Armed and Impotent

A London TerraceA good memory is both a blessing and a curse. I recall 1997 very clearly: I was 25 years old and just getting started. At the time, I lived in my parents’ home in west London. My bedroom was on the top floor of the house and from my window I could see the rooftops of many terraced homes before me, neatly aligned. I felt like I could skip from roof to roof all the way to the city centre.

I remember May 1997 particularly well. I recall staying up late as the General Election results came in: Tory seat after Tory seat fell as the Labour landslide swept all before it. I remember cheering as likely corrupt and definitely weird Neil Hamilton lost the safe Conservative seat of Tatton to Martin Bell; later, I saw Michael Portillo lose Enfield Southgate to Stephen Twigg. There was a Labour victory rally and Blair said to the crowd, “A new day has broken, has it not?” The response was an enthusiastic cheer; I think everyone in the country felt the same at that moment. The following day was warm and sunny; I remember watching the BBC and seeing helicopters follow various motorcades going to and from Labour Party headquarters to Buckingham Palace to Downing Street. Golden sunlight followed Blair as he pressed the flesh on his way to his new office.

I remember the death of Princess Diana the subsequent August. It was a shock: I went to bed after hearing the news of her being in a car accident. I clearly recall that the newsreader said she had merely broken her wrist. The next morning, I awoke late, stumbled down to the kitchen with bleary eyes. I switched on the television and found to my surprise that she had passed away.

I remember the week that followed her death. Mourners laid flowers at palace gates across the country, a sea of bouquets whose tide kept washing in. I remember the long, slow tragic procession of the news: I recall how plans were made, sensitivites pricked and the Queen herself brought to heel by a demanding public. The questions of “why” and “how” were not fully answered back then, nor have they been completely dealt with since.

On the Friday following her passing, I had a typical day. I’d gone to work, I’d come home, I’d gone shopping at the local Safeway. My younger sister was out on the town; my parents were out of the country on a business trip. I had bought ingredients to make a curry: I intended to eat, go upstairs, use the internet for a while, and then go to bed. At that time, the internet was much less easy to use: there were no wi-fi connections, everything was done through dial-up. I had a desktop PC which ran an old variant of Windows which couldn’t handle multi-tasking. It came with a screeching modem; I had to monitor my usage closely to ensure I didn’t run up a big phone bill.

The curry was an entirely forgettable and thoroughly bland mess thanks to a pre-made sauce extracted from a jar. I tried to enliven it with the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon; it was to no avail. I sat in my parents’ large kitchen at the dining table and ate it nonetheless. The news was on in the background: there was speculation about the state of mind of Princes Harry and William. Blair was doing his best to be mourner in chief; I was rather glad that he was leading the proceedings instead of the washed out John Major.

I finished my dinner and returned to the stove: it had a stainless steel hob. I took off my watch, an expensive gift given to me at graduation, and began to attack the surface with window cleaner and paper towels.

I heard a click at the door. I stepped into the hallway: my parents had recently removed the carpet, revealing some red, white, blue, black and gold Victorian tiles. I thought my sister might have come home early; I was ready to greet her and to offer her the remains of my less than satisfying repast. The flourescent light by the front door was on, the door itself was shut. I guessed I heard the wind rustling outside.

I went back into the kitchen; I didn’t dismiss the click entirely, I still wondered what it was. I picked up the roll of paper towels and began to attack the stove again.

I heard another noise, much closer.

I turned, and three figures, dressed entirely in black and wearing balaclavas burst into the kitchen. I was too surprised to do or say anything. Two of them grabbed me; I felt a blade pressed up against my throat.

One of them grabbed my watch. They then hustled me out of the kitchen. The house had a small basement; a staircase led down to several cupboards and an extra lavatory. In one of the cupboards was a safe.

The robbers pushed me to the floor. I was still clutching the roll of paper towels.

They found the safe relatively quickly and demanded to know where the key was. I didn’t have it, nor did I have the combination; my parents had it. I was certain they would hurt me; I was paralysed with fear, I felt hot tears come out of my eyes.

I offered them the keys to my Nissan Micra and the contents of my wallet, such as they were. They weren’t interested; I suggested they go to my parents’ bedroom to find the keys. My voice was strained, tearful. I was not brave. One of them shouted that he wanted to “cut” me, his threat punctuated with profane language.

I heard two of them ransacking my parents’ room. The one who remained kept asking, where is the key, where is the key, I didn’t know, I could only guess. I told them it was my parents’ home, not mine.

After what seemed like an eternity, one of them said, “Don’t move.” I lay there, silent. I heard the door click. I waited. The house was silent again. The roll of paper towels was still cradled in my arm; I finally let it go.

