Look, I’m a thief. I’m not going to pretend otherwise or give it any fancy name or make out that I’m some kind of latter day Robin or Robina Hood. Though come to that, Robin can be a woman’s name, too. But it’s not mine. My Mum landed me with the name Verity. You couldn’t make it up. I do it because I’m good at it and it beats working in a call centre or a kitchen and it beats signing on benefits hands down.
I have certain principles. I generally leave old ladies alone, though how much of that is for moral reasons and how much because I couldn’t stand the ignominy of making the headlines as one of those wrong ‘uns who get beaten up by a sweet old lady who’s really a karate black belt, I don’t know.
But there are some folk who ask for it, and there’s no denying it. Personally I don’t do hotel rooms – when I stay in a hotel, it’s for pleasure, not business! – but my mate Alison does, and the tales she has to tell about people leaving their jewellery on open display on the desk or dressing table, well, if that’s not tantamount to putting out a notice saying “please steal me” I don’t know what is. Even the most honest of chambermaids or housekeepers or whatever the establishment in question chooses to call them wouldn’t be human if they weren’t tempted.
The nearest equivalent in my particular speciality, working the streets (no, not like that!) is the posh mobile phone on full public display, often hanging so precariously out of a pocket, it’s a wonder it doesn’t fall out of its own free will. True, there’s a risk factor involved – they can be traceable and failing that, rendered remotely unusable.
But sometimes I still can’t resist. And when I saw Ms Dressed up to the Nines talking on one phone and with another hanging out of the pocket of her coat – which I suspected might be real fur, something I heartily disapprove of, I have my standards! – well, all that would have held me back was it not being enough of a challenge. I don’t need to indulge in “taking candy from a baby” reallocation of property (though I swear most babies would be far more protective of their candy than a lot of grown-ups are of their possessions!). I’m good at what I do. That’s not just being boastful. I’ve never got caught, though I’ve sailed pretty close to the wind at times. And it’s not just luck!
Still, as Alison said about the jewellery, it was virtually sending me a voicemail saying “please steal me”. Which I did, as Fur Coat Features carried on with her conversation. I restored a little professional pride by relieving someone of her top-end watch (I’ve become quite an expert horologist) and amusing myself at the thought of her suddenly realising her wrist was bare, and was seriously tempted by a handbag I saw in a café. Take it from someone who knows what they’re talking about, that old putting the strap round the table leg trick would only deter an amateur. But I decided I’d had enough of work for one day and was going to enjoy my Mocha and Apple Strudel Slice while I did the crossword. I’m good at crosswords. Just as I was leaving the café, the phone rang. I mean that phone, not my phone. I thought I’d turned it off – you’re getting careless, I told myself. It was a surprisingly no-nonsense ring tone, like an old-fashioned office phone. I resisted the temptation to answer, and it went onto voicemail. A man’s voice, quite well-educated, but with an unpleasant rasp to it. “Will you answer your bloody phone, Annette? If you’ve lost it, I’m warning you you’re in trouble. I was told you were good at this and that scattiness was just an act, but perhaps I should have listened to my instincts. You’d better take him out, like we arranged. If you don’t, I’m in big trouble, and trust me, babe, so are you!”
I had heard people say that on hearing some news, both in their own life or in the wider world, people felt as if “everything changed in a couple of seconds”. But this was the first time I had experienced it myself.
Some of it, I may as well admit, was wounded pride. It was also the first time I felt like a “petty criminal”. I’ve never heard anyone use that phrase in a complimentary sense, no matter what side of the law they’re on. Petty criminals are despised by the honest and the dishonest alike. It probably doesn’t help, in my case, that my Grandmother used to call the toilet “The Petty”. I doubt she was unique. Probably thousands of Grandmothers call it that.
This is, I suppose, where I ought to say that at least I could think I was morally superior to Fur Coat Features and not just on account of the chunk of dead animal she had draped around her. But that wasn’t, to put it mildly, the first thought that sprang to mind. I had stolen a phone from a hitwoman. Or a hitperson. Or whatever. It was no wonder she had so few apparent scruples about the coat.
I could imagine the conversation between Fur Coat Features and a well-meaning passer-by. “Love, I hate to tell you this, but I think someone’s jus taken your phone! What did she look like? Oh, about your age, I’d say, though I’m not that good at ages, tall, fair hair, wearing a dark blue coat and check scarf and – boots, yes, she had boots on.”
At this point, another hypothetical passer-by (who had come to life most disconcertingly) joined in the conversation. “I think I saw her going into the Cosy Kettle. And she was limping a bit.”
I was. I was “breaking in” the boots in question (I always buy boots and shoes new. I’d no more nick them than I would underwear, even if it were practical to do so!) and to be frank, I’d bought a pair that were a half-size too small, but told myself it would be fine. I had a blister on my left little toe that had seemed very minor that morning but had turned extremely painful and told myself that I had broken my own rule about always wearing comfortable footwear for work. But I hadn’t realised I was so obviously limping. The blister became more painful and seemed to swell in an instant. I would have to grit my teeth and make a conscious effort not to limp. Or buy a cheap pair of comfortable shoes that were too big for me. But might that not call attention to myself?
