THE suzi feay COLUMN
IT'S 11pm when we fall out of the curry house, insulated against the cold by a lining of beer and bhuna, and bracing up to the half-hour walk home through the freezing streets. But fate has other plans. A minicab nosedives to a halt beside us, the door flies open and a voice barks: "Get in!" We recognise the voice. It's the friend we were meant to meet two hours ago in the pub, only she didn't turn up. "Hey, weird," we giggle. "We were just talking about you ..." "GET IN!" she screams, and we fall over the car and each other in our efforts to comply.

We are about to launch into a hey-wow-what-happened-to-you monologue when she announces: "It's too late for me to go home and start cooking now, so I'm coming round to your place. What food have you got?"

To the drunk, all questions are logical. "Erm, baked beans," I hazard. "Tinned soup." There is a stiffish pause. "Bread?" she queries. "No." "Cheese?" "No." "Ham?" "No." "Mushrooms?" "No." "Bacon?" "No." Tomatoes?" "Yes," we say in unison. We're pretty sure we have those. Well, maybe one.

Normally, you understand, I'm one of those people whose cupboards bulge with provender. Ciabatta, pickled lemons, pancetta, chorizo, black olives, tinned chick peas, almonds, chicken stock, tortillas, garlic, every known vegetable and bushels of parsley. Only not tonight. We've been promising to go to the supermarket for a week. The front room is strewn with flyers from dial-a-curry and pizza-quick. So the litany continues: "Salami?" "Nooo!" "Salad?" "No." "Potatoes?" "No." "Pasta?" "Think so

"Well, I'm sure you can rustle up something," she says confidently. What does the driver make of all this? He remains professionally impassive, until, that is, I start to give him directions. "You can't turn left at the top here," I bleat, "You'd best -" "Oi," he says forcefully, "Oo's the minicab driver, then?" "You are," I mumble, wondering how the evening managed to go so pear-shaped at a time when the only appointment I might reasonably be expected to keep is the one with my pillow. In the kitchen, we squat like pagans in a semi-circle round the bright halo of the fridge. A jar of mayo (the devil's spunk), a pot of capers, a block of creamed coconut, a blob here, a shaving there, a smear of unidentified matter. The carrots have withered into pantomime witches' noses. Wordlessly, I hold up a single, plump, green chili, like the Buddha displaying a lotus flower. "Hmmm," says our friend. "It'll have to be an omelette, with, perhaps, cheese ...?" "I told you, we don't have any cheese!" "Or ham ...?" "No!" "Mush-?" At that instant, our eyes light upon a pot of pesto sauce. Having worshipped the fridge, we raise imploring hands to the cupboard. Our friend is just saying bitterly: "I never knew anyone who didn't have a measly packet of pasta" when I discover, under the sink, some spaghetti in a thigh-high glass bottle.

I set to work, peeling the papery skins off the flaccid spring onions and inspecting the tomato, unobtrusively cutting out a mushy bit. Into the oil with them. Then I discover a shiny yellow rind of parmesan wrapped in silver foil; it looks like one of my heels at bathtime, but the grater soon reconstitutes it to fluffiness and whiteness. Meanwhile, my friend's eye has turned to the selection of beers displayed on the counter, ready for a lively game of "Beers of the world". Her finger unerringly points to the most expensive, the nicest. "I'll have ... that one!" I grit my teeth and think bravely about Arab hospitality - nothing but the best for my guest! Finally, all the items assiduously sizzled, boiled and grated are hastily introduced to one another and shoved on a plate. It looks remarkably good. "There," I say, "if you had that at the River Cafe, it'd cost you 12 quid."

She polishes it off with gusto. At this point pyjamas make an appearance. They have no visible effect on our guest. Joyously waving her mug around, she spills tea on the carpet. Then she leans on the radiator, clunks it, and says: "Did you know your radiator makes a funny clunking noise?" Clunk, clunk, clunk, go our heads. Finally she sniffs: "So you're not going to walk me home then? I have to go up that dark street all on my own?" and sails out.

It isn't until next morning when I start tackling pans and plates daubed with pesto and stuck with blackened bits of spring onion, that I recall we had gone out the previous evening precisely because we couldn't face cooking or washing up. Slowly, smearily, the previous night comes back into focus ... the beer ... the radiator ... the stain on the carpet ... the nerve! But then I feel guilty: why am I so grudging and surly? It's not as if I haven't been a serial abuser of hospitality in my time. I would love to say "Mi casa es su casa," but I'm afraid I'm more on the lines of "haven't you got a casa of your own to go to?"

Always one to act on an ungenerous impulse, I wipe the suds from my hands and ring up my friend up with the express purpose of calling her a monster. She sounds blithely unrepentant. "It's not that I'm a monster," she trills. "It's that you are a saint." Ah, friends! Can't live without them, don't have to live with them. Thank God.