LONDON, ONTARIO – Here’s a lightly tweaked feature article that originally appeared in The London Free Press forty years ago this winter. It’s an up-close account of a hostage-taking incident that took place four years before that; a horrific home invasion which fatally blighted the young marriage of an old high school friend. In 1990, I added a whole lot of invention to the situation that is laid out in this story, to construct my third play, The Anniversary. In both this feature and that play, I find it fascinating to watch this crime play out in a way that would be quite impossible today with the ubiquity of cell phones and computer technology.
It is a visit to another world that just happens to be London, Ontario, circa 1977. Though my friend originally approached me to see if I would be willing to write up this story (she saw it as a way of coming to terms with the violation she had suffered) she never wanted real names used for herself, her husband or the poor messed up man who came to call. And though she herself passed away a few years ago, I am happy to continue honouring that request.
NEITHER PIETER NOR SUSAN would talk to the press on the morning of January 27, 1977. Hounded by The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and The London Free Press, they turned them all down. They weren’t in the mood for talking and they feared the kind of patchy, flashy coverage their story would receive at the hands of a hack with a two-hour deadline. About three months after the incident, Susan asked me if I’d like to write the story someday. She thought it might do them some good to talk it all out with someone they trusted. Six months after that, we sat down together until the early hours of dawn, all three of us smoking our brains out as we searched for the truest words and spoke them into a tape recorder.
Pieter who had come to Canada from Holland one year before, was at special pains to find the right words. He would often get Susan to rattle off three or four near-synonyms before choosing the word he liked best. I transcribed all the tapes but didn’t know how to shape that mountain of raw material into any kind of usable form. Three months later I took another run at it and still wasn’t satisfied with the results. “It’s okay,” said Susan. “There’s no hurry. The time will come.” Perhaps it finally has.
On the evening of January 26, 1977, Susan and Pieter had gone to bed in their city apartment, which was one unit on the third floor of a three-building complex in one of the older sections of South London. Pieter had fallen asleep but Susan stayed up an extra hour reading a book in preparation for an essay at university where she was studying theatre. At 12:50 a.m. she had just turned out the light when a fist knocked three times on their apartment door. Susan rose to answer the knock and, feeling uneasy about an unannounced caller at this late hour, hooked the chain on the door.
“Let me in, I’ve hurt my back,” said the voice on the other side of the door. Susan believed him. She opened the door and began to unhook the chain when a rifle barrel was shoved through the four inch opening. “My God, he’s got a gun!” she screamed to her husband and slammed her body against the door to force it shut. With the barrel still wedged through the doorframe, she couldn’t shut it. Pulling the rifle on an angle like a crowbar, the man quickly ripped the bracket of the chain lock off the frame and pushed his way in; aiming the rifle at Pieter who had come running out of the bedroom. Susan stood behind the opened door, out of the man’s field of vision and saw Pieter come to a stop and raise his arms as the colour drained from his face.
Without giving the situation much thought at all, Susan seized this as their only chance. She turned from behind the door and ran through the living room, out onto the balcony and jumped over the railing, landing in a snowdrift three floors below. It would take her a few hours to realize that she’d seriously injured her back in the jump. For now, she picked herself up and ran in bare feet to the superintendent’s apartment for help.
Pieter had just begun a two-hour vigil staring down the barrel of a loaded hunting rifle which was always pointed directly at him and was never held more than three feet away. The man behind the rifle had made his entrance carrying a record album and a box of cartridges for his gun. Drunk and dangerously strung out, he said he hadn’t slept or eaten in three days and nothing about his appearance suggested this wasn’t so. His mission that evening was to gain contact with his girlfriend who had left him just a few days before. The record album had sentimental associations but his inadvertent hosts’ stereo wasn’t hooked up and the record couldn’t be played. Though everybody wants to know what the record was, Pieter can’t remember; isn’t sure he ever did know. One expects it must have been The Stones or Led Zeppelin. But what if it was Barry Manilow or The Carpenters?
