Victoria Summerley: Town Life

My children wanted to know if I was going to give the burglar a smacked bottom
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The Independent Online

In times of crisis, we are overrun by clichés. The other night, my friend Olivia heard what she thought was an intruder. Creeping downstairs, dressing gown clutched tightly around her, she heard herself utter the fateful words: "Is there anybody there?"

In the cold light of day - as opposed to the creepy chill of night - one knows that this is the line that is always uttered in any self-respecting thriller or television detective series by the hapless victim seconds before the killer - or the monster - strikes.

It is a question to which one never wants to know the answer. If someone shouts: "Yes", you know you're in trouble. And it would be even more scary if someone whispered: "No." You'd know you were in trouble but you wouldn't know what sort.

"And then," says Olivia crossly, sipping a restorative caramel macchiato in our local Starbucks: "I heard myself say: 'Who is it?' What kind of stupid question is that? As if any intruder was going to tell me."

Hmm, yes, it would have to be a well-brought-up burglar who formally introduced himself. "Mr T Leaf at your service, madam. Would you mind awfully if I relieved you of your cash and your valuables?"

As it turned out, Olivia had been the victim of the Stickman. The noise she had heard was the rattle of the letter box as he poked his stick through it to try to hook her handbag, which was lying on the hall table with her wallet and keys inside.

The Stickman (or Stickmen - I suspect there are a great many more than one) is a menace to those city-dwellers who inhabit terraced houses with conventional front doors. You can put as many bars on the window and bolts on the door as you like, but give a ne'er-do-well a long pole and a hook on the end and he'll find some way of trying to breach your citadel.

According to the Metropolitan police, many people fling down their keys or their bag on the hall table or a radiator shelf the minute they get through the door at the end of a hard day's work. Then along comes the Stickman and either fishes up the keys so he can let himself in, or hooks the handles of a handbag and pulls it over to the letter box so that he can retrieve the wallet inside. Moral of the story: never leave anything of value in the hall or, if there's room, put one of those wire baskets over the letter box.

Luckily, Olivia's sudden appearance at the foot of the stairs frightened off the Stickman. Perhaps it was the magenta dressing gown. Or perhaps it was the ceramic hair tongs she was clutching in one hand (no jokes about going straight, please).

"And that's another thing," says Olivia, now on her second macchiato. "Why is it that we always pick up something with which to hit the burglar? It must be some sort of primitive instinct, like a caveman picking up his club."

Hair-straighteners are a new variation on the theme, but you use what comes to hand, don't you? I once went downstairs to investigate a strange noise armed with a slipper, which reduced my children to helpless fits of giggles. They wanted to know if I was going to give the burglar a smacked bottom.

A Florida newspaper reported last week that illusionist David Copperfield used his sleight-of-hand skills to make his wallet disappear when he was confronted by an armed gang in Palm Beach.

And George Melly, jazz singer and expert on the Surrealists, once recited a Dadaist poem by Kurt Schwitters to some muggers who were demanding his money, although it was probably George's phenomenal voice, honed by years of belting out Bessie Smith numbers in smoky jazz clubs, that frightened them off, rather than the lyrics.

George's voice is to mine what Mount Everest (29,028ft) is to Lakey Hill in The Archers (non-existent), so in my case recitation would not prove much of a deterrent. A far more subtle punishment would be to force the miscreant to sit down and watch my niece's new My Little Pony video. He'd be screaming for the Black Maria before the credits had rolled.