The Samaritan urge

My fascination with shopkeeping began when I was about seven years old and my mother told me one of the facts of life: shopkeepers (she said) were in business to make a profit, and they sold their goods for more money than they had paid for them. At first I was indignant. Later, when I came to appreciate nuances of thievery, I began to admire the sheer effrontery of it: buying cheap and selling dear. Now why hadn’t I thought of that?

This memory was slowly rising through my brain one day when I was out in the streets, prospecting. My landlord was dunning me again and I was living on stolen food – iced doughnuts, mainly.

I was actually planning to get hold of someone’s cash, and this went against my principles. I’m an opportunist. When I’m in form, the laden pocket calls sweetly to my hand, which leaps to its task. Sometimes I’ll speak to the pocket’s owner (always a man; I’m not a snatcher of women’s bags), and sometimes I’ll brush him with my shoulder. Usually I pause near him and fall into the dipping trance. Then my subtle fingers go ferreting for their prey. But now I was scheming for profit.

I moved gingerly through crowds like an aged pensioner. (I am aged, and I’d love to be a pensioner, but if I tried to fill the forms in, truthfully . . . . )

To see me at work, you’d imagine I was thinking of nothing, that I wasn’t capable of thinking. And you could be right, for when I work I allow the protective cuticle to dissolve. I open myself. My antennae go to maximum sensitivity. In this condition I could detect a policeman through a thick concrete wall. And yet, even exposed, quivering with sensitiveness, I am not in danger. I’m in a state of security. I carry out my raids without looking out for predators. If danger threatens – well, that’s what it does. It threatens, it blusters, it staggers about with its lower lip thrust out. And when it does, being no hero, I yield to the threats and become very quiet and still.

I forget how I came to be right there at that moment. But I do remember how ready I was for action. I was in that suspended state between anxiety and peace that I get into when my hand is ready to do its duty. But no likely pockets were to be seen. I was a bit like Michelangelo on one of those public holidays when he turned up for work at the Sistine Chapel and found it was closed.

And then I saw him.

He slipped through that shopping arcade like a tall sailing ship, aloof and unstoppable. His bright blue eyes shone. He had the rapid, yet leisurely stride of the very long-legged. And then he stopped. He did not see me. Nobody sees me unless I want them to. He peered through the door of a shop given over entirely to leathery things – handbags, briefcases, wallets and the like. And I knew he had larceny on his mind. But why bother to steal leather? It’s not immediately convertible into cash. I kept watching and soon realised that he had, like a good, true and honest thief, seen what I (a professional blinkered by his own specialism) had not seen – an open cash drawer.

The cashier, a middle-aged woman, was shouting something at the retreating back of a man I took to be the manager. He gave no sign of having heard her, so she ran to the back of the shop, calling his name.

My thief moved quickly into the shop, looked at the woman and then at the cash register drawer. And there it was, sticking up, unsecured by the clips that held all the rest of the money down – a twenty-dollar note. Looking through the window, I could almost hear it calling to him like a lover: Take me, take me! And surely it was no fault of his that his hand suddenly moved under its own volition, shot out and tweaked the note from the drawer. I saw the hand dive into his overcoat pocket and I knew that it was burrowing in there, threatening to tear through the lining.

He left the shop and quickly walked away – too quickly. I wanted to call after him: Slow down, slow down, you look like a thief!

But of course I said nothing.

I followed him. How easy that sounds, and how difficult it was for a ruined person of my age and condition to keep up with a perfectly healthy and long-legged young man. It was touch and go for a while. My face must have been red, my blood pressure lethally high and my heart ready to burst by the time he slowed down. But I was still there, still on his trail. I suspected that, having pulled off an acquisition, he would imagine that the whole business of thieving was easy, and would do it again, and again, until he was spotted and nabbed. The mistake they all make is to yield to the urge. I myself do not have urges. I have plans. This one would yield again and again. Perhaps, I thought, I could teach him how to act like a professional instead of loose cannon.

He stopped outside a bookshop, peered into its window and fell into a covetous trance. He had seen a book that called to him, as books call to the bookish. He drew his gaze away from the window and looked from left to right.

I couldn’t bring myself to rush forward and tell him, No! Don’t do it. I watched as he entered the shop. I waited. I was soon bored and anxious. I knew what was going to happen. It happened. A car drew up. Two uniformed men got out. They didn’t hurry. They went into the shop, came out a few minutes later with the incompetent thief. I felt my head shake itself. Either it was sadness or a Parkinsonian attack. Ah, the follies of youth. The two policemen inserted the youth carefully into the car and they all drove away.

