Midlife Crisis

This morning I woke up to find that I had been invaded. Violated. I turned on my tablet to be greeted by a cheerful message informing me that my blog was doing rather nicely. This seemed a little strange, since I haven’t been a particularly diligent blogger of late. I logged on to see what was up. This. This was up.

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I had apparently posted it yesterday. Twice. Which would have been a curious thing to do. If you had to ask someone who knows me to sum me up as quickly and efficiently as possible, they would show you that image and say “Do you see this? He is the exact opposite of every single thing you can see right here.”

So what was it doing there? Twice? Well, thereby hangs a tale. Let’s start with lions, shall we…

If you spend any time out in the African bush, or with bushy people, you will be confronted with an interesting little piece of advice. Don’t run. It’s pretty simple. If you find yourself out in the bush on foot, and something is running towards you, don’t run away. Whatever it is will be faster than you and stronger than you. Run, and you will die.

It is advice that holds true for most, but not all animals. But most of all, it is given about lions. They are cats. And if you run from them, you become a mouse. Cats chase mice even when they aren’t hungry.

It’s a pretty gnarly piece of advice, though. This is a lion walking past my sister and her family earlier this year. I posted it in a couple of weeks ago in a very different context. But it’s pretty big. Pushing 200 kg.

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And my sister and her family aren’t looking at it. They’re looking at its brother. This guy.

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He is not, you will note, the MGM lion. He is not pretty. His mane is not brushed. His face is battle-scarred and broken. He is a pride male, which means he has defeated, and quite possibly killed, the previous pride males in a hostile takeover. The night before, he and his brother had taken down a buffalo, 600 kg of battle hardened muscle with some sharp bits at the one end. And some friends. He is, in other words, brutal. He is power, and strength, and fearlessness. He is, in every sense, the bogey-man from our deep past. He is death incarnate.

So could you do it? Knowing that running would be the end of you, could you stand? If that lion launched himself at you at 80 odd km an hour, tail flicking and a choking growl in his throat, would your nerve hold? Could you stand, all thin-skinned and naked and defenceless, as he skidded to a halt just a few short feet away from you, and spat, and snarled, and batted up clouds of dust at you?

Me? I don’t know. Never done it before. But I think now, maybe, that I could. Though I’d be a little freaked out afterwards.

I have, you see, just had a mid-life crisis. You know the one. I’m 43. Halfway through. Have I done enough? Achieved enough? Do I need to buy a Harley and get a tattoo? Organise an attempt on the north face of K2? Am I happy with who I am, and what I’ve done, and whom I am with?

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Bob. Bob is a chartered accountant from New Jersey.

This is not an unusual thing. Everyone has one, to some degree or other. What is a little unusual is that mine took about an hour.

I work late on Thursday evenings. Not too late: I get home at about eight thirty. I have got into the habit of bringing home a bottle of wine and sharing a glass with Mrs. 23thorns out in the carport next to our kitchen. Which is a curious thing to do. We have a large, beautiful garden with comfortable furniture on the other side of the house. But on Thursdays, we sit on an old wooden stool and a broken wicker armchair in a dusty little carport next to the bonnet of Mrs. 23thorns’ car. It’s nice.

And so we sat and chatted. Until Mrs. 23thorns suddenly looked up at me with a strange look in her eye, and said “Oh Schwei” (for that is what she calls me).

Now Mrs. 23thorns looks at me strangely all the time. This is the natural result of her being a little strange. But this was different. I stood. And the world changed. Because I was not standing alone. There was a man standing with me, one hand gripped tightly to the back of my belt and another pressing the short, ugly barrel of a 9mm pistol to my temple while another man did the same to Mrs. 23thorns.

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Yup. One of those.

He pushed me down to my knees, leaned forward, and said, quietly, for the first time that night, but not the last, “Don’t look at me. I’ll fucken kill you.”

Well, that, as they say in the movies, escalated quickly! Sorry. This is not the sort of thing most people come here for. But it happened, and I’m going to write about it.

There’s something to get out of the way, first, though. This is all going to mean different things to different people. If you are from somewhere like New Zealand or the UK, your immediate response will likely be best summed up by the phrase “Holy shit!!!” If you’re from the USA, you might be thinking “Wow! 23thorns cracked the front page of the local news!”

And if, like half the people who read this blog, you’re from South Africa, you’re probably thinking “Oh, god, not this again”.

Yup. Sorry. This again.

If you’re from New Zealand, and you are wondering what the hell I’m on about, let me try to explain:

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New Zealanders have their own, unique problems to deal with.

While this was happening to us, it was happening to two eighteen year old girls one block away from us in our quiet little suburb. On Easter Sunday, we went for lunch at my sister’s house. There were two other families there. This had happened to one of them.

On Tuesday, I went back to work. I saw five people over the course of the week. This had happened to three of them. It happened to Mrs. 23thorns’ cousin. It killed her uncle, and a woman we knew from work, and a guy I saw every year on holidays down in the bush when we were kids. It happened to the family next door to us and to a colleague I spoke to on the phone and to the man who runs our local nursery and to the teacher who looks after our kids at aftercare.

It happens so often, in other words, that it doesn’t crack the front page of the local news. It has lost its “Wow”. Even when people die.

So what am I getting at? Just this. I’m not writing this down to shock anyone or to impress anyone or to try and steal any “Wows”. If you are reading this and feel impressed or shocked, bear in mind that where I come from it is neither impressive nor shocking, just ugly and sad, and that there will be a whole bunch of people reading it whose main response will not be “Wow”, but rather “Oh, god. I remember how that feels.” You’ll probably meet one or two of them in the comments section.

If you’re one of those people, I’m sorry if I awaken any beasts that you thought you’d put to bed.

So why am I writing it at all? Just for me this time. And for Mrs. 23thorns. I went for trauma counselling the other day and was rather profoundly underwhelmed. So I’m putting my own beasts to bed.

You’re welcome to come along for the ride, but I’m not sure if it will be worth your while. I don’t know how to frame all of this, so buckle up, it might get a bit messy. And long. So very, very long. And the story gets longer every day. Let’s get the details out the way first. Then we can move onto the stuff that frightens me more than guns, like feelings.

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Aaaaargh!

Right. So where were we? Oh, yes. “I’ll fucken kill you”. This should be a blast…

I was hauled up onto my feet and Mrs. 23thorns and I were driven inside like confused sheep, steered from side to side by a tug on the belt. The questions started. “Where is the gun?” “How many people in the house?” Each question was punctuated by a slight increase in pressure from the gun barrel at my temple. I tried my best to answer. “No gun. Just us and two children. Tell us what you want and, we will do everything we can to give it to you. Just stay calm. We aren’t going to fight.”

That was the moment that Mrs. 23thorns chose to remind me why I love her so desperately. “Do you guys”, she asked in a calm and measured voice, “have a bank account? If you give me the details, I can make a direct deposit.” The woman is a god-damned lunatic. I know no-one else whose opening gambit in a home invasion would be to try and get the invaders’ personal banking details. “Do you have a home address? Our camera is being repaired right now, but I’ll come ‘round and drop it off when they’re done…”

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Crimefighting, Mrs.23thorns style.

That was the first time I dared to believe we would make it through all this. People like that are an asset to the world and should not, on some cosmic level, be allowed to be harmed.

As charming as I found Mrs.23thorns attempt at identity theft, I did find her timing a little worrying. “Mrs. 23thorns,” I said, in a calm and measured voice of my own, “You need to stop talking now.” And she did, mostly.

And so we move on to the parts where my heart stopped beating.

They led us to the door of the room where the kids were sleeping. “What’s in here?” A sharp thrust from the gun barrel. “The children. Our children are in there. They’re small. They are sleeping. Please. Let them sleep.”

A hand reached out and opened the door. I stopped breathing. A face appeared at my shoulder and took a slow, careful look around. The door was pulled shut. And my heart started beating again.

Since I’m not looking for any “Wows” here, let’s cut out the drama as we find it. The opening and closing of the door didn’t wake the kids. But they lurked at the backs of our minds for the rest of the ordeal, springing to the front with every raised voice or bump of furniture. “Don’tWakeUp!Don’tWakeUp!Don’tWakeUp!” They didn’t. The door stayed closed throughout.

And then it was time for my heart to stop beating again. I was led through into the lounge. Mrs23thorns was led off into the bedroom. Yup. That thing. That fear. The one with bad men with guns and defenceless women and bedrooms and the need to exert power and to hurt and to damage and to take everything, everything, and me with my hands behind my back and a gun against my head and “I’ll fucken kill you” in my ear and a noiseless, godless prayer for Mrs 23thorns that just went “Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!”

