The Winter Cat
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your door.
It’s been said, many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you...
Oh hello there – can you give me a moment to put this down? I was just playing Santa for the kids down at the village hall. Something I’ve done for a few years now, as a favour to a few friends here. If you would allow me to take this jacket off – that’s better.
I love this time of year, as you know, with the presents and the candles, and the songs, but it’s all too easy to remember that for many people today this is not the Christmas vacation. Oh, don’t get me wrong – they have their holiday, but not necessarily at the same time or in the same way. As you can imagine, in my years I’ve seen a few of these festivities in different ways. Would you like to hear some of them?
Take our American cousins, for example. Back in the sixties they started their own holiday called Kwanzaa – a six day celebration of their roots and the time of year. It covers the period between Christmas and New Year, and each day has a special meaning. I learnt this back in the mid-70’s, when I called into a flat that was been used by a secretary at the American Embassy in Kensington.
Getting in wasn’t that difficult – even though it was a cold December night, she had still left a window in her bathroom open, and for someone like me it wasn’t a problem to climb up there and get in. The flat was dark, but I had a torch, so it wasn’t a real problem for me to search through the bedroom and collect a few little items.
When I went into the main room, which was when I saw the big black candle sitting on the large table there. I was standing there, wondering what this was for and beginning to fear I had walked into a witch’s house, when I heard the key turn in the door and hid myself behind the couch.
Two women walked in, and as the light went on I recognised the one who was working at the embassy. She was a tall woman, dressed in a traditional outfit of cream and gold. Her top looked like a poncho, covering her upper arms and chest, while the wrap round skirt went to just above her ankles. She had a pair of heeled gold sandals on her feet, and a white scarf tied over her hair.
Her friend was dressed in a slightly more modern manner for the time, with a sleeveless crochet top and bellbottom trousers of chocolate brown. On the front of the top and the sides of the trousers were large circles of red and white, matching the collar and bottom of her top and the cuffs of her pants. She sat herself down on the couch as her friend went to pour a couple of drinks, so I felt that I had to make a move or else I was in real trouble.
I heard her say “Here you are,” before she turned round and saw me with my hand over the other woman’s mouth and a small knife in my hand. “Please,” I said, “Put those drinks down and sit here. I’d hate to make more of a mess.”
As she did this, she said “Are you all right Angie?” I felt the other woman nod her head, and said “I just want to take your money and jewellery; you are both quite safe I promise you – so long as you do what I say.”
“We’ll do that,” she said as she sat with her hands on the top of her skirt. “What are you going to do with us?”
“Tell me,” I replied, “Do you have any duct tape?” She nodded, and I said “Right – while Angie stays here with me, I want you to go and get it.” As she stood up, I also said “Don’t try to raise the alarm, or Angie will be the one who suffers.” I watched her walk out, before I let Angie go and quickly went to pull the telephone wire out of the wall. “Who are you?” she said as her friend came back in with a roll of silver tape. “Just a burglar, nothing more,” I replied as she handed me the roll. “Please, both of you, stand back to back against each other and hold each other’s hands.”
They stood there, perfectly still as I taped their wrists to each other on each side, and then tightly taped them together by their upper arms, waists and chests. Following that, I taped the ankles of each girl together, before passing it around their upper legs so that they were unable to move very far. They both watched me as I emptied the contents of their purses into my bag, before I picked up the roll and walked over. “Anything to say, Angie?” I said with a smile, but she just scowled back at me. “Pity” was my only response as I tore a strip off the roll and smoothed it over her lips, her blue eyes sparking and her Afro hairdo standing up. The secretary? She was still too scared to say anything as I gagged herm, but she seemed to relax as she realised I had no intention of doing anything else to her.
I turned on the radio, and the sounds of Wizzard came over the speakers as I turned the light off and left the two of them there.
Now for many Kwanzaa seems to be a made up holiday, but I can respect the reasons it was started, and understand why people do celebrate it. That is even truer of something like Eid, especially with the growing Muslim population in this country. That holiday tends to move about each year, and in the mid-80’s it actually coincided with Christmas – a fact I had failed to pick up on until I visited a house in the north west of England.
