Such an emotional weekend

First we had the trauma of Woody and co saying goodbye to their pal Andy in the wonderful Toy Story 3 on Friday night.  It truly was amazing, and seeing it in 3D at the IMAX in Birmingham was such an experience (well worth paying the extra if you can).  The 3D glasses served a useful purpose too in that they helped hide the tears!

Then on Saturday now I was about eight feet away from some wonderful 80s stars at the Shugborough Hall 80s Fest in Staffordshire.  Tony Hadley, Rick Astley, Go West, ABC and Carol Decker were on stage.  It was a truly wonderful event, involving fireworks and a picnic too.

This was Tony Hadley and Rick Astley performing Don Henley’s Boys of Summer:

I have uploaded more vids to my Facebook page and to YouTube (my username is ‘mrslmathers’ – hey, I’d just got married when I set up the account and was still in the first flush of the whole ‘being a wife’ excitement!).  I did so much videoing that my camera battery sadly died before I was able to record the highlight of the night: Tone ‘n’ Rick’s hilarious rendition of the Pussycat Dolls’ Don’t Cha!!  “Don’t cha wish yer boyfriend was hot like us?!!”  Indeed.

I am still a little bit hyper from it all, to be honest.

Chapter 5…

…of The Four Matthews is now on here for your persual.

Don’t be shy, please feel free to comment or criticise as you wish!

Chapter 5

 Friday
Hisley to Urdale

I was galloping up a vast misty hill, panting uncontrollably, wearing plastic boot covers and a preposterous jumper made of red flock wallpaper.  The higher and faster I went, the higher the hill magically grew, so that the summit remained continually out of reach.

Lyndon was suddenly tearing down towards me, hair lashing in the wind.  I stretched out my arms joyfully.  He was gallingly just beyond clasping distance when he turned around and loped back uphill at double the pace he’d come down, before dissolving into the roaring mist.  I tried to scream, but my voice was swallowed.

Polly and Sian materialised from the haze with ninja glints in their eyes, performing tai chi moves.  The two bitches seized an arm each and hurled me down the murky precipice.  I landed with a thud on my pillow and awoke.

Hideously unsettled by the nightmare, I arose ludicrously early for a second morning running and breakfasted even pre-Shane.  I contemplated calling for Lyndon, but he would probably take prim objection to the alarm call and frankly I was getting fed up of doing all the chasing.

I sipped my orange juice (freshly squeezed, naturally, its source an orange rather than a bottle) in the gorgeous dining room.  It was so snug and woody in there, like a farmhouse.  Such a room couldn’t fail to have a comforting effect on even the most restless soul.  Of course, being the time of day it was, there were seductive wafts of bacon and coffee and eggs popping and bubbling in the kitchen (What is it about the cooking process of breakfast foods that causes them to sound almost as tantalising as they smell?).

‘Penny for ’em?’  It was Stewart, grinning as he waved his hand in front of my spacey eyes.

He and Jason had come down early, they said, to enable them to ‘get a wriggle on and be in Chillington before Maggie’s runs out of doughnuts.’

‘Wish we’d done the same yesterday,’ I said, recalling the cardboard Wise Price sarnies.

‘What occurred with Mr Handsome last night then?’ Stew asked, his eyes aglow with glee.

‘Another abortive snog.’  I provided the lads with an abridged update, to which they reacted with supportive disgust that was most heartening.

‘Lovely girl like you!  What’s he playing at?’

‘I imagine he would have to be careful, though, Stew,’ Jason appeared the more prudent one of the pair, ‘he doesn’t want to go saddling himself with an undeserved reputation.  It could compromise his professionalism.’

Polly and Martin walked in.  ‘Hiya,’ Stewart crooned, perilously cheerily.

Polly shot him a freezing ‘as if I’d even talk to you, let alone proposition you in a bathroom’ sort of glare.  I had to stifle a smile.

‘Come on, petal,’ Martin urged, ‘let’s sit with Naomi.’

‘How are you this morning, Mart?’ I asked, ignoring the funny look Polly was giving me.  I was actually quite reassured to find Mart hadn’t been murdered in the night or kidnapped by orgy organisers.

‘Much better, thanks.’  He patted his fragile tummy.  ‘Ravenously hungry now.’
‘You were last night too,’ Polly murmured.

Hope brought my breakfast at that point.  When she leaned towards me and confided that my eggs had been ‘laid by Moira, she’s me ma’s favourite hen,’ Polly’s face was a picture of utter disgust at these sad, rustic folk.

‘Just coffee for me,’ she snapped when Hope took her and Martin’s breakfast orders.

‘Think I’ll have the boiled eggs too, please,’ said Martin as I lopped the tops off mine and they spilled forth with stunningly bright yolk.

‘Coming right up.’  Hope glided to the kitchen with her notebook.

‘Bloody chickens kept me awake all night,’ Polly griped.  ‘I’m going out for a fag.’  She aimed the latter word in Stewart and Jason’s direction, then almost knocked poor Shane flying as he sauntered in.

‘Wounding!’ laughed Stewart, clutching his heart with thespian distress.

******

I exchanged mobile numbers with Stew and Jason after breakfast.

‘I’ll text you when we get to Maggie’s,’ Stewart promised.

‘Rub it in, why don’t you.’  One day, I vowed, I would make a special drive out to Chillington and stockpile rolls, doughnuts, meringues, sausage rolls, you name it, from the illustrious Maggie’s.

‘Don’t forget to let me know how you get on.  And you know I don’t just mean with the walk!’  He winked impishly, and we hugged.  I wished the boys were heading in our direction.  They would have been fun additions to the group.  Stewart then embraced Alexandra, lifting the petite hotelier clean off her tiny feet.  ‘Alex, dear, always a heartache to love and leave you.’

‘Ooh, get away with you,’ she giggled ecstatically.

We were all jammed in the lobby now, suitcases piled for collection by Clive.  Alex had done us a packed lunch each.  They were exquisitely presented in paper lunch bags bearing the hotel’s picture and contact details.  It’s all in the little touches, as they say.  I think stale Ryvita with jam and gherkins on would have looked inviting in such packaging.  What it did contain was an alluringly nutty-looking roll, a muffin (homemade too, by the look of it, and even sealed with a Grange/Orange sticker), an apple, a banana, and bottle of water.

I nudged Hazel.  ‘Very Famous Five, eh, this?’

After Stewart and Jason’s departure, Lyndon talked us through the day ahead.  ‘Now there are no Matthews for us to tackle today.  What we will be doing, though, is getting out into some wild and lovely countryside as we approach the southern tip of the Peak District.  We’ve got another eleven-mile stretch ahead of us.  The ground is a tad spongy and hard-going in parts, particularly at Brabban – that’s the next spot along the route – but no fear, we’re all appropriately equipped, aren’t we?’  His dubious gaze landed on Ted and Enid’s cumbersome suitcase.  He paused for a second, no doubt considering it a waste of time to comment.

‘We’ll reach the periphery of Brabban Bog, which some of you may have heard of.  It’s an extraordinary but extremely hazardous natural feature.  It’s a very beautiful area, this.  One of the most picturesque in the region.  We then go for three miles along Shinton Green Railway Walk to Urbridge, which is a quaint little town.  That’s where we’ll stop for our lunch, prepared by the lovely Alex here.  Then it’s a nice wend back along the banks of the River Ur to Urdale, where we’re staying tonight, at a hotel called the Sands.’

Alex hovered throughout, listening in, though none of this detail can have been new to her.  She then hugged us goodbye in turn.  By the time she was squashing Lyndon to her bosom, Shane the diet convert had started a dialogue with me about the virtues of tuna and protein so I was only half listening when Alex whispered, ‘Nice girl.’

I looked up swiftly in time to clock her nodding discreetly but unmistakably in my direction.  Presumably Hope had apprised her mother of our post-tai chi garden room activities.  Whatever reply Lyndon made, though, was maddeningly drowned out by the oily fish crusade.  Posturing Polly was eyeballing me again too.

‘I just worry about you, lad,’ I heard Alex say, patting Lyndon’s arm maternally.  She then addressed the group at large: ‘Now Godspeed to you all.  Please return if you ever pass this way again.’

As we departed, she actually plucked a pink hanky out of her pocket and flapped it in farewell.  Hope, once again in her tabard-and-turban combo, had joined her mother by now and looked ever so slightly embarrassed at her side.

‘Wave your duster, Hope,’ Alex prompted.  Hope rolled her eyes but complied.  They certainly were a pair of characters, the likes of whom enriched our journey.

******

‘Why does Alexandra McClowie worry about you then, lad?’ I asked Lyndon discreetly a bit later on, as I pretended to scrutinise the Ordnance Survey map (those maps again!) over his shoulder.

‘She caters for a lot of walking groups and tends to see us all as her charges.  She’s a bit protective of me after…you know, what’s happened in the past.  She’s a mother hen at heart.’

‘Is she concerned I’m going to be a corrupting influence?’

His smile as he glanced up from the map was brief but heart-stopping as ever.  ‘The exact opposite, in fact.’

‘She thinks I’m a nice wee girrrl?’  I rolled my ‘r’ in a dodgy approximation of a Scottish burr (I’ve never been great at accents).

‘Yes, that’s Brabban Bog there.’  Lyndon jabbed at the map which was in a waterproof case around his neck.  He darted me the briefest of eye signals, making me aware of Polly’s presence behind me.  She was giving me that flinty look again.  It was difficult to be discreet in such a public, group setting.
We had reached the remote settlement of Brabban and were taking a breather, a banana/apple break, after negotiating an area of spongy grassland which had been tough on the old calf muscles.

In places we were knee-deep in brambles which could impale even the most impervious of waterproof trousers.  On such undulating and partially obscured terrain our steps were slow and ankles might easily be twisted.  The innocuous looking hump of earth on which you ventured a foot could give way and suck you into its muddy belly, or turn out to be concealing a trench.  It was hard to get a standard left-right-left-right rhythm going.

This vast common was bisected by a gully of gunge, and our passage from one side to the other was by means of an obstacle course that involved inching around tree trunks, crawling under low branches and fashioning makeshift bridges, Swallows and Amazons style, from stray chunks of wood.

We were – and I think I speak for most of the others, judging by their expressions – feeling pretty gung ho about the experience (the exception was Polly, who wore a look of revulsion as though she was utterly sullied by the flecks of mud on her trousers).  There was a sense of accomplishment; a sense that this was ‘proper’ walking, the sort of ordeal that tests the heartiest of hikers.  The necessity to help and look out for each other, offering a steadying hand around the trickier geographical hurdles, seemed to intensify the camaraderie between us too.

I felt alive and, I must admit, rather cocky.  The wind was in my hair, there was colour in my cheeks, I was grubby and exuberant and not impounded in a sterile office.

Brabban Bog was close by: an unbecomingly named but nationally unique and very ancient beauty spot.  The rest of the gang gathered round, interested in what Lyndon had to say about that rather than about his fledgling relationship with me.

‘The technical term for that type of geographical feature is a schwingmoor.  A German word which translates, as you might expect, into “swinging moor.”  In layman’s terms, it’s a floating peat bog.  It consists of a layer of peat, about three metres thick, which literally floats like a raft on the surface of a lake which is thirteen metres – forty-two feet – deep.  The trees there all die eventually because as they grow they sink through the peat and drown.  Brabban dates back to the Iron Age and is the only one of its kind in the country.  You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a smattering around the world, in fact.

‘This, I’m afraid, is as close as we are able to get to it.  You can only visit by making a prior appointment and obtaining a permit.  BFF health and safety regulations prohibit us from doing either.’

‘Oh, elf and safety be blowed!’ Hazel chuckled robustly.  Anyone else might have employed a profanity, but she always used quaint substitutes.  It gave her a quirky, Enid Blyton air.

‘My sentiments exactly, Hazel,’ Lyndon grinned, ‘but unfortunately the insurance premiums against getting swallowed by that quagmire would be exorbitant.  You can photograph it, though, if you find a handy gap in that hedge over there.’

The tall hedge offered a few brambly gaps through which I could jab my camera.  The schwingmoor (my new favourite word) viewed through a frame of spikes and leaves looked almost magically wild and desolate.  It was all feral and brown and green and scratchy looking, with eerily gnarled trees reflected in what looked like paintbrush water in which whoever might have painted this landscape had dipped their brush.  Sounds a strange landscape to admire, yes, but it appealed to me.

