So, to start with, here's a list of my movements since I came to London.
April 1996-April 1997: Lived with Andrew in Docklands
April 1997-June 1997: Lived in lodgings with random people (just killing time until I got my deposit back)
June 1997-September 1997: Lived in studio flat (aka bedsit) in Baker Street
September 1997-September 2001: Lived with William in Aldgate
September 2001-present: Been living with Lorna, Michelle, Michael and Simon in Shepherd's Bush
Actually, to digress for a moment, odd thing about that. Before I moved to London, I was watching the Reith Christmas lectures on TV, where Susan Greenfield was giving lectures on the human brain. It turns out that Michelle was actually in the audience for that, although I obviously wouldn't have recognised her at the time. Then, when I lived in the studio flat, it was about 5 mins walk from where she was living at the time, although we never bumped into each other. It was only after I moved over to East London, and joined ICSF (October 1997), that we actually met. It's vaguely reassuring when things like that happen - suggests that you get second chances to make friends. One of these days I'll post an entry about how I actually got involved with ICSF in the first place.
Anyway, back to the point. Now, the events of this story take place in late June 1997, just after I'd moved to the studio flat. This was evidently a building that had been converted into single room flats, so you had three levels (basement, street level, 1st floor), each of which had its own front door. Inside, each one had three separate rooms, each with a locking door. I was in the basement, in the middle room. London being what it is, I had absolutely no contact with the people who lived in the adjacent rooms, let alone the people in the rest of the building upstairs. I sometimes saw the woman who lived in the back room through the window (there was a courtyard thing outside), but that was it.
One day, I got home from work, and opened the front door (from street) as usual. When I came down the corridor to my room, I saw my sports bag lying on the floor (i.e. outside my room). I then saw my door, which had been smashed open - the frame had literally come away from the wall. I picked up my bag and took it inside, which was a mistake - I should have left everything untouched. However, aside from that I didn't move anything. Evidently I'd had a break-in, so I called the police. Unfortunately, my phone line hadn't been installed at this point, and I didn't have a mobile, so I had to wander off to the nearest phone box, leaving the house unattended, which I wasn't wild about. Still, I got back as soon as I could, and nothing happened in my absence, which is good. I had a look around, and nothing was taken, which was a relief. Admittedly, it wasn't easy to move around in my room - since I was only there temporarily, I didn't bother unpacking boxes, so the room was crammed full. Anyone who saw my room here after we first moved in will get the idea :) It was a bit of a sliding block puzzle - you know, those 3x3 grids, where one square is missing, so you slide the squares around to scramble the picture, then try to put it back together again. Anyway, that may have contributed to the lack of ransacking.
When the policeman arrived, neither of my neighbours were around. I showed him my room, and then said "I can't really let you into the other rooms as such, since that permission isn't mine to give, but under the circumstances I'm sure they wouldn't mind you going in to look around". So, he had a look around the back room, then moved onto the front room (i.e. nearest to street). He then came back out, and asked me a few questions about the woman who lived there. Since I'd never met her, I wasn't able to contribute much useful information. So:
"Do you know her?" "No"
"Do you know what she does for a living?" "No"
"Have you ever heard any unusual noises coming through the wall?" "No"
He then invited me in to take a look around, which is probably a bit dubious, but what the hell. So, I wandered in, and had a look round. It seemed a lot tidier than my room (you could actually see the floor!), but other than that, nothing significant stood out to me, so I asked him what I was looking at. He pointed me at the corner, at which point I noticed various sexual aids. At this point, I belatedly caught on - he was suggesting that this woman was a prostitute. That's not actually illegal in and of itself - only soliciting is. So, if I have sex with a prostitute, and pay her money, that's fine (well, legally speaking, if not morally). If she approaches me, and says "Hey, looking for a good time, big boy?", then that's illegal. The main concern here was that it might be one of her clients who'd broken into our flat. Anyway, he left me his card, and told me to contact him if I had any more info, e.g. if I discovered anything else missing.