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Crimefighting, Mr 23thorns style.

And they didn’t. Not then or any time later. But the fear lay there for the rest of our ordeal, closed away but ready to burst open like the children’s door. “Don’t!” And they didn’t. All they did was pistol-whip her. And jump on her head. Ineptly. Small mercies, then.

Well this is fun. What next?

Shoelaces.

Mrs 23thorns and I were reunited in the foyer, forced down onto our stomachs on the hard wooden floor, and then lay there listening to a weird zipping noise behind us. Shoelaces. They were unthreading the shoelaces from my shoes, and used them to truss us up like turkeys, hands behind our backs and feet bound tightly together. And then they told us to sleep, which is shorthand for “Stop talking, stop moving, and stop looking at us.”

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This is now a deeply disturbing image to me.

Things should have quietened down a little, then. They didn’t. There was an awful lot of shouting and pushing of guns into heads. “WHERE’S THE SAFE? WHERE’S THE GUN? DON’T LOOK AT ME! WHERE’S THE JEWELLERY? I’LL FUCKEN KILL YOU! SLEEP”

What can you do in a situation like that? What can you say? “I don’t have a safe.” “I don’t have a gun.” “We’ll take you to the jewellery.” “Fucken kill me if you must, just stop acting so damn jumpy about it. You’re an armed robber! Pull yourself towards yourself and start acting like you’re in charge here!”

OK, so I didn’t say all of those things. Just some of them. But I meant them all. Because as time went by, we slowly became aware that our captors were neither as smart nor as in control as they thought they were. Which was not a good thing.

It started with my feet. I had tried my best to keep my hands and feet braced to give me a little wiggle room. Not to escape- there was no thought of that. But I did want to be able to free myself once it was all over without waking our kids and confronting them with the uglier side of the world. And to be honest, I’ve seen them try to untie their shoelaces, and didn’t think they’d be up to the tangles on our wrists. But it didn’t come to that.

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“Just start at one end and work your way through. We’re not busy with anything else…”

Pretty much as soon as they had tied up my feet, they demanded that I take them through and show them where we kept the jewellery.

We all have our own essential natures. Myself, I’ve always been a smug, sarcastic bastard. It’s kinda hard to turn that stuff off.

So when two armed men truss you up like a turkey and then demand that you take a little stroll with them, it’s not that easy to frame a response that doesn’t include an implicit “but you’ve just tied my feet together, you stupid tit!” Even when one of the men is trying to drag you up by the collar and the other one is trying to push you up with the barrel of a 9mm pistol.

Luckily, they worked it out for themselves before I got myself into any trouble, and cut my feet loose. And then the trouble with being 23thorns suddenly came to the fore. Nobody would describe me as well organised. I don’t even know where my car keys are kept. My day starts, every day, with a brief but frantic search for them. Followed by a similar search for my wallet. I don’t know anything about my immediate environment. It’s like being a high-functioning goldfish.

“Where,” demanded the barrel pusher behind me, “do you keep the jewellery?” Well. Goldfish. I had no freaking idea. I had no choice but to turn to Mrs. 23thorns. “Where,” I asked, as calmly and as quietly as I could, “do we keep the jewellery?”

I got a dodgy look or two from my 9mm wielding friend, but Mrs. 23thorns explained equally calmly and quietly that it was in the cupboard next to our bed.

Off we went. And straightaway got into trouble with the sarcasm thing again. Mr 9mm threw me down on the bed. “Sleep!”

He immediately set to work rifling through the drawer full of nail polish and dental floss and spent pens next to the bed. He swung on me and thrust the barrel of his gun into the back of my neck. “THE JEWELLERY!” He snarled. “WHERE IS THE JEWELLERY? I’LL FUCKEN KILL YOU!”

How do you say “That’s a drawer, not a cupboard” without an implicit “You stupid tit!” at the end?

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A stupid tit, just in case you thought I was being rude.

I pointed with my chin. As unsarcastically as I could. He found the jewellery. I was reunited with Mrs 23thorns on the foyer floor again. And then things got curiously dull.

Our heads were covered with a blanket, and our new friends set to work ransacking the house and disconnecting all our electronics. They were joined by two other men whom we never saw. The base of my nose started to itch. I have a pretty big nose, so there was no way to scratch it. I tried rubbing it on the floor, as slowly and carefully as possible, but I couldn’t reach the spot. The itch receded. I wondered if it would be rude to have a nap.

