Thursday, 7 April 2016

Crime fiction and crime fact by Bill Kirton

I moved the blog I’d previously scheduled for today to make way for what I thought was going to be a merry, envy-provoking account of a weekend in Paris with my daughter and her daughter on the occasion of the former’s 50th birthday. It was a lovely weekend and Paris delivered up all the ‘April in it’ clichés. The only problem occurred after an afternoon sitting in the sun in the Place des Vosges. We got to the Gare du Nord in plenty of time for our Eurostar. Just as well because, while it’s always a busy place, I’ve never seen it quite as jammed as it was then. Taxis, cars, buses, all nose to tail, with hundreds of people squeezing between them.

We sat at a terrasse but, as I searched for my wallet to pay the bill, I found nothing. It was in a zipped up pocket of a light jacket thing I’d been intermittently wearing and carrying. Except that it wasn’t. We went through the ‘when did you last use it?’ routines, and I knew it had been in my pocket all the time because I’d kept checking for reassurance.

It had about 70 quid and 30 Euros in it, along with credit cards, driver’s licence, etc. I supposed I’d lost it so went to find a policeman to tell him about it in case someone handed it in. I found a group of three and, as I was explaining it all to them, one made an unfolding gesture with his hands and said ‘Did it open like this?’ He then said he was sure one like that had been handed in. A terrific piece of luck, eh?

Well, no. He thought the story was that someone had seen a man running away with it, chased him but he’d thrown it away. The chaser had picked it up but the thief had escaped. We went to the police office on the station and, sure enough, it was my wallet, sans (of course) the money and credit cards.

And this is where Sod’s Law began to operate. I managed to phone my wife, explain it all
and asked her to put stops on the bank cards. But then I had to get through security to board the train. (A wee aside, anyone contemplating taking the Eurostar to avoid airport-style queues, think again. Yes, it drops you in the middle of Paris and London, but it’s expensive and not a particularly comfortable experience.) Anyway, I made it to the train and was all set to ring the credit card company to stop any further payments on my card. But no wi-fi. I couldn’t get through to them until we reached England and my own network was available. They were understanding, helpful, reassuring, but the guy had already managed to ‘spend’ well over £3000. Worse still, I discovered in a later phone call that he’d used my PIN number to do so. This is completely baffling. I’d used that card to pay one restaurant and the hotel bill. I hadn’t withdrawn any money from ATMs. My number isn’t written ANYWHERE. It’s in my head.

I asked the credit card person whether it was somehow encoded on the card and he’d used electronic stuff to get it but she hurried past the question and said there’d be a fraud investigation. I won’t be responsible for the money he ‘spent’, which is reassuring, but it’s set my (crime-writer) mind going. If the thief had somehow acquired my number, it must have been at one of the 2 places I used it. Impossible for it to be anywhere else. But then, what did he do? Follow us into the Marais district? Get on the same Métro, change to the same RER, and get off with us at the Gare du Nord. Had he been following us for 4-5 hours? All great material for a short crime story but not when it happens to you.

I know it’s only money, but the experience generates that feeling of having your privacy intruded upon. I wanted to use the word violated, but that has to be reserved for the far greater problems of assault and rape. It’s really made me think of crimes like that. We read of them and naturally sympathise with and are horrified on behalf of the (mostly) women who are subjected to them. What I’ve just described is nothing, pickpockets have been around for centuries and they’ve become very good at it. It’s a trivial thing and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as those far greater crimes. But it bites and, because you obsess with it for a couple of days, you begin to sense just how deep the hurt must go. Tiny little things I’m doing ever since then have brought the memory and the puzzlement (and, yes, the anger) about it all back. You mistrust strangers, assume hostility everywhere. It’s miles away from sitting at a computer glibly committing murders and confidently assuming you know how your characters are feeling.

Fortunately, I’m not a worrier, but if that’s how it’s affected me, it makes me realise that I’ve never before fully appreciated how devastating it must be for rape and assault victims and all the other crimes in which the word violation is justified.


For me, normal service will be resumed very quickly. For them…?

13 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

What a horrible experience Bill. Not a nice way to end a holiday. Still as you say fodder for a short story.

Sandra Horn said...

