a field and lead flashing from a church roof. Hanging baskets are always popular, but ladders and lawn mowers aren’t far behind. Garden and shed crime is on the rise…. and for a friend of mine, this has its positive side.
Her second husband came with unusual baggage – a collection of vintage garden ornaments, including a dwarf-like statue with a red hat, a beard and a malevolent grin, ‘more like a troll’. His pride and joy. She hated it. When they were out one day, someone saw the spikes on the fence and got through a side-gate instead. He ignored the stone angel, the Victorian lamp-post, even the BBQ set, but made off with the gnome.
The police didn’t do missing gnomes. When she said something about it going back where it belonged, below the earth, like in those German folk-tales, the husband went off in a huff and put an appeal on Facebook, offering a reward for the creature’s return – which caused another row. He still haunts car-boot sales and keeps an eye on eBay and sometimes, she complains, ‘he gives me funny looks….’ There’s also a reproachful patch on the lawn, where the gnome once stood. The grass grows differently there. Every crime leaves more than one trace….