New chapter

Apologies for not updating this thing in absolutely ages.

I have a new chapter to share with you now: we have reached Wednesday (AKA Chapter 3) in The Four Matthews saga.  Romance fans may be in for a treat with this one, as things start to hot up on them thar hills!

Hope you enjoy…

Chapter 3

Wednesday
Crockington to Manderwood – The Second Matthew

My traditional Wednesday fatigue, that midweek slump just prior to the pre-weekend resurge of energy, was gladly absent this week.  At work I wish my life away, which I hate.  When I’m on holiday I long for the days to crawl as they do during a working week.

Polly and Martin had torn themselves out of bed early, and she had bagged the seat by Lyndon.  She shot me a smirk as I walked past to sit with the Salad Couple and their scrambled eggs.

There were no zebra sausages on the menu, but a choice of venison or pork and herb varieties.  This morning fare was of the variety my nan used to say would ‘land on your belly and send you bow-legged’ but, despite having seven miles to walk that day, I indulged without regret in the magnificent fry-up.  Ah, nothing beats a cooked breakfast.

Hazel sauntered in yawning and flopped down opposite me, but the colour and sizzle seemed to zing her awake.  ‘That looks divine.’

I gave her a thumbs-up, my mouthful of fried bread and sausage precluding speech.  She ordered the same, last night’s vegetarianism evidently temporary.

Afterwards, Lyndon gathered us for his team talk and started dishing out lists.

‘Now for this stage of the route I usually set everyone a little just-for-fun task.  I call it a photo scavenger hunt.  I see you all have cameras, or phone cameras, with you.  See how many of these you can snap during the course of the day.  Work in pairs if you like, or groups, it doesn’t matter.’

There were seven typed random items:

– Easy one (or is it…?):  Earl Matthew’s decapitated marble head
– A yellow car
– A slice of coffee and walnut cake
– An azalea bush
– An old style red telephone box
– Where the Simpsons might reside?
– The way to Amarillo

‘Is there a prize, Lyndon?’ asked Shane.

‘I think we could stretch to that, Shane.  How about a bottle?’

‘How about a dance with you in the disco tonight?’ suggested Polly pertly.

‘They have started doing Wednesday discos at the Boscobel,’ Lyndon sidestepped.  ‘Bingo too.  The place is under new management, apparently.  Don’t blame me, I don’t choose the hotels.  You’ll get a survey to fill in at the end of the week, so don’t be shy about letting head office know your thoughts.  They are constantly reviewing their list of hotels.’

‘Sounds promising,’ Hazel grimaced.

‘One thing I will say for the “Bozzie,” as they call it locally, is the food was very good last time I was there.  Unpretentious, is how I would describe it.’

‘No zebra then?’

‘Definitely no zebra, Hazel.  Now we’ve got fewer miles to cover today, which will enable us to spend a good couple of hours at Manderwood Manor.  It’s just over three miles there, we’re booked on the half-eleven guided tour, there are stunning landscaped gardens to stroll around, a lovely tea room where we can have a bite to eat, then it’s another four to Bhylcroft and the Second Matthew.  The Boscobel Hotel, home of the infamous discotheque, is at the bottom of it.

‘Same drill as yesterday, cases in the lobby, set off at nine.  Let’s have another good day.  And don’t forget your scavenger hunts, folks.’

******

There was more cloud coverage than of late as we set off.  The sky was of an enveloping white that had the potential to either darken to grey and yield rain or fragment and expose blue.

We veered almost immediately off the main A454 on to a footpath parallel to it, signposted Manderwood.  A hedge muffled the raucous traffic, plunging us into rural quietude again.

‘Bit chillier today, isn’t it,’ I remarked to Hazel.  Hey we’re British, of course we were going to make compulsive observations about the weather.

‘I spoke to our Bart this morning,’ Shane beamed, ‘before he went to school.  Told him I had crocodile for me tea last night.  Straight off, he came out with: “Did you ask them to make it snappy, Dad?”  Such a bright kid.’

‘Bless him.’

‘My battery’s as flat as a dodo now.  Forgot to bring the charger.  Worth it to speak to me lad, though.’

‘I’ll lend you my charger tonight,’ I offered.  ‘You’ve got a Nokia, haven’t you, same as mine?’

‘Ah, you’re a diamond, you are, bab.’  He looked at me as though I’d just invited him to cash in my unwanted winning Lotto ticket.

‘No problem.’

‘Talking about Nokia, would you believe there’s actually a little girl called that at our Myleene’s nursery.  Nokia!’

‘Some parents, eh?  Must have been the network they were on when it happened!’

‘It’s not much worse than Bart or Myleene,’ Hazel hissed to me as Shane loped off ahead to share the ‘snappy’ anecdote with Ted and Enid who, evidently still mistrustful of the minibus, were continuing to lug their suitcase.  ‘You wouldn’t be a love, would you Naomi, and fish my water bottle out the back pocket?’  She pointed down to the side compartment of her rucksack.

As soon as everybody overtook us, Hazel smuggled her tiny camera out of her floral cagoule pocket and snatched a surreptitious photograph.  She took the water from me, winked and nodded towards one of the back gardens that bordered our path.

Half obscured by a shed, unnoticed by the rest of our gang, was a retro relic.  An iconic red telephone box, obviously privately acquired and lovingly preserved.

‘That’s one ticked off the list,’ Hazel whispered conspiratorially.

‘Good ruse, teammate.’

We hurried to catch up with the others before our absence raised any suspicion.

******

‘How close are you to home now?’ Hazel asked me as we approached Manderwood Manor, which was on the side of a hill in a predominantly residential neighbourhood.

‘We can’t quite see my place from here.’  I curled my thumb and forefinger into a ‘telescope’ and did an exaggerated peer through it at the extensive view below.  ‘My bit of Walsall’s about eight miles from here.  Which Adrian thinks is hysterical.’

Lyndon gathered us round as we entered the manor gates.  ‘Right, I’ll collect our tickets from reception now.  We’re well ahead of ourselves, got an hour before we need to meet for the guided tour, so I’ll leave you to disperse, have a walk round the gardens, get a coffee if you wish.  I won’t tell you too much about the house, don’t want to spoil the tour for you.  We’ll congregate at the vestibule entrance just before eleven-thirty.’

