And then, almost before we knew it, there was nothing left but a half-full tub of pistachio nuts and the unclaimed contents of a Christmas cracker.
The empty bottles had been rinsed and put out for recycling, the left-over cheeses packed into a cool-bag for the journey home, the still gift-wrapped panettone was stowed in a box alongside a half-full pack of lentils, and an unused Christmas pudding generously offered up to the ones most likely to eat it.
The dishwasher was emptied for the very last time, and the neat white crockery lined up once again on the kitchen shelves. One of us unplugged the twinkling white lights, while someone else crammed the carefully ironed tablecloth and napkins back into a bag, making a safe nest for the still-new candlesticks and their half-burnt candles.
As I gave the lounge one last tidy-round, plumped up the cushions on the striped grey and white armchairs, straightened the back of the cosy sofa, I realised just how quickly we'd each claimed our own seat, and stuck to it for the whole week. I thought about how many times we'd sat there and chinked together our glasses of sherry, how we'd sipped at gaudy yellow snowballs, and relished our fruit-filled gin and tonics. I remembered how we'd tried to find new words to describe the deep red wines and smooth dark chocolates, and how we'd sat there watching our favourite Christmas films; sobbing for tiny Tim Cratchit in the Muppets' Christmas Carol, smiling at the recovery of Zuzu's petals in It's a Wonderful Life.
Upstairs, the wardrobes and chests were clear, and the clean white bed-linen looked as good as new. Our individual shampoos and gels were removed from their corners of the shower, our toothbrushes and wash-bags packed away for another trip. The huge white bath remained unused, but the enormous towel rail and industrial strength radiator continued to pump out enough heat to warm a castle.
Back in the kitchen, the dining table was wiped clean, and the chairs arranged neatly around it. There was no sign now of the shared meals, or the cups of tea we'd learned to make, just how we each liked it - sweet and milky for some, strong and dark for others. Who would have known that we'd sit here for hours, playing at being despotic dictators in a board game, or scrabbling for letter tiles to form interlocking words? Who could have foreseen the unexpected pleasure, or predicted the level of ferocious competitiveness, that came with learning to play Canasta?
The last of the boxes and bags was carried out to the car, then
we pulled the door closed tight behind us and stowed the key away in its wall-safe. We tried to leave it just as we'd found it, and on the surface, you'd never know we'd been there. But, as I started the car, then turned to take one last look, I felt pretty sure that when the next guests arrived, they might still catch the faint echo of an often-told joke and a fading ripple of laughter.