Simon's Blog - Life in a country castle
A large house in the country is a blessing when it comes to putting up one's friends and family. Everyone can be accommodated in comfort which minimises the irritation of having one's privacy invaded for more than 24 hours (for, the bigger the house, the longer the perceived acceptable length of stay).
But a large house in the country also renders you fair game for a different breed of visitors: the friends of friends.
'We're travelling up to Scotland and thought you'd be a perfect stopover' trills a voice on the telephone, ever so slightly too loud presumably because she thinks that the telephone may be less efficient this far north. The pregnant pause while I attempt to gather my wits is interrupted, 'we met at Jo and Sam's barbecue last summer and you did say…'
I want to reply 'no, my wife said and in fact it was the late night home brew which was doing the talking' but I don't. 'How lovely, which night were you thinking of?' I ask still scrabbling for a name.
Oh well we thought maybe two nights as it's such a long way, you don't mind do you, we wouldn't want to put you out.'
'No, no, delighted'.
'Will it be alright to bring Rex and Sable?'
Now I am at a complete loss. Rex & Sable? Who or what are they? Wasn't there a time when dogs had doggy names and children had, well, human names? We thought we were being terribly off the wall with Oliver's name until he got to school and he's been Ollie B ever since to avoid confusion with Oliver J, Oliver C, OJ & O B-O. Even the deputy head is called Oliver. But I have yet to meet a hound called Oliver. Nowadays everything is thrown into the mix, so, Rex and Sable?'
'They'll share our room if that helps, they're no trouble.' This doesn't help since some people have a tendency to talk about children and dogs in the same terms (not without some justification in certain cases it has to be said).
I consider a further pause on my part a high risk but necessary strategy. Either the yet to be identified potential visitor will jump in with further ambiguous demands, will elaborate and everything will become instantly clear or will consider me a curmudgeonly old sod and decide to cancel her plans.
I'm favouring the latter when she cheerfully suggests, 'They can sleep in the car as long as it's not too cold.'
I take a gamble that this has confirmed Rex & Sable's canine credentials since these people are from somewhere in West London where over-nighting children in the back of the car is all together less socially acceptable that up here in Cumbria.
We agree on a date and as my new friend rings off I am left hoping that my wife will remember who they are and what they are called.
Three weeks later the doorbell rings. It's Rex & Sable. Apparently, my wife ascertained from our real friends, they declared themselves not to be children types and plumped for dogs instead and wouldn't it be fun to name them after themselves?
Yes, rather appropriate. This clearly is the sort of behaviour that is more socially acceptable in town than in the northern shires where taking your dog out for a bit of rough shooting and then calling for yourself to bring back the bird doesn't feel quite right.
Rex and Sable appear for dinner and Sable seems slightly disgruntled that we are eating in the dining room and not the kitchen. It seems she has an idea that everyone in the country should live their life chained to the Aga. The truth is it has become far too hot to eat anywhere near the Aga since we insulated the roof space with some material apparently developed by Nasa to protect the space shuttle from catching fire on re-entry.
Nevertheless, Rex confides, Sable feels the cold and she shifts uncomfortably in her chair throughout dinner, snatching wistful glances at the open fire at the opposite end of the room. We have little sympathy for her as it is the end of January (and our proper paying guests always get first dibs on the heat anyway) and she is dressed in strappy Jimmy Choo (apparently) sandals and a stringy top with more holes than material and no sleeves.
'Have you any more heating?' she eventually asks between pudding and cheese. Emboldened and feeling I have the moral high ground by entertaining this relative stranger at all, I reply, 'Have you any more clothes?'
It's an ice breaker and we do all end up getting on. But Sable, rather like Johnny Townmouse, leaves declaring that on balance she prefers life in London. A few weeks later we hear from our mutual friends that while they had a 'lovely time' Rex & Sable wonder whether we have changed since we lived in London since 'life in the country must have got to them a bit'.