Why Can't They Leave Things Alone? by Harry Downey

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
A habitual shoplifter's luck runs out in this humorous short by Harry Downey.

Would you buy a used car from a flashy, smooth-talking salesman called Ambrose? I wouldn't. But my wife fell for his patter and now she's my ex and living with him in Basingstoke. And good riddance too. So Charlie Medwin, that's me, on my own for a few weeks now, had a few adjustments to make in the way things went. By now I've pretty well sorted out my new routine. Take shopping for instance. Vera used to do what she called her 'big shop' down at Tesco's on Friday evenings. Not me. Now there's a lot less needed, and anyway, I've got my own way of doing things. She paid at the checkout for everything she took from the store. I don't. I pay for what's in the trolley and everything else is a nice little earner for me.

Chissingford where I live is big enough to have the lot - Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco's, Asda, a Co-op of course, even a Waitrose - the one they call 'the toff's supermarket'. No continental stores yet, but it's only time, isn't it? So I've got a bit of a choice when I shop. Of course, I don't look for 2 for 1 offers and that sort of thing. No way. I just look where it's the easiest to steal from. The supermarkets are getting better on their security these days - in fact, there's one of the big boys I don't go near anymore - that is unless I'm being an honest member of Joe Public at the time and queuing up at the check-out like the ordinary punters. Which one? No way, José. That's for you to find out. After all, it's taken me a long time to get all this know-how and I don't give info like that away for free. Now if you offered to pay me for what I know, well, that's another matter.

With all the new rules ciggies have become very difficult these days. So I don't try. I leave them alone on their locked shelves and concentrate on the bottled stuff - they all have masses of wines and spirits on their shelves. Then CDs are usually a piece of cake to lift, and if you pick the chart stuff they're dead easy to shift. And every penny is profit. No overheads, nothing like that to worry about.

The main things to look out for are the 'hidden' cameras - now that really is a joke. With the exception of one store - no names, no pack drill - where they aren't at all bad, whoever decides where to place them seems to have no idea, and if you know what to look for they're no problem. As for store detectives, most of 'em haven't a clue; just see 'em a couple of times and you remember their faces. In my experience, unless the bosses are around they've usually switched off and are working on autopilot.

If I were honest - get it? - I really believe I could save the typical supermarket chain serious money by advising them on what to do: sort of poacher turned gamekeeper thing. My proposal would be for them to agree to pay me a consultancy fee of, well, let's say 20% of what I would save them in a typical year. They'd be quids in and it would certainly suit me. As a pro I'd know what to look for. I've seen other people doing what I do in their stores and you can pick 'em out easy. The difference is I don't think the people I spot would spot me doing the same thing. Rank amateurs, most of 'em. They haven't a clue. Perhaps I should approach one of our local store managers with my idea. Prepare a proper case - the sort of thing they call a Business Plan, on paper with figures and everything - and see his reaction. Just a thought. After all, they tell us that the best hackers in the business are working now for the internet security companies or at the Pentagon. It makes sense, doesn't it?

As I said, my methods are my own and I won't divulge them to anyone else. Let me just say that I'm good at what I do and, if you want proof, get someone to look in the records of the local constabulary. Not once have I been pulled in for questioning, never mind being charged. My sheet is completely clean. It's a matter of professional pride to me even though I know you straight folks probably don't approve. Eight years doing what I do and the only blemish on my record is a parking fine - and they don't count, do they? My old dad was a regular in the army and always said that Long Service medals and Good Conduct badges just recognised X years undetected crime. He was probably right.

On Wednesday morning it all happened. At about eleven fifteen, I was down at one of the stores on the Cherry Lane Estate - I won't say which one but you could easy check if you wanted to - and had just gone through checkout number 4. They were very busy and the girl on the till apologised about the time we'd been kept waiting. The woman in front had been a bit silly with a lot of money-off coupons and things, and wanted to change items, and one of the store girls was sent off to do it for her and it all took time.

Well, there I was, checked out and everything, just heading for the exit when these two guys in suits and a uniformed man pounced on me. That's my lot, I thought. I've been spotted. I had a proper receipt in my pocket for the stuff in the trolley, but I had somehow overlooked paying for the two 1 litre bottles of Glenfidich, and some Rioja that were in the big, deep pockets of my coat. Decision time. Should I brazen it out or go quietly?

I didn't have much choice. The older man, bald, horn-rimmed glasses, in a natty suit and with a large badge in his lapel held out his hand, started to shake mine vigorously and somewhere just out of my vision a camera started flashing.

'Congratulations, sir. You may not have realised it, but you are the ten thousandth customer this store has had since we opened. As such all your purchases today are free, with our compliments, and we would like you to be our guest for a little ceremony. It won't take more than a few minutes and you will be given a memento of the occasion.'

Everything I'd just bought was free! If only I'd known. There'd be a lot more than eight pounds forty three penceworth in my bag (a reusable one, naturally, as I like to do my bit for the environment). Mind you, if I'd taken longer choosing I would have been further back in the queue and not the magic number - so there you are. Sod's Law in action.

People gathered round at a little table near the main entrance. Mr. Mallinder, that was his name, droned on a bit, and some smarmy looking guy in his best suit fawned all over him. I found out later that Mallinder was from Head Office and the creep was the store manager. Afterwards they showed me all the pictures they took and creepy had managed to get near his idol in every one.

