Just Keep Walking

Everyone was surprised at the verdict.

There was no doubt it was a technicality – the magistrate admitted as much – but evidence is, after all, evidence, and there is a right and a wrong way of presenting it in court. The magistrate, in a bad mood before the trial had even started, dismissed the case with an oblique criticism of the police’s handling of the affair and vague recommendations which no one would pay any attention to, concluding with some choice remarks about the accused which left nobody in any doubt that he felt him to be guilty as charged, but that he wasn’t going to twist procedure to have him banged up for six months.

It was therefore as an innocent man, without a stain on his character (apart from an earlier and less successful skirmish with the law which, as it was never read out in court, would be unethical of me to disclose) that Derrick Leathwaite emerged from the Clapham Magistrates Court into the pale spring sunshine.

It was just gone twelve, and he decided to have a drink.

“What happened?” a friend said to him as Derrick was chalking his pool cue.

“Police screwed it up.” Over the game he gave a colourful description of the morning’s events which might have differed in certain respects from the official court record, assuming such things are kept. I don’t know if they are, although I suppose I ought to, given my job. I’m just telling the story – in fact, I heard it from a friend. Maybe he added a few twists of his own, invented a remark or two, altered the old woman’s age, maybe even made Derrick out to be black when in fact he wasn’t. Perhaps even, at the end, the tools didn’t actually …

But I am overreaching myself, anticipating as they say. Perhaps even my version contains embellishments – now that’s something to think about while you read on. Maybe, in fact, none of this is true.

Anyway – there we have him. Derrick Leathwaite, West Indian Londoner, twenty-six years old, moving like a panther round the pool table in the Horse and Groom, potting the stripes (or maybe the spots – it’s not important) while his friend sipped his lager top and listened to the story. It was a good enough stunt, he felt, pulling one over on the filth, so he laughed in all the right places and eventually bought Derrick a drink.

After that, Derrick made a phone call, then told his friend he had to go: something about a job he was doing on a house down Balham way – no, not what you’re thinking: painting and decorating. Derrick, you see, was an honest and hard-working young man who had fallen in with what his mother always called a ‘rotten bad crowd’, some white and some black, whom he was having trouble shaking off. Problem was, if you wanted to get money there were easy ways and hard ways of getting it, and sometimes the easy ways involved…well, they were a little too easy, just leave it at that. I know about that too well. You deliver a car from A to B and you’re not exactly sure where it comes from, and someone you don’t know very well pays you a hundred quid and tells you to keep your mouth shut, and that hundred quid pays the rent – well, what would you do? Don’t sit there a look smug about it. It’s an important question. These things happen, sometimes to the best people. And don’t go thinking that this is another one of those stories about black urban youth ram-raiding and joy-riding and sniffing crack, or whatever they do, at Tooting Bec tube station. It’s just a story about something which happened. I’m telling it to you as it was told to me (more or less): or have you forgotten?

Actually, the morning’s incident had frightened Derrick, despite his show of bravado in the pub. He enjoyed life and freedom to much to face being locked up even for a night, which was what had happened to him at the police station. Although he hadn’t burgled the woman’s house he’d had a pretty good idea who had. He’d been on the point of co-operating when one of the policeman had hit him in the throat. This convinced him to be bloody-minded himself and he eventually made a statement so full of lies that it was bound to be exposed in court – a more dangerous game than he had realised, and he had only just got away with it. If it hadn’t been for the Magistrate’s Clerk pointing out that…well, as I said, it was a technicality, and as I’m not a lawyer and the chances are you aren’t either there’s little point in going into it.

So as he walked down Balham Grove, having stopped off at home for a sandwich and to pick up his bag of tools, he made a vow in future to do nothing whatsoever which might involve him with the police. His accusers had been made to look foolish in court and were probably burning for revenge. He only had to step out of line once…this meant having nothing to do with Dave Easy and rest of the Blackshaw Road crowd; nor Lucy and her boyfriend Carl and his mates, for that matter.

Derrick had a job for a couple of weeks, and after that…well, he and his girlfriend might go away for a bit if they could put enough money together. Then there was even the chance of going into partnership with Colin the Irish guy from East London who needed some help on a couple of big house jobs he had coming up.

