Keith the bailiff could tell at a glance, surely, that demanding £204 on the spot from a poverty-stricken household such as this one was hopeless. When he pulled up in his Sahara Gold Citroën Berlingo and saw us all sitting around the paddling pool in the front garden, the state of the children’s shoes alone would have told him that nobody had any money. And as my boy’s partner led him inside the house to negotiate, surely he would have noticed, too, that there was no carpet on the stairs, no seat on the lavatory and no living-room carpet; that the enormous old telly was recycled, as were most of the children’s toys; that there was no X-Box, laptop, washing machine or music centre; that some of the light sockets were without bulbs.
And I think he did register these things, and quickly, because when I followed them indoors a few minutes later, bringing the dripping baby, Keith was seated at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee and a packet of Cheerios, and his bailiff persona was laid aside. In its place was that of an unsnobbish, well-mannered man conscious of his obligations as a guest, no matter how poor the household.
But he had to at least fly a kite and try to extract something from my boy’s partner, if only to justify his travelling expenses, and he started the bidding at the lightheartedly ambitious figure of £40 on the table in front of him right now, and £20 a month via standing order.
The man of the house, my boy, was out. He has a part-time job. Sixteen hours a week. Agency work. Care in the community. He doesn’t talk about it much. He goes, he comes back.