People were clapping, pictures were being taken, some girl with 'Press' on her blouse asked me a few silly questions. I was very good and showed great self-control. I didn't do what the badge said, even though she was a big girl - if you know what I mean. So apart from the made up selection of groceries and a special something - that was it. The special? An extra large bottle of Glenfidich, wouldn't you guess it? And I'm teetotal at that.

End of story except that I was heavily featured in the press as a result of my little surprise. Just the locals, of course, but in the Chissingford Recorder, the County Gazette and both of the free advertising rags. Pictures and a big plug for the store. So, that was my fifteen minutes of fame that apparently we're all going to get some time in our lifetimes. Not that I was over-pleased. Living the sort of life I do the last thing I want is publicity. I certainly don't want my face plastered all over the place and being seen by people I don't want to see it. Something I'd do my best to avoid in future - no more exposure again if I can help it.

It didn't work out quite like that. I was in the papers again not long afterwards. This time the nationals got in on the act with a whiff of a story from somebody local and enjoyed themselves at my expense. In the Mirror they decided that 'On the house? Not this time, Charlie' just about summed it up. The Sun typically used just one word - 'Stupido'. I'm fairly thick skinned but their comment about me writing a book 'Shop lifting for Dummies' hurt a bit.

Stupid on my part, perhaps? I don't think so. No way did I think they'd challenge me back at 'my' supermarket. Any member of staff who'd been working that day would almost certainly have seen me at my little 'do', and my photograph was prominent in a display at the main door and they all knew I was on the VIP list. And having seen the old geezer they'd stuck a uniform on and called security - well, it was a piece of cake. Back at the presentation either the two bottles of scotch, or the vino I hadn't paid for, I don't know which, had clinked in my pocket when I was about two feet away from him, but he didn't seem to notice, or more likely, he didn't have his hearing aid switched on.

He'd gone and they had a woman down there now, didn't they? Just my luck she was on duty when I went shopping - someone I'd never seen before, fresh to the area and ex CID. New on the job and still dead keen to get some brownie points. Probably paid on commission for every one she pulled in. If she'd been on duty the day I won my big prize I'd have spotted her for certain. It turned out she had only started with them that Monday, just days after me being the toast of the store with everybody. Talk about luck.

When it came out that I had been taking stuff on a regular basis, the bosses made a few changes. Among other things they downgraded Mr. 'Smarmy Pants' Poulson and posted him up north somewhere. So it wasn't all bad, was it?

By the way, I did have a word with the new manager. I made my offer of some advice on shoplifting on a consultancy basis. He didn't actually say 'No' but somehow I don't think he was keen even though I offered to drop my fee down to 15% for him.

Actually, when it got to court I thought I'd had a bit of a raw deal from the magistrate. She was a hatchet faced woman who seemed not to like anyone, and even though I put on my suit and a tie, it didn't do me much good. When she heard I'd been doing it for years, she gave me a twelve month prison sentence, suspended for two years.

That was worse than a fine actually. If I'd been given a straight fine, I'd have paid it at a fiver a week, and the slate would be clean and nothing carried over to be held against me in future. That's the way I saw it anyway. But this probation deal meant that if I did the business and was caught, anytime in the next two years, I'd go inside. What Mrs. Thomas Fitzwallace, MBE, JP, B&Q and bar, or something fancy like that, hadn't realised was what a sentence like that was really going to cost me. The duty solicitor the police had given me said I'd had a good deal but I didn't see it like that. There's one law for them and one for people like me. No wonder I left the court fuming.

My personal cost of living was going to go up sharply for as long as I am on probation by paying the same prices at the check-out as ordinary punters do, and it's criminal how expensive stuff is these days. And it's going up all the time too as I soon found out. Because of this woman I now have to pay for everything I shop for every week. Perhaps the old cow did realise it and was just being sadistic. She certainly looked the type. Then she hadn't made any sort of allowance for my loss of income from the stuff I sell on, none whatsoever. I've got to fill it from somewhere.

So it looks as if I'll have to find a new line of work. Pretty soon too. Back to the drawing board and sort out a Plan B. I'm the wrong shape for climbing through windows to half-inch a bit of jewellery, and hitting old ladies on their heads for their pension money isn't my style. And I'm certainly not looking for a proper job just yet. I'll leave that for when I'm really, really desperate.


  1. A well-detailed look at a lifestyle--the whole thing had the ring of truth and authenticity. I love that his wife left him for a used car dealer and that's how we are really introduced to who he is. Enjoyed it very much.

  2. clever story, liked the feeling sorry for himself, world against me narration, like Tim I feel it did sound very convincing

    Michael McCarthy

  3. Very good story. Wish I had written it!

  4. I'm not sure I can fully express how much I love this story. Really glad I came across it. I laughed so hard I've got tears in my eyes. This is well written to the point that it seems so real and the start was very gripping, it did remind me of an old movie that began with the main actor's wife leaving him for a midget. The writing style is great as well.

  5. I loved the voice in this. The narrator's tone was perfect. I especially love his professional pride. The circumstances were delicious and funny...and quite believable.

    --Wendy Hammer

  6. The clipped language and conversational tone of the narrator draws the reader in. We go along for the ride and keep reading furiously because of this dynamic. Well done. The irony and sarcasm in the voice you created is not overdone and placed the details of the action are seamless. Humor is always a plus! Enjoyed this one.

  7. A clever and humorous story about a guy who's wife had left him. He took over his life and did things his way. Quite an intricate story but most enjoyable to read. We all feel as though someone is watching us, as we go around shops. This story could also be a warning, that you just never know when you can be caught. Even though he got a punishment, the confidence and determination in the character's voice never faltered.