Anti-authority? I’m just not brave enough to cut it | Steve Canavan

I am ashamed to say that I stole the other day and I feel compelled to publicly confess, for my conscience is eating away at me.

Saturday, 13th November 2021, 6:00 am
The self-service area in a Mark and Spencer store - bags for paying customers only. Picture by Shutterstock

I was at the checkout in Marks & Spencer – I don’t normally shop there but I passed a store on my way home on Tuesday and had a sudden urge to see how the upper-class live.

I bought more than I intended and the bill was quite pricey (my loaf of bread cost an eye-watering £3.50 – the ingredients listed on the side were soya, rye and gold), and as I was paying I realised I’d not got a plastic bag with me to put my goods in.

I was on a self-service checkout and already in slightly crotchety mood because I’d spent an infuriating two minutes straightening out my tenderstem broccoli packet in order for the scanner to register it (forget COP26 and climate change, let’s sort out the damn barcodes on vegetable packets).

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A message came on screen asking how many bags I was using.

It seemed wrong to pay another 30p for a bag when in one visit I’d just given M&S half my weekly wage.

Surely they could give me a bag in return, right? That’s fair isn’t it?

Now don’t get me wrong. I know why there is a charge – saving the environment and all that – and I’ve never done this before and hopefully never will again, but on this occasion I just suddenly became convinced it was wrong I should have to pay for a bag.

I glanced up to see where the nearest member of staff was. It was a young man, about 10 yards away, but he was looking the other way and in deep discussion with an elderly woman with blue hair who appeared to be brandishing a chicken at him in rather angry manner.

Breathing deeply, heart-rate rising and sweating slightly (I’d never make a professional thief), I bided my time and then, as casually as I could, reached out and grabbed a plastic bag.

I cannot tell you how nervous I was.

I suddenly wondered if there was a camera above the self-service tills and in a security room deep in the bowels of the store an alarm sounded if a customer pressed the ‘no bag’ button and then took a bag.

I felt certain three burly security guards would appear and tackle me to the floor, one holding my hands behind my back, the other sat on my legs, and the third repeatedly hitting me in the face with a club until armed police arrived.

I walked out of the store as quickly as I could, have been fretting about it ever since, and will probably never go back again for fear of my face being on a ‘Wanted’ poster by the door.

I’ve never been the rebellious type. While I like to think of myself as cool and anti-authority, the sad truth is I don’t think I’ve ever done anything knowingly wrong in my life.

I’m not brave enough.

I remember at my secondary school, a 1970s three-storey high building, word got round one day that a lad in my year – David Smethwick, an absolute nutcase… not that I would’ve said that to his face – was going to climb out of a window on the top floor, about 60ft above the ground, and in through the adjoining window.

The windows were about four feet apart and separated by a brick wall and his plan was, like a human Spiderman, to somehow make it from one window to another. It was admittedly a neat trick because he’d end up in an entirely different classroom to the one he’d started in, though one had to question whether the risks attached with it going wrong – namely, certain death – made the whole thing really worth it.

Excitement grew throughout the morning – he wasn’t going to actually do this was he? – and pretty much the entire school gathered to watch.

At exactly midday – like some sort of heroic figure – his face appeared at the window.

He spent a couple of minutes gauging the distance and getting his hands in place and then, as everyone held their breath wondering whether in a few seconds time there was going to be a freshly-splattered corpse lay on the concrete below, he bolted from one window and into the next.

The spectacle took only three seconds but it had a lasting impression on me because I remember thinking there is no way – I mean, no way – I would ever have the guts to try something like that.

Even things as a kid like nicking bonfire wood used to leave me terrified.

In the old days – and I assume this still goes on now – you’d steal wood from bonfires that were built anywhere in the vicinity of yours.

My family home used to be near a big pub called the Queen Anne and each year it had a huge bonfire which attracted loads of people. Our own bonfire on our street, about 100 yards away, was pathetically small in comparison.

So one year me and my mates decided to pinch some wood from the pub’s Mount Everest of a bonfire and take it back to our, by comparison, Pendle Hill. I remember being pathetically nervous and anxious about this, despite the fact that all we were doing was nicking a pallet or two from a bonfire so enormous it wouldn’t be noticeable if 100 pallets went missing.

My mates and I waited till darkness fell, then, like an SAS team on an important mission, crawled on our bellies through a grassy field towards the bonfire. Just as we started to grab some wood, the landlord – a slightly unhinged-looking chap with a huge beard and several teeth missing – appeared out of nowhere with a torch and started screaming obscenities and chasing us.

I’ve never been so scared in my life and ran like the wind all the way home.

Maybe that’s why I’m so nervous about doing anything vaguely wrong even now, and a rebel I will certainly never be.

In fact, I can’t live with this any longer – I’m off to Marks & Spencer right now to give them 30p for the bag. It’s the only way I’ll sleep tonight.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron.

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