Life can be cruel sometimes. I’d been living happily and peaceably in central Tunis, in the same ground-floor flat, for three years. Then, just one week before I was due to leave the place, I received an unwelcome visit – from a burglar.
I was away from the flat on Saturday and Sunday night the weekend before my departure. When I arrived home on Monday morning, I entered the hallway (which has no windows along it, only doors) and immediately wondered why I could see sunlight. I also wondered why this sunlight seemed to penetrate the hallway at a low level, along the floor. The reason was because someone had smashed through the bottom right-hand panel in the kitchen door, which I’d locked before I left.
When I checked the kitchen, I found that the two back doors leading from the kitchen into the little courtyard behind the flat had been bust open too. An intruder had (1) got into the apartment building; (2) climbed out of the window in the stairwell and lowered himself into the courtyard — or to use the Scottish term for it, the ‘back court’; (3) managed somehow to wrench open the outer back door; (4) smashed a glass pane in the inner back door, reached in and unlocked it; and (5) burrowed through the kitchen door into the rest of the flat.
In the middle of these operations, the burglar had dislodged the refrigerator’s plug from its socket, with the result that all the ice in the freezer compartment had melted and the milk in the fridge had gone sour. This made me conclude that the break-in had happened on the first night I’d been away, Saturday, rather than the second night.
Also, at around ten o’clock on Friday night, someone had rung my doorbell. When I opened the door, nobody was outside. I’d put this down to a local kid being a pain-in-the-butt. (It happened after Iftar, when my neighbours had eaten following their day’s fasting for Ramadan, and at this time the kids normally seem a bit high.) When I mentioned the doorbell incident to the policeman who came to investigate, he replied, “That was him.” The burglar had obviously monitored the place for a day or two beforehand, checking whether I was in or not.
My bedroom had been turned upside down, although the living room escaped with only a row of books being swept off their shelf in the bookcase and the pockets of a coat (full of old supermarket receipts and bus tickets) on the coat-stand being emptied. After a preliminary check, I concluded that the thief had made off with two rings from a jewellery box — yes, I’m afraid I’m a Rio Ferdinand / Nicholas Sarkozy-style king of bling these days — an old laptop from my workplace and 235 euros, 35 euros of which had been in my desk-drawer and the other 200 had been stashed in a hiding place, which was at the back of my first-aid kit. The contents of that kit were scattered across the bedroom floor.
However, what he took wasn’t particularly valuable. The rings had come from a Thai street-market and the laptop had a faulty keyboard and was about to be decommissioned by my office anyway. Also, he could’ve taken plenty more. None of my ornaments from the Tunisian medina had been touched. He also left unscathed an eight-year-old bottle of French red wine that I’d been saving for a special occasion, which suggests the burglar was a strict, if hardly a good, Muslim. And he’d been untempted by my CD collection, despite it containing albums by Dying Foetus, the Mad Capsule Markets, Cradle of Filth and Extreme Noise Terror, which clearly indicates he had no taste in music. Of course, if he’d tried to carry away anything else, he would’ve had difficulty climbing out of my back court again.
If this burglar had had more suss, he might also have taken my collection of memory sticks, which between them have a great deal of storage space. Thankfully, he didn’t take my passport either – I’m sure passports can fetch a price on the black market if you know who to sell them to.
What probably cost more than the stuff he’d nicked was the damage done to the doors, particularly the kitchen door. For that reason, my landlord and I visited the local police station later on Monday to file a report. Apparently, the police station in the adjacent district was recently closed down, with the result that my local one is now doing the job of two police stations – that probably explains why the place seemed as crowded and chaotic as the precinct in Hill Street Blues when we got there. It was a drawn-out process, sitting at a police desk and explaining the incident to a cop who only seemed able to type the report using one finger, while a succession of colleagues and members of the public kept coming in and interrupting him, to shake his hand and say hello, to chat, to complain, to argue, to beg him to investigate a different case. (I wondered if this police-station culture of endless distractions was deliberate – you were left waiting so many times that finally you felt very small and powerless indeed in front of that desk.)
With the trip to the police station, and the considerable conferring I had to do with my landlord, and the several visits I had from workmen who came to fix the doors, I must’ve lost about two days. So time was probably my biggest expense. As I was due to leave Tunisia a week later and was busy preparing for my departure, the break-in caused a lot of inconvenience that way.
However, there was something of a happy ending. When I started to clear up the papers, clothes and general debris that covered my bedroom floor, I discovered the envelope that the 200 euros had resided in at the back of my first-aid kit. Inside the envelope, I found the 200 euros, untouched. The burglar had torn apart the first-aid kit but somehow missed the cash hidden inside it – which meant he’d only made off with the 35 euros in the drawer. I suspect that after breaking through the kitchen door, which surely made a lot of noise, he was panicking and went through my belongings in a rush, not pausing to check anything thoroughly. Alternatively, he may just have been a shit burglar.
Incidentally, I interpreted the fact that the eight-year-old bottle of French wine had survived as a sign. There was no longer any point in saving it for a special occasion. So I drank it immediately.