Being Elizabeth George's somewhat amusing account of how she was cheated in London by a man who was going to sell her furniture.

     When I first met Mr. Norman Ashford of Francis Smith Antiques of Chelsea in London (that would be Francis Smith Antiques at 107 Lots Road, by the way), I had no idea he was going to cheat me. Now, you will say that his general appearance—not to mention his halitosis, which slithered across the room toward me in a most insalubrious fashion—should have been a giveaway. But I am not one to judge people by that which suppurates from their unhealthy complexions and I’m certainly not one to dismiss a fellow human being out of hand for the spinach which clings to his front teeth like a supplicant unwilling to be dismissed. So when in January 2008, he showed up to evaluate the furniture that I had to sell before I closed my London flat forever, I attempted to overlook the small details that screamed here is a man not to be trusted.

     Alas. I have only myself to blame for what occurred. I had, after all, employed a private investigator in the past prior to hiring an architect to design my home and a builder to build it. But then, surely I can be forgiven for not hiring someone to look into the loathsome Mr. Ashford, can I not? For I was not asking him to design a home or to build it for me. I was only asking him to sell my collection of antique furniture, a few baubles, and some Victorian paintings.

     I had found him in the London phone book, which was probably my very first mistake. In the past, I had hired people only upon someone’s recommendation and using this approach, I had never been cheated and never been let down. Two women I had never even met had decorated the flat in 1994 and had not absconded with a dime (or should I say ten pence?) of the twenty-five thousand pounds I gave them to do so. A carpet layer came in while I was in the United States and removed one carpet and lay another without damaging an article in the place, let alone stealing something. My cleaning lady let herself in and out for over a decade and never removed or damaged a single object (thank you, Rosa). Painters painted, meter readers read, telephone repairmen repaired, and the only time there was a hint of trouble was when the security system engineer visited and my friend Debbie’s diamond ring disappeared. Since Debbie is prone to losing things (she’d already lost her wallet by leaving it in a Parisian taxicab on that very same trip) and since the man hotly and passionately denied even seeing the ring…I don’t know. I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.

     But I digress. Mr. Norman Ashford of Francis Smith Antiques faced me across the aforementioned new carpet and solemnly told me how things would be: He would go through the flat, he would evaluate the furniture, he would give me a written account of said evaluation, and the furniture would be auctioned off within the next two weeks. A check then would follow. Everything would go smoothly. He would try to get the best price he could get. If things didn’t sell one week, they would go to auction the next week. If they didn’t sell then, they would go into the next sale. Etcetera and you get the idea, I hope.

     Aside from his appearance and the rather snide and unwelcome comment he made about the woman who had purchased the flat (she happened to show up while he was there), he made proposals that sounded legitimate to me. Besides, I had five days only to clear the flat and fly home to Washington State, so I was inclined to accept his proposition. More the fool I, as you will see.

     Perhaps three days after I met with the loathsome Mr. Ashford, the removal men came, packed up the furniture, and took it away. I closed the flat for a final time, flew home to the U.S., and waited to hear from Mr. Ashford.

     Alas once more. After several weeks and no message from him, I phoned to inquire as to the state of the sale. Oh, he replied airily, things were moving right along and he would get back to me directly. He would, in fact, send me a fax “on Monday” to tell me how we were doing.

     Naturally—you see where this tale is heading, don’t you?—he did not. I phoned again but he was “not available” as he was “out assessing someone’s furniture at the moment.” Not unreasonable for a man who is a putative seller of furniture, I’d say.

     But when subsequent phone calls went unanswered and unreturned and when faxes were not replied to, the handwriting on the wall transformed itself into a neon sign. The sign constituted two arrows. One pointed at me, and it also read patsy. One pointed to the loathsome Mr. Ashford. It also said liar and cheat. And by this time it was the month of May.

     Still, foolish girl, I did not give up. First, I could not bear to think Mr. Ashford—despite his halitosis, the spinach in his teeth, his suppurating sores, and his general air of dishabille—was actually going to cheat me. Beyond that, I had in my possession the ultimate weapon: the loathsome man’s mobile phone number. Thus, I was not without resources. Or so I thought.

     I phoned him. I punched in the numbers 011-44-07910-347-339, and a young lady answered. I asked to speak with Mr. Ashford (even dropping the loathsome, which I considered rather generous of me at this point), and she said, “It’s for you,” to her companion. He said to her—and loud enough for me to hear-- “Who is it?” and she told him she did not know. Intrigued, I suppose, he took up the mobile and asked who was calling and when I identified myself, his one response was “Jesus.” Thereupon, we were somehow—and God only knows how—disconnected. I can’t think Mr. Ashford would actually hang up on a customer, so I can only assume he somehow wandered into a zone dead to mobile phones at that precise moment. Especially since he did not answer that phone upon my subsequent calls to him.

     The end of the tale? Well, you can guess, can’t you? Mr. Norman Ashford of Francis Smith Antiques of Chelsea in London made off with whatever money he gained from the sale of my antiques. And while the fault is mine for hiring him out of the telephone book without having him investigated (apologies to Bruce Haskett, my very fine private investigator), it does seem to me….well, rather nasty of Mr. Norman Ashford of Francis Smith Antiques of Chelsea in London to have been so naughty. What do you think?

     They say that “karma never looks the other way,” so I know Mr. Norman Ashford will one day come face-to-face with his comeuppance. In the meantime, my grandma Rosa Rivelle will take care of him. She’s been dead for more than fifty years, but believe me, that won’t stop her.

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