******

‘So, Capability Boden,’ I linked arms with Hazel, ‘care to show me what an azalea bush looks like?  I wouldn’t know one from a tin of beans.  I live in a flat and grow cress.’

The gardens, for which Manderwood Manor is renowned, were exquisite beyond comprehension.  Regimented rows of yew topiary partitioned the lawns into mini plots, where bushes and flowerbeds were in gaudy bloom.

‘There,’ Hazel swiftly photographed an explosion of pinky-orange blooms and stowed the camera back in her deep pocket like a spy.   This was getting fun, being all competitive and wily.

‘Stunning here, isn’t it,’ I sighed.  I love my aforementioned flat but, not having a garden, I’m unaccustomed to profusions of flowers and topiary.  Therefore this was another place in which I came over all uncool and overwhelmed-by-the-beauties-of-nature.  ‘This one of your projects then?’

‘I wish.  In fact Sir Samuel Mott designed these grounds.  His books were my bibles when I was starting out.’

‘Those hedges are like something you’d see in a geometry textbook, aren’t they?  Not a stray twig to mess up the flat lines.’

The manor itself was stone in construction, with a flat roof; not a tall building but wide and sprawling.  The family coat of arms, depicting three gold lions rampant (apparently that’s the term used in heraldry when the big cats stand in a charging posture) on a garnet background, was proudly displayed over the door.

We wandered back towards the house and bumped into Polly and Martin exiting the tearoom.

‘Just got the coffee and walnut cake,’ said Martin proudly, holding up his camera.  It was the first time I’d heard him attempt conversation with anyone other than Polly.

She now dragged him towards the so-called ‘secret’ garden – the object of which I felt was somewhat defeated by the prominent sign on the wall bearing the legend ‘Secret Garden.’

‘Some of us prefer more adult fun,’ she purred.

‘That poor boy looks exhausted,’ Hazel murmured.

******

Polly and Martin showed up late, and brazenly dishevelled, for the tour, which displeased our guide, the schoolmarmish Pat.  Pat was about sixty, tall and upright, with the kind of long blonde hair some ladies that age can get away with (she wasn’t one of them) and bulgy eyes set wide apart, like a cod.  According to her badge, her name – you’ll never believe this – was Pat Codd!

‘Right, now that we’re all here,’ her boots clacked brusquely along the tiles, ‘we can begin.’  She had already barked to us of the dire fates that awaited us in hell if we touched anything in the house, sat on any of the chairs or failed to switch off our mobiles.

Pat ushered us into the drawing room.  It had that old-bookish scent and haunting, still-photograph feel typical of preserved rooms in stately homes and museums.  The decor was whatever the opposite of minimalist is.  A highly intricate pattern of interconnecting circles and hexagons was carved into the ceiling, there were magenta brocade curtains, and you could have barely placed a pin between all the paintings adorning the walls and grand piano lid.

The overall effect was, if I’m being frank, somewhat chaotic.  But, hey, who am I to knock Jacobean VIPs for not embracing the ‘less is more’ approach to interior decorating?

‘Manderwood Manor is Jacobean in origin, exemplifying the Renaissance style of architecture.  It was constructed in 1608 as a home for Sir Edward Theodoric, the great-great-times-twenty-four-grandson of the famed Earl Matthew.  The family home until then had been Hednesborough Hall, fifteen miles up the road, but that had fallen into disrepair and Sir Edward decided to relocate.

‘In 1615 Edward’s younger brother Desmond built Rosterbury Manor at Tunclough in the Peak District, the extremity of the former Earldom, as a home for himself.  Desmond was a notorious gambler and profligate, though, and ultimately his family were forced to sell Rosterbury Manor to settle debts.  It passed out of the Theodoric dynasty and ultimately fell into decrepitude too, over the centuries, until being restored in more recent times as a hotel.’  She virtually spat out the word ‘hotel,’ as though expressing oblique disapproval of Julian Crowfoot.

‘Hednesborough Hall, as I am sure many of you know, exists today only as a ruin.  Like Manderwood, it is now in the care of History for Britain.  Manderwood itself was acquired by the organisation in 1938, by which time the Earl’s direct line of descent had long since died out so there was nobody to take it on.’

Pat Codd gave us a synopsis of Theodoric family life, the dignitaries who’d have been entertained in this room, the history of some of its artefacts.  Polly yawned and studied her nails.  Shane, at the other extreme, was actually scribbling notes.

‘There had long been legends about Earl Matthew haunting Hednesborough Hall, and he allegedly followed Sir Edward and his family here.  Sightings of our phantom nobleman have been reported here for centuries.  He is by all accounts a fairly lonely ghost these days, since the house is uninhabited.  He pops into the tearoom for a spot of company from time to time, according to Donald the waiter.’  Pat’s tone made it plain she did not share Donald’s belief in ghost stories.

I seriously love history, I studied the subject at A-level – though confess to some gaps in my knowledge.  Until I was about nineteen, I thought – oh, this is a shameful admission – that the Battle of Trafalgar was actually fought in Trafalgar Square!  I’m blushing just thinking about it.  Yes, I truly thought the battle took its name from the landmark, not vice versa.  Blame it on my education if you like – we didn’t cover the Napoleonic Wars at my school – but it was still an assumption you might say lacked logic.

My eldest brother, Gaz, laughed so hard he virtually had a seizure when I told him.  ‘Nelson was an Admiral in the Royal Navy, sis,’ he spluttered.  ‘Didn’t you twig that sea might have played a role in his most famous victory?  What do you think they did with the ships – strapped them to the back of red London buses?  Whose side were the pigeons fighting on?’  He still occasionally reminds me of that gaffe.

Back to Manderwood.  We trooped through to the huge parlour, the focal point of which was the ancient marble statue head.  I won’t pretend it looked magnificent, or that it much resembled a head, more of a misshapen shot put, but it is an important relic of English history, and one I am glad to say I have now seen.

