I certainly stole it.
I know that to be a fact for about four reasons, the first of which is that I have never bought an umbrella in my life, and the last of which is that, if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have spent £29.95 on it. I can’t remember what the other two are, but they would have been compelling if I could.
I know it cost someone £29.95, because I have just looked it up on Google Shopping, and the Gustbuster 62 comes in at that price, although it is by no means their top of the range. I find myself trying to imagine a person walking into a shop planning to spend that much on what is, in effect, a promotional gadget.
There have been many incarnations of umbrellas in our house, all probably stolen. The current one lives in the boot of my car unless it is raining and I am far from home, in which case you will find it in the hall. And it lives in the hall, unless it is needed to escort visitors back to their cars in tropical rainstorms, in which case it is to be found in the boot of the car. Occasionally it is strapped to my golf bag, but only if I want to ensure unbroken sunshine during my round. If it were a person, it would be a pilgrim, a lost soul trying to find its way home. To paraphrase Ruby Wax, ‘it is misplaced, but it doesn’t know where it was misplaced.’
So my decision to take the Gustbuster to Birmingham this week was, on the face of it, a bold one, especially given that the forecast was awful. And, given that umbrellas only tend to get lost on the cusp of different parts of a journey, such as changing trains or the leaving of a building, both it and I knew that it had at least eight opportunities to go missing, and to cause me to need to steal another one.
On the way up to Birmingham, I left my car in Winchester, about a mile from the station. It was raining lightly when I started walking, but something told me that umbrellas are only for heavy rain, and I didn’t want a soaking bit of Teflon impregnated cotton for company in my two hour journey. So I walked without it, and got mildly, cheerfully, damp. As I got out at New Street, the person in seat 46 (opposite) reminded me that it was still sitting in the luggage rack, and I duly collected it. Walking from New Street to Vyze Street, it drizzled all the way, which meant that I left it closed.
I give you two facts at this stage. That the British buy 1.1 million umbrellas a year (down from 1.6 million five years ago), and that British Rail recycle an average of 10097 of them through their London lost property offices. OK, you can have a third, which is that the town of Shangyu in China has more than 1000 umbrella factories within its city limits, so people like you and me need never fear that they will run out. We don’t, and they won’t.
Having nearly rendered mine the 10098thlost umbrella on our rail system, I then contrived to leave it in the office where I was meeting, but a sharper pair of eyes than mine saw it lurking in a corner, and rushed out of the building, brandishing it like a cutlass. Thus it arrived with me at the Ibis Hotel in Lionel Street, where I ignored it when I went out to dinner (very slight drizzle) and laid it on the bit of the bed that I didn’t plan to sleep on so that I didn’t forget it in the morning.
I must have tossed and turned, because it fell off during the night and ended up in the shadow of the side of the bed that I had no cause to visit, and it wasn’t until I got down to reception at 5.30 in the morning to head home that the night porter asked helpfully if I wanted any assistance with my kit. Immediately I knew to what he was subconsciously referring, and it was a fifty fifty decision as to whether I bothered to go all the way back up six floors to go and retrieve it. It was probably quicker to purloin one from somewhere else in the public transport system.
It didn’t rain on the way from Lionel Street to the station, but the presence of the umbrella in my left hand gave me the same sort of comfort in the dark streets that a 9mm pistol used to give me many years ago in the Belfast post code area. For a while, I found myself wondering if I looked like someone not to tangle with, or like an upper class git heading for his hedge fund office.
Inevitably, I tried to forget it when I got off my early train at Winchester, and would have, had the adjacent schoolboy whose glasses were that much thicker and apparently more effective than my own, pointed out that I had left it sticking out of the luggage rack, and had I realised? For a second I remembered Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who was injected in London from the tip of an umbrella with a dose of ricin strong enough to kill him pretty well instantly, but the thought passed. Or the strange man in Dealey Plaza who opened and waved his umbrella from west to east as President Kennedy drove past on November 22 1963 just seconds before he was fatally shot.
It was raining hard when I walked the mile from the station back to my car, but my heart was no longer in it. For nigh on 59 years, I have got wet and survived, and I came to the gradual conclusion that, just as I only needed it when I hadn’t got it, so I would never use it if I had.
This is stupid, but true. And the miracle is that it has made the round trip of 318 miles with me and survived in my ownership. And now, as I look down on it, it dawns on me that I have never once opened it. Not on this trip, or on any other.
I am thinking of sending it to the Prime Minister.