To LET by Dr D A C McNeil

My last day as a college lecturer was shared with several others; we were all retiring early to save the college money. It was the days of John Major’s recession, which in retrospect was a mild affair compared with Gordon Brown’s – but then, Brown was an economist and knew how to do it properly. The next day we became old aged pensioners living on the bread line. I had to find some other employment in order to make mortgage ends meet. There may have been a little more mileage in teaching – I still did private tuition work in those days – but I knew that the computer language I taught was being phased out, and as a scientist I was totally out of date. So when I saw an advertisement in a local shop for an OAP to go round part-time opening rental properties for prospective tenants I volunteered. The rewards were not great – petrol money only – but it kept the car on the road.

I have to admit there was not much to write about many people I met; I opened the doors, they walked round, occasionally asked a question (none of which I could answer), I gave them the hand-outs and they went away, sometimes for ever.

I have written at great length about a flat which was immediately above a shop selling such delights such as tarantulas, lizards and many other creepy-crawleys. It was approached up a fire escape at the back of the premises, which in turn was reached by an alleyway hidden between two bays. The gutter above the alleyway leaked. Unfortunately, to be seen by viewers one had to stand just about where the drips fell.

The last occupant had kept a dog which chewed all the landlord’s furniture; one moonlit night the occupant had ridden off on said dog leaving only his empty beer cans as a momento, and taking the money he owed with him. The next day the flat was up ‘to let’, beer-cans and all. Arachnophobes never got to the alley. Those more tolerant people that did took one look inside and vanished into the night, never to be seen again. I spent many an autumn evening being dripped on, waiting for people who never turned up. The last time I opened the flat the beer cans and furniture had gone, and the place looked much better; but the leak was still there.

On the subject of animals, there were often restrictions placed on tenants by the landlord – no pets, no children, no... anything else. At one establishment I had just finished my introductory chat and given the people the handout which specified no pets, when I looked out of the window. There was a peacock on the lawn. In another place the ‘no children’ clause was discovered just after a little lad had finished assigning spaces for his toys. These people also had a cat; they did not take the property.

At the other extreme one empty property had a tortoise living in the back garden, which, as I had to explain to several bemused viewers, was not part of the package. At another place the tenants had left and donated their two cats to the next-door neighbour. Now it is widely known amongst cat ‘owners’ that we did not domesticate the cat: it domesticated us. You cannot explain to a cat that its old territory is no longer open to it. So, at any opportunity said cats would be in through the front door of their old house and up the stairs. Luckily the neighbours had a key just in case the cats were locked in.

Recently I had the dubious honour of being shown round the garden at one house by the occupants’ two year old. The occupants kept a dog I understand, and the highlight of this display of horticultural delights was ‘doggy-poo’.

Most of the properties I have opened have been of standard terrace house design: two rooms and a kitchen downstairs, three up and an outside convenience. All have been modified in some way; one of the bedrooms has become a bathroom, or an extension has been built to house same. The one thing that is rarely changed is the staircase, situated between the two rooms; always steep (not recommended for students on a Saturday night – little joke, repeated ad nauseum) beneath which was either the entrance to the cellar or a storage cupboard. In a house of the latter arrangement I heard one little lad tell his mother that she could lock him in the cupboard if he was naughty. Child cruelty? He suggested it.

There are other tales to tell; I could go on … but I don’t think I will.