Leafing through Pygmalion one evening while wearing an apt cardigan, Matthew said, "When the devil are we going to get these books sorted? We've got my old university professor coming to dinner next week and he's sure to notice the unusual juxtaposition of Loraine Kelly's Real Life Solutions with a biography of Mussolini, while looking for my Aeneid."
Matthew was away in 2005 when the sitting room was repainted. I admit that the last thing he said to me, as he set off for his poker tournament in the Caribbean, was: "Whatever other catastrophes these decorators inflict on us – and catastrophes are most certainly what they will inflict – please make sure they don't muddle all the books up. You must oversee the entire reshelving operation yourself."
When he returned 10 days later, he bounded (or came as close as he could to bounding) up the stairs, praised me almost inordinately for my choice of colour for the walls, and then, heading for the bookshelves, stopped within a couple of yards and said: "Ah, I see. Aha. Oh, yes. Yup, yup, yup."
The word "yup" when used in triplicate denotes, or so I have gathered from listening to Matthew on the phone to his friend Patrick, defeat, pain and pessimism. The three "yups" are a sign of particularly acute psychic agony.
"Oh yes. Yup, yup, yup," he repeated. "I see. The Joy of Yiddish next to Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler. How bloody marvellous."
Then he put his head in his hands and mumbled plaintively, "Oh, no. No, surely not? The four volumes of Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples interrupted by The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Banks. How could you have done this to me? How? How?"
Clearly he was tired and overwrought from his long flight. To give him space, I left the room just as he was discovering his Loeb edition of Catullus next to The Penguin Book of Australian Jokes.
And then, because Matthew rarely actually reads anything except his Robertson Davies trilogy and Sherlock Holmes, both kept by the bed, the issue of the inept reshelving was forgotten – until the looming professorial visit last week forced us into action.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to sort the books myself. So I delegated the work to Peter, the Polish handyman. My thinking was that Peter had just finished an English course and was therefore perfectly qualified for such a job. Moreover, he might appreciate a task that would help him further improve his language skills. I left him with instructions to put all the Second World War and Holocaust books on the top shelves, history and politics on the next, classics in the middle to be level with the professor's eye, fiction and poetry next, and biography on the bottom. All the joke stocking-filler books, Loraine Kelly's in particular, were to be put aside for the charity shop. I have to admit that I was glad to be seeing the back of Together by Nicole and Natalie Appleton, of All Saints fame.
The first Matthew knew of Peter's task was when he nipped into the sitting room to pour himself a drink, half an hour before the professor's arrival. Peter was still there, diligently placing Tom Wolfe's New Journalism next to Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story.
"What on earth have you done?" Matthew hissed at me. "You know Peter speaks almost no English."
"Ah, but he's just finished a course."
"I know. I asked him about it and his precise reply was, "Is very good English course I do. Better now I am at the languaging.'"
Then the doorbell rang. It was the professor. Peter stayed and had a glass of champagne, which was nice.
After dinner the professor did just as Matthew had anticipated: he wandered over to the bookshelves. "Ah," he said. "I am delighted, Matthew, to see you've kept all your Greek and Latin books: Socrates' Apologia, Horace's Odes, and, um, Nigel Dempster's Address Book." He paused briefly, then continued. "The Odyssey, The Iliad, Tacitus, Herodotus, Katie Price: Being Jordan."
Matthew was by now on the edge of the sofa, his head in his hands. But the professor is a kind man; I don't think there was any malice in his decision to move along to the poetry section. "Let's see, Shakespeare's sonnets, The Oxford Book of English Verse – ah, yes, very good, the Arthur Quiller Couch edition – Milton's Paradise Lost, The Wasteland, Some of Me Poetry by Pam Ayres and, oh look! Some More of Me Poetry by Pam Ayres."
I don't know how long it will be before I am forgiven. When I took Matthew a nightcap, he failed to look up from In the Royal Manner, by Paul Burrell, which the professor had found sandwiched between Elizabeth Longford's biography of Queen Victoria and Honest, by Ulrika Jonsson. The latter in particular the professor had asked if he might borrow.