(U.K. spelling used throughout)
Window-shopping is one of my favourite pastimes. Regent and Oxford Streets in London’s West End on a bright summer’s day with people milling about, chatting and smiling, add to a feeling of bouyancy. However, this was a late spring day. The weather was fine during the day, but chilly in the morning and late afternoon. I still needed my coat, red and shaggy, and my boots, heavy leather, to keep the cold out.
As I walked down Regent’s Street, I decided to stop off at one of my favourite department stores to buy a pair of Taylor Woods stockings. They were somewhat more expensive than the other brands, but lasted much longer and carried a shade I liked. I left the hosiery section and made my way to the costume jewellery to look at the rings. None appealed to me and I decided to leave.
I was now about to put my purchase in my bag, when I looked up at the clock. I saw I had about fifteen minutes to spare. I could still browse around the store. I didn’t bother putting my small item into the handbag which was cumbersome to open and close.
I turned around and proceeded through the haberdashery, up the escalator to the lingerie section. On the escalator, I rested my hand on the handrail for support. I shifted my right foot so I could lean my weight against the rail, when I felt a tap on my right arm. A store detective was pointing at my right boot. As I shifted my foot, there under the heel of my boot, in one of the grooves of the escalator, was one of the rings I had stopped to look at after buying the stockings.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was astounded. I realized what had happened. I was appalled to think that this man had seen what had occurred and was quite willing to follow me around to see what would evolve.
I felt sick in my stomach. So confused was I that I found myself apologizing. “Please take it back for me.” I felt humiliated, even though I had done nothing. No longer was I interested in any lingerie. As I reached the first floor, I immediately took the escalator going down and walked out the door.
A feeling of terror overcame me on my way back to work. What if I hadn’t looked up at the clock at that moment and decided to turn around in the store? What if I had opened my handbag and the ring had fallen into it without my noticing? What if I had put my hand into my coat pocket and the ring had fallen inside it, unknown to me?
Straight to my boss’ office I marched and recounted the strange tale. “God!” he exclaimed, putting his hand to his head and lowering it. He was at a loss for words, as we both contemplated what the outcome could have been.
Every time I thought of the incident after that a tremor would run through me. It brought to mind all the innocent people who are wrongly convicted because of circumstances they couldn’t explain or which seemed so improbable.
I would think of my young son – only five – who, had it not been for the grace of God, would have had his mother taken away from him and put in prison. There was also the thought and the fear that his schoolmates would have teased him about his mother , and the hurt and shame he would have had to endure. There was also the uneasiness that his father might have believed the accusation. Most importantly, what would have happened to my son in the meantime, and my life after prison. Just thinking of it made me shudder.
I tried to put these ideas out of my head. I would then feel a sense of relief and thank God that he had saved me from shame and misfortune, but the whole episode kept haunting me. I was so preoccupied with my thinking that I wasn’t able to concentrate on what my son was telling me about his school day.
It was difficult to drop off to sleep that night. Finally, when I did, I dreamt that I was before a magistrate, charged with stealing a ring – a piece of costume jewellery. No matter how I protested my innocence to my lawyer, he convinced me that it would be better for me to plead guilty.
“The magistrate would be more lenient with you. He would take into consideration the fact that you have a young son, and that you have no previous conviction.”
“But I’m not guilty”, I countered.
“You see, the ring was found in your possession – in your handbag. Do you think you can convince anyone that the item came into your bag by accident?” he continued.
“Well, when I was looking at them one could have fallen into my bag.”
“And got inside your bag without your noticing?”
I knew it sounded far-fetched. I would have to plead guilty and the whole world would believe that I was. There was no way out.
The magistrate asked, “How do you plead?” The tears began to course down my cheeks. I was bout to say “guilty” when I heard “mummy, mummy, why you’re crying? I awoke, long tears streaming down my face. I hurriedly wiped my face. “I had a bad dream,” I told him.
“It was scary? Concern etched on his little face.
“Yes, but why are you out of bed, young man?
“I heard you crying when I came out of the bathroom and I thought somebody was hurting you.
“No, son,” touched by his innocence and his desire to protect. “You want to sleep next to me?”
“Yes, he said eagerly, “and I won’t let anybody come and frighten you anymore.”
