Q. We invited two friends to supper in London. As they came in they said they should order their taxi home before we began to drink as they now had to pre-book. They then discussed the booking time between themselves and agreed on 11.30 p.m. But Mary, we wanted them to leave at 10.30 at the latest. How could we have conveyed this without making them feel unwelcome?
— Name and address withheld
A. You can pre-empt overstaying in future by outlining a time scale as you issue the invitation. For example, you could say to them: ‘Could you possibly come early, e.g. 7 or 7.30, as we have to be in bed by 10.45 at the latest that night?’ Even the young, when they have got over the idea that leaving early somehow signals the evening has been a failure, will be more than happy to comply if they have been mentally prepared for it.
Q. We own a Cornish cottage, and we often give a week’s stay in it to be auctioned for charity. This year’s winning bidder had to cancel due to Covid and asked to book the same dates for next year, which we agreed. However, we are now considering selling the cottage. Mary, what is the correct protocol (assuming we can’t find a buyer who would honour the booking)?
— P.F., Barrow Street, Wiltshire
A. You are quite right to assume your potential buyer would not wish to honour the agreement. Eliminate the uncertainty at a stroke by renting a comparable Cornish cottage for the agreed week in 2021 and offering this to your bidder instead. It will do you no harm to pay the rent for this, as you would have been losing a week’s rent anyway by not charging someone else for occupancy during the period. Bear in mind that two thirds of people who buy this sort of lot in charity auctions never take it up, and you might be lucky enough that they cancel nearer the time, meaning you can cancel the alternative booking you made or even take advantage of it yourself.
Q. I agreed to pop in to look after my neighbours’ cat when they went away for the weekend — but when I received a message announcing their return, I realised that I had forgotten to go round to feed it at all! There was no indication in the message that they knew. Mary, how do I go about admitting my forgetfulness without ruining our friendship?
— C.W., London
A. Sadly you will have to admit it — if you don’t they will sense the background guilt you feel on future interactions, and gradually your friendship will be eroded as you come to associate them with shame. On a positive note, the cat is alive, and your experience will be a salutary one, since next time they will ask someone more reliable. Emphasise that the neglect came out of your own inadequacy rather than any lack of affection for the cat or for them.