On our road, #3 is a large, three storey double-fronted-side-extended house, that has been steadily going to rack-and-ruin ever since we lived here.
Many years ago the extension played host to a smart, but slightly odd nick-nack shop, now closed. For a while a sign in the front window mysteriously boasted colour photocopying facilities (although I never saw anyone use them) but for the last five years or so it's been completely empty and, despite occasional visits from a mysterious absentee owner who turns up to dispose of the avalanche of junk mail, it gets slowly shabbier, and more derelict each year. High up, a couple of windows are broken. Some missing roof tiles hint at a damp interior and urban foxes come and go from the overgrown back garden.
What circumstances, I often wonder, would lead someone to sit on a substantial asset like that and simply let it lie fallow?
Then, two months ago, the vast chain and padlock that had previously secured the side gate disappeared, and that evening a mysterious ghostly blue light illuminated an upstairs room.
"They've got squatters" said Mrs Botogol to me, straight away. And that evening we lit a large fire, drew the curtains against the frost-bitten darkness and gathered our children to our skirts.
The following week the bay window was covered over from the inside with cardboard and that night two separate lights glowed. A recycling bin appeared on the pavement (environmentally-concerned squatters?) but the front garden stated to fill with rubbish (not in their back yard). A week or so later a broken window and a printed notice next to the front door [We live here. We intend to stay. There is always at least one person one the premises] signified a battle fought and won: they know their squatters' rights.
"Squatters in that house at the end then? " asked my cycling mates. "At least you don't need to worry about keeping a bike like yours chained up"
"Squatters! Can you bloody believe it?" exclaimed our neighbours at #20 who have been hoping to buy #3 since 2002 when they slipped their first hopeful note through the front door.
"Sodding Squatters" said #5 grimly, who are trying to sell their house. "Who's going to buy ours now?"
"It's impossible to get squatters out, you know", said from #54, round at ours last week for a glass of wine and a smoked-salmon blini. "There'll be fifty of them living there by Easter, loud parties, drugs, burglaries, and the police will just let them. In seventeen years they'll own that house"
In our road, we don't like squatters. We like property rights.
"What if someone squatted in our house?" asked my earwigging children, "while we're skiing, how would we get them out".
Inwardly I shuddered. How indeed? Squatters are the unspoken nightmare for every urban homeowner. Outwardly I was reassuring.
"Squatters only squat in empty houses. You don't worry about them".
"But our house will be empty. While we are skiing"
"Look, it's not very likely, darling. Squatters aren't common. They're rare. They're like.... bears: Everyone worries about them but, actually, hardly anyone ever actually sees one. They avoid humans. They're more scared of humans than we are of them. Though, of course, squatters, obviously, are human" (at this, Mrs 54 snorted sardonically into her chardonnay)
The children stared at me. "Squatters are like bears?"
"Yes, bears, Ha! Ha!" I sensed the conversation was spiralling out of control "Just be grateful we don't live up north where there really are bears. and then you'd have something to worry about"
"Why one earth would we ever go and live up north, Daddy? It's muddy, and cold and there's nothing to do. I'm not coming. I'm not leaving my school. I'll find somewhere else to live."
"You could always squat at number 3" chimed in her sister.
Outside, I could hear an urban fox searching our dustbins for scraps of food. Or was it an urban squatter searching for old bank statements? Either way, the naked city throbbed with danger.
"Are there really bears up north?" asked my youngest.
This morning I left for work at half-six and just as I passed #3 the side gate opened and out came a squatter. There was no fur, teeth or claws: it was far worse: a hoody and rucksack. I wondered if there really was anyone left on the premises.
He walked in front of me all the way to the station where he, too, caught the 06:41 to London Waterloo.