There were signs throughout screaming a ban on indoor flash photography due to its injurious effect on the artefacts.  So we couldn’t photograph the head itself for the scavenger hunt, but I had spotted some postcards earlier in the tearoom.

Polly, heedless of rules, lunged towards it with her camera.  Pat practically rugby tackled her.  ‘Can’t you read?’  She jabbed at a sign.  ‘Have you any idea what irreparable damage a thousand blasts of light would do to a priceless relic like this if everyone had the same idea as you, young lady?  There’s a reason why we display these exhibits in dim conditions.’

This parlour was another hugely decorative room; its walls were draped with tapestries depicting those surreal woodland scenes unfathomably beloved by embroiderers, and a pair of vases six feet tall flanked the fireplace.  I wondered whether mutant daffodils were grown in them, watered by a housemaid up a ladder with a can the size of a water cooler.

‘Successive Theodoric generations were avid collectors, and also lucky enough to number many eminent artists of the day among their acquaintance, giving them unrivalled access to original artwork.’

Perhaps, had the line not died out, contemporary Manderwood Manor occupants might be continuing the tradition and commissioning Damian Hirst creations.  The marble Matthew could have had the indignity of facing a pig’s rump in formaldehyde across the parlour from a matching display case.

Pat Codd may have been a bit stern, but she really knew her stuff.  She would probably have had a nosebleed if I dared share my ‘Battle of Trafalgar Square’ howler with her.  The English Civil War phase of the Theodoric chronicles was clearly her favourite.  She loved telling us about it.  By the time the Roundhead mobs were annihilating Matthew’s statues, she had whipped herself up into a televangelist fervour.  She was right there with them, her cod eyes jammed shut in concentration.  I could picture her in battle actually; Boadicea in a Debenhams blouse.

Then history was sacrilegiously interrupted by Polly’s obnoxious mobile, followed by Polly shamelessly sniggering as she read her text (presumably from her Aunty Maureen).

Pat Codd (go Pat, go Pat!) zapped her least favourite visitor with a ferocious look.  ‘If you could turn that off.  I did make that request at the beginning of the tour, but of course you were not here at that point.’

Poor Martin gazed at the floor.

******

As we emerged from Pat’s tour, a rabble of schoolkids were waiting to go in.  They were like every class in the history of school trips: all snot and Mini Cheddars, hyper with the euphoria of a day’s liberation from lessons, defying their three teachers’ ineffectual attempts at order.

Our gang descended upon the tearoom/gift shop, where we either purchased postcards depicting the head, or photographed them or the cheesy little brass models of Earl Matthew which were on sale, head intact (you could actually purchase Earl Matthew keyrings, if you so desired).

The coffee and walnut cake proved another easy item to tick off the scavenger list.  This delighted the camp, elderly waiter who was wondering why his sponges were so photogenic.

The said waiter was the ghostly Earl’s friend Donald, and never had a man looked so at home in a ruffled pinny.  He rustled up egg sandwiches and beautiful tea, which was presented in floral teapots as opposed to those awful steel ones you usually get, with ill-fitting lids and handles you can’t hold with your bare hands because the manufacturers have not quite sussed that – hello! – metal conducts heat.

Donald also made salad sandwiches for a certain couple in our party, even though they were not on the menu, and was suitably captivated by Shane’s ‘They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley’ yarn.

‘This is what I looked like before.  Shane flashed the familiar photo.  ‘Since I lost seven stone I’ve never felt better.’

‘Peachy,’ Donald remarked, hand poised on hip.  He was such a cliché, there would be letters to Points of View were he on TV as a sitcom writer’s idea of a gay man.

This café was one of our nicest lunch stops of the week.  It’s a rarity, in these days of sachets, to see sugar lumps on the table, all beige and white and crystalline and tempting, heaped in a bowl.

‘Bliss,’ I said to Hazel, popping one on my tongue.

‘You don’t take sugar in your tea, though?’

I shook my head.  ‘Never have.  But I love sugar lumps.  Bizarre, eh?  There’s something old-fashioned about them.  They look so exquisite like that.  Like a bowl of diamonds.’

‘That’s very poetic.’

‘I wish the poetic inspiration could have walloped me last night.  Bloody “succulent” indeed!’  I rolled my eyes again at my own triteness.

‘Lyndon seemed to admire your choice of word, though,’ Hazel reminded me.

‘So he did.’  I felt all hot and silly remembering last night’s meal and the looks across the table into which I may or may not have read too much.

I saw Polly curl up against Martin.  He looked mildly irritated as he was trying to pick up his tea with the arm to which she clung.

‘I need a cuddle after that old bag shouted at me,’ she said pathetically.

‘Well you should have turned your phone off really, petal.  And not tried to take photos.’  Martin was very mutinous today.

Clearly unaccustomed to her wheedling not working, Polly wrenched her arms away from him and crossed them petulantly.  ‘To think I’m missing Loose Women for this!’  She mercifully maintained a mute sulk for the rest of the day.

When we left, Donald said, ‘Toodle-pip,’ and gave us a little wave.  ‘Keep up with the diet, Shane,’ he added and winked.  He didn’t pat Shane’s bum, but I sensed he didn’t lack the inclination.

We were a good ten minutes down the road when Shane speculated, ‘D’you reckon that Donald might have been gay?’

******

The scene of this lightning-bolt realisation was Dipton, a large and relatively new South Staffordshire village that we were told had mushroomed out of an air force community.

There was an RAF base here during the Second World War,’ Lyndon recounted, ‘and the only housing initially was to accommodate the air force personnel and their families.  The base itself was then extensively built on after the war. Schools and other community facilities evolved in time.  Dipton is therefore very modern and largely residential with, by all accounts, a strong community spirit.

‘Obviously the path predated the houses, hence this Dipton-to-Bhylcroft stretch is a bit more towny than scenic.  Oh, hello mate.’  A cordial neighbourhood cat was weaving around Lyndon’s legs, leaving stripes of hairs across his walking trousers.  ‘You’re a bit like my Splodge.  Who I hope Aunty Rona is looking after well this week.’

