Life's too short for oven-ready chips

'Idleness is an art,I now realise, and you have to work damned hard to acquire it'
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The Independent Online

If it really is true that the devil finds work for idle hands, my canonisation is well overdue. I just can't do nothing. "That's part of your problem, if you ask me," observed one of our house-guests, helping herself to another slice of home-made cake - home-made by me of course.

If it really is true that the devil finds work for idle hands, my canonisation is well overdue. I just can't do nothing. "That's part of your problem, if you ask me," observed one of our house-guests, helping herself to another slice of home-made cake - home-made by me of course.

"You just don't know how to relax. That's why you've got arthritis and frozen shoulder and housemaid's knee and palpitations and hay fever. You do too much. Take this cake for instance, anyone mind if I have the last slice? No one bakes anymore. They get it all from Marks & Spencer."

I was about to remind her that the nearest M&S was a ferry ride to Oban and a 100-mile drive to Glasgow; but what was the point? Bella has absolutely no sense of direction. If I told her that was Mikonos in the distance instead of Mull, she'd believe me.

"I haven't got palpitations or housemaid's knee," I said. "My joints get a bit stiff sometimes that's all - exercise is good for them." "Exercise is the worst possible thing for joints," remarked the other house-guest, looking up from the story she was reading in the local paper about a man in Fort William who got so drunk he set fire to his car tyres. "My mother has never lifted a finger in her life. She lies on the sofa all day eating chocolate éclairs and she's as fit as a flea. She's barking mad, of course, but that's a different story."

Idleness is an art, I now realise, and you have to work damned hard to acquire it. Take our guests, who never emerge from their bedrooms before noon. Now that's not easy with the sun streaming into their windows (we still haven't got curtains) at 6am. I can't stay in bed when the sun's shining. I wander about the gardens in gumboots and the pink satin and lace dressing gown someone's Spanish au pair girl left behind one summer, resiting the washing line, putting away bicycles, pushing wheelbarrows full of coal from the pile at the gate to the bin in the back porch. We haven't lit the fire for 10 days, it's been so hot up here, but I do like to be organised.

Tidying up the wellingtons and oilskins in the porch I come across a strappy gold sandal with diamond-studded stiletto heels, another souvenir from Paloma the Spanish au pair. She was a strange girl. She came with the guests from hell, a family we hardly knew who arrived for one night on their way to Skye and stayed for 10 days. As there were already 11 of us, it was like running a small hotel. Paloma, whose English was limited to the single sentence - "How much he cost?" - spent all day upstairs in her pink satin robe flicking through magazines, emerging occasionally to pour herself a glass of wine. And then one night after supper, one of the boys suggested going out in the boat. It was a full moon and the loch looked like a silver sheet.

" Yo tambien," announced Paloma, hitching up her pink satin skirts and running after them. The boys came back after midnight, looking sheepish. "Where's Paloma?" I asked. "Swimming," they said. "With nothing on, mum," whispered the youngest. "She just took off that pink thing and jumped in. She wants us to bring her a towel."

Stella and Maureen (the one with the barking mad mother) don't swim or sail or cycle or walk or even flick through magazines. They sit outside in canvas chairs staring out at the five small islands in the middle of Loch Linnhe doing absolutely nothing. When they hear me in the kitchen washing up or making supper for the children they call to me to stop slaving away, for heaven's sake. "Life's too short to stuff a mushroom," says Maureen.

"I'm not stuffing mushrooms. I'm peeling potatoes for supper," I say. "Haven't you any oven-ready chips?" suggests Maureen. "Bring those broad beans out here and I'll pod them for you," says Stella. But after shelling only two beans, her hands fall listlessly into her lap and her eyes move inexorably to the far horizon. Even the devil seems to have given up on them.

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