Looking Back and Looking Forward

I mentally ran through the list while I was up and down the ladder washing the walls. It’s the dull but necessary part of decorating that I always want to get out of the way as soon as possible so I can crack on with the much more satisfying task of painting. So I was passing the time by trying to remember exactly who had come to stay with us in the two-and-a-half years between my moving in to our place in September 2017 and the start of lockdown in March 2020.

Diane, a dear friend of over twenty years whom we had met in Brunei was first. She travelled over for a weekend visit with Mr Blue-Shirt in those first few weeks when he was still based in the UK until the sale of the forge had gone through, even though we couldn’t offer guests much by way of creature comforts at that point. As I ran a fresh bucket of hot water, I remembered how she didn’t turn a hair at our rudimentary hospitality, and with her customary no-nonsense, get-stuck-in attitude had set about pruning a couple of overgrown trees that were blocking The View.

Then came Nick and Elaine, singing friends from the amazing acapella choir I sang with for over ten years. Their first visit, I worked out as I worked my way over the roughly-plastered and whitewashed wall, was early in the spring after Mr Blue-Shirt had moved in permanently as they had lent a hand with installing the patio doors he had brought over with him. And shortly after that, I calculated, as they will have come at half-term, it must have been David and Jackie’s first visit. Fellow members of the informal Friday night ‘Sundowners Club’ at our local pub in Lincolnshire, both of them are primary school teachers, so they can only come in the school holidays. And when they do, they just need to switch off and relax for a few days.

Working my way down the next section of wall from the apex of the roof and the heavy chestnut beams that run the length of the room, I tried to recall who came next. But it was easier said than done since by that first summer we were properly installed, we had established a rhythm of welcoming another set of visitors every six weeks or so, with some returning several times. Diane came back with James at some point; I think it was in autumn, but I couldn’t be sure. And Nick and Elaine have definitely been over in summer because we went to the beach in Porto San Giorgio with them and then on to the night market in Fermo.

Having reached floor level again, I shifted the ladder over another metre and climbed back up to the rafters to start on the next section of wall, by now just sticking with ‘who’ and no longer bothering with ‘when’. Blacksmithing friends and long-time Italophiles Bill and Melanie came for a few days after we’d been to a major international forging event in Tuscany. That must have been in September 2019, I worked out, as it’s a biennial event and we last went on my final overland trip over when I stayed put and Mr Blue-Shirt went back to finish packing up the house and workshop.   

Simon, the very old friend who actually introduced the two of us back in the ‘80s, and his partner Tania spent a good couple of weeks with us as some point. They’re based in the US and made quite a trip of it, taking in Florence and Lake Trasimeno in Umbria while they were with us too. That can’t have been in the height of summer, I decided, because even though it was still warm enough to dine outside in the evening, they relished the relative cool that was a welcome relief from the blistering heat of Arizona where they live.

It was in another May half-term that we had also welcomed Ginny and Pete, very old friends from our days in Germany. Pete had been Mr Blue-Shirt’s right-hand man and room-mate throughout two six-month tours in the Balkans, during which I spent a lot of time with Ginny and two of her teaching colleagues at the forces school where they all taught, who also became great pals. We hadn’t seen them for ages, so their stay was characterised by very long lunches and even longer dinners as we had so much catching up to do, but the weather had been untypically wet during their stay, only to revert to brilliant sunshine almost as soon as their flight back to the UK took off.

I’d got to floor level again, and as I shifted the ladder one last time and ran my final bucket of water, I struggled in vain to remember when Nick and Elaine had been over again: had it been once or twice more? I know they had helped with pruning the olive trees one time, and also with lopping the over-tall willow tree I can see from my study window, but was that the same trip? And then there’d been the time Nick had helped Mr Blue-Shirt erect the first section of pergolato along the south terrace; I had no idea which trip that had been. Nor could I recall exactly when David and Jackie had been over again, but I was reasonably sure it was autumn 2019.

I remembered exactly when our next visitors, Mr Blue-Shirt’s younger brother had come over with his wife and two teenage children, however. It was only two or three weeks after their mother’s death that October, but both brothers decided that they wanted the trip to go ahead as planned, and so almost certainly filled some unexpressed need for one another’s company at that painful time. Despite the underlying sadness, it was a wonderful few days together that were somehow made all the more precious when, tragically, barely a month later their father died too.

I rinsed out the bucket and sponge and flung open the windows to let the summer breeze dry the freshly washed wall more quickly. And as I went to fetch the paintbrushes, rollers and paint from the shed, it dawned on me that Mr Blue-Shirt’s family had in fact been our last visitors. By Christmas we had needed just to hunker down and be on our own together at home, but no sooner had our spirits started to lift and our energy to return than coronavirus began its deadly sprint around the globe. So with much of the world in and out of lockdown for the next fifteen months, David and Jackie had to cancel the flights for what had effectively become their regular spring half-term break, Nick and Elaine’s proposed visit for her birthday in May was reluctantly put on ice for the foreseeable future, and all the other visits that friends and family had been planning were one by one rescheduled for ‘when this is all over’. And so for twenty months our guest room has remained lifeless and empty and reduced to little more than a sanctuary for spiders.

But with infection rates now tumbling, vaccination rates surging and travel restrictions finally beginning to loosen (across Europe, at least), a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is just becoming visible. So we are daring to hope that it will not be long until friends and family can once again come to stay. And once I have finished that painting I’ve been looking forward to, we will have a freshly-decorated (and spider-free) bedroom to offer them.

All names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

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