From the Windows of Ruby Street – Part II

29 07 2012

 

The Arsonist

This particular incident was viewed, again, from the front windows of our flat in Ruby Street, from whence my prior criminal catching snapshot was taken (see previous post).

At approximately 4.27am on Tuesday, I awoke from my slumber to the wailing sounds of an alarm, which stopped abruptly following a very loud BANG.  As I lay quivering in my bed, my mind spurred into action in an attempt to explain the source of all the noise.  My final version of events was that someone had broken into a house, shot the occupants and then turned off the alarm.  Bollocks to that, I thought, and snuggled into Roger, who was sleeping like an angel on his only day off from the milk round.

Seconds later I heard the incessant honking of a car horn.  That bloody taxi again I thought!  (A regular occurrence at 7.45am every morning).  I leapt out of bed and ripped the curtains back to see a car on the opposite side of the street completely engulfed in flames.  SHIIIIIIT!

After running around in circles a few times in my small kitchen trying to think what the hell the emergency number was in England, I ran to the bedroom and shrieked “Roger!!  Call the fire brigade!”  In a very UN-calm and agitated state, I raced back to the window and threw it wide open just in time to see a second car burst into flames.

Roger drowsily made his way towards the telephone, tripping over shoes and god knows what else I had managed to leave lying in his path.  Upon reaching the phone, and with his eyes adequately adjusted to the blinding light (of the light bulb, not the fire), he placed the call.  Due to his slightly delayed reaction, and my initial instinct to ring 111, we were NOT the first to report the crime this time.

As the two cars burned brightly in the early morning, casting dancing shadows across the facades of terraced houses, an old white Vauxhall Corsa sat inescapably sandwiched between the two infernos.  It was just a matter of time before it too would be consumed by flames.  However, in the midst of all the popping, burning and exploding, the owner of the doomed car suddenly appeared, and leaping valiantly (or stupidly) through the thick black smoke he clambered hastily into his Corsa.  My heart was in my mouth.  “Is this guy crazy?” I jabbered at Roger who had by now joined me at the window.  And of course, true to the script of a dramatically explosive Hollywood movie…the car wouldn’t start.  RRRrrrrrrrrr.  RRRrrrrrrrrrr.

Tension and suspense wracked our bodies as we clung white-knuckled to the window frame listening to the starter motor turning over hopelessly, while flames licked the paint on the Corsa’s back panel.  In a flash, the owner’s balding middle-aged neighbour who had been watching from a safe distance ran heroically (or stupidly) across the road to his aid, his non-fire resistant dressing gown falling open mid-stride to reveal an enormous hairy belly.  More fuel for the fire, I thought.

Together, in what appeared to be slow motion, they pushed the car at a snail’s pace across the road while my hysterical screams of “Are you bleedin crazy?!  The petrol tank’s gunna BLOW!” echoed up and down Ruby Street.  By now, our neighbours had lined the pavement in their sleeping attire, and looking to the left and right of our window I could see bed-hair heads hanging suspended in air above the exciting scenes below.  Having safely navigated the Corsa to the other side of the road, thick black smoke billowed up into our window, choking us and filling our flat with an acrid stench, forcing us to close the windows and peer through a darkened haze at the action below.

After the arrival of Saltburn’s finest, the fires were extinguished and we were able to open the windows once more.  After eavesdropping on the firemen, police and neighbours from above, we were able to deduce that some unsavoury character had just minutes earlier siphoned petrol from most of the cars in the street.  How the cars came to be alight is somewhat of a mystery.

One possibility bandied about by observers was that the criminal must have spilled some fuel in the gutter which had dribbled down the street towards the sea, and then having thrown away his/her cigarette – ‘cos that’s the intelligence of these people, smoking while siphoning fuel from cars – had accidentally (maybe purposely) ignited the spilled fuel.

How the Corsa in between the burning car did not set alight, is a mystery only the eyes of the night know the answer to.

