Chapter 2

Tuesday
Sneydley to Crockington

The sun hugged me awake before my half-seven alarm.  I lay cosily for a few minutes, enjoying that ‘not having to get up yet’ sensation, until the lure of the day proved overwhelming.

It was one of those April mornings that make you think, if this is only spring then summer holds exciting promise.  I like getting up early anyway, swotty as it sounds, and days like that are a crime to waste.

Downstairs, though, I felt like a layabout in comparison with Shane, the reformed couch potato.

‘Y’allright bab,’ he beamed, already exiting the dining room, ‘just going for a little stroll in the village before we set off.’  He wore a sweatshirt with Cookie Monster from Sesame Street on.

‘Apparently he did fifty sit-ups before breakfast as well,’ said Lyndon, who was buttering a perfect isosceles triangle of that brittle toast which exists nowhere but in hotels.

I helped myself to a box of Rice Krispies from the parade of mini Kellogg’s boxes on the sideboard.  Yes, I am twenty-six years old and have a childlike love of Rice Krispies and their ‘snap crackle pop’ sound.  I joined Lyndon at his table opposite Ted and Enid, the Salad Couple, who were gobbling scrambled eggs – presumably because salad wasn’t on the breakfast menu.  I greeted them, to which they muttered something that sounded like ‘Good morning’ with the vowels removed.

‘How did you sleep, Naomi?’ asked Lyndon.

‘Beautifully, thank you.’  I reddened pathetically at the mention of sleep and the filthy word association game my brain started to play: sleep – bed – sex – bluush!  It was a relief to be diverted by Bryony, on waitress duty, taking my order for coffee and more toast.

Lyndon, meanwhile, slid a folded piece of paper towards me.  Your phone number?  Why Lyndon, this is so sudden!  Oh, it’s the application form!  ‘Thank you so much.  I shall have a good study of this later.’

‘You might want to wait ’til this week’s finished, make sure I haven’t put you off completely.’

No chance of that.  ‘Are there any particular qualifications I’d need?’

‘Not as such.  Plenty of walking experience, obviously.  They prefer if you know your way round a map and compass too, but BFF run navigation courses if you need to brush up your skills.  If so, you’d need to do that before taking your assessment.  They also provide first aid training.’

I hoped Lyndon would teach me the mouth-to-mouth technique.  Mind you, even spending my days in the wilds giving the kiss of life to halitosis-ridden geography teachers with beards full of Rice Krispies was going to be preferable to working at Raybould Communications.

‘It sounds brilliant.  I’m definitely going to go for this, Lyndon.’

‘Good.’  He beamed with what looked like genuine pleasure at this news.  ‘The other prerequisite I forgot to mention is strong interpersonal skills.  Obviously you’re on pretty much permanent duty for a day or weekend or week at a time, interacting with folks.  I don’t think you’ll have any problems in that department, though.  You seem very confident and personable.’

Confident and personable!  He might as well have said I had a great arse, judging by my reaction.  My heart was flipping like a salmon at the compliment.  Although, continuing the fish theme, I was certain my gaping expression must be reminding Lyndon of a guppy.

******

Later, when we were all there – Shane refreshed from his pre-walk walk; Hazel looking bleary and bed-haired; Polly bursting out of something purple, glowering because I was sitting next to Lyndon again – we were invited to each compile a packed lunch for the excursion.

‘We won’t have this every day,’ Lyndon explained as Bryony started to load the sideboard with homemade rolls (or ‘cobs,’ as they call them in the West Midlands), crisps, cereal bars, fruit and Buxton spring water.  ‘There’ll be pub stops on some of our routes.  Help yourselves now, there’s enough for a couple of cobs apiece, a bottle of water and whatever snacky things you fancy.  Mix and match as you please.’

It was a generous array.  I opted for a pair of cheese rolls, water, an apple and a bag of Quavers.  Polly made a beeline for the bananas, and – unless my imagination was in overdrive – I swear she stroked the one she picked.  I could see a pattern forming: she favoured phallic foods.  And Ted and Enid favoured salad rolls.

We then carted our overnight cases down and lined them in the lobby for their somewhat smoother journey, by minibus, to the Badger Inn at Crockington.  And off we set.

******

‘Lyndon says I’m confident and personable,’ I divulged to Hazel, exultant schoolgirl-like, as though teacher had just awarded me an A.  ‘Get me, eh!’  I licked my finger and made a mock ‘one point to me’ gesture on an imaginary blackboard.

‘Get you indeed.  You’ve obviously made a speedy impression there.’

‘It’s a start, I suppose.  He thinks I’m cut out to join the ranks of BFF anyway.  I could be seeing a lot more of him in the future.  Unless I get posted to take charge of the Outer Hebrides treks.’

‘You could always become pen pals.  Or internet buddies, I suppose it would be nowadays.’

‘And write passionate e-mails?  Why have those two brought their suitcase, by the way?’ I whispered, nodding towards the Salad Couple, who wore no backpacks and were cutely but bafflingly carrying between them a brown suitcase of the variety prevalent among wartime evacuees.

We were approaching a stile, which they negotiated by passing the impractical trunk to one another while conferring in their secret dialect.  Lyndon offered to hold it for them while they climbed, but Ted Salad clasped it to his weedy frame with a defensive ‘No.’

‘Perhaps they’ve got surveillance equipment in there,’ Hazel suggested.  ‘They could be gathering intelligence and reporting our whereabouts to Al Qaeda.’