There was a latent urge to adopt Hazel’s ‘elf and safety be blowed’ attitude and swing (or should that be schwing?) from its half submerged tree trunks and run across its fragile sheet of moss, daring it to subside beneath my weight and let the gooey earth devour me.

******

It was much better today weather-wise: breezy, bracing and dry, though the layer of recent rain gave a lovely fresh scent to the world.

From Brabban we progressed to the considerably less stark Eadon, one of those villages that seem to have been created to be bathed in spring sunshine.  Its main – only, in fact – street was the wonderfully-named Egg Lane.  Apparently food-derived street names were popular in the Victorian era (there was a Crab Lane close by, according to Lyndon).

Egg Lane acted as a margin between the cluster of eighteenth and nineteenth century timber cottages on one side and modern de luxe detached housing on the other.

Hazel and I played a game of ‘which one would you buy if you won the Lottery?’  She, not surprisingly, favoured characterful black and white; my preference was for a sprawling ranch bungalow with louver shutters at its huge windows, and gates outside which were adorned with an American-style mailbox and a tubular receptacle marked ‘Newspapers.’

‘Not terribly cost-efficient, bungalows,’ Hazel demurred.

‘You’d worry about that even in a Lottery-funded fantasy?’

‘Hmm.  They take up a lot of land, need larger plots than two-storey properties because they have to expand horizontally rather than vertically.  Add to urban sprawl.  Not so good for the environment.’

‘I wouldn’t mind living where you live, actually, Hazel.  Herefordshire’s lovely, isn’t it?’

Delightful,’ she pronounced with feeling, ‘especially when the wind’s off the cider factory.  Yum!  You should come and stay sometime.’

‘I’d love to.’

‘Actually I’d like to take you out with my nieces.  We’d have a blast.  You’re about their age and I think you’d get on like a house – or bungalow – on fire.’

‘How many do you have?’

‘Four.  My brother Bernard and sister Iris have two girls each.  They’d love you, I’m sure.’

‘What are their names?’

‘Chloe and Belinda, they’re Bernie’s; then Iris has got Joanna and Laura.’

‘Pretty names.’

‘Yes, aren’t they?  I’m godmother to them all – poor things.  Yes, we absolutely must synchronise diaries later and arrange a weekend.  That is if you’ll be able to tear yourself from your hunky hiker over there.’

‘Oh, I’ll make time, Hazel.’  I’d be hugely flattered to be an honorary niece for a weekend of cider and camaraderie in Ledbury.  ‘It sounds really fun.  I actually wouldn’t mind visiting your bat group too.’

Really?  Ooh, there’s a food and craft fair the end of next month, to try and raise a few coppers for the poor old bats.  Don’t suppose that would be your cup of tea – pardon the pun?  If you’re not careful, I might rope you in to contributing a cake.’

‘I do a cracking Victoria sponge, as it goes.  I’d love to come.’

‘Perfect!  We’ll go on a pub trek with the girls afterwards – ’

‘Or just inhale the cider if the wind’s in the right direction.’

‘Absolutely.  Then it’s sleepover time at Aunty Hazel’s.  Nice mug of cocoa to fend off hangovers.’  She clapped her hands, like a dorm prefect orchestrating a midnight feast.

‘Can’t wait.’

I really couldn’t.  I knew the shallow tribe from my work thought I was ‘sad.’  I didn’t care.  I could hear Adrian’s contemptuous screech in my head: ‘You!  In your pinny!  Up to your elbows in flour baking cakes for a bloody save the bat group!’  Not that he would ever find out, as I’d be (oh beautiful thought!) emancipated from Raybould Communications by the time that event rolled around, but it strengthened my resolve.  I’d open a bloody bakery to help the bats – and crochet a doily for the craft stall while I was at it.

I felt, despite Polly’s dagger eyes stabbing at me, utterly safe here; comfortable in my own skin; among friends with whom I could be open about my interests.

******

The Four Matthews trail was one which took many formats: hill, field, footpath, road, canal towpath, bog and now disused railway line.  Just beyond Eadon, we joined the Shinton Green Railway Walk for a three-mile spell.

‘This was originally the Shinton Green Branch Line,’ Lyndon announced, ‘which was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century.  It was closed down in 1965 by good old Dr Beeching.’  The ‘good old’ was said with heavy irony.  Hazel snorted in agreement with Lyndon’s disdain for the man who controversially shut miles and miles of British rail track.

The Beeching Axe was a topic we did cover in school (I remember my dad being appalled that term we were studying the decade of his youth in History class).  Little danger of me making what Hazel would call ‘booboobs’ on a par with thinking historic naval battles were fought in central London.

Like so many redundant rail tracks, Shinton Green was resurrected in the 1970s as a walkway.  There are obvious advantages to it being flat and linear, of course – it’s ideal for pushchairs and cyclists as well as foot passengers, though for more experienced walkers I suppose those attributes can make it a tad monotonous in comparison with the undulating countryside.  Hark at Alfred Wainwright here.

The narrow pathway was canopied by willow trees, which produced a tunnel-like effect, though intermittent gaps between the branches afforded slits of views across the open country. We frequently had to adopt single file mode to allow cyclists past.

‘That’s Shinton Hall,’ Lyndon pointed to a thin, spooky-looking building jabbing the sky like a contemptuous middle finger.  Like the Victorian pumping station back at Swinley on Tuesday, it was a clichéd horror movie backdrop.  I could almost hear the thunderclap.

‘It was built in 1899, originally as a hotel for folks who travelled on the train from cities like Birmingham for their holidays in the country.  It wasn’t a great success, though.  In fact it went bankrupt, by all accounts due to the local beak refusing to grant the owners a liquor licence.  Making it even less inviting.  The place was subsequently converted into – awful word, but that’s what they were called at the time – an asylum, then it was a tuberculosis sanatorium for a while, and it’s now a residential home for the elderly.  Good place to stick your grandpa to give him nightmares, more like.’

‘I’m glad it ain’t a hotel now,’ remarked Shane, ‘I wun’t a-stayed there.  It gives me the shivers just looking at it.’

Lyndon concurred.  ‘Those Victorians did like their ornate, Dracula’s castle style architecture, didn’t they?’

‘I wouldn’t have fancied staying there either.  The place projected eerie vibes – you know how some buildings just do?  This probably makes me sound wussy, but I actually chose not to photograph it; I half expected one of those ghostly images you see on urban legend websites to appear in the developed picture, indicative of the subject bearing a curse.

Swinley pumping station was an oddity, but Shinton Hall seemed spookier somehow, due to its bleak history and the current presence of vulnerable elderly people within its fortress-like walls.  I was starting to shiver myself, which could not have been solely attributable to the footpath being so shaded.

******

Not that the Shinton Green Railway Walk wasn’t charming, but as lunchtime approached it was with some relief that we left the straight path for the scenic town beyond the willow cocoon.

We descended a set of steep wooden steps into Urbridge.  It was a quaint market town, where establishments like Boots and Costa Coffee incongruously occupied eighteenth century buildings squished together along the high street.  Urbridge was by far the most populous and bustling place we had passed through, not that that was saying a great deal.  Four customers in Boots was pretty much all it took to make it bustle, but still.

And who needs Costa Coffee anyway, when they have Alexandra McClowie’s homemade rolls?

The BFF bunch veered off the eponymous Ur Bridge and took possession of the two long picnic tables alongside the River Ur.

We had such an exquisite picnic.  It was a pleasure to open those Grange (or ‘Orange’) bags and feast on the lunch within.  Like kids, we all compared our tuck – with the exception of Polly, who had what my old nan would have described as ‘a face on her like a dog licking piss off a nettle.’

‘How does it compare to your homemade bread then?’ I enquired of Hazel’s ham salad bap.  The ham was what my mom would have called ‘nice ham,’ the variety to which she would treat us for our Saturday salads when we were growing up, an alternative to Tesco Value wafer thin.

‘Very well.’

‘This is lush.’  I indicated mine, which I had already gnawed down into a half-moon.  This local cheese was fabulously creamy with a tart aftertaste, resembling a hybrid of Stilton and Double Gloucester.  It was a beautiful counterpart to the red onion’s caramelised tang.  Alex’s home-baked walnut bread was quite possibly the best thing in the world.  I would have to e-mail her to request the recipe.

The sun had come out in force by now, the only disadvantage being that it lured the wasps.  In my game of mental word association, wasps called to mind bees, and in turn Hazel’s new hobby.  ‘Will there be any Hazel Honey for sale at your food fair?’ I asked, batting an insect away from my now unwrapped chocolate and orange muffin.

‘Don’t think Boden’s Bees will have had much opportunity to be productive by then.’

The muffin was divine too, of course.  I tore off nuggets at a time and tossed them into my mouth.  I closed my eyes and tilted my face adoringly towards the sun.  Then I felt my rucksack buzz.

I wished I could swipe the sender of this text message away as easily as the wasp that kept zeroing in on my choccie citrus cake.

‘Him again,’ I sighed to Hazel.  I was mindful of Lyndon’s proximity and, if my suspicions were correct, the effect Adrian’s name might have on him.  He was a captive audience to Shane, though, who was still on his tuna crusade.

‘“Nay Balls!”’ I read.  ‘My surname is so hilarious, you see.’

‘I’m sure it ceased to be in your last year at junior school.’

‘At the latest.  “Not hrd from u – hope we don’t have 2 send out a search party!  LOL!!  Changed our minds about the honeymoon – thinking of camping in the middle of Wolverhampton Ring Road!  What d’ya think?  C ya – wouldn’t wanna b ya!!”  Oops, my finger seems to have slipped over the delete button.’

‘Just think,’ Hazel said, ‘if his IQ was slightly higher, he could be a cretin!’

‘How quickly you’ve got the man sussed, and you’ve never even met him.’

‘Actually you and I ought to exchange numbers and addresses.  And e-mails.  Though I’m a horrendous technophobe, darling.  Takes me a week to compose an e-mail.  The bat group despair of me when it comes to circulating minutes.  My nieces keep trying to get me on Facespace, or whatever it’s called, but I’ve no real use for it.’  She fished out a biro and notebook from her backpack.  ‘Can you tell I was a Girl Guide?’I inputted Hazel’s details to my phone; she jotted mine down in the more orthodox way.

******

‘Enjoy your lunch?’ Lyndon asked at the outset of our four-mile stroll along the River Ur.  I felt like a schoolgirl conducting an affair with the games teacher during these intimate, conversational moments between us, which Lyndon limited in order to avoid showing suspicious favouritism.

‘Mmm, it was wonderful.  How about you?  Wish you’d had the tuna now?’

‘Oh blimey, he’s a super bloke, but I’ve learned more about oily fish today than I ever needed to know.’

Lyndon whispered this, grimacing, and Shane wouldn’t have heard anyway because he was engaged in an intense conversation with some ducks (yes, you did read that correctly).

‘Sorry, quackies,’ he apologised to a fowl family bobbing past, ‘no bread for you today.  I’d normally save you some, but those cobs were far too nice to share, even with you.’  He was right; Alex’s bread rolls were far too gourmet for game birds.

‘Now you’d never know it,’ Lyndon addressed us all, back in guide/historian mode, ‘but this was once the most polluted river in England.  ‘There was so much industry along these banks, particularly the section further north into the Peak District, which we won’t touch on today.  The textile industry in particular boomed during the Victorian era.  Most of those disused factories have either been demolished or converted into trendy flats.’

‘Half a million for something the size of a broom cupboard, no doubt,’ Hazel muttered.

Nobody spoke for some time.  It was so extraordinarily serene and beautiful there as to render speech an unnecessary, bordering on sacrilegious, impingement.  Around every bend in that river was a potential calendar landscape (‘April: a spring walk along the River Ur’).  Gnarled trees craned right over the river as though trying to eavesdrop on it.  As with the canal three days earlier, the background traffic and general ‘town’ sounds were reduced to a muted thrum.

‘Now Urdale, where we’re staying tonight,’ Lyndon told us later, ‘is an extremely pretty little town.  We’re doing well for time, so we can spend a good hour or so mooching there before we check in at the Sands.’

‘Why is it called the Sands when it’s about as far away from a beach as you can get?’ I asked.

‘It used to be the Unicorn, but when Ralph, that’s the proprietor, took over he changed it.  He’s something of a Frank Sinatra fanatic – as you’ll soon find out – and the Sands was a notorious hotel in Las Vegas where the Rat Pack often performed.  In Urdale there’s also a fantastic walking and camping shop called Wilbur Rudge’s, which has been there since time immemorial, and some nice little curiosity shops.’

