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Archive for August 27th, 2011

Paddington, 1983

Pug, the bull-terrier, cattle-dog cross, was straining at the leash, half-strangling himself in the process. I had often asked why we didn’t get him a harness, instead of the leather collar he wore, so that he wouldn’t choke himself all the time, but my father argued that it would only maximise his strength and give him more pulling power. It didn’t seem entirely logical to me, being far more concerned with the dog’s comfort. What I really wanted to know was why Pug insisted on pulling at the lead perpetually; he certainly did not seem concerned about his own comfort. Perhaps he liked the pain.

Poppy, on the other hand, border collie, mother of eight, was on a choke chain, and she too was no stranger to self-strangulation. On several occasions she had lunged forward so suddenly as to snap her chain and break free, almost invariably incensed by a motorbike or lawnmower. Indeed, anything with a two-stroke motor was sufficient to get her riled. For me, aged eleven, holding Poppy and pug was a tough assignment, not unlike having a Wookie try to pull both your arms out of their sockets.

We approached the house on Moore Park Road. My father had come to pick me up from school and as ever, brought the dogs. My older brother, who had recently started high school at Sydney Boys High, insisted on walking home by himself now that he was relatively grown up and, since my father couldn’t pick us both up, only I received the privilege of the canine escort.

As we reached the front fence, I looked up and saw a youngish, fair-haired man with a blow-wave and mullet, skip lithely down the steps of our house with a hessian bag over his shoulder. I had no idea what to make of this, expecting he had made a delivery of some kind, and stood dumbly watching him. My father, preoccupied with hooking the dog leads onto the fence so he could fish the keys out of his pocket, had failed to notice him altogether.

Then, my father looked up and saw the man walk straight out the gate. Instantly suspicious, he looked to the front door and noticed it was ajar. My father exploded into action.

“Stop!” he shouted, as the man broke into a sprint. My father threw the dog leads from his hands, shouting, “Benny, take the dogs!” and ran like hell after the man. Pug and Poppy yelped and barked at this sudden activity, and I had a right job getting control of them. I grabbed their collars and held them as tightly as I could manage, just catching a glimpse of the burglar disappearing around the corner, past the Olympic Hotel and into Regent Street, with my father in hot pursuit. My father had recently taken up running marathons and he was as fit as a fiddle. He was also a hard man who had been in several warzones. I figured that if my father caught him, the burglar was, to put it mildly, fucked.

I struggled to get the dogs inside the gate and through the front door, but once inside the house they seemed to forget all the excitement and run off in search of food. There, in the hallway, sat one of our suitcases. I tested the weight to find it very heavy, and rightly guessed that the recently acquired and, then, very valuable, video recorder was inside. Clearly we had arrived just in time. I tried to spring the sliding button locks on the case, yet they wouldn’t open. For some reason, getting the suitcase open struck me as a matter of the greatest urgency.

I ran upstairs to my bedroom to fetch the Swiss army knife my mother had brought back from Switzerland the year before. Taking out the awl, I plunged it into one of the locks on the suitcase, trying to prise it open. I worked it as best as I could, yet the mechanism still would not shift. I applied more strength, working the awl under the sliding button of the lock in an attempt to gain extra leverage. I tried as hard as I could until, suddenly, the awl snapped. I was terribly upset by this, and somewhat disillusioned with my prized tool. I gave up, called Pug to join me, and went to my room to sulk.

Fifteen minutes later my father returned home.

“Benny,” he shouted? “Are you alright?”

“Yes. What happened?”

“I chased the bastard all the way to the town hall, but he was fast as lightning. Then I got worried about you, so I gave up. I thought there might have been another bloke.”

“No,” I said. The idea had never occurred to me.

I pointed to the suitcase. “He was trying to steal the video. I can’t open the suitcase.”

“Son of a bitch,” said my father. “Anyway, everyone’s all right, that’s what’s important. Is Matthew home?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s good, I suppose, that he didn’t come home sooner.”

I hung around and helped my father set up the video again, something he did not, in fact, know how to do himself. The whole incident had seemed very exciting, and when my brother returned home half an hour later, it became briefly exciting again. I took great pleasure in recounting the incident, after which we soon forgot about it altogether and went upstairs to play Dungeons & Dragons.

