taking lessons in the criminal classes

4 'I had a lot of sympathy for Paddington Bear's confusion on a London bus: thinking the ride itself was free, he politely declined to pay for the scrap of paper' 4
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LATE AFTERNOON, a rainy Saturday. Having just bought three gratifyingly useless items of make-up in the shopping centre, I felt pretty good despite the weather. I stopped by an array of papers displayed outside a kiosk, and reached for one. In my mind it was as good as bought, so, already proprietorial, I flicked my eyes over the headlines. An officious voice called: "Do you want to buy that, madam? Pay inside." "Yes, I do, thanks," I responded, absently, still skimming the captions. "Go and pay for it then," snapped the voice. "Don't just stand there reading it."

I looked up, surprised. The owner of the voice was faffing around with the display. "I'm going to buy it, don't worry," I replied, coolly lowering my eyes again. "Well, you can't read it here. Pay for it first and then read it," the man puffed on. Sighing, I folded the paper slowly and headed for the door. It was only three or four steps, but he danced and ducked behind me, his voice rising: "Buy it or go away." "I am buying it." "You can't read it here." "I'm not bloody reading it here." "Don't be shouting, madam," he said sneeringly. "Look, I've told you ..." I turned, practically wedged in the door. "I'm - oh forget it. I'm not buying it. Suit yourself." I tossed it behind me and walked disdainfully past.

There was a brief commotion, then a hand grabbed my arm and swung me round with some force; I half-expected to be hit in the face. "I'll call security," bellowed the man. He was portly, enraged, bespectacled, a few inches shorter than me. "Go on then, call them," I said, longing to rub out the impression of the four stubby fingers which tingled in a ring around my upper arm. Here was an impasse; nearly the whole of the West End was cut off to traffic by a bomb scare. In this context, even my assailant had to contend that wanting to buy a newspaper without being hassled was perhaps not a matter for the heavy mob. Sensing advantage, I snarled: "How dare you touch me?" He made a gesture, half-threatening and half- dismissive, and I stalked away.

Even as the shouting and grabbing was going on outside the kiosk, the other shoppers swirled around us incuriously. What did the incident look like to them, to the security cameras? A foiled shoplifter, being ejected? Out in the darkening street I saw another shop and darted inside. Trembling, I grabbed a paper from the pile, and had a pettish thought: "Could I have a receipt, please?"

Two minutes later I was back by the kiosk. I could see the man just inside the door, tiredly polishing his glasses, and felt momentarily sorry for him. But then he looked up, and hurriedly jammed them on again, askew. I jeeringly brandished the paper and the receipt, feeling low and mean but shouting: "Satisfied? Bought it somewhere else." Another man I hadn't seen before stepped out from behind the till and stood glowering in the doorway. Keeping a careful distance, I shrieked: "Next time, keep your hands off the customers, OK?"

What was all that about? Why didn't I just walk off right at the start, as soon as the man hassled me? The lack of respect had momentarily dizzied me; was this what it was like to sport a nose-ring and matted dreadlocks? A sudden thought: I had on my rainy-day gear: boots, leggings, a waterproof jacket, a stripey bag. Did I look like a tourist? Did I look like a shoplifter?

I like to think I radiate a sort of furious honesty, but perhaps this is simply because my career as a juvenile shoplifter began badly, at the age of about six. I used to go and buy 20 Embassy for the child- minder, and once while the kindly proprietor shuffled down a passage to get a fresh box, I grabbed a low-lying packet of sweets - Mint Imperials, didn't even like them - and put them in my pocket. By dint of some cunning, mirrors perhaps, I was spotted and sombrely asked to return them. The child-minder was informed; we "had a chat" and she promised not to tell my mum. Everyone was concerned rather than vengeful, and I wrote this off as an interesting failed experiment which I did not regret. There was no malice in my action, though I had a dim intuition that it would be what adults tiresomely called "naughty". It had always puzzled me where shopkeepers got their stocks from - the fairies, perhaps - and it didn't seem right that my appetite for sweets so far and so regularly outran my funds. I had a lot of sympathy for Paddington Bear's confusion on a London bus: thinking the ride was free, he politely declined to pay for the scrap of paper.

A few years later, the best friend from hell would demand that I steal a Mars bar for her from the corner shop, "or I'll kick your head in", but so miserably incompetent was I that suspicion hung round me like a thick cloak. As an unwitting accomplice, however, I had greater success. At the local chemist's with a somewhat louche friend, I was in my element, exclaiming and testing, asking and comparing. I bought nothing, and neither did she, but at a safe distance she displayed, to my horror, a haul of lipsticks and eye pencils. "You are brilliant to shoplift with," she said admiringly, and dragged me off to repeat the process. "Right, cause a diversion," she hissed. But this time, crimson with shame, I slunk round uselessly, hands jammed in pockets. That's not a sword of Damocles over my head, it's a torrent of Mint Imperials, waiting, frozen, like giant hailstones, to batter me into the ground.

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