The little feline, who was purring like a diesel engine (as would I, frankly, if Lyndon were stroking my back like that), was black and white and wore a rather jaunty glittery blue collar, as though en route to a kitty disco.

‘Splodge?’ I enquired.

Is ‘Aunty Rona’ your girlfriend? a voice inside me was yelling.

‘He’s got a black splodge on his chin, like a little beard.  It was the first thing I noticed about him when I got him from the rescue place, and the name stuck.  Apart from that, he looks just like this one.  Bye-bye mate.’  Our blue-collared friend, having scampered along for a few feet, had stopped at the perimeter of what was presumably his or her house and was staring after us in that heart-melting, wistful way all cats have down to a tee.

‘Lovely way with animals you’ve got there, Lyndon.  How old is Splodge?’

‘Two.  Wasn’t able to have pets when I was,’ I held my breath for a reference to his perhaps not so mysterious ex-wife, ‘er, where I lived before.  City apartment.’

‘He must love living in the country then.’

‘Not half.  My dad’s partner, Rona, pops in and sees to him when I’m away.  He met her on a BFF walk too.’

Too?  As though Mr Hyde Senior was not the only member of that family to have met a would-be significant other through the group?  My heart started to do that stupid salmon-somersault again.  Was I reading fanciful hints into all his words and actions?  Was he alluding to meeting me or – more realistically – an existing partner, who looked like a cross between Katherine Jenkins and all of Girls Aloud combined, whom he had met on a previous, sex-packed trek?

I looked up and he looked away swiftly, pretending to busy himself with his map, as though realising his Freudian slip.

‘What I mean is, Dad took up walking ten years ago, after my mother passed away.  She died in Finchton Hospice, hence I did that sponsored walk for them last year.’

‘I’m really sorry to hear that.’  I was.  The thought of losing either of my parents rips my heart out.

He smiled, in momentary acknowledgement of my inadequate condolences.  ‘She had bowel cancer.  Anyway, much later Dad met Rona on a tour of the South Downs.  It was through him I first found out about the organisation.  And now Rona helps look after Splodgey for me.’

‘Look – the way to Amarillo!’  Shane was pointing gleefully at a wooden signpost which directed patrons of the ‘Amarillo Social Club’ down a little potholed lane.  It’s anybody’s guess why a village night spot in South Staffordshire should be named after a Texan city, but there you go.

The apostrophe assassins had a faction here too.  A noticeboard at the top of the lane promoted ‘line dancing with Robyn on Thursday’s,’ and apparently this Friday we could look forward to a performance from a ‘top Lionel Richie impersonator – as seen on’ a TV programme that was apparently called ‘Star’s in Your Eye’s.’

‘Well done Shane,’ commended Lyndon.

When it came to scavenger hunt clues, our slimming binman obviously wasn’t into subterfuge like Hazel and me.

‘There’s a yellow car,’ I announced, returning the favour, as there happened to be a custard Suzuki Jimny on a nearby drive.  Cars of that hue are a conspicuous rarity outside Only Fools and Horses.  Or Noddy.

If any Dipton curtain-twitchers spotted us photographing their neighbour’s jeep, I hope they assumed we were Neighbourhood Watch, cagoule division.

******

Dipton bled into Bhylcroft, via a pedestrian crossing over the permanently gridlocked A41 (no stile here, just the more customary traffic lights).  This slice of the route had a towny, contemporary feel, as Lyndon had pointed out, with Bhylcroft high street being very retail-dominated.  Our backpacks and heavy duty boots drew some peculiar looks from the shopping-laden pensioners at the bus stop.  I felt like a Martian who had veered adrift.

‘Don’t know about you, Lyndon,’ I said, ‘but I’m starting to long for a bit of open countryside.’

‘I always do by this point.’  He smiled at me.  Ah, those smiles of his were enough to make me forget my own name.  ‘I mean, these built-up communities can be interesting in their own way, but they don’t exactly give you that ‘getting away from it all’ sensation, do they?  Bhylcroft is at least ten times bigger than the likes of Lower Bratchley.  The headquarters of the local council are here – how metropolitan can you get?’

‘Yeah, give me a hill or bit of moorland any day.  I know it’s daft, but when I don’t see a soul about I like to pretend I’m the first person, or part of the first group, to discover the land I’m on.’

‘I do that as well.’  Oh, we were soul mates, I just knew it!  ‘You can’t exactly play games like that in a village that has badminton courts and a Lidl.’

He and I had fallen quite naturally into a matey walking pace.  Cheesy as it sounds, it felt at that moment as though this was meant to be: Lyndon and me, shoulder to shoulder, at complete ease in each other’s company.  While I was very aware of his solid presence next to me, there was none of that self-conscious panic to fill silences.  I sensed daggers from Polly, but I was so buoyant they positively bounced off my back.

Polly, talk of the devil, suddenly stormed ahead of us all – perhaps to watch Loose Women on the tellies that were in the window of Danks Electrical, the store next to Lidl – with Martin in trotting pursuit.

‘You need to cross over by the Esso garage, you two,’ Lyndon called after them, ‘and head down that lane opposite.’

Without warning, a fantasy took shape which involved Lyndon and me tearing, Heathcliff and Cathy style, through lashing rain across a stark moor which our boots were the first to christen.  I tripped over my skirts (never much call for waterproof trousers in sexual role play) and as I tumbled my bodice conveniently gaped.  He pinned me to the sodden ground, and then…mmm!

I was blushing like a beacon, feeling absolutely transparent, whilst back in reality we were crossing by the petrol station, into a more residential, rustic lane.

‘Now the ‘Bhyl’ part of Bhylcroft derives from the Welsh word for a hillock.’  Even as Lyndon was giving us a prosaic history lesson, those wanton pictures wouldn’t fade.  ‘The hillock being, of course, the Second Matthew.  This one is the smallest of the four, at 164 metres – 538 feet.  A glorified molehill in comparison with the other three.’  Every innocuous word seemed to carry sexual connotations.  I could hardly look at him.

I spotted a sign at the junction of a cul-de-sac.  ‘Evergreen Terrace,’ I yelped, thankful to mentally pour cold water on my wayward thoughts, ‘residence of The Simpsons.’  Shane was already snapping it.  He didn’t feature in my heathland erotica, so I focused with relief on talking to him for a bit.  ‘I thought you’d know that one, having a Bart of your own.’