Bursting with good intentions and vitality, Derrick strode down the east side of the street, flitting in and out of the sunlight-dappled shadows cast by the privet hedges and ornamental conifers in the front gardens. 46; 48; 50; 52…Then he saw number 54. He didn’t know why he noticed it at first, but he found himself slowing and staring hard at it. After a moment he realised that there was something very peculiar about the front door.

I can see your eyes darting down this paragraph after such an unwelcome break in my narrative. What was wrong with the door? Well, let me unfold events at my own pace, please. This is, in my view, a moment of genuine tension in the story, and I wish to make the most of it. So now I lean back, take a sip of my drink; then tell you that the thing that was odd about the door was that there was a set of keys in the lock. And this was particularly odd because not only was the door shut, but also there was no one around. Perhaps the owner had just ducked down by the side door to check if the postman had delivered the parcel they were expecting? Nothing like that. The street was deserted, or as deserted as any London street ever is. Certainly no one was paying any obvious attention to number 54: apart, of course, from Derrick.

The sight of a house just waiting to be burgled was alarmingly close to his recent experiences and part of his mind told him to do the London thing, put his head down and keep walking. If you see a trail of blood, a severed leg, hear the sickening thud and tinkle of a road accident – just keep walking. Do you want to be a witness? Do you want to get involved? A witness to what? Involved in what, exactly? Can you be sure you won’t jump to conclusions, project your own fantasies and obsessions onto what you think you’ve seen and end up identifying the wrong man? And, months later, when you’ve forgotten all about it, you might find yourself being savagely beaten up in a dark alley by his mates? Is that what you want? No? Well, keep walking. Don’t look up, not even for a moment. Don’t get involved. You think I wouldn’t like to sometimes, you think I don’t know it would make me a better man, particularly given my job? Believe me, it’s not worth it.

Derrick hovered by the garden gate: still beyond reproach, still not involved. The other part of his mind, the part he had most recently been exercising with his good intentions, was getting the upper hand. Someone had come in, probably with a two small kids and their arms full of shopping bag , and what with all the screaming and the suspicion of eggs breaking underneath the potatoes they’ve left the keys in the door. Waiting to be burgled.

There was really only one thing to be done. Derrick walked down the path, looking shiftily from side to side, as if expecting a trap of some kind. He knocked confidently on the door. Rat-tap-tap, just like that, bold as you please on a sunny afternoon in Balham. Goodness me, why shouldn’t he?

Nothing happened. There was no sign of life at all. Derrick examined the house more closely. He had adopted the harassed mother-with-kids theory so quickly that he was surprised not to hear their shrill cries from the back of the house. It all looked too quiet, too…he couldn’t put his finger on it. There was something about the curtains in the front room, for one thing, and the lighting in the hall which he could get an impression of through the frosted glass – an impression, nothing more, that it was an old person’s house. Somehow he was sure of it, as sure as he had earlier been that it was a mother-with-kids kind of place. Remembering how deaf his grandfather was, he knocked again, this time more loudly. Rat-tat-tat-tat!, like that, you see.

I can see you think I’m interrupting too much, putting in my own asides which have nothing much to do with the story. I never pretended to a natural raconteur. In my job you have to stick to the facts but, now that I’m off duty, it’s nice to let yourself go a bit with some speculation. Anyway, point taken – I’ll try not to interrupt any more.

Still nothing happened. He took a couple of steps to the left and tapped on the living room window. From inside, he became aware of something in the far, darkened corner but the net curtains gave only the idea of movement. He tapped again, then stepped back. The curtains twitched. He tried to put on a winning smile. A moment or so later he found himself staring at the face of a very old woman. She was mostly hidden by the faded swish-plush of the dark, colourless curtains, but from what Derrick could see of her it was plain she was half out of her mind with fear. You’ll remember that it was a quiet afternoon; also, this sort of thing had probably happened to her before. It’s shocking, the way old people can’t feel safe in their homes these days, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Derrick realised that it would impossible to persuade her to come to the door, and that conversation would thus have to be carried out at high volume through the glass. Double-glazed, he noticed, and not a very good job, either. Bloody cowboys.