My mobile pulsed in my bag again.  Hazel gave me a ‘What does he want now?’ look.

‘Actually it’s Stewart this time.  He and Jase must be speed walkers – they’re already sitting on the bench outside Maggie’s, scoffing doughnuts with their “swoonworthy” tuna rolls.’

******

Urdale was utterly charming.  It was snaky, cobbled, villagey, and surrounded by dry-stone walls, but within beat a modern heart.  There was a pride there, with its gleaming signage, flowerbeds and modern war memorial.

Even the public toilets had piped music.  A brass band playing Gershwin classics provided the incongruous soundtrack to today’s ablutions.  I had visions of opening a cubicle to find the actual Salvation Army band in there, their trombones wedged against the cistern.  The comedy-sketch image gave Hazel and me the giggles.

It was such a cute town, I wanted to box it and take it home with me.  Which I did, in a fashion, because I bought myself one of those cheesy snow globes featuring a miniature Urdale in a blizzard (I know, I know, don’t judge me).

I bought my snow scene from the rather exotically-named Ursula’s Toy and Gift Emporium (perhaps the Unicorn became the Sands to avoid every establishment in Urdale also beginning with U?), into which I was enticed by, of all things, a display of Matchbox cars in the window.  My brother Simon, he of the model aircraft fixation, collects them, big kid that he is.  I got him a mini ice cream van, and also a picture frame depicting a town scene in relief for my mom, a mug for my dad, a corkscrew for Gary, a cinnamon and raspberry scented candle for Si’s girlfriend Louise (Gaz is presently single) and a box of raisin fudge for my nan (soft enough for her dentures to cope with).

Yes, all that did make my rucksack somewhat leaden, but we only had a mile to go to the hotel.

I automatically reached for a wine bottle stopper I thought Uncle Terry would like, then had to check myself and sadly return it to the shelf.

‘Ooh, Sooty, Sweep and Soo!’  Shane, the proverbial kid in the sweet shop, bobbed up from behind a shelf waving a trio of oversized soft toys.  ‘My nippers love these.’

By the time Hazel and I had relieved Ursula of half her stock of vintage toys, crafts and confectionary, Shane was outside the shop, photographing a bemused-looking Ted and Enid holding the teddy bear, dog and panda of TV fame.

‘Don’t go yet, girls,’ he said to us.  ‘I wanna get one of you an’ all, show our Bart and Myles all me new friends.’  We obliged him, adopting decidedly wooden poses with the juI Got Rhythmmbo stuffed animals.  Like I say, some surreal things happen on walking trips.

‘I’ll get one of Lyndon later,’ Shane said as I held his rucksack open for him so he could unceremoniously squash Soo into it.  There was no room for Sooty or Sweep in there, so he walked away carrying one in each arm, like twin babies.  ‘Cheers, bab.’

Lyndon!  What with all the distractions offered by Ursula’s, Sooty and toilets that played , it was a while before I realised I hadn’t seen him recently.
Almost simultaneously, I spotted Martin on a bench, morosely licking a Cornetto.

‘Where’s Polly?’ I asked him.

‘Went to the ladies.  Ages ago.’

There was something not quite right here.  Even as I was mentally berating myself for being so inanely insecure, I was ignoring Hazel’s baffled look and my hand was reaching for my mobile to scroll through to Lyndon’s number, which was of course now saved in my contacts list.

‘He’s here round the back of the musical bogs with me,’ Polly answered without preamble.  ‘Ain’t he got a nice big one!’  She hung up.  I felt my stomach plummet.

‘You don’t believe that load of old rot, surely?’ snorted Hazel, who had heard every word.  She touched my arm calmingly.

‘Why’s she answering his phone then?’  I was shaking pathetically.  Despite myself, I dashed impetuously to the back of the loo block.  Polly, cigarette in one hand and Lyndon’s phone in the other, was lolling back against the wall with her red zip-up top unzipped to below bra level, in an approximation of post-coital dishevelment.

‘You just missed him,’ she said huskily.  ‘He left me panting, I can tell you!’  She wheezed theatrically.

Hazel gave an unimpressed snort.  Despite the girl’s less than convincing acting skills, though, relief could not yet wash away the nauseous adrenalin that was surging through me.

‘It’s the fags that have done that to you, more like.  Stop lying, Polly.’

‘What d’you come running over here for like Paula bloody Radcliffe if you don’t believe me, Naomi?’  It was a good question really.  ‘Gonna fight me for him?’

‘I will if I have to.’  How had my lovely walking holiday descended to this?  I think I was about fifteen the last time I engaged in catty scrapping over a boy.
‘I heard the pair of you through the window last night, whispering your pukey sweet nothings.’

My face blazed mortifyingly.  ‘Yeah, well we could hear you as well.’  OK, not the most cutting thing I could have said to someone like her.

She chuckled smugly.  ‘I always appreciate an audience.  What’s this about you sticking your nose into my relationship, by the way?  You wanna sort your own out first, love.  My boyfriend tells me you’ve been acting as his agony aunt.’

‘I make no apologies for offering Martin my opinion.  I wasn’t giving him orders.  I only said he ought to be true to himself, and that you condescending to come walking for a week does not obligate him to be dragged into swinging.’

‘Ha, swinging!’  She exhaled a slow swirl of smoke, and repeated the word slowly and with amusement, as though mocking a child for mispronouncing a big word.  ‘Might do you good to try it, you bloody goody three shoes.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Don’t look down your nose.  That sort of thing is common nowadays.  Don’t you watch Jeremy Kyle?’

‘No, I’ve got a job.’  Well for the time being I had.

‘I tell you, I deserve to sleep with a hundred men after putting up with this boring crap all week.  I met another one off Facebook last week, as it goes.  And as long as Martin’s minted and stupid enough to keep me, what’s it to you if I enjoy a bit of fun on the side?’

She had a voice like a rape alarm.  She was ranting meanderingly, veering from the very subject that had brought me here.  Her malice had no focus.

‘Where’s Lyndon anyway, if you’ve supposedly just “had” him?  Hiding from me, is he?’

‘Oh, him.’  Her tone was dismissive now, as though she actually had forgotten her original story about Lyndon.  ‘Face it, love, you’re not his one and only.  Why do you think he runs these holidays?  He’ll have tried it on with all the women here – probably even Susan Boyle with the suitcase over there.’

It was only then I noticed poor Enid was indeed ‘over there,’ and that our screechy fracas had lured a crowd.

‘Don’t you dare speak about my wife like that,’ said Ted gallantly.  Shane stood bewilderedly next to him, clutching the inanimate onlookers, the two giant teddies.  Slightly in front of them, as though on the hot spot, was poor Martin, standing absolutely motionless, his face as white as salt.

At that point Lyndon strode through, all assertive and gorgeous.  ‘Thank you for finding my mobile, Polly.  I must have dropped it outside Wilbur Rudge’s.’  He extended his hand, into which Polly petulantly slapped the phone.  ‘I’ve been in that shop for the past half-hour, in fact, despite untruths you may have heard about my recent whereabouts.’

‘He has,’ Enid vouched.  ‘Teddy and I were in there the whole time, looking at flasks.’  It was the longest sentence I’d ever heard her utter, and I smiled gratefully at her.

Lyndon gave his mobile a little flip in the air and caught it nimbly.  ‘I think you’d better leave now, though, Polly.’

‘I don’t think you can chuck me off the trip like that, mate,’ she pouted, crossing her arms over her colossal chest.

Lyndon primly recited the terms and conditions off pat: ‘Best Foot Forward reserve the unconditional right to debar a person from a holiday in the event of conduct which in our reasonable opinion is liable to cause distress, damage or annoyance to guests, employees, property or to any third party.’

Wearing an ‘Am I bovvered?’ expression, Polly dropped her fag end and mashed it beneath her impractical heel.

‘If you walk back to the hotel with us and collect your luggage, I assume there’s somebody you could telephone to pick you up from there.’

‘Several bodies,’ she replied cockily.  ‘Oh, I’ll be going, don’t you worry.  I wanna refund, though.’

‘I think you’ll find it was me who paid for this, Polly,’ Martin pointed out, with a placid dignity I’d been unaware he possessed, ‘seeing as I’m so minted and stupid.  I’ll have your keys to my flat back while we’re at it.  You can collect whatever stuff you’ve left there next week when I get home.’

******

‘My parents were right all along,’ Martin was confiding that evening, in the Sands, ‘I’ve been an ostrich far too long, burying my head, blind to what she was like.’

We were having a pre-dinner drink.  ‘Just sticking to the one this time,’ he assured me sheepishly, tapping the rim of his pint glass, as though I was an AA counsellor.  He deserved twenty pints after what he’d just been through, but I didn’t voice that sentiment for fear he’d take it at face value and end up poorly again.

Martin was understandably dazed but in remarkably philosophical spirits.  Polly had gone.  She’d left forty minutes earlier in a BMW driven presumably by one of her Facebook men, or possibly her obliging Aunty Maureen.

She’d arranged the pick-up en route to the hotel.  After we’d given Martin our hugs and support, it had been an unsurprisingly sombre mile.  I for one felt slightly ghoulish witnessing the collapse of a relationship.  I had no platitudes to offer the poor man that would not have sounded trite and patronising.

Polly lagged at the back, and we’d heard wafts of her brazen phone chat (‘Yeah, Martin’s stopping here with the rest of the freaks,’ she’d snorted at one point).  You can supposedly tell a lot about a person from their ringtone; hers was the Pussycat Dolls hollering ‘Don’t cha wish ya girlfriend was hot like me!’

My personal highlight of that otherwise subdued stroll was that Lyndon put his arm around me, evidently now unembarrassed about such a telling gesture being witnessed.  ‘You do know she was lying, don’t you?’ he said to me.  His earnestness was so sweet.

‘Of course.’

‘I’m so sorry you were subjected to her tirade.’

‘Hardly your fault.’

‘I was in Wilbur Rudge’s.  Looking at tents, in actual fact.  Terribly rock ‘n’ roll.’

‘Thinking of going camping, are you?’

‘Only if you’ll share my canvas.’

‘I’ll give it some thought.’  It was so liberating being able to flirt openly and not have to keep our fledgling relationship clandestine.  What were we doing wrong, after all?  Compared with Polly, we were virtually virgins.  I saw Hazel winking encouragingly at me over Lyndon’s shoulder.

Lyndon leaned closer towards me and asked, sounding incredulous and flattered, ‘Would you really fight for me?’

I toyed briefly with his fingers on my shoulder, once again enjoying the public, if not flagrant, intimacy.  ‘To the death, babe.’  Cheesy, eh?  I meant it, though.

And now here I was, sitting alongside him in a hotel bar adorned with pictures of Frank Sinatra.  Whilst not exactly all over each other, we were positioned closer than strictly necessary on the padded seat so that from the waist down we were touching.  He caught my eye and smiled as we reached for our drinks in unison, like an old married couple already in tune with each other’s movements.  I felt very sensual and knowing with him, as though we were permanently sharing a secret.

‘She tied me up again last night,’ Martin resumed his narrative.  ‘I was poorly as well, but she didn’t care.’

I gave a polite nod, quite unsure how to respond to such information. With what?  I couldn’t help wondering.  And to what?  Those Grange beds had padded headboards, not iron bedsteads.  Did she use her bootlaces, or had she brought handcuffs on holiday with her?

I really must tame that imagination of mine.

Martin took a pensive sip of his beer.  ‘I guess I’ll need to cancel the counselling sessions now.’

‘Ladies, gents,’ the hotelier thankfully interrupted, ‘would you care to peruse this evening’s menu?’

‘Cheers, Ralph,’ said Lyndon.

The menus were bound in red faux leather with a tassel down the spine, and the same monochrome shot of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior in the cover insert as was displayed proudly on the wall behind the bar.  Ralph flicked them open and handed one to each of us in turn.

He had an egg-shaped face, with what looked like a huge Play-Doh nose splotched on the front. I rarely saw a smile beneath said nose, so was not quite sure whether his rather affected way of speaking was intended to be jocular.

Taking the hotel ‘theme’ to extremes, the bill of fare promised such delights as Sammy’s Salmon Tikka with Cucumber Yogurt, Sinatra’s Spaghetti Carbonara and Deano’s Duck à l’Orange.

The typeface was so swirly and arty as to be scarcely legible.  The soon-to-be-ex-PR exec in me ached to rebrand the Sands’ corporate image.

