Tim Dowling: how long does it take to be broken by a 4.50am alarm?

<span>Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Just before we moved into our house, I was given a quick demonstration of the existing alarm system. I paid almost no attention. I will leave it alone, I thought, and it will leave me alone.

Two years later, the alarm remains off, or mostly off; the panel in the hall has a yellow light that blinks 24 hours a day. Sometimes when it’s very dark its pulse can be felt through the whole house – a faint reflection glancing off walls, reaching up the stairs. I hardly notice it any more.

It is late morning. I am sitting in my office shed when my wife comes to the door.

“The alarm is doing something weird,” she says. I am momentarily bewildered.

“The alarm?” I say.

“Yes,” she says.

“You mean the car?” I say.

“No, the house,” she says.

“Our house?” I say.

“Are you doing this on purpose?” she says.

I follow her through the kitchen and into the hall. The alarm isn’t going off, but issuing some kind of warning: a loud, two-note chirp that sounds inside the house, not outside. It’s more than annoying; there is something accusatory in it.

The panel is lit up, with a notification scrolling by – something to do with a numbered error message.

“It wants the security code,” I say. “What is the security code?”

“I don’t know,” my wife says. “I’ve never known.”

“Me, neither,” I say. “Wait.” I take out my keyring, on which hangs a little plastic fob I was given two years ago, bearing the logo of the alarm company. I touch it to the panel and the noise stops.

“I’ll invoice you,” I say.

This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. The alarm sounds the same warning a week later, and again I silence it with the fob. After that it begins a new cycle, going off every few nights at precisely 4.50am. I trudge down the stairs with my keys and trudge back up again, but I can’t go back to sleep.

It takes no more than a week for the alarm to break me. I have trouble getting to sleep in the first place, not knowing if tonight is one of the nights I will be woken at 4.50am. Sometimes the youngest one beats me downstairs, armed with a spare fob he found in a drawer. The first time it happened, I thought he was a burglar. My heart continued to thud for a further hour.

“I called the alarm people,” my wife says. “They wanted to charge me £260 just to look at it, so I told them to fuck off.”

“Did you?” I say.

“No, I was actually very polite,” she says.

“Good,” I say, “because I think they might have us over a barrel.” I can find no manual or online remedies, other than the suggestion that I purchase an annual maintenance contract. I begin to suspect the alarm has been remotely programmed to torture me until I give in.

“It’s too expensive,” my wife says.

“I think the alarm might be the most expensive thing we own,” I say. “Our best hope is that someone breaks in and steals it.”

The next day I am in a recording studio, eyes itching, when my wife rings.

“So I was coming back from the shops and I saw one of their vans parked in the road,” she says.

“Who?” I say.

“The alarm company,” she says.

“You mean they’re spying on us?”

“No,” she says. “I knocked on the guy’s window and gave him 20 quid to come in and look at the box.”

“He just happened to be there?” I say. “By coincidence?”

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“What is wrong with you?” she says. “Anyway, he said there was a fault with one of the sensors, back door or something, and he just turned that bit off. It took five minutes.”

“Wow,” I say.

“What you mean is…” she says.

“What I mean is, well done.”

“Correct,” she says.

I am reminded, not for the first time, of the extent to which my life is made secure by the vigilance of an actual capable person. That night I sleep soundly and gratefully, until 4.50am, when I am woken by the alarm.