‘They didn’t wanna put any of their stuff on the minibus, apparently, bab,’ Shane clarified.  ‘Ted was telling me as they’d had luggage go missing before, so they don’t wanna take no chances now, like.’

‘Oh right.’  I was more amazed by Shane’s ability to extract so many words out of the man than by his explanation.

Once we were all over the stile, we crossed a little lane and scaled another stile on to a hedged footpath.

‘This area is known as Quanswood,’ Lyndon intoned as we veered right into a woodland.  Oh, and he had the perfect voice for such a setting.  Were I hearing him on radio, I swear I’d have conjured up images just like those I was seeing now.  I mentioned earlier the childlike colours of the view from my window.  Similarly, Quanswood possessed the uncomplicated beauty of a storybook scene.

Never had I experienced such a sense of utter peace as I did canopied by those beech and chestnut trees.  It was one of those terribly uncool moments when nature spellbinds and humbles me.  I actually started to well up.  As you can imagine, I seldom admit these emotions, or at least only to fellow walkers who can relate to my love of the outside and the country’s diverse geography.

I entertained romantic visions of Lyndon and me returning one day with a wicker picnic hamper and a red and white gingham blankets (those items only seem to exist in story illustrations too).  It could become Our Place; our haven when the daily slog of leading walks just became too much for us.  We would sip champagne and nibble smoked salmon on melba toast and reminisce about ‘that day we first came here.’

He was talking again.  ‘We’re just approaching to St Botolph’s Church – rather out-the-way location for a church, I know – which has become famous round here for housing the proverbial bats in its belfry.  There’s a colony been making themselves at home in there for a number of years.’

‘What species?’ Hazel asked.

‘The brown long-eared variety, Hazel.’

‘Bit like this one then.’  She fished a gold chain out of her T-shirt and flashed the bat pendant like a talisman.  ‘I’m secretary of the Bat Protection League back home in Ledbury.  Mad about the creatures.’

‘As you’d know then, of course, they’re protected so their roosts can’t be disturbed.  The local churchgoers – not that there are all that many – are pretty accustomed to their nocturnal visitors by now.  I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to spot any today.  They’ll just be coming out of hibernation about now.  If you like visiting churches, though, I’m afraid this one has to be kept locked because it’s so secluded.  Another sad sign of our times, I suppose.’

I am not religious, never have been, but it was a cute little setting.  St Botolph’s is a miniature stone structure, like a dolls church, only its bell tower – home to the cosseted bats – distinguishing it from the rustic cottages nearby.  Most of us reached for our cameras.

‘Now even though I’m not religious,’ Lyndon said, echoing my thoughts, ‘I never fail to be moved by this place.  There’s something so enchanted about it.’

I wanted, not for the first or last time that week, to squeal with joy.  I was out in the English countryside with a gorgeous man and a group which included a couple who lugged their suitcase with them on a cross-country hike and a lady who helped run a bat preservation group.  And I had the prospect of doing this for a living, as my days churning out press releases for Adrian Raybould’s smarmy clients were numbered.

******

‘Well this sure beats work,’ I declared happily to Hazel on that theme, as we resumed walking, having photographed the woodland dolly church from every angle.

‘You say you’re in public relations at the moment?  And your boss is a reptile?’

‘The worst.  Backstabbing little bastard – excuse the French.  As good as promised me a promotion, then brought his vile fiancée in and installed her in the job, despite her having no PR experience.  Her bloody aunty’s already been working there as secretary for the last year, so it has started to feel like an invasion.’

‘Hateful thing, nepotism,’ Hazel tutted.

‘Oh, but while I’m apparently not good enough for the job, my experience is conveniently valuable enough that I have been bullied into doing stacks of overtime to help the malevolent bimbo learn the ropes.  Learn how to turn a computer on, wipe her own bum, that sort of thing.’

‘Comfort yourself with the idea that they’ll probably divorce, he’ll end up replacing her with his next bit of fluff and this current gal will sue him for unfair dismissal.  Or else her lack of nous will cause her to make a major booboob, which will result in a client suing the company.’

Hazel made me smile.  I hadn’t heard the word ‘booboob’ for years.  I hadn’t known her twenty-four hours, but I already sensed this woman, with her flyaway hair and her bat necklace, would remain a friend for life.

‘There might be less call for the overtime,’ I said, ‘if she made more than a cameo appearance in the office occasionally.  But if she’s not off having manicures, she’s seeing caterers and wedding stationers and what have you.  I’ve been promised an invitation to their nuptials, by the way – me and half the West Midlands, I think.’

‘Let me guess – you’ll be washing your hair that day?’

‘How uncanny!  She was still married to some other poor guy when she met Adrian, that’s the slimeball boss, so for months he’d be on the phone arranging assignations and returning from “extended lunch breaks” looking flushed.  Now we have to put up with them being gooey with each other in the office.  Not sure which is worse.’

‘I can certainly see why you’re leaving.’

‘It’s surprising how detached I feel now, talking like this about it all, Hazel.  It’s as though the whole nightmare happened to somebody else.’

‘You’re moving on.  That’s positive.’

‘Onwards and ever upwards.  Marketing was all I wanted to do at one time.  I still enjoy the social aspect of PR, the interaction with people.  I admit I did pin too many hopes on getting Senior Marketing Executive on my CV.  Ade likes to rub salt in the wound by earnestly denying ever raising my hopes in that direction – obviously it was all my imagination and ego – and I’ve now opened my eyes to the fact that without the promotion prospects there is absolutely no incentive for me remain with that company.’

‘Are you totally sure your misgivings are not simply with the company rather than PR as a career?’

