Grumpy Oldie Man Matthew Norman
Twenty-nine years after I was stabbed in South Africa, crime strikes again
By weirdest happenstance, I find myself writing about my second time as the victim of knifepoint robbery on the 29th anniversary of the first.
Today is what is known and celebrated within our family as One Lung Day. Shortly before dawn broke over a northern suburb of Johannesburg one January morning in 1991, an otherwise engaging young chap from a nearby township had the dubious manners (not so much as an informal introduction) to propel a breadknife between my ribs in the kitchen of the house I was staying in.
I won’t bore you with intimate detail. Suffice it to say that, according to the thoracic specialist overseeing the reinflation of the collapsed left lung, the X-rays showed that the blade stopped a ninth of an inch short of the heart, and a reassuring 18th shy of the aorta. ‘You,’ he told me, ‘are one very lucky boy.’
The teenager responsible for this literal slice of good fortune was a less lucky boy, it seemed to me, and had every ounce of my sympathy. The news that the largest tranche of apartheid legislation was to be repealed that morning hadn’t reached Alexandra township. If he was burgling to feed a hungry family, which of us wouldn’t have prayed for the courage to do the same?
During the several weeks I was detained in Joburg by medical advice about wounded lungs and pressurised cabins, I neither saw nor heard from a copper.
So you will appreciate the delectable contrast drawn by this latest exposure to violent crime. A fortnight ago, on leaving the house in the equatorial tourist quarter of Shepherd’s Bush, my son Louis sounded the alarm in the manner reserved for every fiasco, however great or small. ‘Yup, yup,’ he resignedly emitted, nodding his head and pursing his lips. ‘Oh yup.’
‘Oh yup, yup,’ I replied on noting the wing mirror dangling pitiably on the driver side of my immeasurably rancid little Audi. ‘Yup.’
‘And yup, yup,’ he added. ‘You also have a parking ticket.’
This seemed unlikely. Remorselessly as it punishes roadside infractions, even Hammersmith and Fulham Council seldom dispenses tickets to legally parked cars with permits.
Inside the plastic wallet beneath the wiper was a cordial invitation from the Metropolitan Police to contact them about the incident that had enticed the mirror to vacate its plastic mooring. Several encounters with automated switchboards spread over 80 minutes led to a human voice, the owner of which punched some digits into his computer.
‘Right, sir,’ he intoned. ‘I’ve got it now. You’ve been collateral damage in a knifepoint robbery.’
‘That sounds serious, officer,’ I said. ‘In my experience, “collateral damage” is the Pentagon’s euphemism of choice for the slaughter of Muslim civilians by misdirected bombs. Are you telling me I’ve been killed by a stray Cruise missile?’
He was, he said, telling me no such thing. In that case, enjoyable as it was, why were we having this conversation?
Its purpose was to establish if I wished to take the matter further. I absolutely did, I said. ‘I’d like a SWAT team deployed forthwith.’
That, he apologised, probably wouldn’t be possible. ‘Frankly, I’m not even sure we can spare a helicopter.’
Knowing the scarcity of police resources, I grudgingly accepted this. He asked if I wanted a crime reference number for the insurance firm. I didn’t. Even if the mirror had been wrecked, the no-claims-bonus hit would have dwarfed the cost of replacing it.
But it hadn’t. By the cunning expedient of shoving it back into place, I’d fixed it. Like my left lung after pneumothorax surgery, it appeared fit for purpose once again.
‘The last thing I want to do, officer,’ I said, ‘is clog up your system with pointless, time-wasting detail.’ He appreciated my consideration. We bade our farewells on the friendliest of terms, the case seemingly closed.
The first letter arrived a week later. ‘Dear Mr Norman,’ it began, ‘We are sorry to hear that you are the victim of crime and we are working hard to catch those responsible. A Metropolitan Police officer … will make contact with you soon to find out more about what happened.
‘If you need support or advice on coming to terms with your experience…’ it continued – and appended was the victim-support helpline number I may call ‘at any time of day or night’.
Astoundingly, no officer has made contact. But the second and third letters, identical to the first, came yesterday. I haven’t checked the mat today. One Lung Day festivities have delayed that ritual. But when I do, I’ll be disappointed if I find it barren.
I don’t wish to seem glibly dismissive about the danger of delayed traumatic shock. It could be that, in weeks, months, years or even decades, I’ll wake at 3.37am – the exact time (the kitchen clock hovered above the breadknife) of the earlier incident – sweating and screaming about my wing mirror.
For now, however, I’m willing to soldier on, in denial, sublimating the pain, and deputing the collateral-damage repair process to the healing passage of time.