NOTE:  I did make a dash for my trusty camera, however Roger sensibly advised me that it would be bad taste for me to blind the neighbours with my camera flash while photographing people’s misfortune.  My moral radar told me he was probably right, so no photographs to accompany this post sorry.  KP

 

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From the Windows of Ruby Street – Part I

17 07 2012

Date:  August 2003

While in England, my fiancée and I rented a tiny studio flat on the top floor of a three-storied terraced house, each storey containing its own apartment.  We lived in one of the “jewel” streets in the seaside village of Saltburn-by-the-Sea where stories of pirates, sunken ships and smugglers flourished.

Saltburn Pier at the bottom of the town’s furnicular

The street we lived on was called Ruby Street.  Our back window (there was only one) gave us a view out over the rooftops of the other terraced townhouses in the area but we didn’t open it much.  There was a pipe just to the right outside the window that consistently emitted the stench of blocked drains or sewage into our bedroom.

View from our back window

Can you see the offending pipe?

The two white net-covered windows at the front, however, looked down onto Ruby Street, and it is from these very windows that I observed three extraordinary incidences over the period of two months.  It is these tales that I will now retell:

–  The Skip Rats
–  The Arsonist
–  The Car Thieves

Part I – The Skip Rats

When a large blue skip bin appeared outside the house directly across the road from us, it was clear that some big renovations were about to begin.  Well, either that or someone had passed away and they were clearing out the property.  We weren’t entirely sure, and we didn’t really care.  The only difference it made to us was that it put a bit of a squeeze on car parking in the street for a while.

One morning as I leaned against the kitchen bench, gazing out the window and munching on a Bovril slathered piece of toast, a middle-aged man in a green sweatshirt and track pants shuffled slowly past the blue skip bin.  Seconds later, he shuffled back past in the other direction, peering curiously into the skip.  I watched bemused from my elevated vantage point as he shuffled back past a third time.  What is he doing I wondered?  Is there something in there that he wants?

The terraced house where we lived in Ruby Street

I kept my eyes glued on this mysterious character as he turned square on to face the skip bin.  His shifty eyes flicked left down the street.  Flicked right.  And before I could choke on my crust he had hoisted himself up and swung into the skip with the finesse of an Olympic gymnast on a pommel horse.  My mouth fell open, bits of chewed toast tumbling onto the carpeted floor at my feet.  What IS he doing?!

For ten minutes I watched the man shuffling about inside the skip bin, before I finally called Roger into the kitchen.

“You won’t believe it,” I said.  “Look at this guy,” I exclaimed pointing down to the bin.

“Oh yeah.  Skip rat.”

“What?”

“Skip rat.”

“What the hell is a skip rat?” I sniggered.

I listened attentively as Roger told me the customs and behaviours of a skip rat, a name given to a person who rifles through skip bins seeking antiques, treasures or just a little something for the mantelpiece at home.

“I’ve done some skip ratting in my time,” Roger admitted casually.  “You find some good gear in there.”

I threw him a dubious look before returning my attention to the man in the skip.  Our rat’s rummaging had been a success, and he leapt out with an old painting and a box under his arm, scurrying away with his precious trophies.  However, by midday, he was back, and this time he spent three hours in the skip, assembling his discoveries on the footpath before sweeping them up in his arms and scurrying off home again.

I was stunned!  These English are crazy, I thought, but that was just the beginning.  For the next couple of days I watched skip rat after skip rat stroll down the street, leap in, rummage about, leap out with their treasure troves and disappear.  The rats came in all genders, ages and classes.  They even came in pairs, and I snapped my new digital camera gleefully at the spectacle playing out before me.  For two weeks I stood at my kitchen window, camera at the ready, drinking tea and dunking my biscuits with delight every time someone new climbed into the skip.

“Bazz found a gold necklace in here the other day,” I heard one skip rat say to another.

“A gold necklace…” I murmured, my ratting instincts tempting my better judgement.

