For the first time in nearly two years, we hosted my wife’s parents, Sean and Marian, this week. I’m lucky that I love my in-laws, or perhaps they’re lucky that I have to say as much, since they read this column and I’d get into trouble otherwise. But it’s true that hosting them is a treat, not least because a) they adore my son, b) he adores them, and c) they are such fastidiously good guests it puts the rest of humanity to shame.
When I stay in someone’s house I try not to be messy or demanding, but do also find myself relaxing into that teenage state of cloistered indolence I call ‘guest mode’. You know the thing: you tidy up and cook a few meals, but are broadly content to be waited on like a low-level VIP. If I’m guilty of sometimes treating their house like a hotel, it could be said they do the same for ours, but in the sense that they themselves insist on being staff.
At the museum he got to look at trains, talk about trains and drive a train while looking at and talking about trains
Minutes after arriving, Sean was eyeing up the missing lightbulbs in the living room and had procured replacements within hours. Several of my son’s toy trains and fire engines (long devoid of power due to his noise-averse parents) had their batteries replaced a day after that. Marian, meanwhile, was soon attacking every surface in our home with the energy of those people who clean up after crime scenes, and ironed every item of clothing we own until each shirt, trouser and sock could comfortably slide under a firmly locked door.
It was lovely to see them once more fitting into the space of our small flat, only to gradually make it larger by decluttering as they went. The biggest scale differential is, of course, the boy himself, who has grown half a foot since July. He has not yet realised his own size and took to clattering himself gamely into his nana and grandad until a pleasantly bruising cacophony of ‘ooofs’ and ‘aahhs’ resounded throughout our newly sparkling flat.
Perhaps similarly enamoured of them as guests, he took on the mantle of host with a trip to see the big red buses and sparkling lights of central London. He even took them to the Transport Museum, where he got to look at trains, talk about trains, and drive a train while looking at and talking about trains.
While there, they weren’t able to make use of any of the older machines since they can’t be exposed to the industrial strength chemicals necessary to keep them up to Covid code. Even I, a relative agnostic in the field of mass transport vehicles, feel a faint pluck at the eyelid imagining those doughty old engines lying in the dark, as if they, too, had had their batteries removed.
Unaccosted by the grubby mitts of train-mad toddlers, they sat as a silent, roped-off reminder of the petty deficits the pandemic has still not found a way to pay off. Maybe they needed the rest anyway. Or perhaps, like Nana and Grandad, they’d figure a clatter or two was worth the wait.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78
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