Deborah Bosley, a happy symptom of Richard Ingrams' mid-life crisis, has survived greater crises of her own. It is a story of love and Aids. By Paddy Burt
Deborah Bosley has a pronounced "sarf" London accent, an earthy giggle and a first novel out this week - not bad for a girl whose career up till now has been of the bit-of-this, bit-of-that variety and who cheerfully admits that, for her, heart has always come before head. "Yeah, I've always been driven by love. I dropped out of my A-levels to go and live with my first boyfriend in Holland. I've never been one for making smart career moves."

If you wished to be unkind - though why should you want to do that? - it could be said she made a pretty smart career move when, four years ago, she became involved with Richard Ingrams. The gossip columns had a field day of course: Lord Gnome, well-known moralist, eccentric and ex-Private Eye editor, and the blonde from Catford, 28 years his junior. "Ingrams fighting off the groupies", shouted The Sun; "Ingrams' mid-life crisis", smirked The Independent on Sunday.

Over carrot and coriander soup in her kitchen, Bosley describes how she met Ingrams: "I was working as a receptionist at the Groucho Club. He was just someone I said hello to. I never gave him a thought - I mean he's the same age as my Dad!" She shrieks and looks horrified. For the past four years, however, she has been his inamorata, living with him in this house, which he once lived in with his wife, a place full of amiable clutter and an elderly dog called Monty.

Her book, Let Me Count The Ways, is, like many first novels, loosely based on truth. It is a love story and, from the start, the seeds of tragedy are sown. "She was struck that there was something about him that was never quite at ease ... she sensed that he would never give her the greater part of himself. But, for the time being, crumbs were enough ... "

Bosley had met Brett, handsome, half-Italian, in 1986 while travelling in America with a friend and had ended up staying in his San Francisco apartment. When she returned to London, it was with the firm intention of being sensible. She got herself a place at the London School of Economics, resolved to quit travelling, get her degree and become a teacher.

Yet she admits that all she really wanted to do was to return to San Francisco to see this "strange, different and wonderful" man she had met and with whom she had so precipitously fallen in love.

But she had no money and it seemed she was doomed to London and the LSE until, incredibly, Fate stepped in, in the unlikely form of the Rough Guides. "They were advertising for someone to write about California. A friend told me about the ad. I quickly wrote a few sample pieces, sent them off and, by dint of a miracle, got the job. Now I had a legitimate reason to return to San Francisco. 'Can I come and stay with you?' I asked, and he said 'yes'."

Looking back, it did cross Bosley's mind that her lover might be gay, though the only real sign - if she had been looking for anything as crude as a sign - was the fact he was so meticulous about his appearance. "A man who baths every day - ooh, I liked that! To me, he was just extraordinary, gifted and beautiful. I think he was profoundly ashamed of his homosexuality. But I was only 21 and, at that age, you believe that people can change."

On his 30th birthday, in 1987, he told her he had the Aids virus. "He was standing in front of the mirror, shaving. We were going to the races for the day, in Golden Gate Fields, and there I was chirping away, putting my make-up on, talking about betting. And I just thought how unfair it was. There he was, a talented, lovely man, having to confront his death so young."

Bosley reckons he probably contracted the disease in the early Eighties, when no one knew much about Aids. At that time there were rumours, but no hard medical facts. In New York they were calling it the gay man's plague, while in Britain, the scare stories didn't begin until around 1986.

She married him anyway, in California, in February 1988. She was 22. By October, he was beginning to succumb to the virus and she was in trouble with the Rough Guides. The editor was writing things like "This is bollocks. You are illiterate" across her copy. One day he rang her and said either she came home and worked under supervision or they would cancel the contract. She returned to England.

Brett, meanwhile, had been forced to give up his job as an architect in LA and return to his mother's home in Michigan. "I went back and forth," says Bosley. "It sounds a cruel thing to say, but Brett took such a long time to die. We'd think he was slipping away and then he'd get better. 'This is the wrong way round,' his mother would say, 'he should be burying me.' The next five years were spent with him being sick and in and out of hospital with pneumonia. We would split up, come back together, split up again. Something in him had this survival instinct."

All of which is vividly described in her book: "As she lowered her head, her hair fell across her face and hid the involuntary grimace she made as she caught the smell of him: stale, sickly, milky like the old. His skin was loose, stretched and robbed of its elasticity. His genitals were grey, shrunken and mouldy looking."

What Bosley now finds interesting is that the fact that someone is dying does not mean you make your peace with them. "I was angry and couldn't hide it. I couldn't forget the rejections, all the nights spent in separate rooms. I loved him, and he loved me, but not in the way I wanted."

On this aspect of her relationship with Brett, Bosley is reticent. In fact, she positively freezes when I mention sex. "That's between me and Brett. It was a minefield to me. I don't talk about that to anyone - not just you," she snaps - and then apologises. I point out that sex is relevant, that I'm sorry to be brutal, but did she know he had Aids when they first made love? Had she run the risk? Her answer is an emphatic no. "Living in San Francisco, you get clued up about Aids."

It was in April 1992 that Bosley got a call from Brett's mother to say he had reached the end. She decided to fly out and help look after him. Just before she left, Ingrams gave her an anthology of England he had put together. "He told me, 'It'll stop you from getting homesick'. It was a sweet thing to do.

"That first night in America, I dreamed about him. I thought: 'What am I dreaming about Richard Ingrams for?' I decided it was a sign I should send him a card. So I wrote: 'I am here. It is hot. Hope you are well.' Then he wrote to me, and I wrote back. We talked about our lives. When I saw him again, I knew a lot about him - and he knew a lot about me."

At the end of that summer, Bosley returned to London, sad, angry and broke. "Richard and I were both going through a period of loss. His wife had left him in 1991 and I was losing my husband. Apart from that, we were strangers. I wasn't in his world. Private Eye meant nothing to me. And then, suddenly, there was an attraction. 'Oh my God,' I thought, 'I fancy him. But he's too old. I can't fancy him!' "

She also knew it was time to move on. "Brett had asked me what I was going to do, and I had told him I wanted to be in a stable relationship where we cooked dinner, watched telly and went to bed. I hadn't had that sort of normality since I was a teenager, though at that time I was out there clubbing, being a wildcat."

In the end, she wasn't with Brett when he died. She had left him in anger and hadn't returned. Does she regret that? "Yeah. I wasn't at his funeral, either. I regret that too. But the anger's gone. What happened was no one's fault."

People used to suggest she see a therapist and talk it out. "But I've got friends who've been going over the same old stuff for years, and I think to myself: 'You're still bloody miserable, mate.' The whole point of my book is that there isn't always an explanation, there isn't always a reason, sometimes things just are."

Let Me Count The Ways by Deborah Bosley, is published by Century tomorrow, price pounds 9.99.