We were eating in. He was having take away

The Independent, 29/6/1993

Today’s burglar doesn’t mind if you are home. Peter Rosengard tells a tale he will be able to dine out on.

A couple of weeks ago we were burgled. It happened as we were eating dinner at home in Notting Hill, west London. When I was growing up in London in the Sixties, there was an unwritten code between the burglar and the public: You went out, he came in. Not any more.

When you think about it, it makes sense, from the burglar’s point of view, anyway. Today few people leave their fortresses – sorry, houses – without deploying a vast range of security devices.

By the time you have locked every window with a little steel key that any burglar worth the name can buy at any locksmith’s, double locked the doors, switched on the security lighting, activated the alarm system, cocked your trip-wired shotgun, wedged it into the hall cupboard and aimed it at the front door, it’s almost time to come home again.

But what do you do when you come home from work in the evening? You just shut the door behind you and that’s it. After all, you are at home, what could possibly happen?

“It’s the Moroccans,” the WPC told me later over a cup of tea.

“The Moroccans?” I said. “Running out of racial stereotypes are we? I’ve lived in London all my life and I’ve never even met a Moroccan!”

On the evening in question we had finished eating in our basement kitchen. “Come upstairs,” my wife, Shirley, shouted. “We’ve been burgled!” I grabbed the nearest weapon – the television remote control – and raced upstairs. Shirley was in the hall and pointed towards the open front door: “Go and check there’s nobody upstairs,” she ordered, after I had searched the living room.

Why is it that you always expect that an intruder will be hiding behind the curtains, with his feet poking out the bottom? I thrust the remote control like a rapier into the fabric. What was I going to do if I prodded a muscular arm, change the channel?

I went upstairs. It is quite an odd feeling going into your bedroom at night and looking into cupboards for somebody who might jump out and stab you. I’m still not sure why I looked in the heating cupboard – the burglar would have had to have been shaped like a pancake to squeeze in around the boiler.

On my way downstairs again I noticed the bolts to the loft were unlocked. I didn’t stop to wonder why any burglar in his right mind would want to go up into the loft and slid the bolts shut. “Call the police,” I shouted, “they’re in the loft.” I went downstairs and dialed 999. We stood huddled together in the hall waiting for the Ladbroke Grove Swat Team.

Five minutes later the door bell rang. I opened the door. There was nobody there. I was about to close it again when I heard a tiny, squeaky voice say: “Mr. Rosengard?” I looked down.

On the doorstep was a policewoman who could not have been more than 4ft 10in tall. Dripping wet in her uniform she could not have weighed more than four stone.

“What are you going to do if you find four armed burglars in my loft?” I asked incredulously.

“I’ll call for assistance,” she said.

“I already have, and you are it,” I replied.

“Do you want me to have a look in the loft or not?” the waif asked.

“Come in a have a cup of tea,” I said. “I’ll look.”

I climbed up into the loft, crawling on my stomach, like I’d seen in the films, to present as small a target as possible in case the bullets started flying. It’s a big loft and after a couple of yards I had taken a lot of splinters. In the corner I saw a large cardboard box. Large enough, I thought, for a burglar to hid in.

At moments like this you don’t know the meaning of the words “don’t go in the box”. I crawled into the box. It was empty. There was a banging on the trapdoor and I tried to stand up. “Are you all right, Mr Rosengard?” the WPC asked. I toppled over, encased in the box, onto a baby’s pushchair I’d never seen before. But we don’t have any children, I remember thinking, as I crashed to the floor.

“It’s the new thing,” WPC Waif said, putting down her tea cup. “They wait to see you are moving around downstairs in the kitchen and they know you won’t have bothered locking up or putting on the alarm system yet, so in they come.”

We went upstairs and she showed us how burglars can poke a wire through the letter box and use it to open the door handle. “What you need is a wooden box around your letter box,” she said.

“Why don’t they tell you to get a little wooden box erected around your letter box before you get burgled?” Shirley asked later as we got into bed. She is on the local Neighbourhood Watch and it was the first she had heard of the new supper-time burglars.

As we tuned out the lights I remembered the WPCs last words before she left. “What they do to get a real buzz, after they’ve nicked everything, is come upstairs into your bedroom while you are asleep and shout: ‘Boo?’ It gives them a big adrenaline rush to be chased down the stairs and out of the house.”

It would give me a big adrenaline rush, I thought, as I went to lock the bedroom door – it’s called a heart attack.

They took all the usual stuff – the obsolete early Eighties Sony Walkman and the handy, burglar-size armful of stereo, tuner and CD stack.

The following evening the phone rang. “Mr Rosengard? It’s Roz from Victims’ Support.” “We’ve just heard from the police about your sad loss, you must still be very shocked, would you like to talk about it? It often helps, you know.”

“Well Roz, it’s still difficult to talk about it,” I said. “It was a very savage, totally unprovoked attack on our hi-fi system.”

“Yes, I know exactly how you must be feeling – a Technics lower stack series SC-CH550 wasn’t it?” Roz murmured sympathetically down the phone. “The police faxed us all the details. We get the lot – burglaries, rapes, murders, you name it.

“How is your wife dealing with it all?” Roz asked softly.

“I thought I’d take her to a health farm for a month to get over it,” I replied. This morning I received a letter from our insurance company asking what further security measures I will be taking in the future to prevent a recurrence. No problem. I have already decided how to deter these new-style, supper-time burglars. From now on we will eat out every night.

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