In preparation for the weekend festivities, I paid my customary visit to the local farm shop. Situated about three miles from my house, it is a genuine establishment of the genus (i.e., it doesn’t sell tights or sliced bread). It has rather a wonderful selection of local foods, including organically-farmed meat, local cheeses, dairy products and fresh produce. There is also a delicatessen that sells pies, cakes and ready-made dishes from the shop’s own kitchen, as well as more exotic items from further afield – continental sausages and Parma ham, for example, and unusual oils and vinegars. There is a small kiosk between the shop and the delicatessen which opens in summer to dispense Yorkshire-made ice-creams. A recent innovation has been the Thursday morning appearances of the ‘fish lady’, a peripatetic fishmonger who has made an arrangement to park her van next to the shop to sell an impressive variety of fish freshly caught off the east coast. Sometimes she has edible seaweed for sale; it is a particular family weakness.
This is my favourite type of shopping and I realise that, so far, I’ve made it sound pretty idyllic. To strike a more discordant note, the shop has also been the scene of two dramatic episodes in my life, one of which also involved a crime.
The first event happened about six years ago, when I had just finished some work and was in a hurry to prepare for a self-catering holiday due to start the following day. I made it to the shop for provisions about ten minutes before closing time, leapt out of my car, and promptly fell flat on my face. I’d managed to park on the sleeping policeman that encourages drivers to slow down before they reach the car park. I injured my right arm quite badly and had to persevere with many months of physiotherapy before it worked properly again (it still protests if I carry heavy bags). I mention this mishap lightheartedly, though, because I remember it chiefly for teaching me a lesson about language. My doctor at the time was German. Although her professional English was pretty flawless, her understanding of idiomatic terms wasn’t perfect. I spent a good ten minutes having a thoroughly cross-purpose conversation with her before she suddenly burst out, “Well, what was he doing, lying in the road?” I realised with some shame that I had misled her into thinking that I had tripped over an actual, flesh-and-blood copper lying down in the shop’s driveway (perhaps even one under the influence?!)
The second event was darker. It happened at the beginning of the second week of Wimbledon last year. As is my custom during Wimbledon fortnight, I’d got up very early in the morning in order to fit in a day’s work before the tennis started. I was also worried about the fact that, mysteriously, I’d completely lost internet access. I was therefore probably not paying proper attention when I visited first the delicatessen and then the main shop, hoping to make my purchases quickly so that I could tune in to SW19. However, I did notice that, aside from two elderly ladies who were examining packets of bacon, the only other people in the shop besides myself were an ill-assorted couple pushing one of those big buggies with three wheels. I couldn’t see the child inside it: despite the fact that it was a hot summer’s day and we were indoors, they had the apron of the buggy fastened as high as it would go. If there was a child, it made no noise. I say that they were ill-assorted, because although the woman’s glossy black shoulder-length hair persuaded me at first that she was in her twenties, I realised when they came closer that she must have been nearer fifty. The man was much younger – I’d guess not more than thirty. He was slightly-built with sandy hair. She was quite buxom.
The shop has three aisles. It did strike me as peculiar that, whichever aisle I was walking along, I kept on meeting this couple coming towards me. They didn’t appear to buy very much, but each was carrying a plastic basket containing a few items. They made it to the check-out just before me. I met the woman’s eye, and she responded to my smile with what I can only describe as a smirk. What was even odder was that when the cashier, seeing a small queue forming, requested that a colleague open the second till, the man adroitly slipped across with his basket instead of allowing me to go next. The couple paid and left the shop quickly. It was at this point that I realised that my purse was missing.
I asked the cashiers to call the couple back in, lock the doors and call the police (this from my training as a bookseller), but they were totally flummoxed by the whole thing and, by the time they’d taken action, the couple had long gone. I subsequently discovered that, although the shop has CCTV, it does not reach the back area where the fridges containing produce stand. I had spent some time looking in these fridges and conclude that my purse must have been taken then. So the couple were probably professional thieves.
I can’t prove that it was them, of course, and the police were simply impatient when they discovered that there was no concrete evidence of the theft. I knew immediately that they wouldn’t try to pursue it. What I lost was relatively trivial: about £40 in cash and an almost new Radley purse that had been given to me as a present; plus my credit cards, of course: I spent a dismal afternoon making sure that they were all cancelled, instead of watching Federer, as I’d planned. I can testify, however, that the damage caused by theft goes much deeper than the loss of the stolen items. I felt as if I’d been personally assaulted and it took a good three months before I felt able to return to the shop.
You could say that it was mostly my fault. I’d travelled the world without being robbed and then let down my guard just three miles from home! It was a hard punishment for a moment’s absent-mindedness. I’ve said this before in a different context: theft is a despicable crime.