‘Yes,’ I said unhesitatingly and with a conviction that was comforting.  ‘The office life is not for me after all.  I identify with what Lyndon said yesterday, about the outdoors having a pull on you.’

‘That’s certainly true.  How long have you worked at that place?’

‘Nearly three years.  I moved there from a much smaller firm, thinking it would be a wise career move.  PR is quite a small world and Adrian has a good reputation in it, believe it or not, bearing in mind he behaves like he’s twelve.  He’s the type who thinks it’s hilarious to play practical jokes on his staff.’

‘And don’t tell me – if you fail to be amused by his infantile pranks he accuses you of being humourless.’

‘Absolutely.’

I related the April Fools Day incident, the fictitious ‘urgent press conference,’ the needless journey there and back that set me behind schedule with my mountainous workload, on a day when I was still so not-with-it after Uncle Terry’s passing that I didn’t even cotton on to the joke when Adrian gave me the name of the guy allegedly hosting the event – Drew Peacock (think about it).

‘Have you complained?’

‘I expressed my lack of amusement in my resignation letter, which I handed in on Friday.  He studiously ignored that issue in his reply, of course, but I will pursue it when I get back.’

‘Good for you.’

‘It’s not always easy knowing what to do for the best, though.  In an office team environment there can be a fine line between airing grievances and being seen as The Colleague with No Sense of Humour.’

‘You air those grievances, girl.  He sounds a proper little David Brent.’

‘I tell you, Ricky Gervais had it spot-on with that sitcom.  Adrian can barely speak unless it’s in a string of corporate buzz phrases.’

‘He tells you to think outside the box, go forward, sing from the same hymn sheet, that type of thing?’

‘At the end of the day – that’s another one he uses – yes!’

‘I am sorry about your uncle, though.’

‘Uncle Terry, my mom’s younger brother, never married or had a family of his own so was always close to my brothers and me.  He used to come on a lot of walks with us.’

‘He’d be proud of you for doing this one then.’

I was incapable of speaking for a few moments.  Hazel gave my shoulder a fleeting squeeze, supportive without being mawkish.  ‘Yes, he would,’ I responded in a bold voice.  I hadn’t come on this break to dwell on morbid concerns.  ‘I’m looking forward to working outdoors.  Even when it’s bucketing down with rain and I’m saturated on a rock in the Peak District, I won’t miss Adrian.  Honestly Hazel, I could tell you tales about that man all the way from here up to Tunclough.’

My work woes had already taken us to Camp Hill Common, a heathery beauty spot four miles from the Earlcott.  There was plenty more I wouldn’t bore Hazel with.

As I beheld the unbound and beautiful landscape around me, it was hard not to feel smug imagining Adrian, shallow Sian and noxious Nova sweating it in that 80s throwback office.  This sweat always made its mark on Adrian’s Matalan shirts.  He would lounge back in his tycoon padded swivel chair, his small legs dangling off the floor, hands behind head to afford us an enchanting view of his sodden underarms.

Sian, apparently oblivious to that, was no doubt now cooing at him, texting, shopping on Amazon, or buffing her dagger-like nails.

The lax approach to work clearly ran in the family.  Gossiping was the favoured office pastime of Nova Bagnall, Sian’s two-faced aunty, she of the inability to relay messages.  She would react, if asked to do something so onerous as type a letter, as though she’d been ordered to perform open heart surgery.

Nova (‘Nova?’ Hazel exclaimed.  ‘Who’s her sister – Corsa?’) naturally watched her step in the presence of her future nephew-in-law.  In conversation with Adrian she was all ‘love’ this, ‘sweetheart’ that.  She just about stopped short of ruffling his hair and cutting his Marmite sandwiches into triangles.  Only out of his sight came the passive aggressive huffs, slamming down of files or banging of doors.  She was more openly contemptuous of my requests for letters, which hovered at the permanen bottom of her priority pile.

‘Right, we’ll have a pit stop here.’  Lyndon was gathering us around.  ‘This is Camp Hill Common, which I’m sure some of you are familiar with.  Bit early for lunch, but we can have a snack and a rest before continuing with the next couple of miles to Lower Bratchley.  There are loos here too, if you need.’

I needed.  Hazel and I then sat together on the scratchy grass to have our apples and water.

I stretched indulgently in the sun and gnawed at my Golden Delicious.  ‘I haven’t been here for years.’

‘Another of your childhood haunts?’

I nodded.  ‘My brother Simon used to fly his model aeroplanes.’  A miniature Spitfire was whirring overhead as we spoke.  ‘They still have the red and blue routes, I see.’  The colour coded signposts denoted walks of varying lengths around the common.

I saw Posturing Polly strip open her banana and whisper something to Martin with a salacious look in her eyes.  He looked perplexed and replied, ‘We haven’t got a dog,’ to which she rolled said eyes.  She was a walking innuendo; like a bored housewife from some cheesy 1970s sex comedy.

Poor Martin.  Polly’s suggestion referred, I would wager, to Camp Hill Common’s current regrettable reputation for dogging: group sex and voyeurism in secluded car parks.

Perhaps ‘red route’ had a different meaning these days too?

******

‘Tell me about the bats of Herefordshire then,’ I urged Hazel when we resumed walking.  I had bent her ear enough this morning and was interested in her life.

‘Horribly misunderstood creatures, bats.’  Her voice was robust and passionate, and with every step she jabbed her stick into the ground for emphasis.  She was not a woman I could ever imagine being half-hearted about anything.  ‘Play such a vital role in nature, yet to too many folks they are still saddled with this ludicrous Dracula image.’

‘Protected species, though, aren’t they?’

‘You bet, and rightly so.  Their natural habitats have dwindled so much, what with the old buildings and hedgerows that have been lopped down.  You disturb a bat, you’re walloped with a fine.  I’ve been with the Protection League best part of twenty years.’

She spoke passionately about bats for twenty minutes.  She had me virtually signed up to her campaign by the time we descended along Rumbold Lane into the village of Lower Bratchley.

The tiny lanes from the common, along which we were single file, yelling ‘Car alert!’ to one another when an intermittent Land Rover or tractor obliged us to hug the hedge, opened out into this long wide slope.  Rumbold Lane’s summit afforded a splendid panorama of infinite fields and villages.  The Clent Hills in Worcestershire, so enticingly viewed from Lyndon’s former workplace, were a smudge on the horizon.  There is purportedly no higher land between them and the Ural Mountains in Russia – although I am aware other English hill ranges lay claim to this statistic.

‘I’m also a would-be apiculturist,’ Hazel declared with pride.

‘Come again?’

‘Apiculturist.  Beekeeper.  I’m starting a beekeeping course next month at my local college.’

We approached the village now, and had to huddle closer to Lyndon (never a hardship) to hear his introduction.

‘We’re coming into Lower Bratchley, or “Lower B,” as it’s colloquially known.  Actually there are two villages that make up this parish.  We’ll skirt through Upper B – that’s known round here as “the posh end” – after lunch, along the canal towpath.  More about that in due course.  Lower B has a little school, four shops, a church and three pubs.  Population about 1,300.

‘The history buffs amongst you might be aware of the English Civil War connection to this place.  Charles I famously had his sword sharpened here, at the ironworks which existed from the 1550s right up to 1976.  Earl Matthew’s descendents – who had long since lost their titles and were now the plain old Theodoric family – were firmly on the side of the Cavaliers during the war.  A mob of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead allies ran riot and tore down the busts of the old Earl from the four hilltops.  You’ll hear more about that tomorrow, when we visit Manderwood Manor.

‘In the 1980s the Lower B ironworks was knocked down and a housing estate built on the site.  All that remains is the former works canteen, which has been the village community centre for a number of years now.  Getting a new roof by the look of it.’  He indicated the scaffolding which was obscuring the hall.

A sunny day in a leafy country village really does elevate the spirits.  I liked the look of Lower B.  We trooped down High Street, the long straight thoroughfare, off which branched lanes consisting of older housing and the aforementioned modern estate that had replaced the Stuart King’s favourite ironworks.  On the corner of one side lane stood a pub called The Bargeman, outside which a chalkboard declared, with flagrant disregard for the apostrophe rule, that ‘sandwich’s’ were ‘available 12 til 2.’  Not that we’d be partaking.

The village was quiet, save for a wiry little man with long grey hair wrenched back into ponytail, who looked eighty if he was a day, jogging towards us wearing (no joke) an Eminem T-shirt.  With a cheery ‘Y’all right,’ he zoomed past us, his little knees clipping up and down. We literally turned in unison and stared at him in silent awe.

‘I feel unfit just looking at him,’ I said to Hazel.

I can smell chips,’ Shane observed.  I thought at first his marriage had left him oversensitive to the odour, but actually he was right.

‘That’ll be the McCain factory,’ Lyndon clarified.  ‘There’s one on the industrial estate over there,’ he waved to the left, ‘and when it’s blowing in the right direction there is a greasy reek in the air.  We’ll be following the smell in fact, as we pass the oven chip factory on the canalside.  Now we swing a left here.  This is the Grand Midland Canal – the cut, as it’s known in these parts.’

We joined the towpath from High Street, which formed a bridge over the waterway.  I had traversed sections of this canal before, north of here, closer to Wolverhampton, but never as far down as this.

There is a lovely serenity about being on a canal bank; a sense that you could be anywhere.  It’s a slow world of ducks and fishermen and gaudily painted narrowboats.  Canals cleave through towns and sites of active industry – that was the purpose of them in the first place – but cars and roads might as well be on a distant planet.  Urban life is reduced to a distant thrum that, while reassuring by reminding you it’s there, does not infringe on this waterside respite.

‘Now this canal was completed in 1771 and it stretches from north Worcestershire up to north Staffs.’

‘Yow ever walked the whole of it, Lyndon?’ asked Shane.

‘Last year, over the course of two days.  It was a sponsored walk for Finchton Hospice in Wolverhampton.  The cut’s forty-six miles altogether.  We’ll be on it for just over three today, as far up as Crockington.’

A vicar – either that or a man en route to a lunchtime fancy dress do – was gliding towards us as though there were castors beneath his cassock rather than feet.  He wore huge glasses, and possessed no evident neck, so his perfectly ball-shaped face appeared to be dolloped on top of his dog collar.

‘Afternoon.’  Had he a hat, I got the impression he’d have doffed it.  He smiled cordially, apparently used to the sight of hiking herds.

Shane, to my surprise, approached him.  ‘Hey, ain’t I seen you on telly, reverend?  You’re Ellery Crisp.’

‘The very same.’  The vicar grinned modestly, as though trying not to look too chuffed at being recognised.  ‘This is my parish.’
Hazel and I exchanged mystified looks.

‘How many game shows is it you been on now?’ Shane asked his new ministerial mate.

‘Eighteen.’

‘Got any more coming up?’

‘Still trying for Millionaire,’ Rev Crisp tapped the cover of the puzzle book under his arm, ‘that’s the big goal.  Just have to keep phoning, and swotting.’