‘The soup of the day,’ Ralph announced, utterly deadpan, ‘is Peter Lawford’s Parsnip.’

Yes, I did snigger.  Perhaps I’m immature.  Ralph, apparently oblivious to innuendo, dealt me a stern look.  I was reminded of being eleven, told off in RE for tittering when in a lesson on Judaism Mr O’Hare explained to us what circumcision was (well you just don’t expect to hear a teacher say ‘foreskin’).

‘He’s full of the joys, isn’t he?’ I murmured to Lyndon when Ralph had gone.

‘Oh, Ralph’s all right.  A tad eccentric, that’s all.’

‘Seems to be a prerequisite in the hotel industry.’

‘Face as long as Livery Street, but a good heart.  Lyndon rarely disparaged people, or at any rate not without a disclaimer that emphasised their merits.
‘Now I can’t say as I fancy Peter’s parsnip, or any other part of his anatomy.  Anything you can recommend, Lyndon?’

‘Dubious as it sounds, the parsnip soup is actually delicious, but if that doesn’t appeal to you the Ava Gardner Avocado Mousse is lovely.’  He dropped his voice.  Our intimate chat was muffled anyway by the rest of the gang’s discussion on the potential merits of Ocean’s Eleven Pie.  ‘You look very lovely tonight too, by the way.’

‘Complimented in the same sentence as an avocado mousse – how terribly flattering!’  I wouldn’t call myself a natural flirt, but it was so easy to cultivate a rapport with him.

He blushed, bless him.  ‘I didn’t mean it to come out like that.’

‘I know, I know,’ I laughed, probably sounding inane and feeling utterly giddy from the effects of both the wine and the events of this most peculiar day.  ‘And, though it’s very unlike me to be egotistical, I actually feel lovely tonight.’

I never normally say things like that, but it was true.  Without wishing to sound Mills and Boon sappy, my love for him – and yes, I was beginning to acknowledge it as Love – flowered enrichingly through me.  It was such a fulfilling, pure feeling.

I was still saving the purple dress for Saturday at Julian’s place, although Lyndon had of course already seen it.  Tonight I had teamed a sleeveless aubergine ruffle top with black leggings.  I tossed my hair in parody of a Pantene advert, but actually enjoyed the silky sensation of it against my neck after having it tied back in a sweaty clump all day.  I had just washed it, and yes I’m afraid I am the kind of girl who takes my hair straighteners on walking trips.

‘I mean it.  That colour really brings out the green of your eyes.’

Hark at Gok Wan!

******

No, I didn’t sleep with him.  Or at least not that night.  He did get to see my La Senza jimjams, though (more on that later…).  It doesn’t do to rush these things, and as ever he had his professional position to consider.  We’d be colleagues soon, though (hopefully), and who could frown on a workplace romance?  Isn’t that where most relationships stem from?  Or is it the internet nowadays?

Anyway, what we did share was a little dance in the bar post-dinner.  Despite the cheesy theme, the food was excellent (not to mention the company, of course).  All credit to Ralph, for all his oddness, for attempting something different.  Even Ted and Enid’s Caesar’s Palace Salads looked enticing.  The avocado mousse to which I was inadvertently compared was heavenly (nothing like me then), and I followed it with Deano’s duck.  Peter’s parsnip, I have to say, looked tasty.  I’ll stop right there with the innuendo.  For dessert I opted for the Grace Kelly Jelly (lime flavour).

Afterwards, Ralph cranked up his obviously played-to-death Rat Pack CD in the small bar.  This greatly delighted our fellow guests, the Derby Dodderers.  I am not being insulting here – their matching sweatshirts proclaimed them thus: as the name suggested, a Derby-based walking group consisting of sixteen very sprightly senior citizens.  Like Stewart and Jason, they were traversing the Matthews path north to south.  Good for them.  They possessed more spirit and zest than many folks a quarter of their age.

The evening turned into a veritable sing-song.  Ted and Enid actually stayed up – this was their kind of music.  Martin drooped off to bed after his painful day, and it was almost spooky not to hear the bedroom bounces that had become the soundtrack of the week’s evenings.

Hazel was nattering animatedly and positively flirtatiously with the most un-doddery Dodderer, a Sean Connery lookalike.  She looked so fabulous in a regal purple kaftan, her sooty hair all fluffy after washing, that I decided Ken the Druid must have been insane to abandon her for a warty old witch.

Ralph leant on his bar with a beatific look of bliss on his elliptical face, utterly lost in the smooth music.

Shane almost shattered the spell by declaring at one point, ‘I quite like that Michael Bublé.’

Despite the CD being on, I swear a hush descended.  ‘He’s a mere pretender,’ Ralph sniffed, looking at Shane as though he had just confessed to a liking for pouring urine on his cornflakes.  A couple of the Derby Dodderers grunted agreement.

‘I like him too,’ I said, feeling sorry for Shane.

‘You’re young,’ Ralph retorted.  Obviously that accounted for my ignorance.
Lyndon and I enjoyed a brief sway to, appropriately enough, Sway by Dean Martin.  It was pretty tame – no pornographic grinding at this stage – but romantic and rather quaint.  And inopportunely interrupted by Eric, a jovial member of the Dodderers, who whisked me away for a spin (‘Mind if I steal your lady friend, son?’).

Meanwhile, a sprightly widow called Minnie, who was Harry Enfield’s randy old lady character to the life (‘Ooh, young man!’), was in bits over Lyndon.  ‘Ooh, the eyes!  He’s the image of my Fred.’  She positioned her bejewelled hands in front of Lyndon’s face, so his aforementioned eyes peeked between them like a wanted poster.

I thought what a surreal coincidence it would be if Lyndon turned out to be not only Sian’s ex-husband but also Minnie’s Fred’s long-lost son.  Or grandson.
In short, there was enough material there that night to supply Adrian ‘funnyman’ Raybould with a whole routine about ‘sad’ Naomi and her friends.  Did I care?  Did I heck!

******

I was wrenched from my sleep on Saturday morning by what I instinctively took to be my alarm clock, even though its shrill pitch was a good deal more penetrating than usual and appeared to be lodged right inside my head.

Funny, though, I couldn’t remember setting my alarm for half-one.  And why was the frantic siren wailing on, even when I fiddled frenziedly with the off button on the little clock?  Finally, I sleepily twigged that the earsplitting blare was emanating from another source.

The fire alarm!

Shiiiiiiiiit!!!!!!

I catapulted myself from the bed in panic.  Fire terrifies me.  I am lucky enough to have only experienced fire drills at work.  In the middle of the day and with unrealistic forewarning.  This was a decidedly unsocial time for a drill.  It had to be the real thing.

I was already wearing the aforementioned La Senza pyjamas and a pair of thick socks (hey, I was chilly in bed and, let’s face it, unlikely to be indulged with company), and without pausing for shoes, I swiftly pulled on my cagoule and tore out into the car park, where the evacuated guests were being directed.
It had briefly rained during the evening, and stepping in puddles in my woolly socked feet was a pretty revolting sensation.  Though one infinitely preferable, of course, to being charred alive.

Outside, there was no palpable sign of an inferno, nor scent of smoke.  Perhaps it was a false alarm after all.  As the siren bawled on, I was not altogether certain whether I was actually awake.  I wondered whether, were I to blink, the Sands Hotel and the people spilling out of it in their motley array of sleepwear would vanish.

Bloody hell, I hope Lyndon’s OK!

Shane, who apparently slept in boxer shorts and a Garfield T-shirt, had Sooty, Sweep and Soo with him.  ‘My kiddies would be devastated if these got singed,’ I heard him say to Ted and Enid, who were adorably wearing matching stripy pyjamas.

Hazel was still in her purple kaftan, and still deep in the thrall of conversation with her Sean Connery lookalike.  Despite my worry about Lyndon, I grinned and winked at her as if to say ‘Get you, girl!’  She returned my look with one of pure, butter-wouldn’t-melt innocence.

Please let my Lyndon be safe!

‘We must stop meeting like this,’ he said at my shoulder, and I almost collapsed with relief.  Now was really not the time to comment on the cheesiness of that line.

Funny really, to think that was the first time we saw each other’s nightwear.  He favoured sensible pyjamas: charcoal grey, the top short-sleeved.  I supposed he spent so many nights in hotels, this sort of emergency was always a possibility so he needed to ‘be prepared,’ like Boy Scouts.  Perhaps he kept a thong for more frivolous occasions?

Illuminated by the headlights and blue lights of the arriving fire crew, the remote hotel suddenly took on a sinister, Norman Bates vibe.  I shivered.

‘You all right?’ asked Lyndon solicitously, and put his arm round me.
I nodded in a ‘big brave girl’ way, though shamelessly snuggled closer.  He had the most solid, cosy hug in the world.  His biceps were, without being freakishly body-buildery, well developed enough for his short sleeves to fit attractively tightly.  Mmm.  I shivered again, this time not with displeasure.

The fire crew had to all but forcibly restrain poor Ralph from re-entering his beloved, potentially perilous hotel.

‘What’s this all about then?’ I wondered.  ‘Hey, you don’t think Martin’s…’  The euphemistic phrase ‘done something silly’ hung in the air between us.

As if on cue, Martin shambled out into the car park, looking as bewildered and rumpled as the rest of us but reassuringly un-suicidal.  Lyndon and I exhaled in thankful unison.

Martin joined us, and even had a stab at humour.  ‘Good job Polly’s not here – she’d be giving the firemen all her phone number.’  He rubbed his eyes like a toddler waking from a nightmare.  His acceptance of his fate was half heartening, half heartbreaking.

‘She’d have had to fight off Minnie first,’ I said.

I had worried for the Dodderers’ safety should flames proliferate, but they seemed to be actually loving it.  They must have lived through enough catastrophe and tragedy to put a blip like this into perspective.  The female members were clucking with delight at the presence of firemen.

I had to laugh, though, at the sight of some of them who, while the entire hotel could have been incinerating to a shell around their heads, had taken the trouble to get fully dressed and in some cases fully made-up before venturing outside their doors.  I hadn’t dared do anything but obey the fire safety instructions to the letter: the ones about legging it as speedily as possible and not going back for personal effects.

Randy Minnie was regrettably not in the ‘fully dressed’ category, but sported a long powder-blue negligee previously modelled, I think, by Mae West.  I must admit she had good legs, though her boobs were plunging towards her knees.  Lyndon shuddered when she winked at him.  ‘I thought Polly was a sight enough,’ he murmured into my hair.

‘You’d better not have set the place alight with one of your joints, Min,’ I heard another of the old ladies cackle.

‘That skunk’s done wonders for my rheumatism,’ Minnie hooted back, her crinkly cleavage wobbling with the movement.

Bloody hell – and there was me concerned I might look a bit racy by trying to get off with my walk leader!  I’d better start hotting up my action.  These wayward pensioners were putting me in the shade.

I made a token effort by squeezing against Lyndon and putting my hand on top of his.  Wow, that was going to get the ‘racy police’ on to me!

About five minutes later, with the gruff announcement that ‘Toast’s off tomorrow breakfast,’ one of the firemen emerged lugging the huge, and now scorched, kitchen toaster.  It was one of those steel catering-sized models with a conveyor belt so the bread glides through and pops out browned.  ‘All the crumbs and crusts and crap have built up and built up and just went whoosh.  You wanna educate your kitchen staff to clean it out once in a while, mate,’ he said to Ralph, who was beside himself.

‘And to not leave tea towels too close to it,’ added another of the crew.  ‘Oh well, no real harm done, guys.  Apart from to the toaster, and this.’  What was once a Frank Sinatra tea towel (yes, such items do exist) drooped between his fireproof-gloved fingers.

‘I bought that in Vegas,’ Ralph snuffled.

There was a spooky hole in the cloth where Old Blue Eyes’s face had once been, leaving the legend – I kid you not – ‘I cooked it My Way’ in gaudy red typeface around the border.

The sight of a grown man snivelling over a scorched rag as though it were his pet kitten that had perished in the blaze just about put the cap on a decidedly bizarre day.

Attention Four Matthews fan(s)…

…I have uploaded Chapter 4.

Chapter 5 will, hopefully, follow reasonably shortly.

Chapter 4

Thursday
Bhylcroft to Hisley – The Third Matthew

I awoke to an overcast Thursday with a queasy, regretful feeling, like a non-alcohol-related hangover.  The drab sky seemed to match my mood.  I was cross with myself for feeling like that over a man whilst on my supposed ‘getting away from it all’ break.  And how did it get to be Thursday already?  The day when I usually start soaring towards the weekend, following the aforementioned Wednesday slump.