After he left, I waited around for my neighbours to return. The woman from the back room got back first. (I would use names here, but I've forgottten them), so I explained the situation to her. She lost a few pound coins that were stacked up on her electricity meter, but nothing else. She wasn't too enthusiastic about living in a brothel, and so she was talking about ways to get the other woman evicted. Personally, I wasn't too fussed - it didn't bother me to live next door to a prostitute, but I didn't want her acting as a beacon to any burglars in the neighbourhood. One interesting thing in our contract with the landlord was a "You can't use your flat as a place of business" clause, so she suggested that this would apply here.
Later on, I had a chat to the prostitute. She'd already spoken to the back-room lady at this point, and was slightly miffed about being blamed for everything, as well as being a bit defensive about her chosen career. Anyway, she then enlightened me about a few aspects of what she did. Basically, she didn't hang around on street corners, or advertise via phone boxes. Instead, she'd get dressed up, go to one of the posh hotels in the area, and hang around at the bar waiting for someone to buy her a drink. After that, they'd either go up to his room, unless he had his wife there or something, in which case she'd bring him back to her flat. The point was, the people she dealt with would drive BMWs etc - they wouldn't be breaking into flats to steal a few quid, because they're so rich that they don't need the money. She also commented that there are a lot of prostitutes in that area - she said that if we went out into the street, she could point out all the applicable houses in the road ("That one, that one, that one..."). The other point was that her clients (for want of better word) would never come to the flat on their own, since they know that she might not be in. They would only come along with her.
So, after this, it looked like the most likely explanation was that the thieves had been kids looking for cash. That's why they'd ignored the TV etc in my room - you'd need to sell them to convert them to cash. Mind you, I did take the next day off work, so that I could guard my room until the door got fixed. My concern was that they might come back later to grab more stuff, having done a recce. Fortunately, they didn't, and we didn't have any more trouble after the locks were changed. Mind you, there was a break-in shortly afterwards in one of the neigbouring buildings. There were a couple of girls there from Sweden or something, and they wound up cornering the guy with a frying pan until the police arrived. Impressive!
After that, I did have a few more dealings with the prostitute. On one occasion, I saw her just as she was heading out for the evening, and I was quite stunned at how different she looked - very shiny! (If you think about 10 year old girl dressing up for birthday party, it was that kind of dress.) Another time, a bloke turned up at the flat one Sunday afternoon, when she wasn't around. He wanted to come in, because he said he had some post delivered here. I was a bit dubious, since she'd said that this wouldn't happen. Anyway, he said that she was his girlfriend, which seemed rather unlikely, so I asked him whether he was sure, and he said yes. I then asked "Given what she does for a living, are you quite sure she's your girlfriend?" and he still said yes. He then gave me her mobile number, so I phoned her up to check (I'm sure she was delighted to hear from me...). She said that it was ok - he was one of her regulars, so I let him in to get his post, then he left. I guess that's an interesting insight into that world - people like him try to delude themselves into thinking they're in a normal relationship. When I saw her later, she thanked me for letting him in - it wasn't a problem for me, I just wanted to check that he was on the level, after what she'd said before.
Finally, there was the police raid in the middle of the night. I was woken up one morning at about 3am by knocking on the door. Putting this in the right context, I used to wear contact lenses (before I had the laser surgery), but I didn't have time to put them in, and I didn't have a current pair of glasses available to hand. So, I wandered over to the front door, and opened it a little bit. A blob on the other side said "Police - can we come in". Being diligent, I asked to see some ID first, and he showed me his wallet. Unfortunately, I only had normal vision for about 1 foot unaided, so I peered at this thing, and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt :) So, I opened the door fully, and about 9 people poured in, some in uniform, some not. They then said "Oh, sorry, were you asleep?" At this point, I was standing there in my underwear, and I thought "Yes, of course I was asleep, what else would I be doing at this time of night?!" I then considered that there was one other plausible alternative, given my neighbour, so I bit my tongue and settled for "Yes". They then asked me some questions about the prostitute. We clarified that yes, I knew what she did for a living. They then asked me if I'd seen her recently, if I knew where she was, etc., but I wasn't able to help them out with any useful info. They then seriously considered breaking her door down, but in the end they decided not to, and left. I asked if I could take a message, but they said no, so I don't know what that was about. On the plus side, it gave me a good excuse for being late into work the next day :)
So, here endeth the prelude. This was actually going to be the short story, so I'm not sure how long the main one will wind up being. Tune in later for the next gripping installment...