Much like happiness, fear is something I don’t think you’re aware of in the moment. Adrenalin catapults us into hyper-capable mode: cocaine without the twattiness. We will survive. It’s only in recollection, as our brains repeatedly skitter down the endless cul-de-sacs of things that could have happened, and try to make sense of what did, that we feel afraid.
I used to work on a food stand at a London station, when the internet boom was still resounding loud off the lenders’ wallets.
It was three in the afternoon and I was talking to my Lithuanian colleague about Lithuanian food when I heard a voice say, “Open the till.”
It was a weak and faltering voice, like the voice of a bad actress playing a period heroine. I looked up to see a small, gaunt man with a pale, open face, like a child’s.
“Open the till,” he repeated, flatly and without emotion, as if he was saying, “You need a new fan belt.”
I’ve watched a lot of films where stuff like this happens. It just didn’t ring true. There was no threatening note in his voice, no weapon. He wasn’t a big guy – he looked like he’d struggle to play Twister, to be honest.
More than anything, though, it was 3pm. This kind of stuff happens after dark, in a covert way. I didn’t feel scared. At all.
Sod you, I thought. I’m in the middle of a conversation about Lithuanian food, which, it turns out, has a dumpling dish that translates as “cold little noses”. I’m tired. This doesn’t fit with my picture of how today will pan out. Sod you.
So I said, “No.”
He moved towards me and reached into the inside pocket of his coat, never breaking eye contact. He was inches away. I moved towards the till to hit the panic button, something I had rarely even registered before – rather like the pre-flight safety chat on a plane: just make sure you’re not sitting next to the emergency escape route, and then rip open the Revels.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said to me, slowly and quietly. “I’ve got a knife in here. Open the fucking till.”
I felt the blood rush from (or to?) my head, and heart. The station whirled.
My colleague couldn’t speak great English, but she could sense that this wasn’t good – the man wasn’t about to hand me a piece of carrot cake – and I felt so protective of her that I had to stop myself from rushing to her. I still wouldn’t open the till.
The police arrived almost immediately and arrested him. Then it sank in.
“Robbers” don’t wear masks and carry sacks with “Swag” written on them. Some people don’t know they’re robbers until they find themselves saying, “Open the till.” And some people don’t know themselves until they find themselves saying, “No.”
The Actual One by Isy Suttie, published by Weidenfeld &Nicolson, is out now
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash