It was the kind of cold, wet, nasty November evening when you think that Summer will probably never come again. My phone began ringing around 10.30pm which I knew from experience could only mean trouble. I let it ring and ring until it went quiet, then I picked it up to see who had been calling and if I could get away with leaving whatever the matter was until tomorrow.
As I held it in my hand it began to ring again. Arben Room 3SN flashed on the screen and with a resigned sigh I answered. A few minutes later I was in the car, a huge bunch of keys on the seat beside me, on my way to a house in Bournemouth, where my wife and I let rooms to tenants on short term contracts. The house is a large Victorian terraced town house, arranged over four floors plus, reached by a narrow twisting stair, an attic room at the very top of the house that would have quartered the servants in days long passed.
There are 10 letting rooms in the building and at this time we are fully let, with a good atmosphere in what is an incredibly cosmopolitan house. I have learned over the years to try and keep a good mix of nationalities and gender in the house; too many men and the women feel intimidated (and the house gets too dirty), too many of one nationality and the communal rooms are ‘annexed’ by a one-nation cliq, driving minority nationals to leave.
I am the police, the judge and jury, the mediation service in times of dispute, emergency door opener when keys are lost or misplaced, maintenance guy, and upon occasion, secretary general of the United Nations that live under my roof.
On this particular night, I let Arben back into his room which he has accidentally locked himself out of (again) and say goodnight and begin to leave. As I make my way back down to the ground floor a rotund middle-aged Brazilian lady by the name of Marta opens her door and asks for a quiet word.
“Please Mr James,” she whispers to me glancing around to make sure no-one hears her, “there is a man sleeping in the lounge every night and I am frightened to go downstairs. Can you do something?”
“How is he getting in Marta? Is someone letting him in?” I ask, feeling a little apprehensive.
“The catch on the lounge window is broken and he lets himself in after 12 o’clock. I am afraid of him Mr James.” I look at my phone to check the time; 11.15pm. I phone my wife and tell her what is going on and steel myself for the wait and the forthcoming confrontation.
At first I decide to sit and wait in the darkness of the lounge, but the light from a nearby streetlamp streams in through the window leaving me exposed to view from outside. I want to catch whoever it is so I decide to wait in the hallway for the intruder to arrive.
My nerves are slowly unravelling in the stillness of the night when I hear a soft fumbling from within the room and the scrabbling sound of someone climbing in through an open window. My heart hammering in my chest, I throw open the door and flick a switch flooding the room with light.
The intruder stands before me, his shoulders slumped in a defeated posture that tells me that no violence will be forthcoming and I am simultaneously relieved and dismayed to see the familiar features of an ex-resident.
“Yusef! What the hell do you think you are doing sneaking in through my window like this? What has happened to you?” I demand of the intruder.
“My girlfriend threw me out on the street and I have no place to go. I have been staying here for the last three nights. I am very sorry sir, but what could I do? I am desperate.”
I look at the pitiful figure before me and I know I cannot throw him out in this weather. He is around five feet eleven inches tall but can’t be more than 9 stone wringing wet. He is wearing black jeans and a black Harrington jacket with a dirty red baseball cap and a pair of trainers with the tongues pulled out in front of the laces. Around his neck a heavy gold chain glitters brightly on top of his patterned cream t-shirt. His clothes though baggy, cannot conceal how painfully thin his body and limbs must be beneath his oversize garments. His skin is as black as his jeans and his eye-whites are yellow and rheumy and streaked with tiny red veins.
The pungent aroma of cannabis wafts around him with every slight gesture leaving absolutely no room for doubt that this man is in point of fact a drug dealer. Beside him is a black plastic bin liner containing the sum total of all his worldly goods. I can’t help but feel sad to look upon him, cold damp and homeless as he is, because I know his story.
I first met Yusef two years earlier after he telephoned me looking for a room in a hurry. For many people that alone might cause internal alarm bells to ring, but for me, catering as I do for a predominantly foreign clientele, it was not out of the norm. Many people come to me on the day they arrive to Bournemouth, without lodgings, employment or even a plan.
The only room I had available was the attic room and he was very happy to take it for eighty pounds a week. He paid the two weeks rent in advance plus the deposit and moved straight in, never once missing his payments. He was polite and courteous, always referring to me as ‘sir’ and all seemed well – at least to begin with.
It wasn’t very long however, before I began to notice the strong smell of cannabis emanating from his room and was forced to confront him over it. He explained that he liked to smoke ‘weed’ but he did not drink and would never cause me any trouble. I explained that I could not allow him to smoke ‘weed’ on the premises and that if he continued to do so he would have to leave.
Things seemed to improve after that and I didn’t smell cannabis for some time, yet after a couple of months the other residents began to comment that he was having a lot of visitors. “They are my friends,” he replied with a shrug when I asked about his guests and I had no evidence to the contrary.
A few days later a resident called me to say that the police had attended my property and raided Yusef’s room. I went to see him that night and he said he had done nothing wrong and that they had found nothing of interest in his room.
Over the following days and weeks the number of visitors to Yusef’s room declined yet he took to popping out with increasing regularity, only to return after just ten or fifteen minutes. I had a pretty good idea what he was up to, but no firm evidence.
One day, while working on some plumbing repairs in the kitchen I had to take a floorboard up and found a secret stash. Under the loose floorboard was a tennis ball sized bundle of cannabis that was decidedly more than the threshold for what can be defined as ‘for personal use’. I took the ball of drugs and hid it elsewhere and waited for the owner to come and reclaim his wares.
I didn’t have to wait too long…
Read Part II here