Fulham's little shop of heroes

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The Independent Online
AT THE back of the counter of the Patels' corner shop, somewhere in between the bubble gum and the wine bottles, is a framed picture. 'What's that, Mrs P?' says a young man, coming in to buy a newspaper and a carton of milk. He peers at it. It shows Mrs Patel, smiling, in a purple sari, and Mr Patel, smiling, too, clutching certificates for bravery. Between them stands the Mayor of Hammersmith & Fulham. 'It's a long story,' says Kalpana Patel.

The story of Mr and Mrs Patel's picture is at once unusual and typical. Unusual because of its outcome. Typical because of its frequency. It is a tale of violence, and violence in corner shops is now commonplace. This week a report from the Police Foundation, Violent Crime in Small Shops, found that one in four small London shops have experienced actual or attempted robbery in the last year, usually at the end of a knife or gun.

Subhas and Kalpana Patel are in their early forties. Subhas was born in Tanzania, Kalpana in Gujarat. For more than 15 years they have run a grocery and newsagent's shop on the same street in Fulham, west London, hidden among middle-class houses liberally sprinkled with window boxes, ruched curtains and Volvo estates. 'You do get some shoplifting,' says Mr Patel. 'Sweets, red salmon - anything they can nick. Children mainly. The flowers in front are always being nicked.' He laughs.

They have only had three burglaries. Twice the thieves arrived through the ceiling. The police asked the Patels to leave the shutter off the door so they could keep a better eye on the place. Naturally, the next burglars came through the door. Worse, 12 years ago, a white man in a khaki jacket called, bought some cigarettes. Then, later, he came back and pulled out a knife. Mrs Patel was alone behind the counter. 'He said: 'Come on, all the money.' Then I came in from the back,' says Mr Patel. 'I had a broom handle with me, but I couldn't do anything, the knife was against her. She had to hand it over.'

They only lost pounds 2 and some change. Like most small shops they clear the till every hour. They installed alarms. But small shops with only one or two staff remain easy targets. And so, in the evening of 5 February last year, a man came through the door, cool and quiet, pulled a sawn-off shotgun from a holdall and said, in broad Scots: 'Give me all your money.'

Mr Patel was by the door, sorting out a delivery of wine, when he felt the barrel in his ribs. Mrs Patel was behind the counter. The man was so calm she thought he was a customer playing a joke. 'All your money,' he repeated. A bank clerk is trained to obey a criminal's commands. But Mr Patel was not so detached. What the robber saw, over his shotgun, was only cereal packets and Elastoplasts and washing-up liquid. What the Patels saw was the product of a life spent working from 7am to 9pm, seven days a week. They saw their job security, their pension and their children's inheritance. Mr Patel, in other words, took this threat personally. And so he spoke.

'If,' he said 'you want all the money, what are the police doing behind you?' The robber, astonishingly, half turned. In that moment Mr Patel threw his arms around him. They locked in embrace. The shotgun barrel slid up till it pressed into the soft flesh under Mr Patel's chin.

'Press the panic button]' he shouted in Gujarati. Mrs Patel awoke from a transfixed state, hit the button and reached for her wooden stool. She flew round past the bananas and carefully examined the writhing human mass before her. 'I needed to look what I'm hitting,' says Mrs Patel, 5ft tall. 'If I had hit my husband's head, end of story.' She brought the stool down with a crash. 'I always do the cash-and-carry, so I am quite strong.'

'She did not knock him out, but he was depressed a little bit,' says her husband. Now the alarm was going. Customers came out of their houses. Cars stopped in the street. The robber struggled to the door: 'Let him go, Subhas,' advised Mrs Patel. A regular customer sprang on to his motorbike and followed the dazed man as he reeled away, trailing him to his lair. Back at the shop the police had arrived, within five minutes of the button being pressed. The robber, when arrested, turned out to be wanted for similar activity elsewhere, and was eventually given a seven and a half- year sentence.

Mr Patel's legs had turned to jelly. They returned to working order, but the shock still has effects 18 months on. The Police Foundation's report says that many shopkeeper victims consider giving up their businesses. Mr Patel himself knows of a shopkeeper who, after a robbery, could not face going into his shop and eventually went bankrupt.

The Patels have no such qualms, largely, they say, because of the support they received from customers and locals. Their commendations for bravery helped them feel better, too. Still, says Mr Patel, the after-effects have lingered. 'You wake up in the night,' he says. 'You think - did I do the right thing? If he had shot me, what would have happened?'

They have three children, aged between 11 and 14, all at private London day schools. That night, after supper, they sat them down and told them what had happened. 'We explained, at any time anything could happen,' says Mrs Patel. 'If someone doesn't kill you, you might have a heart attack. I told them if so not to be frightened and to look after each other. They reacted very well. They understood.'

The Patels hope that education will enable their children to have another kind of life, go into the professions. Meanwhile, they are looking at security video systems, watch schemes, the rest. Mr and Mrs Patel are not giving in. 'It is our duty to look after ourselves. If you are robbed two or three times you would feel hopeless. That is not good for your spiritual calm,' says Mrs Patel. And she politely shifts the stool out of the next customer's way.

(Photograph omitted)