With an hour to go before my alarm went off, I snuggled back down.  I buried my face in the pillow, as though I could squash the abortive kiss scene from last night, but it only became more tauntingly vivid.

I had declined Lyndon’s suggestion that we rejoin the others in the disco, since to return to Rod’s rave-up so disappointingly soon would speak embarrassing volumes about my sex goddess prowess.  Lyndon admitted he didn’t truly fancy it either, so we departed for bed – separately, sadly.

Nonetheless I entertained silly hopes that he might seek out my room, beset by regret and lust.  I’d undressed and washed, brushed my hair vigorously, spritzed myself with perfume and smeared on a dab of lip gloss.  Just my usual bedtime routine…not!

I prayed he wouldn’t be put off by my La Senza pyjamas.  They were all I’d brought, my having lacked the foresight to add ‘slag’ nightwear to my list of items needed on a walking trip.  I slept with half an ear out for the door all night – hence my less than sparkling state now.

Sleep now eluding me, I flopped out of bed early.  I hoped I might catch Lyndon before the rest of the gang surfaced.  I couldn’t bear a day of us awkwardly avoiding each other, sneaking confused glances over our sandwiches and wondering who would be first to broach the inevitable ‘About last night…’ conversation.

******

He was in the breakfast queue.  I spotted him through the dining room door as I was greeting Grey Bun, who looked as though she had been on duty through the night.  Her Express & Star newspaper had been replaced by a wordsearch, although if intellectual stimulation was the aim it apparently hadn’t worked as she was still yawning.

The waitress – again the girl from last night’s shift – approached Lyndon.  ‘Good morning sir.  Table for…?’

‘Two,’ I answered over his shoulder.  ‘Morning Lyndon.’  I was determined not to sound as sheepish as he looked.

The pleasant waitress led us to a table in the vast room.  There was hardly anybody in there.  Beacon Radio was booming out, echoing sharply in the morning emptiness.

‘Can I get you any tea?  Coffee?’

Lyndon indicated me to go first.  ‘Tea, please,’ I requested.

‘Same for me, please.’

‘Two teas.  Toast?’

‘Please,’ we answered in unison.  Such a polite pair.  The girl scurried back into the kitchen, leaving us facing one another across the laminated menus.

After silently pondering the merits of boiled eggs versus bacon for a few seconds, we blurted out in chorus, ‘I’m really sorry,’ then stopped and laughed self-consciously.

‘You go first this time,’ I urged.

‘About last night,’ he began, somewhat predictably, but halted again when the speedy waitress reappeared with a pot of tea (here at the Bozzie they did favour the steel ones with ill-fitting lids and blistering handles) and a rack of slate-like toast.  She whisked her notebook out of her apron with the air of a magician extracting a rabbit from a hat.  We both ordered the full English, me mentally promising myself grapefruit and melon every morning once I was back home.

Lyndon daubed Flora on to a brick of toast.  ‘I think this came out the grill about three weeks ago,’ he grimaced, which diffused some of the tension.  He was an easy man to laugh with.  He studied the crumbs on his plate for a few seconds, then looked me in the eye in his usual sincere fashion.  ‘About last night, though.  Well, like I say, I’m really sorry.’

Frustrating it may be that he was taking us no further, I could see how uncomfortable this was for him.  He wasn’t a cocky type.

‘You suddenly remembered you’ve got a girlfriend?’ I couldn’t help probing.  I still had no idea on that score (and there was me moralising about Promiscuous Polly).

‘No.  I haven’t.  Got one, I mean.  And there was nothing stopping me – from that point of view – last night, I mean – I wanted it to happen.’  He gulped some tea, which was apparently restorative for he continued in a much surer tone, ‘I just didn’t want you thinking I make a habit out of that sort of thing.  There are no notches on my walking stick, or anything like that.’

‘I never suspected any such thing, Lyndon. And in fact I was lying when I said I’m sorry.  I’m not.  Sorry it happened, I mean.’  I held up my teacup coyly.  Only my eyes were visible over it, which met his in a bold and hopefully flirtatious manner.

The waitress – who I’m sure was actually not one girl but sextuplets – was swiftly back with our breakfasts.  I was doubtlessly over-thinking things, but would swear my sausage was poking towards me at a crude angle between the tomato halves.  Well not for long it wasn’t.  I removed any innuendo from my plate by chopping it up and loading a slice on to my fork with a dollop of egg.

‘This is delicious,’ I pronounced in surprise.

‘Mmm, not bad really.  In a transport caff sort of way.  Now what I was saying is that I thought perhaps, you know, getting involved like that was not such a good idea from a professional point of view.  I’m not a Club 18-30 rep.  I respect you too much to let you think I’m – ’

‘Easy?’ I laughed.  On the radio the pummelling beat of the Black Eyed Peas thankfully muffled our conversation from the few guests in the dining room.

‘Good job I’m a bit more self-assured than this when it comes to guiding walks, eh?   Hope I’m making sense.’

‘Perfect sense.’

‘Wimping out on you was pretty naff of me, though.  And I was wondering whether, if by Sunday you haven’t decided that a week in my company is more than enough, you’d fancy, erm, picking up where we’ – I resisted the temptation to finish another of his sentences, even though he was turning into Hugh Grant at his stammering, pausing best – ‘left off?’

And that, ladies and gentleman, was how it happened.  Sweet, undramatic, with us both wearing tracky bottoms and eating a hotel fry-up, to the thudding soundtrack of the Black Eyed Peas, while the hardest-working waitress in Wolverhampton flitted about in the background.

Of course I politely declined his request.  Nah, that’s another lie – though neither did I quite disgrace myself by yelping ‘Yesss!’ before the question left his mouth.

I took my time crunching on a strip of bacon, possibly overdoing the ‘casual’ act a tad, before replying ‘Love to.’

‘You would?’  He looked so delighted, I couldn’t help but be flattered.  ‘Here, I’ll give you my numbers.  Got your mobile handy?’

I retrieved the phone from my pocket, selected the ‘Add new contact’ option and experienced a lovely buzz as I keyed in ‘Lyndon home,’ followed by ‘Lyndon mob.’

‘Perhaps we ought to keep things discreet the rest of this week,’ he suggested as he added my numbers.

‘I’m not sure I want be your deep dark secret.  Most of the others saw us walk out of the disco together anyway.’

‘You’re right, I suppose nobody’s going to believe we went outside to look at star constellations.’  ‘You’re right, I suppose nobody’s going to believe we went outside to look at star constellations.’  He gave my hand a discreet squeeze across the table.  That fleeting feel of his scratchy skin on mine sent all kinds of thrills zapping through me.  For his benefit, though, I’d have to recommend him a good hand cream soon.  ‘As I say, though, I’d rather it not be assumed that I make a habit out of this.  Not that it’s ever actually happened before.  But nobody here knows that, of course.  You know how people’s minds can work.’

‘Bet you get plenty of offers, though,’ I teased.

He flushed.  ‘Well no, not really.’

‘I don’t know whether Polly and Martin spotted anything last night.  Through the haze of vomit.  I don’t really trust that girl.  I think she could be a troublemaker.’

‘You could be right.’

We devoured a bit more bacon in silence before Lyndon took a huge breath and divulged, ‘I was married.’

My response was a noncommittal ‘Right.’  Whilst I didn’t want to admit I knew, it was pointless conveying phony shock.  I was a big girl.  There was no shame in dating a divorcee.

I was also loath to yet disclose yet that I had a fuzzy suspicion about his faithless wife’s identity.  I pictured Sian sneaking out of their marital home for an illicit bounce on top of pudgy little Adrian.  I surmised that Sian Whyton (that was her maiden name, and I had never known her married surname) must be as daft as a brush.  Oh well, her loss.  I envisaged interesting discussions back at the office at any rate.

Lyndon continued in a staccato way, as though impatient to spit out all the uncomfortable details.  ‘She left me, though.  Went off with someone else.  We divorced two years ago.  I’m over it now.  We were incompatible.  In the end.  She hated walking, for one thing.  We were young.  I know that’s a feeble excuse, but we grew apart.  We had what they call nowadays a “starter marriage.”  Dreadful expression.  No kids, no baggage.  I’m not in touch with her.  I’m not proud of it, but there you go.  Pain is fuel for our journey, as they say.’

‘Do they?’

‘My best mate Pete’s a psychotherapist and counsellor.  Full of all these empowering maxims.  Easy to dismiss as baloney, but some of them have stayed with me.  One I remember is, “Once the wounds have healed we find that there’s more room in a broken heart, enough room to include everyone.”  Also, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”’

‘Very profound.  How long have you known Pete?’

‘Since school.  I’d love you to meet him.’

‘Hope I will one day.’

Another pause, during which more bacon was munched.

‘There’s been nobody since – I mean, you’re the first to – you know.’

‘Turn your head?’ I laughed.

‘Well precisely, yes.  I mean, look at you.  You’re gorgeous.’  And ziiing went the strings of my heart!  ‘Not that it’s all about looks.’  He was actually shaking.  I can’t imagine he’d ever been so personal at breakfast after four days of knowing a girl.  ‘You’re fun, clever, got a great attitude to life.’

‘Shut up,’ I hooted, though I’d have really quite liked him to go on, ‘you’ll make my head swell!  Now when’s our first official date to be?’

‘I’m free a week on Friday, if that suits you.  I’m leading a trek across Exmoor Tuesday to Friday, after which I’ve got a week off.’

‘Sounds good.  Have a think about where you want to take me.’

‘I will.’

The Salad Couple wafted in, towing the famous suitcase.  They each acknowledged us with a shy nod and settled at a table well away from us in the huge, empty dining room, wedging the case cosily between them.  I was surprised there wasn’t a place set for it.

‘I’ve had a gentle word with the Ellimans,’ Lyndon whispered, although the ear-splitting music made it unnecessary, ‘about the wisdom of lugging that bloomin’ case with them on every walk.  That was my duty, from a health and safety point of view.’

‘The Ellimans?  Oh, the Sal…I mean, Ted and Enid.’

‘Yes, sweet couple.  But now they’ve had my advice and acted against it, as adults it’s now for them to take responsibility for their own actions.’

‘Why bring the thing to breakfast, though?  I suppose they saw the police notice in reception and took it to heart.’

The room was starting to fill.  My private breakfast with Lyndon was reaching its end.  Hopefully it wouldn’t be the last we’d share.

Shane virtually jogged in, stringy and nimble.  I swear he was losing even more weight before our eyes.  Today’s T-shirt had Woody from Toy Story on.

‘Morning Shane.’  Lyndon shook his hand.  ‘Raring to go?’

‘Always am, mate.  And thanks for a cracking night.’

‘You’re welcome.’

‘Been ages since I had a good old boogie like that.’  He must have done his good old boogieing while Lyndon and I were not doing as much as we’d have liked out on that hill.  ‘Think there might be a few sore heads about this morning, though.’

‘No worries, I’ve got plenty of Alka Seltzer in the first aid pack.’

******

I drifted upstairs in a haze and dispatched a wobbly text to my best friend Kathryn.  The gist of our SMS discourse was:

‘Lyndon just asked me out!!’

‘Woo-eee!!  But does that mean Majorca’s off?’

‘Don’t be daft!  When have I ever ditched you for a boyfriend?’

As I brushed my teeth in front of the tiny, misty mirror, I let it all wash over me.  Not the toothpastey foam, obviously – that would have been silly, and messily minty – the turn this week was taking.  I hadn’t expected to acquire a boyfriend on this expedition.  I certainly hadn’t gone in search.

I later waylaid Hazel before we headed downstairs for the off.  She greeted my news with girls-dorm excitement, but I also knew I could trust her to keep my confidence.

‘I’m the very soul of discretion,’ she winked at me as she raked a brush through her eternally matted hair.  She told me she felt bleary after a late night, during which she’d found herself doing the Cha Cha Slide (that’s a dance, by the way, not a euphemism) with Shane.  ‘I need to perk up a bit.  Not like you, though,’ she zipped the brush into her case, reached over and patted my cheek, ‘you’ve got a glow about you, kid.’

Actually I’d put extra blusher on, having taken the ‘I’ve got a man now, I need to impress’ approach to my make-up.  Even I knew it was daft, this delusion that a layer of lipstick and extra heavy rouge might elevate me in the estimation of a guy who seemed to find me attractive after three days of seeing me in clammy waterproofs.