Oh, Bill, how awful. I've been there - couldn't think straight when it happened and it took ages to work out what it 'must' have been. And I'm still not sure... but that wobbly feeling and the mistrust passes, by and by.

Susan Price said...

Horrible experience - but an interesting account of how the writer's brain constantly turns things around, looking from different angles and using them for insight into the experience of others'.

Reb MacRath said...

Oh, Bill. Do recall Nobility. Theft by pickpocketing is particularly heinous because it almost always uses the social niceties that we love. The pat on the shoulder or chest after a bump.
The smile. The kind word. Sorry for your loss and the sense of violation.

Mari Biella said...

I've experienced something similar, Bill, and you're right - it's only money, and not much money at that, but you do feel violated. Trying to be positive about it, though, it's true that no experience is ever really wasted on a writer, as you demonstrate in this post. I hope it didn't entirely ruin your holiday, and congratulations on having such a measured reaction.

Lydia Bennet said...

It's the destruction of trust in other people which lingers after any sort of crime I suppose. But yes, how did they get the PIN and then get the wallet? Perhaps someone at the hotel has a way of seeing or working out the PIN you put in, they then phone a friend or tip the wink across the foyer, and the accomplice picks you up as you leave the hotel and keeps close til they get the chance to grab the wallet. They probably do this to many people each day. Still it's better than the alternative we read about sometimes where they grab the person and torture their PIN out of them or drag them to the ATM at knifepoint...

Fran B said...

Many years ago, while camping with my 13-year-old daughter outside London, I had my purse stolen out of my tent late at night while we were out of it for a few minutes. Cash and cards gone. Didn't realise until the morning, of course, and then also realised that some fellow-camper must have been watching our tent for an opportunity and seized it in those few minutes (we'd only gone to the loo). It was a truly horrible feeling: spied on, stalked, robbed and yes violated. I was a fairly penurious single mum at the time so it really spoiled our holiday. Miserable experience.

Lynne Garner said...

Sorry to hear about your experience. At least it was solved quickly and you got home safe and sound.

I've had something similar happen twice.

The first time myself and him-in-doors were in South Africa and he received a call from his bank and asked if we'd tried to purchase tickets in the US. We obviously hand't. The thing was we'd only used the card in one place, a 4 star hotel. So as with you it got me thinking about the who, what etc.

The second time I had a savings account drained using a card that was still sitting in the envelope at home, I hadn't even activated it. An inside job? No. It turned out someone very clever had managed to do something exceptionally clever with their app (which they withdrew very quickly, so I assume I wasn't the only person) to access my account.

Thankfully the banks were great at sorting it out.

Pity I'm not a crime writer otherwise I'm sure these experiences would get used at some point.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks for the responses, folks. I'm sorry, though, that they revived memories of similar experiences for so many of you. It seems to be a fairly common occurrence. As far as I'm concerned, it's over. It certainly didn't ruin the holiday. Quite the reverse - as the holiday was ending, along came this separate drama to set a new narrative in motion.

Also, sorry about thr white boxes around some of the text. No idea why it happened. I posted it all in the usual way. Sod's Law still operating, I guess.

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, Bill, a dreadful experience, one which I always dread but haven't (Oyet) experienced. actually, I find Eurostar a marvellous thing which - just because it's on rails, I suppose - I always really enjoy. Time is well spent at St Pacras International - it's half the joy of going to Paris or Brussels. By comparison, Gare du Nord is a slum and Brussels Midi even worse. Keep up, lads, keep up!

Enid Richemont said...

Oh that is nasty, and the nastiest part is not knowing how it was done (reading your account as a possible thief, I still can't work it out. How could anyone nick a wallet inside a zipped-up pocket without interacting with you?) Glad it didn't spoil your holiday, though.

julia jones said...

Stops us romanticising the Artful Dodger and his Paris confreres anyway (and thank you for NOT using "violated")

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks all.

Dennis, we disagree on the Eurostar experience but not on the relative attractions of the London and Psris terminals. I'm a Francophile but St Pancras is way ahead of the Gare du Nord.

Enid, if you solve the conundrum, please let me know.

Julia, the moment the word occurred to me, it was obvious how inappropriate it was for my little adventure.