‘I seen your episode of Bullseye again the other week actually.  They been showing the repeats on Freeview.  You still got the speedboat?’

Rev Crisp nodded.

‘Never!’

‘Had it twenty years now.  It’s sort of emblematic,’ he explained to the group at large.  ‘I’m living proof of the cliché about the Bullseye speedboat always being won by West Midlands contestants.  I can’t exactly race it up the cut, I just love the idea of having an exhibit from TV history in the village.  It’s such a talking point.’

The rest of us laughed uncertainly.  This, it has to be said, was fairly surreal.

Lyndon, obviously mindful of Shane’s capacity for nattering, edged away, indicating that, much as he’d love to spend all day hearing clerical anecdotes about points meaning prizes and keeping out of the black and in the red, we had to press on. Shane thankfully took the hint.  ‘Best be getting going.  Super to meet you, reverend.’  He shook the celebrity cleric’s hand in both of his, like he was touching Gandhi.

‘Likewise.  Good day to you all.’  Ellery Crisp did a little wave, as though doffing the imaginary hat again.  ‘Safe journey.’

******

A couple of locks along, we veered off into a tiny picnic site for our lunch.  There was only one small picnic bench.  It didn’t matter too much to Hazel and me, as we were more than content with the grass.

As I withdrew my cheese rolls, my rucksack buzzed to announce I was in receipt of a text.  Two, in fact.  ‘Ade,’ I grimaced at Hazel.  ‘Believe me, I’m changing my number as soon as he no longer needs it for work purposes.’

‘Yo Nay!  Rubbing 2 sticks 2gether for your lunch?  LOL!!  Sian & I have decided to take a leaf out of yr bk & spend our honeymoon at a Travelodge nr Dudley.  Any you can recommend?  C ya – wouldn’t wanna b ya!!’

Ha bloody ha, Ade.  And has anyone else in the world said ‘Yo’ since about 1990?

I showed it to Hazel, explaining the ‘Travelodge near Dudley’ reference.  ‘He thinks it’s hilarious that I’m on a holiday so close to home.’

Hazel had left her reading glasses in her suitcase, so had to lean about three feet back to see the tiny screen.  ‘Who’s Lol?’

‘It’s an abbreviation.  Means Laughing Out Loud.  Textspeak.’

Her look spoke volumes.  ‘And how much longer do you have left to work with this incisive humorist?’

‘Four weeks,’ I answered happily.

‘And how many minutes?  Blimey, I’d be counting them down with a stopwatch if I were in your shoes.’

My thumb prodded the delete button.

My second text was another from Mom, bless her, checking I had slept well and was still enjoying myself.

‘You live at home?’ Hazel asked as I keyed a reply.

‘No,’ I swallowed a mouthful of cheese roll, ‘bought my flat a couple of years ago.  I’m only five minutes from my folks, though.’

‘No boyfriend, I take it?’  She slid a look towards Lyndon.

‘No.  I am currently without a significant other, as they say these days.  Yourself?’

‘Good grief, no.  Not had a whiff for years.  No, it’s just me and the picture of Anton Du Beke I’ve taped to my fridge.  Ah, that man can foxtrot like nobody else!’  She had a salt and vinegar Hula Hoop on each fingertip and bit them off one by one, the way a schoolkid might.  ‘I did live with a Druid for a number of years, but that crashed and burned.’

‘A Druid?’

‘Mmm, met him in a tai chi class.  Ken, his name was.’

Ken?’  I thought Druids had names like Merlin and Culpeper.  ‘Did he attend Summer Solstice?’

‘Darling, I never wish to see Stonehenge again as long as I live!  He left me for a witch in the end.’

‘At the risk of sounding like a parrot – a witch?’

‘Oh yes, proper Wiccan.  She initiated Ken into her coven.’

‘Maybe she’s turned him into a frog by now.’

Hazel’s laugh was wicked and dry.  ‘What do you mean, turned him into one?’

******

After lunch Hazel handed round the Midget Gems again, and then Lyndon resumed his commentary.

‘We’ll be heading up to – you’ve guessed it – Upper B shortly.  This is one of the most highly sought-after estates in the region, even home to one or two celebs.’

‘How will we cope?’  Hazel affected a starstruck swoon.  ‘I’m in need of a lie down after meeting the Reverend Ellery Crisp!’

‘Quite,’ Lyndon laughed.  ‘Not sure if we’ll spot any famous faces today – more famous faces, should I say – but I suppose you never know who might be creosoting the fence or having a cup of tea on their lawn when we happen to pass.’

‘Doesn’t Melba Most live there?’ I asked.

‘I believe so.  A few Premiership footballers too, apparently – not that I think I’d know any of them if they hit me.’

‘Not a footie fan, Lyndon?’ asked Shane.

‘I’m afraid when it comes to soccer I’m afflicted by DFS syndrome – no interest whatsoever!’  We groaned amiably at the pun.

Melba Most, by the way, AKA Melvyn Corns, is the Black Country’s answer to Lily Savage.  As Paul O’Grady famously based Lily on harridans from his Scouse childhood, Melvyn likewise drew inspiration from Dudley wenches for his alter-ego.  He apparently worked the local spit ‘n’ sawdust circuit for years before earning TV success on The Big Big Talent Show in the 1990s.

I met Melba/Melvyn once, through work, at a fundraiser at the Merry Hill Centre.  He was a scream, a genuinely warm person, and a generous benefactor of charities.

