three thin guys: street life from above

Okay, so Mlle B goes out with some friends for half-term. I’m out, but we speak, etc, and when I call her at 10.45 she says her phone battery’s running down but they’re on the way to somebody’s house. She calls me again about 12.15, on a friend’s phone, and I’m cross because all I want to do is go to bed, and she wants to come home at 2am. I say no. She says she always comes in at 2am and I have no idea how many buses there are at that time. I say no and make her get permission to sleep at somebody’s house. She thinks I’m being ridiculous.

So I go to bed. I’m reading The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. (Funnily enough, one of the kids Mlle B is out with is called Dashiell; we’ve known him since he was 2, and this is his 16th birthday, and it is Stoke Newington, after all. And at least he’s not called Felix. I personally know about five Felixes in this neighbourhood – there used to a sixth, till she moved away – a girl! But there’s only one Dashiell.) So I’m reading my old Penguin of The Thin Man, and I drop off.

Then the phone rings. It’s 1.14am. It’s Mlle B, on her friend’s phone. “Can I come home, we just all left Josh’s house, we’re all walking down to Church St, I just want to go get on a bus and come home, I just want to be home.” I say yes.

Half an hour later I realise it doesn’t take half an hour to get home from Church St. Then I realise she has no phone.

I go to the balcony and look out. There’s a skinny, manky-looking person in a hood, lurking around weirdly on the pavement out front of my building. There are two more people coming along but I bet one of them isn’t my drop-dead gorgeous daughter, so I go in and get my glasses. (I’m the glamorous one in this house, okay?) And my phone. I have a funny feeling.

They aren’t Ms B. They’re two more manky guys in hoods, a mixture of races, young. The first guy talks to them and shows them a motorcycle that’s parked between two cars. They all go have a look, fingering its rear-view mirrors and checking out seat, exhaust, etc. Real vultures. Then they disperse, some Hassidic guys come along, and then they congregate around the bike again. Fingering is the right word. You can see them talking to each other, murmuring about how they’re going to do it. This goes on for about five minutes.

Well, I’m already on the phone to the cops. I’ve got my balcony door open so I’m trying to be quiet and discreet, but they’re going, “WHAT did you say they looked Like? Did you say ONE of them was black? Any of them Asian? What are they doing NOW?” At this stage all three of them are hovering around directly in my very doorway. They are loitering and definitely with very real intent. Where the hell is Mlle B. Her friend isn’t answering. I don’t want her walking into this. I don’t know how ugly they are.

Then she walks into view: short shorts, black tights, white plimsolls, black jacket, black beret, scarf. She has clearly seen them, I’m pleased to see, and keeps firmly to the other side of the road, but she can’t see what they’re doing; she doesn’t have my vantage point. She sees me and briefly waves – then in a flash looks at them, and we both know they saw her look at me, so they knew I was there, so I duck inside, turn off the living room light, and ring the buzzer to let her in. Then back out to the darkened balcony, and hey presto! The bike’s gone.There’s no sign of the guys. The street looks sort of used.

Five minutes later, giving them credit, the police arrive. A van, a car, lights, driving around… Five minutes later Mlle B, safe at home, has changed and gone to bed, so I do the same. It’s over. Well after 2. Hard, lying there, not to wonder if they saw me, could figure out which flat it was, will they be arrested or will they get off, if they get off will they have a grudge… you know.

I read my Hammett again; some dodgy guy is getting beaten up in a speakeasy. Nobody knows who knocked off the dame but anybody could know more than they’re letting on. I drop off. The phone rings; it’s the police; they ask if someone can speak to me, and I say yes but I don’t want to come down as I’m in my pyjamas and it’s raining. But when I go to the balcony again I see them passing by my doorway, and greeting a woman across the road: “Thank you so much for making that call!”

Phew! Off the hook. I go back to bed and fall asleep around 3am.

I try to will myself to sleep till 10, but I wake up automatically at 8.45, so that’s annoying. Then the phone rings. It’s the police. What did I see? I say it was black outside, and the sight rain under the streetlights made the shadows harder. One of them was very thin. They were dressed for robbing: all dark. What kind of bike was it? Grey; dark. What condition was it in? Parked, at the time. Normal. Would I recognise the guys? I have terrible night vision, so who knows. Would I recognise them in the light? And will I be in this morning? As it happens, they have arrested someone…

Alas, I have an appointment. But if they need anything this afternoon, they will be in touch.

Meanwhile, there are negotiations about me maybe being on Connecticut Public Radio tomorrow to talk about sonnets.

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