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This time the subject was hoarders and hoarding. I've been accused of being a hoarder on several occasions because, until recently anyway, I had a huge number of books. Indeed, I had a whole room dedicated to storing them. I insisted that I was a collector, not a hoarder, but I must admit that the line that separates the two is a very narrow one. So I wrote a story that examines that boundary...

For the sake of completeness, I should probably report that the last time I moved house, there simply wasn't room to store my books in the new place. So I sold as many as I could to friends who were interested and then donated the rest to a charity for their annual book sale. And no, it didn't hurt to do that and I really don't miss having them around.

The Collector

I put on my coat, got in my car, and drove round to Ted Helliwell’s house. Someone had reported him as a hoarder, and I wanted to check out the report to see if anything needed to be done about it. Initially the signs were encouraging. His garden was completely devoid of dead washing machines, defunct fridges and rusty, immobile cars. The lawn was neatly trimmed and the flowerbeds were full of colourful roses that smelled sweetly attractive as I walked up the path to the front door. Clearly Ted was a most untypical hoarder, if indeed he was a hoarder at all. I was starting to have my doubts. Perhaps whoever had reported him was simply bearing a grudge.

I rang the bell and Ted opened the door almost before the echoes of the ringing had died away. He was an average looking man, neatly dressed in a white shirt, and dark trousers with knife edge creases in them. Behind him I could see a ginger cat sitting in the hallway in a patch of sunlight washing itself thoroughly. I introduced myself to Ted. "There’s been a hoarding complaint made about you," I explained, "and I’m here to investigate." I gave Ted my card. He examined it carefully.

"Hoarding," he said at last. "Well, some people might call me a hoarder. But I prefer to think of myself as a serious collector." He opened the door wide. "I suppose you’d better come in," he said. "Let me show you my collections."

I followed him down the corridor which smelled faintly of wood polish. The cat sneered at me and vanished from sight in the manner of cats everywhere. Ted opened a door. "This is my library," said, and we went in.

The room had floor to ceiling bookshelves against every wall. Every shelf was crammed full of books. "There’s just over 15,000 volumes in here," said Ted proudly. "They are filed alphabetically by the name of the author within each Dewey Decimal category."

"Wow!" I said, impressed. "Have you read them all?"

Ted gave me a look of disgust. "Everybody asks me that," he said. "It’s a stupid question. What’s the point of  owning a book that you haven’t read? Of course I’ve read them all." He reached up and took a book off the shelf. "This is my pride and joy," he said, showing it to me. It was a thin hardback with a blue dust cover which had a picture of a brass-bound chest on it. A wizard was sitting on top of the chest.  I reached out for the book, but Ted wouldn’t let me touch it. He clutched it close to himself. "It’s an autographed first edition of The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett," he said. "It’s worth about $10,000."

He put the book back on the shelf and closed the door. We went further down the corridor to another room. "This is the music room," he said and we went in.

A hugely impressive stereo system sat in a cabinet  against one wall. Gigantic speakers towered in each corner of the room. Again there were floor to ceiling shelves covering the remaining wall space. The shelves were crammed with records, CDs and tapes. "They are filed alphabetically by artist within each genre," explained Ted, "Rock music, folk music, jazz, classical and the like. But the filing system has caused me some problems. It’s fairly obvious that the Beatles have to be filed under ‘B’ for Beatles, and Eric Clapton has to be filed under ‘C’ for Clapton, but where do you file Jethro Tull? Under ‘J’ or under ‘T’? It’s quite a conundrum."

"How did you solve it?" I asked.

"Whenever I come across that kind of ambiguity I buy multiple sets," he said. "I’ve got two copies of every Jethro Tull album. One set is filed under ‘J’ and one set under ‘T’. Problem solved!"

"Maybe that’s why Jethro Tull are so rich," I said. "They get two sets of royalties for every album they make because of people like you."

"Perhaps so," Ted agreed. He pulled an LP off one shelf. "This is a first pressing of Please, Please Me," he said. "It’s the first album recorded by the Beatles. It’s worth about $6,000." He carefully put the record back in its place.

I was really starting to doubt that Ted was a proper hoarder. His collections were far too well organised and had far too many genuinely valuable items in them for that. The average hoarder just throws valueless junk higgledy piggledy into piles, most of which serve no purpose other than to block your way as you try to move from one room to another. I began to think that Ted was just mildly eccentric. Buying multiple copies of things purely for the sake of keeping your filing system in a logical order struck me as odd, but nothing to get too worked up about. Ted was obviously very serious about his collections, and wasn’t that a good enough excuse?