He took a deep breath.

“Do you know …” he started. Somehow he sensed it wasn’t nearly loud enough. He tried again.

“Did you know your keys are in the door?”

The face recoiled slightly, as if buffeted by a gust of cold air, but the old woman otherwise gave no sign that she had heard what Derrick had said, still less understood it.

He shifted his bag of tools to his other hand and repeated the question. The old woman cupped her hand to her ear. This at least showed she realised she was being addressed.

An elaborate explanation of the problem in dumb-show followed. Derrick managed to get closer to the window, the easier to convey his purpose. He noticed the lower sash window was half an inch open at the bottom and the double-glaze panel pulled back, so he directed his words into that. After a while, she too crouched down slightly so her ear was pointing towards, and only a matter of nine inches away from, his mouth. Her ear was like a tiny shell, threaded with pale veins.

“My keys?” she trilled weakly.

“Yes! They’re in the door.”

“I don’t need anything thank you,” But still she was too fearful to back away from the window.

“Your keys are in the door!” Derrick was wondering how he could make the matter more plain. “Anyone could walk in!”

“What?”

“Your keys! Would you like me to bring them inside?”

The woman vanished. All Derrick heard was a soft sigh and an even softer thump. Was it possible she had collapsed under the strain of the unexpected conversation? And was it all his fault? Perhaps she left the key in the door at about this time for her meals-on-wheels lady, or for a kind neighbour who would drop in to make her a bowl of soup and talk about the Blitz. On the other hand nothing he had heard convinced him that she really knew what she was doing.

He couldn’t walk away from the situation now. There was nothing to stop him going inside and seeing if she was alright. So that’s what he did, putting the keys in his pocket.

The house was dark but surprisingly empty: somehow he expected old people’s homes to be filled with creaking detritus, useless pieces of furniture, cats and empty cardboard boxes. He opened the door of the living room, saying: “It’s alright, it’s only me!” As he did so, he reached out his right hand and switched on the light.

The room was much larger than he had expected, and contained a three-piece suite and a coffee table but nothing else. Of the old lady herself there was no sign. He edged along the wall and peered behind the sofa. Nothing. A fly buzzed against the wall, then was quiet, while through the window a sudden finger of sunlight raked across the dusty furniture, diffused by the veil-like folds of the net curtains. Derrick looked around, sniffing the air. The place didn’t seem to be lived in at all. From the hallway he heard the swish-click of the front door closing, presumably caught by the breeze from the open window. Then the light went out.

Now – I know I said I wouldn’t interrupt, but I can imagine only too well what you must be thinking. The house is haunted, you say, and this sudden change of mood is merely to paint a picture of rather shabby ordinariness, the more effectively to play the trump card of the supernatural. Not a bit of it. This was just the way the room was. I could show you the house if you liked. No, no – the story is much simpler and I’m sure you’ve guessed it already. As I said, I never pretended to be much good at this sort of thing. I remember once when I had to make a speech…

Derrick swung round. The old woman was standing in the doorway, something in her right hand. He couldn’t imagine how she could have got out of the room and concealed herself in the time it had taken him to get inside, but that wasn’t important at present. He had some explaining to do.

“These are your keys,” he said slowly.

“Why have you got my keys?” the old lady said. Derrick moved towards her. He noticed that the object in her hand was in fact a dishcloth.

“They were in the door.”

“No,” she said, swaying backwards and forwards slightly. “I leave them in the hall, on the table.” Derrick had noticed that there was no table in the hall. “I always leave them there. Always.”

“They were in the door.”

She paused, and rubbed her hand in front of her old eyes. She was at that awful point in old age when moments of lucidity and accurate recollection are increasingly islands in a grey ocean of confusion. Not being a doctor I cannot say if this image is clinically sound but that is how it’s been described to me. I had an aunt who went that way, and it was awful to watch. She knew when she’d done or said something foolish, but could never bring herself to admit that it was anything other than other people’s malice, or an honest misunderstanding or – at worst – a temporary lapse of judgment. That was how the old woman felt. Derrick vaguely recognised this desire for normality, but could see no way of making her feel better about herself.

