Half an hour to get to the butcher’s and back, an hour to rent my son a clarinet, and 45 minutes to meet my children’s plane at Heathrow. It’s been a month since they went off for the holidays. I have written what I needed to write, the windows and upholstery have been cleaned, and there have been entertainments, epiphanies. By now I find myself looking wistfully at children in the street. It is time for mine to come home.

Meat in hand, I open the front door. Plaster dust and dead letters are strewn over the hall carpet. Through a huge hole in the wall I can see into my flat.

A break-in. Again. Four months ago a robber stole all my jewellery by slipping the lock. Now the locks have held and someone has broken through the wall. What did they steal this time? The police will take forever to sort this out and I don’t have time. How could they make a hole in the wall in half an hour? I stamp my foot. What’s going on here?

I go to unlock the door – I’m not going through that hole and the meat has to be put away so that I can get to the airport. The clarinet will have to wait. But I can’t get the key in to turn the mortice lock. Maybe they ruined the locks, too. I have to go to the airport and there’s a hole in my wall and I can’t even open the door to put the meat away. ‘What’s going on here? Damn. Come down here.’ I shout some more; I want someone to see how angry I am. I don’t want to look at broken plaster – I want to see who did this and make them know that I am furious.

And then someone does come down – a nice-looking black man in his late twenties who has a sort of smile on his face. I watch him descend the stairs toward me. Is he visiting upstairs? Has he seen the robbers? ‘What’s going on here?’ I roar.

He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and I think he is going to walk past me through the front door. But he grabs me from behind, puts one gloved hand over my mouth, and says: ‘You’ll be quiet if you want to go on breathing.’

I go limp, slumped over his arm. So this is how it happens, so quickly and so simply. And then I look up and there is a woman coming down the stairs, little and black, youngish. She says: ‘Ach, she’s shaking.’ And to me: ‘Stop shaking. He’s not going to hurt you.’ I can’t stop shaking, but I am quiet, and he lets go and disappears through the hole in the wall.

She and I are left looking at each other with saucer eyes. ‘I have to pick my children up at the airport,’ I tell her.

‘Open the door,’ she says. I am still holding the keys and the bag of meat and I tell her I can’t open the door, I’ve tried. I give her the keys.

‘You have to start with the lower lock,’ I explain, and she gets the key in, which I hadn’t managed to do, but she turns it the wrong way. ‘Turn it away from the door,’ I say in a low voice. I am cold. She unlocks the mortice and then the Yale lock and the door opens. We go in.

She tells me to sit down on the couch, and I do, though the cushions are stacked against the walls, still not dry from yesterday’s cleaning. My eyes are staring, and she is all I see; there is no background. I need to do exactly what she tells me. I do not blink. I am calm and cold, and my voice keeps telling her I have to pick up my children. She is small, like me, maybe smaller, with little pinched cheeks and her hair pulled back.

All this seems oddly familiar, this staring at a strange woman who is telling me what to do to keep breathing. I realise afterwards that it reminds me of being in labour, with the nurse leaning over me, giving instructions, and my eyes seeing nothing but her, trying so hard to do what she says to keep control. She will guide me through this, this stranger.

He comes to where I am sitting and says: ‘Give me your money.’ I open my purse and take from my wallet the hundred-odd pounds I’d withdrawn from the bank the day before. And I begin a hopeless lament in breathy, half-articulated phrases. ‘All my money. This is terrible. How can I get to the airport to pick up my children?’ And as he snatches the wallet out of my hands, with credit cards, my US Green Card, receipts, children’s photos, memberships for the British Library, the London Library, the Warburg, the Courtauld – all those pieces of myself so laboriously assembled, so telling – the lament rises. ‘Oh, this is terrible. My IDs, my money. How will I get to the airport?’

As if irritated by my confusion – the situation is so clear to him – he shrugs. ‘Look, lady, these things happen.’ I stare at this agent of fate incredulously.

She wants to know where I keep my jewellery. ‘I don’t have any,’ I say, thinking of the watch, gold bracelet and earrings that I am wearing, that I wore that other day, too, and inadvertently saved from thieves. ‘All my jewellery was stolen four months ago in a break-in.’ And then I turn to him, as if conversationally. ‘Was it you who took it?’

‘I’ve never robbed you before,’ he says self-righteously, and goes into the other room.

She turns my purse upside down over the couch, sending a cascade of junk onto the clean upholstery. Sitting on the arm of the couch, she sifts through the crumbling map, the little bottles, the twisted letters, looking for chequebooks, which she pockets. She squeezes the purse and discovers a zippered compartment. Extracting a flat, blue plastic container, she asks: ‘What’s this?’ I tell her what it is with a mixture of emotions that is new to me – embarrassment, impatience, fear (will she rip it up?) and a flicker of almost amusement.

‘Oh,’ she says, and throws it down with the other junk.

I do not intend to speak, but my lament escalates – that this is awful, that I need to pick up my children. He runs over and covers my mouth. ‘She’s making too much noise.’ I try to stop, and he says: ‘Okay. We’re going to leave, and I want you to stay sitting down.’ To her: ‘I’ll tie her up.’ He rips the telephone out of the wall and makes as if to tie me up with the cord. And I say, choked: ‘Don’t tie me up. I won’t move.’ He looks at me for a moment and throws the phone down.

Then she is standing above me, fixing me hard with her eyes. ‘Don’t you fuck us over. If you fuck us over we have relatives we can send after you.’

I am falling into her eyes, above the little pinched cheeks. And I say: ‘I won’t fuck you over.’ She leaves the room and the flat. As they lock the mortice, I hear her tell him: ‘Throw the keys through the hole. She has to get her children from the airport.’

