Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

A short story.

In early 2023, during the close of a sun-touched London winter, the windows of my favourite restaurant were deliberately smashed – on three separate occasions. On Instagram, the restaurant wrote: ‘We can’t come up with any reason for why we’re being targeted.’

In the six months since I had ruminated on it, I had become haunted by what I took to be the deranged nature of the crime: nothing was stolen, no messages were left. Whenever I walked past, I looked at its simple, white exterior with ghostly echoes of that Billy Joel song drifting across my mind:

I’ll meet you any time you want, in our Italian restaurant…

Everyone said they were crazy…

The best they could do was pick up the pieces…

The restaurant brought authentic Italian cuisine to an area in deep need of it. Who could have a problem with that?

Sat around a circular table, still drinking but done with the food, we speculated. If money wasn’t the motive, was it some oblique protest? I pictured the troubled look in the eyes of that Just Stop Oil activist, sat in The Crucible on a snooker table, inconsolable in a cloud of orange powder. Ella, the girlfriend of the other couple said, ‘… Gentrification’. She took a sip of her Chambord cocktail. ‘Maybe it’s about gentrification?’ She worked for the local council, and seemed to know what she was talking about, but we didn’t like it. There was probably an arguable – albeit boring – accusation to be made against the restaurant along those lines, but it opened eight years ago. Surely for a protest to work people need to know it’s a protest. Or do they, in 2023? None of the four of us had protested anything in a decade. A lot had changed in the period since we had lost the energy to care about things: maybe the modern demonstration was more avant-garde, ‘More… chaotic,’ I said, staring over Ella’s shoulder at a too-talkative waiter whose eye I was trying to catch; I needed another drink.

‘It was probably just drunk people,’ my wife Charlotte said, getting bored of the conversation, checking her phone. But there was a second branch of the restaurant with windows that were also smashed and I had a hard time believing that drunks were trudging 1.3 miles in the middle of winter to target both locations. ‘Wasn’t your friend a waitress there?’ Ella asked Charlotte. Charlotte kept her eyes on her phone. ‘Not for long,’ she said.

‘Or what about an enemy of the owner?’ the boyfriend of the other couple asked. ‘An ex-wife?’ Tom was studying to be a family therapist, a ‘healer’ he had told us; it made sense that this was his angle. I sipped my cocktail and swallowed a new Nurofen. I was unnerved; nothing added up. We continued to list options: a rival restaurant, a crazed customer wronged by the restaurant, a vengeful ex-employee – the friend of my wife’s who had waitressed there actually had various emotional issues – a series of bizarre accidents, crimes of the Italian kind, something relating to the giant psychiatric facility around the corner, the restaurant itself. I lowered my drink, the ice clinking. ‘Itself. An insurance scam?’

For the third time, Charlotte asked, ‘Can we talk about something else?’ My eyes narrowed. I didn’t want to. I was beginning to feel like the paranoid husband told to give it up by the underwritten wife in a bad Oliver Stone movie.

The next morning I emailed the restaurant, asking if they had ever established a motive for the attacks. I said if they had I might be interested in writing a story. For ten years I had been working in admin jobs: advertising, software, gambling, healthcare. Two months earlier I had sold something to a newspaper about working in healthcare, gotten overexcited and immediately quit my job. I now badly needed something to do. Being an investigative reporter seemed as realistic as anything else. Oddly, it seemed more realistic than the other jobs I had half-heartedly applied for at museums and publishers. Indeed, none of them had replied. The Founder of the restaurant emailed back within minutes.

We know more now…’ he wrote. ‘Feel free to call.


I didn’t ring right away. I was nervous. For some reason I couldn’t explain even to myself, I was afraid. I had to prepare first. I set up a WhatsApp group with Charlotte, Ella and Tom, where we continued to speculate about a motive. I sat at the table in my living room. The sun never reached our ground-floor flat and because the windows looked out onto a shared Spanish-style courtyard we kept the blinds lowered, but semi-open. In the dim half-light, I scanned our bookshelves: Raymond Chandler, John le Carré, Stephen King… I had read enough of those novels to know how marriage held up under the pressures of male obsession. It was a Monday, the worst day of the week for an unemployed husband to pretend he was a detective. Charlotte was surprisingly supportive, though, almost as if she was distancing herself from the woman who had been singing that very different tune less than 24 hours prior: ‘Can we talk about something else?’, ‘It was probably just drunks…’ Ella and Tom were likewise invested, happy to sacrifice the opening hours of their workweeks to play private eye. From our respective offices, together we googled combinations of words like ‘windows’, ‘attacks’, ‘restaurant’, ‘random’. Soon, we were turning up headlines like ‘East London Restaurants Targeted By Senseless Window-smashing Attacks’ and ‘“It’s an Epidemic”: What’s Behind a Spate of Hammer Attacks on East London Businesses?’

It was all happening too fast. The Founder had replied to my email in less than seven minutes. Fifteen minutes later, I had gone from investigating one cursed Italian restaurant to investi­gating a citywide crime spree targeting dozens of small businesses and, inexplicably, a few schools: repeat smashings at each, occurring over several months, all apparently without motives. Alone in the glow of my laptop, I pored over photos. In most cases, there were only pictures of the aftermath – the windows, webbed in cracks emanating each time from a single icy hammer blow. There was one exception – a blurry image taken from a CCTV camera of a man mid-swing with a hammer – but it didn’t get us any closer to a motive. None of the details did. In a different article, we read that the ‘hooded, masked man’ behind the attack on the windows at Canary Wharf College was seen holding a ‘mysterious pink bag’. ‘Chic,’ Ella wrote. ‘A fashion student?’

Since March, nothing new had been published. The Evening Standard, Time Out and something called MyLondon were all content to let questions like the mysterious pink bag go unanswered. The WhatsApp group wasn’t. Charlotte messaged saying, ‘There was also all that fish put outside a restaurant in east London, like a mafia thing or something.’ Ella still seemed obsessed with the gentrification angle, refusing to account for the schools.

Apparently, flour comes from Ukraine,’ Charlotte suddenly added, to which Ella said:

The grain import ban?’

It might be Russia,’ Charlotte replied.

I texted a friend who worked in a pub: ‘Have there been any hammer attacks at your pub?

No,’ he replied. ‘… Why?

I added more friends to the WhatsApp group: a resident who lived near the restaurant, who hadn’t seen anything, and Joe, a weary 33-­year­-old working in intelligence, who seemed to find it all beneath him. We all agreed that the prevailing narrative framing the attacks as ‘mindless’ and ‘senseless’ was missing something big – and that The Founder knew it too. I had to get him on the phone. But the attack on the restaurant felt even more bizarre, occurring outside of the epicentre of the other attacks, which according to the articles were clustered around Hackney Road. ‘A copycat,’ Ella wrote. ‘Copycat likely,’ agreed Tom, offering no explanation. After that, Charlotte replied asking why Tom hadn’t RSVP’d to her birthday, again steering us away from the investigation just as we seemed to be nearing a breakthrough.

Finally, I tried phoning. The call wouldn’t connect. I tried calling three more times over the space of an hour. I pictured a body sprawled out in an alley, its throat cut. I emailed The Founder. The reply came, again, within minutes. He asked if I had tried ‘this’ number, before he gave me the exact number he had already given me. I tried again and it didn’t connect.

Belatedly, I guessed it was probably just an issue with my phone. When I was 17, my dad had given me a SIM card, saying something vague about his office paying for the contract. He had stopped working at that office roughly 12 years ago. I was now 32 and the SIM card still mostly worked. I had not paid one phone bill, but the trade-off was a dreadful data plan and the occasional, inexplicable period of outage, even while connected to wi-fi. I looked down at the phone, rueing how cheap I had been for the previous 15 years. The time was 2PM. I had a ticket to see Antichrist at the cinema at 3PM. I had to make a decision.

