In a last-minute turn of events, I entertain three Russians in the castle

Well, the Russians, as it turned out, were very nice, almost certainly not criminals, and very, very dull.

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A slight change of plan means that I’m staying at the castle for another couple of nights. Normally, when one announces to people that one’s going to be there for 48 hours longer than originally advertised, this is cause for lamentation, privately borne, yet usually discernible to the practised student of the human face.

This time it was different. “Joy unconfined” more or less sums it up, for some guests were arriving, and the Master and Mistress of the House were away, and someone plausible was needed to hold the fort.

I had to have it explained to me a couple of times. A Russian couple and their son were paying through the nose to be shown around the castle and have dinner made for them. It was the son’s 30th birthday and they wanted to give him the full Scottish Experience. This, I gathered, was the brainchild of M—, the Russian troublemaker, who would act as interpreter, and G—, her friend; I mentioned them before, I think; they live in Edinburgh, and if you go out for a drink with them, make sure you have nothing planned the next day.

My presence was welcome because I knew the ropes and can scrub up nicely; perhaps it was thought I would add a certain tone. I had been pretending I owned the place for a week, I suppose – but, I reflected, an occasion for which I was to be a major prop is an occasion with a serious design flaw.

Also, I was brooding about the Russians themselves. When you effectively hire a castle for the night you have to be pretty minted, and when one comes across wealthy Russians there is always the thought, as there is concerning few other nationalities, that they may possibly not have accrued their wealth through honest toil. (Just as the Russian tourist’s interest in cathedral architecture may not be all it is claimed to be.)

Still, an ignoble thought, and I deemed it best to give them the benefit of the doubt. My main preoccupation was how I was going to present myself. What, in short, would my cover story be? A refugee from justice, wanted for crimes unspecified by the police forces of two continents, hiding out in the wilds of Scotland until it all blows over, and certain matters … arranged? Or the laird’s sleek and sinister factotum, for whom no task was too… unpleasant. I became alarmed at the direction my thoughts were taking. My wristwatch? Oh, that old thing? (It’s a begrimed but still accurate 1960 Oris that I picked up for a song in the Portobello Road, in the days when you could still pick up things for a song in the Portobello Road.) That was a present from my godfather. You may know him as John le Carré…

Meanwhile, fires were lit in the Morning Room and the Dining Room, rooms grand enough to deserve their capital letters. Flowers had been arranged; a crisp white tablecloth and place settings laid (although I winced when I saw the positioning of the cutlery – I think we got away with it), the Dining Room itself lit solely by candlelight. I didn’t even have to lift a finger to cook, serve or wash up; people had been hired for that.

“What, ye mean a glass for red and a glass for white?” asked K—, and rolled her eyes.

Well, the Russians, as it turned out, were very nice, almost certainly not criminals, and very, very dull. The paterfamilias looked a bit like Boris Yeltsin but didn’t drink nearly as much; his wife didn’t drink anything but water; and the son had a beard and tried to get me interested in a story, told in extremely halting English, about a legal dispute between a Russian firm and the Seychelles, but between the fog of his terrible grammar and such technicalities as I was able to grasp, failed to stir me.

G— got a bit pissed and kept standing up proposing toasts to the Russian nation for saving our bacon during the Second World War. I murmured “Ribbentrop Pact” to myself, but not so loud that anyone could hear. The Russians themselves were charmed, and kept proposing toasts to their hosts; the impression that I was in some way the master of the house, or at least someone very important within it, was not one I was going to disabuse anyone of. (“Actually, I haven’t got a pot to piss in, and until last week I was living in a freezing Hovel that only someone in the most wretched and impecunious of circumstances would accept.”) When Russians make toasts, you have to stand up, so at least we got some exercise between shovelling down haggis and venison.

So what, you may ask yourself, makes this evening a fit subject for a column called “Down and Out”? Well, I’m now back in London, writing this in my childhood bedroom, in my mother’s house, in my underpants. I think that qualifies as Down and Out, don’t you? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes