They didn’t just steal our Toyota Prius. They stole my unfinished novel and a small part of my soul, writes SANDRA HOWARD
We were left scratching our heads for a few minutes. ‘I’m sure it was here, I know we left it here, right opposite Brown’s Hotel, definitely in Dover Street.’
‘Hadn’t we better walk round the block? We could be wrong. You don’t think it could have been Albemarle Street?’
But it hadn’t been. We had left our perfectly ordinary family car, a seven-year-old Prius, parked on a single yellow line in London’s West End while we went to wish a friend Happy Birthday at her celebration drinks party. We stayed less than an hour as we were about to drive on out of town to our home near the Kent coast.
But now the car was well and truly gone, with everything in it — my Apple laptop and handbag, a lot of clothes, food, and worst of all, several USB sticks containing the beginnings of my new novel, all 84 pages of it.
The space where we’d parked was taken by another car, which was what had thrown us. But slowly the realisation dawned: this was no trick of the memory (we may be in our early 80s but we still have all our marbles), it was the theft of our car — and that sinking, shivery feeling of loss and invasion of privacy set in.
While I stood on the pavement, cold, sickened and bemused, my husband Michael got on to the police. For a second, we held onto the hope it had been towed away, but that was always unlikely as it hadn’t been parked illegally, and the police confirmed they hadn’t got it before taking down details and asking lots of questions. Then they gave us a crime number and left us to our lick our wounds.
The car was well and truly gone, with everything in it — my Apple laptop and handbag, a lot of clothes, food, and worst of all, several USB sticks containing the beginnings of my new novel, all 84 pages of it (Michael and Sandra Howard with their grandson)
The situation, given the quantities of much-loved personal effects we’d had in the car, couldn’t have been much worse, writes Sandra Howard
The situation, given the quantities of much-loved personal effects we’d had in the car, couldn’t have been much worse.
It was a Thursday evening, there was no more voting in Westminster, no need for Michael (now a member of the House of Lords) to stay in London, and we’d been about to scoot off home with the car packed high with everything we needed for a long weekend.
I’d been the designated driver (as ever) and stone-cold sober, though I doubt even the stiffest of drinks could have softened the blow.
As it was, I had that knot in the stomach feeling, as well as an angry sense of disbelief. I thought of thieves rifling through our precious belongings, and the time and energy it was going to take to sort everything. If we could. I mean, how do you buy replacements of irreplaceable things?
completely discombobulated and rudderless, we felt lost in a storm. Should we trail off to the railway station and go to Kent by train with none of our things for the weekend?
Our nearest station is small and remote, not a great place to arrive late on a pitch-black rainy night in an emotional, over-wrought state.
Anyway, it would be hard to call the insurance, bank and credit card companies on a public train, where we might easily be overheard haggling over how much our knocked-about Prius was worth. Best to turn tail, go back to the London flat and get going on making the calls to credit card companies and the bank there.
There was still a box of eggs and bread in the freezer at the flat, so with the cards stopped, and Apple Support called — to try to block entry to my laptop — we sat in a heap at the kitchen table and had poached eggs on toast.
Thankfully I had my mobile with me and also my big bunch of keys. Two small mercies at least. I’d put them into a small evening bag to take into the party, leaving my well-stuffed day-to-day handbag, with its purse and credit cards, on the back seat of the car. My laptop, too, was on the backseat, though I’d thrown a couple of old woolies over them both to hide them.
I now kick myself that other belongings would have been more clearly visible. I’d done the weekend food shop, three carrier-bags full, and it was all squashed into the space behind the front seats.
The emotional impact took me by surprise — it felt like a blow to the chest — but it’s surely a common experience (Pictured: Michael and Sandra Howard)
So too was my M&S freezer bag full of the remains of meals in plastic containers, such a useful bag for gathering up all the perishables in the fridge, along with a canvas bottle-holder bag with two pints of milk and half-drunk bottles of wine.
In the boot was a battered old black holdall with clothes spilling out, which has travelled up and down from London to Kent with us for decades. It no longer zips up properly, but was an old friend and capacious. The list went on.
Worst of all for me was the loss of my sort of Heath Robinson filing system that I rarely went anywhere without. It was a wicker basket, the sort you get at holiday beach resorts, and contained receipts, bank statements, and files of hand-written notes from the research I’d been doing for my novel, which is set during the siege of Malta in the early 1940s and based on family history (I was born in Malta during the siege).
And two hardback history books on the period, one written soon after World War II that I’d found in a second-hand bookshop and is near impossible to replace.
I know it sounds daft to have left such precious things in the car, and on the back seat too. In our defence we only expected to pop our heads into the party briefly. It was naive — but it wasn’t late and it was Central London. We simply didn’t think of the risk.
The call to Apple Support had at least been cheering. A nice-sounding young man assured me that my password was a good barrier, and Apple could put a block on the content too. ‘Would you like to write a message to leave on the screen in case the thieves do break in to your password?’ he asked. This piece of tech wizardry allows you to add a phone number in case a well-meaning person finds it. I didn’t feel I could tell my new friend at Apple what I’d really like to say to the thieves.
It was only then I remembered the USB sticks I’d had in the basket. My novel. No password on them — the thieves would have full access to the quarter of it I’d written. The feeling of violation was intense. I’d poured my heart into those pages, it was my unedited, very personal story and I couldn’t bear to think of it being read or chucked out for anyone to read and be rude about and abuse.
The emotional impact took me by surprise — it felt like a blow to the chest — but it’s surely a common experience. In London, where car theft is especially prevalent, 2,000 cars are stolen each month. That’s 70 people a day returning to their car or looking out of the window in the morning onto their driveway and… finding nothing.
Car theft is on the up — but it’s not a new phenomenon. In my modelling days, in the 1960s and ’70s, I had a succession of rattle-trap Minis that were often stolen.
Once I had a call from the police in Clapham, South London, saying they had my car and would I come to collect it… only to find it had been stolen again while supposedly in the police’s tender care.
But this latest incident has felt very personal — the most awfully personal intrusion into our life.
Of all the belongings lost, the smallest and least valuable is the one that has upset me most. Many moons ago I’d bought a purse for small change in Uganda. It was made from beer bottle tops, very colourful and fun, and I loved to think, however much in the most minimal way, I was helping some struggling person get by.
I mourn its loss and the small good-luck glass cat inside that an author friend once gave me to help with my writing.
Car theft is maddening and upsetting, but I’m determined to be positive, so I’ve started rewriting my novel — and this time I’ll be keeping it firmly under lock and key.
Sandra Howard’s latest novel Love at War (£11.99, The Book Guild) is available now.
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