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In the eighteen years that I have been renting out property I have encountered many different characters from dozens of countries around the world. I have spent sleepless nights worrying whether I would be able to pay the mortgage when dishonest tenants refused to pay their rent, and have had physical confrontations that left me shaken and full of doubts as to if I was really cut out to be a landlord.
Once, a police detective came knocking on my door to ask about a tenant who had left the property a couple of years earlier. The young man in question had lived in an en-suite room with his girlfriend and I always found him pleasant and sociable. The detective asked me what I remembered about him and I said that I remembered him well. A tall, well dressed young man, always clean and well groomed with a perfect colgate smile. His girlfriend was a match for him and they looked the ideal couple, always charming and almost the perfect tenants. Almost.
The evening quiet of the house was occasionally broken by the sound of their raised voices that would build quickly to a raging row, before calm was restored quite suddenly, punctuated by the soft sound of a woman sobbing.
“Really?” the detective had asked keenly when I relayed my recollections to him, “That is most interesting.” he had murmured, scribbling furiously into his notebook.
“Why do you want to know about him?” I had asked, “They left here two years ago.”
This is a murder enquiry sir, we are trying to build up a picture of the young lady’s last few weeks before her death, and gain some insight into her relationship with the suspect.”
His words had shocked me, I remembered how they had left, full of hope for the future, looking forward to the birth of their first baby…
It wasn’t only her life that had been so brutally extinguished. I was stunned at how badly wrong things had gone for them, and how little I really knew of the reality of my tenants’ lives. I gave the detective some names of other residents who had lived in the property at the same time and he thanked me and left – I never saw him again.
After that incident I had tried to maintain a more professional distance from my tenants, making any decisions concerning them on the facts of their situation only, and disregarding, as best I could, the personalities of the people I was dealing with.
As I sat across the table from Yusef that morning, I knew that however sorry I felt for him, he had to go. I gave him two weeks to find alternative accommodation and he thanked me and turned to leave. “Wait,” I said, standing and taking the picture of the wall that hid the small takings safe behind. I took out the key from my pocket, unlocked the safe and removed the ball of cannabis from within.
“I think this is yours.” I said, handing it to the astonished Yusef.
“Thank you sir.” He said, then turned and left.
I was much relieved when around ten days later he texted me to say that he had vacated his room, leaving it clean and tidy, the keys in the top draw of the bedside cabinet.
Over the next year or so he came back to me on two or three occasions with nowhere else to go and I allowed him to stay for a few nights while he sought alternative accommodation. My wife, having seen his skeletal build on a visit to the house had also been concerned and she took to giving me small parcels of dinner in Tupperware containers to give to the emaciated Gambian. On each occasion he received the food with grace and humility and his gratitude at such a simple human kindness was a clear indication of how these things were so palpably absent from his day to day existence.
On that wet November night that I confronted him in the basement lounge of my property, It had been almost six months since I had seen Yusef and those months had not been kind to him. His face and frame were thinner than ever and a cyst on his right cheek that I had noticed the first day I met him had grown considerably larger, but Yusef was not even registered with a doctor and had certainly sought no advice about the growth.
“You can’t just go breaking into people’s houses like this,” I said, angry that after helping him in the past he had chosen to sneak into my property and frighten my tenants.
“It is so cold now, I will die if I have to spend the winter on the streets, I am not made for this weather.” The desperation was written so vividly on his face that my anger evaporated and I began to think about where I could put him, if only for a few days.
The attic room was once again empty as the insulation in that room was poor, and the young girl who had been its last occupant had left for a more comfortable existence in a neighbouring establishment.
“Some ground rules Yusef and these are non-negotiable.” I said as I withheld the keys from his eager grasp. “You will not bring any guest into this building, and you will not conduct your business anywhere near this house, or you are out.” He nodded acceptance. “Also, you will not bring your pot into this building, is that perfectly clear?” He nodded again, and with the terms agreed and against my better judgement, I handed him the keys.
The next couple of months passed without incident or complaint and it seemed that the ground rules I had established under duress were actually working. It was just after Christmas, a period when there is always some movement within the house as people return to their own countries or just change their accommodation for something better or more convenient, when things came to a head once more.
I had a large room in the basement available and a young man had made an appointment to come and see it after he finished work at 9pm. I greeted him at the door when he arrived and we headed inside for a brief tour of the facilities. After viewing the bathrooms we descended the stairs into the basement for a look at the room in question. The room was situated at the front of the house, off of the hallway that ran from the basement front door right up to the stairs we had just come down.
