I was aggressively befriended by a woman called Alex at Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas recently. I wasn’t complaining. I’ve aggressively befriended people at this uniquely wonderful Co Carlow festival before. It’s difficult not to when people like Dolly Alderton and Richard Ford are walking around in the wild being their brilliant selves. This year I thought about trying to aggressively befriend an Oscar-winning actor, the kind of person who can carry off a boiler suit and a cravat at the same time, but I settled for a selfie instead. Despite appearances and outrageous rumours to the contrary, I do sometimes know when to hold back.
Alex claims she aggressively befriended me, but in truth it was a mutually aggressive befriending. However it happened, by the morning after our first friendship date — a communal dinner at Borris House and late-night drinks at the Stephouse Hotel across the road — I had aggressively asked several favours of Alex and she had enthusiastically agreed to help me out.
In fairness, she already knew I was semi-professional on the aggressive-favour-asking front. Over dinner I had told her the story of how, a couple of days earlier, I booked an appointment for what I was going around calling a “small-town blow-dry” in the local hairdresser, the Secret Sanctuary. A ‘small-town blow-dry’, in my experience, is usually cheaper, faster and better than a lot of the big-town blow-dries. There is always the outside chance that it might be fussier than you’ll like and that you’ll end up looking a bit too Real Housewives of Borris or wherever, but that is a chance I am always willing to take.
The Secret Sanctuary must have been a secret to Google Maps, because my phone sent me off walking in the wrong direction. I walked 20 minutes downhill before realising my mistake. Just then the local church rang out 10 bells, which was not ideal, because my appointment was at 10 o’clock. At my very slow and resentful rate of walking, uphill this time, I was going to be late for my appointment.
I considered my options. Walk the other way and try to find the Secret Sanctuary, arriving late and flustered, or seek out the kindness of a stranger. I surveyed the scene and found a stranger. A man was sitting minding his own business in his car parked on Main Street when I approached and asked him, with a straight face, to drive me up to the hairdresser. “Get in so,” the driver said. His name was Billy and he had a great sense of humour, because when he dropped me at the hairdresser he checked whether I’d be able to manage the short walk across the road to the Secret Sanctuary. “I will indeed, Billy,” I said, thanking him. The small-town blow-dry was, of course, perfect and only cost €20.
So Alex knew I had form and didn’t even flinch when I asked her to (a) drive me and my luggage from Borris to the fancy Aldi in Graiguenamanagh to get some groceries and (b) then drive me, my luggage and my groceries to a gorgeous cottage on the River Barrow where I was doing a bit of writing. She left me there and drove home to her farmhouse nearby. I spent an idyllic wifi-free few days alone in the cottage by the river. When my days were up at the cottage I texted my new friend Alex asking her could I (a) record a podcast in her house and (b) stay in her home for a couple of days while I finished some more work. She arrived the following morning to pick me up.
When I tell you that Alex, a brilliant journalist, speaker and broadcaster with a double first from Oxford, already had six family members staying in her gaff and still let me come and sleep and work in her renovated barn, you’ll know how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been to successfully/aggressively befriend her. There followed days of card-playing — her extended family’s card game of choice is Benny, which is a bit like Rummy but even better — eating, writing and laughing. On the final night of my stay Alex and I decided, because there were some cocktail sausages in the fridge that needed to be used up, to create a 1970s buffet for dinner. As a centrepiece we were planning chicken and mushroom vol-au-vents, which had been the surprising star dish at her wedding to her lovely husband, Danny, a couple of years earlier.
Sadly, it turned out that the fancy Aldi in Graiguenamanagh didn’t have vol-au-vent cases. Perhaps there’s no call for them around those parts, but you’d have to doubt that. Who doesn’t love a vol-au-vent? On the way home I asked Alex to stop at a filling station, not explaining why. I was on a secret mission to pay back my new friend by aggressively seeking vol-au-vents. In the garage shop I asked the assistant if she had any vol-au-vents. “No, sorry,” she said.
But then a miracle. “I know where you can get vol-au-vents,” a fellow customer remarked. The chances of bumping into a vol-au-vent aficionado in this filling station at the exact time I was looking for vol-au-vents nearly struck me dumb. But I quickly recovered. “Where?” I asked. “I looked everywhere and I found them in SuperValu in Graig,” the man, who was called Cian, said. “You are a lifesaver,” I said. “We’re having chicken and mushroom ones,” I told him. “I had mushroom ones myself last night,” Cian said. “With a bit of bacon”.
I wanted the vol-au-vents to be a surprise, so I told Alex that when in rural areas I had a tradition of always visiting the small-town SuperValu and asked would she drive me there. Alex, as well as having a double first, is also a tiny bit gullible and didn’t suspect a thing.
When I emerged triumphant from the SuperValu with two packets of vol-au-vents I think that was the moment Alex knew that this late-flowering friendship was going to last despite all the aggressive favour-demanding. And the vol-au-vents were incredible. Thanks, Cian.