It was not until my mother arrived home from work, however, that the burglary assumed new and greater proportions. The upstairs bedroom had been, to a degree, ransacked in the search for jewellery and valuables, and the thought of it upset her enormously. It was not, initially, the loss of any valuables that made her so distressed, as the invasion of privacy. The idea of some total stranger going through her things left her shuddering with a deep sense of violation. Then, when she discovered that an old jewelled watch of her grandmother’s had been stolen, she became quite distraught.

“Oh, Benjamin,” she lamented. “I’ve been meaning to have that watch fixed for years and now I never shall.” She burst into tears, and, being only eleven and a mere pinch or punch away from tears at the best of times, I joined her in weeping for this loss.

My mother spent the rest of the evening going through her drawers to see what else might have been taken. I hung around and mapped the highs and lows as she discovered things she thought might have been taken, and realised what was missing. My father, though not unsympathetic, was more inclined to manifest a “what the hell, nobody died” mindset, and he was principally annoyed that he hadn’t caught the burglar and sorted him out. “Fucking junkies,” he muttered over dinner.

In the days that followed, I found myself wondering what I should do in future should I again encounter a burglar. I spent a whole week of afternoons in the backyard, diligently practicing archery with my home-made, high-tension bamboo longbow. After nailing countless cardboard boxes on which I had drawn the faces of Orcs, I felt my aim was sufficient to take out anyone who came through the front door from the top of the stairs. This knowledge was enough to arm me mentally, and, over time, I began to long for the opportunity…

____________________________________________________________

Glebe, 1998

Edward heard the doorbell ring and paused a moment in his typing. He wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t particularly want to be interrupted, so he shrugged and sipped his tea. It was probably his landlady who ran the video store a couple of doors down the road. She often dropped by to make a spurious announcement of some kind or another. Perhaps he was due for another rent increase.

Edward tapped a few keys noncommittally. It was two weeks since he had seen his supervisor, and having knuckled down and made some good progress after their last conversation, he found himself coming up against another barrier; he had only a vague idea of what it was he was trying to say. Nothing felt right. “Always stick with your gut instinct,” his father had told him. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” Great advice, but while it was a good start knowing what was not right, knowing what was right was another thing altogether.

The doorbell rang again, and Edward shrugged again. It definitely wasn’t Pandora, for he knew all too well the way she knocked or rang his bell and Rickets the cat knew her footsteps. Rickets remained impassive at his feet. Edward looked back to the screen. Fifteen minutes ago he had given up on his thesis and turned his attention to his novel, Mr Tracey, Grocer. He had since written nothing but nonsense.

 “A double Jack Daniels thanks, mate,” he demanded politely of the bartender.

“Ice?”

“Yep.” Mr Tracey grabbed the drink, took a strong sniff of it and, clenching a fist, he sipped it.

“Nah, there’s no reason to be angry,” he mumbled, smiling wryly and taking another sniff of his drink. “What’s it to be cross? What boots it to maunder?”

“What’s up, mate?” asked the bartender.

“No point worrying about things, mine honest tapster.” said Mr Tracey. “All’s well in love and war.”

The doorbell rang again. Edward’s attention was hanging by a thread. He could feel his mind drifting into the opiated visions of his daydreams, suckling from the fecund nipples that had nurtured his first novel, Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks. The doorbell rang twice more and he ignored it with new fervour. He had sworn he would write until midday at least and nothing was to get in the way. He paged up and down rapidly, watching the words leap into streaks, spotting vocabulary like fleeting fauna. Then he heard a banging sound that seemed to be coming from the kitchen. He paused and listened, feeling sure that someone had entered the house. The sounds were muffled and indistinct, for, being the first cold day in autumn, he had closed all his internal doors to keep warm.

The banging continued and Edward grew certain that it was coming from the kitchen. Then he remembered: the landlady’s brother, Ali, was coming over to fix the tap sometime this week. It had an annoying leak and he wanted it seen to. Edward really wasn’t in the mood to talk to Ali. The last time they met Ali had enthused interminably about what a visionary Muhammad was for predicting the invention of the aeroplane in the Koran. It was alright when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking, at least he could challenge them on their historical knowledge of the rise of Christianity and the textual validity of the New Testament. With his landlady’s brother, a modicum of diplomacy was required to ensure that he didn’t end up out on his ear for being an evangelising atheist.