The shopkeeper emerged grinning. He saw me, included me. I was supposed to grin too. I moved close to him, out of control – self-control, I mean. Certainly I was being controlled. He turned to me, joy written all over his face: a thick face. I didn’t like his eyes. The eyes of a rapist. Bulging, boiled-looking. What was such a man doing with a bookshop? He looked more the kind of man who would be in his element running child prostitutes. Well, perhaps he hadn’t built up the business. Perhaps he’d inherited it, or won it in a card game. Certainly not a booky type. He spoke:

“Does your heart good, dunnit?” he said, “See one of them bastards get it.”

“What did he do?” I said (in harmless-innocent-stupid mode).

“Tried to pinch a book. I fixed ‘im. Where he’s goin’ they won’t have books.”

“But a first offence, perhaps . . . .”

“First offence! They oughta hang ‘em for a first offence, then there wouldn’t be a second.”

I moved towards his window as if interested in his stock. I saw nothing. The world was no longer visible. Everything had to be done by touch now. My shoulder brushed his. He didn’t notice. I said, “Well, must be going”, and gave him the slightest bump, so that he rocked a little. I knew he wouldn’t really notice. People never seem to notice it when I bump them. Then I nodded and walked away.

“Bastard!” the man screamed. I turned and watched as he frantically searched his pockets.

“Something wrong?” I said.

“He did get something. My fucken wallet.”

“Oh well,” I said, “if he did, they’ll get it back at the station.”

It was a good day’s work. No honest man, I thought, would carry five hundred dollars in his wallet. It was my citizenly duty to redirect the money to myself. As for the rest of the contents, the cards, the notes, the receipts: well, my usual practice is to post them back to the target. But I’d developed a dislike for this man, so I threw the wallet into a wastepaper bin. I do have standards, after all.

 

This experience left me with an abiding sense of guilt. I ought to have been able to do more for the thief, to advise him, to save him from detection, as I had once, long before that day, saved another thief – well, temporarily.

That had been during my retail career, when for a short time I worked in a shop (hardly more than a market stall, really). I had the best of intentions. I made a secret vow to serve the shop’s owner with diligence and perfect honesty. And I did, for a whole week. How I came to get the job is not important. (In fact, I think it was some kind of miracle.) But there I was, in charge of a mass of electronic merchandise of which I had only the scantiest knowledge.

And it was so boring! Standing there hour after hour, waiting for someone to thrust a bit of electronic something-or-other under my nose and say, “I want this.” The idea of approaching a customer myself and offering help never entered my mind. Being ignorant, I could not have helped much anyway.

The day of my deliverance was a Friday. I stood on guard near the cash register and watched potential buyers (all of whom looked to me like potential thieves). I played the sentinel with such zeal that I almost missed the actual thief.

He came in wearing an overcoat. This should have alerted me, for the day was warm. I was busy watching two girls enthusing over a twin-speakered blaster when my sensors gave out a signal. The girls could not have stolen the equipment. It was far too heavy. So I slowly scanned the shop, and there he was, the living embodiment of larceny.

I studied him and went into my divining trance, trying to imagine what had brought him to this. I came up with a scenario. He, I guessed, had borrowed or stolen the overcoat. Then he had browsed until he found a shop that looked lootable. Then he determined what to take: a Korean-built radio with so many knobs, dials, switches and sliding controls that it looked like the control panel of an airliner. The price astounded him, not because it was too high but because it hardly seemed high enough. How was it possible to produce such an artefact so cheaply? At this rate, to make his fortune quickly he would need to steal – and, of course sell – fifty of the things a week.

He must by now have regretted the coat. It was far too short for him and so made him stand out, but there was just enough room under it to conceal the loot.

Hurrying through masses of customers, he came to the spot where the machine was displayed. I must have looked quite dopey, so busy was I at feeling my way into his thoughts. Having spent a few hours in practice with a heavy book, so I guessed, he knew exactly how much force to use and how much speed. The machine stood on a turn-table, which itself stood on a low, round, black pedestal. My thief, whose reflection I was now observing in the silvered casing of some incomprehensible piece of equipment, opened his overcoat, turned slowly round as if inspecting goods – probably in search of possible witnesses – and then turned once more, this time faster, swirling out his coat. When he walked away the machine was no longer on the turn-table; but this was not obvious, since the thing was of black plastic and had been sitting on a black object up against a black-painted wall.

I followed him. He was in no hurry. He even paused to inspect a television set. I came very close to him but he shook his head and said, “Not today, thank you. Perhaps next time.” The only flaw in his performance was his smile. He still wore it when he was out in the street. When he caught sight of his face reflected in a shop window the grinning idiocy of it must have startled him. I saw him fight the rictus until it changed into a disgruntled turning-down of the mouth which, though it looked strange, was not as strange as the expression it had replaced.