As I sat in the back of the cinema watching the other unemployed men watch the screen – all of them alone – I wondered if it was decisions like this one that explained why I didn’t have a job. I had told myself that the call could wait till the next day, but then spent the entirety of the film thinking about the restaurant and that old psychiatric facility around the corner. Rumours had circulated for years about escaped patients. At one point in the film a fox turned to the camera and growled ‘Chaos reigns’. Were we dismissing too quickly the theory of one ‘senseless’ madman?

The next day, I finally got The Founder on the phone. I tried to picture him on the other end, ima­gining either a man standing in a phone booth or an underground parking garage. But his voice had a natural, easy-going charisma. It relaxed me. I took the call in my building’s courtyard, circling the trees in the centre and pausing occasionally to make notes on the back of an old envelope. He was precise and articulate. He began with the introduction of a new character: The Businesswoman.

The Businesswoman had messaged him after seeing his Instagram post. Her windows were also being repeatedly, deliberately smashed. After the police were ‘little to no help,’ she had begun building a spreadsheet of other small businesses whose windows had been broken: names, dates, addresses. She was taking matters into her ‘own hands’, mapping the rampage. Soon, there were over 50 small businesses sharing information. She was amassing hundreds of hours of CCTV footage from her new network, but none of it revealed much except the fact that the attacks weren’t being perpetrated by the same person.

I stopped by my patio table for a sip of espresso. I wrote down ‘vigilante businesswoman’. The Founder was painting a picture of the sort of woman Julia Roberts might play in a prestige biopic. It was a picture, I realised, of a woman Julia Roberts already had played in a prestige biopic: Erin Brockovich. I wrote down, ‘Erin Brockovich’. Eventually, there was a more revealing spot on CCTV of a van pulling into a car park outside of one of the targeted businesses: a man emerged from the van wearing a high-vis vest, walked directly to the window, hammered it once and ran back to the van. The footage was too blurry to get a licence plate, but the van did speak to the pattern that The Businesswoman eventually ascertained. Apparently, the absence of a pattern when it came to the perpetrators – each a new man – was eating away at her. What might have meant random, disconnected vandalism to some, gave her the exact opposite impression. She just wasn’t seeing the angle.

The best they could do was pick up the pieces…


After speaking to The Founder, I repeatedly contacted The Businesswoman asking to meet. She shrugged me off with an amiable email, saying she didn’t want to be named, she wasn’t interested in a profile. I gave up, but I couldn’t get the investigation off my mind. At the self-service till in Tesco, scanning a bottle of bad red wine one evening, I realised I was humming:

‘… I’ll meet you any time you want… in our Italian restaurant…

Everything about it felt unfinished. I went back to The Businesswoman and told her it was a conspiracy that needed to be told. Finally, she agreed to speak. We met at 3ish in an empty pub. I ordered an Estrella and she had a vodka orange.

We were both wearing all black, sat in the sun from a window in an otherwise dark expanse of old wood. Dust hung in the light. She was charming, incisive, funny. I liked that when she talked about the attacks she was able to laugh a lot of the memories off. She took an ironic view of the world and had a laugh to match: big, felt a little crazy. She told me she would have been happy had a crackhead robbed her business. That would have ‘made sense’. The terror was the lack of sense, the feeling of being targeted and either not knowing why or there being no reason at all. She had a sip of her vodka orange and adjusted a ring nervously. I thought of Kafka’s The Trial. I thought back to my call with The Founder.

I had a sip of my espresso. The Founder told me that, after the first breakage, he searched Google for a glazier and got the window replaced. When, a week later, all ten of his windows were broken, he phoned the glazier he knew he could rely on to do a good job to do a second good job – ‘at £1,500 per window’. The third time it happened, the glazier did a third good job – ‘at £1,500 per window’. I made a faint attempt at doing the maths aloud before The Founder intervened: ‘£1,500 times ten windows, times three breakages, times 50 businesses.’ A joiner The Businesswoman knew saw her in the street after her windows got replaced for the third time. The joiner said to her, ‘Don’t you think that glazier doing your windows looked dodgy?’

