Uninformed Comment

The wrong place at the wrong time

Posted in Crime and the Law, Personal, Reminiscences and anecdotes by uninformedcomment on May 7, 2009


Years ago, back in the mid-1980s, my then wife and I drove across the country to visit her family.  Being fond of symmetry, we also drove back again when we’d finished.  It was on the latter journey that this tale begins, on an Autumn Sunday afternoon.

The journey mostly took place on motorways, and for a change my wife was driving, leaving me to stare out of the window (doing a crude but passable imitation of someone who thinks they might actually see something interesting).  My side of the car was to the north, and beyond the boundary of the motorway were the kind of vast fields of wheat that make you wonder whatever happened to hedges.  The sky behind them was dark and heavy with looming rainclouds, making quite a contrast with the pale yellow of the wheat.  Suddenly, the sun came out (on the other side of the road, naturally), and lit up the wheat, turning it a rich golden colour which made the clouds look almost black.  A stunningly dramatic scene.

In those days, I was something of an amateur photographer, and this was a great picture just asking to be taken.  But there was no way I could take a decent photo from a moving car, so I asked my wife to pull off the road at the very first opportunity.  For those who don’t know, you’re not allowed to stop on motorways, so we had to wait for a side road.  I suppose we could have pulled over for a minute or so, long enough to take a handful of pictures, but we’re both very law-abiding cititzens.

A fact which soon came into doubt in some people’s minds.  Police people.

The next turn-off was a minor road leading into a village, and the first stopping place on this road was the concrete apron outside the closed front gates of some large, nondescript, pale blue factory building.  There was no view of the wheat here, but by the time we’d found one the sun would surely have disappeared behind more clouds.  But since we’d stopped, I looked at the factory and saw that its pastel sunlit blueness still had a chance of making a decent contrast with the heavy clouds, and I got out with my camera and walked up to the gates.

Putting the wide-angle lens of my camera through the bars of the gates to eliminate them from the foreground, I lined up a shot and, just as I was about to press the shutter release, I saw through the viewfinder a small, bright red light illuminate on a security camera mounted on the factory wall.  Perfect – a spot of bright red, sunny pale blue walls, black clouds; I pressed the shutter and stepped back.

Sure, I thought, I’d been seen by some security person, but we could go now, and at least I got a shot.  As I walked back to the car, and by habit wound the film on, I found that I’d used the last frame on the roll.  On that camera, the last frame was only about one-third exposed, so after all that fuss, the shot was a dud.  Hey-ho.  We drove on home, and thought no more about it.


A couple of days later, after leaving work, I did what I too often did and drove to a pub on the way home.  That pub was a regular meeting-place for office colleagues, and I had a couple of slow beers and chatted with them, and generally joined in the unwinding of stressed souls.  After I said my goodbyes I remembered that I’d said I might call on a friend that evening, so I pointed the car that way and set off.

As I pulled out, I became aware of a car behind that seemed to be following me.  At every junction, this car would take the same exit.  I slowed; it slowed too.  I took a couple of odd turnings, off my route, and it stayed behind me, still at a discreet distance, a normal-looking car.  I began to wonder why I was being followed, and had absolutely no idea.  Furthermore, I was very conscious that I’d had those two drinks.  I knew my units of alcohol, the strength of the beer (pretty weak), the length of time since average ingestion (pretty long), and I was reasonably certain that I was below the legal limit.  However, this isn’t an exact science, and there was a real possibility that I could fail a test.

Now, I’m no student of police procedure, and wasn’t then, but I figured that whoever was following me wasn’t interested in my blood/alcohol level.  If they had been, they’d have stopped me straight away.  And they wouldn’t be in an unmarked car like this one;  they’d be driving a white one with blue lights and loud sirens.

They continued, quietly and carefully, to follow, always a good distance behind.

I pulled off a busy main road and into the narrow cul-de-sac where my friend lived, and the car followed me.  When I got to my friend’s house and parked, the other car pulled in too, some distance back.   Inside were the bulky forms of two men in dark clothes.  My friend answered the door and we went inside – I stayed there for a couple of hours, but the car and its occupants didn’t move.  This was getting silly.


Not having any better ideas, I left the house, got into the car, nonchalantly three-pointed it round, and drove back up to the main road.   The following car likewise turned round, but I’d caught him off-guard and he was some distance behind.  I don’t mind telling you I was pretty damned fearful.  I had no idea who these people were – I hoped they were police, since I had no worry of the law (especially now the beer had mostly dissolved), but … mistaken identity?  Organised crime?  Wrong place at the wrong time?

Suddenly clear-thinking, I realised I had an opportunity to shake them off.  Turning onto the busy main road, I suddenly accelerated through a small gap in the traffic – leaving no room behind for my pursuers to follow – and put as much distance as I could between me and the other car, until it was ought of sight.

Easing off on the throttle now, I knew I was safe, and that whoever had been following me was a long way back and had no idea where I was.  I drove the rest of the way home, told my wife the story, and we began our evening.

Later on, while we were chatting, the doorbell rang.  It was the two guys from the other car, who flashed police ID and asked to come inside.  There was little point in refusing, so I invited them in and we all sat down.  They had some questions to ask us both.  Of course, I had some questions to ask them both too, but I kept quiet.  They looked uncertain, guarded, even nervous. I was too tired now to think, or to do anything but let the guys ask their questions.

“Were you in the vicinity of  Castleford on Sunday afternoon? ” (That was roughly where I’d tried to take that photograph.)  Yes, we were.

“Do you have pets?”  No, we don’t.

“Do you like animals?”  Well, yes, we do.

“Are you involved in any political organisations or pressure groups?”  No, none whatsoever.

“What do you think of Animal Rights campaigners like the …” (and here he named one associated with violent attacks)?  I said I thought that, while there’s a lot of concern about the welfare of animals, the use of violence is in no way justifiable.

“What were you doing at that location?”  I told the story of the fields of wheat and the sun and my camera and the blue factory and the single red light on the security camera and the missed opportunity.

The one who’d been asking the questions turned to his colleagure.  “They don’t look like animal rights activists to me, do they to you?”  The guy grinned and shook his head.  The atmosphere relaxed, and they explained what had happened.

The factory in question had belonged to a very large pharmaceutical company (it had been unmarked), and serious threats had been made against this company by the campaign organisation he’d mentioned.  As a result, security had been stepped up on their premises, and we’d been seen.  And, of course, under suspicion for planning something very, very illegal.  For several days.

The reason for the hesitation in interviewing us was that they only had a vague description of me to go on (my wife had stayed in the car).   The security camera image was very poor quality.  The description out for me was that of a stocky man in his late forties (I was in my twenties, tall and very thin), and of a car with a registration plate that just might have been ours.  What type of security camera was this?  Pinhole?

The officer in charge assured us that they were satisified we posed no threat, and told us we’d hear no more about it.

As the two made their way to the door, he turned and said “looks like you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time“.


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