IT HAS been raining all day and I am standing in the garden with a young man from China. We only met an hour ago. I didn’t just bump into him out there or anything. It’s a big garden but not that big.
He has been taking photographs of the house on his phone and now he wants to have a look round the garden. So here we are, covered in drips from the trees and wetted by that English meteorological phenomenon known as summer holiday rain. I don’t bother trying to explain about the rain that falls once the schools break up. It will take too long and we are getting wet.
We duck beneath the dripping rose arch, the blooms now tattered or gone, and walk past the greenhouse, where the tomatoes are at least beginning to appear, like hard little green full-stops.
Pushing through more water-dressed branches, we come to the big pond, then walk round the smoke bush, fiery against the soggy blanket of a sky.
I show him the veg patch and the wildish area at the end, then we trudge back, damp and delighted. Well, we are both damp and he is delighted. Everything about our house pleases our guest. He tells me that he has never been in an English house before. He likes the decoration, he tells me. I decide not to take the credit. The pictures are to send to his mother at home in China. ‘But not now,’ he says. ‘In China it is midnight.’
At first I couldn’t catch what he was saying, but now we understand each other better. Our guest was a late booking, there on the computer first thing in the morning when we thought we had a free night. It seemed a shame to hit the decline button, so here he is.
Life has changed in many ways since I shuffled onto this vertiginous little ledge. Not having a regular job is the biggest change. Next up is opening our house to strangers via Airbnb.
Our young man from China is a 24-year-old postgraduate student attending a summer school somewhere or other. At first I don’t understand and just nod, but then my ears un-stuff themselves and I catch what he is saying: ah, Oxford. He has come to York by himself for the day and that strikes me as quite brave in a way. Here I am doing what I normally do and here he is, spending the night in an English house for the first time.
Two other guests stayed at the weekend. First up was the young French academic who spoke in a loud cartoon-gabble and gesticulated wildly. He stood in front of the bookcase with all the old jugs and vases on the shelf, arms waving all over. He stepped back and we held our breath. Was he going to dislodge something with his waving arms? Thankfully not.
Then came the British-based young man from Israel, in York for a wedding, who was friendly and interested and interesting.
Now here I am making small-talk with a young man from China. My wife is out at her choir. I begin to worry it might be a long evening of stuttered half-understand exchanges. But the young man is friendly and charming and just so pleased with everything. He is studying English and politics and he looks along our bookcase. I show him my two published novels, out of vanity or maybe just something to do. He looks at the books and tells me that he doesn’t think there are crime novels in China. Then he lays the books flat on the table and takes a photograph to add to his collection.
Soon after this he smiles and asks if it is all right if he goes up to his room now. Perhaps the conversation has worn him out too.
I sit and half watch something on television while playing around on the laptop. All this still feels strange, but good strange.