The banging continued; a dull, soft, reverberating thud. He’s probably hammering away at the sink, thought Edward, with the Koran stretched out beside him, open to the plumbing section; a vision of the Arab armies at the battle of the Yarmuk coursing through his mind…

Then there came a loud smash – quite clearly that of breaking glass. Alert at once, Edward kicked the cat off his foot and stood quickly. It was close to ten in the morning and he had not bothered dressing yet, being attired only in a knee-length flannel night-shirt his mother had bought him. He opened his bedroom door and walked through to the kitchen. Seeing no one there, he walked on into the front room, where he was greeted by a most unexpected sight, almost amusing for its absurdity. A man, possibly in his forties, was trying to squeeze himself through the tiny rectangular window above the door. In doing so, he had pushed it inward as far as it could go so that it pressed against the decorative flange on the top of the stately, built-in cupboard. The pressure on the frame had bent the window and caused the glass to break, which now lay in shards on the carpet. So intent was this man on gaining access, that he neither saw nor heard Edward approach.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Edward.

“Er, what?” said the man, startled. He stared at Edward fixedly a moment, and paused, his shoulders still half through the gap.

“I said what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Er,” said the man, trying to climb down, “I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

Edward advanced right to the door, and opened it as far as the chain-lock allowed, the man scrambling onto the landing.

“What?” he demanded through the gap.

“Yeah, I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

“That’s bullshit!” Edward was quite definitely incensed now. This was, after all, a terrific imposition on his time. He took the chain off the door and opened it more fully.

“Nah,” continued the grey-haired man, who seemed surprisingly well-dressed for a burglar, “I honestly thought this was my friend’s place.”

“Rubbish!” Edward shouted again. “That’s a lie. You’re a fucking burglar, that’s what. Go on, fuck off!”

And the man turned and ran as fast as he could.

Edward stood shaking with fear and anger as he looked at the broken glass beside his bare feet.

“What a bullshit artist,” he said, closing the door.

He walked back into the kitchen and put the kettle on, more out of habit than anything else. A moment later he remembered he had a cup of tea beside his computer, so he went and sat down to continue writing, shaking his head in disgust. It wasn’t long before he knew he would never regain his concentration that morning. He dressed, put on some shoes, and went to see his landlady at the store next door.

____________________________________________________________

Cambridge, UK,  2001

Dirk was woken by a loud bang. It was followed by the clink of dragging metal. He turned his head to the French doors and was surprised to see one of them wide open, its latch scraping on the gravel path outside. Seconds later, he was very surprised indeed and sat bolt upright in his bed. There was simply no way the door could be open.

What time was it? He looked to the stereo; 0634. Too early for bedders, cleaners or porters to come around; it could only be a practical joke or something more sinister. Dirk threw off the covers and stood quickly. It was a cool morning at the end of April, and the night before he had returned from Turkey with a head-cold. His ears were blocked and he shook his head to try to clear it.

He moved to the door to inspect it; somehow it had come off the latch and swung wide open in the wind. Only a person, or a monkey, could have done such a thing, surely. The snout of a dog? A wild pig? A curious cat? A squirrel? There were often deer in his front garden, though they were so timid as to never approach the house. Dirk made straight for his desk to look for his wallet. It should have been there, yet it was not. He cast his eyes about the room; it was not on top of the television, not beside his bed, not on the floor, not on the chair. He looked for his shoulder bag and it too seemed to be missing.

“Christ,” he whispered, realising he had been burgled. Someone must have snuck into his room while he was asleep. The thought was so awful that he shuddered in fear of his life. He might have been murdered! His blood ran cold with an intense feeling of violation, before flushing hot with the adrenalin of a dawning crisis. Then he heard a footstep outside on the gravel. Then another. Someone was standing very nearby, just around the corner out of view.

Without thinking further on the matter, wearing just a small pair of shorts, Dirk walked straight out the open French door and stepped barefoot onto the gravel. He marched with purpose, unblinking, determined. He was not afraid and asked of himself no questions. He was going to retrieve his wallet – it was as simple as that.

