This was the very first time we did an overnight. I was house and cat-sitting in Crystal Palace, a deeply southern part of London whose fortunes have escalated since a new train line was inaugurated for the Olympics. The village has wonderful cafes, restaurants, junk/charity/vintage shops – and the property values are getting out of hand. Along the whole area runs a large park with everything from a major sports arena to a museum of the great Crystal Palace which burnt down to an amazing Victorian sculpture garden of dinosaurs.
We have a divine time hanging out the first day and on the second day we breakfast at my “regular” café, all the proceeds for which go to supporting women who have been hurt by their partners. (I hate the term “domestic violence” – it always sounds like someone is taking a beating from their condo.)
Jules and Jo have to leave by noon, and CC and Sarah try to convince me to join them in tootling around central London. I am torn: I want to spend more time with them, especially playing along the river, but I have an apartment to clean, suitcases to pack for departure tomorrow, and a union newsletter to work on. I convince them to at least stop by the place where I am cat-sitting for a cup of tea before they continue on. They agree.
This ground-floor flat is entered not from the front (where a carving proudly announces it was built in 1883), but through the back, garden gate. It’s a wobbly green wooden door with an old-fashioned lock that leads into the owner’s garden of potted plants and a table and chairs. There I am to use a different key to let me into the kitchen door which is half-glass, half-wood.
However, on this occasion, as I stand at the garden gate, I notice something amiss. “What the fuck is the matter with the door?” I ask my friends. “Look here, something doesn’t look right.” I easily push the door in – without using my key – and then suddenly two guys explode out of the garden, pushing past us and running down the road.
My friends told me later that I screamed at the guys, “I hate you! No! No!” and that I scared the crap out of them. I was going to run and try to take them down because I could see one was wearing a bulging backpack and all I could think of was my laptop. Instead I go through the garden to find that the kitchen door is still closed and locked. There is a heavy shovel leaning against the door and on examination we can see that they had battered the door near the lock to try to get in. Five minutes later and we would’ve walked into a crowded apartment with two blokes grabbing things and no way to get out. Scary stuff.
And what things were there to grab? The owner has only one large and one medium flat screen tv. And a DVD player – all too big for their backpacks. On the other hand, I have my precious laptop, a Kindle, an iPhone, a lot of cash, credit cards from two countries. Too much to think about.
How lucky am I to have my mates there? Fucking lucky. First I call the neighbor upstairs, my emergency contact. He suggests calling the police, but I am hesitant to call the cops to the home of someone else without their permission. The neighbor says he suspects they were junkies just trying to grab something to pawn. But none of the three of us think they were junkies. They looked like healthy high-school kids, clean-cut, nice clothes – one in his early teens and one in his late teens. Sarah thinks they must be brothers because of their quick non-verbal communication, their decision to make a run for it just as I push open the door.
I call my friend Sue next – she’s my trusty advisor – and she agrees with me that I should check with the owner before ringing the cops. So I call the owner in Romania. He says to call the cops. I do – giving them all the info that collectively the three of us can recall about the would-be burglars’ descriptions, etc., and they quickly send around two cops who ask us all the questions all over again. The cops say they have about 10 such incidents per day.
We three women are feeling a little wobbly in the knees and shaky in the hands as we go through possible scenarios and timings. The heavy shovel could have been a profoundly deadly weapon, swung at unsuspecting faces. There were numerous recycling glass bottles in the corner near the door they were trying to bash that could have been used to slash flesh. One of them could have had a knife. I could’ve gone touring with my mates and come home hours later to the amputation of my computer.
I tell the girls I’m okay and that they should go. I decide that I am not up for sleeping in the nearly-violated flat alone and that I will pack up and get out a day early. I call Sue to announce that I am descending on her hospitality, poor thing, and then I spend a few intense hours making it happen.
I email Barry back in Boston and he calls to give me some support and sympathy. The thing that continues to feel odd is the fact that I don’t remember screaming, “I hate you! No! No!” – but there is no doubt about it, as there were two reliable witnesses. What those words? Why not my usual “Fuck you”? I instantaneously thought of my laptop – of nothing else – because I am on a writing holiday, because I live on my computer, because it holds my entire life, for so many reasons that make it my most precious device.
I’m writing this from Sue’s place, where I am comfortable and cozy and simply drained. Withered. Depleted.
Nothing happened. CC, Sarah, and I stopped the burglary. But still, we are reminded of how our lives can change in frightening ways in the turn of a key.