Before my father’s first cousin’s son came from Dayton, Ohio, to visit us in Australia he quoted his mother of blessed memory, by way of warning: ‘House guests’, he wrote, ‘are like fish. They go off after three days.’
Now that particular son of the first cousin of my father (by name of David) is a fish whose four-day stay was all too short. David’s brother Bob, has visited repeatedly, and three days were never enough for him to go off either. But the principle underlying the Law of the departed mother of the sons of my Dad’s first cousin is sound and it is this: HOUSE GUESTS HAVE A SHELF LIFE.
Over twenty-one nights recently I was a serial housefish.
In Pittsburgh my host David stayed up until 3.00am to receive his flight-delayed guest. At seven he got up and went to work. Next morning hostess Nancy was busy baking, preparing for a soiree she and David planned for their visiting friend, Howard. To attract guests to drive through the snow to hear this unknown writer from Australia, the couple provided an elaborate dinner for twenty captive friends. This couch was hoisted and shoved out of the way, that dining table moved against the wall, those folding chairs hauled in from the basement and set up in ranks, choice napery and tableware and stemmed glassware for wines and cordials and foods and fruits were arranged for delectation. Dave and Nancy
turned their house upside down and their lives inside out simply to expose their guest to new readers.
Three days later I swam away through the snow to meet my wife as she arrived in New York. There followed five nights beneath my sister’s roof in the Bronx, one night with friends in Manhattan, then a final Bronx night. The visits seem to have left friendships unharmed. But a sister is a sister and a brother is a brother: siblings are species designed for propinquity. If indeed we are fishes that go off, we sibs are inured by long years to each other’s offness (and onness).
A sterner test found our hosts in Boston, Sarina and Alan, an accidental couple who happen to be neighbours of my niece whose house was already chockers. Sarina and Alan work for a living. They spend long hours every day outside the house, which was now peopled by strangers who might pinch the silver in their absence or fracture the ceramics, or serve meat with the dairy cutlery, or leave smudges on the Royal Doulton in their lavatory.
Their nights would afford little rest as the guests floundered up and down the staircase, with feet unerringly finding the one stair that always groans, a burglar alarm that sound like a bass-baritone whose scrotum you have just stood upon. Would we pinch the morning strawberries reserved for the breakfast of the coeliac? Would we insist on washing our coffee cups in rejection of the preferred dishwasher? Would we use the dishwasher when they’d prefer we didn’t?
Conjugal copulation is the never-spoken, inescapably real arena where the fishes’ presence is felt: copulation – widely practised among both the sacred and the profane, and highly praised in Jewish Sabbath tradition – might be inhibited – or in some cases – who can know? – stimulated by the presence of self-same guests. The hosts wonder whether their guests are asleep, whether we lie with ears cocked for their licensed exertions. They lie in mounting suspense, listening for the sounds of listening. When finally they hear our snores they mute and stifle and censor their customary jactations lest they wake us.
We admit guests by instinct of blood, by example of Abraham, and for delight in company. Thirty years ago my New York sister sent word of friends of friends who’d be visiting our town. By Abrahamic reflex we welcomed them, a honeymooning couple. By the exuberance of their Americanness they won us. Their exuberance exceeded their caution to the extent they called out early one morning for rescue. We found them entangled in each other and in the bunk beds that had collapsed around them in their ardour.
Leaving Boston for my daughter’s place in London I became a fish in a familiar pond. But the little fish my wife and I spawned is now herself a spawner. Lying on the air mattress below their bedroom I sought the decency of unconsciousness, all too conscious that my couch lay directly beneath Spawner Corner. In the daylight I changed nappies and read stories and gave thanks for the pond life.
Fifty years ago my sister and I visited my newly married cousin in Sydney. Our visit coincided with the last night at home of the bridegroom before he entered hospital for elective surgery. Ringing in my ears was the observation of a veteran nurse on the surgical ward where I was a student. She said: ‘We test the urine of every patient. There’s always protein and sperm cells in male urines. Men MUST copulate the night before before surgery – in case it’s their last chance.’ I don’t know what my cousin did that night. I hope she had a pleasurable night’s unrest.
Now, flying home to Australia with the daughter and her spawn who will be our house guests for a time, I realise the shoe will be on the other ear.