‘Got another ’un here.’  He unzipped his anorak, beaming as he displayed a sweatshirt that bore his son’s yellow namesake from the TV series aiming a catapult.

******

The Second Matthew was indeed rather miniature; a veritable bulge in the ground.  It was a brief amble to the top, from which the Boscobel Hotel became visible.  I would like to say this hotel was an alluring haven at the conclusion of a day’s journey, but…well let’s just say it didn’t quite possess the snug charm of the Badger at Crockington.  The illuminated sign and yellow canopy over the door were a tad garish for rural Staffs.

I definitely saw Lyndon wince.  ‘It’s under new management,’ he repeated apologetically.

The week’s entertainment was chalked on a sandwich board outside the entrance: the promised ‘Wednesday night Bozzie bingo and disco’ on one side; Friday’s attraction, a drag queen called Trannii Minogue, on the other, with that wonderful name underscored with pink hearts and stars.

In the lobby the burgundy flock wallpaper gave an oppressive vibe.  Our ‘welcome’ to this place was luminous yellow poster tacked to the reception desk headed ‘POLICE NOTICE,’ warning us that thieves were active in this hotel.  Nice to know.

The fearsome-looking receptionist, whose slate-grey hair was tethered into a knobbly bun with an elastic band, appeared to have been on duty since the wallpaper was last in fashion.

‘Tek yer mucky boots off, please,’ she growled, thrusting her Express & Star under the desk and slamming our room keys on to it.  ‘Yer cases are in the storage.’  She jerked her smudged thumb towards a door to the side of the desk.  We obediently unlaced our boots and padded through in socked feet to retrieve the luggage, relieved the thieves did not appear to have been active in the storeroom today.  ‘Oh, and the lift ain’t working,’ Grey Bun yawned, engrossed in the paper once more, so we slogged up to the second floor.

We were invited to meet, as usual, at six in the bar, with our cameras this time so Lyndon could inspect our scavenger shots and dole out prizes.

I unpacked my mobile charger, dropped it in to Shane and returned to my own uninspiring room for a shower.  The nozzle appeared to have just two settings: boiling gush and freezing sputter.  I could achieve a happy medium, of sorts, by twizzling it back and forth so that I was alternately scalded and dribbled on.  The shower screen was also loose and would recurrently flop outwards, deluging the bathroom floor.

I was already mentally composing my comments for the BFF survey.

******

‘In third place,’ Lyndon declared in the bar later, ‘with four out of seven, are Polly and Martin.’

We clapped sedately as he presented them with a bottle of rosé each.  Martin looked elated with the prize, Polly distinctly less so.

‘Second, with six of the items, it’s Shane, Ted and Enid.  Well done, you three.’  They won Californian whites.

‘So that means our scavenger hunt victors today, with all seven, are Naomi and Hazel.  Congratulations ladies.’

The equivalent of gold medals in this challenge was a bottle of Cava and a kiss each.  Yes, a kiss.  I was pathetically rapturous about both the peck itself and the fact Polly hadn’t received one.  We shared the most fleeting of hugs, but Lyndon seemed to envelop me and he smelled divine.  He was wearing a navy jacket, and a cream open-necked shirt which was utterly sexy in its simplicity and looked rather super against the faint tan he had acquired from working outdoors.

‘I won’t glug it all at once,’ I said witlessly, my sticky lips forming shapes that seemed out of synch with my words.  In fact I’d already had a couple of wines, having called for Hazel early, stir crazy in my mildewy room.

‘Where was the phone box then?’ queried Shane.

I think I replied, ‘In one of the gardens that backed on to that first footpath, Hazel spotted it,’ but I could have said it was up my bum for all I was conscious of after that kiss.

******

After a plain but hearty dinner – I had the delicious, if obviously microwaved, chicken and leek pie, not so much served as plonked on a bed of oven chips – we were invited to partake in the bingo.

One commodity with which the Boscobel was not overburdened was staff.  Thus far we had only seen Grey Bun, the barman, a waitress and now Rod, who possessed a Black Country twang and a Leo Sayer perm and was touring the tables with his pad of tickets, urging us all to ‘have a goo fer a quid.’

‘Come on Hazel,’ I said, ‘we’re on a winning streak.  Here, I’ll get ours.  I’ve got a two-pound coin.’

Rod, apparently, was the entertainment team, his talents stretched like a rubber band.  ‘Don’t forget there’s our disco comin’ up a bit later on,’ he intoned when he was back on the mic.  ‘I shall be yer DJ for the evening.  Got some super sounds for you, from the 60s right the way through to the present day.’

Hazel nudged me and whispered, ‘With so few staff, it’s not surprising that Russian shot-putter behind reception looks so pooped – there’s probably no one who can relieve her shift!’

‘Then on Friday,’ Rod went on, rubbing at the lapel of his blue velvet suit, ‘we’ve got our hilarious drag show, which stars, er, me actually, as Trannii Minogue.  Right stunner, that one!’

Hazel was virtually doubled up, hooting into her whisky.

Rod gave a modest little cough.  ‘Now are we ready?  Two fat wenches – eighty-eight.’

******

Our gang failed to win a line between us.

‘Who’s up for the disco then?’ I grinned as DJ Rod welcomed us, over the opening beats of He’s the Greatest Dancer by Sister Sledge, to ‘Wednesday at the Bozzie, where great tunes are guaranteed, and doe forget alcopops am just a quid before eleven.’  A pound, it seemed, could buy you an awful lot at this hotel.

To be honest, though I like a boogie at a wedding reception, I’m not a huge fan of discos these days and certainly haven’t been clubbing in a long time.  At the risk of appearing snooty, I find them pretty frightful places to meet people.  I favour restaurants and country pubs.  But I wanted to socialise with my new friends tonight, and was loath to appear square.

‘Could be an experience,’ Lyndon replied diplomatically.  We all, apart from Ted and Enid Salad, agreed to give it a go.