I sit there for a moment, obediently. Then I peep into my bedroom, where the drawers are pulled open, clothes tumbled over the floor, closet doors ajar. I will call the police. The flat above, my children’s flat, has a separate phone. I go into the hall, find the keys on the floor, unlock myself, and go upstairs. There’s a hole in the wall there, too, and all the dreary outrage of broken plaster. I call 999, and they ask what service I want. ‘The police,’ I answer. My voice sounds awful. The operator takes my name and address and asks if I am sure that the robbers are not in the flat. Then she wants a description.

‘A man and a woman, black, late twenties or early thirties, nice-looking.’ She will send someone.

I have an hour and a half till the plane lands, and no money, and I have to wait for the police. The last time, when my jewellery was stolen, they took two hours to arrive. I call a friend who lives nearby. He does not recognise my voice at first, but he’s on his way. I call the landlord and tell him that the walls have holes in them, and how can he expect people to live in flats where they can’t be safe? He says he’s on his way.

I go down to wait for the police in the outer doorway. Half an hour after my call to 999, they arrive: a tall black man and a white woman as small as I am. They come up the stairs and I start to cry. ‘You took half an hour to get here.’

‘Are you hurt?’ the woman asks, and I, staring at her, say no.

‘Can you give us a description of the suspects?’ he asks.

But this is wasting time. ‘I have to pick my children up at the airport. They’re landing at Heathrow and I have to get there and I have no money. The thieves stole everything, all my credit cards.’

He says soothingly: ‘First give us a description. The suspects might be out on the streets, and a patrol car could pick them up. We’ll still have time to arrange things for your children.’ He smiles kindly, obviously concerned; his uniform looks very smooth and clean. She is looking at me hard, mirroring my upset. Is she horrified at what happened or at me, with my tears, my hysteria?

‘They said they’d send people after me if I said anything.’

‘They all say that,’ she answers confidently. How can she be so sure?

‘If they should bother you,’ he says, ‘we’re just around the corner.’

‘You took half an hour to come.’

‘Well,’ he lowers his face, ‘all the lines were busy and we were at the scene of another crime. Can’t you give us a description?’ It’s like dealing with children. Here I am crying and I have to get to the airport and they want a description of two people who left half an hour ago. I give them what they want so we can get on with it.

‘What were they wearing?’

‘Something dark,’ I say. They look disappointed.

‘You say they were black,’ she continues. ‘How black were they?’

And I turn, as if in slow motion, in a comedy routine – there is no other way – to the tall policeman. ‘Not quite as black as you.’

He nods professionally. ‘How tall was the woman? Like her?’ He gestures toward the policewoman.

I turn back slowly to her. ‘I guess so.’

‘How tall are you?’ he asks her.

‘Five foot four.’

He picks up his radio and repeats the description. My friend has just arrived and I am hugging him, sobbing uncontrollably.

‘Do you want some tea?’ the policeman asks. I don’t answer. ‘Maybe you can make her some tea,’ he says to my friend.

‘Coffee,’ he answers, and goes off to the kitchen.

Over and over pairs of male and female police ask me to repeat the story. They get gradually bleached-out and homogenised. The last man and woman to arrive are of equal height and whiteness, and I stare at them, as I have at all the others, and tell the story again in the cold, deadpan terror it induces in me each time.

In the intervals, I arrange for a car to pick up my children at the airport. I cancel credit cards. I listen to the landlord vowing he has followed all the safety codes for locks and blaming the police for not patrolling the streets.

The airline lets my children call from Heathrow. ‘Guess what?’ I tell my son. ‘We got robbed again. You’d like it. They kicked great big holes in the walls.’

‘Why didn’t you meet us?’ he asks.

‘Because I had to wait here with the police. You know how long they can take.’

He giggles. ‘That’s for sure.’

The minicab will drive the children to my friend’s place, where I’ll collect them. The fingerprint men have gone, the carpets are vacuumed, and the clothes put away. A builder has boarded up the holes in the wall. My friend lends me some money. I leave to get my children.

We hug and ride back home in the cab. My daughter is afraid to go into the flat. It will be days before the two go to bed quietly or play without insisting that I stay in the room. That night the tall black policeman stops by on his way home to see if I am all right. He is very kind. Next day, his colleague comes to have me tell the story one more time, but halfway through I get too upset to tell it. A victim-assistance service rings to make me feel that I am not alone. My neighbour gives me a potted flower.

People behave beautifully, but every time I leave the flat, I return with my heart pounding, not sure whether I will find broken walls and vanished possessions. I have no money, no cheques, no credit cards, no identification cards, no passport. I go to my closet for a certain pair of trousers and discover it missing. A leather skirt is gone too, and weeks later I cannot find a rose-coloured sweater. A drawer seems suddenly less cluttered and I realise that it has been cleared of vitamin pills and old bottles of perfume. The one I always wear has been considerately left.

Somewhere in London, a small black woman with pinched cheeks wears clothes of mine she took a fancy to. She tries out my perfumes and fortifies her body with my vitamins – lots of iron, lots of calcium. Does she puzzle over the stamps and visas in my passport? Does she saunter into the London Library to browse in the stacks? Does she manage the loops and flourishes in my signature when she forges my cheques?

When she went through my purse, my closets, my drawers, when she stared so long and hard into my eyes, telling me what to do, coaching my labour, when she left me my keys so I could pick up my children, was she not in some strange sense a friend? Does she ever look at my children’s pictures tucked into the flap of my wallet? Does she picture my life?

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