An ordinary Saturday morning at our local market. Al and I deliberate over which fish looks good, then, as per usual, buy the same rock flathead, prawn cutlets, mussels and calamari we buy every week.
A jazz combo - percussion, double bass, flute - is playing something funky outside the nutman's shop. (Love the nutman. He's heavy set, probably my vintage, middle eastern. "Here," he says in his seductively attractive accent, proffering a few wasabi beans on his scoop because he knows I haven't bought them before. Gives me a wink. I could go there. Sorry, got off track; wrong story.)
The jazz combo is a pleasant relief today. There's often a bit of music on a Saturday at our local shops. Last week an operatic female voice was belling out from a coffee shop. The week before, the trad jazz combo was taking a break at the Lebanese cafe/grocery and I was glad. Don't like trad jazz.
Just doing our usual shop. Getting our deli stuff, bit of leg ham, bit of pastrami, listening to the young guy on my right telling some tale of family illness to the woman serving. She's leaning in over the counter, making the right sympathetic sounds.
Suddenly, a tall elderly, very energetic woman is shrieking, wailing, behind us. Screaming, imploring anyone who will listen. What is she saying? She can't find her shopping? Someone's taken all her bags? Everything?
She is hysterical, running around in circles, her arms held out in front of her. Crying, screaming. People give her a wide berth and she runs out into the street.
"Take their drugs away, what have they got?" Huh? "Nothing." The young guy next to me, early thirties at a guess, knows everything. "A good thief doesn't need the money," he says definitively to Al and I. I ponder what that means.
From over the refrigerated glass case the shop assistant pipes in with a bit of racial profiling. "It's an aboriginal girl," she declares. "This happens every week. Last week, I saw her, just over there." She points over to the fruit and veg stall and we look over. "She was unzipping, taking someone's purse right out of their bag while they were being served. We were all shouting." She nods in consternation.
"Yeah, I've seen 'em." Suddenly there's a mob? "They all hang around out front of the library." Bookish thieves?
"Well, it's a first for me," I say, unable, as usual, to keep my mouth shut, "and I've lived around here for 25 years." They both look at me like I'm some blinkered old fool.
We're interrupted by the return of the victim, who had disappeared for a few minutes. She's even more hysterical. It's the same screeched mantra and I get that someone has taken her purse from her handbag. She runs into the market again, crying, and I run after her because everyone's just watching like she's some mad woman and no one is helping.
"Signora!" I dodge around a few shoppers to reach her. Where did signora come from? I'd considered calling 'madam', or 'lady' - not one of my words - but neither seemed apt at our market on a Saturday morning. "Signora," I touch her elbow. She stops and glares down at me. "Has anyone called the police? Would you like me to call the police?"
"Yes! Please!" Still she's sobbing and declaiming. A woman in the market sniggers and that sets Signora off again. "You! You laugh! You think it's funny!" She's crying, and it isn't funny.
And then I dial 999, UK emergency department; the second time I've done that in an emergency, the product of my early childhood in England. Puzzled to hear that the number is not connected, I dial 000, am transferred to police and astounded that whoever I'm talking to has immediately got my name and address. Now it does become ironically funny as Signora gets even more distressed and angry now, this time at me. All I'm doing is asking her questions as per police instructions.
However, she does settle, drawing herself up proudly, folding her hands across her abdomen and spelling out her Italian name, which I must then repeat to the officer. Inadvertently, I mimic her Italian pronunciation, and I can't stop myself and I feel a bubble of mirth rising and I bite down on it. The slow process has calmed her. Her worn beige vinyl handbag swings from the crook of her left arm. She really must have been a million miles away when someone unzipped it, reached in and removed her wallet. She lost all her pension money and ID. I'm on the phone trying to hear the officer over the market racket, simultaneously trying to follow Signora's explanation. She noticed her bag was lighter - she weighs it in front of her to demonstrate. When she'd looked in - she splays open the middle compartment and I dutifully look inside - she noticed her wallet was gone.
"No, she's not hurt," I explain to the officer on the phone. "It's not life-threatening, but she's very distressed and someone needs to help her:" Isn't that what police are for?. "I'm just doing my shopping."
"Can she come to the police station?" he asks.
"Can you go to the police station?" I ask Signora.
"Is better I stay here," she says, somewhat relieved to be telling her story to another Italian woman of a similar age, who agrees to wait with Signora for the police.
I see Al, giving us a ten metre berth, looking at me, one eyebrow raised. Suppose he's used to me running to the rescue.
A couple of minutes later, I've left them to it and that bubble of mirth explodes. Have to lean against the wall by the butchers' and let it out.
Later, back home, Al's unpacking the smallgoods. In all the excitement, it seems, some pastrami has gone missing.
Small price to pay.