A Scottish summer and the guests from hell
You and your big mouth, said my husband after the ordeal, and for once he was right
Saturday 21 August 1999
What I chiefly remember about Mrs Maxwell's thoughts on hospitality was her claim that the success of a visit stands or falls by what the hostess puts on her guests' bedside table. Flowers, naturally, but please, no spray carnations - only home grown sweet peas preferably pink, purple and white in a tall narrow-necked pottery jug. The devil is in the detail, advised Mrs M and you have to admit she knew a thing or two about devils.
Next to the flowers she would place an ornamental tea caddy full of almond biscuits, a box of tissues, an ashtray, a small pair of scissors, a notepad and matching pencil, an antique bibelot of some kind and three books. The bibelot didn't have to be flashy like a Ming dragon, which in any case took up too much space, but it should have a certain curiosity value. A pair of 18th century egg cups attributed to the Catherine the Great with scenes of the Winter Palace painted on them would do. And if you had a couple staying you could put one on either side - such fun.
The first stumbling block is that there are no bedside tables anywhere in our house in Scotland, the one to which I'm always inviting friends for the summer. It was designed by student architects who believed in "spatial integrity" and "shadow gaps" and "sleeping areas" rather than conventional bedrooms. People often get lost trying to find it and, though we say it's at the far end of the island by the lighthouse, they return to the phone box by the ferry and call us.
"Where are you, we got as far as the telephone exchange," or "are you anywhere near that fish factory?" We are the exchange, we are the fish factory, we explain - but that's another story.
In any case it's not the lack of bedside tables or bibelots that daunts friends from visiting us up here. It's the distance - and the weather, of course. "I'd love to, Sue, but I simply can't face that journey. We used to have a house on Islay," says my best friend in Battersea, who takes her family off to the Club Med in Tunisia instead. People on the way to climb mountains in Skye or fish in Orkney come and see us and, because Skye climbers and Orcadian fishermen are essentially interesting people, I wish they'd stay longer. It was the Biggins family, the guests from hell, well Maida Vale, who came one summer to collect their son Barnaby who've made us wary of ever having people to stay again.
We didn't officially invite them. We said we could put Barnaby on the sleeper at Fort William but Mr Biggins said, no, they'd never been to Scotland. They'd drive up to collect him. Fine, I said, come and stay for a couple of days. You and your big mouth, said my husband viciously after the ordeal, and for once he was right.
To be fair, it wasn't all their fault. That was the year the pump packed up and we had no water. We had to get it in buckets from the burn but, since there were other kids staying - there were 12 of us, variously packed into the sleeping areas - it didn't really matter. Two more Bigginses wouldn't make any difference. Wrong again. There were four Bigginses waiting on the jetty. Mr and Mrs, Barnaby's older brother Ben and the Spanish au pair girl. "It'll be a bit of a squash," I began, but Mr B cut me short. He'd been a scout master. He could cope with anything. Mrs B immediately rearranged my cupboards and Mr B had all the children in teams hammering wooden stakes into the ground to carry an extension lead to the outside shed so that he could rearrange our tools after dark. All I saw of Ben Biggins was his backside as he bent to forage in the fridge for food. "It's an island you know, Ben, there's only one shop," I began. But Mrs Biggins would bustle in and say she'd get the kids to cycle to the shop, buy a load of food and put it on my account.
After a week I told the Biggins we had other friends coming and 16 was about as much as the house would hold. "Don't worry we can sleep in the shed," said Mr B. After 10 days my husband remembered we'd been invited to a wedding in Sutherland and we left for three days. When we returned the Biggins were still there. Fortunately soon after Barnaby broke his arm falling off a cliff and they took the next ferry to Oban. "Why is your number four iron behind the bathroom door?" I asked my husband. No idea, he said.
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