My mother in law has text to say she’s coming round.
No, sorry. She’s ‘popping by for a bit’.
Cue a 23 minute scramble to clear surface space, empty the laundry bin, and put the Funny Man’s smelly trainers out on the windowsill, artfully hiding them behind our galvanized steel tub of dead hydrangeas.
I look longingly at what is left of my Secret Santa Diptyque candle. Damn my decadence, lighting up at every bath time and bedtime through January, as if such luxuries were stored aplenty in a neat little bathroom commode alongside sanitary products, razors and several jars of Neal’s Yard Wild Rose Balm, or as if these delights are common as milk.
Which, incidentally, we’ve also run out of.
At 26, I like to think I’ve got the adult thing pretty down. I’m on top of my career, relationships, money (mostly). I’m no Pippa Middleton, but I can throw a killer dinner party or two, and serve up a four course meal in heels, in a cleaner-has–just–been tidy flat, with candles on every surface and posies of fresh flowers arranged delicately in little jars (cut short, as Pippa says, to facilitate conversation). There will be tiny bowls when the guests come in, and everyone will always have a topped-up glass. I will be in the kitchen most of the night, but I will exude joie-de-vivre à la Nigella and it will be fabulous.
Everyone will be impressed and I will be exhausted.
During the event, I will expend so much energy in maintaining the illusion of relaxed, bohemian perfection that by the time 10pm rolls around, I’ll begin hinting so obviously that it’s home time that I am surprised I still have any friends left at all. What even is the point?
And why, indeed, on a random Wednesday evening, does the threat of an unplanned MIL visit throw such dark despair and panic into my heart? I could easily blame social media, the curated perfection of interiors blogs. But deep down, I think we all have a need to have our metaphorical and physical ducks (wooden ones, in our bathroom) in a neat little row when our peers, parents, MILs, frenemies, ex-lovers or Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘pop by for a bit’. I’m pretty sure our grandmothers were stuffing laundry under their beds way back in the fifties, when their MILs came a’ knockin’, and there weren’t no Insta’ then.
Illustration by Lauren Gentry
Needless to say, by the time MIL arrives I am so puffed that I am unable to muster the usual niceties, and so mutter an apologetic offer of milkless tea. “Why didn’t you text me to pick some up?” Why. Indeed. The left side of my brain’s been on shore leave for the past half hour. We proceed to talk half-heartedly about the Funny Man’s shows and our house hunt, conversation drying up completely after about 4 minutes. I am distracted by a vase of dead flowers on the mantle, an optimistic purchase on a sunny day.
As a kid, my favourite house to visit was a big, pink, tumble-down palace of mess and dirty dishes in the Copenhagen suburbs. Meals were never ready on time, there was no formality, no bowls of kettle chips, or plates of pretty biscuits, or fresh flowers in jars. Instead, the host would light a candle, and my baby brother and I, giggling conspiratorially over a shared joke, would help her knock together a few ingredients and make a batch of something sweet. Then we’d sit, huddled on the kitchen floor, my mother perched, cackling away, on the kitchen counter, next to last night’s wine glasses. We’d munch these quick, piping-hot treats over mismatched plates and paper towels. It was perfection.
Because, I’m realising, I have never yet managed this kind of impromptu shared intimacy, created equally by guest and host in a dirty, dimly lit kitchen. Such a thing can only happen when the host hasn’t morphed into Kirsty Allsop on speed, and remembers the point: the people.
Entertaining is not an excuse to create a real-life manifestation of your Instagram dreams. By letting someone into your perfectly primped home in this way, you’re depriving yourself of the satisfying feeling of really letting them in.
So I decide. While knocking on my neighbour’s door for a cup of milk, I decide that I’m going to try entertaining with a little ‘e’ from now on. I come back to the kitchen, pop the kettle on for MIL, reach for the butter, eggs, cocoa powder, and sugar, and proceed to make a big mess.