Amanda Craig: The thief who stole our peace

When writer Amanda Craig and her family found a burglar in their north London home, a vicious drama began that has yet to end
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The Independent Online

My family is unusually jumpy at present. Short of sleep, short-tempered and prone to mild hysteria, our quartet has been joined by a discordant fifth, an invisible player who pops into our minds at any given moment – particularly, it must be said, between 3am and 5am. He is the burglar whom we found, and fought, in our house.

Two months ago, we returned from a walk. While our daughter went off to kickboxing, my husband and 11-year-old son began to prepare Sunday lunch. I went up to my study to do some work. Walking in, I saw something surreal: a young man hiding under my desk.

"What the hell are you doing here?" I asked, as he emerged. He said something about there being someone outside with a gun, and I wondered for a moment whether he was hiding from an assailant. Then we were fighting. It was weirdly intimate – the only time you normally get quite so close to someone is making love, but he was trying to punch me, and I was grappling with his wrists to stop him. Slippery as an eel, and terrifyingly strong, it took all my determination to hang on. From time to time, I've done self-defence classes, but in this small room, any training went out of my head. What rushed in was the berserker fury that pumps you full of adrenalin-charged strength. If he'd stolen computer stuff from my study, there was a good chance he had taken four years' work on my new novel – I couldn't let that happen.

All this time I was shouting at the top of my voice for my husband. Seconds later, he thundered up the stairs, and then an even more violent struggle took place. The youth was slim, but taller than my 6ft 2in husband, and fit. The two of us had him pinned against the banisters and my husband was roaring, "What the do you think you're doing, you bastard?"

"I've got a gun," he said, but I said at once, remembering his previous threat, "He's lying."

I was intent on hanging on to the burglar's wrists, in case he had a knife, while he and my husband punched each other. The burglar, in retrospect, must have been terrified but looked utterly vicious, snarling and hitting us both. We didn't feel the blows. At one point, when we were winning, he pretended to cry – which made us both despise him – but the ferocity of our loathing kept us each strangely calm and unafraid. The fury you feel when your private space is invaded and despoiled is extraordinary. I can't bear to watch violence or cruelty in films, but had I had a knife or a gun in my hand, I would have had no hesitation in using them.

At the same time, we were oddly embarrassed. Grappling with a total stranger in your home feels uncomfortably intimate, and to add to my sense of unreality was the fact that my new novel has a scene in which a woman fights an intruder in the hall of her home, at night. What had inspired this scene is the fact that this was our second burglary (and third attempt) in six months.

For on Halloween, my husband had woken at 4am and shot out of bed, shouting, after a creaking floorboard and our dog's insistent scrabbling had alerted him to the presence of an intruder downstairs. We both glimpsed a masked figure running downstairs and out of the side passage which has proved (despite thick security glass, window-locks, London bars and motion sensitive lights) so irresistible to criminals. That time, too, our son William was present, having woken up and hidden in his bed. As far as he was concerned, the first burglary had been a terrifying experience, complete with flashing blue lights and a huge Alsatian dog which tracked our thief (unsuccessfully) down the road.

Now, he could hear both his parents fighting another burglar upstairs. He had kept his head, dialled 999 and was politely explaining to the emergency services that we needed the police, when our assailant broke free, breaking a whole row of banisters, and ran downstairs. Instead of running out of the door as expected, he went into the kitchen, straight for William.

This was one of the worst few seconds of our life. William had the telephone in one hand, but beside him was a large, sharp knife, used for chopping onions. We thought the burglar was going to hold him hostage, and were now in total terror. He ran at our son, who stood frozen. Then, unexpectedly, the young man dived out of a small side window which – rather belatedly – we noticed he had chiselled free of its frame, and escaped minutes before the police arrived, taking with him our lap-top, a modem, an iPod and the contents of my purse but leaving behind in the passage not just my husband's mobile and Blackberry but, crucially, his own rucksack and baseball cap.

It was the latter which provided DNA, and which helped convict him after he tried to burgle my neighbour's house atwo weeks later at 3am. I was alone in the house, and unable to sleep. When I heard the unmistakable sounds of stealthy breaking-and-entering, I flung up the window and shrieked "call the police!" before dialling 999. Satisfyingly, they caught him in the act.

