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Tom calls me up in the middle of the night, frantic.
“Someone’s broken into my flat, the alarm company called, can you go make sure everything’s alright?”
Normally Tom wouldn’t call, not for a thing like this, but he’s miles away and I’m the closest he’s got to family here. And I don’t dislike the guy so I get up, put some clothes on and go wait for the bus in front of the Chinese takeaway place whose prawn kung po always makes me dream of sunshine. It’s closed, as is everything else at this time save for a shop that claims to be a restaurant but is actually the base for a local small-time crime family. I yawn and rub my eyes as the bus comes and almost doesn’t stop.
I stick my hand out and yell “Oi, mate” and then fumble to locate my Oyster card in the very bottom of my jeans pocket.
London sometimes feels better during the late hours, when all the working stiffs are sound asleep in their beds—in my neighbourhood that’s everyone but the aforementioned restaurant-owning family. I watch the houses go by, bland and resigned to a life of identical days and nights, and I try not to fall asleep and miss the stop where I am to wait for the night bus that will take me to Tom’s place.
Tom of course lives in a better neighbourhood because Tom either got luckier in life or sold his soul to the devil, I can never decide. Yes, he works all the time, but when he mentions work there’s a suspicious twinkle in his eye alluding to secret situations that maybe aren’t as upstanding as his designer sofas claim. Me and Tom, ours is a situation of beggars-can’t-be-choosers, and if you saw us together you’d have no trouble guessing which of us is which.
When I finally get to Tom’s building the police are already there, two officers not happy to have been called but not fussed too much either, everything in their stance and expressions saying, routine, innit?
I am about to ask if anything was taken but as I make my way further down the corridor I see the door ajar and broken and a world of mess behind it. Tom’s precious things are spilled over the carpet, a sofa knocked over, his glass coffee table shattered to pieces, and it appears someone has used his vinyl records to play Frisbee.
“Who are you?” One of the two cops finally notices me standing there, and his partner glances up from reading something on his mobile.
I consider laying out the situation for them but decide that the best explanation at two o’ clock in the morning in front of a crime scene is not necessarily the truthful one, so I tell them that I am Tom’s flatmate. They let me in to further assess the damage. I go for the spare bedroom first, to keep the ruse up, and I find it in a better shape than the sitting room. Nothing’s been touched, except the closet doors are all open and there’s an empty space where Tom’s Armani suits used to hang in their matching garment bags. I open the sock drawer and put my hand all the way to the back where I can feel the stash of weed, unbothered by the burglars but now in danger of getting snatched by the coppers. I close it back up and get out of the room, shaking my head to fake dismay.
“They did a number on my room,” I tell the one cop who is watching the other poke around the mess on the floor with the tip of his pen, supervising-like. He opens his mouth to say something but changes his mind halfway, touches his hat, coughs a kind of acknowledgement.
“I will now check Tom’s room,” I announce and head down to it. Upon entering I am surprised at the sheer scale of the damage. It’s as if I’m standing in the eye of a cyclone, as if a localised mini earthquake hit just this one room and knocked everything off the shelves, closets and dresser. Everything is thrown out of its original place down to the mattress, the sheets and the pillow cases. The down duvet looks like it’s been in a fight for its life, its feathers scattered everywhere in the room like volcanic ash. Either someone was looking for something or they had a bloody good time trashing the place. My eyes don’t even know where to focus.
I consider sorting out the whole mess by turning on a water hose on the whole lot. I imagine a river of Tom’s things floating out of the flat and down the corridor and out into the cold dark street where the policemen will just stand and watch as they chew gum and talk about last night’s match.
“So,” the less-disgruntled one says to me when I step back out into the sitting room. “Anything missing?”
He directs me to write down a list of all things stolen. He doesn’t ask if I have any suspects in mind, someone with a personal grudge, say for example someone who lives two doors down the hall and with whom Tom broke up with only last Saturday. The cops don’t ask so I don’t tell, but there’s another reason really. Jenny might be as bonkers as they come, and seriously vindictive by the looks of the disaster behind me, but she’s always been really nice to me and has a killer body besides. And isn’t it presumptuous of me to jump into conclusions? Maybe there’s someone else out there who Tom wronged. What the hell do I know? So I straighten one of the chairs and sit down to write, while the cops discuss places that do good curry.
At first I am stumped and don’t know what to put down—as far as I can tell other than the missing Armani everything else is still in the flat, displaced or broken, yes, but still present. I even bet myself that if I walk into the kitchen and check the third drawer on the left I’ll even find Tom’s spare cash, tacked between takeaway menus and chopsticks. So I get creative. Start with some basic stuff and get carried away. In the end it reads like my personal wish list, all the things that I want for my own place. I’ve been in London three years and so far all I’ve been able to buy for my house is an old model electric kettle and a cheap uncomfortable pea-coloured sofa that faces my imaginary TV set. So I fill out my page. A flat-screen TV, supposedly missing from my supposed bedroom. A floor lamp, one with the little string that you pull to turn on. A set of professional chef’s knives. A brand new kettle. An espresso machine. A record player. Two laptop computers. An expensive camera. iPods and iPhones and a set of drums, thank you very much. How did they carry all these out? I shake my head, deep in playing the part now, feeling the indignity. Then I put down a final item, hand the list over to the cop and say, “I think this is everything.”
He glances at my list.
“And some cash,” I add, for good measure.
The cop says, “We’ll let you know if we hear anything”, and the both of them walk out.
At first I follow them, my mind calculating the time it would take me to get back home, and then I remember I supposedly am home. Oops. I go back inside and close the broken door behind them best as I can.
While I wonder how long I should wait before it’s safe to go, Tom calls.
“So?” He asks. “Is the flat okay?”
I look around at the debris and think for a second.
“Everything’s great,” I tell him. “False alarm. Nothing happening.”
“Are you sure?” I can hear Tom exhale with relief.
“Safe as houses,” I tell him, “don’t worry about a thing.”
“You’re a good friend,” he says to me, all the way from Spain. “I feel shit about you not being here. You know it was only close family.”
I think of the missing garment bags all laid out in Tom’s hotel room ready for the big day, his and his mates’ suits, all their expenses paid for by Tom the Generous, Tom the Good Guy, Tom who was sleeping with Jenny up until two days before he left for Spain.
“No worries,” I tell him, “have a good wedding day.”
“I’ll call you in a few weeks, maybe we can go for a pint.” Tom says and hangs up.
I go to the guest room, get into bed and stay for the night.
The next morning I make myself breakfast and coffee and then grab the weed and the takeaway drawer cash and call a locksmith to come fix the door. When he finishes I call Tom’s cleaning lady and tell her where to pick up the spare key and that Tom’s sorry for all the mess and that he will pay extra for her trouble upon his return. On my way out I knock on Jenny’s door. She looks a bit worried to see me.
“I won’t tell.” I say to her. “It’s all taken care of.”
And then I go home and forget the whole thing for a while until a week later when the cops call and tell me they’re sorry but they haven’t been able to locate any of our stolen belongings, except for two items that I could go down to the police station and sign some papers and pick up right away.
When Tom calls, I’m sitting on my new La-Z-Boy chair and watching my new kettle blow steam up the ceiling, eating my kung po prawns and dreaming of sunshine and thinking of maybe asking Jenny out one of these days. I let the phone go to voicemail.