'I've been watching you': A Christmas story by John Walsh

'I've spent much of my working life looking on as other people's lives unfolded and bustled in front of me on a screen.'
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The camera's eye, unblinking, takes in a panorama of delights: an acreage of chrome, three levels of glittering shops, a mile-long glass roof, an army of mannequins, a small nation of coffee franchises, a boot camp of spiked designer footwear, oceanic froth of lacy lingerie, three-for-two special offers on books and seasonal cards, spangled displays of expensive timepieces, sweetie colours on the wrapping of Body Shop foot scrubs, pure pristine packaging for White Company towels, windows full of martial threat and derring-do urging kids to try out Crackdown and Gears of War ...

Celebrations for the season are everywhere. The tree is an enormous 40ft pastel monstrosity that pokes up through all three levels of this, the largest shopping mall in London, with a door at ground level through which children can en counter their portly, ho-ho-ho-ing benefactor. Perry Como sings "Winter Wonderland" on the booming PA, interrupted by the voice of a store executive bringing news of a lost child or of an imminent screening of Miracle on 34th Street in the multiplex on the South Nave. In the East Transept, there's a karaoke stand with a spot light that shines down on lucky shoppers as they sing "Silent Night" or that X Factor rubbish. A big sign says, "Be our Star in the East". A Tannoy announces each new song selection, as though giving shoppers a chance to flee.

The hordes of Christmas shoppers descend ing on the merchandise like wolves on a sheep fold, cramming the wide gangways and queueing like dispirited refugees for reviving snacks at Croque Gascon, Tiffinbites and Caffé Concer to. There are many solo shoppers, wielding lists, patrolling a dozen nominated destinations – Tabio, Accessorize, Jo Malone – with resignation.

Would Dickens have approved of all this? He was nuts about Christmas, because of the feasting and wassailing and forgiveness. He wanted everyone to join in the fun and jollification. And looking at this spectacle, I suppose he'd nod with approval. All these people wrapped up in coats and jumpers like gifts ...

The phone shrills. It's Dan from Security.


"Chris, can you come? We have a situation."

"I'm on screens till 2.30, Dan. Then Heidi takes over."

"Can't one of the others cover for you?"

"The centre's at maximum capacity, Dan. It's Christmas, in case you hadn't heard. We're all busy. It's like keeping an eye on a multitude."

"Okay, come at 2.30. It's urgent."

"What kind of situation?"

"Kids. Five kids, been mugged and threatened. They're in a bad way."

They were hiding out in HMV, all five skulking near the doorway, watching everyone who came in and pretending to inspect the new CDs. The security guard in here didn't clock that they were in trouble for a whole hour. He only discovered something was wrong when the eldest, Josh, came up to the checkout and asked, in a miserable tremble: "Could somebody phone my Dad, so he can come and take us home?"

In the security office the biggest one, Gus, was compensating for his momentary lapse of courage by vowing revenge. "If I get my fuckin' hands on them," he said, smacking a conker-sized fist into a lily-soft palm, "I'll fuckin' ... I'll tear ... " The others lolled on chairs, listless, post-traumatic, like marionettes with cut strings.

The assault had taken place around 1pm. The five boys aged 12 or 13, from Camberwell, had journeyed by train and Tube to the famous shopping mall, armed with Christmas spending cash. Solo minors are a security problem at the mall – their mothers sometimes drop them there, reasoning it's like leaving them in a big cosy shop, and we find them, lost and distraught, an hour later – but these guys had enough brava do between the five of them to stay cool. Until they encountered the three bigger lads in the quilted parkas.

"Right," said the first one pleasantly, as if they were resuming a conversation. "What's going to happen is this. We're going to be nice and friendly, and get to know each other. Si and Wolfie are going to talk to you beside this wall here, and you're going to keep very still because you're not going anywhere, and I'm going to have a special word with each of you over here and you're going to give me everything that's in your pockets, I mean everything, and when we're done, we're going to say cheerio and then you can go, okay?"

The five boys had nodded, from some vestigial sense of politeness, looking up into the big boy's face.

