Good Times, Bad Times: On Having Our House Burgled

So I recently experienced my first burglary.

I’d been in town having a drink with friends when my house mate called to say that her key wasn’t working in the front door. I listened as she went round to the garden gate to try the back and heard her breath catch as she said, “The back door is open.”

“Do you mean it’s unlocked or actually hanging open?” I asked, though he distress in her voice was answer enough.

“Someone’s been in our house.” she said.

I like to think I’m a relatively cool and collected person, that I’d be calm and helpful in a crisis but of course things are almost always different in real life.

“Okay. Alright. Okay. Have you got a weapon? Can you get a pan or something? I don’t know, have you got something heavy? Try shouting. Wait, don’t. Call the police. What about the kettle? That’s pretty heavy.”

I listened, unable to help at all, as she made her way around our house, recently occupied by strangers with most likely poor intentions – for all we knew at the time, they could have still been inside. I couldn’t do anything but tell her that I would be home as soon as possible.

I jumped into an Uber and had a bemusingly boring conversation about the traffic chaos caused by roadworks in the city centre with Radu, the driver. I was there in eleven minutes.

It’s a strange thing, knowing that there have been intruders in your house, a place where you spend your time cooking and sleeping and generally feeling at ease, relieved to be out of sight of the world and in your own secret bubble. Home is where your things are, your clothes and pictures and DVDs. There are take away leaflets stuck to the fridge with magnets that you bought while on holiday, there’s washing left in the machine, there are birthday cards on the mantle piece and about ten toothbrushes packed into a holder in the bathroom despite there being only four resident mouths to clean. I stepped across the threshold and for a moment couldn’t see anything particularly amiss.

The sitting room was the first sign that something wasn’t right. A friend of mine (bless her) has been crashing on our sofa while she looks for a new place to live. Her luggage was strewn across the carpet: clothes scattered, boxes torn open, films, toiletries. I mean, that’s shit luck, right? On seeing this initial state, I began to panic as I dreaded what carnage might have taken place in my own bedroom.

Bedrooms are pretty sacred places if you ask me. I often refer to my own as a haven; I’ve always taken pride in the way I decorate a room. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of any of my bedrooms will know what I mean by this; I take great care and attention to detail in making it an expression of my character, my inner thoughts, my interests and passions. When I was a teenager, I developed a habit of cutting photos and headlines out of magazines that I liked and blu-tacking them to my walls, resulting in huge collages of music, poetry, photography, film, theatre. I hand-write quotes from artists and authors and place them systematically where I will be able to see them every day and remain inspired. I copy out segments of my writing that I like to remind myself that I can create something beautiful out of nothing. Posters and tapestries hang from the walls, candles and trinkets and flower garlands adorn the surfaces of bookshelves and desks. When I close my bedroom door and look however briefly upon the work I’ve put into making the four walls surrounding me a place of sanctuary, I always feel a little more at peace. I feel safe.

The door was gaping open, every light was on and my things, all of my things, were everywhere.

I do understand that they are just things at the end of the day, I really do. But all of my worldly possessions were just scattered, thrown around, piled into mountains of what someone else had deemed to be of no value. Thankfully, my laptop had been left untouched. They hadn’t attempted to take it, nor was it damaged in any way which brought me a modicum of relief. My books too were unscathed; I have so many writing and sketch pads, journals, not to count my reading collection. There is a wicker box on my bookshelf housing all of my note books, dozens of archives of things I have written over god knows how many years. In fact, they were the only things left untouched in the whole room, probably because they appeared to be of no financial value. In a shitty way, I’d been lucky again.

Then there was my jewellery. I wear a lot of effects almost everywhere I go. I don’t care much for price tags, it’s sentimental value that matters to me. I won’t be seen dead without my ring collection on full display, a mixed bag of cheap bands, souvenirs from abroad, birthday gifts and precious family heirlooms. When I had left the house earlier that day, I’d looked down at my hands and passively cursed myself for forgetting to put my jewellery on; bare knuckles and wrists uncovered with bracelets make me feel slightly naked, a little off my game. ‘Damn it,’ I thought. ‘But, hey, it’s not the end of the world.’ Sure enough, this little quirk of fate meant that it was all gone.

