Crime fact and crime fiction

sept 09 notre dameThis should have been 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. But its conclusion was a bit sour. It came after an afternoon people-watching 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, there 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 IMG_3464and asked her to put stops on the bank cards. But then it was time 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 the thief had 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.

IMG_3446It’s only money, but the experience generates that feeling of a sort of invasion, an intrusion into your privacy. But it doesn’t merit the use of the word ‘violation’. 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 because you obsess with it for a couple of days, you begin to sense just how deep the hurt must go for the real victims. 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, so it’s simply become an anecdote. But it’s also made me even more aware of something I thought I knew about. I’ve always felt sympathy and anger on behalf of rape and assault victims, but I’ve never before fully appreciated just how devastating the experience must be for them. As well as the hurt, the shame, the physical damage, there’s the fracturing of their perceptions of others, the undermining of their notions of trust, the irreparable harm done to them as citizens. What happened to me was unpleasant but it was nothing like a violation.

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