Guilty By Association

In 1968 I left the Army and started work with Reuters, based initially in London. Looking for somewhere to stay, I found an ad for a room in a luxury house share in Notting Hill. The house turned out to belong to Roy Jenkins, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so he had rented out his home while he and his wife were resident at 11 Downing Street.

It was a lovely house and my housemates were friendly enough but very boisterous, young advertising types for whom life was one long party. I was concerned at their lack of respect for the beautiful furnishings and décor but there wasn’t much I could do about it. A seemingly respectable couple had conned the Jenkins’s agent into believing that the house was being rented for their exclusive use, when in fact they were far from respectable and weren’t even living there – they were illegally sub-letting to a bunch of their mates, who in turn were sub-sub-letting to me! I had to get out of the place sharpish and had started looking for another place to live when I was hit by a dose of flu – not ‘man flu’ but the real thing. I woke up one morning feeling like death and too feeble to move. But after a few hours of lying there moaning I had to have a drink of something, so I put my dressing gown on and shambled down to the kitchen, on the way passing the once sumptuous lounge, now looking like a bomb had hit it. The kitchen, too, was in an indescribable mess with unwashed crockery and mouldy scraps of food piled everywhere and a floor that stuck to your feet. And the whole house suffused with the cloying stench of old spilt alcohol and stale cigarette smoke.

I salvaged a mug and some instant coffee and sat at the kitchen table in my dressing gown, unshaven, unwashed, hair all tousled, feeling and smelling revolting. As I sat there I heard someone unlock the front door and go upstairs. I thought no more of it, assuming it to be one of my housemates, but after a few minutes a lady I didn’t know appeared in the doorway of this festering kitchen, looked round in disgust and introduced herself as Mrs Jenkins, the Chancellor’s wife, on a snap tour of inspection.

She was beyond angry. She was choking with distress as she gave me a thorough dressing down over the criminal damage we had done to her house. I was too ill to speak, and even if I could she wouldn’t have believed the obvious response of ‘It wasn’t me; it was the others.’ So I just took it on the chin and mumbled an apology, all too aware that I must look and sound like it was the morning after an excess of alcohol – or worse.

Fortunately, I was able to move out within a few days, but in the years since I occasionally felt urged to write to Mrs J to explain what had happened and exonerate myself but didn’t get round to it. In recent years I still wanted to write but assumed she would have died by now. Then last Saturday (11 Feb 17) I saw her obituary in The Times.

She was 96.

I wish I’d written.