Dirk rounded the corner of the house and there, standing under the bike shelter, going though the contents of his shoulder bag, was a pale, blonde-haired man in a dark green army jacket. Dirk could not see his face clearly, as he was staring downward, intently looking through Dirk’s shoulder bag. Dirk walked steadily towards the man, who was so preoccupied that he neither saw nor heard Dirk’s inexorable approach. Dirk picked up the pace, closing the distance in a matter of seconds. He had only sufficient time to think “fuck you, arsehole” before punching the man as hard as possible in the guts.

The rogue had the wind knocked out of him and doubled over with a strangled cry of pain. Dirk didn’t hesitate to take him in a headlock with his left arm. With the bandit thus accosted, struggling and kicking, Dirk used his right arm to deliver repeated punches to his stomach, hoping to stop the felon from recovering his composure altogether. The man stank of neat vodka and cigarettes; he was of similar size to Dirk, though clearly lacked the tone and strength to throw him off. The two stood there a moment in an awkward embrace; the burglar struggling to free himself, to protect his stomach from the incoming buffets, and Dirk working hard to subdue him.

Only now did Dirk have time to think. Engaged thus in a struggle, with no one about at such an early hour, he had no choice but to win. It was an ancient and grim contest and losing was not something he could allow. The gravel cut into Dirk’s bare feet and the pain gave him a new lease of strength. He heaved with all his might and hurled the burglar into the wall. He was still putting up a strong resistance, and Dirk knew he had to get him down and pin him. He swung the man out from the wall, and swung him back in, slamming his body hard up against the plaster. The burglar shuddered with the impact and some things spilled from his pockets; a long screw-driver, Dirk’s passport. Dirk slammed him into the wall again. There was no talk, no swearing, no shouting, no cries of pain. Dirk only had one thought in mind, “I must monster him and never let him gain the advantage.” But then what? Hold him until security arrives? Shout for help and hope the police come quickly? He tried to wrestle  him to the ground, yet the burglar kept his feet.

Then, without quite knowing why, Dirk released him. He let go his hold, stepped back, and put his fists up. The burglar stumbled forward, sped away from the wall, and began to run on the gravel. Dirk stood watching, wondering why he had let him go and what he should do next. The burglar kept running until he was twenty metres away, then he turned and looked at Dirk over his shoulder. That look was, without a doubt, the greatest look of terror Dirk had ever seen. The man’s pale face, framed by lank blonde hair, was twisted in shock and fear. Dirk stood watching; the burglar reached into his army jacket and pulled out a large bottle of vodka, which he then hurled into the bushes before fleeing towards a purple bicycle leaning against the hedge.

Dirk picked up his passport, he picked up the screwdriver, then ran around the corner to where the bag had been dropped. He expected that he would find his wallet here, but within seconds of picking up the bag realised that it must still be with the burglar.

He ran inside and tossed the things on the bed.  He picked up his keys, ran back outside and, still wearing only a pair of shorts, unlocked his bicycle and ran with it out onto the driveway. The house, one of many fine properties owned by St John’s College, Cambridge, was surrounded by other college houses with spacious, attractive grounds. He wasn’t sure which direction the burglar had gone in, and there were many in which he could go; through the gardens, cutting through hedges, down the drive, out the back fence into the tennis courts of St Edmunds College. The purple bicycle was gone, so Dirk felt certain he must have ridden out onto the street.

Dirk hopped on his bike and rode out onto Madingley Road. Like a goalie in a penalty shoot out, he had to make a call. Left or right, yet there were still other possibilities. Dirk chose right and pedalled furiously down the pavement. The cool autumn air was freezing on his fingers and his cut and bleeding feet stung on the rough pedals. He swung around the corner and rode down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of his quarry. Yet, the burglar was nowhere to be seen.

Dirk made several circuits of the neighbourhood over the next half hour. He hoped he might find something discarded, something tossed aside and abandoned. After all, what could the chap do with his Australian bankcards? He rode in all directions, even out into the wheat fields of the farms that ringed the town. Soon, however, the cold got the better of him, dressed as he was in just a pair of shorts, and it being a cold April morning in East Anglia. He took a last look across the rising heads of wheat, then rode home to contact the college and the police. On the way home, he began to wonder if he shouldn’t have just demanded the return of his wallet from that beggardly scoundrel…

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