We left the music room and went back into the corridor. The ginger cat had reappeared and it was chewing something thoughtfully. Ted got very excited when he saw this. "Good boy, Gilbert," he cooed. "Have you caught another weta?"

I don’t like wetas. They are a kind of cross between a cockroach and tyrannosaurus rex and they are the largest insects I’ve ever seen. They are supposed to be harmless, but one bailed me up in the garage once and I only escaped by dropping a brick on it. As I ran away, I glanced over my shoulder and I swear it was levering the brick to one side so that it could carry on chasing me.

Gilbert chewed on the weta, making disgusting slurping noises as he did so. Every so often he paused to spit something out of his mouth. "Wetas have soft, fleshy bodies," explained Ted, "which makes them quite yummy if you’re a cat. But their legs are mostly chitin. There’s really nothing at all worth chewing on a weta leg. Every cat I’ve ever lived with has always spat the legs out when it feasts on a weta." He bent down and scratched Gilbert’s ears. "Clever boy," he said. Then he picked up the discarded weta legs one by one. "Come on," he said to me, "let’s go in to my study." He opened another door.

The study had a comfortable looking overstuffed leather armchair positioned by a gas heater. A roll top desk stood against one of the walls. There was an office chair in front of the desk. Ted sat in the office chair and opened the desk. He pulled out a book with a stylised picture of a weta on the cover. "This is my weta album," he said. He leafed carefully through it until he found a blank page then he laid his new set of weta legs on the empty page, and held each one in place with a small blob of glue. Just beneath them, he wrote the date and time that he’d collected the legs, together with the name of the cat who had eaten the weta that the legs belonged to. "Look at all these," he said proudly as he paged back through the album, showing me hundreds and hundreds of weta legs dating back for decades, the prized prey of at least half a dozen different cats. "I bet I’ve got the largest properly documented collection of weta legs in the world," he said. "Unfortunately I don’t know how much it’s worth." He sounded a little despondent.

"Not only is it the largest," I said, "I strongly suspect that it’s the only collection of weta legs in the world."

He brightened at that comment. "Oh good!" he said happily. "If it’s unique then it must be worth an absolute fortune." He put the album away. "Let’s go and look at the newspaper room," he said.

The last door at the end of the corridor opened into a room that was positively stuffed with newspapers. At last, I thought, here’s some typical hoarding behaviour! But it turned out that I was wrong again... "How many newspapers have you got in this room?" I asked. "Why are there so many?"

"I’ve got 8,000 papers in here," he said proudly, "and every single one is a copy of The Sun, a tabloid paper from the UK. They are all dated 7th September 1997. I think I’ve cornered the market – I’ve not seen one of these on sale for at least ten years now!"

"What’s so special about the date?" I asked.

"It’s the day after Princess Diana’s funeral," explained Ted. "The Sun reported it in detail with heaps of photographs of both the funeral ceremony and of Diana herself. Many of the pictures of Diana were printed on page three!" He smiled proudly. "Each one of these newspapers is worth a small fortune!"

"Why?" I asked, honestly puzzled.

"This is the only edition of The Sun that’s ever had a photo of a girl on page three who isn’t showing her nipples," explained Ted. "These newspapers get more valuable with every day that passes."

As with all of Ted’s collections, everything he said about the piles of papers made perfect sense, though as always the logic felt a little bit skewed to me. "All right," I said, "I give up. You aren’t really a hoarder. But nevertheless these newspapers have all got to go. They represent a very real fire hazard. If you want to keep them, you are going to have to move them to a safe, fireproof storage locker. I can make arrangements for you to hire one and I can supervise the transfer of the papers to it."

For the first time in our conversation Ted looked a little bit ill at ease. "I’d really rather you weren’t here when the papers get shifted," he said.

"Why not?" I asked.

He shuffled his feet and refused to look me in the eye. "Because then you’d find the trapdoor that leads down to the basement," he mumbled. "The papers are covering it up at the moment."

"What have you got in the basement?" I asked, my suspicions becoming aroused again.

"That’s where I keep my dead washing machines, defunct fridges and rusty cars," he said.

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