His problem, of course, was that if he humoured her and said ‘yes, silly me, the keys were on the hall table all the time,’ it would blow a pretty big hole in his story as to why he was in the house. People have called out the police for less. You see the dilemma, I hope. Or am I labouring the point?

Derrick started talking.

“Well, they were in the door. I did it myself, only last week. I had the shopping, and had the kids, and what with one thing and another I left the key in the door.” He paused, shocked by the elaborateness of his lie. He had no kids and his girlfriend generally did the shopping. He found he couldn’t stop. “They were there all afternoon. Anyone could’ve broken in. And you don’t get any insurance. No forced entry, you see.” Throughout all of this he was edging towards the doorway, trying through his slow movements to avoid alarming her but in fact, through the appearance of stealth, conveying quite the opposite impression.

“What do you want? I don’t have any money.” She was retreating down the hall.

“Look,” he said, suddenly losing his temper, “I don’t want anything! I’m sorry if I frightened you, but I found your keys in your door and I tried to tell you then I thought you’d fallen over and hurt yourself so I came in, but you weren’t in the living room …” He stopped: the whole thing, said out loud, sounded too preposterous. He tried to put the keys in her hand, but she was still backing away from him, whimpering. He looked round for somewhere to put them. Eventually he inserted the Chubb in the inside of the lock and opened the front door. Sunlight streamed in.

“There – look! Your keys.” As he shut the door behind him he checked his watch. Late. Late for a business date. Not an auspicious start to his new life of good resolutions.

Okay, you’ve probably guessed it – but these things do happen sometimes. And it happened to Derrick this very afternoon. He hadn’t gone three hundred yards down the road, thinking all the time that something was wrong and blaming it on the peculiar incident with the keys, when he realised he had left his bag of tools in the old woman’s house. Shit. He turned and ran back up the road. In his annoyance and confusion he found he couldn’t remember the house. Finally, about five minutes after he had left it he was back outside number 54, hammering on the door. Rat-tap-tap-tap, just like before.

Nothing happened. He carried on knocking. His friend was going to be leaving at two sharp to go to the job, the address of which Derrick didn’t know, and he wouldn’t wait for him. It was five-to now. There were other people who’d be only too glad of the work. Shit, shit, shit. Rat-tap-tap. Nothing happened. Further down the road a dog barked twice then stopped, feeling foolish. Rat-tap-tap.

He gave up, and went over to the front window. It was still open. Very carefully, Derrick pulled back the net curtain and looked in. There, on the floor, was his bag of tools, just out of reach. If he could get the window up another nine inches, or perhaps a stick …

There was no suitable stick. There never is. He pressed the frame, feeling the tired, bloated wood creak and strain. He shifted to the centre of the window and tried again. It slid up suddenly, making the unmistakable noise of window being opened by a man who is trying not be heard doing so but stopped after about a foot.

The bag was just out of reach. He levered himself onto the sill, his stomach resting on the frame, and reached inside. It was a matter of perhaps another six inches…

After that, things happened very quickly. There was the sound of running feet, a shout, and he was being grabbed from behind. Then it was all oaths and grunts and kicks for about five seconds. After this Derrick found himself held down on the ground, his face pressed painfully into the withered grass of the tiny front garden. A figure squatted down next to him. Derrick looked up, straight into the grinning face of Sergeant John Dickens. Derrick shut his eyes.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” Sergeant Dickens said, with each ‘dear’ kicking Derrick in the ribs. “Out they slip at lunchtime, on some soppy magistrate’s technicality, and by two o’clock they’re at it again. Would you believe it? Could’ve given yourself a bit of a holiday, Derrick. Taken the day off.”

“At least the afternoon,” said the other policemen, twisting his arm so that something in Derrick’s shoulder clicked.

Derrick heard the front door open: both policemens’ manners suddenly changed.

“Is this the man who broke into your house earlier, Mrs Oldridge?” Sergeant Dickens asked.

“Yes, oh yes, that’s him. Not ten minutes ago. Just before I called the 999. In my living room he was. Big coloured chappies.” She squinted in the sunlight. “Yes.”

“Look, I…” Derrick began. Sergeant Dickens kicked him casually in the back.

“Button it. You’ll have your say later.”

