Tuesday 23 July 2013

Hello, hello, hello. What's all this, then?

My whole life flashed before me when the two men in black unexpectedly appeared on my doorstep on Saturday morning.

Or at any rate it did once I had grasped that they were policemen. This took me a while: first because they were implausibly young, secondly because they were wearing combat fatigues rather than crisp white shirts, and finally because they were simply the last people I was expecting.

How a policeman looks in my mind's eye

I had not spoken to a policeman for around 20 years, when my last Border terrier but two made a poorly judged lunge at the letters our temporary postman was ill-advisedly waving at him.

This time I was pretty sure that my dogs had not harassed anyone, so the part of my life that chiefly flashed by was the 1980s, as I tried to work out which of the secretaries I dallied with at the time might finally have dobbed me in for sexual harassment.

I started croakily making the speech I had been taught by a legalistic friend at university: “It’s a fair cop, guv. You got me bang to rights. It’s bird for me this time. Society is to blame.”

(The theory, as I recall, is that the arresting constable will solemnly read this out from his notebook when the case reaches court, whereupon it – and hopefully the rest of his evidence – will be dismissed as an obvious fabrication.)

Luckily they interrupted my speech by advising me that they had not come to arrest me, but to follow up “the incident” of last Tuesday.

What incident?

Oh yes, when the lady who tends our garden called to drop off some plants, and decided that she “did not like the look” of the men up a ladder on our roof. Men with a property maintenance company’s marked van, who were carrying out some long-awaited repairs to stop water pouring into my younger son’s bedroom whenever it rains.

Mending the roof when the sun shines, in fact. If only Gordon Brown could have got the hang of that, how different all our lives might have been.

They tried to explain this to her, but she was not to be fooled. In her mind, their undoubted criminality was exposed by the fact that they were doing the work at 5.30pm, when everyone knows that all genuine tradesmen knock off by mid-afternoon and go down the pub.

A roof repairer and a burglar. Easy to confuse, I'll admit.

I had also been criminally irresponsible in leaving some of my upstairs windows open, though this did not seem altogether unreasonable to me given that (a) there was a Category 3 heatwave taking place at the time, (b) there were two Border terriers in the house in need of a spot of ventilation, and (c) they were the sort of small windows that only an anorexic contortionist could stand the faintest chance of climbing through.

To be fair to my gardener, she did ring me on my mobile before calling the police to arrest the malefactors, but I failed to answer it because I was desperately busy at the time.

I later got a message asking me to ring the police on their 101 non-emergency number to confirm that the roof repairers were indeed genuine, as they had already told the officers who had turned up to suss them out.

This my wife duly did on my behalf, making me all the more surprised to receive a follow-up visit in person.

We had an inconclusive chat about the wisdom of leaving small upstairs windows open even in the height of summer, then the PCs went on their way.

As they did, I wondered to myself how much more police time is wasted by no doubt well-intentioned Neighbourhood Watch curtain-twitchers, whose willingness to call in the law evidently matches some people’s inclination to dial 999 because they can’t find their TV remote control.

But I also felt profoundly grateful to live in a country where the overstretched police can still handle such encounters with patience and good humour.

And, above all, profoundly glad to live in a society in which “not liking the look” of someone going about their lawful business does not provide an excuse to shoot them dead, just to be on the safe side.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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