"Because you're not stupid, are you?" he went on. "You're clever boys, aren't you, and you don't want to find there's a knife in your guts, and your eyes have been popped out all over the floor, do you? That would be just stupid, wouldn't it?"

It happened just as he said. Two of them stood over four of the boys and asked questions – "Where do you live? What school do you go to? Which team do you support?" – to which the boys whispered replies. Their attackers would lapse into a bored silence for minutes, then would start again, only with different queries – "What's your mum's name? Is she fat or thin? Has she got big knockers? Does she let your dad shag her?" – and one by one they went before the first guy, and he took their iPhones and Blackberrys, their wallets and junior debit cards ("Write down the PIN number on this Post-it note, and I really really wouldn't think of getting it wrong,") their fans of £10 notes grudgingly handed over by their parents, their watches, even their Oyster cards. And they were returned to the question-asking pair like shorn lambs, stripped of belongings and identity, forced to listen to the new questions ("You got a sister? Tell you what, now you've told me where you live, I might come round and give her one. What I'll do, I'll make her kneel on the floor in front of me – you can watch if you like, and your mum and dad will be dead by then anyway, so there won't be any screaming – and I'll smack her around until she stops crying and then I'll undo my jeans and she'd better enjoy it when I ... "

Finally it was over. Five skinny pubescents looked on wearily, like an audience struggling to appreciate a performance, as the trio left them. "One last thing," said the leader. "We been watching you all morning. Watching your every move. Don't ask how. We know where to look. And we'll be watching you from now on. So don't even think of going to the police, or we'll come and get you. And this time we'll kill you." He smiled. "And you know we can," he concluded. "Because you'll just let us, won't you?"

They were a dismal crew as they schlepped off into the gathering night. Only four, because one of the five actually ran away when we start ed questioning them. It was the dumbest one, Charlie, who'd given the muggers his address. He yanked the door open, and scam pered down the South Transept as if the hounds of hell were after him, losing one of his trainers in the process. So now we've got a solo minor at large in the mall, a traumatised, terrified 12-year-old lost in a gigantic shopping centre, scared to death of meeting his smiling, questioning as sailants, but almost as scared of going home and imagining his parents being attacked in the mid dle of the night. And it all being his fault.

Charlie will feel guilty that it happened to him. He'll feel guilty that he handed over his money because they told him to. That's what pisses me off about the quilted parkas. It's their coolness. Their casual appropriation of other people's stuff, as if they're entitled to it.

The victims didn't want to tell us anything. Physical details were few. One mugger had "some thing wrong with his leg". The leader had "quite a posh voice". The third "had horrible eyes" which didn't help. They were too intimidated to speak. Their main desire wasn't to see their assailants in a line-up of suspects. Their main desire was simply never to see them again.

But you know what pisses me off most about these people? It's the way they said to the boys, "We've been watching you all morning."

It was a lie. They hadn't been watching them all morning. I had.

I checked the screen monitors for the west nave, which I'd been overseeing from 11.30 till 2.30pm. (Three-hour shifts are quite enough, when you're watching 10 screens. Your eyes get worn out from all the flicking back and forth.) I re-ran the film footage and sure enough, there they were – on the left of the screen that unwa veringly watches WHSmith, Sunglass Hut, HMV, Oliver Bonas, Zara and the Christmas tree with its Santa queue. Among all the glitter and sheen, they were a strange little octet in dark clothes, three in plump parkas, five in school overcoats. They're talking. Then six of them stand by a wall, directly across from Santa's grotto as though wondering whether to join the queue. The other two stand apart, the small guy seeming to ges ticulate at the taller one. Of course, he was tak ing his precious belongings out of his pockets and handing them over, but you couldn't see be cause he had his back to then camera. The chief mugger made him stand like that, because he's a cunning little shit.

No wonder I missed it. It doesn't look like a mugging. It's like a little group of friends muck ing about in the mall, moving randomly from one group to the other, having listless chats before going for a bag of chips together.

But I was watching them. I saw it all happen, but peripherally – I thought nothing was going on. Though I'm a professional surveillance offi cer. Yet it was the quilted one who was able to ter rorise them by saying, I've been watching you. These guys were seriously starting to piss me off.