Doing the feminine, sexy thing does not come very naturally to me, to tell the truth.  I grew up in walking boots and wellies, being taken to rugby matches by Dad and my brothers.

******

We flocked in reception as was now customary.

Martin, whose face was the colour of guacamole, was shakily gulping an Alka Seltzer Lyndon had given him.  I mouthed at him, ‘You OK?’ and he smiled thinly, with a half nod.

Polly, looking utterly bored and detached from her delicate boyfriend, threw me a hard look.  I returned it with a confident smile; I had better things to do than indulge her in her childish ‘let’s look daggers at each other’ game.  Her fleece was zipped down sufficiently to reveal a black basque.  A basque!  On a walk!

‘Right folks,’ Lyndon summoned.  ‘Another day, another Matthew.’  He clapped his large hands; rubbed them together as if in absolute relish of the day that lay ahead.  There was a jauntiness about him; a noticeable new confidence, of which I hoped I wasn’t being arrogant to assume I was the cause.

‘Got eleven miles to cover today, plus of course the Third Matthew at Hisley.  Always a pleasurable stretch, this one.  Countryside round here’s very open, also some exquisite villages.  Chillington, that’s the next one along, has won more Best Kept Village awards than Robbie Williams has won Brits.  Some gorgeous timbered old houses there.  And one or two more celebrity residents, for those who like to take an interest in such things.

‘Later we zip under the M6 at Whistridge – feels like a bit of an intrusion to have that suddenly zooming above you, you’ll see what I mean – then we stop for a bite of lunch at the Earl Matthew pub.  You can’t book, but hopefully we shouldn’t have to wait for a table.  Then we go through Brocks Cross and on to Hisley, where we see the ruins of Hednesborough Hall, which of course was the original Theodoric ancestral home.

‘The Third Matthew is the second lowest, at 297 metres – 974 feet.  We’re staying at the Grange tonight.  Or the Orange, as it’s sometimes known.  You’ll find out why when we get there.  Alexandra’s a real character, who runs it.  Always welcomes me back like a long-lost nephew.’

Lyndon flashed me a fleeting grin.  I could feel Hazel smirking alongside me.  We were like a pair of school friends sharing a back row secret.

******

So the Bozzie had proven a mixed experience.  We departed Grey Bun and the flock wallpaper without a second glance.  Whilst I didn’t exactly rush to pick up one of their brochures, I would always remember this short-staffed fossil of a hotel as the scene of where things started between Lyndon and me.  Perhaps I would be back one day with my own band of hearty hikers – unless BFF received enough unfavourable surveys in the meantime to remove their accreditation.

We had a cloudy but dry start to the day, the sky filthy with looming rain.  An undercurrent similarly bubbled beneath the surface between Lyndon and me.  If we caught each other’s eye we’d exchange a smile, but – sorry to disappoint you – there was nothing lingering or yucky at this stage.  He was neither suspiciously attentive nor aloof with me.  I was the recipient of no more or less attention than the others.  Only Polly appeared watchful of us, glowering as she tromped ahead of poor, green Martin.

Chillington was a true biscuit tin scene: pretty cottages and quaint timbered shops bunched around an ancient market place.  A gleaming sign close to the bus stop proudly listed Chillington’s numerous Best Kept Village victories.  There was a tiny school too, whose pupils I pictured as wearing pinafores and bonnets as they played with hoops and sticks.

‘Doe look real, does it?’ Shane marvelled, zapping away with his camera.

‘I know,’ Lyndon said, ‘it’s like a film set, isn’t it?  Those shop fronts could almost be facades, with actors coming in and out of them.’

One of those frontages belonged to Maggie’s, a homely sandwich shop just opening for a day’s business.  A cosy, curly, joined-up font spelt out the name ‘Maggie’s.’  Everything about the place spoke of doilies and warmth and welcome and bowls of grated cheese and homemade sausage rolls in paper bags.  A tray of oozy cream cakes was being set out lovingly in the window.  I’d have been extremely tempted had my breakfast not been so recent.

‘Lord Lump Hammer lives in this village,’ Lyndon informed us.  ‘The wrestler.  Anyone remember him from the 1980s?’

‘Oh ah,’ Shane’s face lit up with reminiscence, ‘I used to go round me nan’s on a Saturday afternoon and she had World of Sport on.  Me and ’er used to cheer Lord Lump ’Ommer on against Giant Haystacks.  He was known as the Gornal Grappler, worn’t he?’

‘That’s right, Shane.  His real name’s Walter Goody.  No wonder he developed a fighting streak!  These days he’s a leading light on the parish council, by all accounts. Wouldn’t dare vote against him on any planning applications, would you?’

Two things splatted on to Chillington’s unblemished streets then.  Firstly the rain, which prompted a scramble to pull hoods up and put backpack covers on.  Not a brolly in sight, though (there’s a kind of ‘umbrellas are for wimps’ logic among walkers).  The rain was followed, seconds later, by the contents of Martin’s stomach.  Whilst he had the foresight to puke over a drain, it still wasn’t exactly pretty.

‘I don’t think I can carry on, Lyndon,’ he whimpered, clasping his tender stomach.  ‘I think I’ll have to go to the hotel.  I’m so, so sorry.’

I could see in Lyndon’s face he was torn between duty to this man under his supervision, and a lack of pity because his queasiness was self-inflicted.

‘The walk would be the best tonic for you really, mate.  Fresh air, exercise.’  He produced a packet of glucose tablets from his backpack and proffered it to Martin.  ‘Here, this might give you a boost.  And drink plenty of water.’

Martin obediently took a tablet, and a shaky gulp from his water bottle.  ‘I really think I’d best be getting back to bed.  Wouldn’t be fair of me to hold everybody else back and inflict the sight of this,’ he pointed floppily at the remaining flecks of vom which the rain was thankfully swilling down the drain, ‘on the rest of you.  I’m sorry.’

‘Oh well, if you really don’t feel up to continuing I’ll get Clive to pick you up in the minibus.  He’ll be on his way to the Boscobel now to fetch the cases.  If I catch him now he can do a quick detour here on his way to the Grange at Hisley.’

‘Thanks Lyndon.’

Lyndon snapped open his mobile.  He looked so authoritative and sexy on the phone to Clive the minibus driver, taking calm command of the situation.  Clive was ten minutes away, he established.

Martin looked piteously at his partner, who was slouching with her arms folded, pouting in embarrassment and without much apparent sympathy.  ‘You going to come with me, Polls?  Or carry on with the others?  I really don’t mind.  Don’t want to muck up your day, sweetheart.’  I saw Hazel, who was standing behind them, roll her eyes at the pair of them.

I could tell the prospect of a day in Lyndon’s company free from moping Martin was tempting Polly.  My eyes zapped her with imaginary laser beams, willing her to say she would go with Martin.

As if on cue, a raindrop walloped Polly’s pristinely made-up face.  She smarted with hilarious disgust, as though she’d never felt rain before.  The initial dribble was starting to escalate to a manic downpour, and I was quite sure she would not wish her hair and war paint to be messed up.

‘I’ll come with you, Mart,’ she assented, instantly amenable, ‘as it’s such a horrible day.  Do my Florence Nightingale bit.’  She smiled at Lyndon, all dimples and charm and noble self-sacrifice.

‘Are you sure, darling?’  Martin sounded about three.

Polly stroked his arm.  ‘If you’ve got to be in bed for the rest of the day, my place is there beside you.’

Hazel’s facial expression was a hoot.  She looked more than a little inclined to spew herself.

Clive, true to his word, was weaving the blue and orange, ‘Best Foot Forward’-emblazoned minibus up Chillington high street within ten minutes.  It was the first time we’d seen him.  He was little and gruff, had a moustache that could have doubled as a Brillo Pad, and conversed in grunts as he helped the patient and his nympho nurse on with their rucksacks.

Lyndon fished a postcard-sized list of telephone numbers from his bottomless backpack and handed it to Martin.  ‘Here’s a few local doctors’ numbers.  Give one of them a call if you feel no better later on.  You ought to get some food inside you really, mate.  Get Alexandra to knock you up some sarnies.  I don’t recommend a hair of the dog, though.  Take care.’

******

You encounter some bizarre sights on walks.  Today was a day for such a spectacle.

The rain was blinding for a good couple of hours.  We generally kept our heads down and slogged unseeingly between Chillington and the hamlet of Whistridge.  But none of us was quite so unseeing when a woman – we were pretty certain it was a woman, due to the presence of knickers – passed us, heading in the opposite direction.

She appeared to materialise out of a cloud.  And yes, I did just refer to her knickers – the reason they were visible being that, in the midst of this downpour, she was wearing no trousers!  Her top half was cocooned in a cagoule, her feet in heavyweight boots and several socks; in between, bare legs the colour of lard protruded from the said black knickers.  I saw no sign of a rucksack into which any discarded trousers might have been stowed.  It somehow amused me that she had an umbrella up.

Naturally we exchanged polite hellos with our half-naked hiker as though all were normal, but it was one of those ‘Did I really just see that?’ moments.  Our gang were single file along a very narrow path, which made it difficult for us to exchange incredulous glances.  That seemed to add to the unreality of it all.
Everyone seemed quietly stunned – until Shane declared, ‘That wench had no strides on,’ and we all fell about, sharing our observations on the lady’s eccentric attire.

‘Wonder if she was doing it for a bet?’

‘I was half wondering if I’d imagined it!’

‘It was surreal, the way she seemed to just appear like that.’

‘Perhaps she’s a naturist?’

‘Why did she have her anorak on then – is it her day off?  Perhaps she’s a novice and hasn’t dared to bare everything yet!’

The chat kept us jaunty the rest of the way to the pub, by which time the rain had petered out.  Ominously, Lyndon had been intermittently ringing the Earl Matthew on his mobile, just to check ahead that they were still open for lunch, and getting no answer.  I hoped they were simply busy (though not so busy, of course, that we’d have to wait hours for service).  I was looking forward to drying out in a lounge bar.

At Whistridge, the M6 motorway whooshed above us.  As Lyndon said, its frenzied traffic did intrude somewhat upon the country quietude.

The Earl Matthew pub was just off the junction.  Calamitously, it was closed.  Near derelict in fact: boarded up, with, bizarrely, only the presence of a budgie in an upstairs window implying life inside (unless this bird had ceased, like its distant Monty Python cousin, to be and was in fact nailed to its perch).

‘Oh great,’ Lyndon sighed.  ‘No wonder they weren’t picking up the phone.  I was only here a fortnight ago.  They must have gone bust.’

A ravenous rumble tore through my tummy.

‘Where to now, Lyndon?’  This was Hazel, who stood surveying the surrounding fields with the air of someone who would have happily rubbed two sticks together and fashioned a lunch for the entire group had he suggested such a thing.  Something about her gung ho attitude made me feel pathetic and ashamed of my hunger pangs.

‘There’s a little convenience store up that road, Hazel.  They do sandwiches and things.  It’s not exactly on our route, but not too far out the way.  Only about ten minutes.  There’s a picnic site nearby so we can sit down to eat.  It’ll be a bit damp, of course, but at least it’s stopped raining now.’

‘I’ve got a few Midget Gems left, to be going on with.’  We each gratefully accepted a handful of Hazel’s mini fruity sweets.

‘Is that bird real?’ Shane pointed at the immobile budgerigar in the pub window.

Lyndon laughed, giving some animation to his taut but lovely face.  ‘Don’t think so, Shane.  It’s been there a while and I’ve never seen it do any flapping.  I’m really sorry about all this, everyone.’

There were general ‘It’s all right, not your fault’ murmurs.

We fell into pairs as we headed along the lane into the village.  ‘This isn’t turning out to be the most successful of days,’ Lyndon said in me in a low tone.  I liked this cosy sense of confidence between us.  ‘I feel really embarrassed when things like this happen.’

‘Well this is hardly your fault.  And as for Martin, he’s an adult.  He ought to have known when he’d reached his limit last night.’

If a participant says they’re too ill to continue, I can’t exactly force them to against their will.  I hate it when folks drink themselves silly, though, when they know they have to be up early to do a long walk.’

‘I warned him about that when I saw him at the bar just before we…er, ah…went out.  I bought him some water but the poor fool must have already had a skinful by that point.’

‘You did the right thing, Naomi, and it’s not easy to feel a fat lot of sympathy for someone whose sickness is self-inflicted.’  Lyndon shook his head, as if in total incomprehension of how somebody could possibly waste an opportunity to walk in this idyllic countryside by getting so smashed they could barely see.

