Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

Archive for March, 2010

How to treat criminals 101

Unfortunately the number of us who are qualified to offer advice on this front is quite out of proportion to what it should be. However, having been a crime statistic five or six times I’m ready to share what I’ve learned from each ‘occurence’.

Event One was an attempt at indecent assault which took place while I was walking home from work along King Edward Avenue quite a few years ago. The perpetrator was a young adult male and fortunately for me his anatomical knowledge ranked at about the same level as his manners and a lot lower than my actual stature. It took place shortly after 4pm while there was a fair amount of traffic and it was the barefaced cheek of the incident, and I suppose the natural embarrassment of a 17-year old having to recount it, that kept me quiet for years afterwards. [Lesson one: stay in built-up areas particularly when on foot. Lesson two: don’t keep quiet, especially while it’s happening. Forget manners and yell like a banshee – or a foghorn – or anything else uncooperative and bolshy and really really loud]

Sadly Event Two was a very similar incident that took place in Lindup Road about five years later. On this occasion the wannabe pervert was a schoolboy and my husband and I pursued the matter. It resulted in being asked to do an identity parade at a local boys high school : a tad awkward in that a number of my friends’ younger brothers were among the inspected, leading to a lot of speculation ; after the initial reaction wore off, the interpretation some of these young men put on our visit lead to a lot of mirth but it wasn’t funny at the time. There were three or four boys who looked similar to what I’d seen of the person the previous day but I wasn’t prepared to tag anyone unless I was 300% certain. Hopefully the fact that the incident had been followed up would have been noted and put the person off trying again. [Lesson three: pursue the matter through whatever channels are appropriate]

Event Three was a lot more traumatic and one that does colour my attitude to security to this day. My daughter, recently turned nine at the time, and I lived in a garden flat in Epworth. At twenty to three in the morning on Heritage Day (how ironic) which happened to be the Sunday of a long-weekend, I heard the chain on our wall clock tap against the wall. Assuming it was the local mutant cat hoping to cause trouble with our cat yet again, I lay in bed and cogitated yelling at it. However, past experience had shown that had no effect and I eventually staggered out of bed and to the interleading doorway to evict the visitor in person. The number of coincidences that took place that night and that saved us from anything worse happening still amazes me. I was studying at the time which lead to later than usual bedtime ; as I was about to go to bed an obnoxious-looking flying cockroach had come in but I was too tired to chase it around. Instead I left a side-light on in the hopes of keeping it busy until I could capture it in the morning. We never slept with lights on. This chance decision led to me being in the shadows of the doorway and the intruder in the lounge being floodlit. Although I was half asleep I did have the element of surprise on my side. It sounds silly now but at the time my brain couldn’t believe there really was a man in our lounge. But once it got the message all hell broke loose. Despite being dressed only in a negligible tee-shirt nightie I took one step forward and took off like the aforementioned bolshy foghorn. All I could think of was my young daughter sleeping in the bedroom behind me. The guy was standing at right angles to me looking at a bookcase when I first saw him. When he heard me he turned his head sideways but made no effort to move. I didn’t realise why at the time – had I known he had three or four accomplices with him I don’t know what I would have done – and the fact that he didn’t listen just made me blindly angry. I remember taking a step towards him and raising the index finger of my right hand like a stereotypical teacher/librarian/politician and yelling “I told you to get out of my house”. At that point he pottered slowly off towards the kitchen and ambled out of the open doorway. Despite slamming the door behind him, it was more than I could do to bring myself to loiter in the room because by then I could see other shadows moving in the garden outside and I left the window standing wide open – they’d gained entry by pulling that burglar bar from its mounting. [Lesson four: don’t assume you know how you’ll behave when confronted with a criminal situation, rely on your instincts as they often know best. Lesson five: have burglar bars welded on, not screwed in]

Event Four followed hot on the heels of the previous one but in Bank Street in the CBD. A car had cut a corner in front of me as I drove into town and the heavy rain caused my car to skid. In controlling the skid I’d wrenched my wrist. Instead of being vigilant as I usually try to be, I was walking up Bank Street at 2.15pm thinking things like “owie, owie”. A slight sensation at my right elbow caused me to look down, only to see a rusty filthy dirty old knife blade an inch from my ribs while a hand held the strap of my bag. I understand entirely why you may be under the impression that I live my life on a cloud of rage, ready to vent at the least provocation, but this isn’t actually how I am. It is interesting that on the few occasions I have had to confront criminals my inner self becomes blindly furious ; each time it has paid off and the criminals have made themselves scarce but I can’t honestly recommend it as a planned response. For all I knew, it could equally have caused them to panic or retaliate. Instead they behaved like the naughty little brats they are and pulled out. This particular one had an accomplice a couple of metres away whom I had seen out of the corner of my eye. After dropping the packet I was carrying and latching onto my bag, I first asked the other person if he was with the one trying to attach himself surgically to my ribcage. He denied all knowledge and sidled off down the adjacent lane. This left me free to concentrate on the hapless freelance surgeon. I wasn’t yet becoming long-sighted with old age so having my nostrils three centimetres from his wasn’t at all a disadvantage. Heaven knows what he saw in my face but it was sufficient for him to back off and start leaving the scene. For some reason this was just the last straw and, to the shame of my vocabulary as I don’t usually speak like that, I bawled after him (right outside the Education Department nogal) “come back here, you bloody bastard”. The response was appalling. He actually turned around and came back. My vocabulary still wasn’t entirely reconstituted and all I could think was “damn, what am I going to say now?”. However, instinct ruled once more and The Finger was mobilised while I gave him a lecture on why he had better never try a similar stunt again. By then my sense of humour was reasserting itself and when he promised faithfully never to repeat his behaviour I was hurting with the urge to laugh. My day was made when a teeny weeny little old lady with an umbrella pottered up to me (the only other person in sight despite the time of day) and said “well done, my girl”. [Lesson six: do what you have to, even if you do penance afterwards – dribble like a ghoul if it’ll frighten them]