Two days later, they came back for more. Three youths in quilted parkas were spotted prowling in the De signer Palace without what Securi ty personnel call "Likely Means of Purchase". It means they're scruffy visitors who aren't rich enough to be serious punters in De Beers and Bill Amberg and Montblanc.

Anyway, we waited and waited but they did n't approach anyone, just prowled and looked in windows and chatted and showed each other things that couldn't be seen on their mobiles. Finally, we saw them approach two hooded adolescents and engage them in conversation. I rang through to Security and advised them of the need for instant action. They checked their screens and said no action was warranted. I in sisted. They said no.

They have the last word. Me, I'm just "inter pretative" when it comes to the screens. They're "executive". They sanction direct action.

Minutes went by. I watched the three quilted parkas standing around the smaller boys, talk ing to them like it was a proper conversation. Any minute now, the first phone or the first pathetic wallet would be handed over, and nobody would notice but me. I writhed with frustration.

Then it happened. As I watched, one of the chil dren made a run for it. God knows what impulse of reckless courage it took, but he ducked be tween two of the parkas and fled. One of the mug gers whirled round and reached out to grab his hair, but the kid was too quick for him.

I called Security.

"Did you see that? Now do you believe me? And there's one kid still down there."

They went down and nabbed them, but the youths had let the child go when they saw the Silver Sword uniforms of the security men. We questioned the parkas, said we had reason to believe a crime had been committed, and threatened to call the police if they didn't co-operate. The parkas looked at each other. They weren't working-class toughs, as I'd assumed. They were like middle-class grammar school kids, gone feral and insolent. A little bored, a lit tle casual-smiley, they submitted to being searched in the Security Office, but we found nothing that couldn't be accounted for. They had phones, but could give the numbers (which we rang, to check). They had wallets, but could itemise the contents. They had £10 notes in their pockets, but so do lots of shoppers. Neither of the runaways, if we could find them, would tes tify, any more than the terrified quintet earlier in the week. Nothing could be pinned on Lee Porter, Simon Lewis or Wolfie Haskins. They were free to go. Lewis limped to the door, scratching his auburn curls. Haskins, two inches taller than the others, yawned. Porter looked around the office and smirked. "Pretty mediocre equipment," he observed. "Where'd you get it, Poundstretcher?"

They went away jeering. "D'you like your job?" Porter drawled on his way out the door, putting his face up to mine with a leery smile. "Wasting people's time? Looking at tellies all day? Makes you feel big, does it? Big man?"

Back at the screens I brooded. On the monitors, the shoppers shoaled around the North Transept (design er wear) and the East Nave (com puter supplies and games) as if their lives depended on it. But among the shoals lurked the sharks, and they had to be caught. Other wise, what was my function? Was he right? Was I just watching the box all day, to no avail?

At lunchtime, I told Dan and the new young customer services workie, Bella.

"You mean, you can't do anything about these guys?" she said, "Even though you know they did it, and you know their names? That's pathetic."

"Nobody will testify. They're mostly 12-year-old kids and they're too scared."

"And you can't prove it was a mugging?"

"Nah. The screens just show a gang of chil dren talking together. You can't even see them handing over their cash."

"No footage of a punch or a kick?"

"No they didn't ... " But hang on, I thought. I scrolled back to 12.15 that day, to the moment when the parkas were surrounding the two kids. Then the moment came, when the kid legged it. We looked at the flurry of action. I freeze-framed it on the outflung arm of the tallest parka, his fingers stretched like claws towards the kid's hair.

"That looks pretty nasty," said Bella. "Does n't that count as an attack?"

"Adolescent pulls other adolescent's hair?" I said. "It's hardly GBH is it?"

She thought about it.

"Can we get this freeze-frame transferred to a Mac, and turned into a jpeg?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Can we get this image – the hand, grabbing for the hair – as a computer image?"

"I should think so," I said. "We've done screen grabs before, for the local newspaper, when a woman gave birth outside the London Luggage Company."

"And we know which it was?"

"It was the tall one. Name of, er, Wolfie. Wolfie Haskins."