I more or less immediately dismissed the idea of “casually” putting the phone down on a bench. Both experience and mentors have taught me that there’s nothing more likely to make people notice you than doing something in a studiedly casual manner.
Violence of any kind has never been my style. Everyone has their own speciality. I’ve just been musing on drawing attention to oneself, well, there’s that old journalistic truism, if it bleeds, it leads and I’m quite content for someone who’s fist-happy to make my own exploits look decidedly tame and not worth newsprint or screen space, which, let’s be honest (!) means it’s less likely to interest the local boys and girls in blue. I also know my limitations. I’m not what you might call weedy, and I’m reasonably fit, but I’m not what you might call Charlotte Atlas, either. I’ve also never liked mess.
I wasn’t armed. I didn’t even have the largely symbolic (though still sharp) little ornamental penknife I once discovered in a handbag I had reallocated. Did it ever really lull me into a sense of false security? It would be nearer the truth to say I didn’t think about such matters at all. When there was a tabloid –fuelled knife crime scare, I decided that even though I was hardly the classic stop and search suspect (and of course that’s not fair, but that’s how it is) being arrested had to be accepted, even though so far I’d avoided it, as an occupational hazard, and carrying a knife wasn’t a good idea. In any case, Fur Coat Features would most likely be carrying a gun. I had once gone out with a soldier (though he was in the Catering Corps and was more likely to have wielded a whisk in anger than a firearm) and I was okay about it, but there’s still something nasty and ominous about that three letter word. And even if I had still been carrying my knife – well, in the first place, no matter what the papers might tell you, in most cases a gun will – well, out-gun! – a knife and if Fur Coat Features managed to get hold of that as well….. all in all, I was potentially in serious bother and suddenly my pick-pocketing skills didn’t seem to offer any way out of it. If I get out of this, I thought, I will turn away from a life of crime. I’m only a petty criminal, after all. But two things occurred to me with throbbing rapidity. I doubted if I would. Not long-term. I’d got used to a certain standard of living and it was about the only thing I was really good at. Well, apart from crosswords. I was pretty sure I had once been good at other things, or people had thought I had potential, but I had lost interest, got out of practise. Still, in that, at least, I had a choice. The second thought was far darker and made me feel physically sick. Would I ever get out of it, or would it pursue me? Even if Fur Coat Features were arrested and detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the world she lived in had tendrils. I could almost see those tendrils, and almost feel them around my neck.
I won’t say I was the kind of woman who never cried – I was a positive water spout when it came to movies, and I don’t mean the “classic tear-jerkers” but the made for TV “illness of the week” sort. But I couldn’t remember when I had last cried about something in real life. Now an absurd mixture of the mess I was in and my painful foot made tears prick at my eyes. Probably my fragile emotional state made me act entirely out of character. Even then, I don’t think I’d have sought out a police station – but I was walking right past one. On autopilot, I went inside. It wasn’t even a relief to realise that somebody else was in bother. But they quite definitely were. A woman was delivering a harangue in one of those calm, cool, voices that can be far more blood-chilling for the person on the receiving end than a hot tempered rant. “I just can’t believe how careless you were! I should have listened when I was warned you were irresponsible. You do realise this whole operation is now ruined, and we may never catch our suspect.”
“Ma’am, I still don’t know how it happened.”
“Well, I do. I bet you had the phone hanging out of your back pocket.”
They became aware that somebody was waiting at the desk. “Go and see to them!” “Ma’am” said, tersely, “While I see if I can salvage something out of this, though God knows how!”
Even though I hadn’t paid much attention to her appearance I knew at once (though she had taken off the coat) that it was Fur Coat Features.
“I found this phone,” I said, “On the pavement. I thought I’d better hand it in.” I think a fly on the wall would be hard pushed to decide whose expression was the more relieved. “Ma’am” came out to the desk, and spontaneously shook my hand. “There are things I can’t tell you, I’m afraid,” she said, “But you have helped us more than you will ever know. And it – restores our faith in human nature to be reminded that there are some honest and decent people out there. I’m afraid – we’ve not heard about any reward ….”
“That’s fine,” I said, and I can virtue-signal with the best of them.
Well, I’ve been honest and decent, or at least given a reasonable impression of it, for at least two weeks, but I’m getting bored, and that woman with her wallet sticking out of her pocket was just asking for it to be nicked. I wish I’d taken my chance.
But I was in a hurry anyway – I had enlisted for that course in website building. I always did well in Computer Studies – I’d nearly forgotten about that.
No harm in keeping my options open.
But come what may, I’m leaving mobile phones well alone in future! Even if they are hanging out of back pockets virtually asking me to steal them.