Though the man repeatedly told Pieter that he didn’t want to murder anybody, Pieter never believed him. He was too far gone to trust, Pieter said. “It was always like he was within his own cloud and I just wasn’t there at all.” Pieter figured the wisest thing to do would be to make some kind of human contact with the man; maybe try to get him to talk about his problems. At no point during the entire siege did Pieter feel that this contact had been made.
From the superintendent’s apartment in the basement of the next building, Susan phoned her own number and the man answered. “Let me speak to my husband,” she said. She was trying to find out if Pieter was still in the apartment, still alive.
“That other person in the apartment – let me speak to him.”
The man handed the receiver over to Pieter, saying, “If you’re not off this phone in ten seconds, I’m going to kill you.”
That answered her question. Susan hung up and the superintendent phoned the police.
Pieter also phoned the police under direct instruction from the man; giving the man’s name, telling the police exactly what was happening and warning them that they had ten minutes to get a message broadcast over Cablecast TV or the man would kill Pieter. For some reason – his broken English perhaps, or maybe the surreal nature of the call – the police wouldn’t take Pieter seriously, so the man took over the phone and spelled out the precise details of his TV message. It was to be directed to his girlfriend, telling her what he was doing and demanding that she get in touch with him.
Pieter began to feel hopeless. What sort of desperate state must the man be in, ever to expect such tactics to work? And the man had now involved the police. Pieter could no longer offer him the prospect of an easy and quiet escape. There was no turning back or turning away. Pieter knew they were both trapped in a situation which neither could defuse nor control. Their panic and fear would feed each other and build to only one end: somebody was going to die.
Susan had phoned her father and without going into particulars, she let him know there was an emergency. She told him to come and see her in the superintendent’s apartment. When he arrived, the police wouldn’t let him into the superintendent’s building. Still not knowing what was going on, he decided to go to Susan and Pieter’s apartment instead and – incredibly enough – he was able to do it. There were police at the door, there were police in the hall, and he was allowed to pass through all of them, walk up to his daughter’s apartment and knock on the door.
Pieter and the man were watching their newly created message flicker across the TV screen in sliding white teletype when they heard Susan’s father outside in the hall. Holding his rifle against his back, the man told Pieter to answer the door. Pieter did so, while the man held the gun on both of them. “What do you want?” he asked the older man.
“I’m this man’s father-in-law.”
“Well, come on in,” the man said, then changed his mind. “Get out!” he shouted and kicked the door shut. It probably occurred to him that two hostages – both considerably more alert than he was – would be too many to handle.
The police phoned Pieter’s apartment to let the man know they’d established contact with his girlfriend at a relative’s house in town. The man wanted to see her immediately but was told it would take at least twenty minutes because of the heavy falling snow that was clogging all the streets. Waiting for her arrival, the man became more irritable and sleepy, forgetting things he’d said just a few minutes before. Afraid of dozing off, he warned Pieter that if he felt himself slipping under, then he’d have to kill Pieter first. Pieter’s response was to offer strong coffee and make conversation, small talk, anything at all that would get a response and keep the man’s mind ticking over.
One conversation Pieter started in his desperation was to contrast the levels of violence affecting Canada and his native Holland. Pieter told the man that before he emigrated, people back home had warned him that life was a lot more dangerous in Canada. The man gave this some thought and decided it wasn’t true. “No,” he said in a measured tone that contained no trace of irony. “It’s not that bad over here. I mean, what we’re doing now is exceptional.”
The girlfriend finally arrived and was escorted by the police to the superintendent’s apartment. From there she made a series of phone calls to the man; all of which he ended by slamming down the receiver when she said something that he didn’t like. Always she would call again, keeping negotiations open between the man and the police, being force-fed lines of dialogue by the detectives, such as, “If you go through with this, I’ll never see you again.”
The man wanted the girlfriend sent up to the apartment but the police said no; they’d only let him see her if he threw out his gun. The man considered this offer and even got Pieter to rehearse a make-believe exchange with him, just to test out the logistics of it, but ultimately decided against it. His gun was the only bargaining power he had, and he knew it.