I took out my keys to open the bedroom door when to my huge surprise the basement entrance door swung open and a figure stepped over the threshold. For the security of the building this door is supposed to be locked, but due to fire regulations it must be able to be easily opened from within and so has become a shortcut to the street from residents who are in the basement.
So it was that on this night the door had been left unlocked, and this guy had let himself in. I immediately stepped towards him to prevent him coming any further into the building. “Whoa, where do you think you are going?” I challenged him, all thoughts of danger and personal risk out of my head as I sought to protect my property. The prospective tenant was frightened and cowered by the stairs as I confronted the intruder.
“Upstairs,” replied the stranger defiantly, “to my room.” He was tall and wiry with Arab features and colouring, his clothes were dishevelled, his eyes were bloodshot and he loomed over me menacingly.
I stepped closer to him gripping the door frame with my right arm and placing my left hand on the opposite wall. I was committed now, the only way this guy was coming any further into my building was through me. “You don’t live here, and you are not letting yourself into my private property. If you want to come in and see someone you know, ring the doorbell upstairs like everybody else and wait to be admitted. Now, off you go.”
“Get out of my way,” he hissed, his lip curled into a sneer. There was wildness in his eyes that warned me that this guy was on something and was clearly dangerous. My mind was racing as I sized up the situation and our relative positions. I was braced with one leg slightly behind the other to prevent the guy from lunging at me and pushing me over. If he tried it, I would twist and throw him over my leg to the floor, or so I planned.
He stood with his feet just inside the doorway; the plastic frame of the UPVC door lining was just a couple of inches behind his ankles. The door was wide open outwards and about five feet behind him was a brick wall, with the stone steps leading up to the pavement behind him and to his right.
His left hand grabbed my right forearm and he began exerting increasing pressure to remove my arm from the door frame. He began digging long fingernails into my forearm and leant close to my face. “Get out of my fucking way!” he hissed.
I had to act quickly and with the element of surprise. I tore my hand free from the frame wrenching it from his grasp and shoved him violently in the chest with both hands. His momentum carried him backwards and just as I planned he tripped backwards over the plastic frame behind him. He fell clattering into the brick wall behind him immediately leaping to his feet and launching himself at me.
As he came headlong at me, head jutting forward, murder in his eyes I saw, as if I were a bystander, my right fist smash across his left cheekbone sending him sprawling back outside to collapse onto the stone steps.
“Look what you did!” He screamed, looking up at me, an ugly tear about an inch and a half long had opened in his cheekbone just below his eye where my fist had connected and blood was beginning to run freely from the wound.
I grabbed the open door and pulled it quickly closed, locking the would-be intruder outside my property. Only now did my body begin to shake with adrenaline pumping through my veins. I turned to my prospective tenant who sat cowering in terror on the inside stairs, his eyes wild with fear at the scene that had just played out before him.
“You saw that, I had no choice but to hit him.” I said, as I began to worry that I might face consequences for the damage to the crazy guy’s face. The small man nodded agreement and I thought about my next move. I took out my phone and called the police.
An hour later the crazy guy had been arrested and the police were asking me if I wanted to press charges. I declined and the my prospective tenant slipped quietly away as I said goodbye to the police. Needless to say, he never took the room.
A week passed and I was testing the fire alarm when Yusef appeared by my shoulder from the doorway to the kitchen. “Can I speak with you please sir?” he asked, his face a mask of guilt.
“Sure, what’s on your mind?” I answered.
“I wanted to tell you that I am leaving. I am moving into a flat with my new girlfriend in two weeks’ time and you can keep the deposit, it’s fine.” He shuffled awkwardly as he spoke and I could see that something else was bothering him.
“That man who tried to come in was a customer of mine. He followed me back here and found out where I live and he comes to my room to try and by my weed. I tell him no but he keeps coming back. He does not listen to me, but he will not come back now. I am really sorry James.”
“Thanks for telling me.” I said lamely, unable to think of anything better to say. He nodded and went back to the kitchen, leaving me to finish my testing.
I would like to say that all my troubles with the property business left the day that Yusef moved out of my house but that wouldn’t be true. The house is located well in central Bournemouth and I have to be vigilant to stop someone else from taking over where he left off.
The funny thing about it is that I find that I genuinely care about this guy. Yusef has a kind of honour and nobility about him that is quite incongruous with the trade he plies. He is a committed Muslim and has always treated me with the utmost respect. He confided information to me that left him vulnerable if I chose to act upon it, which was a big risk for him.
Occasionally I bump into him in Bournemouth and we always stop and speak. I don’t know what the future holds for him, but for the time being his life appears to be stable and I wish him well, for as long as things stay that way, I won’t have to worry about having a Drug Dealer in my Attic, any more.