This might seem like a weird thing to want to do, but one of the first things Mrs 23thorns mentioned once it was all over was that she, too, had been tempted to catch up on a little sleep. Maybe it’s a response to stress. Maybe our captors were just dull. Who knows?

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Mr. and Mrs. 23thorns dealing with a crisis.

I thought, then, that we were in the clear. Not so much. Out of the blue, one of our new friends whipped the duvet off my head and thrust the barrel of the gun into my forehead. “I’m counting to five.” He announced. “Where is the gun? Where is the safe? If I get to five, I fucken shoot you!”

What do you say? “Look at the house. Look at our things. We aren’t rich enough for a safe. I don’t have a gun.” And then I just waited. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

He didn’t shoot me. He dropped his gun onto the floor instead. “Oh, shit!”, he said. Oh, shit indeed. We were being robbed by Inspector Clouseau.

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“Merde!”

He wasn’t done, though. He stepped over me. Straight onto Mrs. 23thorns’ face. He tried, not hugely effectively, to grind it down into the floor. Then he stepped off again, and went about his business. It was an odd, seemingly random thing to do; a last, mad desperate attempt to get us to reveal our well-disguised riches.

They went back to work again, rifling through cupboards and tipping out drawers.

Then things got dodgy again. The blanket was whipped off my head. “Where,” demanded the gun-waver, “are the car keys?” Goldfish. Oh shit…

Luckily, Mrs 23thorns knows me pretty well. Calm, quiet voice. “They’re on a hook next to the door.” Ah. Her car keys. That would have been a better idea.

But it wasn’t over yet. Mr. 9mm strolled over. He thrust the keys into my face. “Is this,” he asked, “the remote for the gate?” Oh shit. Again. I didn’t know. It’s a new car. I never drive it. “I don’t know.” I said quietly. The consequences for getting it wrong would have been too much. “I don’t know.”

It was time for my new friend to get his own back. “Do you,” he asked, in a voice dripping with some sarcasm of his own, “even live here?” Which was a little unkind.

“It’s the remote for the gate.” Piped up Mrs. 23thorns from under her blanket. And that was that.

They packed up all their stuff, paused quietly at the door for long enough to say, one final time, “I’m still here. Don’t move. I’ll fucken kill you.”

And then they were gone.

I sprang into action. I leapt to my feet (inasmuch as one can leap to one’s feet with one’s hands behind one’s back) and strode manfully into the kitchen, wrestled the knife drawer (not cupboard) open, and whipped out a knife. Unfortunately it was an ornamental cheese knife, which was slightly less manful.

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Maybe it would help if I called it a “Cheese scimitar”. Or maybe not…

I twisted it through what I thought were my bonds, and with a triumphant “HAH!” cut off one of my bracelets, scattering round wooden beads around the kitchen. With a slightly less triumphant “OK”, I freed myself. And Mrs. 23thorns. And it was over.

So how does it feel? What was it like, having those men in our house, having guns shoved in our faces, having our children threatened? Pretty complicated, actually. And what happens afterwards? Quite a lot.

But I’m done for now. I’ll tell you all that stuff tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

But for now, we are fine. We faced down our lion, and we stood. We stood, all thin-skinned and naked and defenceless, as the bad people skidded to a halt just a few short feet from us, and spat, and growled, and batted up clouds of dust at us. And we held. We are fine.

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Apart from the odd little flashback…

Or at least we will be. It might just take a little time…

See you tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Don’t worry. There won’t be any soft-focus purple motivational posters involved.

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Hacked!

Wow. I woke up this morning to find that someone has posted a positive and encouraging message on my blog. Complete with soft focus purple flowers and equally purple prose. Thing is, they didn’t post it as a comment. They posted it as me. Twice.

If you read this blog regularly, and took some comfort from the post(s), I am glad of that, but I myself am neither positive nor encouraging. Nor, for what it’s worth, am I religious.

This is all rather a lot more sinister than it would appear.  It’s a long story, and one I will tell soon, but but to cut that long story short, someone else has my laptop. And not someone I would expect to be putting up this sort of thing…

So. If you are someone who knows me, don’t worry.  I haven’t gone off the deep end. And if you’re someone who enjoys and follows this blog, don’t worry. It’s not going to suddenly shift its focus to posting different versions of “Footprints in the Sand” and pictures of cats.

Strange days indeed…