At this time of year, I find myself phoned by those city friends not ferrying their children across the country between grandparents. Friends with stretches of holiday ahead, and a yearning for bracing walks, followed by mince pies by the fire.
“Shall I pop down for a few days?” is how they usually phrase it. Having been collected from a station 10 miles away, these self-invited guests flop on the sofa, leaving their bags in the doorway for me to trip over.
“Oh, it’s so lovely to be out of town. I just want to relax . . . it’s been party after party and I’m tired out,” they say — having omitted to ask me to any of the parties in question. Then they settle in for their stay, under the mistaken impression that one’s combined home and place of work is a bijou boutique hotel, with hot and cold running staff.
I do realise that we hosts have a certain duty of care. There’s nothing more unwelcoming than arriving at someone’s home after having driven for miles to find that they haven’t even begun to think about your stay: no supper (“Is a boiled egg okay?”), not a drop of booze in the house, and the guest bed, with dirty sheets, covered in piles of clothes and papers.
This is not the way I do things when people come to stay. They are my friends, and I am delighted to see them. No, really I am. However, I have a handkerchief from my grandmother that, but for the large ink stains all over it, I would frame and hang in the spare room as a gentle hint.
Illustrated with lovely 1950s-ish cartoons, it spells out rules for weekend guests. A few, such as “Do not forget to tip the servants” and “Please do not steal our cook”, are no longer applicable, especially if, as in my case, home is a cosy cottage in Somerset where hostess, cook, cleaner, butler, gardener and chauffeur are all rolled into one. (Though someone did once leave a fiver on the bedside table — I must try to encourage that.) But you can’t go wrong with “Show your appreciation to the hostess” and “It is quite proper to bring a present” — Christmas castoffs excluded.
Some of the edicts I don’t agree with. “No gossip, please” would make a deadly dull couple of days, and I’m not sure I know anyone who could stick to that rule. Similarly, “If you must indulge in gardening, use your own garden” is certainly not my view: any man with half a set of muscles is encouraged to get out there with the strimmer and saw — though one friend did go a bit far, chopping down three trees because he “didn’t like the look of them”.
Usually, however, despite their intention to lend a hand, my dear guests seem to be overtaken by events. After an hour or two of post-walk snooze, they come downstairs briefly — “Do you have any lemons? I fancy a gin and tonic” — before vanishing again to run off all the hot water and hog the bathroom for an hour, tipping in industrial quantities of my Jo Malone bath oil to boot. Meanwhile, I lay the table, set the fire, cook dinner, sort out more drinks and tidy up, ready for the dinner party of amusing locals I have laid on for their entertainment.
Worse, they sometimes decide they are preprandially peckish, and start snuffling around in the fridge without checking what’s okay to take. Munch, munch, munch, they go. And down their gullet slips my Christmas smoked salmon (the next day’s lunch) or the first course of dinner. And this always after the shops have closed. What’s the matter with bread and butter?
Don’t get me wrong: I love having city friends willing to make the trip to visit. But those whose idea of entertaining is ordering in a pizza have no idea of the frenzy of activity that goes on beforehand, let alone the cleaning up afterwards — and all, usually, on a working day. To their minds, even the making of toast and the moving of dishes from table to dishwasher is done by invisible kitchen fairies — while the guest settles in with the newspaper, delivered, naturally, by fairy post.
A friend who lived in France for a year got so fed up with guests who used her house as a holiday destination — without considering that it was also a family home — that she started counting the number of times she had to empty the spare-room wastepaper basket. It came to 54.
I long to have her and her family to stay, as I know they would be the perfect guests: amusing and undemanding company, helpful, tidy and appreciative. Above all, they would follow the wise maxim that guests are like fish: they stink after three days, especially on a Monday morning. Funnily enough, they never asked me to stay in France. Obviously too grumpy