Waiting up at the heavenly hovel

Life in the Hovel continues to be mind-expanding. The first time I was asked what it was like living with two women in their early twenties (is it demeaning or sexist to say "girls" instead? It's not intended to be; more an indication of the vast gulf of years between us), I thought for a few seconds before landing on a comparison.

“It's . . . well, it's a little bit like heaven, really," I said, and I suppose I was thinking of the paradise of the Hashishin, where the Old Man of the Mountain would recruit his assassins by stupefying them with pot and then releasing them into a garden where the fountains ran with wine and beautiful women ministered to their every need. In my last column, I asked readers if they knew of any precedent for my predicament, and one of them obliged: the late novel by Donald Barthelme in which a 53-year-old divorced man sets up home with three lingerie models. Its title? Paradise.

Regarded by critics at the time as below par compared to his other novels, and perhaps not so much a bona fide work of imaginative literature as
a rather sad piece of wish-fulfilment, it is, the reader assures me, an entertaining read nevertheless. (I have also discovered, after chatting about this with a hugely distinguished writer the other day, that I have been pronouncing "Barthelme" wrong all my life. Check up on the correct pronunciation before you make as much of a fool of yourself as I have.)

Of course, as with everything sublunar, it's not really heaven. And there is no hint of lubriciousness on anyone's part, either: the whole arrangement is entirely chaste. For a start, as I said last time, one of them is the daughter of the Woman I Love, and the other, Emmanuelle, is involved in a rather ball-breaking way with the son of a multimillionaire porn baron. Gratifyingly, it appears that he is terrified of me, and has taken to sitting in his car outside the Hovel waiting for me to leave so that he can give his beloved another bunch of expensive flowers to atone for his latest outrage. He seems like a nice enough boy but he doesn't look old enough to have sex, let alone drive a car. I have little sympathy for people who can fly off to Las Vegas for a week on a whim, as he did recently, though, and I may have looked rather sternly at him the first time he was summoned into my presence.

Beware of the dog

“That's funny," said Emmanuelle after he left, "I've never seen him like that before. Normally he's really outgoing and boisterous."

The WIL, who has a gift for this kind of thing, came up with a nickname that has, I am afraid, stuck: Pipsqueak. (Oh dear, this does sound rather bad, doesn't it? Let me stress that he really does seem like a nice boy, and when he brings flowers he also brings wine for me, much as one might lull Cerberus into slumber by feeding him drugged honey cakes, as in the Aeneid. It works, and the boy can keep doing it.)

The WIL's daughter has her own cross to bear. After saying that she was too young for him, Darren, the manager at the Duke, has decided that she is in fact just the right age after all, and has taken her under his wing, escorting her back to the Hovel in the small hours. The WIL's daughter is no fool and is also perfectly capable of looking after herself, but the situation is awkward, as Darren is her employer. He, too, seems to be acting like a gentleman but I've seen that look in a man's eyes before, quite often in the mirror: he's smitten, poor thing. (Meanwhile, the Duke has problems, too. A car drove into it in the small hours last Sunday morning. I asked the Guvnor if he'd been keeping up his payments and he just muttered something non-committal. The WIL also noticed that two of his front teeth were missing. Obviously something funny is going on.)

But it is strange, to find oneself in loco parentis to two young women without actually having any parental powers. All one has is anxiety. The night the WIL's daughter started work at the Duke, I waited until half past one in the morning for her to come back; in the end I tiptoed down to the pub (pausing only to rap on the steamed-up window of the car where Pipsqueak and Emmanuelle were having their tryst) to make sure she wasn't
being chased round the table or worse by the Guvnor. I turned out to be worrying needlessly, thank goodness, but I won't be checking up on her again.

In the end, though, they will gang up on me. Just last night one of them said: "We were thinking of having a big tidy-up." I think they want me to get rid of my unsold review copies, of which there are hundreds. Oh dear. So much for Paradise.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?