While we were on a short holiday with our son and his family earlier this month we had a break-in at Mulberry Cottage, the budget accommodation in our gardens. Mulberry Cottage is outside what the dogs regard as the area they are paid to monitor at night. They demanded extra treats for the danger. We said no. The impasse continues. Anyhow, it wasn’t quite a break-in as someone seems to have left a window open after cleaning and the thieves got in through that. They took the fridge, two-burner gas stove, TV and digibox, and the kettle, and let themselves out via the back door which only needs unbolting once you’re inside (yes, we’re going to rectify that, though a closer approximation to closing the stable door after the horse has (un)bolted would be hard to find). As ironic luck would have it, the current shortage of gas meant that there was no priceless gas bottle left in Mulberry Cottage. With help from our friend Kenny, who helps look after Jungle Tide while we’re away, housekeeper Martin handled the reporting of the theft and the police turned up promptly, with sniffer dogs. By all accounts the police dogs gave a good account of themselves, unlike our lazy pair. A dropped length of TV cable and a piece of tissue were all they needed to get the scent, and thereby trace the exit route, which was straight up the bank and onto the approach lane, avoiding the locked gate. Martin had to attend the Talatuoya Police Station to give a witness statement but once I was back from holiday I also had to go, as the owner, to make a statement. Talatuoya is where our local council, police and the Electricity Board operate from. It’s a short distance down the mountain but the road trip goes via Kandy before doubling back on itself and takes over an hour each way. But we’re not covered by the services in Kandy city as we’re too far way! We took Kenny’s car but Martin said he knew a shortcut avoiding Kandy so Kenny let him drive. The spine-crunching, tyre-shredding shortcut maybe took ten minutes off the total journey time to Talatuoya.
In the Crime Investigation Department we were invited to sit down at the desk of the Laughing Policeman himself – a sergeant who maintained a manic grin throughout the hour and a half I sat there. He spoke no English but having Kenny around sorted that out. He kept asking me, via Kenny, whether we had brought any presents with us from our holiday? Or maybe from England? Impossible to tell whether he was joking but no bribes were offered on this occasion. The Randy Newman song Jolly Coppers on Parade was churning around in my head. Otherwise, he ignored us all for about forty minutes while he chatted away with his colleagues. It wasn’t a bit like Vera. Not even like Death in Paradise. No charts with names and photos of suspects and victims connected with coloured strings, like the proper police do on TV. The CID occupied a grimy lean-to (I’ve seen many superior and some larger garden sheds). There was only one computer screen, to which nobody was paying any attention. But masses of paper across every surface. The only Death in Paradise moment occurred early on when the Police Chief stuck his head around the door. Instantly everyone leapt to attention and saluted, and I found myself also rising from my chair until I was motioned to sit down. The Chief then vanished without apparently having done or said anything and normal chatter was resumed.
Eventually the sergeant opened his foolscap book, took out two pens and began to write out my witness statement. For reasons that escape me it seemed necessary to write a paragraph in blue biro followed by one in red. He read it all out in Sinhala as he wrote so I trusted Kenny to alert me to anything being written which I might not be happy with, or able to defend in court should it come to that. After a page or two of what looked like copperplate Sinhala script, which I assume was his own biography, he began taking personal details, first from Martin, then from Kenny and finally from me. It was apparently necessary to record not only my address and passport details but my age, my UK address and my employment in the UK before I retired more than a decade ago. I tried “local government” and received uncomprehending looks. “Policy Officer” I replied, more in hope than anticipation of any understanding. “Ah! You are Police Officer!” he managed in perhaps the only English he knew. I tried to explain the difference via Kenny but feel pretty sure that if a case ever comes to court I will be described as “retired police officer”, and if that happens I shall keep schtum. I had to state my religion. “No religion”, I replied. But as I’ve come to realise that is not a possible answer in Sri Lanka. I could – and perhaps should – have come up with some imaginary deity but I didn’t think quickly enough. “Christian” interjected Christian Kenny and Christian Martin. “Roman Catholic?” “No. Can you put ‘England Church’ please?” I asked via Kenny. It was also necessary to record when we bought the land, when we built Jungle Tide and when we built Mulberry Cottage. Finally, I was asked two questions. The first was: “Do you have any doubts?” This seemed a little on the philosophical side, but Kenny explained that it simply meant “Do you suspect anyone of having carried out the burglary?” I didn’t. Then: “What do you expect from the Police?” – was this some kind of trick question, maybe to smoke out my politics? I replied as diplomatically as I could that in England the police rarely solve minor acquisitive crimes so if he and his colleagues solved this one, I would decide that the Sri Lanka Police were better than the England Police. This produced a wider than usual grin so was probably OK.
After several pages had been inked in, I was eventually invited to sign and could leave. The jolly copper rose from his seat and we tried out a hilarious routine of saying our farewells: first we saluted each other, then a brief handshake, finally a fist bump and everyone present dissolved into nervous giggles.
I have a modest proposal. Since the police dogs are utterly brilliant and the police officers utterly dumb, why not put the dogs in charge of the police force? Would save a lot of money in these hard economic times.