Big houses don’t make people happy because love is rarely found in bricks and mortar

Michael Harding: Fancy wrought-iron gates at the entrance to a family residence used to be viewed with raised eyebrows in rural Ireland

I got an invitation recently to a barbecue from a couple that are known for not getting on with each other. And I was wondering when the bickering would begin as I drove through the gates of their leafy abode.

There was a time when elegant wrought-iron gates at the entrance to a family residence would have been viewed with raised eyebrows in rural Ireland. A sign that someone had made a vulgar pile of money and lost the run of themselves. When I was young pillars of cut stone, with an intercom device for gaining access, were the norm for exotic stud farms in Kildare, where people had good land to match the gates; but not in the waterlogged fields of Cavan or Leitrim where the snipe wore wellingtons.

So as gates opened before me I could only rejoice in my friends’ good fortune; they now possessed an elegant entrance with which any Lord Harry might have been well pleased.

Not that big houses or lavish gates make people happy. Love is rarely found in bricks and mortar. And the house before me was no exception. Although their bickering wasn’t going to bother me on a lovely spring evening as the smoke mingled with the aroma of shell fish and wine and the sun lingered until 9pm.


But they’re an odd couple. They have endured for years despite their differences. He takes sugar in his tea but she can’t bear to see a sugar bowl on the table. She devours shell fish when ever she gets a chance, whereas he won’t order anything but steak and chips when he goes out for a meal. And of course she loves the sunshine in Spain and the sunbeds at the pool, while he can’t stand getting on a bus never mind an airplane.

The trouble really peaked when they got a dog: a terrier they agreed to take turns at walking. The wife took him in the morning when she was going to meet her friends for coffee, and he would stroll through town in the afternoons, with the little fellow on a leash.

They tended to have different words of command and different treats and even different sets of what was permissible, until eventually the poor dog would have required psychiatric help to cope with the pair of them. The dog was so confused that if you told it to sit he might stand up and lick your face, and if you said to come for a walk he was liable to leap on to the sofa.

I was the first guest to arrive and the wife was discombobulated.

“You’re early,” she said without smiling.

“We’ll take the dog for a walk,” the husband suggested. So off we went down the avenue and around the narrow roads where suburbia has spread out from a nearby town.

There were more gates and more houses, and the dog at the end of the leash became obsessed with every lamp-post.

“I expect he needs a leak,” the husband said, although I was wondering why relieving his bladder would require him to be unleashed.

The moment the dog was unclipped and free he belted away like a low flying drone, up the driveway of a neighbouring mansion.

“That’s Mrs H’s abode,” he said solemnly. And just at that moment a lady appeared at the front door flinging her arms in the air to keep the dog away while her marmalade cat flew up a tree.

“I’m ruined,” the husband muttered after he got the dog back on the leash. “That one is a friend of the wife.”

I was expecting war on the patio when we return but I was wrong.

“I suppose you let him off the leash again,” the wife said.

“No,” he lied, “no; he was very good altogether.”

“And did you meet the marmalade cat?” she wondered.

“Haven’t seen that cat for months,” he declared.

“So no Mrs H tonight?”

“No,” he said. “Not that I noticed.”

They both smiled. I knew this was a game. And I hoped that perhaps their love was growing stronger with age. In fact it was a good barbecue. She ate less fish. And he drank less wine. And even the dog seemed more relaxed. But then it turned chilly and the sun set on the empty wine bottles.

“So what do you think of our new gates?” he asked; speaking the words as if he meant “her new gates”.

And I knew that the war was about to begin.