He's wearing a car coat. Flashes a card at me. "Bailiffs, love." From the last of the door a matching man in acrylic sweater appears. Looks a bit like Harvey Keitel, only less pretty.
"Bailiffs, love. Come in accordance with our letter of the 27th of last month."
"We've come to take items to the value of pounds 53.17."
Feeling slightly queasy, and wondering what value they'd put on my second-hand TV, I say, "You've completely lost me".
"You're Jane Tobin, right?"
"Oh. No. She doesn't live here. Never did, actually."
He laughs one of those cynical laughs that are the fruit of long practice and are obviously intended to be a bit ominous. "Oh, yeah. They all say that."
"No, really. She stayed here for six weeks about 18 months ago. She doesn't live here."
Acrylic Jumper pipes up. "We've heard it all before, love. We're empowered to take the goods, you know."
"Not my goods you're not. Look, wait here." I try to push the door closed, but to no avail. Leaving them looming on the doorstep, I run up and find my passport. We establish that I am the householder, as they call it, and, in the junk mail on the bottom stair, find two letters addressed to Jane demanding settlement of a poll tax payment due to a seaside council four years before.
Suddenly they've turned all nice. Do I know where they could find her? If I find out, will I be sure to get in touch with them? Oh, yes, I say. After all, you've been so charming. They clump off in their boots. I return to work.
That's the trouble with guests: you never know what liabilities they're going to bring with them. Jane was delightful when she was here, a friend of a friend with accommodation problems. We had a couple of drinks after she found a flat, then dropped out of touch, as you do. And she left me her bailiffs in remembrance of her.
Everyone's had one: the guest from hell, the one who brings back her pick-ups, so her host keeps finding strange men scratching themselves in the kitchen in the small hours. The one who breaks things, and hides them rather than 'fess up. The one who finishes the loo paper and doesn't tell you. The one who sits around and watches you cook and then says, "But I don't eat pasta."
I look in the mirror sometimes and wonder if getting that tattoo saying sucker on my forehead was such a good idea. I don't think I look particularly gullible, but it must be so. Mind you, I'm nowhere near the league of the American preppie at my college who befriended one of the local winos, gave him a key to his rooms, with instructions to let himself in any time he wanted to make a cup of tea, and was gobsmacked to come home one day and find his stereo missing. But I go on that way.
There was Kevin, for instance. I used to work with Kevin a long time ago. Kevin stayed for a couple of weeks once, while I was in Portugal. Left the place spick-and-span. He also left a pounds 500 phone bill. Or then there was Ben. I should have known with Ben, as we dated for almost a year, but somehow... The week Ben stayed and I wasn't there, he and his friends drank everything in the place: the case of wine; the gin; the Campari; the really nice malt I keep for other Jocks; even the bottle of Chinese extract of dog's pizzle that had stood unopened for three years. "By the way," he said on his departure, "that wine you buy is a bit sour."
Lindsey's friends, meanwhile, all seemed to live in America. They were always ringing her at midnight. That's midnight their time. The third time I staggered out of bed at five in the morning, I tried to register a complaint. "Well, gaad," said this blurred voice, "Don't get on my case. If you don't like it, don't pick up the phone." They were nothing on her parents, though: her dad rang at nine one morning. "She's gone up the King's Road," I said. "You're lying," he replied. "Go and get her."
There is only one time when I've wriggled out of having a guest from hell, and that was when Connie wanted to stay. Connie was a trainee minister we all knew from college. She was also irredeemably insane: a fully paid-up member of the neap tide club. One day, she rang out of the blue and asked me to put her up for a bit. Knowing that "a bit" tended to mean until you had to sell the house to get rid of her, I balked.
"What happened to those people in Pimlico?" She had been living in a large basement rent free, courtesy of a Swedish banker and his wife; they were members of her church and probably didn't know better.
"Oh," said Connie. "Those people were so uptight. You know I wasn't allowed to smoke in the flat?"
"Well, I used to smoke out of the window. Then one day I didn't put the butt out properly in the wastepaper basket and it caught fire."
"Yes, I know. But that's not all. You know what they did? Had the whole room repapered and tried to charge me for all of it. Honestly. I'm never going to stay with those people again."