That was the moment. It was a multi-million-pound scam: the Constant Glazier. On the phone to The Founder I wrote down ‘glazer???’ – not knowing it was spelled with an ‘i’. ‘It was the CCTV footage that changed everything,’ The Businesswoman said in the pub, sipping her drink. After the attacks began, more and more of the businesses started installing cameras, sharing footage, theories. With the CCTV demonstrating that there was a different vandal behind each attack, it couldn’t mean that she was being targeted ‘for no reason at all’. It meant that it looked like she was being targeted ‘for no reason at all’. It meant someone was trying to pretend she was being targeted ‘for no reason at all’. And the joiner’s words brought the glazier’s flooding back to her. Smiling, the glazier they had all invited in said, ‘Don’t worry, your insurance will cover it.’

To the glazier, it was a victimless crime – that, or an unhinged Nathan for You pitch brought to life. To the small business owners waiting months for insurers to pay out, closing their stores for days at a time, paying more on their premiums, paying thousands for cameras, shutters and security systems, there was a victim.

But something still didn’t add up. On the phone, The Founder said that several of the businesses were using different glaziers. I wrote down, ‘coordinated glazers??’. It wasn’t until the windows were broken at the restaurant again that he saw what was happening. After he chose not to contact The Constant Glazier, the glazier began phoning him ‘over and over’, saying he had ‘seen the windows’ and was available to replace them. The Founder declined the offer, but when he tried to find a new glazier on Google, he saw the phone number of the new glazier was the same phone number as The Constant Glazier. All the websites were fake.

I repeated this to The Businesswoman, still amazed at the depth and extent of the fraud. Then she shook her head, smiling, with that ironic glint in her eye. It was true, but I was still missing something. After figuring all of this out, a lot of the businesses she had told her theory to continued to dismiss her as ‘paranoid’, a ‘nutter’. Because some were using different glaziers. ‘But that would mean…’ I began, trailing off. She nodded. ‘Coordinated glazers???

There was The Constant Glazier and he did have a number of websites. Google displayed them as sponsored results at the top of several searches. This, combined with the notion that scam artists tend to pursue their victims instead of vice versa, prevented suspicion for a while and legitimised a ‘company’ that The Businesswoman eventually worked out ‘does not exist’. It wasn’t listed on Companies House. The VAT number on the invoices was fake too, linked to an unrelated company. Additionally, it turned out that The Constant Glazier had been jailed for fraud in 2016. But the issue was much bigger. It was half the industry. ‘Apparently, it was a big scam in the eighties,’ she said. ‘My advice to you,’ and here, she laughed, ‘is to invest in glass.’


Her laugh stayed with me as I took a seat beneath the sun on the rooftop patio of another pub nearby. Joe, the friend working in intelligence, lived in the area and had agreed to meet me. As he sat down, I warned him not to message in the WhatsApp group as these drinks were going to make me late for an early dinner with Charlotte, Ella and Tom. I was planning on saying that the meeting with The Businesswoman overran, which I couldn’t if they knew I had met Joe – it was my latest bad idea, but I needed a second drink to cool off. He nodded, understanding perfectly.

I told him what I had learnt. Regarding the different vandals responsible for the hammer attacks, The Businesswoman knew of a ‘local wrong ’un’ working as the ‘linkman’ for The Constant Glazier and, before him, another glazier; her guess was that he was ‘down the pub paying people £200 to hammer in the windows’ and was probably driving the getaway van whenever one was used. ‘It was probably just drunks…

‘So they only do businesses,’ Joe said, lowering his voice, ‘not residences, because of the insurance?’ That was probably correct, and it was obvious why they only targeted small businesses. On the phone, I had asked The Founder and he had asked himself the same question: ‘Why not Tiffany’s?’

