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At 12.40pm in south-west London …

Sy Pocklington on an interruption to his life's progress

The kids just don’t realise they’re born these days. When you’re a senior citizen and no longer employed by anyone, you scarcely have a moment to yourself. There are the daily newspapers, Old Shag pipe tobacco, toilet paper and chipolata sausages to buy, The Jeremy Kyle Show and Good Morning Britain to watch on the telly, some bastard calling on your land line (twice) to try and sell you something you hadn’t asked for, your clothes to drive and collect from the laundry in Kew, a quick stop off in Richmond to buy a couple of days’ provisions and then your lunch to prepare before you even have a chance to take your hour-long post-prandial nap.

With a schedule as crazy as that, the last thing any chap with a pacemaker fitted wants is something unexpected arriving out of the blue and knocking you off your stride. Don’t people these days know there’s a war on? Yesterday was a warm sunny day and I’d done nothing more controversial than park my twelve-year-old Ford Fiesta midway up the street and begun my shuffle down to the Waitrose store through the maze of pedestrians when things started to go awry.

I’d just managed to cross the road towards the bus stop outside the entrance when, as the pedestrian lights beyond Waitrose changed, I noticed three twenty-somethings dashing out without regard for the traffic. At first I thought they were simply trying to cross before the cars began moving again, but suddenly the leader – a tall rangy girl in T-short and shorts – turned in an arc and, returning to the Waitrose side, began sprinting towards the town centre. She was followed in close order by the two gentlemen. It then became apparent to me that I was witnessing the aftermath of a shoplifting incident.

That was more than enough excitement for me, so I metaphorically shrugged my shoulders and went inside, picking up one of the smaller trolleys and proceeding into the vegetable section. I’d placed in it a pack of tomatoes, a cucumber, some oranges, two packs of stir-fry vegetables and two packs of salad and then, as I began looking at the ready-made pasta meals, of all things an alarm of some sort began filling the store.

I twigged immediately that this was unusual. Within seconds a Waitrose staffer walked along the aisle towards me, announcing it was a fire alarm.

I responded with the obvious question (“Is it a test?”), hoping for a negative answer.

“No …” he replied, “There really is a fire and everyone must leave the shop immediately”.

I duly left my trolley where it was and went back out through the entrance again to crowd on the pavement, along with perhaps thirty or forty other ‘recent’ shoppers who had also been obliged to leave their purchases where they were – those tasked with ensuring the ‘all clear’ inside must have come across a scene similar to that which greeted the first to board the silent and crewless Mary Celeste.

For a quarter of an hour or so two members of the Waitrose staff stood sentinel whilst the alarm peeled on whilst its evacuees waited in various degrees of puzzlement, boredom, frustration and numbness. One or two departed after two or three minutes – I presumed them to be either lightweights or those that had barely picked their first aubergine by the time the bell had sounded. My hunch was that most were doing what I was, i.e. alternately thinking of my third-full abandoned trolley inside and inwardly cursing the lack of consideration of the attempted arsonist, or indeed inconvenient Fate, that had interrupted the vital flow of my busy day.

Three types of pedestrian came by, threading their way through our throng. The first were prospective passengers making for the bus stop; the second were people on their way to somewhere further up the street; and the third were intending Waitrose shoppers.

The last of these were the most interesting for those of us of a people-watching bent. Some approached in a quasi-automaton state and simply melted into our number, whilst others – seemingly oblivious of the growing platoon – initially strode purposefully towards the entrance and then, balked by those in the front ranks, had to ask or be told what the problem was. Observing their reaction as the penny dropped was the ‘orgasm’ moment for we avid people-twitchers.

Eventually the alarm noise ceased and about five minutes later the word filtered back in Chinese whisper-style that the all clear had been given and the further slight delay was simply to allow those on till duty to resume their posts.

It was but one small episode in a Richmond day, but it took up the best part of half an hour of perhaps 200 people’s time.

I heard no more of the alleged shoplifting incident.