Which brings me to the most recent episode, Event Five, about which I have little to say. Just over a year ago I’d parked my car in Berg Street, about fifty metres from my desk. However, I work on the first floor of the building and cannot see the spot without walking across the building. I parked at a quarter to eight in the morning. By nine fifteen my car had been stolen. It turned out to be the fifth such loss among people in our building and one across the road. On each occasion the car guard who worked this section at the time was either “going to the toilet”, “at the restaurant around the corner” or somewhere else conveniently not where the thefts were taking place. In my case he claimed to be at the tearoom but colleagues saw him sitting in the nearby side street for about twenty minutes during the fateful time period. None of us could prove his involvement but he no longer patrols this particular joint. I have no specific lessons from this experience but feel abiding relief that neither my daughter nor I were in or near the car at the time. The police were extremely helpful, Red Alert staff went way beyond the call of duty to try to recover the vehicle, Woollam Brokers worked magic to get me a courtesy car until the claim was processed, Imperial Car Hire were stars and Barron’s dealership also couldn’t have done more to help me. Colleagues and friends made sure we had lifts wherever we needed to be until the courtesy car arrived.

What helps me most of all in the longterm is the refusal to see myself as a victim. I remain a crime statistic but I’m doing my level darndest to instantly turn my assailants into victims too and keep the stats dynamic.

“Early to bed, early to rise . . .

. . . makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”

So went the saying in one of the earliest books I can remember reading. I honestly cannot remember if I went to bed early last Thursday night but given the pattern of recent days it would be surprising if I hadn’t. It would also have been one of the really rare evenings I took a sleeping tablet, which accounted for being wide awake at 3am ; they do that : knock me out like a light and leave me stranded a few hours later at an hour that is of no earthly use to most people in my time zone.

After having tossed and turned for a while, gone onto Twitter and chirped about my lack of sleep-lus, 5am seemed an excellent time to take Daisy for a walk. No birds were up, my thought frenzy had set off an alarm up the road and made one dog bark, and I’d awoken with a very logical solution to a work-related problem. Being early autumn it was still darkish but light enough not to alarm the patrolling security guards. Having made the decision but being on the experienced side of 40, it took a minute or two for my body to actually move itself out of bed. This accomplished, the hard work began.

Firstly the cat recognised a deviation from his normal routine and embraced it. While I was dressing, he bounced round and round the little hallway on all fours, “pick me, pick me”. This wasn’t actually presumptuous or unrealistic in view of the disbelieving and sustained silence that came from under my bed. As a very final last ultimate non-negotiable serious warning, I wafted Daisy’s harness and lead in the general direction of somewhere below the bed. This finally had the desired effect and the nostrils drew the rest of her from her lair.

By then all the disturbance from the animals and none at all from me had awoken the cat’s erstwhile sleeping partner, the (teenage) Sleeping Bruce. An Eyeball that managed to be belligerent and not much awake at the same time came out from under the pillow and informed me that its door was to be closed immediately as it wished to continue sleeping. Coming upon such an articulate and communicative bodypart at that time of morning was more than I’d hoped for so I took the gap to explain that there was no point in closing the door as it would be needed to restrain the cat if he decided to accompany us as he often does. The Eyeball was in no mood to take prisoners so I closed the door hurriedly and escorted Daisy out of the front door. Long before we even reached the gate, the four-legged pogo-cat was ahead of us emitting delighted signals. Not having any reason to fear an Eyeball through a glass window, I banged on it (the window) and conveyed the news that he would have to be restrained, be it by door or window. The Eyeball stayed under the pillow this time but must have taken some cognisance of the one-sided conversation as an arm was dispatched to open the window. Kirby is a very big cat. Well, Kirby is a reasonably-sized cat with very big feet. The burglar-bars are average. Kirby didn’t fit immediately or easily through these. Having undeliberately been accompanied by the cat on a few walks there was no choice but to turn him sideways and post all the bodyparts that remained on the outside of the burglar-bars through to the inside in whatever order came about. Had the Eyeball deigned to join in the activity, it would undoubtedly have witnessed an apparition with some semblance to a tortured and distorted child at a sweetshop window as he was contorted through the available space and into Eyeball territory.

