It’s a November night, 2011, in those wee small hours when all that can be heard in one house are the gentle snores of three dogs and their mistress. Every now and then, Chloe-dog squeaks and twitches, chasing yet another rabbit; Merlot grunts her happy hippo song. Digby sleeps like the dead – but only with his left eye and ear. For this is the time when cats and toads and mice and hedgehogs roam the garden. They Shall Not Pass!
When something tiptoes past the French doors Digby is off, from a paws-in-the-air start to the front room in 2.35 seconds, at volume 10. Chloe and Merlot follow, skidding on the tiles – all three baying for blood. Or biscuits.
I curse, roll out of bed, and don’t think to look at the clock as I struggle into slippers and dressing gown.
The dogs continue to bark, which is unusual. Could it be that this time a human is out there?
Closed shutters preclude surreptitious tweaking of curtains. No spy hole in the front door. There’s nothing for it but to go out.
Since Digby sounded the alarm first, and is partial to speeding ankles, I attach his lead, shut the others in the living room and open the front door. If attacked, I’ll let go of him and throw open my dressing gown. Better than a taser.
Leash at full extension, Digby gallops on the spot as I peer round the corner of the house.
It’s still dark but the streetlight reveals that the front gate is wide open. Not a good sign.
Can’t hear anything but scrabbling claws on tiles. I let the dog drag me to the gate, and look out to the right. At the end of the road a small white van is slowly driving away, left, down the hill. The getaway vehicle, without a doubt.
I turn to face the house. The right side-gate is also open. Oh dear. Have they got into the garage-cum-study? Digby marches before me, nose down, tail up, so excited. The door isn’t forced; the unbarred window isn’t smashed. We pad round the back garden, trusting that the van didn’t leave a passenger behind, lurking in the hedge. At the pergola I turn to look down the path to the sheds. That side-gate is open too. As is the tool shed door.
With the help of a torch from the house, I discover a big gap where the lawnmower used to sit. Sod it! Why nick that of all things? Why not the array of lethal weapons and house breaking tools that I note still hang on the walls of the shed? How did they know this was the first lawnmower we’ve bought out here that’s lasted a whole season without the wheels falling off mid-mow or the blade shearing off on a rock cunningly concealed in the grass by Digby? Sod. Sod. Sod.
Now I notice the stepladders leaning against the gas tank, and a couple of toolboxes next to them, ready to go. They were coming back for more, then.
So who else has been hit tonight?
I go back in, pull on some clothes and arm myself with a German shepherd this time. We leave Digby and Chloe very confused about this sudden change of routine so early, with no sign of breakfast. Passing my elderly neighbour Yvette’s place, we slowly carry on to the corner where I saw the van pull away. At the next house Merlot veers to the left, with a hint of a growl. We approach the low hedge. Is a person hiding behind there? Or a lawnmower?
About turn, and we head past my house in the opposite direction. The side-gate to my immediate neighbour is open too, and their garage door wedged half open with a plank of wood. Looks as though they’ve been done as well, although they often leave the garage open. It’s Wednesday – Alain’s day off – they won’t be up for hours. No point waking them now. Later, I leave a note on their doorstep.
No sign of anyone or anything in the next street. But then I hear a noise. Banging, in the distance. Are they breaking into somewhere else?
I go back indoors. St. Génis police station is most likely shut down for the night. So I dial 17, hoping my French will be up to this at such an early hour. A recorded voice tells me I’m about to be put through to the police. But the voice lies; I’m put through to music.
After a few bars a sleepy male voice answers. ‘Allo?’
Assuming I don’t have the wrong number, I give my name and address and breathlessly recount the events of the past few minutes, stating it’s possible the burglars are still in the estate, still burgling. An opportunity for the police, wouldn’t he say?
Sleepy Voice replies, ‘There’s no one here right now.’
A long pause follows, as I wonder if I’m talking to the ansaphone.
Sleepy Voice asks, ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Well, here’s a suggestion: maybe if a vehicle is in the area they could drive around to check no more break-ins are taking place?’
‘D’accord. As soon as someone gets back I’ll send them over.’
Unprompted, I repeat the address and describe where I am in Laroque. Since he hasn’t asked how to spell my name I’m not convinced any note is being taken. ‘Merci beaucoup.’
Now I check the time. Nearly six. Rather late for burglars?
I wait for daylight and realise the banging I heard could have been bin men down in the village. The dogs pace, clearly worried they’ll never get breakfast. No sign of any cops. I look around outside again, performing a kind of Spot the Difference exercise.
And that’s when I see it: A blue cross, chalked on the street side of our letterbox. X marks the spot? Spooky.
There’s no cross on Alain’s letterbox. Lucky him? Or lucky me?
A little later, I patrol most of the estate, checking most of the letterboxes, and find that none has a cross. I wonder, though … better walk round to the Jordans’ house a little further away. They had to leave their damp-warped shutters open downstairs when they went back to the UK. Perhaps foreigners are being targeted.
A ripple of unease runs through me when, sure enough, I see The Mark on their letterbox too. The gate’s intact – still locked – and there’s no sign of a problem, but I phone other friends who have keys, and ask them to make sure everything’s OK.