The Kentish Town police have been wonderful. They have kept us informed of every stage of the arrest and procedures. The video testimony of my son was elicited with scrupulous rectitude.

They seemed light-years away from the PC plods in TV dramas. I hadn't expected to get a postgraduate in international politics taking my case, or in the case of another detective, a former bio-chemist. I was struck by how interested detectives are in the concepts of justice, and how thoughtful they are about the causes of crime, even such a small-scale one as ours. One said that he had "absolute contempt for burglary. It isn't a small thing. I've seen people die of heart failure a week later, and known perfectly well what it was that really killed them."

Before our burglaries, I would have thought this a trifle far-fetched. We were surprised to be offered victim support numbers as well as a doctor to check the extent of our (minor) injuries. What we didn't realise was that the surge of adrenaline that keeps you buoyed up and actually rather happy in the first few hours soon fades.

Weeks later, and despite a burglar alarm, we are all sleeping very poorly. Any creak in the floorboards at night, and we both jerk awake. The police are dubious about the wisdom of fighting a burglar, but immensely pleased to have caught him. My husband and I feel nauseous and miserable – and ashamed that such a small thing, as crimes go, should still affect us so. How much worse, then, for our elderly neighbours, some of whom were even more traumatised by their burglaries, and one of whom now lives in a house without natural light as she has all her windows boarded up. We still refuse to have iron bars on all our downstairs windows, which would feel like living in a prison.

William behaved with cool and calm in the emergency but his school marks slumped in the summer term partly because he could not get to sleep.

He wants to know why we, unlike Americans, can't keep a gun, and goes into long, violent fantasies about what he would like to do to the burglar. When my children were small, they found books like Allan Ahlberg's Cops and Robbers reassuring, because they suggested that robbers could either be vanquished or reformed. Now both of them just want to beat them to a pulp.

This one teenager has, according to the police, been responsible for perhaps scores of thefts and burglaries in my area of North London, and was professional enough to carry a paintbrush and roller in his rucksack as well as a chisel in case he was stopped and searched. Our detective said he was "a really bad lot", and the air of triumph I felt when I managed to identify him in a video suite, surprised me.

I'm always hearing about how the police don't seem to care about burglaries, but my experience was the opposite. Or burglar has now gone to a Young Offenders' Unit for three years. We just wish that, as well as the things he stole, he hadn't also robbed our son of a kind of innocence.

Amanda Craig is the author of 'A Vicious Circle' and 'Love in Idleness', Abacus £6.99

How to keep your property safe

* There were 733,000 reported burglaries in homes across England and Wales in the year to summer 2006, according to the latest data available. This sounds high, but bear in mind that the number of burglaries has gone down in recent years, and the current level is under 50 per cent of that recorded in 1993.

* British Crime Survey figures, produced by the police and government, show that the homes most at risk of burglary are flats rather than houses. They tend to be rented rather than owner-occupied, are located in inner-city areas rather than suburbs or rural locations, and are often occupied by lone-parent or the relatively young - often 25 or under. In other words, the poorest are the most vulnerable, although this is no consolation if you are a victim.

* In a fifth of all burglaries, the criminals enter through open doors or windows to commit, inflicting what the police call 'self-inflicted thefts'. But the same data shows that if it takes longer than four minutes to break into a home, most burglars will not even bother even trying, so it is worth taking precautions.

* Police say householders should:

* Fit window locks – easily visible ones are best and may deter thieves

* Fit an intruder alarm, including an alarm box on the outside of the house

* Fit and use door chains and spy holes on all outside doors

* Keep valuables (especially TVs, hi-fi systems and iPods) out of sight, away from windows

* Ensure you have a strong front door at least 45mm thick

* Never leave a key under a doormat or hanging on string from a letterbox

* Ensure ladders and tools are kept under lock and key

* Always lock doors and windows, even if you pop out for a few minutes

* Use timer switches to turn on lights, radios and appliances if you go away

* Ask neighbours or friends to stay or visit your home if you are on holiday

* Instruct Royal Mail to withhold post and cancel papers if you are going away

* Besides keeping your possessions there financial incentive to fitting anti-burglary precautions. The Association of British Insurers says that insurance firms are more likely to invalidate an insurance claim if householders are found to have little or no security.