ARABELLA

Aaaagggghhh! Roland's horrendous mother has arrived. Unannounced, of course, so she can check the state of hygiene/contents of kitchen cupboards etc, which she does like an overambitious forensic scientist after a warning from HQ to be more thorough. Her methods are always subtle, ranging from "Oh I'm sorry, I was trying to trace an unpleasant smell" to "Gott in Himmel, you'll kill yourselves; Roland is this your idea of a joke?", her subtle way of letting me know that I have let things slip on the household front.

Roland seems to have given her a key, so I had to spend last Sunday labouring under a polite blanket of suppressed fury (if that isn't too weird a metaphor) after she burst through the front door at 10.30am, armed with a battery of cleaning-fluids and a new sink cloth in which I am supposed to be profoundly interested. This is all very well, but suppose I/we/some strangers had been doing something naked.

Naturally, she also brought a large Red Cross parcel for her beloved boy in case I'm starving him or he's too busy working to pay the rent and keep both of us out of the poorhouse to feed himself properly.

Payback time comes when he has eaten everything she has put in front of him, ie baked beans on toast, and we are all obliged to listen to a monologue on the dreadfulness of modern life. Roland sits quietly attentive while his mother gets it off her chest that there is too much dogshit/ litter/drunken Irishmen cluttering up Highbury (which cheers her no end because she has chosen to live in Crawley);and that shopping bags are not as strong as they used to be because our local traders buy them cheap from "foreigners" in the Far East "where they are designed to fall to bits in the street so that you have to buy everything twice". Then, by a bizarre leap of the synapses, she points out that there are now scorpions on Dartmoor due to global warming, so she won't be going there again for the holidays.

I could hate Roland's mother were it not for her strange smell. A fusty, human aroma of metal-cleaner and biscuits, caused, I think, by not washing her stockings properly, merely rinsing out the feet. And the fact that the gold-plating on the bracelets that she wears is flaking off, like a dead person's jewellery in a charity shop.

I would feel sorry for Roland if I didn't have a suspicion that he agrees with his mother's rantings. In contrast, his father says nothing, merely hovering in the background offering up an apologetic smile for his wife's criticisms. I won't have the bottle to point out that she could probably host a successful coffee morning for the National Front - unless she's planning to stay longer than this afternoon.

ROLAND

My parents have been staying over for the past couple of days, and it's all gone remarkably well. Mother and Arabella have been getting on famously, spending hours together in the kitchen. I'm sure that Arabella appreciates having a helping hand - other than my own, of course - around the place. She has been dropping hints in recent weeks that the housework has been getting too much for her, so having an experienced cook and homemaker to assist must have cheered her enormously.

Father's in town to give a talk to some literary guild or other. To give his talk, I should say, because, to the best of my knowledge, a lifetime in publishing has provided him with the material for only one lecture, which he peddles under various different titles.

For women's reading groups, it's "Between the sheets with the Bronte sisters"; university societies get "From Austen to Archer, The Decline of the English Novel"; while creative writing courses are treated to "Literature: a Novel Approach". Whatever the title, though, the talk essentially boils down to "How I Once Got Rat-arsed With Graham Greene".

Frankly, I was hoping he'd that give Arabella some advice on her own novel, which seems to have hit a stagnant patch in recent weeks, but Father seems rather embarrassed by her. I suppose that it's my fault; I've never really defined our relationship to him. An appropriate moment has just never arisen in conversation for me to explain that we live together in a close spirit of blissful separation.

Luckily, Mother's outgoing personality has more than compensated for Father's reticence. Her first words to Arabella on this visit were: "Are you pregnant or is it just the dress?" which I thought rather a tactful way of alluding to Belly's recent gain in weight. Then, just to show that she did not disapprove of eating, Mother marched straight into the kitchen and made us all beans on toast.

One sad thing about being a gourmet is that, as one grows more knowledgeable and accomplished in culinary arts, one puts away those childish foods that once gave such pleasure. When did I last eat egg and chips, Twiglets or sardine sandwiches?

Sadly, my time in the kitchen is so limited by other commitments that I feel obliged to use it to create gastronomic masterpieces. However, beans on toast again was a real joy. And when I did wander into the kitchen to offer to help to load the dishwasher, I noticed that the cooker had been scrubbed as clean as I've seen it in years.

After the meal - I'd never realised before, incidentally, how well Crozes Hermitage goes with baked beans - Father and I cracked open another bottle while Mother regaled us all with a hilarious tale that began with a shopping trip in Oxford Street then proceeded seamlessly to a denouement in which she was almost bitten by a scorpion on Dartmoor. I need not have worried about Father giving Arabella a lesson in creative writing. From the spellbound manner in which she listened to Mother's tale, it was clear that she was picking up enough tips for several chapters.

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