I was in my late teens and desperately, lustily, in love. Months after my lover had first moved many miles away to study, I was still hitch-hiking from work at weekends to see her.

I decided to surprise her on the eve of her December birthday by arriving unannounced and taking her out for a meal. I did not have my usual luck hitching lifts. It was foggy and late as I reached the college. Her roommate told me, with some relish, that my lover and another student, some boy, had cut afternoon lectures and motored in his car in the opposite direction from which I had travelled, home, to stay with her family.

My jealousy was bittersweet.  I pictured the pair of them, snug in a flashy two-seater, fumbling, his leather driving gloves on her bare thigh.

As for my predicament, I knew from hard-earned experience that the chances of a lone male hitch-hiker getting a lift close to midnight were remote. The damp was permeating my bones, the cold made my fingers and ears brittle, and my spirits were sagging. I still had the cash put by for the meal, so I went in search of a cheap room for the night, on the seedy side of town, where I had seen 'guesthouse' and 'B & B' signs.

I found a likely turning of tall, narrow terraced Edwardian villas. A clock struck twelve as I sighted, between two unlit lampposts, a splash of yellow light from a bay window.

I climbed the steps to the porch. The door was ajar. There was no knocker, the bell silent. I peered into the dark and called, "Hello?" The place smelt musty and sweet. I stepped in. Carpet stuck to the soles of my shoes. I felt unclean, but I was out of the sharp night air.

"Anyone there?"

"Come in, dear." I heard a croaky voice, as if the person were breathing in as they spoke, the sound coming from the back of the throat, wheezing like the bellows of a tired organ in a neglected country church. "First door on your left."

I could see light under a door. I felt for the hall light switch. The wall was greasy. The switch failed. I wiped my feet on the sticky carpet and felt my way to the inner door. I knocked.

"Come in." That croaky voice again.