I knew of Upper B.  Country Life’s property column carries regular blurbs about colossal pads for sale there.  We keep copies in our reception, and I’ve flipped through a few during rare lunch hours.  The fawning copy gushes of swimming pools, stables, six-car garages, and gated junctions to some of the more select Crescents, Parks and Drives.

‘We’re parallel with Bratchley Road now,’ Lyndon went on, ‘which is the main road up from Lower B to Upper, through to the next village, which is Swinley.  Bit of an infamous rat-run, that one.  Good job we’re sticking to this path.  The estate itself backs on to the towpath and is coming up on your left.  You might be able to spot a roof or two – the residents tend to favour walls of Berlin proportions to guard their privacy.’

There was little to see of Upper B really – as Lyndon said, just tips of roofs protruding over lofty hedgerows and doubtlessly CCTV-rigged walls.  They soon gave way to the more open landscape of Swinley Industrial Estate and aforementioned McCain factory.  With that behind us, we escaped the chippy whiffs that wafted south.

The trading estate in turn segued into a sprawl of 1980s housing.  Swinley is a greatly built-up village.  According to Lyndon, it was a medieval settlement, originally agricultural in nature, which evolved commercially and residentially in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The landscape then changed again to open countryside as we filtered through Swinley’s heart out towards the less populated Crockington.  The scenery from a canal towpath is similar to that seen through a train window; it’s like looking at pictures of life sideways on.

It was a beautiful day.  Fishermen, cyclists and the occasional celebrity cleric aside, the towpath was quiet.

Shane the quiz show buff was still agog about his encounter with this vicar who was apparently well-known for being a prolific contestant.  ‘I never met anyone off the telly before,’ he rattled on, ‘though my ex-brother-in-law once stood behind Lenny Henry in Smith’s.’

‘Couple of rather fascinating buildings at this lock,’ Lyndon jumped in, as though keen for the diversion.  ‘The tollhouse, as you can see, is octagonal.  And there’s a pumping station over to your right that resembles Dracula’s castle.  See the turrets there.  You can see it’s very ornate for a functional building.  The Victorians did like to go to town on their architecture.’

It was another reach-for-the-camera moment.  The pumping station was indeed highly elaborate and spooky-looking, a testament to Victorian grandiosity.  I could imagine its spires, which rocketed out of the trees, illuminated by thunderclap-accompanied lightning in a clichéd horror film scene.

Further on, a life-sized flowerpot man fishing on a garden veranda proved also photogenic.  Bill or Ben sported a straw hat, and a fishing rod was propped between his terracotta hands.

‘His owners apparently change his clothes and props every day,’ Lyndon told us.  ‘There was an article in the Express & Star a few months back.  They’ve had him about ten years, apparently, he’s quite a local talking point.  They’ve turned down hundreds of offers to sell him.  He’s been stolen twice, though, but returned each time, after being photographed in some unusual places.  I once brought a group down here when the World Cup was on.  Even I knew enough about football to see he was togged up in an England shirt.’

******

The waterside phase of our journey came to an end a further mile on, when we took the slip path on to Radford Bridge at Crockington and traversed another snaky lane towards the main A454.

Such a zooming carriageway jolted us into reality somewhat after a day of virtually empty country lanes and canal towpaths.  The way of the walkers knows no impediment here, though.

As the A-road bisects a designated footpath, namely the official Four Matthews path, and said path predated the highway, the road planners were obliged to stick a stile in the middle of the central reservation.  It literally bestrides the crash barrier.  I had never climbed over a stile with traffic whooshing past either side of me before.  We crossed the road with great caution, although most of us paused in the middle to photograph this bizarre landmark.

‘I’ve gorra stitch,’ Posturing Polly bleated when we reached the opposite pavement, ‘rub it better for us, will you Mart.’

While the acquiescent Martin was massaging her ribcage, she threw a suggestive look towards Lyndon as if by the power of imagination she could transpose Martin’s hands for his.

‘Only another mile to go, Polly,’ said Lyndon heartily, marching on.  I found his ‘chop chop’ tone cheering.  I liked to think he was saying he had no time for laggers and was not susceptible to her ‘come hither’ signals.

‘At least we’re close to the hotel then.  I left me fags in the suitcase and I could murder one now.’

Fags!  No wonder the girl was puffing.  The considerably senior Salad Couple, by contrast, had managed to lug a suitcase the best part of ten miles without a wheeze.  A bit odd, granted, but from a fitness point of view fair play to them: they both must have been over seventy and that case looked leaden.

Crockington,’ Lyndon shouted over the traffic, ‘is a very ancient village, dating back to the Saxon era of our friend Earl Matthew.  His family maintained a lot of links to the area, owning substantial pockets of land over successive centuries.

‘These days the population is just over 1,100.  Like Lower B, there’s a little church and school here, few pubs, corner shop.  I’m sure you can see, though, Crockington is rather more agricultural in nature.  The housing is less densely distributed.  We’re on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border, six miles from Wolverhampton, about ten in the opposite direction from the town of Bridgnorth. ‘I think – hope anyway – that you’ll find the Badger, where we’re staying, a very interesting place.  This was originally a toll road and the Badger was built as a coaching inn in 1812, by yet another of Matthew’s descendents, the Right Honourable Guy Theodoric.

‘Various tenants leased it over the years, until the Hodgetts Brewery purchased it from the Theodoric family in the early Edwardian era.  In recent years it’s gone gastro-pubby.  Now, as I hinted before, Roberta, the new landlady, has introduced a rather unusual menu.  I just hope you all like zebra.’