We were a reserved bunch initially, table-bound, entertained by what we were observing.  The disco was soon jam-packed, clearly a weekly highlight for many a resident of this large village.  Tattoos, denim, beer bellies and enough gold-plated jewellery to restock Argos were proudly displayed – and, yes, that was just the women.  The mating rituals witnessed during the Macarena could have formed the basis for an anthropological thesis: the discreet and not so discreet glances zapping across the dancefloor, all that coquettish twiddling with hair and earrings, not to mention the less subtle signals like bum-pinching.

If I’m perfectly honest, I’d rather have stayed at the Amarillo and hung on for line dancing with Robyn.

Polly slipped out for a fag at one point, and when she returned hauled Martin on to the dancefloor.  She thrust her blow-up doll body at him, to which he responded with a few Mr Bean steps.

‘Come on,’ I’d had enough of being a wallflower, ‘anyone fancy a bop?’

I hoped my eyes were suitably beseeching but Lyndon seemed mortifyingly reluctant, and I was a bit too shy to grab him.

‘Go on then, I will,’ Hazel conceded, and we did a self-conscious little shuffle to Build Me Up Buttercup.  ‘After this,’ she enunciated over the music, ‘I shall give you two some breathing space, darling.  I’ll swap cabbage soup recipes with Shane, enabling you to collar lovely Lyndon and escort him outside.’

‘Hazel!’

‘Nothing to be gained by being backward in coming forward.  I discovered that for myself a long time ago, and I’ve had my moments, believe me.’  I did.  ‘Look, he obviously isn’t comfortable about dancing.  So after this song invite him outside.  For a spot of fresh air, as they say.’

‘Reckon it’ll do the trick?’  To be so brazen was alien to me.  I watched my unwitting prey at the table having his ear bent by Shane, and excitement rippled through me as I imagined the consequences of my imminent actions.

‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  He isn’t an upfront boy, dear.  Sometimes we ladies have to take the lead.’

‘All right then I’ll go for it.’  I beamed as she stuck both thumbs up, then my nerve abandoned me and I craved Dutch courage.  ‘But I think I’ll get some drinks in first.  Yours another Scotch?’

‘You’re a treasure.  Though it’s so watered down, you could feed it to babies.  Now best of luck.’

I wove to the bar, ignoring ogles though not escaping a bum-tweak from a gerbil-faced lad sporting a pierced eyebrow, and queued behind Martin.

Polly was not noticeably pining his absence.  She was continuing to gyrate, putting on a show for the knot of blokes around her who goggled like sharks hovering for a morsel of fish.  Tonight she wore a denim mini skirt and a tie-dye top that was essentially a glorified bra.

She reminded me of my old school enemy Liz Onions (I’m not making this up), who recently attempted to ‘befriend’ me via Facebook.

Liz was the school trollop.  Her only other conspicuous skill I recall was being able to burp the chorus of Wannabe by the Spice Girls.  Once, when we were fourteen, she pointed a fag in my face and earnestly told me, ‘You’re obviously a lezza,’ because at this advanced age I was still (gasp!) a virgin.

In the post-PE shower horror she would screech, ‘Careful, girls, she’ll be gawping at your beavers,’ to cackles from her moronic, slutty gang.

Now, on Facebook, she was all ‘Hi hunni, how ya doin’ these days?  Yer looking gawjus!’  She declared herself to be single, jobless (her enduring inability to spell or construct sentences possibly having proven an impediment) and still living at home.  She had uploaded hundreds of pictures of herself, all of which seemed to depict her doing an inane pout, looking drunk, jerking a V-sign at the camera and/or parading acres of tit.

Funnily enough, I declined Liz’s friend request.  I resisted responding with ‘You’re still single and living at home at twenty-six?  You’re clearly gay!’  It was, frankly, beneath me.

Back to the present.  My heart was banging.  What the hell was I doing, attempting to make a pass at the walk leader?  I was probably making myself a joke; the latest butt of his ‘Which sad woman can throw herself at me on this holiday?’ game.  Not that Lyndon seemed the promiscuous type, but perhaps that was a sham to charm the ladies.  The laydeez.

‘You OK, Mart?’ I enquired.  Martin looked so morose.

He sighed deeply and then confided, apropos of nothing, ‘We’ve had couples counselling, you know.’  He was miles away, gazing at Polly, his poor boyish face bearing the glazed, lost look of someone who was drunk and unaccustomed to the state.  I wanted to phone his mother to take him home.

‘Have you?  Blimey.’  We’d had an eventful day, and this night was turning wackier by the minute.

‘I so want the relationship to work.  She agreed to come to the therapy with me, so that must mean she wants it to work too.  D’you reckon?’

‘Well you’d hope so.’

‘My family and friends all think I’m mad, especially after the last time she cheated on me.  But I think everyone deserves a second chance.  Don’t you, Naomi?’

‘So long as they don’t abuse it.  So long as their remorse is genuine.’

‘That’s what my parents say.  Pretty much.  In fact what my dad says is that she’s as easy as the Daily Star crossword.’

I thought that was a hilarious line, but for obvious reasons didn’t voice the thought.  ‘I’m sure they’ve got your best interests at heart.’

‘They’ll change their minds about her when we have kids.’

Kids?’

I was on the verge of marching him to the condom machine, when he rambled, ‘I’m not actually so sure about having them now.  I’ve been trying to persuade Polls to give up the cigs before we get pregnant, but she refuses.  They’re doing her no good – she’s found some of this walking a bit breathless.  I would still like to be married before I’m thirty, though.’

‘There’s no need to rush these things.  Do you live together?’

‘Not officially.  She’s still with her parents, but stays at my flat a lot of nights.  She’s said she’s reluctant to get married as she doesn’t fancy being called Polly Pickett.  S’pose I can’t blame her.  I’ve even offered to change my surname to hers, Dwyer.’

‘If she really loves you, then frankly she shouldn’t care if your surname is Put-The-Kettle-On.’

‘Ha, that’s a good one.’  His laugh sounded manic and sad.  ‘Sarah, that’s the counsellor, advised us to try each other’s hobbies.  Establish some common ground.’