"Hang on a minute." She went to the comput er screen and tapped. "Here he is."

We looked. Wolfie Haskins's Facebook entry gazed back at us. A hard, blank little face. His in terests were dog breeding, hip-hop and car main tenance. Unsurprisingly, he was Single.

"What can we do?" I asked.

"I'll show you later," she said. "How about the other baddies?" We checked, but neither Porter nor Lewis had a Facebook entry. Clearly they weren't keen on friends, electronic or otherwise.

"Let me see about Twitter," she said.

"How, for God's sake, can Twitter help?" I asked, as she poked and prodded at her iPhone. These young people and their social networking nonsense – such a phenomenal waste of time. Imagine sending messages every few minutes to tell the world you've seen a robin on a branch or been for a pony and trap. Who the hell could care about the minutiae of someone else's life?

I spent the afternoon monitoring activity in the Western Transept. Three faint ings, two falls outside Kurt Geiger (some body spilt a Slush Puppy – who wants one of those in December?) and a vom iting in Amanda Wakeley, showing that even posh shoppers can suffer at the hands of Nando's or Wahaca. No fights reported, miraculously. Three lost children – I spotted one, in Playworld, and got him safely delivered to his mama. No mug gings reported. I went home with mixed feel ings – satisfaction that we seemed to have kept a lid on teen-on-teen violence, coupled with rage that the little shits in the quilted parkas should have got off scot-free.

Next morning, I had hardly been in the of fice for 10 minutes before I was summoned be fore Victor, Chief Operative (Surveillance.) He was furious.

"What in the name of arse, Christopher, is hap pening in your department?" he yelled.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"Come round the table, and look at our web site," he said. I came and looked. "Click on Cus tomer Services. This is unbelievable."

I did so. A blurry screen-grab, instantly recog nisable as the Mall CCTV, could be seen in the top-right corner. It was indistinct, but you could see the arm of a quilted parka reaching for a flee ing child, the fingers outstretched like talons. Above it was the legend "LITTLE SHIT WOLFIE HASKINS MUGS CHILD, 12.15PM, 17-12-2010."

"Who did this?" demanded Victor. "And don't bullshit me, Christopher. That freeze-frame could only have come from your department."

Of course I pleaded innocence. I'm a surveil lance man, not a computer whiz. They knew I wouldn't have had a clue how to transfer images. While they investigated, I was put back to work – "but we'll have our eye on you," warned Victor. Well yeah, I said, that's the business we're all in.

"Why?" I asked Bella. "Why did you post a public shaming on the mall website? What were you thinking?"

"It was a back-up," she said defensively. "I sent Haskins a request to be his friend on Facebook, accompanied by my sexiest photograph. It took him two hours to say yes. Then I tagged the image of the mugging on his Facebook page, so all his friends could read what he'd done. But of course he can un-tag it and get rid of it as soon as he finds out. So I posted a back-up on the compa ny website, and he can't get rid of that so easily. If anyone types his name on Google in future, the freeze-frame and its little caption will come up every time. Quite near the top."

"But this is invasion of privacy, Bella. It's like ... putting someone in the stocks."

"Mmm-hmm," said Bella. "And your point is?"

A thought struck me. "One moment. You haven't done this to the others too, have you?"

"No, I did something else," she said. "Only to the Lewis bloke, mind you."

I felt suddenly faint. "What?"

"I went on Twitter and wrote 'Shopping in Freshfield Mall? Want to see what a mugger looks like? Simon Lewis, red hair, slight limp, quilted parka, sipping mocha in Café Costa. Attacked 3 kids Dec 15.' Then I waited. Fifteen minutes later, someone tweeted, 'Limping ginge mugger left Costa Coffee 5.23pm, now outside Oliver Bonas with tall friend looking for victims.' Ten minutes later, another tweet said, 'Ginge mugger cripple leaving mall, heading 4 bus stop. Will follow.' It went on like that. He was spotted limping down the Melksham Road, someone followed him home and passed his address on. Later, someone smashed his ground-floor windows and paint ed very rude words in white on his front door."