It was early afternoon, and I knew there was nobody home – I’d watched the house for an hour beforehand. The owners were fairly well off as well – even as there was a Christmas tree set up, I knew the house was not a Christian one, based on the hangings on the wall and the ornate gold jewellery that I was busy loading into my bag. As a result, I wasn’t paying enough attention to what was happening behind me, until I heard a female voice say “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
I turned round to see a young woman standing there, her dark hair falling over her shoulders as she stared back at me. She was wearing a long pale blue robe that fell to the floor, the material highlighted by red floral embroidery flowers of various sizes. The skirt of her robe was split at the side with red panels visible, while her sleeves flowed out to wide cuffs at her wrists.
“I said, who are you and what are you doing here,” she repeated as I looked at her. “Forgive me,” I eventually replied, “but I had hoped to be gone by the time anyone returned home. I’m robbing you, and it would be best if you did not do anything to raise the alarm. I have no wish to harm you, but I do need to insist you do as I say.”
“You dare to intrude on us on this holy day,” she said more loudly as she almost ran to me, her hand raised. Well, much as I hate doing this, I had to grab her wrist as she tried to bring it down on my cheek and twist her arm round, making her yelp as I turned her and pulled her arm up her back.
“Please, just do as I say,” I said as I leaned into eh rear. “I have no wish to hurt you, nut I do need to make sure you do not get in my way. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth as I let go of her arm. “What is your intention?”
“Merely to stop you getting in my way,” I said as I let her sit down and opened the doors to a large wardrobe. Finding what I wanted, I took something out and turned to her, saying “Please put your hands in front of you” as I did so.
She looked at me, and at the long chiffon scarf I held in my hand, before nodding and holding them up, palm to palm. I used the scarf to bind her wrists together, before helping her to lie down on the ornate bedspread and make herself comfortable. The sleeves of her gown slipped down as I raised her wrists above her head and secured the loose ends of the scarf to the iron stand that was at the head of the bed.
She watched as I took two more scarves, one of gold and one of white silk, from the cupboard and walked back over. Folding the hem of her gown up slightly, I bound her ankles together, cinching the scarf between her legs before I folded the hem back down, and then tied her legs together over the skirt. She watched as I finished searching the drawers in the room, before walking back over.
“Thank you,” she said as I balled up a handkerchief I had taken from the drawer. “For what?” I asked. “For respecting me,” she said, and I nodded as she opened her mouth and I pushed the cloth in, using a final scarf tied over her mouth to keep it in place. As I made my way out of the back door, I saw the table laid with a feast of food, and suddenly realised what time of year it must have been.
Why did it take so long for me to realise? Well, this is going to sound awful, but for the last month I had not been able to get an early meal at my favourite takeaway if I fancied a curry, and I eventually realised it was because of Ramadan. The night before, I got one no problem, and it was only that next day I realised Ramadan had ended and Eid had started. That’s the problem when a festival moves.
If you go into Southall in West London, of course, it’s not Eid but Diwali that is the major winter festival. Held in late November, it is the festival of lights, and a time fro presents and great celebration. It usually means as well that the families go to the temple during the day for a big celebration, so when I broke into the house in the outskirts of the town I had banked on the fact that nobody was going to be home.
As is always the case with me, I ignored the presents that were on the floor and made my way to the jewellery boxes. Well, I am a cat burglar, remember – if I can’t put it in my pocket, I don’t want to take it.
I was only in there for ten minutes, so imagine my surprise when I head down to go out of the back door and see this beautiful Asian woman at the front door, her sari over the back of her head as she closed the door to with her back to me. I felt inadequate in my jumper and trousers, with the beanie hat on my head, never the mind the fact that there was no way she was going to avoid seeing me. So I quietly waited at the foot of the stairs as she locked the door and turned, taking the end of the sari off her head as she did so.
Her sari was made of a beautiful silk cloth, burnt orange and gold in colour as it was wound around her legs and upper body, before going over one shoulder and now falling over her bare arms. Over her upper body was a cap sleeved top of dark orange with a subtle floral pattern in gold thread, the square yoke showing off her pale skin and a choker of brown material around her neck. She was standing there, staring at me in mute shock, so I took her by her arm and led her into the front room, where I had closed the curtains when I first came in.
On the floor was a reel of gold ribbon, so I set her down on the long couch, telling her to sit still and say nothing. Taking the ribbon, I passed it around her upper body and pulled her arms into the side, making a slip knot in the cloth at the back as I pulled it tightly. I had kept the ribbon flat at the front, so that it looked like a gold band had encircled her arms and chest. I wound it round a few more times, before keeping a tight hold as I helped her to lie down on her back and placed her hands together in front of her as if she was in prayer.