“Got your technicalities ready?” the other policeman said.

Mrs Oldridge seemed confused by the new turn of the conversation.

“What? What?” she said, reverting to her earlier frail voice.

Sergeant Dickens solicitously stepped forward and ushered her indoors. “I know this has been very distressing for you, madam,” he said, “but we just need to ask you a few questions, get the facts straight. Then we’ll leave you in peace.” he paused, and turned to the other policemen. “Get him loaded up.” He looked down at Derrick and rubbed his hands. “Are we going to have fun with you,” he said.

“What?” said Mrs Oldridge.

“Just a private joke,” Sergeant Dickens said. “Now – how about a nice cup of tea?”

So Derrick was carted away and eventually Sergeant Dickens left too, promising to arrange for ‘someone from the Social’ to pop round, although in fact he never got round to it. It happens – you get busy, something else comes up…you know how it is.

Mrs Oldridge slowly tacked her way around the darkened house, using her old bones like the sails of a ship.

Soon afterwards, when the memory was already starting to blur into confusion, Mrs Oldridge reached into the cupboard under the stairs and pulled out Derrick’s bag of tools. Lovely tools they were – chisels, hammers, several different screwdrivers, a paint roller…lots of lovely things. Her son George would love these. Carefully she spread them out on the kitchen table, examining each crenelation and paint stain if they evoked clear memories of her own past. George would love them. It was a pity he so rarely came to see her now, but he had his own life, of course, his own troubles. It was understandable that he didn’t want to be bothered with hers. Still, she would love to show him the tools. He was good with his hands, George, always had been.

Slowly, she sat down at the table, watching the fading daylight cast long shadows across her tangled garden. The house was as silent as an empty bell. George used to come and help her keep the grass nice, but how long had it been since she’d seen him? Two years? Three? Mrs Oldridge couldn’t remember. Suddenly the light seemed to fade. The table, and the bright edges of the tools, and the room and everything in it, all her memories and current reflections, drifted like a mist across the long grey beach of her mind. Hadn’t George been to see her today? With his tools. How kind of him to bring his tools to help her fix things up nice, like they’d been in the old days. Kind boy, George. She must go and make him a cup of tea. She staggered to her feet.

“George! George!” she called out through the gloom.

*               *               *

This time it was nine months. Up before the same magistrate, and with the same policemen in the witness stand, the trial was like the first night of a play with all the hicoughs of the dress rehearsal ironed out. This time the wheels of justice turned with magnificent precision. I wasn’t there myself, you understand, but I heard it from a colleague. So that’s how I know.

No one believed Derrick’s story: I mean, who would? Mrs Oldridge testified but she was having one of her bad days and the court was invited to believe that this was due to the shock of the assault. The tools never turned up, so no one believed that part of the story either. Did I tell you what happened to the tools?

Nor, I’m afraid, did Derrick’s girlfriend believe him. She went to see him once in Wandsworth but it wasn’t a pleasant scene and she didn’t write or anything after that. I think she lived for a bit with Dave Easy, of all people, but they had a fight – something to do with a debt, or another man, I’m not sure. Someone said they saw her in Crystal Palace not so long ago, pushing a pram, so she’s probably found someone else and forgotten about Derrick altogether.

As for Derrick, he went from bad to worse. Last I heard he was doing five for armed robbery – but knowing his luck that was probably a massive misunderstanding as well. Queued up in the post office to cash his giro, next thing he knew he’s mixed up with some villains in stocking masks trying to raid the till. Anyway, I don’t think there’s much hope for him now. I mean, a man can’t earn an honest living without his tools, can he? And I imagine they’re still sitting on Mrs Oldridge’s kitchen table, gathering dust along with the milk bottles and chipped plates. She’d better be careful, though, because one day he might want to go back for them…

You see what I mean – don’t get involved. Don’t stop to think ‘I can help’, because you can’t. It just doesn’t work out that way. You start off with ideals, hoping to change someone’s life for the better, but something almost always goes wrong. Your motives are misunderstood, your actions misinterpreted, your good intentions dashed. Take my advice: no one’s worth the effort. There’s nothing to see here, sir. Just keep walking.

And I should know: I’m a policeman.

Brian Quinn

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