Does my new 19-year-old housemate have a penchant for French lesbian poetry?

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Nathalie Barney, who wrote lesbian poetry in French
Nathalie Barney, who wrote lesbian poetry in French. Image: WikiCommons

The Hovel has a new inhabitant – a temporary one, staying in Laurie’s room until she returns from her gallivanting after Christmas. In the meantime, I have been enjoying the peace and quiet round here, the freedom to walk around in my underpants – and sometimes not even in my underpants. (Somewhere there’s a thud as one of my more sensitive readers falls to the ground in a faint.) But this young man has, I am told, been sleeping on friends’ floors while surviving trying to find a place in London and is wearying of it.

I am also assured that his parents consider him a fine human being, although, as I point out rather testily, there are not many parents prepared to say anything less about their offspring, even when they’re serving a stiff sentence for housebreaking. The children, that is, not the parents.

Private peaceful

So, while I like my privacy and my space, or the past couple of weeks of it, and am reluctant to kiss it goodbye, it is not really in my power to refuse this person. Nor, I suppose, would it look good on my naughty v nice list in the runup to Christmas if I did.

I do, though, suggest to his sponsor that there should be a trial period of, say, a week and if I find his habits intolerable, he will be asked to move on. This is agreed upon.

Eventually he shows up: a very young looking, tall lad with the regulation mop of floppy hair. The look on his face as he sees me could indicate mortal terror, anxiety to please or revulsion; I am not sure. Maybe he is just surprised to see a grown man in his underpants in the middle of the day.

Anyway, the toilet’s cistern being knackered, I send him out on an errand to collect a piece of wire of a certain length and pliability while I try to make initial repairs. A simple test of intelligence, then, hardly asking him to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom, but I note, with a sigh, that he has left his keys behind. I christen him “Bumfluff”.

He achieves his task, though. Further conversation establishes that he is 19. Now, really, this is too young. I had assumed that if he was doing bar work, he would be doing so after graduation – and I had always thought it was understood that no one under the age of 21 had the mental and psychological strength to withstand the horrors of the Hovel.

It also suggests – for his hours, he says, are from five in the evening until two in the morning – that he is not studying at university. This is a little worrying – I thought the bankrupting experience of going on to tertiary education was more or less compulsory. What does it mean if he’s not studying French lesbian poetry (as the bagless vacuum cleaner man thinks the humanities are exclusively devoted to) and bleeding his parents white?

I suppose the arrangements could be worse. He assures me that he will be as quiet as a mouse when he comes back from work (I decide I will tell him about the non-metaphorical mice later) and, although I’m not wild about his being there during the day, at least I will have the evenings to myself and not be forced to watch CBeebies or whatever the young watch these days.

So I am surprised, the next evening, as I come back from seeing off a friend, to find him letting himself in at 10.30pm or so, a few hours before schedule. It turns out that he has had a disastrous evening: he has been targeted by an aggressive con man, plausibly dressed in a suit and tie but with an air of great physical menace, and relieved, over the course of a nerve-shattering few hours, of around £250.

He is not exactly tearful but miserable, feeling like a fool, and – for he is from a small town in the Midlands – a bit overwhelmed and frightened. When he tells me that he was taken to even more horrible places than the ugly parts of Wembley by a psycho in a suit, I can see he has every right to be.

Danger zone

So I ply him with wine and roll-ups and jokes and anecdotes about my own past disasters and he plays some of his favourite music on YouTube and I play him some of mine and there is a remarkable overlap in taste and he confesses to a love of English literature and, damn it, he’s lovely. The young so often are. I assure him that as long as he watches his step, the only danger he should face in future is being written about in this column.

“I’m afraid, though, that I’ve already decided on your nickname. Do you mind awfully being called Bumfluff?” “Not at all,” he says, “it’s actually quite funny.” And, to his credit, he seems to mean it.