I looked at her in amazement. "Bella, what have you done? This is called – I don't know – harass ment? Aggravated harassment. Victimisation."

"You said he was one of the muggers. Was n't that true?"

"Well, yes – but it was never proved."

"Doesn't make any difference. He's still a mug ger and he deserved it."

"But Bella, this is mob rule. It's like some, some ... Dickensian ... hue and cry."

"Yeah, it is, isn't it?"

I don't deny I felt bad about what the girl had done. Well, not bad exactly. It was a kind of summary justice against two nasty people, but I doubt if it was legal. We, or rather Bella, could be done for incitement to riot, or defamation of character if the Hask ins character went to court. But I had to admire her enterprise. It's probable that she'll get caught. The IT people will find out whose email sent the picture onto the company website. She may be fired. But she showed some guts. I liked the way she used the surveillance of other people as a means of justice.

So I sat there, waiting for the axe to fall, wait ing to be summoned, waiting to be fired for re leasing CCTV images into cyberspace without authority. And as my shift wound on into the af ternoon, I found myself thinking about the screens I watch every day, and the lives I'm supposed safeguard, and the villains out there that can't be touched, and the dark heart of men who can patrol a shopping mall in the goodwill season looking to ruin someone's Christmas. I got my self in right lather about wanting revenge on them, only to realise that a 26-year-old girl had already got back at them by pressing a few but tons and sending some messages. In the face of that, I felt impotent. Useless. A waste of time ...

Then I looked at the screen on the East Transept and he was standing there looking right up at me. The ringleader, Lee, was that his name? Of course he didn't know I was looking at him looking at me. He was just grinning into the cam era, as if all of us were beneath contempt, dust under his feet. And we could do nothing ...

Sod that for a game of soldiers. I jumped to my feet, grabbed my coat and headed out the door.

The lighting rig was complex and moveable, a wondrous device of ro tating lamps and colour filters, hanging from a gantry and re motely controlled by a computer sited a first-floor office. Beside the desk, a microphone was used to announce the next song, as advised by Zoe, who pulled in the pun ters at floor level.

When I got to the office, it was 5pm. The lighting manager, Adam, listened to my story with a frown.

"You want me to do what?"

"I want you to shift the spotlight a few feet to the left so it shines on someone."

"It's very irregular, Chris, to move the spot light off the stand. I don't think we've ever done it before."

"Special instructions from Marketing," I said with confidence. "The guy down there buying his ticket will be the millionth user of the karaoke machine, and we've got to announce it."

"Why don't we do it on the stand just before he sings?"

I looked down. Lee Porter was 50ft away, mak ing ready to leave.

"Now!" I said. "We have to do it now."

"Okay then ... "

He closed his hand around the joystick and guided it stealthily towards the man buying a ticket. He must have been surprised when my hand closed firmly around his and I yanked the spotlight sideways until the full thousand-watt, conical Stalag beam slammed down on the fig ure in the parka.

He stood awkwardly under the bright lights, a reluctant celebrity, putting up a hand to shield his face. Around him, shoppers and would-be singers looked on bemused.


Porter turned this way and that as if trapped in a tiny shower unit. Blinded by the hot light, he couldn't see the crowd that was circling near him. But when he took a step forward to escape from the imprisoning light, someone shoved him in the chest and sent him back into its pitiless gaze. For minutes he stood like a wounded bull, shielding his face with his elbow and trying to find a way out, but the crowd laughed and jeered at his discomfiture.

Someone threw a bottle at his head. Some one else chucked a banana skin. He was sur rounded, defeated, weighed down by light and hatred, until we switched off the spotlight and he was revealed as a low creeping figure in a torn parka, his face streaked with dirt, banana shreds and tears.

The management fired me for that little stunt, but I didn't care. I hated those youths. I was glad they were made to suffer. If you can't lock them up for what they did, you can at least highlight their transgressions.

I've spent much of my working life looking on as other people's lives unfolded and bustled in front of me on a screen. It's good to think there's a virtue in making other people look. And if I find the bosses have fired young Bella for her enterprise, I swear I'll sort them out. I'll be watching them.