‘I suppose we ought to ring the Grange, though, see how he’s doing.’

‘Yes, I will when we finally sit down for lunch.’

Wise Price was about a quarter of a mile along the lane.  They stocked a few sorry sandwiches, sausage rolls and the like.  We bulked up the measly meal with crisps and yogurts.  Ted and Enid looked pleased enough with the two remaining tubs of egg mayonnaise salad they bagged.

An off-putting whiff of milk, sweat and floor cleaner pervaded the tiny shop.  I tried to pretend I was in Maggie’s, breathing in warm, fresh dough.  Ever succeeded in convincing yourself you smell something that isn’t there?  No, me neither.

‘These are on me,’ Lyndon flipped out his credit card at the counter, ‘as I feel so bad about the pub situation.’

The picnic site – though such a title glorified it – was virtually opposite Wise Price, in a salubrious location adjacent to the bus stop.  It consisted of a solitary, sodden picnic table and a rubbish bin which was contemptibly underused, as a heap of crisp packets, cans and even sanitary towels (I mean, what is wrong with people?) was festering on the grass, in defiance of the nearby sign warning of fines for litter dropping.

‘This sort of thing makes me sick,’ I seethed, grabbing a fetid handful and depositing it in the bin.  We all turned into Wombles then: gathering and disposing of the rubbish.  If there’s one thing I despise, it’s litter.  I am unapologetically moral on the subject.  Litter and dog poo.

‘Bit of a busman’s holiday for me, this, bab,’ said Shane cheerily.

I discarded my yucky gloves, in order to eat my limp lunch, and consigned them to a freezer bag in my rucksack.  I like to keep a stock of extra gloves for inclement days.

‘I wish we’d stopped off at Maggie’s this morning,’ I commented, chewing my cardboard prawn sandwich and thinking wistfully of the fresh rolls and voluptuous cream cakes in that window.

‘Mmm.’  Lyndon dubiously peeled back the corner of something doing an impression of cheese and tomato on wholemeal.  ‘Think I’m going to suggest that as a tuck stop next time, now the Earl Matthew’s gone.  Unless another pub opens in its place in the meantime.’

After eating he smeared hand sanitiser on, in lieu of water and soap.  ‘Want some?’

‘Please.’  I had my own bottle at the bottom my bag, but liked the idea of smelling of him.  Pathetic, eh?  The cool gel he squeezed into my palm had a lovely light odour of cucumber and melon.  I massaged it into my hands, enjoying the cleansing sensation.My train of thought took me to Martin whose family business, he had told me last night, were purveyors of such products.  I wondered how he was doing.

As if reading my mind, Lyndon started to flick through his mobile for the Grange Hotel’s number.  ‘Hi Polly,’ he said after holding for a few minutes.  I instinctively bristled.  ‘Just checking how the patient is.  Oh, he’s asleep?  I won’t disturb you any longer in that case.’

I couldn’t discern everything she said, but did hear an eager ‘Oh, you’re not, don’t worry.’  I imagined her all breathy and anxious to keep him on the phone.

Lyndon was brisk with her, though.  ‘So long as he’s resting then and hasn’t been sick again.  Take care.  Cheerio.’

******

Today’s stretch of the trek possessed a more rural, remote quality, which I’d found myself craving yesterday in suburban Bhylcroft.  I adore the sense of ‘getting away from it all.’  We passed through hamlets where houses were extremely old and so scarce they were name-checked as landmarks on Lyndon’s map.

The rain seemed to add to the feral feel of it all.  It was no longer torrential, though we were dealt a good spit at frequent intervals throughout the afternoon.  Plodding along in wet conditions brings a heavy, sloggy feeling, but also an odd sense of self-righteousness and, as I said on the first day, eager anticipation of a hot shower, dry clothes and a hot drink at the end of it.  Thoughts of shower gel and hot chocolate spur me on, and help to ‘make’ the whole experience for me.

We found the quaggy footpath through Brocks Cross home to a surprising feature: Niro Recording Studios.  The studio is not visible from the track, but a ramshackle sign on a farm gate declares its presence.

‘That’s Nigel Munro’s place,’ Lyndon advised us, ‘hence the name.’

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Prog rocker.  Bit before your time.  And mine, I suppose.  My dad was a fan, though.  He made one of those heavy concept albums that were the thing in the 70s, called Rhombus, which was huge for a couple of years, then he apparently grew disillusioned with the music business – as these artistes often do – and retired to a reclusive life in the country.’

‘This whole area seems to be teeming with celebrities.  At least there’s nobody to moan about the noise out here.’

Most of the neighbours appeared to be canine in any event.  They scampered, yapping, from the nearby farmhouse to greet us: five Yorkshire terriers and a Jack Russell.  Hairy, scratchy mops with yappy barks that could strip a waxed jacket.  I am not a dog person, though this spry pack was friendly enough.

‘Terribly sorry,’ barked a woman in a dirty green sweater and a tweed skirt who emerged from the farmhouse, ‘are they pestering you?’  She had long, wild curly hair, and issued a gabbled command that was unintelligible to most of us but clearly made sense to the dogs as they obediently scampered back to her.

‘Ken was a Nigel Munro fan,’ Hazel said, swiping dog hairs off her trousers.

‘Ken the Druid?’   I still thought Ken sounded as unlikely a name for a Druid as Nigel Munro did for a rock star.

‘The very same.  I took enormous delight in donating his limited edition copy of Rhombus to the Bat Protection League jumble sale.  Someone paid twenty pence for it.  Think they were robbed, personally.’

We had reached the outskirts of Cannock Chase now, a huge, historic forest not actually on the Matthew route though a significant area locally.

When I was a kid my family took a few Saturday drives there with the bikes strapped to the roof rack, and I vaguely recalled seeing the ruins of Hednesborough Hall, pronounced ‘Hensbrough,’ though admittedly at that age taking typical juvenile lack of interest in a crumbled ancestral pile.  In fact, even in its status as preserved debris, it is really rather magnificent, with its portico and dramatic arches.

‘Hednesborough dates back to the eleventh century.  As you know, it was the original seat of the Theodoric family, until it started falling into disrepair and Sir Edward had Manderwood Manor built in the 1600s.  It’s limestone in construction.’

‘Limestone was mined in Dudley,’ Shane was proud to chime in with a factoid about his hometown.

‘Quite right.’  Shane glowed, like a little boy who had just got the right answer in class.  ‘The limestone used here would have most likely originated in the Peak District.  You’ll see sections of the originals staircases and walls have been preserved,’ Lyndon made a flowing motion with his hands, ‘and the lines of stones along the ground were added in the early twentieth century to mark out the outlines of the rooms.’

‘It’s incredible to think how old it is,’ I commented as we photographed it from every perspective.  ‘I wouldn’t mind reading up on the history of it.’  I had a sudden silly image of the preening Earl in there, posing for his four statues.

‘For many years now,’ Lyndon went on, ‘this has been a popular backdrop for wedding photos.  Many couples venture out here because it’s a bit more picturesque than the local registry office.’

Hazel nodded archly at me, as though to emphasis the potential usefulness of that information.  I returned her look with blank innocence; I was hardly at the stage of planning weddings yet.

******

The Third Matthew, at 297 metres or 974 feet, is the second lowest but has the most abrupt gradient.  It meant a real heart-busting-out-of-the-chest climb, followed by mincing steps and slithers downhill the other side.

‘Yes, be very careful,’ Lyndon cautioned as I promptly went skidding and he steadied me with his hand, ‘it’s a tad wet.’

Our identically-scented cucumbery/melony hands were in contact for longer than was strictly necessarily, but I was not about to complain.

It was so steep, Ted and Enid had actually relinquished grip of their treasured suitcase and accepted Shane’s offer to carry it to the bottom.  I descended in an almost squatting stance, maintaining better balance the closer I was to the ground.

The final hour of today’s eleven-mile course felt fairly gruelling as we trudged in the damp.  Each time we scaled a slope, or rounded a corner, I felt sure we must be nearly there – then spotted ‘there’ a disheartening two miles, mile and a half, one mile, in the distance.

At last the hotel was no longer a mirage.  The Grange had a very attractive, olde worlde look, though Lyndon informed us this yellowish timber structure was actually built in the 1950s.

‘The idea was to replicate a medieval coaching inn that had once stood here, with the beams and all.  So it’s artfully distressed rather than a genuine relic.  I think you’ll find it homely, though.  And now you see why it’s known as the Orange.’  He indicated the chipped swinging sign, with the name painted black in someone’s idea of ‘Gothic’ calligraphy, with the first G so tightly curlicued as to resemble an O.

We were welcomed to the ‘Orange’ by the famous Alexandra, a wispy Scottish lady who virtually enveloped us all into the pockets of her voluminous woolly pink cardigan.  She bore a slight resemblance to Hazel, with her cloudy black hair and spidery eyelashes, and she wore glasses on a gold chain, Larry Grayson style.

‘Lyndon, welcome, welcome.’  She patted his face like a concerned aunty.  ‘You’re getting thinner, my boy.’  In the same movement she was pumping our hands vigorously and introducing herself to us all with the air of someone who intended to take care of us, whether we liked it or not.  ‘Alexandra McClowie, delighted to meet you.  Let me fetch your cases, we’ll get you settled in the warm.  Don’t know if your friend who’d had a drop too many will be joining us for dinner.  I took him and his lady friend some sandwiches up earlier.  They haven’t surfaced, so far as I’m aware.’

Alexandra bustled us into the tiny lobby.  She provided us with plastic boot protectors, a cross between miniature bin liners and slippers, which was a sweet touch.  They were eye-watering pink.

‘Suits you,’ I said to Lyndon as we padded in with those cutesy covers pulled over our muddy soles.

A laminated sign on the mahogany reception desk proclaimed ‘Tai chi…tonight!’ in pastel blue italics.  Alexandra tapped the sign with her cerise nails.  ‘I do hope you’ll be joining me for a spot of this tonight.  An introduction to the ancient Chinese martial art.  Don’t worry, though, there’ll be no karate chopping involved.  Nine o’clock in the garden room.’

‘You’re a practitioner of tai chi, aren’t you?’ I asked Hazel.

‘Used to be, when I was with Ken the Druid.  Bearing in mind what happened later, the karate chops might have come in handier!’

******

I was giving my saturated socks a swill in the sink (oh, the glamour!) when two unmistakable voices filtered through my door.  Lyndon and Posturing Polly.

‘I’m bored stiff,’ I heard Polly simper, laying risqué emphasis on the stiff, ‘after a day tending to Vomiting Vic in there.’

‘He’s all right now, though?’

‘Oh yes, I’ve well and truly nursed him back to health.  How about you – have you had a good day?  You’re all very wet’ – there she went again – ‘I’m sure.’

I couldn’t just passively eavesdrop.  As had happened last night, when Martin expounded his theory about Lyndon being irresistibly attracted to Polly, this jealous impetus to go out there and fight for him powered through me.  I had to rescue him, using any conceivable pretext.  Whether or not he would want to be rescued would prove a useful test.

Almost unconsciously, I dabbed my hands on a towel and propelled myself to the door.  I dipped my head outside, into what appeared to be a scene from a Carry On film.

Polly, the second woman I’d seen that day without trousers, was lolling in the doorway of her and Martin’s room, which was directly opposite mine.  She wore a black negligee which exposed, among many other things, a tattoo at the top of her left thigh depicting a rose entwined in barbed wire.  Her baby blonde hair was suggestively unkempt, and she once again resembled a comedy bored housewife, about to seduce the milkman on her doorstep.

Behind her I could see a bulge in the bed made by feet, which I hoped belonged to Martin, and the porn channel was ostentatiously shrieking and grunting out from their TV.  At that moment Shane scuttled past along the corridor, blushing garishly and trying not to look at anything.

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ I beamed sweetly at Polly, who had become instantly glacial, ‘but Lyndon, I’ve got that…er, ah…map you wanted to have a look at.’

A map!  You’re competing with black lace and blue movies here, you dismal cow, and the best enticement you can come up with is a bloody Ordnance Survey map!

It worked, though.

Lyndon actually smiled, said ‘Thanks Naomi.  See you later Polly,’ and started following me back into my room.  One to me!  Polly looked livid.

‘How’s Martin?’ I enquired through my closing door.

‘Asleep,’ she snapped as she stormed back to Debbie Does Dudley, or whatever it was she was watching.

‘Bet she’s never been turned down for a map before,’ I whispered to Lyndon, swiftly pulling the en suite door to, to conceal my forgotten socks bobbing in the sink.