******

Zebra!

‘I thought you were joking,’ I said to Lyndon as we were presented with our evening menus which did indeed offer zebra steaks – in addition to ostrich, kangaroo, crocodile, venison and something called impala.

He grinned.  ‘I’m not a leg-puller.  I can recommend it, in fact.  It’s quite beef-like.’

Shane chortled.  ‘Is it stripy steak?’

‘The kangaroo is appealing to me actually,’ I said.

‘Is the zebra stripy steak?’ Shane repeated, his question evidently not rhetorical.

‘No, Shane, it isn’t,’ replied Lyndon solemnly.

‘Good job there’s no bat on the menu, eh, Hazel?’  Shane again.

‘It’s an offence to slaughter a bat,’ she retorted, more curtly than I’d have expected – but then I suppose she was akin to a cat owner not seeing the funny side of devouring their beloved Fluffy with curly fries and a grilled tomato.

‘What’s impala?’  I had to ask.

‘A type of antelope,’ Lyndon answered.  ‘Very tasty too.’

Just like you, sweetie!  ‘Think I’ll stick with the roo.’

‘Think I will too.’  He smiled decisively at me.  My heart did another pathetic salmon-flip.  This was the second night we’d had the same meal.  I could have read a lot into that.

The kangaroo turned out to be gorgeous, its soft red meat reminiscent of beef brisket we used to have at home often as kids.
Hazel – perhaps the bat talk had put her off game – went veggie for the evening.  Her chickpea, celery and coriander chilli in fact looked delectable.

I had figured Ted and Enid were vegetarians, but even the Badger’s extensive meat-free selection failed to tempt their lettuce-loving palates.  They chose the inevitable salad.

Shane opted for the crocodile – purely, I think, so he could use the ‘and make it snappy’ line.  Which he did.  Three times.

Martin had the croc too, and Polly Pocket the ostrich.  Nobody chose the zebra in the end.  Perhaps the animal’s ‘horse in pyjamas’ image made it a touch too cuddly to contemplate on a plate.

‘I always remember,’ I found myself sharing, ‘our Creative Writing tutor at uni telling us we should never turn down the opportunity to try new and unusual foods, as we should think of the good story it could one day make.’

Lyndon was drinking cider tonight.  He took a meditative sip, nodding along as though I was imparting the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

‘Profound advice.’  Then his face, so introspective one minute, erupted into one of his gorgeously eager smiles.  He literally seemed to shine with inspiration.  ‘On that theme then, why don’t we each come up with one word to describe what we’re eating?  Only one allowed apiece, to sum up what’s on your plate.  We’ll go round – let’s start with you, Naomi.’

I flushed at being placed on the spot, like a schoolgirl who’s been asked to read out her homework essay.  ‘Succulent,’ I sputtered, wishing to kick myself because it sounded so trite.  I could imagine people thinking, ‘And she’s an English graduate?!’  Bloody succulent indeed!

Hazel’s adjective was ‘Sizzling.’

Shane (he was really labouring that pun now): ‘Snappy.’

Martin: ‘Erm, chicken-like.’

Polly had adopted an elbows-on-table-chin-in-hand posture to display her general contempt for the idea.  ‘Dunno, I’m no good with words.’  She sounded proud of that, and made a sort of wiggling motion as though to display where her assets did lie. Martin gave her an encouraging nudge, and she pouted an insolent, not-even-a-word ‘Ostrichy.’

A housing estate could have been constructed in the time Ted and Enid took to confer over their inevitably joint choice.  Just as the pause was becoming embarrassing, they mumbled in chorus: ‘Salad.’

‘What’s yours then, Lyndon?’  An expert in body language – or in fact a novice in it – would have described the way I leaned towards him, cupping my wine glass, as ‘flirtatious,’ but I was too tipsy and happy to care about coming across as obvious. I was exhilarated from a day’s walking and enjoying a wonderful meal, accompanied by equally wonderful wine, in shadowy, characterful surroundings, in company that was – in the main – delightful.  The Badger was a lovely old coaching inn with oak beams and gothiccy ambient candle lighting.  I could just imagine Dick Turpin plotting in a nook.  The place was heaving; according to Lyndon it always was.

I may not have been dressed like one of the Pussycat Dolls, as Polly was, but I had got over my nothing-to-wear calamity of last night.  I had no more dresses – and could hardly start requesting that we detour off the Matthews path via River Island so I could get some new ones – and tonight had teamed brown linen trousers with my favourite scarlet top.  I decided I was feeling pretty good.

I actually held my breath as Lyndon pondered his gastronomic adjective.  He maintained prolonged eye contact as he answered, ‘My word would be succulent too.’

‘Would it?’ I drooled inanely.

‘Yes,’ those eyes beamed tellingly at me, ‘it would.’

The restaurant might at that moment have been empty of all but Lyndon and me and the in-no-way-phallically-symbolic pink candle dripping down an old wine bottle between us.

Only when a hesitant ‘Would anyone like to see the dessert menu?’ from the young waiter broke the trance did my breathing resume its usual tempo.  It was as though the chatter and general restaurant hubbub had stopped too, and now began swelling around us again like someone had pressed play after jamming the pause button for too long.

The puddings were as fabulous as the main courses, though we were not invited to critique them.  I chose the banana flambé.  I focused on its voluptuous scorched sweetness to divert me from ‘the Lyndon moment,’ which had most definitely passed.

While Martin was in the loo at one point, I saw Polly giggle filthily over a text message then stab a reply with her huge false nails.  The little ‘message sent’ jingle dinged just in time for Martin’s return.  Polly happened to catch my eye as she stuffed the phone into her handbag.

