My head was pounding and my hands were shaking as I made my way outside and up the steps to my neighbor’s front door, and I found myself looking over my shoulder into the dark street as I waited for her to answer. It was around four a.m., I guessed, and it took a long time and a lot of banging to wake her up. I heard grumbling, over the sound of Mrs. Johnson’s feet clumping down her stairs, and her face when she cracked open the door was a mixture of bleary confusion and fright, but when she saw me huddled on the doorstep in my dressing gown, with blood on my face and on my hands, her expression changed in an instant and she took off the chain.
“Oh my days! Whatever’s happened?”
“I got burgled.” It was hard to talk. I don’t know if it was the chilly autumn air, or the shock, but I had started shivering convulsively and my teeth chattered so hard I had a momentary horrible image of them shattering in my head. I pushed the thought away.
“You’re bleedin’!” Her face was full of distress. “Oh, bless my soul, come in, come in!”
She led the way into the paisley-carpeted entrance to her maisonette, which was small and dark and grimly overheated, but right now felt like a sanctuary.
“Sit down, sit down.” She pointed to a red plush sofa and then went creakily to her knees and began to fiddle with the gas fire. The gas popped and flared, and I felt the heat rise a degree as she got painfully to her feet again. “I’ll make you some hot tea.”
“I’m fine, honestly, Mrs. Johnson. Do you think—”
But she was shaking her head sternly.
“There’s nothin’ to beat hot sweet tea when you’ve had a shock.”
So I sat, my shaky hands clasped around my knees, while she rattled around in the tiny kitchen and then came back with two mugs on a tray. I reached out for the closest and took a sip, wincing at the heat against the cut on my hand. It was so sweet I could barely taste the dissolving blood in my mouth, which I supposed was a blessing.
Mrs. Johnson didn’t drink but just watched me, her forehead wrinkled in distress.
“Did he . . .” Her voice faltered. “Did he hurt you?”
I knew what she meant. I shook my head, but I took another scalding sip before I could trust myself to speak.
“No. He didn’t touch me. He slammed a door in my face—that’s the cut on my cheek. And then I cut my hand trying to get out of the bedroom. He’d locked me in.”
I had a jolting flash of myself battering at the lock with a nail file and a pair of scissors. Judah was always teasing about using the proper tools for the job—you know, not undoing a screw with the tip of a dinner knife, or prizing off a bike tire using a garden trowel. Only last weekend he’d laughed at my attempt to fix my showerhead with duct tape, and spent a whole afternoon painstakingly mending it with epoxy resin. He was away in Ukraine and I couldn’t think about him right now. If I did, I’d cry, and if I cried now, I might never stop.
“Oh, you poor love.”
“Mrs. Johnson, thank you for the tea—but I really came to ask, can I use your phone? He took my mobile, so I’ve got no way of calling the police.”
“Of course, of course. Drink your tea, and then it’s over there.” She indicated a doily-covered side table, with what was probably the last turn-dial phone in London outside an Islington vintage-retro boutique. Obediently I finished my tea and then I picked up the phone. For a moment my finger hovered over the nine, but then I sighed. He was gone. What could they reasonably do now? It was no longer an emergency, after all.
Instead, I dialed 101 for nonemergency response and waited to be put through.
And I sat and thought about the insurance I didn’t have, and the reinforced lock I hadn’t installed, and the mess tonight had become.
I was still thinking about that, hours later, as I watched the emergency locksmith replace the crappy bolt-on latch of my front door with a proper deadlock, and listened to his lecture on home security and the joke that was my back door.
“That panel’s nuffing but MDF, love. It’d take one kick to bash it in. Want me to show you?”
“No,” I said hastily. “No, thanks. I’ll get it fixed. You don’t do doors, do you?”
“Nah, but I got a mate who does. I’ll give you his number before I go. Meantime, you get your hubby to whack a good piece of eighteen-mil plywood over that panel. You don’t want a repeat of last night.”
“No,” I agreed. Understatement of the century.
“Mate in the police says a quarter of all burglaries are repeats. Same guys come back for more.”
“Great,” I said thinly. Just what I needed to hear.
“Eighteen-mil. Want me to write it down for your husband?”
“No, thanks. I’m not married.” And even in spite of my ovaries, I can remember a simple two-digit number.
“Aaaah, right, gotcha. Well, there you go, then,” he said, as if that proved something. “This doorframe ain’t nothing to write home about, neither. You want one of them London bars to reinforce it. Otherwise you can have the best lock in the business, but if they kick it out the frame you’re back in the same place as before. I got one in the van that might fit. Do you know them things I’m talking about?”
“I know what they are,” I said wearily. “A piece of metal that goes over the lock, right?” I suspected he was milking me for all the business he could get, but I didn’t care at this point.
“Tell you what”—he stood up, shoving his chisel in his back pocket—“I’ll do the London bar, and I’ll chuck in a piece of ply over the back door for free. I got a bit in the van about the right size. Chin up, love. He ain’t getting back in this way, at any rate.”
For some reason the words weren’t reassuring.
After he’d gone, I made myself a tea and paced the flat. I felt like Delilah after a tomcat broke in through the cat flap and pissed in the hallway—she had prowled every room for hours, rubbing herself up against bits of furniture, peeing into corners, reclaiming her space.
I didn’t go as far as peeing on the bed, but I felt the same sense of space invaded, a need to reclaim what had been violated. Violated? said a sarcastic little voice in my head. Puh-lease, you drama queen.
But I did feel violated. My little flat felt ruined—soiled and unsafe. Even describing it to the police had felt like an ordeal—yes, I saw the intruder; no, I can’t describe him. What was in the bag? Oh, just, you know, my life: money, mobile phone, driver’s license, medication, pretty much everything of use from my mascara right through to my travel card.