The two of us moved along the street, my thief in near-panic, I in my sauntering mode.

And then we came to a pub and he walked into the bar, a cheerless, brown, varnished sort of place, the kind that could be hosed out. I followed him and watched as he ordered a beer. As he turned and surveyed the bar, looking no doubt for customers, I made my smiling approach. His eyes met mine and for a few seconds terror stiffened his face. But I raised a hand and said, “It’s all right. You’re quite safe.”

He stared at me and reached inside his coat. By now he was sweating heavily.

“I suppose you want it back,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, it belongs to you, doesn’t it?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know who it belongs to. I mean, I don’t even know for sure who owns the shop. I just work there.”

“What, all by yourself?”

“Yes.”

He frowned, looked at me and said, “Did you lock up before you came after me?”

“No, there wasn’t time.”

“Then – I’d guess you don’t work there any more.”

“Probably not.”

“So, what do you want?” he said.

“Justice,” I said.

“So you do want to turn me in.”

“No. The kind of justice I mean is – well, it’s to do with fate and the allocation of talents. It just isn’t fair that you should be forced to perform in an area where you’re so unqualified. Isn’t there anything else you could do?”

“I used to be a librarian,” he said.

“And why aren’t you now?”

He exhaled lengthily and set his gaze on some distant scene that wasn’t visible to me.

“There was this girl – “

“Stop,” I said. Don’t tell me any more.

“Well, she looked at least twenty. I didn’t know she was only fifteen.”

“Please!” I held up my hand. This kind of confession I didn’t need. I merely wished to help a fellow thief out of the mess he was ready to land himself in.

“What about you?” he said. “What do you do?”

“I’m a craftsman,” I said.

“What kind?”

“This kind,” I said as I leaned close to him.

We stood at the bar, he nursing his beer, I with one hand behind my back. A look of complete puzzlement gradually seeped into his face. Something had happened, but what? Then a frantic searching began as both of his hands raked his body.

“It – it’s gone,” he said.

I took my hand from behind my back and showed him the radio.

“That’s magic,” he said.

“No,” I said. It’s professionalism. You don’t yield to obscure promptings. You plan – and you keep your equipment in good order.”

A morose looking man of about forty, thin but with a pot belly, suddenly appeared. The man’s teeth looked strange. His sandy hair was wispy and had bald patches, as if a goat had browsed on his scalp.

“Whatta you got there? One of them Japanese things?”

“Yeah,” I said said, trying to inject into the monosyllable something of the man’s hopeless drone. “I got it for a present for me mother. Went to give it to her today – it’s her birthday – and, you wouldn’t want to know it, but the first thing I see when I get in the house is the same make, same model-right in the middle of the dining room table. She says, ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, beautiful.’ And I can see her eyes are on this bag with the radio in it, and I can tell she’s wondering: What’s in it, what’s he got for me? Turned out me brother gave her the present. We talked about it a week ago. He was going to give her a toaster and I was going to give her this. So he gets it arse about. Now I’m stuck with it. I’ve got two of these things now. The shop won’t take it back-and I still haven’t got me mother a present.”

The man moved closer, his eyes on the machine in all its shining, plastic glory.

“They know how to make them, don’t they?” the man said.

“Yeah, I suppose they do. This one’s battery or mains, picks up AM and FM, plays cassettes, CDs, records without a mike – probably cook your lunch for you if you ask it nicely.”

“Won’t take it back, you say?”

“Won’t even let me swap.”

“Give you fifty for it.”

“Seventy.”

“Sixty-five.”

“Right!”

My thief and I retired to the toilet to split the money.

“I see how you do it now,” he said.

“No,” I said, “you only see the end result. The technique stays hidden.”

I thought it necessary to discourage him from ever again attempting to acquire goods belonging to other people.

But I couldn’t really save that simple man, whose name I never discovered. We were strolling along the street towards my place of employment when he began to vibrate with enthusiasm.

“If you can do it once,” he said. “You can do it twice.” And he plunged into a shop that sold cheap jewellery.

“Wait for me,” he called as he vanished.

I didn’t actually break into a run, but I certainly made good time back to my shop. By the time I got there, much of the stock was missing and two uniformed policemen were in attendance, so I kept walking.

By now my thief would have been apprehended, but I had done my best. I felt remarkably fulfilled, like a boy scout who, having done his good deed for the day, can misbehave for the rest of it.

Such a pity that you can’t always help those who are most in need.