Saturday, 13 February 2010
Visit from the Trojans
Saturday night. Midnight. We’ve been to the cinema, paid the babysitter and now we’re having a cup of tea and watching Match of the Day. All is quiet. All is normal.
The doorbell rings. I assume the babysitter must have forgotten something and go and answer the door. Nope. Standing on the doorstep is a policeman. Behind him are some other men - quite a few other men. What the hell?
Quite a few thoughts come into your head when a policeman turns up on your doorstep on midnight. Two struggle for dominance in mine - how good-looking he is – mmmm - the other, slightly slower: ‘Oh no…who’s died?’
No one, it turns out. Instead he wants to ask about our car. Can I tell him the make and model? Has anyone used it today?
It must have been stolen…oh no…but he assures me it is still parked up the road. And how fortunate it was that we hadn’t taken it to the cinema with us. “An identical car with your number plates was used in a shooting incident in Harlesden this evening,” he explains. “We’ve been watching your house and the car. We felt the engine - luckily it was stone cold. If it’d been warm we wouldn’t have rung your doorbell, we’d have broken the door down.”
It's at this point that I realise that he's armed.
Gorgeous uniformed armed cop stands aside to let three plain clothes officers from Harlesden into our house. I wouldn’t have realised they were policemen at a first glance - or a second one, they’d got the scruffy London street look just right. In fact if I’d seen them hanging around our car, I’d have called the police. I wonder if they’d watched us come into the house, seen the babysitter leave. It seems likely because they explain that it wasn’t just the cold engine that had spared us from having the door broken down and guns pointed at our heads. “It’s lucky you’re not black,” they explain. “The people who committed this crime were black. So we were pretty sure you were in the clear.”
So, we’d been saved from a traumatic experience and a broken down door (the second in less than a year) by the random decision to drive our other car to the cinema, and the colour of our skin. Great. But this may not save us from encounters with armed police in the future. Now our car had been cloned by criminals it would be on the police national computer, they explain. It was possible that when we were driving we’d notice that we were being tailed by the police.
“If so, pull over and call 999,” they tell us. “Explain what’s happened and give them the crime number. If you don’t…well, the police will know that you might have firearms with you. They’ll call for armed back-up. And they’ll stop you, and it won’t be nice.”
Wild memories of the hideous death of Jean-Charles Menezes flash through my mind. London lost some of its innocence the day an innocent Brazilian was killed at close range on the tube by bungling police officers who thought he was a terrorist on the basis of no evidence at all. And, I also remember the death of Harry Stanley, shot by police marksmen in Hackney who thought the chair leg he was carrying in a plastic bag was a shotgun.
“Will they shoot us?” I ask. The officers rush to reassure me. No, no, it’ll just be a case of a gun being poked through the car window, and being ordered out of the car for a search. “They should realise that you weren’t the people involved,” one adds. “After all you’re not black.”
The next day we look up car-cloning on the internet - it’s a growing problem in the UK, although most victims are bugged by unpaid parking tickets and speeding fines. One man whose clone was used in an armed robbery had to spend five hours at the police station proving his alibi.
We discuss our options. We could sell the car - but wasn’t that unethical? What if a black person bought it and got shot? We could buy personalised number plates - ‘but all your friends will despise you’ said a helpful pal, pointing out that, however good the reason, personalised plates are impossibly vulgar. I'm quite entertained by the possibilities of horrifying my social circle, but my husband points out that chav-tastic plates cost money, and he doesn’t see why we should fork out because some villain in Harlesden had re-produced our plates. He's very pleased with himself for being the one who decided to drive the other car to the cinema, even though he couldn't have possibly known he was making a great decision.
So he’s been on the phone to the licensing people in Swansea, who seem quite sympathetic and we’re hoping for a new number and brand new plates. He also visits our local police station who confirm that we were quite likely to experience a ‘hard stop’ from a ‘Trojan unit’ - this is what he swears they called the armed police, although I think he must be winding me up and now all I can imagine is a troop of officers, with model good looks, waving condoms in the air. A bit like the police float at the Amsterdam Gay Pride parade, which takes place on the canals in August and was always a great family day out.
This week every time I take the car out I spend the first ten minutes glancing into my mirror to see if I am being followed. Then I forget all about it, until I park – there’s a slight Thelma and Louise vibe to the way I make a swift exit.
My 10-year-old son is quite excited by the idea of a ‘hard stop’. We had to warn him not to make any sudden movements.
“But what if I have an itch?” he said.
“But what if I really have to scratch?”
But so far, not a sniff of a police tail. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not.
Several people have remarked this week on the co incidence that I've written a book about violent crime and identity. My sister mused:"It's almost like you attract shooting incidents. It's strange...it's not even as though you need more excitement in your life, because you're making it all up for your books anyway."
I fear this post may need a follow up in the future. I'm hoping it'll just be the good news that our car has its very own extreme makeover and new name.