Sharing with strangers

Delia was a brilliant domestic manager. She could turn a cold and empty new house into a warm, attractive home at very high speed, very short notice and low cost. 'Minimalism' as a house style to her meant nihilism, cheerlessness, characterlessness. No way! As large as Kirkhill House is, in no time she had arranged all of our hundreds of books and pictures (like me she could not tolerate bare walls or empty bookcases) together with her collections of chinaware, and had interspersed our own pieces of furniture with those belonging to the Hickeys. What of ours would not fit comfortably within the house went into the detached garage, where it resides to this day.

Kirkhill's dining room at once became my office and the front porch with its super daylight my painting studio. There were four bedrooms, three of which would become available for bed and breakfast guests, a cosy kitchen with oil fired AGA. There was / is a sort of figure of eight living room, the neck of which took the form of an archway and which we immediately curtained off so as to contain the heat of the open fire in the half where we could sit, watch TV, read our books and do whatever private things we might want to do in front of the fire in the evenings. The other half became our guests' dining room.

According to plan we started up our B&B that first spring/summer in Kirkhill House and continued it throughout the rest of that year and most of the next. Neither of us were at first quite sure about letting strangers into the house but we very quickly got into the swing of it. Over fifteen months or so we met with some really nice people, a few of whom are still to this day in touch with me. They were mainly Germans, Italians, Scottish and French but many other nationalities including all theScandinavians plus Japanese and Chinese. Even a few English.(One Chinese family group who booked in by e-mail were a bit of a mystery. I couldn't understand why folk with such a prestigious home address as theirs smack bang in central London would be B&B'ing up here in the north of Scotland. Much bowing on arrival but little conversation as I cannot speak their language. But eventually I learned the young man was a junior member of the Chinese embassy. His parents were over here on holiday.

We developed a routine when enquirers knocked the door or came in to their booking. Having established to Delia's satisfaction that they approved of their accommodation and its price we would sit them down in the living room with tea and biscuits for a jolly good chat - or if I warmed sufficiently to them a glass of the wine of the country; aka whisky, aka uiscea beatha, aka a 'wee swallee' as the locals have been known to remark - . Wonderful how much of a person's life you will discover or uncover in an hour of that. We discovered the truism and everybody is interesting, everyone but everyone has more than one tale to tell of special interest especially to a writer! After that they would be escorted up to their room, instructed how to operate the telly and how to close the window blinds but never the ornamental curtains and left to their own devices - and we to ours - until scheduled breakfast time. At breakfast, which had been ordered the evening prior, the Aga was a great boon. However I myself was early on in our B&B life deputed (and trained in the minutest detail) to the gentle art of scrambling egg on the gas hob. Dee herself saw to everything else - watching over me from the corner of her eye meantime and bossing me about without mercy when deserved. I would unashamedly fish for compliments from the guests - and receive them - about the deep colour/butteriness/texture/unique quality of my offerings. Indeed I often claimed a Master's Degree in egg scrambling. But one day a most surreal scene developed when I tried to get away with a few black specks in my platefuls of scramble - a sure sign of my having burnt some of the butter. Dee went absolutely and unreasonably crazy, threatening me - in fact coming close to striking me with a heavy saucepan. We had a good laugh about it later that morning, talking of how we could have made a dramatic entry to the dining room, kicking and scratching and punching each other, rolling around on the floor Basil Fawlty-like, its waiting guests in a state of shock horror. I fancy there might have been a touch of hysteria in our laughter!

We decided from the beginning that our evenings had to remain our own so no dinner on offer along with the bed and breakfast, thank you, never mind the money. On only one occasion was Dee talked by a guest (and myself) into providing dinner for him. This guest was a single man - a rather one off character, a bit of an intellectual, I thought.  As usual Dee went completely overboard with it, serving up three dinner courses that would have graced The Dorchester's dining room. When he was through eating and drinking our wine we were preparing to wash up, draw the curtain on our living room and say goodnight when he announced he would rather like to do some work on his PC. Would we mind terribly if he used our cleared dining table for the purpose? He worked better, he said, in a warm domestic atmosphere. I was so taken by surprise that I could not say no. So here he is in the dining area, curtains undrawn therefore able to observe Dee and I watching TV from our usual easy chairs in the living room. As was my habit I poured myself a stiff glass of Lagavulin. My heart sank when after a while I could no longer stand his sneaking glances. Would he like a glass, I asked? Would a duck like to swim? With hardly a thank you he demolished that glass in very short order. I watched him hold the empty glass to the light, twitching it from side to side as some kind of heavy hint. You know the rest. One empty bottle of expensive malt whisky. Not a penny piece on the bill, either demanded or volunteered. Dee said it was entirely my fault for being so bloody greedy. As ever she was right.

When breakfast was done and all our chatting over coffee and tea played out and our guests had at last vacated (a) the dining area and (b) the building for the day it was laundry and housekeeping time for the rest of the morning. In general I looked after the vacuuming. Whether or not there was the merest speck of dirt I was required by my stern taskmaster to vacuum all carpets upstairs and down and - hateful job - all stair carpets.She of course saw to the laundry. All sheets, duvet covers and towels were laundered either every third day of a guest's stay or every day if it was the dreaded one night stand. One good thing was that Dee loved ironing stuff. She went into a sort of automated whirl, textile flying in all directions. When the freshly laundered sheets were done and folded she would take them upstairs, put them on the beds and iron them again, in situ!

This B&B thing may have proved interesting but by Jiminy it was hard work. Dee had a long history of very occasional 'back trouble'. By the end of that second year the strain and pain had become altogether too much. There seemed nothing the doctors could do about it. After several successive mis-diagnoses, no more strangers in the house. It was the best part of another year before a big, a very big C revealed itself in the form of her lower body paralysis.Many times we had speculated about a cancer. Many times we were assured that was not the case. Please forgive my medical skepticism.

 2013 was a very bad year.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful memories, but I wish she were here for you. That this hadn't happened.


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