Skip rats hard at work

A few days later when I glanced out the window and noticed a witchy looking woman had loaded up the boot, back and front seats of her little blue car, I just had to take a photo.  This is ridiculous, I thought.  Her car was so chock full the mudguards were almost touching the tyres and her toddlers in the backseat had been buried under a plethora of what I can only describe as “junk.”

The next day when I arrived home after work, the police were standing outside the house next to the skip bin.  I raced upstairs and took up my viewing posse next to Roger in the kitchen who had been keenly watching events unfold.  He had no idea why the police were there, and since we had carefully logged the comings and goings over the last two weeks, we went downstairs to see if we could be on any assistance.  Or if I’m truthful, to be nosey!

“Excuse me officer,” Roger said in the deepest baritone he could muster, “is there a problem?”

“Good afternoon sir,” the policeman replied.  “It seems the house has been burgled, the workmen’s tools have disappeared.  Have either of you noticed anything unusual?”

Pffffftttt!  Unusual?  UNUSUAL?  My eyes almost popped out of my head.

“I did notice a blue mark III Fiesta parked here this morning when I went to work, but that car was here yesterday loading up stuff out of the skip” replied Roger.

The policeman became very interested.  “I don’t suppose you saw the registration?” he asked hopefully.

“I can do better than that,” he grinned.  “My girlfriend has a photo of the car.”

He stared in disbelief.  “Can I see the photograph?” he asked.

“You betcha officer!” I replied, and I bounded back upstairs as quickly as my slippered feet would carry me to retrieve my digital camera.

While I was fetching, Roger explained that I was a naïve Kiwi from Down Under who had never seen “skip rats” in action before and that was why I had taken a photograph.  He was trying to convince the policeman that I was not a stalking, obsessive curtain-peeping weirdo!

Caught on Camera! I have removed the license plate after consultation with my legal team.

As it turned out, a male relation of the woman we had photographed loading up her little blue car, had returned that morning and broken into the house that was being renovated.  The photograph that we had unwittingly snapped enabled the Cleveland Police to identify the licence plate and catch the culprit.  And if it wasn’t for us pesky kids, he would have got away with it!

Tune in again shortly for Parts II and III





Old Durham Town

11 07 2012

Date:   3 April 2003  (Sorry, no photographs of my own during this excursion.  I bought my new digital camera the week after this!)

In addition to England being filled from top to bottom with majestic castles and cathedrals, in every church there is inevitably a round ruddy-faced monk, or patient elderly church volunteer, whose job it is to stand at the base of an antiquated stone stairwell and encourage you to contribute a small donation for the pleasure of climbing to the top.  But more about that shortly.  This time around my exploration of the North East of England led me to Durham and the hallowed and ancient grounds of Durham Castle.

Durham Castle - view from within the Castle co...

Durham Castle – view from within the Castle courtyard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having spent a few years as a live-in residential assistant (RA) at University College in Dunedin, New Zealand – a hall of residence for first year university students – I was amused to discover that Durham Castle housed the very first University College in England.  It was certainly a far cry from the two familiar concrete slabs situated next to Otago University in Dunedin.  Spectacular buildings, secret stairways and dark dungeons were all enclosed within the huge, thick and impenetrable castle walls.  In Dunedin we only ever had two large glass swinging doors to keep out predatory teenagers.  Orientation Week was particularly troublesome as randy boys and girls loitered outside seeking a willing participant for a drunken one-night stand.

I used to guard the doors with a fellow RA nicknamed Filthy, and very rarely did anyone get past us on our ironclad watch.  Not even the All Black (who will remain nameless, but who later became Captain!) who pounded on the doors, flexing his calf and bicep muscles, and snorting on the cold glass in desperation.  Not even him.  It was a very entertaining job patrolling those “fresher” halls for three years, but those tales are an entirely different blog!