Nearly back home, I spot Yvette, coming down her path. ‘ÇA VA?’ she bellows, from a good three feet away.
‘Well yes,’ I tell her, ‘apart from having my lawnmower nicked last night.’
‘C’EST PAS VRAI! But – hang on…’ She turns round and points to another part of her garden. ‘Is that it? My daughter stayed the night and I just asked her why she’d got the lawnmower out.’
It appears to have been carefully placed, rather than tossed, over her wall. Knowing I was in hot pursuit with a turbo-charged hero, maybe they didn’t have time to fit it into the van?
Yvette tells me to leave the lawnmower with her. She’ll hide it in her shed while I claim on the insurance and get reimbursed. I say no. She insists. I insist back. We continue insisting for a couple of minutes. I win and push the lawnmower home.
Around lunchtime, tall Officer Ducon and short Officer Pluscon roll up from St. Génis. They abandon their car on the blind bend and chat in the road with Alain and his wife, who have by now established that they’ve lost a few bits and pieces from their car (left unlocked on the drive). The robberies have been village-wide overnight, it seems.
Now it’s my turn for their keen interrogation. I run through my account and they nod sagely, listening intently, not a notebook in sight. Nor forensics. But their uniforms are impressive.
I get to the part about seeing ‘a small white van at the end of the road.’
Ducon asks, ‘You saw a van?’
‘Was it a big van?’
‘No. It was a small white one.’
Pluscon takes over. ‘What colour was it?’
‘Did you see what was in it?’
‘No, it was too far away.’
‘Could you see who was driving? How many passengers?’
‘No, it was too far away.’
Ducon and Pluscon exchange a look, as if to say: hopeless witness.
‘Could you see what make it was?’
‘No, it was too far away. It was like all those little white vans you see driving around. Every artisan has one.’
They nod sagely.
‘So you didn’t see who was driving it?’
‘What time was this?’
‘Not sure. Didn’t look at my watch until after ringing 17. By then it was nearly six.’
‘What did they say?’
‘Not a lot.’ I repeat my conversation with Sleepy Voice.
Ducon and Pluscon nod sagely.
‘Will you come to the station this afternoon to make a statement? You’re an important witness because you saw a small white van.’
‘Sure. What time?’
They exchange a look, scratch their heads and, after some debate, settle for 14h15.
‘14:15,’ I confirm. ‘Ok. But there’s something else…’ I tell them about the crosses on my letterbox and the Jordans’, and explain that friends have checked the Jordans’ house and report a shed door open but nothing obviously missing.
We march to my letterbox outside the front gate and stare at the blue cross. For several moments.
Ducon and Pluscon nod sagely.
‘It wasn’t there yesterday?’ Ducon asks.
‘I can’t swear to it, because – strange as it may seem – I don’t tend to look at this side of my letterbox every day.’ I can open it from the back, inside the garden. ‘But I doubt it, somehow. Especially as there’s an identical mark on my friends’ box. What do you think it means? Is its message: We’ve been here so don’t bother with this one again? Or: This is a good target, lads?’
‘It’s a code.’
‘Clearly, but what do you think it means?’
‘Probably that the house is worth coming back to.’
‘Can you show us your friends’ letterbox?’
‘Yes, but the people who checked the house earlier say they’ve rubbed off the mark.’
This is met with a sharp intake of breath and the creasing of brows. ‘They shouldn’t have done that. Not until after we’d seen it.’
Don’t worry, chaps. This is ME you’re talking to. ‘I took a photo. Of mine too. And of the lawnmower in my neighbour’s garden. I’ll bring you copies this afternoon.’
Ducon wants me to show him where I found our lawnmower.
We walk round to Yvette’s garden. I point to her lawn where the mower had been sitting. Ducon gives the empty space a suspicious glare. Is he about to arrest the grass? He nods sagely. ‘So it was there?’
‘Hmmm. Anything else there with it?’
At the Jordans’, after a lengthy inspection of the spot where the cross had been on the letterbox, Ducon climbs over the gate and disappears round to the shed. Pluscon – older and rounder than Ducon – pushes and pulls hard at the gate. I remind him it’s locked.
Ducon returns. ‘Shed door’s been forced.’
‘Maybe,’ I say, ‘but the friends who checked earlier don’t think anything is missing.’
Ducon walks all round the outside of the house. ‘Looks fine,’ he says, ‘but the shutters should be closed.’ They’ll advise what to do about this after I’ve made my statement.
At the police station the cops are inundated, not by water but by phone calls and visits in person from others who were burgled in the night. The place is a veritable hive of inactivity. Seems the crooks were on a spree in all the Albères villages, right through to 6 or 7am.
Just as Officer Pluscon comes to reception, the door bursts open and a local chasseur and commerçant I vaguely know charges up to the desk in a hell of a flap, after returning to his house this morning, finding it broken into, lots stolen, lots of damage. Claims they then returned later, this time stealing the keys to his premises at a nearby commercial centre, where they carried on their spree at around 6am.
