So little arrives hand-delivered these days that I had almost forgotten how exciting the sound of a clanking brass door flap once was. But, one day last week, a small packet thudded onto the mat, giving my heart a small frisson.
The thought, “Who was sending me a present?” briefly entered my mind – until I saw the official police stamp. Bracing myself for another speeding fine, I ripped open the pouch to find a cassette tape, dated 12 March 1993, with a note attached: “With the compliments of the Metropolitan Police. Case closed. We thought you might want to keep this.” Without listening, I knew instantly what was on the tape. And even after all these years, it was enough to make my cheeks flush.
The date marked our 13th wedding anniversary. With two kids and a full-time job, I hadn’t given it much thought, but the occasion hadn’t passed my husband by. As he hugged me goodbye he whispered, “You know it’s a lace anniversary this year?”
Smiling at the thought of the evening ahead, I took our beautiful, but demanding, golden retriever Ferdie for a run in the park. I released him from his straining lead but, picking up some intoxicating scent, he raced off and, to my dismay, disappeared totally from sight. Minutes passed. I called, whistled, and began searching along all our familiar routes. Eventually I had no option but to return home alone, desperately hoping that a good Samaritan would call the telephone number engraved on his collar tag. As I walked into the house, the answer machine bleeped. “Hello darling,” came my husband’s voice. “I hope you like your lace negligee. I have lots of exciting plans for this evening.”
It was a lovely message, under other circumstances. Then came a second. “We’ve got your dog.” It was an angry, adolescent voice. “Free fousand pounds or ee’s a dead dog.” Click. That was it.I ran outside my front door, partly in fear and partly hoping one of my dog-loving neighbours might be about and have a suggestion. But, on the other side of the square where I lived, I saw the yellow fluorescent jacket of a community support policeman. I ran over to him and breathlessly poured out my story.
“A dog-napping. I think you had better come with me back to the station, Madam, and make a statement… and you had better bring the tape along with you too.”
My heart sank. Could I delete the first message and leave the second? Or would that be tampering with police evidence? However, I had no time to work out what to do because my friendly local bobby came back to the house with me, removed the tape, and coolly told me to insert a new one in case the dog-nappers tried to make contact again.
In the station, I was ushered upstairs to an open-plan office area and introduced to the station sergeant and a detective constable. I then had to listen as the tape was played – right from the beginning – to the entire office. No-one made any comment. They must have been amazed by the first message, let alone the second.
“Right then, Madam,” said a detective. “I would like you to tell us your version of the story.” Was there another version? I was now unaccountably nervous. What on earth did they think had happened to Ferdie?
After I had finished, the older policeman looked at me somberly and said. “Madam, it seems to me that this could just be your partner playing a practical joke on you. Do you know what the consequences of wasting police time are?”
“Oh no”, I shrieked, wrinkling my brow with anger and incredulity. “It’s my husband on the first message, but not on the second. He’s far too busy to do that sort of thing. It’s not his voice. And anyway, the dog has gone missing.”
“Madam, forgive me,” he said gravely. “Sometimes on the phone it’s impossible to recognise a true professional who has masked his voice.”
“But my husband isn’t a true professional. He’s an accountant for heavens’ sake.”
I suddenly felt that somehow I was under suspicion. I was told to go home, to await further instructions from the dog-nappers and to telephone the police immediately if there was any news. Obediently, I did this. But I felt so uncomfortable with the thought that they didn’t believe my version of events that, as I walked into the study, I was almost grateful to see that the red message light was flashing again.
This time it was a different voice. “Er hello. It’s the butcher’s shop in Isleworth and we have your dog. Would you like us to hold him until you come and get him? Or what…”
It was the, “Or what,” that tipped me over the edge. I rang the station in tears and told them about the new message.
“You are to go nowhere, Mrs Sebba. We will send a police car to the butcher’s shop immediately.” Even the detective sounded worried now. He promised to let me know as soon as there was any news.
An hour later, I heard the police car draw up outside my house. As I opened the front door, out jumped a very happy Ferdie, looking as deeply delighted with his morning’s activities as only a retriever, who has been very seriously naughty, knows how to be.
“What happened?” I asked as I smothered my face in Ferdie’s enormous neck.
“You see,” said the detective in charge, “It’s Comic Relief Day, and there’s a university campus just across the river, isn’t there? What we think happened was that some students saw your dog swimming across the Thames this morning. They thought it would be a laugh to try and get some money for their college fundraising target by asking for a ransom. But, when you didn’t call back, we assume they got bored and went off to their classes, abandoning him. Ferdie must have found his own way to the butcher’s shop and the owners kept him there until we came for him. Case solved.”
The Chief Inspector made me a sign a form saying I was re-united with my dog, and that I was the rightful owner. And then, just as they were leaving, I remembered.
“Oh, could I have my telephone tape back now, please?” I asked politely.
“Sorry Madam, not immediately. It’s police property for the moment. We’ll send it back in due course.”
Later that night, we had one of those critical moments in family life that you just know the children will never forget. One asked, “How much would you have coughed up to get Ferdie back?”
“And what if we had been kidnapped. How much would you have paid to get us back?” added the other.
“Anything,” we reassured them.
And the planned romantic date to celebrate our “lace” anniversary? Well, we never did go out for that dinner but, several years
on, getting this tape back reminds me of the evening that ended memorably, despite an errant hound, police suspicions and a foiled dog-napping.