The Lodgers

Just as farmers can no longer make a living from cows and sheep alone and have to diversify into cheese, alpacas or bed and breakfast, so it is with criminal barristers.  With our overdraft rising remorselessly, my income growing smaller by the month and our eldest daughter now at university what could be simpler than to use her empty bedroom to help pay her fees?

Fortunately we lived within walking distance of any number of schools with a constant flow of optimistic youngsters staying for short English courses.

The neighbours in the basement flat had already enlisted a succession of unhappy-looking foreign students as mercenaries in their long – and ultimately unsuccessful – war against bankruptcy. They would generally stay for a few weeks in a dank and tiny spare room. We sometimes used to see their tear-stained faces peering out through a small barred window when we visited the communal dustbins; and their guests didn’t look much happier.

Our bedroom was a bit larger than the neighbour’s dungeon. It was inspected by various schools who pronounced it satisfactory. Indeed we felt rather smug when it was classified as an “executive” grade, entitling us to an extra £20 per week above the standard rate.

We sat back to await the executive lodgers, and the extra £120 per week. All we had to do was provide clean sheets, breakfast and dinner and talk to the students.

We had been expecting a callow youth but our first guest was Rosanna, a highly qualified 40 year old general surgeon from Italy. She was angling for a job in a hospital somewhere near Stoke on Trent, and she required a better grasp of spoken English to improve her prospects at the interview, which was due at the end of her stay.

If you have not tried it you can have no idea how difficult it is making conversation with an Italian general surgeon who is trying, from a very low base, to improve her English.

On radical mastectomies, transverse colon resections or avoiding post-appendicectomy infections Rosanna might have electrified an Italophone audience, and no doubt general surgery was a wise choice of career; certainly better than, say, simultaneous interpreting. But despite an enthusiastic desire to talk, her ability to keep the conversation going round the dinner table was constrained by an almost total lack of vocabulary.

On the plus side, the vocabulary she did have was highly idiomatic, and she used it with flexibility and assurance. On the minus side, it consisted of just one word: “er”; or, as she would put it “errr…r…r..r, e…e…r…r…rr?” After a week she added “u…u…u…,u…m” but the extra word did not much enhance her ability to make herself understood, and it doubled the already extravagant length of time it took her to make her points. Soon the children were taking elaborate measures to avoid any contact with her which increased the pressure on my wife and myself to be extra polite. After a second week the strain was too much and Rosanna was despatched to an elderly lady in Gospel Oak who, the school said, dealt with difficult lodgers. We never heard whether she got the job in Stoke on Trent.

We decided to accept £30 less a week. The lodgers would get their own dinners and we would be spared the need to talk to them.

The first guests under this regime arrived on a Saturday morning just before Christmas. They were two Italian girls. I never really caught their names: something like Amanita and Virosa. Amanita was a leggy brunette and Virosa a striking blonde. Both wore lashings of mascara and lipstick, high heels and not much else. They claimed to be 18, but looked younger. Although only staying for a week they had two enormous bags which they were unable to lift unaided. They giggled coquettishly as I hoiked them up the stairs, knocking two pictures off the wall in the process.

They emerged from their room at six o’clock, and it was obvious that they weren’t interested in how to find dinner or, indeed, their language school.

They wanted to know how to walk to Carnaby Street.

“It’s too far to walk and not worth going to anyway.”

“Piccadilly Circus? Notting Hill? Trafalgar Square?”

Both too far. Over-rated as well.

They consulted their guide book.

“Camden Market?”

That was within walking distance and we explained the route. There wouldn’t be a market there at seven o’clock in the evening though.

“We go eh-nyway,” insisted Amanita.

“Maybe issa club zer,” said Virosa.

“It’s quite a long walk, perhaps you should get the tube.”

“Issa OK. We a-lova to walk,” said Amanita,

“You should wear a coat, it’s quite a cold evening.”

“Issa OK.” Virosa fluffed up her feather boa which formed a very permeable barrier between the December chill and her cleavage, and off they went, hobbling unsteadily on their heels.

We felt guilty almost at once. What on earth were we doing, allowing two teenagers on their first trip away from home to wander off in the general direction of Camden Town, dressed – how can I put this delicately – inappropriately? How could we have been so stupid. Where would they end up?

We had mentioned that they should be in by 11 o’clock, but by 11.30 there was no sign of them. We had no mobile phone numbers, no idea where they had gone or what their plans were, other than some vague mention of going to a club. We knew they had little idea of London’s geography and probably less of its dangers. They would not know, for example, that the finding of a body in the Regent’s Canal barely makes the inside pages of the Camden New Journal these days.

By midnight it was raining steadily. Should we call the police? The Camden Police have enough trouble trying to deal with actual robberies, rapes and murders to be very interested in two ostensibly adult women enjoying a late night in Camden Town. We decided that the best thing was to have a discrete look in their bags to see, perhaps, if we could find their mobile phone numbers.

I rummaged around in Amanita’s huge bag, looking for something which might have a mobile number on it. Buried under about fifty pairs of red thongs I found her passport. I flicked through it, but there was nothing to give a clue to her or Virosa’s mobile number.

Virosa’s bag was the same except her thongs were silver.

We went to bed and lay arguing about what we should do next.

It was now three in the morning. We always hear if anyone opens the front door in the middle of the night. We had heard nothing.

I had one last check on the room. The door was open, exactly as I had left it. I looked in. The duvets were unruffled.

Obviously they had both been strangled and dumped in the canal. Why on earth had we not rung the police at 11 p.m. when they failed to return.

I was worried for the girls, of course I was, but I am ashamed to say that my next reaction was the thought that I would be the prime suspect. I had only my wife’s word that I had been in all night; indeed only her word that the two dizzy girls had even set off for Camden Town the previous evening. This would cut little ice with the police. Serial killers invariably lead double lives.

It would only be a matter of time before a sinister white tent was erected in the garden and blue and white police tape strung around the garden gate.

I knew enough forensic science to know Locard’s principle: Every contact leaves a trace. My fingerprints were all over Amanita’s passport, without question my DNA was in her thongs. How on earth would I explain that?

We had at least one neighbour with whom relations had become decidedly frosty. I could easily imagine her telling a slavering press that I was a loner and always kept myself to myself.

Should I make a television appeal for their safe return? If I did so, would the bags under my eyes and apparent lack of emotion mark me out as a psychopath? If I didn’t, would that not speak for itself?

I pulled myself together and picked up the phone to ring 999. here was a noise from the bathroom: the unmistakeable, and highly welcome, sound of a teenager vomiting. I glanced upstairs and saw Virosa staggering back to the bedroom. And yes, there was Amanita too, stupefied, but breathing, beneath the other duvet.

They hardly had time to sober up before they too were on their way to the elderly lady in Gospel Oak.

If you are lucky enough to have a spare room letting it to lodgers may appear to make financial sense but there are easier ways to earn £90 a week.


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