Cat posted, Daisy and I set off to walk on the other side of the gate. We had hardly reached the next property when two guys somewhere around my age (in their prime, no need to say more) came striding along (phhhhht, not jogging – cover blown), arms swinging energetically and bobbing up and down in synchronised fraudulent rhythm. Fortunately I used to be a morning person when I was still young and caught on immediately. My arms picked up the rhythm like two bemused pendulums and I hissed at Daisy to get into routine so we would look like we’d also been at it for hours and not just one property-length. They managed to greet me audibly and it was extremely satisfying to return the salutation without sounding one bit out of breath.

By then of course, there were equal numbers of joggers/walkers and dogs starting to wake up. It was quite interesting exposure to a sector of our community I don’t normally meet. Interesting too that others think like me – rarely, so it’s of no immediate concern. On the return trip a guy slowly caught up with me followed closely by a wheezing little dog that would have been overshadowed by the cat if he had come along. This was so easy to deal with that I came close to snorting into my armpit – slow Daisy down so she could inspect the plants/lampposts/fire hydrants and pretend to wait patiently. Obviously the man-and-beast soon overtook us and we consoled each other on the trials of having to exercise elderly animals at a slower pace.

I don’t know if there are enough bones in Africa to pay Daisy off and keep her in bed at 5am now. Hell hath no fury like an indignant Staffie . . .

That wasn’t enough to make me particularly healthy, I am most assuredly none the wealthier for my walk ; I am however infinitely wiser. We all know where I am now to be found at 5am.

Thunder and lightning, very very frightening? – not really

A good friend and I recently got onto the topic of choosing whether to stick with an unsatisfactory situation or to confront the unknown. The conversation was triggered by a young relative’s decision to stay in a relationship that after a year or two doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and that causes her significant stress from time to time ; the reason she gives is that it falls in her comfort zone and doesn’t require her to face the unknown.

Two or three acquaintances are currently inhibited by a fear that unknown someone/s might not like a decision and so they’ve decided not to go ahead with a project on the offchance.

Kimberley is in her her Matric year and faces a period of concentrated decision-making. While I expect to fully support whatever choices she makes about her future, my biggest hope is that she will gain confidence from my life experience. This is the lesson I would like her to learn :

very little in life cannot be redeemed and the unknown can bring rewards that are frequently out of reach in our comfort zones.

Admittedly that lesson was hard-earned and followed thirty-seven years of towing the line and doing what I thought “someone/s” required of me. After finally accepting that my efforts were actually making no-one happy, least of all myself, I made the decision to call it quits on a marriage of almost fifteen years. Having a child who was four years old at the time made the decision a weighty one but I reached a point where the decision pretty much made itself. I had left the job market weeks before Kimberley’s birth and spent about six hours a week working in a local private school’s media centre – not ideal circumstances to launch my independence.

But, decision made, I needed to find us a home and myself fulltime employment. Friends offered accommodation and we landed up spending a year living with my folks – which must have shaken their comfort zone to its roots. Within two and a half weeks I had another two part-time jobs which, in a matter as mathematically confusing as any of my exposure to that subject, added up to fulltime employment. It was all hourly paid with no benefits that I can recall, in the way of pension, medical aid. Two years later one of the jobs turned into a fulltime position that I really enjoyed.

At the time our marriage finally imploded there was no way of knowing what work would be available, if any, and my future was anything but mapped out after years of assuming that my life course would plod its way along as most people’s seems to.

As it happens, I have had not a second’s regret. We have lived in a series of four garden flats over the last thirteen years ; we have had a number of pets ; Kimberley has attended some great schools ; friends that we didn’t know about have come out of the woodwork.

It’s the last thought in particular that has regularly surprised me since 1997. Divorces inevitably put mutual friends in a difficult position. I never expected anyone to take sides as it isn’t really anyone else’s business but more companionship and support came from people we’d only known a short time, considering that I’ve lived in Pietermaritzburg since 1972 and had a vast number of acquaintances and longstanding ‘friends’. It was some of the latter that turned out to be the most critical, without having a clue of what led to my decision – nor will they. Ironically, my life-changing and mind-numbingly hard choice also became a test of my friendships.

There are a lot fewer people now that I am close to and choose to share my life with. The interesting point is that some of these valued companions I met through the workplace, some I know as email correspondents and some of these have developed into realspace friends.

All in all, many blessings have come our way and I’ve learned life-changing lessons that we wouldn’t have been exposed to had I not taken an (admittedly huge) step into the unknown. I can never go back and accept mediocre as long as the potential for something better lies ahead.

Bean, may the force be with you. Mine will always be behind you.