William Donaldson's Week: Put upon by a pie pincher

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I DON'T know about you, but it seems sensible to me to switch on the answering machine when you're in and to turn it off when you go out. That way, you experience the world only at decent intervals, rather than as a pile-up of unwelcome messages.

A consequence is, of course, that people who have cracked the system know when you're in and when you're out; further, whether you want to speak to them. That doesn't matter, though. If they're that sensitive, they shouldn't have called in the first place.

On Thursday, I forgot this simple rule and came home after lunch to find that 18 people had rung - 17 of them for Pete the Schnoz. Then Pete the Schnoz rang.

'Any messages?' he said.

'Yes,' I said.

'I'll be over in a minute,' he said. Half an hour later, he arrived at my place with the news that he was moving in. This was a shock. No one's moved in on me since 1958, and in the meantime I've carted my biography from place to place, piling up a lifetime's evidence against myself behind the sofa, under cushions and in unlocked filing cabinets. There is no corner of my apartment to which I would wish others, in my absence, to be privy.

Pete the Schnoz, it seemed, had given up his own various addresses, having suddenly realised that all a young writer needs by way of possessions - one, anyway, with an international reputation such as he enjoyed - are his enormous portable head and a fountain pen.

'In any case,' he said. 'I shall be travelling a lot between here and the coast.'

'Broadstairs?' I said.

'LA,' he said.

At least he was familiar, and comfortable, with three of the house rules: no alcohol on the premises, you're not allowed not to smoke and there's no talking during the American football, unless you happen to be Alison, my beloved.

And how about my beloved, eh? She pitches up in Miami, has a word with Dan the Man and three days later the unfancied Dolphins give the Chargers the mother of all stuffings. I wasn't surprised. Only she could have predicted the Bills' record-breaking comeback against the Oilers, making up a 35-3 deficit to win in overtime. 'The Oilers are throwing it away,' she said. 'They're playing a defensive defence, standing off and giving up yardage against the rush rather than be beaten in the air. The Bills will walk it.' If she takes over from Mike Ditka in Chicago, running up and down the sideline in little mittens and a funny cap, I'll explode with love and pride.

Be that as it may, I was less confident that Pete the Schnoz would accept the fourth rule, which was, of course, to do with the answering machine. Here was a problem, since I particularly didn't want him to discover - by my connecting us to the outside world - that the only development I had in the pipeline was a porn video (satirical, you understand) for my friend Max Clifford. Not that it is in the pipeline, and here's a mystery. I keep faxing tasteful first drafts, but Clifford never seems to get them.

'I'm hungry,' said Pete the Schnoz. 'What's in the fridge?'

'Nothing,' I said. 'I'm dining out with Little Jo.'

This was a flat lie. I'd already bought myself a Wall's individual steak and kidney pie and a packet of peas, but I wasn't going to let Pete the Schnoz discover this. One can face up to some sad aspects of an old party living alone - the Sunday outing to the launderette, for instance, with one's sheets in a Co-Op carrier bag - but the careful purchase of an individual steak and kidney pie and frozen peas seemed unacceptably forlorn. When dinner time came, I'd kick my heels in the street for a couple of hours, thereafter having my individual steak and kidney pie - to which I was keenly looking forward - when Pete the Schnoz was otherwise engaged.

'I'll do the shopping now,' I said. 'And don't reconnect the telephone while I'm out.'

'I'll have to. I'm expecting a call from the coast.'



'Well, that's just too bad.'

I returned from the shopping expedition to find Pete the Schnoz tucking into my individual steak and kidney pie. Worse, he'd reconnected us to the outside world.

'That's my dinner,' I said.

'I thought you were going out with Little Jo?'

'And so I am.'

'No you're not. She just rang, and didn't know what you were talking about. And Craig Brown is furious with you for saying last week that 'Keith Waterhouse' is one of his pseudonymous characters. Apparently, he isn't. You could knock me down with a feather, but I'd be inclined to take Brown's word for it. And Justin Judd has booked you into a writer's course. 'Learn to create believable characters in 48 hours'.'

'Anything else?'

'Yes. Max Clifford phoned. Apparently, you've been sending him dirty faxes. His assistant, the delightful Clare, assuming they were from a breather in a raincoat, has been shredding them. Did you get any mustard?'