Once upon a time in Linwood

02:16, Jul 12 2012

Last week I mentioned  how easy it can be to forget things but then a few days later I was struck by how surprising the process of remembering can be.

I had just popped into the local petrol station on Saturday morning to get the weekend paper - this being a new habit I have got into since the Mobil Mart reopened post-quakes - and as I was leaving, paper tucked under one arm, I noted a couple of colourful stickers on the automatic doors as they slid open in front of me.

A sticker (or are we calling them "decals" now?) ran along the edge of each door where they came together at roughly eye-level, a strip of rasta-stic block colours - black, yellow, white, red.

Immediately I recognised what they were for. In the event of theft or some other crime, surveillance cameras would be able to pick up which part of the colour strip a perp's head came up to. This allows for a more specific guess to me made at a person's height. Halfway up the red part of the sticker? Must be 5 foot 11ish then.  That's the way it's supposed to work.

And WHOOSH, my cerebral flux capacitor kicked into action and in my mind's eye a dude is pointing a sawn-off shotgun at me.

Did I mention that time I was in an armed hold-up?


It was 1997 and I was working a Friday night at the Warehouse branch in the wealthy and affluent suburb of Linwood. And by "wealthy and affluent", I mean "bwaaa haaa haa!"

Anyway, it was about 15 minutes to closing and I'd just taken a phone inquiry from someone who wanted me to check that we still had their size in a particular item of clothing. I can't remember what it was now, but let's say it was a pair of navy trackpants in size 20, because back then that kind of stuff was The Warehouse's bread and butter. My working day was pretty much a blur of air mattresses, brick games, plastic scuffs, and those ugly, saggy-assed trackpants.  

As a supervisor (respect my authoritah!) I would usually have flicked this inquiry on to whomever was assigned to that part of the shop, but being it was nearly closing time and not especially busy, I decided to do it myself. So off I strode in the direction of the clothing department.

As I got in amongst the racks, hoping not to find somebody's discarded McDonald's milkshake, I heard a commotion at the front of the store. Someone yelling and a child crying. This wasn't unusual behaviour though, and I idly wondered whether we'd have to ask an aggravated parent to lay off a bit. Sometimes you had to deal with some very unpleasant people. In my periphery I was aware that someone walked past, but with so many racks between myself and the main thoroughfare it was only a fleeting impression of movement.

I couldn't find what I was looking for and headed back to the front of the store only to emerge out of an aisle of cleaning products to find the most bizarre sight. Everyone was just sitting on the floor. Crouched, actually. It was a bit like that Radiohead music video. The one where everyone lies down on the footpath. Except that music video didn't feature men in hats and bandannas with guns who seemed to be pretty busy further along the front of the store emptying the cash registers. They hadn't seen me as I was still obscured by shelving. What an odd scene I'd come across. Would Fox Mulder be here soon to explain it all to me? I certainly hoped so.

And then a woman opposite me who was cowering next to a rack of discounted CDs hissed "he went that way!" indicating the direction I'd just come from. For some reason, I took this to mean I should go looking for "him". Which was quite possibly the single most stupid impulse I've ever had in my life. Yes, Moata, you should definitely go and find the person this woman is talking about. Ask him if he'd like a cup of tea, why don't you?

I hadn't gone more than a few steps when I came face to scarf with a young man toting a sawn-off shotgun. I'd never had a gun pointed at me before (or since) and it's funny what does and doesn't go through your head at that moment. Like, the fact that I wasn't scared. It didn't occur to me for even an instant to be frightened. Things were simply far too strange to be terrifying.

He barked at me to get down on the floor so I did and I noticed with interest that I'd instinctively dropped my eyes the second I registered the gun. I might not be aware of being fearful but my body certainly knew a threat when it saw one and had adjusted my body language accordingly. At least some part of me was up on the play.

It wasn't very long at all before the banditos regrouped and left taking a few thousand dollars with them and leaving a shocked group of floor people. I remember looking up as one of them exited, noting where his head came to on our "height stickers".  

One of my colleagues called the police but before they arrived I went to the cupboard behind our desk and took out every notepad and pen I could find, dispensing them to all the customers and asking them to write down everything they remembered about what the robbers looked like, how tall they were and so on.

And then there was going to the police station, getting fingerprinted (all staff who'd touched the tills had to be fingerprinted to eliminate their prints as those of the robbers) and making a statement. It took hours and was nothing like CSI (not that I knew what that was then).

Work made a counsellor available for the staff who'd been involved, which, despite my initial reluctance, was a very good thing. In the days that followed I found myself looking at people's faces. Was it that guy? What about him, is he about the same height? I also experienced a strange sense of freedom. I didn't feel as self-conscious as I usually did. Yes, I'm singing a Radiohead song to myself as I walk down the street. I care not if you approve of my singing, for you do not have a sawn-off shotgun. A surprised or disapproving look would have washed over me like a nothingness made of air. I may not have felt terrified as it was happening but my behaviour afterwards makes me think that it must have registered somewhere.

And that, dear readers, is why whenever I see a movie where a bank is being robbed but "nobody got hurt" so it's okay to still be rooting for the robbers, I have a moment where I think "yeah, but I bet a lot of those people were traumatised - I wonder if they had nightmares?" And then I get back into the movie. It only happens for a moment but it's pretty much every time.

In truth, I haven't thought about this in years and I don't know that it's had a profound effect on me or my life. I've forgotten a lot of the detail too and it's just impressions and feelings that are left. I just though it was interesting that the sight of those door stickers at the petrol station could make me recall that episode. I hope I haven't bored you all by telling you about it.

Have any of you ever been in a similar situation? Or have you had a memory called forth by something seemingly unrelated?

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