At Marrocco’s on the front at Hove there is a queue of ice-cream malcontents, of whom we are five: my friend the photographer Polly Borland and I, together with three of our children. A bank of sea mist that’s been hovering offshore all afternoon is beginning to dip and sway in towards us; ahead of it comes a premonition of immemorial dankness, a Dickensian pong. I shouldn’t be surprised if, when it lifted, a prison hulk were revealed, its rotting spars piercing the shoreline of Worthing.
I used to come here in puberty, scampering along the Celesteville esplanade, then up the tiled stairs to the salt-water swimming baths at the King Alfred Leisure Centre. “No Petting” the signs said on the poolside — an injunction they no longer make. “No chance” I would wearily, sebaceously acknowledge. No sex in my life then, only Player’s Navy Cut and barley wine, rasp and head spin.
There’s a kerfuffle inside the ice-cream bar, followed by the arcade-game sirens of converging police cars coming towards us. Two estate cars pull up with the bilious chequerboard of the Sussex Constabulary spread across their flanks. One, two, three … eight cops in all debouch and ram their way into Marrocco’s. Polly — purely on an ice-cream errand, checking flavours and such — follows on after them. Then comes back again in high dudgeon.
“They’ve bloody handcuffed them!” She expostulates in the rain-on-galvanised-iron accents of her native Melbourne. “Two 13-year-old kids and they’ve bloody handcuffed them! I had to say: ‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’ I had to — but they didn’t pay me any mind.” I find this a little hard to credit; personally, if I were Sir Ian Blair himself I’d stop and pay attention to Polly, who is a formidable presence. I’ve been on assignments with her in the ghettos of South Central LA and never seen her bat an eyelid.
Naturally, Mrs Daily Mail is ahead of us in the queue and rounds on Polly: “They won’t do it again, then,” she opines. “This’ll teach them a lesson.”
“Madame,” I rejoin “are you able to see into the future?” She ignores this, but continues instead: “I’m glad the police have cuffed them, I wish they’d handcuff the little bleeders who steal off my girl at school, that’ll teach them a lesson as well.”
And doubtless she would’ve gone on, had she not become aware that I was passionately ignoring her. There are some people who won’t rest easy until either they’re in their graves — or a lot of other people are.
Then the cops came out, one each side of the two handcuffed malefactors. The kids were bat-eared, T-shirted; Polly had another go at the cops. One of the kids turned and said: “That’s just what I’ve been telling them, but they wouldn’t listen.” Then he was squashed down into one of the cars. The queue collectively tut-tutted — some for the kids, some for the cops. And now comes the most pathetic detail: once Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were safely in the meat wagon, one of the cops came back and fetched their BMXs, which were propped up by the doorway. He walked off carrying them in either hand, then put them in the boot of the car, as if he were a uniformed dad; which I suppose in a way, he was.