As I wandered through the dining hall and listened to stories of how Oliver Cromwell used Durham Cathedral as a make-shift prison to house Scottish prisoners of war, I envisaged him sitting at the head table, tearing the meat from a tender leg of lamb with his teeth, then quaffing the remains of his tankard before dragging some unlucky wench upstairs to have his wicked way with her.  Ahhh, the days when men were men.  Thank goodness those have passed!

Durham castle

Durham Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strolling through the castle grounds and into the cathedral, I appreciated the gothic architecture, the flying buttresses, the fact that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Shrine of St Cuthbert (?!).  Yes I did appreciate those things.  But on the other hand, how fickle of me to get outlandishly excited when I stumbled across the cloisters and learned that parts of the very first Harry Potter movie had been filmed there.  Of course in my defence the Harry Potter phenomenon was sweeping the world at an unprecedented rate at that time.

Durham Cathedral cloisters used to film the Ha...

Durham Cathedral cloisters used to film the Harry Potter movies.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After entering the cathedral I made my way to the central tower, which I had been assured offered the best views of Durham and the surrounding area.  And it is here that I met the round ruddy-faced monk I mentioned at the beginning of this tale, complete with brown robes and rope knotted around the middle.  I grinned stupidly at him.  Let’s remember, I grew up in New Zealand during the seventies, eighties and nineties.  The only place I ever saw someone dressed like that was in the television series Robin Hood.  “Hello Friar Tuck” I murmured, nodding my head respectfully.

For just £2, he told me, I could climb the 325 steps to the top of the tower for a royal view of Durham.  I plonked my gold coin into his collection box, performed a few limbering stretches at the door to the stairwell and then tore up the steps.  I’ll be up here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I thought.

It turned out to be a whole lot trickier than that.  The stairwell was less than a metre wide and spiraled tightly in a very steep gradient, and with people coming down while I was going up, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to move in that space!  Aside from total lung collapse, a spasmodic heartbeat and unrelenting muscle spasms in my thighs and ass, I eventually made my way up to the tiny door at the top.

Keep stairwell.

This isn’t THE stairwell, but this is exactly what it looked like! (Photo: Flickr)

Unfortunately, the manner in which I swaddled my arms and legs around the centre of the staircase as tourists brushed past me was nothing less than an obscene representation of Demi Moore’s pole dance in the movie Striptease.  While women pursed their lips in consternation, men brushed uncomfortably close on their way past.  It seemed that I was the only one making an effort to flatten my body against the curved walls of the stairwell, while everybody else passed by without even so much as a tilt of the torso!  Children were also not faring well, many on the verge of tears at the steep gradient, which was a hundred times worse going down.  One footing error on the uneven and slippery steps would result in a quick fire ascent on your backside all the way to the bottom.  And I know I used to do that as a kid for fun on the carpet covered stairs of the Awamoa Hockey Pavilion, but having a slightly less robust posterior these days, the idea filled me with horror!

While I leaned over the parapet at the top catching my breath, I barely took the time to admire the views, so apprehensive was I about getting back down!

On my descent, the steps were so narrow that I had to step down each one sideways, and since two feet wouldn’t fit on the same step, I had to either step down two with the right leg and one with the left, or cross my legs over each other.  Both options left me precariously unbalanced.  It was slow going, and then there was the required flattening of oneself against the wall to let people pass on their way up.  It was a stroke of good luck if an arrow slit happened nearby that I could press myself into!

When I finally exited the bottom of the tower, my knees were knackered and my thighs burned hotter than two iron pokers pulled straight from a Blacksmith’s forge.  It made it quite difficult to walk and I looked like a malfunctioning robot as my knees snapped backwards awkwardly causing my legs to straighten in a restricted robotic movement.

I forced a polite smile at the round ruddy-faced Monk as I hobbled past him, trying to muster as much composure as I could.

“Did you close the door at the top?” he smiled.

Nice one, I thought sarcastically.  Friar Tuck had a sense of humour too.

And without looking back, I hobbled out the gates of Durham Castle and tottered back to the train station.