From the old days: 5 doors, one mad bloke; A day in the life of a Warrant Locksmith

(I wrote this in 2007 and found it saved as a draft today. Not much has changed since this was written. The only thing that has gone up is the hold times… Enjoy.)

Me, I’m not biased. You come across as stoned, fine, come across as mad, fine. But this guy, he was special. Like care in the community special.

The day started easy enough, I lent over a gate and pulled back the bolt so we could reach the meter, and at the next house they were in, so I read a bit more of my book*

Third house, no answer, so I start attacking the door with lockpicks. It doesn’t feel right, though, and the latch seems not to be there, and the crappy 2 or 3 lever lock appears to be unlocked when I stick some wires in it. I keep trying, but I’m sure it’s open, yet the door doesn’t budge at all. Totally weird. I’ve taken the handle off, and it’s got four two inch screws holding it on, so that took a while… I hear a shout behind me, but then kind of ignore it, assuming the agent is still there behind me. It’s a rough area, really about as bad as it gets in Preston, and there have been a few shootings on that street this year, despite the police CCTV cameras every 15 yards. (Yes, fifteen.) Because of this, I look around again, and realise there’s a couple heading for me, and I’m on my own! The Warrant Officer spots the trouble, and heads back, but I was a bit pissed at the fact he was off getting a ciggie whilst leaving me totally open like that!

Ah yes, he’s a space cadet all right. He seems fairly normal at first, ranting a bit about what I’m doing to the lock, and to stop, and his other half is saying it’s her sisters house. He asks if I’ll stop messing with the door, and I say sure, you go get the key. He’s not big, but he’s that sort of jerky mover that makes you worry, and he’s getting a lot in my face. The Warrant Officer calms him down a bit, and they promise to be back in 10 or maybe 15 minutes with the key.

I sit in the van and read the rest of Chapter 4, about how phase transitions occur. The WO finishes his ciggie, and has another one. As one, we get out our vehicles, and decide to have a look around for the back door, since the two house sitters seem to have vanished. I grab a huge bunch of keys that fit the lock I’ve been fiddling with, too.

Our first attempt fails, as the side gate is big and steel, and the padlock seems to be well seized up. There’s no easy way past it so we go look the other side, but I stick my head over and it’s a different house this backs on to, so back to the gate. Yes, the padlocks not been opened in a long time. However, I’m an idiot, and forget rule #1. We go back to the front door.

Suddenly, the upstairs window opens, and the guy is there, waving at us, then he climbs up and starts shouting to us, that the guy with the key is coming. Weird. And how did he get in? Anyway, he comes out and comes around the back and the WO and the gasman go in. I pack my gear away, and then follow around the side, and realise I forgot rule #1: Check it’s not open before you start trying to open it. The gate padlock only *looks* like it is locked! Bah. The jumpy guy doesn’t want me to come inside, and he is convinced I’m actually a policeman. I tell him I’m not, and go back to my book.

A few minutes later, and the front door is open, and the guy is yelling again. He’s obviously not a quiet kind of guy. I ignore this until the WO asks me to look at the front door. The guy says I broke it. Yeah, right. I give him a sarcastic response, and go take a look.

The lock was unlocked, and the latch was jambed open. Hey, go figure! I was right! Turns out the door is just really swollen, and the mortice lock is knackered, where it has clearly been kicked open in the past. This leads me to think that, despite leaning really hard on it (and I was, by this time wishing I’d lent harder, much harder, as yelling bloke is still going on at us…) it really was already unlocked before I started. Stunning. Crappy 2 lever Union, with a serious kink in the middle.

I was all set to basically re-lock it, and leave, but the guy is saying how we broke it, and we should replace it. Now, I’ve not broken a single lock lock this year. A few padlocks have bitten the dust, but when they are rusted shut, they get the disc cutter or bolt crops, rather than a few days to soak in WD40. Proper locks (and I don’t mean to imply that a 2 lever bent-out-of-shape Union is a proper lock!) just don’t die when I touch them. It’s a gift I have, called opposable thumbs. Personally, I’d have just asked the guy to stand inside to test it, and then locked it with my wires, and gone swiftly, but the agent said the fatal words “It’s up to you” when I’m looking for an out, since I’m playing it that the WO’s my boss.

That failed, so I told the guy it would be £10 for a new lock. I dig around, and it turns out I don’t have a really crap lock in that size. Well, I probably do, but I’m not about to start doing a morticing job in the street like that, and for £10 including the cost of the lock? No way! I decide to fix the rather nicer Yale BS latch. Alas, some fool fitted it to the door with wood screws to replace the machine screws, and someone’s messed up the internals pretty good, so that needs replaced too. Nutter bloke starts on about how he paid £11 for it, from the locksmiths around the corner. I know for a fact they charge £20 for a basic Oval cylinder, so a BS rimlatch set is going to be at least £30. They are about the same in B&Q, and I’d pay at least £20, and more for that model. All this time I’m explaining things cost money, this guy keeps begging for a discount. I’ve told him £20 for two locks, including fitting! The retail price of the one lock set is £15. I tell him no way, nothing more off. £10 each.