London Police CarI waited a while longer, listening. Then, slowly, gingerly, I made my way up the stairs and phoned the police. I don’t recall precisely what I said but I am sure I stated that I wanted to be protected. It did not take long; I have never been happier to see the flashing blue lights of a police car. My sister came home. She was a bit worse for wear due to her long night out; she was a bit unsteady on her feet and had bags under her eyes. “I can’t deal with this,” she said. Fortunately, we had a friend of the family who knew the police quite well; she was over quickly. An emergency locksmith was called: he was pale, portly with short cropped red hair. He wore a blue t-shirt and carried a large canvas tool bag. He also remains in my memory the most polite and well mannered gentleman in Britain: he spoke calmly to me, and then set to work fixing the lock, which in his opinion and that of the police, had been jiggled and prodded open. The police suggested later that the trio were “semi-pro”.

A neighbour objected to the locksmith using his drill: I heard their exchange.

“What’s all this noise?” she shouted at him.

“I’m afraid there’s been a robbery, madam,” the locksmith replied.

She retreated. He finished his efforts; he was a genuine craftsman. The locks were set firm and secure; he demonstrated their operation and then departed.

I phoned my parents, who were in Boston at the time; they could hardly believe what happened. My sister went upstairs to collapse in her bed. Our family friend stayed with me for a while; she told me that I did the right thing by not fighting, not resisting, and even offering the keys to my car. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep in my bed that night; I lay on the sofa in a spare room with a television. I put on Eurosport, hoping inane statistics and results might lull me to sleep. It was partially successful. The dawn came and life went on.

I am not a hero, nor do I possess extraordinary reserve. It took some time for me to get over this episode; my employer at the time decided that I’d suffered too much of a shock and let me go. I suppose the most brave thing I did was go to a job interview not too long afterwards and secure the position. I did have a panic attack en route: because I perceived the robbers to be young, perhaps no more than teenaged, I discovered I had an aversion to groups of teenagers, particularly if they were loud and using abusive language. Such a group was assembled at Euston wearing dirty t-shirts and swearing profusely; my hands shook. The robbers had wanted to “cut” me; I’d been very fortunate they had not. The police told me that the same gang had put another victim in the hospital. Upon hearing this, I wanted the locksmith to return and fit a third and a fourth lock and to just stay inside; however, I didn’t.

My good memory won’t let me fully forget; as time has gone on, this episode has faded into the background, hidden behind stacks of other recollections, some beautiful, others bad. However, I still make sure that the doors are locked at night. At times, I react to random noises in the house: I am careful to catagorise every kind of rattle and creak. I am cautious about being anywhere that has a reputation for criminality; I recall feeling particularly on edge while walking through Barcelona, feeling as if I were evading scores of pickpockets. Perhaps because of my inclinations or mere luck, nothing quite like that has happened since. Yet, it is only when people speak of how to deal with home intruders as a public issue that this particular memory shakes off the dust and cobwebs for active reconsideration; the incident in which Andy Ferrie and his wife shot burglars who had invaded their Melton Mowbray home performed this function.

Arguments have gone backwards and forwards: did they use reasonable force? In this case, as they didn’t intend to kill the burglars, and no one was indeed slain, I suggest they did. Unlike Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer, they didn’t shoot the miscreants in the back. In my opinion, the Crown Prosecution Service came to a sensible conclusion by deciding not to prosecute. But this should not be considered an advertisement for taking on invaders in one’s home: it’s an exception rather than a rule.

Had I owned a gun, it would not have mattered. I would have needed split second reflexes and required the inclination to keep a weapon beside me throughout the evening. Even if this unlikely coalition of circumstances had come together, I would have still had to deal with being outnumbered. Assuming that I’d been overpowered anyway and the gun was taken from me, what would have happened then? Would I have ended up in the hospital like another of their victims? Would I be dead? Is armed and impotent worse than unarmed and impotent?

Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that if reasonable force had been a viable option, I could have utilised it. My life was genuinely in danger. But this issue will never be anything other than muddy; while the reflecting pools of memory are clear, I do sometimes wonder if there was more I could have done. But as I say that, I cannot think of what “more” might have been. In the end, I have much for which to be grateful: I was physically unharmed. The financial loss was marginal: I lost a graduation present whose value lay more in sentimentality than anything else. My father lost some gold cufflinks. My parents’ bedroom looked like a tornado had hit it. I doubt I would have been much better off emotionally if I had shot the burglars; it probably would still linger in the back of my mind as it was the sudden, startling loss of security that was most troubling. I cannot accurately calculate how I would have felt having harmed another person, regardless of them being a burglar. The sole consolation would have been that the robbers were caught: so far as I know, they were not captured, though hopefully they later made a mistake which put them behind bars.

In many cases, the law is clear and rightly so: murder is wrong, theft is wrong, armed robbery is wrong. Once presented, the evidence can convict or exonerate. When it comes to defence of hearth and home, kith and kin, it is tempting to cling to a black and white certainty that all is permitted. It is to the credit of the British justice system that the word “reasonable” has been inserted; it’s a reminder that sometimes law has to add the human factor, put in a dash of judgement and discernment, which is far from the iron certainty of the printed statute. I sometimes tell myself: there’s nothing I could have done except be reasonable in what I did. The police stated that I conducted myself in such a manner. The Ferrie family was reasonable too. Bad and unreasonable things have happened and will happen, possessions will be stolen and people traumatised; nevertheless, reason, proportionality and sense should not crumble in their wake.

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