“No we’d love to see ye!” Smiles. “No that’s no problem at all. Sure if you’re passing ye might as well call in.” More smiles. “Ok, bye bye!” Pause. “No honestly it’s grand. Bye Bye” Hang up phone. The smile on my wife’s face has now been replaced by a look of horror. “Tommy and Mary are in the area. They’re going to be here in 10 minutes!”
We love Tommy and Mary. But not now. It’s Sunday afternoon and the house is showing the cumulative effects of a week of small but vital decisions to leave things lying around rather than tidying them away.
The detritus of the week’s dinners make the kitchen surfaces look like the remains of a mediaeval midden. I half-expect to see Tony Robinson and the Time Team painstakingly scraping around the plates with tiny trowels to uncover the secrets of our present.
”What do we have here Mick?”
“It’s fascinating Tony. We’ve uncovered clear evidence these people ate lasagne.”
The race is on to hide this archeological site from our dear friends.
At times like this we need to think clearly about what our priorities are. The piles on the counters are cleared into the dishwasher that has been so crammed, I think I heard one of the mugs complaining. Some of the loose items in the sitting room are hurled under the stairs without ceremony. My wife’s Sunday-Best coat is lying next to slug repellent like a wealthy Londoner next to a barrow-boy in a bomb-shelter during the Blitz.
The doorbell rings. They’re early. Or rather, they’re on time. Which, in Ireland, is the worst thing any visitor can do. No one turns up on time because they assume their hosts won’t be ready. And hosts are never ready on time because they assume their guests will be late. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
We think we’ve done the essentials and the house is in a reasonable condition until Mary asks “Could I use your bathroom?” Unthinking we point her in the right direction until the same thought crosses our minds “The Bathroom! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” There is a filmic moment as I dive to get in front of her as if the bathroom were booby-trapped. “Just need to make sure I’ve put the soap out..” I reassure Mary, the bleach and rubber gloves concealed behind my back.
It was ever thus. I grew up in a house where none of us felt very strongly about tidying. Consequently, visitors caused a bit of stress. The most welcome visitors were those who didn’t come into the house at all. People like Jack Inseminator. I should explain, Jack Inseminator is what we called the man from the AI, in case anyone should think he was an actor who specialised in the type of films where the plot was not that important. It’s one of the features of growing up on a farm that from the age of three I was cheerfully parroting various words related to bovine reproduction and only finding out in later life what they meant. Jack would drive into the yard and head straight for the shed. The cow inside in the shed no doubt would have preferred if we had kept Jack talking a little longer, given the ordeal she was about to go through.
There were other callers who, because they had a job to do, raised no eyebrow when they stepped inside the house. The ESB man who checked the meter was one. As the meter remained the property of the ESB, he had the right to go straight to it unhindered. He was like an emissary given safe passage through bandit country on the assumption he wouldn’t go shooting his mouth off about the amount of newspapers, Messengers and tea-towels the bandits had lying around in their territory.
That is not to say visitors were not welcome – it’s just that we needed some notice. Our mantra was: No surprises. On seeing an unexpected car sweeping into the yard, my father would declare:
“Who’s this now? An invasion I suppose.”
One day will live in infamy in our house. If visits are indeed invasions, then this was Operation Barbarossa. We were the Soviet Union and on a wet November Saturday in 1986 the Germans arrived.
It was a day so grey and dull, it seemed the sun had sent the ‘Young Fella’ to do the daylight. The family was settling down to lunch. The food shopping had not yet been done that week so it was mainly tea, bread and a very limited number of buns.
A car came into the yard. Before we had a chance to react, another car followed. Like Ukrainian villagers watching the Wehrmacht pour over the border, we watched aghast as a seemingly neverending procession of adults and children issued from the cars. They were cousins and some of their friends. In the spirit of friendliness and courtesy, they were calling in for a visit.
Inside in the house, there was consternation. It was an especially kippy week. Wet clothes steamed over the range. My brother had thought that morning was a good one to start cataloguing the Reader’s Digests so piles of them, with articles like ‘I Am John’s Large Intestine’ littered the floor. My mother desperately tried to think of what kind of differential calculus or loaves-and-fishes solution could enable her to split four buns among thirteen people.
And in they trooped, while we stood around helplessly. These were really nice people who we would have happily filled up with biscuits, fairy cakes and Fanta if only we’d have known they were coming. But having nothing to offer them but tea, a slightly stilted conversation and with a large group of people crammed into a fuggy room, what could have been a sugary party, instead resembled an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. We were laid bare.
The doorbell sounds. I’ve just remembered that a man is coming to service the boiler which is, just for kicks, located in our bedroom. “We’ll be there in a sec, just trying to find the keys” we holler at him. He is forced to stand out in the cold for a few minutes as we’ve just remembered how we dealt with a large amount of the objects moved during the Tommy And Mary panic. We dumped them in the bedroom.
Maybe we need to revisit that strategy.