IT'S every woman's nightmare. You are asleep. It is 4am, pitch black and the bedroom door creaks open. An intruder - statistically almost certainly male - is at the end of your bed. He is potentially armed, possibly a psychopath, maybe a rapist, perhaps all three. What do you do?

Frozen with fear, I persuaded myself he was the result of an over-fertile imagination. Only when he stumbled over my electric heater, slipped on some magazines but continued rifling noisily through my handbags did I accept the unacceptable.

Several options flashed through my mind - all motivated by self-preservation. The least heroic and most sensible was to feign slumber. But where genuine deep diaphragmatic breathing produces a convincing sound, a terrified silence does not. He wasn't duped.

Abruptly, he stopped and edged towards the bed. With a knife, a screwdriver? I'll never know. Still buried deep beneath the duvet, my eyelids glued shut, I opened my mouth to scream loudly. What I summoned up was a rather pathetic whimper. My vocal chords had packed up. For a matter of seconds he didn't move. I peered over the duvet to see his broad shoulders disappearing through the doorway.

Scotland Yard will not say whether burglary of occupied premises is on the increase, but my own random straw poll would indicate that it is not as uncommon as one would hope.

I was lucky. Not for a moment do I think his exit would have been as hasty had he not already worked out that the flat was occupied by three other people. Had he come the night before, when I was alone, the story might well have another ending.

The bobbies arrived 40 minutes after we called. An affable pair, they padded around the garden, verified I hadn't left my front door unlocked and confirmed that, yes, despite the locks, the bathroom window had been prised open. I couldn't provide a description and fingerprints were not suggested. My friend muttered, 'Oh my God, Morse it's not.'

Most disturbing was the discovery that the burglar had been in the flat for some time. It was pure good fortune I had not stumbled half-asleep and naked across him in the bathroom an hour earlier. The couple in the adjacent bedroom sheepishly admitted they had slept through the entire proceedings, unaware that he was rummaging through their belongings three feet away from them.

Clearly it was not a professional job. A glance through the front window shows that state-of-the-art consumer durables don't live here. His haul was unworthy of his chutzpah - a duvet, several coats, including a much-loved, battered leather jacket and a couple of credit cards.

Hard-and-fast guidelines for women confronting a burglar do not exist. 'You have to weigh up the decision depending on the circumstances,' says Peter Woods, of the Metropolitan Crime Prevention Unit. Would that I were made of sterner stuff and had delivered him to PC Plod with crushed testicles and a headache.

Unfortunately, that might have landed me in more trouble than him. 'You won't be criticised for using as much force as is reasonable and necessary to defend yourself,' says Mr Woods. But what constitutes reasonable? Had I attempted to repel him with some well aimed bleach or, were I now to install barbed wire along the gate over which he climbed, would I be the one facing prosecution?

Worth remembering, too, is that any weapon you possess can just as easily be used against you. I now keep a hammer under my pillow and, even in daylight, unidentified noises have provoked me into stalking the hallway clutching the bread knife.

An evening out now entails, on my return, dragging a friend into the flat to inspect all the rooms. And my windows have been fitted with so many window locks it takes 10 minutes to unlock them. Window grills are next on the shopping list.

Exactly who has been placed behind bars?

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