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the fat policeman's smile

I witnessed a getaway once. From an armed robbery. It was December 1983 and I was walking back to my flat when I saw a man come belting out of the doors of the Wimbledon Theatre. He raced down the steps and leapt into a waiting car, which then tore off down the street out of sight. I went inside to ask if everything was all right and found a group of dazed, wide-eyed cleaners standing around in the lobby. They told me a man had just robbed the theatre safe. I said I’d memorized the number of the car that had driven away and wrote it down on a piece of paper.

Then I was taken up to the office, where I sat with the manager and a cleaner who’d taken the robber to meet him. An icily efficient police inspector arrived, established the facts of what had happened from the three of us in about five minutes, then sent us off to give statements.

The inspector was balding, wore glasses and a lot of grey, and looked more like a bank manager than a policeman investigating a robbery at the point of a shotgun. His sergeant was fat, with curly thinning hair that was lank and uncombed. He wore a grubby blue overcoat over a crumpled white shirt and a tie that looked like it hadn’t been unknotted since the day he’d first put it on. He scrawled out my statement as I spoke and resisted every single suggestion of mine that what I’d done had been in any way note or praise-worthy.

Yes, I admit it; I wanted a compliment. I’d assisted the police. I hadn’t just shrugged and walked away. I wanted to be thanked. But Mr Crumpled Slovenly acted as though all he wanted to do was get to the pub. When we were finished and I stood up to leave, I made a comment about doing my best to notice things. Because I was a writer, I explained, still stupidly looking for that compliment, that recognition. And then his eyes gleamed. ‘Oh,’  he said, with a faint little smile. ‘Failed?’

No doubt I earned the put-down. It certainly taught me not to go fishing for compliments. But over the years I’ve never forgotten that smile, and the sadistic pleasure he took in putting me in my place. And I’ve always wondered how many others - innocent or guilty - he took out his fat, crumpled cynicism on, all of it backed up with the power of his police ID. I'm glad i wasn't one of them.

© Nick Garlick 2017