Scary stories from a lovely place
….in a dark, dark semi-detached house, in a dark, dark street, an Australian, an Irishman and their South African son settled down to sleep. All was well. Every night. One night there was a loud party next door, like 3 metres from our bedroom window. And a few nights sirens and burn-outs disturbed our slumber. And many a night the South African baby boy kept waking up and wanting stuff – oh how I long for those long, almost cavernous nights before I had babies.
Of nearly four years living in Johannesburg for me, ten for Stephen and nearly one for little Silas Marner, our experience of the much lauded second-most-dangerous-city-in-the-world (cue murderous scream) was fairly mundane. We had a couple of brushes with crime. I was mugged, twice, but both times were pretty pedestrian – no weapons, no injuries. Stephen had almost none. Once he was in a crowd and saw a guy pull a gun, but that was at some car racing event, and it sounds like it was used to diffuse the situation than ignite it.
But the crime certainly is real and perhaps we were relatively lucky to have been preserved as safely as we were. I have friends who were held up at gun/knife point, suffered attempted hijackings, woke up to the sight of their family held captive and a few victims of credit card fraud at an ATM.
However, we did have an experience over a few nights in two weeks just before we moved out of our home in Brixton. Unfortunately over a period of about a month our street seemed to be targeted resulting in a stolen car (Stephen saw this happening from a distance but just thought the guy was broken down, and had contemplated helping him with a clutch start), a few attempted burglaries around the corner and a horrible attack on an elderly couple across the road.
On the first dark, dark night in question all was peaceful and in that weird state of half-sleep I noticed a light being shone through the window. It was a balmy night and the window was ajar. I had tucked the curtain up on one of the bars so that the breeze could flow in. Due to my semi-slumber I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real or imagined. And then it was gone. I lay in bed questioning myself before finally rousing Stephen who investigated but could see no potential robber. In the morning Stephen wondered if I had been imagining it but then ate his words when he discovered a paint tin had been moved underneath our window for some naughty robber to stand on and peer in.
On dark, dark night number 2, about a week later, we awoke to what sounded like the last trumpet call of heaven as our neighbour, a single German woman newly arrived in the country, screamed hysterically and triggered her alarm. Stephen went onto our back steps where he could see into her backyard and spoke to her. Then he jumped the wall with a ladder to see if she was okay. She had been woken by a robber taking her phone from her bedside table. She tussled with the guy, who hit her and then escaped. The poor woman, she was a mess. When ADT (the security company) and the police arrived they had to come into our backyard to jump the wall because the woman’s keys had been stolen. I must admit I found it all rather exciting. There we were, me, Stephen and Trevor out at night, helping the law enforcers in our pyjamas, jumping walls with ladders, ensconced in intrigue. My biggest fear was that all the action would wake Silas.
After that we decided to prepare some defences of our own. Stephen channeled his Fenian roots and set up some booby traps. First we tied thin string between a pipe on the wall and a glass bottle. We made another the same, but hid the bottle behind a pillar. We made a similar one with a copper cup and put it on our back steps. I sprinkled rice and dry pasta on the ground under our window.
But then Stephen got carried away and rigged up a contraption that would have caused certain death to some poor, albeit naughty, robber. There was a ledge about halfway up our wall that we think the robbers were using to get between our house and the neighbour’s. Stephen put a plank on top of two jars on their side on the ledge so that the intruder would step on the plank, the jars would roll, and he would fall and clonk his head on the stone window sill of our house, just a metre away. It conjured up horrible images in my mind of broken skulls with blood oozing all over my baby son’s window. Trevor and I told Stephen to cool it on the para-military tactics.
As dark, dark night number 3 was closing in we settled into bed feeling confident that the naughty robbers didn’t know what they were up against. Again, in that place between wakefulness and dreams, I was sure I heard the sound of footsteps on rice and a glass bottle being placed on the ground. I lay still listening and wondering if I should disturb my tired husband. I shook him; “hey…are you awake?” He wasn’t. “I think I heard something.” Now we were both listening. “Are you sure love?” said doubting husband number 1. And then, as vindication, the larger, disguised bottle crashed to the ground followed by heavy footsteps fleeing the scene. Stephen leaped out of bed, up the hallway, out the front door and shouted at the naughty robber as he jumped our front wall.
Oh it was so exciting! Our trap had worked! We felt victorious. We felt like MacGyver. But, as so happens with adrenalin, the excitement wore off, and by morning I was a bit sad and scared. The prospect of dealing with robbers during daylight when my only comrade was Silas wasn’t as appealing as at nighttime with my gang.
Reflecting on these experiences is pretty funny now that we live in a place where we don’t lock the car, or even the front door. As I’ve always maintained, I don’t think the crime is a reason not to live in Jozi. Rather I think it’s a good reason to leave if you want. There’s a distinction. There are lots of good reasons to stay too, but you have to deal with the realities of crime, like bottle booby traps, potential burglaries and all the associated fear.