Since we moved house, our elderly dog has lost his mind. A month on, he no longer understands doors, shadows us anxiously and stands for hours, guarding his bed. It is, I think, the only thing he recognises from his old life and he wants to make sure that doesn’t vanish too.
Worse, he has become very strange around other people. His small, over-stimulated brain has forgotten they exist and being reminded sends him into a literal tailspin of overwhelm. When someone visits, he goes wild and barks insistently, making all conversation impossible. Then he brings all his saliva-stiffened toys, laying them carefully at their feet. Finally, I am sorry to say, he starts to try to mate with their legs. “He never used to do this!” I say, grimly trying to prise his hunched, insistently jackhammering rear end off them. “Stop it, Oscar!”
I think you know where I’m going with this: me too. Not the leg humping, but everything else. The Great Hugging is here – people can come into our homes and magazines are full of dinner party menus and “tablescaping”. But, like the dog I am not ready.
There are a number of problems. The new house being far too cold for me to wash regularly is a big one. My disgusting spectacles – an aesthetic and ophthalmological disaster I last mentioned in February and have made no attempt to rectify since – are another.
But it goes deeper than that: I have lost the knack of company. When the doorbell rings, I, too, am floored unless it is a chicken-related delivery (my newly arrived bantams consume my every waking moment and disposable income). Confronted with a social visitor, I look simultaneously shamed and alarmed, as if I am thinking, “No, I definitely didn’t suck pasta sauce out of this jumper last night – you must be mistaken,” and also, “I wish you were worming powder.” After that, it’s all (even further) downhill: I talk too much or grind to an awkward silence, stare weirdly and forget basic social conventions, such as offering drinks.
I would like to think I’m not alone, but my entourage is not encouraging. “I’ve gone feral!” people say self-deprecatingly, and I am flooded with relief, then they post pictures of themselves in laughing groups in gardens, with brushed hair, wearing nice clothes and obviously leading the lives of functional sociable humans.
But if, perhaps, others are apprehensive about the newly raised bar of social expectations, my pointers to myself as I attempt to reacclimatise to other people in my space may be useful.
Tidy up. Before guests arrive, cast your eyes around your home with a stranger’s gaze. No one is coming to sneer at your towels, but the giant network of cobwebs whose progress and inhabitants you are tracking with interest might be a little off-putting.
Get biscuits. A friend asked for a biscuit recently (already a sign I was derelict in my hostess duties), and all I had to offer him was an oatcake or (quite reluctantly, to be honest) “the last of the Christmas cake”. You can’t suggest guests play “mystery leftovers bran tub” in the freezer as you do with family: get a packet of Bourbons.
Prepare for conversation. This is tricky: you can’t go too deep before you know where, on the spectrum from optimism to catatonic despair, your interlocutor lies, but small talk feels ridiculous. “How are you?” … “Fine” is jarring when the real answer is almost certainly “a bit broken and strange”. But do it: it’s social grooming, phatic talk – the words don’t actually matter and no one needs to see the unhinged depths of your soul right now. Be thankful that the unseasonably cold spring has offered five minutes of bonding weather chat and take heart: after the first time, it will be easier because you can gossip about your previous guests, a true and sadly scarce joy this year.
Which reminds me, remember how much you like people. I do: their passions and foibles; their turns of phrase; the infinite, life-affirming difference of them. I’m desperate for people. Just, hopefully, not desperate enough to get amorous with their calves.