My first thought was how upset my mum would be. Amongst the things taken was a silver ring my Nana had given to me before she died. She was well into the late stages of dementia at the time but she turned to me one day when I was thirteen, pulled a twisted silver band off her finger and said, “Here, you have this.” I don’t think I need to explain how this made me feel.

Walking around each room and observing the general chaos made us think that these intruders hadn’t really been searching for much (money maybe, small things they could exchange at Cash for Gold) but expensive things like laptops, iPods, stereos, etc. were still there. In a way, it felt like the real object in pulling our home apart had been to do just that: to simply lay waste to our personal spaces. There were carrier bags and cardboard boxes that clearly weren’t going to hold valuables inside them, ripped open and upturned. There was barley a clear inch of space to set foot on. They went through my underwear drawer, handfuls of pants and bras pitched into the air. Sort of amusingly, they’d been considerate enough to replace the drawers after emptying their contents. Well, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right? It was the idea of their hands on my things, precious or not, intimate, unimportant, whatever, that felt like the biggest violation. At the end of the day, everything in that room was my own and no one had any right to touch it or claim it but me.

There’s nothing like trouble to bring people together. While we waited for the police to arrive, we shared booze and watched an episode of Love Island. When they did arrive, we had out details taken and listed each of our missing items. We could tell just by looking at the uniformed duo that they had little hope of ever discovering the culprits. They told us to expect CSI in the morning and that we should probably find somewhere else to stay for the night. The next day we spent the morning chain smoking at the front door while a nice gentlemen from forensics dusted for prints and tried to establish a point of entry. By the end of it, all we could think of was pizza. So in the fucked up living room of our fucked up house, we settled ourselves into the general disarray, ordered Dominoes and watched a rom com, laughing at the shitty acting.

Sometime in the afternoon, we began the sizeable cleaning operation; we left all of our bedroom doors open and sang loudly and badly to 00’s classics (I’m talking Artic Monkeys, Outkast, Beyonce, Chilli Peppers, Nelly feat. Kelly, you know the stuff.) We were quite literally standing in the wreckage of our lives, shaken, exhausted, wronged, but we were together and smiling because of it. All day, I received message after message from friends, both intimate and acquaintances, offering help or commiserations, invitations to drinks or homes just in case we wanted to get out of the house. That evening when the doorbell rang, I answered, smelly and sneezy from all the dust turned up by the cleaning, to be greeted with a dear friend. “British Red Cross, we bring aid.” he said, before three bottles of rose wine were pulled from the depths of a Tesco’s bag. “Also, I got you these. I thought you’d be needing more now.” he continued, holding out a tube of biscuits to me: Party Rings. Not only are they a favourite of mine, they also served as a cracking pun given the circumstances. I laughed for fucking ages at that joke. We all sat squashed together in the living room that night and played cards, joking, drinking, recounting and speculating. One of the girls said that what had happened at least had an upside, as the culprit had uncovered a favourite top of hers that she’d thought lost.

It was initially a pretty scary experience, eye-opening but, on reflection, not wholly a bad one. This thing happened to my friends and I, and as a response people from all different corners of our lives have come forward to offer support by way of messages, beds for the night, offers of help cleaning or with rubbish removal or even money if we needed it. In fact, one of the sweetest gestures was made by my work colleagues; on hearing what had happened, they secretly started a jewellery collection for me. Hand-wrapped packages of second hand bracelets, necklaces, broaches have been dropped through my letter box and into my hands, no big deal, with a refusal to acknowledge the sheerly wonderful sentiment behind the act despite my protestations of “I can’t accept this.”

All of these things make my heart swell.

So there are twists of fate in life that you might call luck, things that you might consider to be out of your control. However, I like to think that there’s also such a thing as making your own luck; my friends and I have clearly surrounded ourselves with good people who we’ve been loyal to and who have reciprocated this quality in kind.

Sometimes you don’t know what will help, you don’t know where or how to start climbing the mountain before you, whether it’s a mountain of clothes and broken belongings or something more perilous. But I think the most comforting thing to hear when you’re looking up at the summit of a problem, praying for the strength to overcome it, is the question ‘What can I do?’

There are always mountains to climb in life but no matter how high they may be, if you are kind and surround yourself with good people, they will always show up at your back to offer a leg up.

I wish you all the best in your respective endeavours.

All my love.

Annie

xoxo