‘C’EST PAS VRAI!’ I exclaim.
‘OH LA LA!’ I’ve cracked this banter with the locals.
He’s sure he knows who did it. The police got them once before, thanks to him. Two young guys and a girl. His CCTV at the shop has captured photos of a small white van.
‘Aha!’ I say. ‘I saw a small white van too. Two young guys and a girl, eh?’
‘That’s it,’ he replies. ‘Two young guys and a girl. And a small white van.’
We look at each other knowingly and I resist tapping the side of my nose.
But surely, I’m thinking, to cover all that ground, even over several hours, there must have been a whole team at work. They must have had quite a haul. How would all that plus three people fit into one small white van? I picture two crooks returning to Mastercrook, who’s taking a turn at driving: ‘Putain!’ says Mastercrook, ‘I said drills, screws and rawl plugs, not bloody great lawnmowers!’
We have a spirited, three-way conversation with Pluscon, in front of a downtrodden-looking man sitting patiently to one side (victim nbr ?). The information and speculation being bandied back and forth are in no way colouring my memories of what I witnessed earlier on and will in no way influence my imminent statement.
Finally I’m ushered into Pluscon’s office, which looks as though it’s been ransacked.
He shuffles things around on his desk for a moment. Is he waiting for me to start us off? ‘I’ve brought the photos –’
‘A moment, Madame, while I switch on the computer.’
It takes a while for the thing to warm up. Various colleagues wander in and out, and there’s much shouting across the corridor to the office opposite. Hard to know when he’s talking to me or someone else. Especially as he has a tendency to end sentences with ‘afaisanshhhh.’
I hear a satisfied sigh when, finally, the computer comes to life. The screen is already angled slightly towards me but I shift my chair round a bit for a better look. A form appears. Progress!
He begins to complete the fields with my personal details. There’s a tricky sixty seconds at Place of Birth, until he discovers Royaume Uni on the drop-down list – he’d begun to panic at the absence of Angleterre or Grande Bretagne.
A couple more colleagues wander in. Ladycop wants him to proof read the statement she’s just printed. Pluscon reads it aloud and makes several corrections. They discuss the statement. She leaves.
He swivels round to face the computer again. ‘Where were we? Ah yes. Current address?’
I go through this morning’s events again. He taps away with a couple of fingers, corrects my French and his typos as he goes. I chip in, telling him when he’s hit the caps lock key and messes up a sentence. We’re becoming quite a team. He asks the same questions about the van. Perhaps he’s more of a visual person? I draw him a diagram, marking my elderly neighbour’s house, where the lawnmower was, and where the van was in relation to me. ‘It was sideways on to me by the time I saw it.’ I show him, adding arrows and wheels, for clarity.
‘And you have no idea what make?’
‘No. But if you show me pictures of different types of small white van, I might be able to identify it.’ That’s what they’d do on Midsomer Murders, after all, and I am an Important Witness.
The mere suggestion is dismissed with the wave of a hand, and I remind myself we’re not in Midsomer Génis. Just as well perhaps. That’s when I spot the roof of a small white van behind other cars in the car park through the window behind him. ‘It was similar to that one,’ I tell him.
‘Oh I see.’ He nods sagely. ‘Were its lights on?’
‘Don’t know. I wasn’t looking for lights. I only saw it from the side and the streetlights were on.’
‘And you didn’t see the make, or how many people were inside?’
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, count to five.
Bosscop comes in, saying there’s some kind of serious dispute over in Laroque that needs sorting out. They chat about it for a few moments. Ladycop comes back too, regarding a new statement she’s taking. She wants to show Pluscon something, leans across him to access the computer, clicks the mouse … and my statement disappears.
Pluscon lurches forward. ‘Non!’
‘Don’t worry,’ she says, ‘it’s just minimised.’
After a while she leaves and, to our mutual relief, Pluscon manages to maximise my statement.
‘So, Madame, what happened next? You went outside?’
‘Then you went outside your house?’
I look at him for few seconds. ‘I was already outside. That’s how I saw the small white van.’
We move on.
It takes quite a long time but suddenly he has to wind it up fast because he has to go out on another call. It’s quite urgent. He has to go now. But we haven’t got to the bit about the blue crosses yet. It makes him fidget but we get the information down. Fingers fly over the keys as he types: I am sure the blue cross wasn’t there yesterday. I correct him, saying I’m not sure. Grudgingly, he backspaces.
He prints it, I sign it at reception and hand over the photos in a plastic wallet. I’ve annotated them (fearing he might not manage to work it all out later, despite my having captured house numbers and names in each shot). He slides the statement on top of them.
‘You were going to advise me about the Jordans’ house. Should I try to close their shutters?’
‘What? Oh yes. Do that. Must dash. Kind of you to come in. Bye.’
He points to the way out.
Someone once told me they don’t keep the computer records of statements. So I am left wondering if Officer Pluscon will remember where he put that plastic wallet.
POSTSCRIPT. Blue cross decoded:
A neighbour subsequently passed on a list of signs used by travellers. Ours meant Projet de cambriolage (Burglary project)