As if by magic, a long-lost cousin will every so often appear. They come from the sticks and ask if they can stay in my south London flat. I always say yes, on the basis that I was once taken in by kind people who took pity on a fugitive from Midlands farming country.
Jim and Caroline, husband and wife and two thirds of an alternative rock band, sheltered me. I found them in a dog-eared copy of Loot. I didn’t even know where or what Balham was when I answered the ad. Jim opened the door, showed me in and grilled me about artistic things. He told me I had got the room after I revealed that I had a copy of Crime and Punishment in my bag.
‘Say no more!’ the dear man cried. ‘And I know Caroline is going to love you because you’re wearing yellow.’
Back in the Midlands, people chuckled when I told them I was moving to Balham. ‘Bal-ham! Gateway to the south!’ they cried, in weird voices. As I was too young to have seen the Peter Sellers sketch, I trusted without irony in this handy geographical concept. I was a country girl at heart. I would be well served by being able to get out of the city by going through a gateway. It would be just like Narnia.
And so it has proved. After listening to Jim and Caroline play increasingly experimental rock music in their attic for a year, I managed to buy my own place and then, when I could afford what I really wanted, which was a horse, I discovered that it was as easy as promised to leave Bal-ham’s thriving community to access equally thriving Cob-ham, where Tara Lee, the violent chestnut hunter, was duly stabled.
Now I find myself living between Bal-ham and Cob-ham where I have a little weekend place. I want to keep my gateway lifestyle so I need a flat-sitter. Which is why I was pleased to see the latest long-lost cousin to find me after deciding he wanted to put his belongings in a bag and come to the historic borough where, as Sellers first revealed, the native people go about their daily tasks in truly democratic fashion.
As I say, I feel duty-bound to help these cousins. Having no brothers, sisters or indeed children it is the least I can do. But this one turned up with the tiniest bag yet and without a bank card or any credit in his mobile phone, which was pretty annoying.
I hastily made calls, did my research and found a list of companies he should approach for work in his chosen field — tree surgery, which I suppose is a growth industry of sorts.
Then I took him to Sainsbury’s and made him do his first shop. He is only just 20, so I had to spell it out: ‘You will need milk and bread. You should buy soup and pizzas and ready-made pasta dishes because those things are easy. You ought to get some fruit or your health will suffer, eventually.
‘Also, if you like to drink coffee in the mornings, you will need to buy coffee.’
These suggestions were greeted with a look of sheer wonderment. He surveyed the prices on the shelves as if awakening into a new reality. He was most perplexed of all by the cost of Nescafé, which, presumably, he had hitherto imagined spouted free from a geyser in the street.
It was nice being there at a young man’s initiation into life, the universe and groceries. So moved was I, in fact, that when we got to the checkout and he gingerly started trying to sneak items off the belt and back into the trolley, I felt my heart twinge.
‘Leave them. You will need all this stuff. I will get it for you. Then you’re on your own.’
He gasped when it came to £60. Good job I didn’t take him to Waitrose before he had the chance to earn some money and get a proper feel for capitalism. I could have made him a Labour voter.
When we got back he dumped his shopping bags on the kitchen units and plugged himself back into his iPod. He had been unhooked for a good hour so he was looking pretty peaky.
‘You do realise,’ I shouted, ‘that you can’t leave the stuff in the bags?’
When I left the next morning to go to the country, the shopping bags were still on the worktops. But when I got back a week later he must have got the food out of them, because a strange smell was coming from the fridge.
There are no words to describe how little food he had eaten, and how much had been turned into toxic waste.