Five-minute memoir: Christopher Radmann recalls the night he faced an intruder


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The Independent Culture

I wake up to a nightmare. An intruder is in the house.

The realisation is not slow. It is as sudden as a blade in the brain.

I am paralysed by the adrenal intensity: the gland pulses with primal recognition. The warm bed is rigid.

Now, now, very now, it is fight or flight. I almost laugh; I bare my teeth and grimace at the dark. Fight with what precisely? I am not armed. A second ago my hands still cradled sleep. And I am in bed. I cannot run.

A floorboard somewhere in the depths of the house creaks. There is a pause before another cautious, resolute squeak.

I do not need to be told. No smash 'n' grab headline required. This is Johannesburg, one of the murder capitals of the world

We live on the grounds of one of the most private of private schools: St John's College. A bastion of Herbert Baker stone with statues of defiant David about to fell Goliath, a pelican feeding her own flesh to her clamouring young. Biblical symbolism abounds. There is even a crypt chapel snug beneath the huge dome of the main chapel for God's sake. On the watershed of Johannesburg, this faultline of Anglican tradition and academic excellence runs. Yet we lie in our bed hardly daring to breathe: Africa has come calling.

We are 'haves'. There are too many 'have-nots' out there. Now they are in here. They have come in the night to redress the imbalance. I almost wonder what has taken them so long. Our world tilts; the darkness slides. There is another creak from behind the locked door down the passage. Categorically, we hear it.

I turn to my wife, dumb beside me. Our year-old son sleeps peacefully – we hear his warm snuffling from the bedroom next door. And out there, somewhere in the house, another floorboard winces.

Panic is not blind. It sees all too clearly.

I recall the images of my brother and sister-in-law carjacked. Just as they described. Doughnuts in their hands, held aloft, half-bitten. The sudden guns to the head. Thrown to the ground. The car sped away, but their handy doughnuts remained, shot through with perfect, gasping holes and teethmarks. The shocking collided with the ordinary – for what is more mundane than a doughnut?

I remember our next-door neighbour a year ago. His body found after he went missing in his new, white car. He is recovered, charred to a crisp. Black as the ace of spades, clubbed to death and set alight: a one-man conflagration. Heartless.

My brother and his wife, again. This time a Bible study hosted by friends when a mid-week gang gatecrashed the gathering. They tied up the God-fearing folk and looted the house, wrenched wedding rings from supplicant hands. A late arrival stopped the pillaging. No one was raped this time. Prayers were answered.

I remember how we returned from a seaside holiday to find sandcastles on our driveway. Life is a beach it seems: someone was shot dead outside our gate and the sand swallowed the evidence, soaked up the red surprise.

Now, in this catalogue of crime, we wonder what will happen next.

My wife's cold hand touches my arm. Michael, she mouths. If we are to die, let us die together. We must get Michael.

I nod. Our son. The stupid cell phone is deep in the womb of my wife's handbag, somewhere in the kitchen. There is no one we can call. We must get our son before they do.

Heir today.

Odd thoughts jam my head. I rise and shun the sense that death is down the passage. I bunch my hands in disbelief and stare at my lily-white fists. They are moonlit flowers, knuckle dusters, pale bluster.

We do not have a gun, I silently confirm. My wife, radiant with fear, holds up her open palms. Look, she seems to say, no gun. Just white skin, pale flags, helpless surrender.

But I am the man of the house. Surely, I can make do with a bat, a sharpened wicket, a sudden seven-iron? But they are all in the garage, neatly stowed. I curse neatness and order as chaos comes. Another floorboard creaks. Closer this time.

Fear becomes floorboards. What rough beasts slouch their way to our bedroom?

After an age, my son and wife silently huddled together, I have to face the dark house. I make it down the passage. Bated breath, trembling fingertips and the lights flare. There is no sudden scamper. I wait. I fling open the kitchen door. Nothing. The dining room reveals the same. No one. I check everywhere, weeping with laughter.

So, I go back to my wife and son, and back to sleep. Somehow.

No, we did not have an intruder.

For another night, we are safe. Just creaking floorboards. For one more night, we do not have an intruder.

'Held Up' by Christopher Radmann is published by Headline Review as a trade paperback and ebook. To order the paperback at the special price of £9.99 (usually £12.99), including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030