How he was going to that I don’t know, for no sooner had he got under the blankets than he was fast asleep.
I couldn’t remember whether I had said my favourite prayer, “The Lord is my Shepherd” when I had gone to sleep previously. I decided to make amends just in case. Before I had finished the prayer, sleep overcame me. I found myself in court again. This time I was determined not to plead guilty, come what may.
The store detective had testified that he had seen me looking at the rings and that he saw me go out of the store with one of the rings. It was my turn to take the witness stand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Fright overtook me and I began to sweat. I was wearing the same red, shaggy coat, newly fashionable at the time, and the same leather boots I had worn on the day of the ‘crime’. These did not help to make me feel any more comfortable. I felt as if the earring on my right ear had fallen loose and rested on my neck. However, this was too serious a moment to be concerned about something as frivolous as an earring.
After swearing my oath, I was allowed to sit to answer the prosecuting lawyer:
-Would you please tell the Court why you went to the Costume Jewellery section.
-I just wanted to see if there was anything I liked
-And did you see anything you liked?
-Not really! Didn’t you try on some of the rings?
-I did, but they were all too big for my fingers. My fingers are very thin, even bony
I tried to disparage myself a little to give greater credence to my story. I attempted to raise my hand to show the slimness of my fingers, even though I might not have tried on that ring in question.
I found I needed to give an extra tug, as something was preventing my hand from moving easily away from my lap, where it was nervously resting. .I use my hands a lot when I am speaking. I raised my hand and separated my fingers to show their boniness. Something had arrested the attention of the prosecuting attorney. My lawyer was also looking fixedly in the direction of my hand, and nodding his head. At the same time, a barely audible gasp wafted its way through the court. The magistrate caught the look and cast his eyes in my direction. I, too, checked to see the source of this wonder.
The earring! In my fear and consternation, I had forgotten about it. There it was, clinging to one of the shaggy fibres of the sleeve of my coat. It was hanging down, with the hook a little distended from the tug I had given it earlier to separate it from the body of my coat. It wasn’t very easy to get the earring away from the coat. I had to tug at it again, pulling off a bit of the wool at the same time.
The significance of this was all too apparent. The magistrate interrupted and asked whether I was wearing that very coat at the time I went to the store. I admitted that I was. He then asked me to step down and the store detective to take the stand.
Did you actually see the defendant take the ring from the counter and walk out with it?.
No, your honour.
Would you please tell the Court what actually transpired after you saw the defendant at the ring counter.
The store detective was somewhat less confident than he had been previously when giving his testimony. Then he seemed sure my purpose was to steal; that I was trying on the rings just waiting for an opportunity to take one. The defending lawyer had asked him when he thought I had found an opportunity to take one. He replied, “When the salesgirl was occupied with other customers.”
Now, he admitted to the magistrate:
I saw the defendant leave the counter with the ring hooked to her coat-sleeve. The tag, attached to the ring, was held in place by a staple, with its ends pointing outwards.
Did you think that the defendant was aware that the ring was on her coat-sleeve?
I wasn’t sure. I watched her from where I was standing, a few feet from the door. She stopped to open her handbag, looked up at the clock, then seemed to change her mind. She turned around and got onto the escalator. I followed close behind to see what she would do. She leaned on the handrail and the ring fell off her sleeve onto the step of the escalator. She was just about to put her foot down on the ring when I stopped her. I took up the ring and went back to the counter and placed it on the tray.
This Court will have to deal seriously with you, Mr. Smith. Not only did you commit perjury, but you could have ruined this lady’s good name. You have already caused her anguish and pain at having to be brought to this Court to prove her innocence.
I’m very sorry, your honour
The shrill ringing of the clock alarm startled me out of my sleep. I was sweating. Was I taken aback to see where I was -–in bed – with my son beside me, sleeping peacefully. The Court experience was so real, so vivid, that it was difficult to believe it was only a dream.
The bible was right there on my night table. As I reached for it, I thanked God once again for bestowing his grace on me and for averting what could have been a most unfortunate experience. I gave my son a little shake and a big hug. “Rise and shine,” I said. “It’s a beautiful day.”
Written by Phyllis Inniss
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