I could see the Henna tattoos on her hands as I wound the ribbon around her wrists, holding them together as I passed it between her arms and laid them gently down on her lap and took the ribbon down and around the sari as it lay over her legs. Complementing her on her outfit, I then wrapped the thin band around her bare ankles as well as her feet, which had a pair of flat sandals on them. Finally, I took the ribbon back up and cut the end off, which I tied around the band over her legs to keep it in place. It may not have been the tightest or most secure of bindings, but it was holding her in place when combined with the fear that I could see in her green eyes as she stared back at me.
There was a white napkin on the floor, which I folded into a small pad and pushed into her mouth as a simple gag. Leaving her there, I hightailed it out of there as fast as I could, along with my well gotten gains.
Of course, it is not only Southall or Brick Lane that celebrate at the end of the year without celebrating Christmas. You just need to go north of the city, towards Hampstead Heath or Golders Green, to find that it is Chanukah that is the holiday of preference. Yeah, I know people call it Hanukkah, but since taking up my current trade some old friends have corrected me on that. One family in particular – well, that really is a long story for another day. What you want to know is did I ever encounter anyone in that area, and the answer is yes – but it could also have been the last time I was free to do that.
This would have been about 1982, and I had already visited a couple of houses in that area of town when I saw the open window. I could also see lights on behind the heavy curtains at the rear of the building, but I trusted to my skills of discretion and silence, so I climbed the fence, made my way up the drainpipe and slipped in.
There was the sound of laughter and music coming from downstairs, and a quick look round the room told me enough of the occupants of the house – the yamaka on the bedside table, the dark suit that was hanging up, and the small menorah on the dresser. It was electric, but had the correct arrangement of nine candle lights in place, unlike the Christian seven light versions.
Anyway, I was literally as quiet as a mouse, searching through the drawers when I heard footsteps on the landing outside. I hid behind the door as it opened and this young, blonde haired woman walked in and closed the door behind her before turning the light on. She was wearing a floor length dark purple gown with a high neck, and around her waist was a white leather belt with a number of pale blue decorations attached to it.
Once the light had been turned on, she saw the items scattered on the floor, and raised her hands to her mouth. Well, I had no choice – I rushed forward, pushed her head down on the bed and clamped my gloved hand over her mouth, telling her not to scream and just stay still. I could hear the music downstairs, and knew I may only have a few minutes.
In my pockets were a few lengths of cord from a visit I had paid earlier that night – a tale for another time – as well as a roll of sticking plaster. I took that first, tearing off a strip and placing it firmly over her lips. Pulling her arms behind her back, I quickly lashed them together with a length of cord, keeping the thin band over the cuffs of her dress. It made a deep line in the material as I wrapped it round and between, but I had little choice in the matter.
Rolling her over, I noticed for the first time the thick rimmed glasses that were on her face as she looked up at me. Taking them off, I folded the legs and placed them to one side as I lifted her legs and pulled them round so that she was lying on her back. The skirt of her dress had ridden slightly, and I could see that she was wearing a pair of baggy black suede boots on her feet. I wrapped a second length of cord around her ankles, the material being constricted around her legs as I pulled them together and tied the rope between them, before I laid her legs down and pulled her skirt down to cover them.
Grabbing my bag, I stopped for a moment to turn the small menorah on and turn the main light off. “Happy Chanukah” I said as she watched me climb back out of the window and escape.
I’m telling you, if one other person had come up those stairs in those fifteen minutes... Anyway, Christmas always has been, and always will be, the festival of choice for me, and I could tell tale after tale of my visits at that time of year. Never, ever to steal presents from under the tree, but always to see what I could find hidden away elsewhere. Even if it was jewellery, if it was wrapped as a present I never touched it, but the things I have seen. The two twins who watched from their bed in their bri-nylon pyjamas as I searched their boxes, hogtied and with pillowcases in their mouths. The rather more mature woman in her dressing gown, sitting on the bed with her wrist secured behind her back and her ankles tied while the belt of her gown was a gag. The mother and daughter sat on the floor of the living room, the mother in a twin set, dark skirt and long brown leather boots while the daughter had on a t-shirt, jeans and knee length sheepskin boots, watching me as I emptied the safe and unable to call out over the tape gags.
