The hook was two foot through the letterbox before I clocked the old geezer.
I’d been aiming for the keys. I always go for the keys. With a key, you can let yourself in nice and quiet-like, pick up wallets and iPhones and anything else you take a fancy to, on the hall table, or beyond. That’s the upside. Downside. If the keys are at home, so’s the owner. Doesn’t matter much, you wait ‘til Corrie or Enders, or come back later when everyone’s tucked up safe and sound, like in this gaff. Only, this guy wasn’t tucked up at all, was he? He was stood as still as a statue, at the bottom of the stairs, watching me, watching him.
He hadn’t been there when I lifted the letterbox to take a look see. Okay, yes it was night, so yes, ‘course it was dark, but enough yellow light spilled from the street to show the keys AND the empty hallway, I’m not a muppet! He must’ve crept down, while I was unfolding the folding tent pole. Who’d a thought a big guy like that could move so quiet?
I crouched down so instead of the letterbox view of the midriff of his dressing gown, I could look up an’ see his barrel chest and bearded, grizzled face. Like I said, he was just stood there, watching. Well, blow this, thinks I, and as he didn’t seem in no particular hurry to raise the alarm, I inched the pole even further in. Still no reaction. I wondered if maybe the old coot was sleepwalking. My Nan used to do that, though I never saw it. Maybe he thought he’d heard a noise and got up to investigate. It was freakin’ freezing, maybe I hadn’t waited long enough before making my move, or maybe he was just a light sleeper. I’d thought I’d been pretty quiet. In fact I’d been busy congratulating myself on how super-ninja silent I’d been, right up to the point I saw I was being watched.
But, hell, who just stands there as they get robbed? I decided that until he actually DID something, I might as well continue as is and pushed the tent pole the rest of the way.
You can’t pick up a key lying on its own. Just not possible. Defies the laws of physics. I know some who say you can. You just need to stick a wad of chewie on the end. I’ve tried it and guess what? It don’t work. But a key on a key-ring never sits flat and the little hooked piece of coat hanger at the end of the pole doesn’t need much of a gap. You still have to be careful. It is always best hooking away from you than towards you. Towards runs the risk of a heavy bunch of keys clattering to the floor. If there was a back to the table you could make it a lot easier by pushing the keys across till they can go no further, they always rise up some at that point. But I guess I wanted to do this one as quick and neat as I could. Given I had an audience. I was aiming to pick up the keys exactly where they lay. The bunch wasn’t big. Two keys, one Yale, one Chubb and a little metal key fob. Prob’ly a St Christopher, or a badge from some antique car long since crushed. Maybe even one of those fake coins for shopping market trolleys. My Nan used to have one of them, saved her rooting for a pound at the supermarket. But that was just detail, the key-ring was sitting high and proud. Simple!
Well, kind’a. It’s still like threading a needle from six foot away, the good news being the eye is pointing towards you. I gave the owner-occupier another once over. As far as I could see, he still hadn’t moved. Static. As fixed as an East End boxing match. The hook was hovering over the table now. Every tiny movement, my end, made it waggle in the air like a drunkard. I had to concentrate. No sudden movements. There! I thought, but damn it. Not quite. There was something… behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck were quivering. I kept trying to look out of the corner of my eye. When, like bloody Luke Skywalker, it was done. The keys were on the end of the pole. Hallelujah! I lifted them clear of the table to check they was secure. Then and only then hazarded a look over my shoulder. The hedge that was hiding me from the street twitched and then a head emerged, small and black. Two gleaming yellow eyes jerk in my direction. The cat freezes and its body seems to shrink. We stare at each other for a moment, then the cocky little bastard lifts its head once again and strolls out of the hedge and down the little side alley, lord of all it surveys. My heart was pounding and I began to think that my leg had gone to sleep, but you know what? During it all I kept that pole as steady as can be and there wasn’t a single jingle, not even a clink. How cool is that?
Once the cat had gone it was quiet again. Real quiet. I wasn’t surprised. It was brass monkey weather and there was absolutely no-one about, ‘cept me, the cat and I suppose, the old man.
I began easing the pole back, towards me. Still waiting for the old man to finally wake up and come running over and knock the keys off the hook. But nothing. I didn’t bother folding up the pole as I pull it out. I kept my eyes on the prize, making sure they don’t go slipping off, now that I’m so close. Worst thing in the world, if they slipped off just next to the door. No way in hell to get them up from there, even if they didn’t go waking the dead in the fall.
Then a Hello Kitty badge dangled just in front of my nose. Close enough for me to hook the keys with the rest of the coat hanger. I stopped. I’m thinking to myself. I’m thinking all kinds of things to myself. Maybe he’s called the Police? Maybe he’d done that, from upstairs, where I wouldn’t hear him and then come down to watch what happens? I mean, if he tried to stop me, I’d run off, wouldn’t I? Down the alley and into the allotments beyond, scot free. But if he let me continue, until the cops arrived, I’d be toast, next stop, a guest slot on the ‘World’s Stupidest Criminals’. Also, what if I DID get the keys? I was hardly going to use them, was I? I mean, I’d be opening the door and there he’d be, waiting. And he was a big bloke, you know? Not exactly tall, but broad. He wore some sort of a belt, instead of a cord round that old fur trimmed dressing gown. I bet he’d been wearing that antique during the war, maybe both wars. I’m not talking Gulf, here. What would there be worth stealing from his pokey little end of terrace anyway? Another thought, Hello Kitty. Not the sort of thing you’d expect from a guy with that much facial hair. Presumably, he had a kid or, given quite how long and white the beard was, a grand-kid. There’s nothing that prods an honest citizen into self-defence, like having someone else to defend, especially a nipper. I should just drop the damn keys and show a clean pair of heels. Then yet another thought occurred to me. How cool, how ‘Return of the Jedi’, would it be, if I put those keys back where I got them?
I slowly eased the keys back out over the void. The pole going away from me seemed to jiggle and I was beginning to feel the strain. The Hello Kitty tapped against the sideboard edge with a little clunk. I tilted it slightly, eased it on a half foot more and slowly lowered. Perfect. Hardly a clatter – super stealthy. As it lay there I twisted the pole gently ‘til the hook came free. I took a deep breath and this time removed the pole at speed. I was just about done, when I thought to look up at the old geezer. One last time. His face was as impassive, his eyes sparkling and as I watched he slowly nodded, turned and went back up the stairs. A pair of black boots instead of slippers the last thing I saw.
If this were a ghost story, I’d pass by the next day and find an ambulance parked outside, the driver would casually mention someone had complained about the smell, and they’d broken in to find nothing but a red cloaked skeleton, the wearer having died months back. Or a thriller I’d read in the paper about a violent siege, a crazy gunman shooting up the neighbourhood, killing bystanders, the cops and eventually, himself. Distraught locals saying how he always kept himself to himself, such a quiet, jolly man, wondering what triggered it all.
But it ain’t either. I didn’t ever go back. I never heard nothing more about it. I’m sure you think I’ve gone soft. Thing is, I’m glad I didn’t take those keys. Glad I didn’t break in. Sure, I’d gone there looking to take, to steal. But instead, he’d given me more than he knew. Or maybe he did know. Because that nod -was respect. More than I ever got from my Dad. More than I ever got from my Mum, for all that she loved me. And a hell of a lot more than I ever got at school, or on the YTS, or when I worked down Homebase. The only person who ever looked at me like that, like I was a person, not a walking screw up, was my Nan, God rest her soul.
And besides, I always thought it was a bit shitty robbing someone Christmas Eve. Know what I mean?
Now, does anyone want to buy a top of the range DVD player?