‘Who was that, petal?’  Martin slid his arm around her.

‘Aunty Maureen.’  She kissed him and shot me a ‘you dare say a word, I’ll flambé your face’ look.  I wasn’t about to say a word.  As long as Martin seemed convinced by petal’s explanation, what did my speculations matter?

‘Again?  She called you yesterday, bless her.’

My heart could have broken for the bloke.

******

Post-dinner, Roberta the landlady brought us complimentary coffee and liqueurs.  We thereafter withdrew to the busy lounge, with the exception of the Salad Couple who made their usual scuttle up to bed.  I had hoped to return Lyndon’s first-night favour of a drink but unfortunately, as my breath was not the only thing I’d been holding in, my need for the loo surpassed that hope.
I returned to find Shane had collared Lyndon at the bar for another saga, Polly and Martin were eating each other on an armchair, and Hazel had saved the only unoccupied seats for herself and me.  She had bought me a wine too.

I toasted her with it.  ‘Thank you for listening today, Hazel.’

‘No problem, dear.  We all have our moments when we need to offload.’  She sat back, circling her whisky glass.  ‘You know, I could people-watch for hours.  It keeps me occupied just observing their interactions and mannerisms.’

‘Me too.  Fascinating creatures, people.’

Our group certainly were.  Polly’s handbag buzzed intermittently, presumably with texts from her convivial aunty.  Shane and Lyndon became intermittently lost amid the swarms of locals who bunched around the bar.

‘Apparently there’s a disco at tomorrow night’s place,’ Hazel confided.  ‘Perhaps you might be able to corner him in a conga.’

‘A disco?  Blimey.’

‘The Wednesday grab-a-granny night, by all accounts.  Never know your luck!’

‘Nor yours, come to that.’

‘No, I suppose I can live in hope I might bag a blind old goat one day.’

I caught half a conversation in which Shane lamented, ‘Hurts, doe it?’ in a tone that suggested he was not referring to a bunion.
To which Lyndon intriguingly responded, ‘My ex-wife left me for a bloke she met at a breakfast seminar.’

Ex-wife, ex-wife, ex-wife?

Were I a cartoon character, my ear would at this point have been zooming out on a ludicrously long stalk and suckering itself to the bar.

I heard Shane’s facetious riposte, ‘My Debbie would have enjoyed that, if it involved fried egg and bacon butties’ (Aaarggh, did he have to mention her fondness for food at every opportunity?), but their further chat was swallowed by the babble around them.

So Lyndon had an adulterous ex-wife.  The bitch!  It was hard to suppress the instinct to offer my services as mender of his broken heart.

The reference to a breakfast seminar in fact went ‘ding dong’ with me.  I just as quickly dispelled my inkling, however.  Plenty of affairs must blossom between attendees at business breakfast seminars.  I took a deep slug of wine and told myself to stop being silly.

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2 Comments

  1. Nina said,

    July 16, 2010 at 10:11 am

    There’s a real feeling of things getting moving now (and not just on the walk!) I really like the positivity of the book so far; there’s a lot of lightheartedness and gently observed humour, and the sun hugging Naomi awake was a great start to the chapter.

    Melba Most and Rev. Ellery Crisp – I recognised these characters from ‘Gap Year’ – are they based on real people you know? Again, warmth radiates from the page when they are mentioned.

    (Some of your character descriptions remind me of those David Nobbs uses in his books, which I hope you’ll take as a compliment – he’s one of my favourite authors. He has genuine affection for his characters, who are described with such human warmth and English idiosyncrasy that you can’t bring yourself to hate any of them, even the ‘villains’!) Loved the image of Adrian in his Matalan shirts, no wonder Naomi wanted to get away.

    I loved Lyndon giving us background information on the walk interspersed with Hazel and Naomi’s chat. If I could ‘criticise’ one thing (though it’s not actually a criticism as such) it’s that the other characters are so vivid and colourful that they risk overshadowing poor Naomi! Hazel especially is wonderful, especially her past with the Druid, looking forward to more of her revelations (loved too the way she eats her Hula Hoops – the same way I eat them!) Shane and the Salad Couple (Ted and Enid are perfect names for them) always raise a smile.

    And you ended on a great note, too – Lyndon and his ex-wife; obviously a story to be told there, and the tension between him and Naomi. Looking forward to reading on.

    • leighm123 said,

      July 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      Thanks very much for this Nina! I read your review of Chapter 3 but hadn’t seen this one until this evening as, for some reason, I didn’t get an e-mail notification of it!

      Rev Crisp is based on a certain vicar from the Black Country who became well known locally a few years ago for being a prolific game show contestant (not sure he actually went on Bullseye, though – I made that bit about the speedboat up)!

      Melba Most is my lucky drag queen character, who was of course the subject of my first short story in print! (S)he is loosely based on Paul O’Grady/Lily Savage, I suppose, if anyone.

      The Salad Couple too are based on a real couple we met when I was in the Isle of Wight with my parents as a teenager. Despite the extensive menu at the hotel, they had the salad option EVERY night! And scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning. So I rather cruelly christened them the Salad Couple. They were a very sweet and devoted pair, reminiscent of Howard and Hilda, of Ever Decreasing Circles fame!

      I’ve never read any David Nobbs, though would like to (Reggie Perrin, etc) and do take the comparison as a compliment. To be honest, to be compared to any published author is a compliment!!

      Thank you again.

      Leigh xxx


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