By this point the lines of opposition were firmly drawn and each side had conceded as much as it was going to. The girl continued to phone the man in attempts to reason with him but nothing was going to change. Susan resented the lack of an active strategy on the part of the police. She suggested at one point that an officer might gain access by slipping onto their balcony from an adjoining apartment, but they wouldn’t attempt this. “Their whole approach seemed to be one of ‘let’s just wait and see what happens,’” she complained.
Pieter felt that the man was inexorably diminishing further into his ‘cloud’. If the man wouldn’t throw out his gun, then it seemed he’d chosen death, for himself and probably for Pieter too. Negotiations having ground to a standstill, Pieter sensed it wouldn’t take much at all to make the man pull the trigger. Pieter recalled, “At that moment I broke through the normal ceiling of my thinking. I could see myself lying dead on the floor. I was thinking about my life, the reason for living, the reason for ending it. Did I live twenty-three years just so this could happen? Was that the point? There was no way I was going to surrender to that. It was now or never.”
The man was on the phone; the rifle was pointed at Pieter. In the space of two seconds, Pieter reviewed the exact layout of his situation and planned his move. Pieter shoved the barrel of the rifle aside and moved in so close that the man wouldn’t be able to shoot it or even use it as a club. There was a scuffle and Pieter punched the man in the face, as hard as he could at such close range, much to the man’s surprise. Pieter screamed for help and a detective in the superintendent’s apartment yelled into his walkie-talkie, “Get the hell in there!”
The man began to choke Pieter and as the pressure of his stranglehold built, the rifle went off by mistake. Susan heard the shot and didn’t know for ten minutes if her husband was dead or alive. “I don’t want to kill you,” the man said and he suddenly let go of Pieter. Pieter turned to run for it, hearing the first of the three successive clicks as another bullet is loaded into its chute. Before the third click, he was out of the apartment and sliding down the floor of the hallway on his belly.
Pieter pushed his way through the milling crowd of fellow tenants, the police and the press. He made his way over to the superintendent’s apartment where he, Susan and her father had a grateful reunion. They were relieved . . . almost happy . . . almost making the kind of reckless jokes that occur unbidden in the wake of life-threatening ordeals . . . but couldn’t dare to go there yet because in point of fact, it wasn’t all over. Right there in the same room, the girlfriend was still on the phone, talking to the man, crying and coaxing, telling him over and over the kind of lies that neither of them could possibly believe. “It’s not too late. You didn’t do anything. It’ll be all right.”
This went on for another twenty minutes until a detective decided to try a less cajoling tack, grabbed the phone and told the man, “Come on now, it’s all over. Let’s give it up and just go home.”
The man was silent for a bit and then announced with quiet resolution, “I don’t know if I can do it but I’m going to try.”
The detective could hear him cock the rifle, the girl reached out for the phone and the final shot was fired. Everyone in that room sat in numb and heavy silence, waiting for confirmation on the walkie-talkie. A few seconds later, there was the gushy sound of static and a raspy voice flatly declared, “It’s all over.” The girl collapsed in tears.
For Susan and Pieter, the reality of the man’s death did not really sink in until they visited their apartment next day to pick up some things. They already knew they couldn’t live there anymore – there’d never been any question of that – but after that grisly visit to their befouled home turf they realized that, for a while at least, it was going to be hard to live anywhere at all and it was going to be hard to live with each other.
Against his will, Pieter replays the evening often. What if he’d said this? Tried that? What if he’d just made a run for it at the very start and followed Susan over the balcony? The man might have just slunk away in fear and shame and would still be alive today. And then Pieter wouldn’t have felt so abandoned. It’s not that he wishes she hadn’t jumped. It was clearly the right thing to do and she saved her life by doing it. But how could she just run on ahead like that without him? If their positions had been reversed, would he have abandoned her? He doesn’t think so. But he doesn’t know.
He does not want to admit it but he just doesn’t feel the same about his wife, his new country, his life. Of all the strangers in the world that the man could have terrorized, why choose them? Does anything ever really happen out of the blue? And if out of the blue is where it came from, how do we send it back?
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
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