I decide sod this, and fit the top one, as it’s faster, and I’ll get the old one for parts, and I’ve got plenty of the right size and type. I also ask if he actually has any money. This is often an important question, and you soon learn not to overlook it.

He gibbers on, yelling sporadically at the dog, who does exist, and telling me about the squatters who break in every night, who probably don’t. It’s hard to tell, especially since he yells at the dog for doing something, or being somewhere, when it isn’t. I feel sorry for the dog. I find that the wood screws are really very hard to remove from the machinescrew holes, because they simply spin, there being no thread for them to grip. It takes a good five minutes, but I pry them out. (That reminds me – go charge the screwdriver!) The rest of the exercise goes well, I don’t even have to tune the tail or the screws, and it is done in another 5 minutes.

He picks up the keys, and locks me in the house. Oops.

Fortunately, because he’s cracked in the head, I get the keys back off him when he re-opens the door, and I pop them in a back pocket. This, at least, ensures I’m still likely to get paid.

I go and find a few deadlocks, and none are 2.5″ anyway, so I tell him I don’t have one. I know there are some in the van someplace, but I wasn’t about to empty the van onto the street for 50p, in a rough area. Mr. smack-head does enough damage with his feet and a crowbar, I hate to think what he would do with the extra-good crowbar he could buy selling all my fancy gear on ebay… Anyway… So I ask for the money, and he goes up to the guy running the shop next door, and, as he has been doing for about the last 30 minutes, tells everyone he’s being evicted. He might be, but not today. Nor do I think there really were people watching his every move, but hey. That many CCTV cameras might have contributed to his crazy little mind.

He asked my name, I said I was Bob. “Bob the locksmith!” says he. “Bob the Builder” says I. He doesn’t get it, and continues to call me Bob for ten minutes, before forgetting, and asking again. Twice. In the same sentence. I start ignoring his name questions, which seems to work. He remembers my name a few minutes later, again mid-sentence.

He kept shouting he was being evicted. Loudly, across the street. No-one seemed to care deeply enough to come see what he was smoking. Thank you to the Warrant Officer for keeping him off my back whilst I’m doing this repair job, anyway. He drags me through his house, to the back door. I though we were off to get the money, but no. He shows me his back door, a rather solid wooden door with a very good Chubb post office-style slam-lock. I’ve seen the key already, it’s a 3K74, as seen in banks, and costing upwards of £100. He starts rabbiting on about how these squatters keep getting in with a screwdriver, but there’s no damage to the frame, and it’s all solid. He wants me to add a padlock and hasp. To the outside, I think, which makes no sense. Just a new gate padlock would be far, far better, and would be less likely for them to find themselves locked in one day, by some kid with a twig. I make my excuses, thinking 1) Show me the money and 2) Sorry WO and gasman, for having to wait!

Not so easy to get out of this, though, as he desperately wants my phone number, to come back and do more work for nearly no money. Lucky me. Even luckier, he pulls out his mobile and wants a card. Of course, that’s not happening, so I pull out the spare mobile, and ask his number, then missed call him. He stores the number as “Bob locksmith”.

Money? Money for the keys, please. Wow, a whole £7.50. I can retire. Glad I only put one lock on his door, anyway. I roughly break even, since I’m being paid for the time already.

He comes outside and shakes my hand, and the agents, then we leave, fast. Good grief!

The next job is a girl who, if she tried to buy cigarettes before they just put the age up, you’d ID her. Weirdly, though, she somehow looks very old at the same time. We walk away, because of her 3-year-old and the fact she just moved in.

The last job was weird, too. There were builders there doing the place up, and they tried phoning the owner. Turned out he was outside, sat in the van. Weird. Even weirder, the power company decided to transfer the supply into the builders names from the owners, despite it clearly being his debt, as he freely admitted having lived there for 7 years! I’ve no idea what they were thinking, because he actually wanted to pay… He did call me a cheeky bastard when I said I was the locksmith, and explained that we’d have simply let ourselves in if no-one was about. I don’t think he knew I heard him, but it made me smile inside.

*I’ve been reading the winning Avensis Science Prize book for 2006 (Critical Mass: How one thing leads to another – Philip Ball) for months, very slowly at odd times, in the van, when there is nothing happening. Some lockies claim they get through a few novels a month. I’m a fast reader, and I’m 20% of the way through this novel sized book, after about 4 months. It’s about the way that lots of people tend to thing of the same thing at the same time, in different parts of the world, despite no-one ever having thought of it ever before in the whole of history. And it’s brilliant, if slightly hard work.

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