‘It’s important to have things in common.’  Aside from the obvious, I couldn’t picture those two partaking in any mutual activities.

‘I’ve always liked walking.  Getting Polls to come on this wasn’t easy, though.  She only agreed to come with me to get her walking boots if she could have pink ones – they give her blisters, poor thing – and also if I promised to buy her some orange stilettos which are apparently the same as a pair Cheryl Cole has.  And a handbag to match.  Set me back a bit, but it was worth it to see her happy face.  She says I’ve got to do something she enjoys next.  It’s only fair.  I’m just so afraid her choice of activity is going to be, well,’ he picked at a stray bit of skin around his thumbnail, ‘er, swinging.’

Swinging?’  Good job I hadn’t got my drink yet, else Martin might have been spurted with it.

‘Hmm.  She’s told me loads of times she’d like to try it.  Wants me to watch her with other fellas.  Says she’ll be fair and quite happily watch me with other women.  I don’t want any other women, though.  Just her.’

I am never usually judgemental or meddlesome where other people’s relationships are concerned, but I was frankly aghast at the notion of poor wide-eyed Martin being dragged to a gangbang.  The phrase ‘lamb to the slaughter’ was never more apt.  I was full of abhorrence for Polly.  I hated feeling complicit in her deception when she’d silenced me with her eyes after receiving that text at dinner the previous night at the Badger.

‘Please don’t be forced into anything you don’t want to do, Martin.’  I was actually begging him.  ‘I’m not trying to moralise here, but going on a walking holiday is not exactly on a par with wife-swapping, you know.  Don’t let her persuade you that you owe her something like that just because she’s conceded to trek across Staffordshire with you.  Be very careful.  And giving you licence to sleep with other women is not “being fair,” if it isn’t what you want to do.  Always be true to yourself.  Lecture over.’

He nodded desolately.  ‘I want to make her happy, though, Naomi.  I still pinch myself that a stunner like that should have gone for me.  My parents say she’s after my money.  That she’s trying to live a WAG lifestyle on a part-time receptionist’s wage.  My dad refuses to give her a job in the family business.  That’s how we met actually.  She came for an interview as a receptionist.  Didn’t get it, just got me.  Poor girl.’

‘What do you do?  The company, I mean.’

‘We supply industrial chemicals to businesses.  Sanitisers, aerosols, that kind of thing.  Anyway, maybe I’m the one in the relationship who’s in need of a second chance.  There must have been a reason she went off that time.’

And the time before that?  And before that?  And the inevitable next time?

I’d belatedly twigged that he said the counsellor was called Sarah.  Wasn’t that the name Hazel and I overheard Polly screech at him on Monday night?  Bloody Sarah, as I recalled.

‘To be quite honest with you,’ he went on, ‘her, erm, appetite gets a bit much for me at times.  She’s forever dragging me off into bushes and things.  I’m still recovering from this morning at Manderwood Manor.’

Whoa!  Now we had well and truly strayed into ‘too much information’ territory.
‘Yes please?’ said the barman, mercifully.  With all that scandal, I’d quite forgotten we were waiting to be served.

Martin chivalrously indicated me, as though I should go first despite him being ahead in the queue.

‘A Scotch, a small red wine, half a cider, a pint of Marston’s and a water for my friend here, please.  Sorry Mart, I’m afraid I’m going to be bossy again, you shouldn’t have any more alcohol tonight.  Trying to walk a long distance with a hangover is horrible.’

‘You’re right, Naomi.  Thanks.’  He was clearly used to being submissive.  I pitied him so much, but at the same time wanted to whack him.  He was wet and passive to the point of being stagnant.  ‘I’ll just get Polls her Tia Maria then.’
I certainly wasn’t buying her a drink.  And I didn’t much care if she tottered to the Third Matthew tomorrow with a savage hangover and had to barf into every bush.

‘I reckon that Lyndon’s after her.’

What?’  I fumbled with the change the barman handed me, totally missing my purse with half the coins and causing them to clatter on to the bar like hailstones.
‘I noticed they were out at the same time earlier, when she went for her ciggie.  It’s like no blokes can resist her.’

Right.  I couldn’t have this.  The very thought of Lyndon even contemplating making a play for Polygamous Polly rendered me unable to see straight.  Realistically I knew their respective fag/loo breaks had overlapped coincidentally, they hadn’t been out of the room long enough to make any assignation worthwhile, and neither of them had returned looking the slightest bit flushed or dishevelled.  But I couldn’t stomach them being paired off even in Martin’s skewed imagination.  My jealousy was a potent but productive emotion.  It was the impetus I needed to grab hold of Lyndon and bang thoughts of Polly, or any other women, out of his brain.

‘I’m sure you’ve got the wrong end of the stick there, Mart.’  I gathered up my scattered coppers, my hands hot and trembling.  ‘Look, I’m going to take these drinks over.  You take care now, won’t you?’

Turning from the bar, I exhaled deeply.  After playing counsellor, dragging Lyndon outside for a snog seemed positively easy.

I conveyed my round in two trips: doling out to Hazel and Shane first, so mine and Lyndon’s drinks were left together.  Hazel, bless her, actually was swapping cabbage soup recipes with Shane.  They both thanked me, and Shane also expressed his profuse gratitude – again – for the loan of my charger.

Lyndon was conveniently out of the soup conversation, paving the way for me to steal him away without fear of interjecting.

I leaned towards him, feeling like a lapdancer.  ‘I’ll just go and get yours, Lyndon,’ I told him in what I hoped was a flirtatious tone.  A tendril of my hair flopped over my shoulder and brushed his.  An entirely accidental movement, but there was something really rather erotic about it.

He appeared a tad taken aback, I must say.  Everything suddenly seemed all slow and heady under the pink and yellow wink of the disco lights.  I pivoted and slithered back to the bar self-consciously, sensing his eyes on me.

I collected our two drinks and made what felt like the longest walk of my life back to him, forcing myself to maintain bold eye contact all the way and hoping I wouldn’t cock up the effect by spilling any liquor or tripping up.