His answer, he came upon by accident, in conversation with a private security firm – ‘mostly ex-army, ex-police’. He asked the firm what they could do to protect the restaurant from attack. He was given two options. Firstly, rolling overnight stakeouts in a surveillance truck watching the windows. The firm would wait for a vandal to return, put a tracker on the van and take the information to the police for them to, presumably, do nothing with. The second option was also rolling overnight stakeouts in a surveillance truck, only instead of the tracker on the van they’d ‘tackle the vandal’ and, The Founder said, ‘bring him to me to decide what to do with him’. He laughed. I did too. I wrote down ‘bring them to restaurant’.

The Founder made it clear that he would not want a body hauled to his feet by army veterans and we both laughed again, then fell silent. ‘Obviously,’ he continued, ‘I wouldn’t use that service. But more to the point, the cost is too high for small businesses.’ But it isn’t for bigger businesses, he said. The security firm told him that they had clients all along Oxford Street, ‘because a Tiffany’s isn’t going to mess around when their windows get smashed, and a small business will. The glazier knows that and that’s why we’re targets. We’re naive.’

It was inspiring, I suppose; that without much money, means or hired thugs, fear and paranoia could bring the business community together to forge their own informal police force, investigating what the ‘real’ police wouldn’t. Or it was frightening, or it was funny, I wasn’t sure. Whatever the case, it seemed to be working. ‘It’s like Fort Knox,’ The Businesswoman told me, laughing about her state-of-the-art surveillance system. She said that on her last call with the police they had told her not to worry, that the attacks had largely stopped. It was known locally that The Constant Glazier had been arrested on an unrelated charge and, even though he had been released soon afterwards – and nothing much had happened in the window case since – the arrest and the cameras had probably spooked him. Then, five days after my meeting with The Businesswoman, I got a text saying, ‘We’ve tempted fate,’ and then a second: ‘Our man is at it again.’

Joe lit a cigarette and blew smoke off the rooftop, watching it drift towards the City. ‘And what have the police been doing?’ he asked. I gave him the caricature The Businesswoman had given me, which I had no trouble believing. She had described pairs of ‘trainee police’ dispatched to the crime scenes with ‘pads and stickies’ to enquire about the ‘petty vandalism’ – months deep into the multi-million-pound scam she had already laid out. Five days later, her opinion of the Met remained unchanged. Another victim in the owners-network had seen The Constant Glazier’s van parked outside a pub in Dalston with the glazier inside fitting ten new windows – whistling, probably having replaced one for the landlord a day earlier. The Businesswoman was alerted and she tried to tell the various contacts she had accrued inside the police. Now that the attacks had begun again, she thought they would want to know. Whether they did or not, unfortunately she was informed that they were ‘all on holiday’.

For weeks, the WhatsApp group had not stopped proposing a ‘sting’: we would get a friend with a small business to let us smash up their windows, call The Constant Glazier, wait for the windows to get smashed again and hope that the vandal responsible was aided by the getaway van, with us photographing the licence plate. If we repeated this enough, potentially at different sites, we would tie the van to the attacks. I felt this was going too far, but after The Constant Glazier’s return The Businesswoman made the exact same suggestion, albeit more sarcastically. Evidently, this was the one workable solution. It was a good idea for the police anyway, once they were back from the Caribbean.

Although, what of the other glaziers? This was, ironically, one of the least transparent industries I had ever heard of. I contacted other small businesses who had been targeted but people didn’t want to speak.

I don’t want to go back over it.

I don’t want to be a part of it.

Fear was everywhere.

Even if The Constant Glazier was jailed, no one knew how far this went or what the other glaziers might do if anyone went on the record – the ripples this risked beginning in Big Glass. On the rooftop, I was drinking rapidly with one eye on the time. On his iPhone, Joe googled ‘glazier scam’. The first result was a headline. It read, Glaziers’ Big Scam in Busted Shop Windows. It was from the Sydney Morning Herald, 2007. This was a decades-old, international, unstoppable racket. He shook his head in a forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown way.

We downed the rest of our pints, somehow our fourth each. My eyes lingered for a moment on the empty glasses. I walked fast for the underground, smoking my first cigarette in months and listening to that old Billy Joel song:

The best they could do was pick up the pieces…

I missed dinner but made it in time for the drinks.

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