How do you deal with smiling teenage kleptos in trial rooms?

By Kelly Clarke

After a work assignment some weeks ago, time was against me. It was late afternoon, I was halfway across town from office and my colleague, a deskie, was pressing me for copy.

With a mall nearby, and my laptop tucked under my arm, I braved the carpark, found a spot, and headed straight for the nearest coffee shop.

About 20 minutes later, the weight had been lifted. I’d typed up the article and hit the sent button, with great relief.

Desperate for the loo, but conscious not to shut down my computer (in case of a request for clarifications on my just-sent story), I scoped out the nearest toilet. It was one floor down, a couple of minutes walk away. What is it with cafes in malls here; they never seem to have their own dedicated toilet. Huff!

The place was heaving with people getting their caffeine fix; adults, kids, screaming babies were all around. I was determined not to lose my cozily-positioned table.

Like those loathed figures on holiday, you know the ones, the sun lounge hogging tourists who creep through dawn light armed with little more than a towel to reserve the best poolside spot, my laptop became my ‘towel’. I didn’t want to lose my spot, so I used it as a subtle reserve sign.

As I rushed off to the loo, the round trip took about seven minutes. While I was away from my table; one floor down, laptop out of sight, I didn’t give my unaccompanied belongings a second thought. And as I walked back in, they sat untouched, waiting for my return.

I find myself practicing this kind of culpable carelessness quite often here. I regularly leave my apartment unlocked. I hardly ever secure my car, and on more than one occasion, I’ve used the laptop-cum-reserve-sign technique in restaurants and cafes.

It’s a sense of safety I get living here that doesn’t exist back home. Despite growing up in the same town for 23 years — familiar with the people, surroundings — I wouldn’t dream of doing any of the above. It would end up costing me a fortune replacing lost and stolen goods.

But a recent encounter with three guilt-ridden teen thieves got me thinking about this again.

During another trip to a mall, I found myself entangled in a crochet top in the changing room of a clothes store. One of the five rings on my fingers (think Phoebe Buffay, Friends), kept getting caught and pulling on the threads. I resorted to taking off the rings before unthreading the top completely.

Despite all the flustering, the end look was deflating. The top was not for me, so I whipped it off and exited the changing room, disappointingly handing the once-promising garment back to the shop assistant.

Within 60 seconds, I realised I had left the rings in the changing room. As I turned on my heels and headed back, three girls, aged maybe 13-14, peered out from the cubicle I was just in, spotted me and darted across to the adjacent one.

As I glanced in to find my rings, two were sat in the same position but three were missing; the one my father had bought both me and my mother for Christmas.

My first instinct drew me to those girls. The quick dash from one changing room to the other, giggles in tow, made me suspicious. I called out to them, only to be ignored. As I called out again, they pulled back the curtain. I explained my dilemma and asked if they’d seen the rings (I just knew they had). All three stood facing me, giggling, denying any knowledge of them.

I explained the sentimental value behind the gifted one, promised not to complain to staff, and even told them they could keep the other two. I just wanted the third ring back. I was making accusations without evidence, but it was obvious from their body language they were guilty; the timing was convenient too.

Unfortunately, the denial kept coming, and with other shoppers looking on, I gave up and walked out.

With my partner standing by the shop’s checkout, I told him the story and he followed the girls out of the shop. His intention was to get the rings back. A few minutes later he walked back in, “they don’t have them”. That response ticked me off. He had asked them to turn out their pockets, they were empty, and that was evidence enough for him.

Very quickly, a case of my intuition battling his conscious reasoning resulted in a heated exchange between the two of us. My fingers bare; the rings were gone. They had been stolen; that was my gut instinct.

About an hour, still reeling from the stupidity of leaving my rings there in the first place, I spotted the girls walking towards us in a rush.

“We found your rings, we found your rings!” one of them exclaimed.

“We felt bad for you so we went back into the shop to look for them. We found them on the floor. We gave them to the lady at the till.”

I casually laughed and said thanks. It was blatant lies. I had checked everywhere. They were not there before.

Walking back into the shop, I approached the till and the shopkeeper was shaking her head at me, smiling. She had witnessed the whole scene earlier. In her hand were the rings.

“Did they go back into the changing rooms,” I asked her. “Nope, they walked through the door, straight up to me and handed them over. They had them all along.” They had taken the rings but had a guilty conscience. I think my partner’s stark words put some fear into them; a good fear. All that mattered to me was that I had that one ring back; the other two were a bonus.

I later told my partner that never would have happened if I was back in the UK. Strong words or not, those kids would have been long gone with whatever they had managed to get their hands on. That sense of respect for elders, others even, has been lost in the UK. There is no element of fear when it comes to doing wrong anymore.

Back in 2017, Dubai Police conducted a survey which found that 95.3 per cent of residents here feel safe and secure. I’m one of them. I have this kind of casual feeling of safety where I don’t have to be extra cautious or careful (to an extent). I like that.

And to the girls who took, and later returned my rings, thank you. But at the risk of sounding like a nagging aunt, I hope it was a lesson learnt.

Kelly prefers hostels to hotels. She once met a man who lived in a cave

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