It would have been all too easy to deposit the glasses on the table and sit down, but I couldn’t cop out now.  I handed him his, did the lapdancer lean towards him again and murmured (well it was actually a yell, but it would have been a murmur were I not competing with loud music), ‘Want to come outside for a bit, Lyndon?  For a spot of fresh air?’

He looked stunned.  So, I’m sure, did I when he smiled, said ‘Sure,’ and stood up.
Hazel shot me another thumbs-up as I led him out, doing the slow sexy walk again (easier said than done when you’re used to hiking boots).  I was ludicrously paranoid that everyone had paused in whatever they were doing and were now gawping at us.

I’m afraid I’m going to be boring and not try to allege there were fireworks going off in my head, or waves crashing on some mythical beach, or orchestras playing, or even a voice inside me yelling ‘Yessss!’  Actually I’m not sure I could articulate my thoughts and feelings at that precise moment.  I simply walked, which I obviously do a lot of, but this time I was oblivious to my surroundings, my rubbery feet somehow moving me in the right direction independent of brain control.

A pair of Ross Kemp clones (woo, more staff!) were on sentry duty at the main door.

‘Evening both,’ boomed one doorman, with a suggestive look that said he knew exactly what we were up to – or hoped to be.  ‘No glass outside, though.’  He relieved us of our glasses and poured the contents into plastic tumblers.  ‘There you go.  Looks very romantic tonight up on old Matthew.  Enjoy your evening.’

‘Thank you,’ I responded automatically.

‘Ross’ had actually sounded rather gruffly poetic, and Matthew did look enticing by night, flecked by the squares of light from its neighbour, the hotel.  It was a fresh, clear night.  I was in a cap-sleeved top; the only coat I had, namely a turquoise cagoule, which I was hardly going to wear to share a romantic moment anyway, was back in my room.

Lyndon, all credit to him, only had to see me shiver and he shed his navy suit jacket and draped it over my shoulders.

‘That’s really kind of you.’  I smiled, warm as melted toffee, making no token protest but simply relishing being caped in something of his.

‘Shall we…?’  He indicated a secluded patch of grass on the side of the hill.

‘Yeah, nice spot.’  I sounded hopeless.  It was as though being ballsy in getting him out here had expended my energy, and we had both gone all shy again.

We sat close together on the peaceful knoll, the only sounds being the stifled beats of Love Machine (ha ha!) by Girls Aloud from the disco and the soft chat of other couples with the same idea as us who were scattered up and down the small hill.  Lyndon and I were a discreet distance from them, sipping our respective cider and wine from plastic glasses.

‘Discos aren’t really my thing,’ he admitted.  ‘I can’t be bothered with that kind of scene these days.’

I hunched myself cosily into his jacket.  ‘I’m not keen either actually.  I must be getting old.  Didn’t want to appear antisocial, though.’

‘Nor me.  I’m only capable of dad dancing.  Not that I am a dad,’ he added hastily.  I wasn’t expecting him to be.  Sian had never mentioned offspring.  She spoke of hiring round-the-clock nannies come the day (save us all!) she and Adrian began to spawn.

‘Or at least only to Splodge.’

‘Quite.  To be perfectly honest, I only stayed for the disco because I thought you were keen.’

Oh wow!

‘Likewise.’  The world was suddenly still and there was a loaded hush between us.  It would have been the perfect move-in-for-the-first-snog moment.  So what did I do?  I lost my nerve and started wittering on about drag queens.  ‘The folks round here are spoilt for entertainment on Friday night, aren’t they?  How can they possibly choose between Trannii Minogue and the fabulous Lionel Richie tribute down at the Amarillo?  Perhaps Rod’s a protégée of Melba Most.’

Naomi!  Will.  You.  Shut.  Up!

Lyndon gamely chuckled, though.  ‘This place has gone downhill, I must admit.  No pun intended.  I told you, I don’t choose the hotels.  I’m sure head office will take note of your comments, especially if you’re going to be a future empl – ’
That was it.  The reason he never got the ‘oyee’ out was because I had finally pasted my face to his.

Although I’d just been spouting witless crap myself, the moment he started to talk in response I became hypocritically impatient.  He looked so irresistibly authoritative and sexy, yet gentle, in the moonlight.  Passion prevailed.  I kind of sprang at him and stayed there, as though we were both coated with Velcro.

While he was literally gobsmacked at first (I suppose that kind of interruption is rarely anticipated when you’re talking about customer surveys), he instantly recovered and responded.  Mmm, yes!  We seemed to kind of flow into each other.  While I can’t claim the snog was elegant in its execution, its impetuous rawness was highly exciting.

Now I don’t suppose justifying my actions is necessary in this liberal day and age, but I feel the need to anyway.  Just let me explain I am no slag.  I’d had three boyfriends up to that point, and had certainly never Velcro-jumped like this at a man after such a brief acquaintance.

But, vomit-worthy as it sounds, I may have known Lyndon only three days – albeit three days in virtually constant company, amid luscious scenery that was apt to stir the old romantic soul – but I was already thinking of him in capital letters.  As in knowing he was Special; perhaps even The One.  We had so much in common.  There was a quiet strength about him that truly drew me.  It was a characteristic shared by many outdoorsy types, and – though it’s something of a cliché – by the countryside in which he spent much of his life.

Mmm, I was enjoying this.  I started to lean seductively back, though was not sure quite what I hoped to achieve with a plastic wineglass in my hand, or even whether (and I expect this makes me sound a bit prick-teasy) the shedding of clothes and inhibitions and anything else would have actually ensued there and then on that moonlit hill.

What in fact ensued was that Lyndon pulled abruptly away from my viper embrace.  ‘Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea,’ he murmured apologetically in response to my doubtlessly flummoxed look.

As I lugged myself upwards, I spotted Promiscuous Polly outside the hotel, sending forth a plume of cigarette smoke to the heavens.  I then saw Martin emerge behind her.

‘You’d better have your jacket back then.’  I shed the makeshift cape, shivering as my arms were exposed, and handed it to Lyndon without looking at him.  Despite the chill, my face was ablaze.

I then heard gagging and splatting sounds as Martin – for whom the bottle of water I’d bought had clearly come too late – puked all over the driveway.