All good memories – but I’m forgetting the most recent of all. Just last week in fact, on the 20th of December. As you know, from time to time I like to keep my hand in, and I had been asked by a friend to do a favour for him and get something from a cottage in the South Downs. A small box, which he had tried to buy but with little success. It seemed a trivial item, so I said I would have a look when I was down there on business.
Well, when I called at the cottage in question there was nobody home and I was about to put my card through the door when I realised it was not locked. Now, it may have been many years since I retired, but even now I could not pass up an opportunity like this, so I opened the door, walked in and called out to see if anyone was home. Yes, I know I could see that was true, but old habits die hard.
The house was simply furnished, old wooden chairs and tables and flowers all over the place. There was a holly wreath on the wall, and mistletoe hanging from the rafters. As I looked round, I knew there may not be a lot that was of value here, save for the large ring that I could see on the table top. It was gold, with a large dark stone set in the middle, and I picked it up to examine it. As I admired the work, I did not hear the door open again, until a quiet voice said “Can I help you?”
I turned to see a woman in her late fifties standing there, her grey hair visible underneath the purple hood that was over her head. The hood itself was a part of her gown, the rich dark colour flowing from around her neck down to the floor, the panels falling to the side as it did so. Underneath I could see a floral print dress that also was part of the lining of her hood. She held a staff in one hand, while in the other was a small wreath of twigs and berries.
I looked at her, and said quietly “Forgive me – I did not mean to scare you. Tell me, have you been at some sort of ceremony?” “Indeed – this is Yule, the winter solstice, and we have been celebrating the passing of one year and the starting of another,” she said as she leant the staff against a wall. “You did not answer my question.”
“Again, my apologies. You have a small wooden box which a friend of mine asked me to try and obtain – for the usual cost, of course. There was nobody home, but your door was open, and I was admiring the ring.”
“Ah – I tend not to wear jewellery for the ceremony,” she said as she placed the wreath on the table. “This box – oak and rowan, inlaid?”
“That would be the one, yes.”
“Please,” she said as she indicated a chair with her hand, “take a seat. I will return shortly.”
She left me for a moment, returning with the item in question and placing it on the table. “It is a beautiful item,” she said as we looked at it, “but I am afraid I cannot sell it.”
“I understand,” I said as I looked at it, “a sentimental object?”
“Yes, but that is not the reason. I trade by bartering, not selling, so I cannot sell it for a monetary value. If, however, you were to perform a service for me, I may persuaded to gift it to you.”
“I see,” I said as I smiled at her, “What service could I perform for you?”
“You seem to be a strong man,” she said as she looked at me, “For a party later, I had planned a surprise for guests, but you may be able to help.”
“By preparing me as if I were a sacrifice.” As she said this she stood up and went to a corner of the room, returning with a large coil of rough brown rope. “Will you secure me to this chair for people to see?”
Well, I had to stop myself from bursting out laughing, but in her blue eyes I could see how earnest she was. “Very well,” I said as I stood up, “Can you bring me a knife, and then do whatever you need to do in terms of your own comfort.” She smiled as she stood up and went to the kitchen, returning with a knife and two goblets on a tray.
“A drink before we begin,” she said as she placed the tray on the table. I picked up a goblet and took a drink of the mulled wine as I watched her go into a room to one side. On her return, I offered her a chair and watched as she sat down, the hem of her robe rising to reveal a pair of black leather boots. Using the knife, I cut a length of the rope off and secured her wrists to the side of the chair, the purple of her cape falling to the side as it went round the lace cuff of her sleeve.
Fifteen minutes later, I tied the last knot off at the side of the chair seat. After her wrists had been secured, I tied her ankles to the front legs of the chair before winding the remaining rope around her chest and lap, feeding it through the wooden lattice work of the chair pack and around the tops of the legs as I did so to hold her firmly in place. She thanked me as I picked up a long woollen scarf she had brought back with her, and opened wide to allow me to pull it into her mouth. I then pulled her hood up before passing the scarf round it and tying the ends together at the base of her neck, her lips closing around the material as I did so.
As I drove down the road, I could see some people in similar garb making their way up the road. Secure in the knowledge she would be safe, I made my way back towards the motorway, the box on the seat next to me.
ANY-way, can I get you a glass of mulled wine? It should have finished warming by now...
Return to the Memoirs of The Cat index
Return to the main index