Kindness of strangers

Observations on crime

“I suggest you go and look for your Vespa there,” said the policewoman, handing me a photocopied map. It seemed that the scooter I had left parked outside King’s Cross Station two days earlier, on my way to the Scottish Highlands, had been discovered abandoned and vandalised by a gang. It now lay in an alleyway in the middle of a large council estate about a mile south of the station.

Thirty minutes later, holding my map like a first-time visitor to London, I was on the edge of the estate. It was dark and I had accepted that I was going to be mugged or even knifed. So I put my credit cards and cash into a sock and my watch down my pants. I clearly wasn’t very sensible to be carrying a laptop. Around the first corner came a gang of children. Ignoring their gibes, I put my head down and made for the alley.

Apart from being on her side, the Vespa did not look too badly damaged. Then I picked her up. The wires and fan had gone. The handlebars now faced away from the wheel. The side was smashed in; the storage box had been ripped off and the contents, including, strangely, my tax return form, removed. The only things left were two parking tickets, which lay taped to the engine in a mocking fashion. My scooter had been assaulted savagely and left for dead. How was I to get her home? As I typed the third digit of the AA’s number into my mobile the battery died.

There was no sign of a payphone, so I headed towards a little cafe under a block of flats. Inside, seven very large African men were watching Spanish football on an old television. I asked if they had a phone. They laughed to each other for a bit before one of them, wearing a suit, responded. “Who you wanna call?” “Um, the AA.” I explained what had happened. He let me borrow his phone.

“You can stay here with us. This place is not safe, there are bad people. You will be safe in here.” I can’t remember ever feeling more grateful. It was a Somali cafe: a fridge with a few fizzy drinks, a sandwich counter with pastries and a tatty Somali tourist board poster. We discussed football, the US election and the large increase of pirates in Somalia. My new friends assured me the pirates would not be around much longer now they had been stupid enough to capture a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and weaponry.

Mohammed, the man in the suit, asked me what I did, so I showed him a copy of Finch’s Quarterly Review, the luxury publication I co-launched earlier this year. He began to fill in the subscription form. They were all bus drivers, he explained, who worked 60 hours a week. If only I had mentioned needing a tow truck at the start, they could happily have helped get me and the scooter home without charge. Why, they ran right past the end of my road.

Every now and again a local hoodie would come in and look perplexed to find me sitting there. But now transport had arrived and my host escorted me back to my scooter. As the loitering gang made threatening noises and I climbed with relief into the cab, I realised that I had men from a country renowned for its lawlessness and violence to thank for so kindly protecting me.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?