The Lost Art of Pickpocketing
She held the bag in her right hand. Gripped its black handles tightly. A glance at the soft black material, reassuringly heavy, and she allowed herself a brief smile as she thought of the items packed neatly inside.
The train doors opened with a beep and a whistle. She stepped onto the platform and looked left and right, in the way of the disoriented traveller looking for the exit from an unfamiliar place to an unknown one.
She allowed herself to be jostled by a large pale-skinned man wearing a black t-shirt who seemed eager to march ahead of the other disembarking passengers. She neatly sidestepped a couple that were in the process of removing a buggy, complete with child, from the train to the platform and walked with vague purpose towards the stairs. Her mind was already steps ahead of her feet, picturing where she would need to go when she emerged from the ticket barrier: which toilets would be best for the transformation and what she would need to remove from the well-packed bag she still gripped tightly in her right hand.
Her face calm, she reached the top of the stairs, where she presented her ticket and was ushered through the gates. Ahead of her, a middle-aged woman stopped and looked around the station, before heading to the large WH Smiths next to the furthest station exit. Noting the practised familiarity with which the woman identified her direction, she used the same slight head turn to ascertain where her favoured toilets were located. Shifting the bag to her left hand, she walked right, reaching in her pocket for the 20 pence coin she would need to gain entrance to the stations’ largest public toilets.
Having never been taught the art of transformation, it was only her own practice that assured her that busier was better. As it is pretty much impossible to guarantee that nobody can see you, even in the most tranquil and undisturbed of places, she favoured bustle, business, and too many people to count. A person can change into another in a crowd. It is much harder to do this in small groups. She imagined that CCTV cameras, when utilised in good time and by investigators who knew how to look, could in some cases give away her disguises, but as this would always happen too late for it to be of any benefit to anyone – if it happened at all – she didn’t worry unduly about the cameras she had learnt to spot within minutes of entering any new building.
In any case, she had never yet been spotted by anyone whilst she was going about her work. The general rush of travellers using the public toilets to relieve themselves, to beautify, to wash their faces and brush their teeth, to change their clothes, to pacify their children… it was very rare for anyone to notice that the woman emerging from a toilet cubicle near the wash basins seemed a different person entirely to the woman who had gone in. And if anyone did notice that the slim, tanned blonde with immaculate nails who had gone into the bathrooms did not appear to have vacated them, it was quickly forgotten as the swell of people pushed forward – on, on to life.
The thick-set redhead with ragged nails joined the throng, shifting her black bag from hand to hand as if it pained her, and made her way to the exit signposted ‘buses.’ On the street she looked around and, spotting the stop she wanted, raised her eyebrows and muttered “ah,” to herself as she hurried towards it.
At the bus stop a bony woman, pinched-pink with the cold, was putting her hand out to hail a bus. The redhead squinted at the number on the front and hurried a bit faster, slightly panting as she reached the stop. Next to the bony woman a couple wrestled a squalling toddler into his buggy. The child had a mini afro flecked with various golden hues and a look of intense irritation on his face. The redhead took her place behind the bony woman, allowed her to take her time getting on the bus, smiled at the couple with the buggy and asked, by way of inclining her head in the direction of the bus, whether they needed any help. The couple shook their heads and the woman smiled in thanks as her partner lifted the buggy single-handedly onto the bus’s lower deck. The plastic bags that hung over the buggy’s handles rustled as he set it down and turned to the conductor. The woman fussed over her child, pulled a small packet of sweets from her handbag and handed them to him, before the three of them made their way to the centre of the bus.
The redhead fumbled in the pockets of her black bag for some change with which to pay the bus driver. The lower deck was busy so she made her way up the stairs, the bus lurching forward before she reached the top. In the front set of seats, a man sat with i-pod headphones jammed into his ears, a bag between his feet, and a spare seat next to him. The top deck looked full so the redhead took a seat beside the man, listening to the tinny drum-beat coming from his headphones’ as she arranged herself and the black bag next to him.
She knew there were nine stops between the station and her destination. As the bus stopped and started up the road she counted each bus stop sign. At stop six she had to swing her legs to the right and pick up the black bag in order to let the man with the i-pod past. After he’d vacated his seat she slid into it and gazed out upon the street. The traffic was of the early afternoon variety – busy enough but not immovably so. At stop seven someone else sat next to her, a girl of about sixteen. She carried several plastic bags, which she stowed between her feet, and a shoulder bag from which she withdrew a book marked at page 68 with a folded-down corner.
When it came to stop nine, the girl slipped her finger between two pages and swung her own legs right so that the redhead had to step over her plastic bags as she made her way back to the stairs. The girl smiled apologetically as the redhead lurched, her black bag swinging violently from her fingers as the bus driver halted at her chosen bus stop. As she made her way down to the bottom deck and waited for the doors to open her thoughts were full of her destination.
As the doors swung open the redhead shifted the black bag to her left hand and glanced right as she stepped onto the pavement. She walked up the road with purpose, paying no heed to the passengers who were disembarking with her. She turned left, then left again, before spotting the shopping centre. Groups of teenagers stood outside the doors, two of them smoking, all of them talking. The redhead walked past couples and families, holding more plastic bags and pushing more buggies, as she walked into the mall. She knew where the best toilets in this place were. Up the escalator, near the food hall, in the Ladies’ with the biggest baby-changing facilities. Screaming children and hand dryers everywhere. She took her time changing so that when she emerged, a short brunette with a black bag that seemed too heavy for her frame, the harassed mothers who had been changing their children when she entered the cubicle had gone and those that had taken their place barely gave her a glance.
The brunette walked purposefully back down the escalator towards the mall’s double doors. Went immediately right upon vacating. Headed towards the main road, where she crossed at a pedestrian crossing and turned right. Up the main road, left again, then the first right into a large housing estate. Her house was in a small cul-de-sac, a seven-minute walk from the main road. She opened the front door and titled her head to absorb the familiar sounds of the house. The ticking of the clocks. The creak of the floorboards. Nobody else was home.
She walked up the stairs and into the master bedroom. Kicked off her shoes and pulled off her jumper. Hoisted the black bag onto the bed and opened it. From the bag’s main compartment she pulled three wallets, two mobile phones, a digital camera, a silver bracelet and a crumpled ten-pound note. Not a bad collection, she thought, turning the digital camera on. Photos of someone’s holiday, a young girl of about sixteen with her parents and what she presumed was a friend, or maybe a sister. The silver bracelet had a loose clasp and two charms attached to it. She flipped one of the phones open to see a screen-saver of a young man with a girl – one of those photos you take yourself at arms’ length. In one of the wallets she found a photo driving licence, giving the full name and address of the man she recollected single-handedly lifting his son’s buggy onto the bus.
It wasn’t long before she heard a car pull into the drive downstairs, felt the atmosphere of the house shift slightly. She packed up the things, unhurried, and put them back in the black bag, which she stowed on the top of the largest of the wardrobes. She heard the front door open and the noise of the children rushing in before his voice, pleasant, calling her name. “Are you in, Jen?”
She smiled and walked to the stairs. “Present and correct,” she said, as she descended to the hallway.