‘I was just walking past and she came out of her room like that.  Thank you so much for saving me.  I saw a lot more than I wanted to there, believe me.’

‘I’ll make you forget all about her.’  He looked so gorgeous and bashful and irresistible.  I pressed against him.  I had just spent my first day as Lyndon’s clandestine girlfriend, and was now ravenous for a kiss.

‘I already have, believe me.’  His arms were around me.  It was even better than last night.  Less public, quite obviously, and far bolder; more – if this isn’t too much information – exploratory.  ‘Hang on,’ he admonished, mock prudishly, ‘I thought we came in here to look at maps.’  I thumped his arm in response.  He really did pull back after a few more heated minutes.  ‘Seriously, though, we really ought to be careful.’

‘Sod bloody careful!’  For crying out loud.  I was sympathetic to his professional standpoint, but at the same time we were both single adults, neither legally nor morally outlawed from engaging in a relationship.  It was all proving a bit stop-starty thus far.

A thud at the door put a frustrating full stop on things.  I sighed, hoping it wasn’t Polly, back for a revenge match.  In fact, of all people, Ted Elliman/Salad stood there, timidly clutching a hardback.  This was all getting bizarre.  The man hadn’t uttered two words to anyone all week; typically, he chose to approach me at a time I did not desire interruption.  (That said, though, I have always found it physically impossible to ignore door knocks.  I’m the same with ringing telephones.  There’s always that possibility the knock/call could be heralding an emergency.)

‘Thought you might be interested in this.’  He proffered the book.  It was a history of Hednesborough Hall, its cover depicting a painting of the ancient hall in its original structural glory.  ‘I heard you say you wanted to read about it.’

Lyndon seemed unflatteringly glad of the excuse to leave.  He winked at me on his way out and said, ‘Thanks for showing me the map, Naomi.’  That bloody map!   Ted, who obviously wasn’t daft, did not appear surprised by Lyndon’s presence in my room.

‘Thank you very much, Ted,’ I said, ‘I’ll make sure you get this back by Sunday.’

‘No, keep it.  We’ve got a spare one.’

‘Are you sure?  I’ll give you some money for it.’

‘No, no,’ he insisted.

I kissed him on the cheek.  ‘I’ll buy you both a drink later then.  Thank you.  And thank Enid for me too.’

He was so sweet.  He’d listened and taken notice of a throwaway remark of mine; I felt really guilty that all I’d gleaned about him and his wife was their fondness for salad and unconventional taste in baggage.  Talking of which, fair play to them for managing to walk with this cumbersome book in their case all week.

‘I’d best be getting back,’ he murmured, ‘Enid’s making us a cup of tea and Deal or No Deal’s about to start.’

‘All right then.  Thank you again, Ted.’

I found myself hoping there was nobody watching and monitoring the fact that I hadn’t been in this room twenty minutes and already two men had visited it.

******

‘One of your lot tried to come on to my boyfriend earlier,’ a fellow guest informed me in the bar as I bought pre-dinner drinks for Hazel and me.

It didn’t take much guessing which one of ‘our lot’ was being referred to.  At least, though, this time Polly’s prey would have been impervious to her allure – since the unfortunate man’s partner who was now confiding in me sported a goatee and was called Stewart.

‘Really?’

‘Mmm, he was coming out the bathroom and she pounced on him in a nightie, with what Gok Wan would have called her “bangers” hanging out.  Gave Jason a few novel suggestions on where to stick his loofah.  Never seen anything like it.  I mean, we really hadn’t!  Her jaw dropped when I emerged out of there behind him, I can tell you!’

‘I can imagine.’  I could, and it gave me one of the best laughs of the week.

The barman approached.  ‘Yes please?’

‘Two glasses of house red, please.’

Jason, a chisel-jawed six-footer with a pierced eyebrow and a Lady Gaga T-shirt, was sitting with Hazel, presumably also sharing the loofah tale.

‘Anyway, love,’ Stewart nudged me matily, ‘this your first Matthews experience?’

‘Yes.  How about you?’

‘No, second time for us.  Jase and I did it south to north a couple of years ago.  Going the other way round this time.’

‘You staying at the Boscobel tomorrow then?’  Friday was the night Rod gave his Trannii Minogue drag performance.  Is it bad of me that I immediately assumed that would appeal to these two?

‘No, we actually camp – no sniggering, please! – most of the way, but Alex’s is the one hotel we can’t not stay at.  We just love her.’

‘Yes, she seems a bit of a character.’

‘She and Hope are fabulous.’

‘Hope?’

‘Her daughter.  She waitresses here.’  Stewart lowered his voice to a gossipy whisper.  ‘There’s no daddy.  Never has been, by all accounts.  His whereabouts are the one thing you don’t ask about.’  He reverted to a normal tone.  ‘You never know what fad Alex is going to be into next.  I see this time it’s tai chi.  Two years ago she was yoga mad.’

‘Does she actually take the class?’  I was slightly anxious about being contorted into tantric postures by an unqualified instructor.  For some reason, I pictured her in a cerise leotard.  It was quite an alarming vision.

‘No, she’ll get one of her mates in from a local group.’

‘Oh good.  You picked the right day to not be in a tent anyway, bearing in mind how wet it’s been.  Oh, and don’t try and stop for lunch at the Earl Matthew tomorrow.’  I explained about our lunchtime Wise Price detour.

‘Yes, I heard they went bust only yesterday.  No need for pubs anyway.  Alex puts together a fabulous packed lunch.  Let me tell you, the food here is lush!’  He formed an ‘A-OK’ circle with his thumb and forefinger.  ‘All home cooking.’

‘That’s good to know after the reheated delights of the Boscobel.’

‘Everything’s fresher than fresh here.  Alex keeps chickens out the back, you know.’

Lyndon walked in at that moment, with Shane, closely followed by Ted and Enid.  There was a definite nonplussed look in Lyndon’s eyes.  I experienced a moment of empowerment; a feeling that if he was jealous seeing me at the bar in the company of a gorgeous, gregarious man – gay or not – that was his problem.

******

My new friend Stewart was right: the Grange gastronomy was indeed ‘lush.’  I revelled in the smoky creaminess of my peppered mackerel risotto, followed by the positively hedonistic chocolate and Grand Marnier sundae.  The food and wonderful wine in the rustic dining room combined to produce a sensation akin to the warmest hug in the world.

Alexandra McClowie would waft sporadically through in her apron, ‘to make sure Hope’s taking care of ye all.’  She was so dainty, she gave the impression of being lighter than the air itself.  I half expected her to start flying and scattering fairy dust.

Hope did indeed take care of us well.  She was an extremely pretty girl, with knee-length chestnut hair convoluted into a French braid (at school I always used to envy the girls who had mega long hair).  She possessed the same gentle, ethereal air as her mother and was an almost invisibly unobtrusive waitress, barely speaking in fact other than to take our orders.

After dinner Alex herself reappeared to take our roll orders for tomorrow’s packed lunches.  Lyndon and I both opted for Rosterbury Blue cheese and red onion (there we went again – on the same wavelength), Hazel breaded ham and lettuce, Shane tuna (‘loadsa protein, bab’) and the Ellimans the customary salad.

Polly and Martin did not surface all evening.  They’d ordered room service, by all accounts.

‘They’re probably eating it off each other,’ Hazel commented.  It was an image I could have done without.

I’d bought drinks for Ted and Enid – they declined anything stronger than elderflower cordial – and had a stab at conversation with them over dinner.  It was a challenge.  They were like one person, speaking monosyllabically in virtual unison, glancing at each other after each question, as though for permission to answer.

‘Thank you so much for the book.  It’s very kind of you.’

‘’S’allright.’

‘So how long have you two been walking enthusiasts?’

‘About fifty years.’

Fifty?  Wow, no wonder you’re both so fit.’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s incredible.  Do you have a favourite route that you’ve done?’

‘No, not really.’

‘Whereabouts do you live?’

‘Chester.’

‘Lovely city.  Some beautiful buildings there.’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you have children?’

‘No.’

Sweet as they were, the Ellimans were clearly natural introverts, and my attempts at probing chat started to feel intrusive.

******

Rather surprisingly, though, they partook in the tai chi class.  After changing into baggier attire, we – Lyndon, Hazel, Shane, Ted, Enid, Stewart, Jason and myself – gathered in the tiny ‘garden room.’  Ted and Enid wore coordinating sweaters.

‘You getting it together with that handsome guy then?’  Stewart whispered to me, nodding gleefully towards Lyndon, who was across the room, again being talked at by Shane about body mass and exercise.  In response to my look of bafflement, Stewart remonstrated, ‘Oh come on!  Stevie Wonder would have noticed the way you were looking at him all the way through dinner.  What’s going on there then?’

I discreetly apprised him of the current Lyndon ‘situation,’ such as it was.
Stewart lapped up the gossip.  ‘Don’t stand for any of that “we need to be discreet” shit, girl!’  He flicked my arm with his elegant long fingers in mock admonishment.  ‘Life’s too short.  Bag him while you can.  Your friend in the bathroom wouldn’t be wavery about it, I tell you!’

He was right.

Alexandra and Hope glided in at that point, accompanied by an extremely slender man with tightly frizzed black hair and even tighter tracksuit bottoms.  The dainty mother and daughter team were dressed in matching red fleeces with black leggings (no pink leotards in sight, thankfully).

Alex clapped her hands in childlike elation when she saw us all.  ‘Delighted so many of you are joining in.  My dears, this is my friend Isaac.  Hope, pop that on the table there will you, lovie.’

‘That’ was Isaac’s iPod.  Hope, who I was convinced would have obeyed without complaint had her mother instructed her to stand on her head and whistle the National Anthem backwards, was carrying it in.  She switched it on, and soft Chinese percussion music suffused the little room.

‘OK, people,’ Isaac summoned us in his gentle voice as he started stretching and swaying at the front.  ‘Anyone done tai chi before?’  Hazel and, again slightly surprisingly, Ted and Enid replied in the affirmative.

A rhythm of headboard thuds and orgasmic screams filtered down from Polly and Martin’s room, which I realised was directly above this one.  Good to hear Martin was feeling better.  Without missing a beat, Isaac tactfully twirled the iPod volume dial so that we were practically deafened by the supposedly ambient music.

‘As you may or may not know,’ he strained to be heard, ‘tai chi is an ancient Chinese internal martial art.  By “internal” I mean the focus is on circulation and inner chi, or energy, as opposed to “external” force and physical strength.  There are cynics out there – hopefully none in here – who consider all this mystical mumbo jumbo.  In fact the proven health benefits are numerous, in respect of stress relief, improvement of circulation, balance, posture, internal energy, the respiratory system, I could go on.  I’m sure for many of you, your concept of tai chi probably involves groups of people in the early morning making flowing hand movements in Central Park or in Hong Kong.  You wouldn’t be wrong, but there is such a lot more to it than that.

‘I’m sixty-one,’ he said with a proud smirk which was quite justified as he could easily have passed for twenty years younger, ‘I’ve been practising tai chi for twenty-three years now and I’m still mastering new nuances and tips.  It is not a quick fix cure for your aches and pains, nor is it a crash course in self-defence.  It is an art that can take a lifetime to practise and perfect.  Tonight will give you a mere taster.  If you’re interested in pursuing this as a hobby, Google to find a class near you.’

He demonstrated a passion almost on a par with that which we were hearing from upstairs.

‘Now in tai chi your stance is very important.’  Isaac adopted a bow-legged posture, with his arms relaxed at his sides and his curly head erect.  The effect was not unlike a turkey in a toupee.  ‘Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, really sink into the floor, that’s it, pelvis slightly tucked under.’  We all complied.  ‘Lift your head up.  We use a lot of visualisation in tai chi, and the way we hold our head is sometimes described as “wearing the moon as a cap.”  Another visualisation tool is to imagine you’re being pulled upright by an invisible string.  For those of you new to this, it probably feels a bit peculiar holding your body in this way because you won’t be used to it.  It will soon start to feel perfectly natural.’  He was right.

‘We’ll start with a few warm-up moves, open up the body to an unobstructed flow of chi.  Twist your waist from side to side, letting your arms swing around.  Allow the motion of your body to propel your arms.  That’s it, just keep them nice and floppy.’  Advice I was pretty sure Polly was not giving to Martin right now.  ‘Don’t tense or lift them at all.  Let the motion of your body make them move of their own accord.’

We copied him, flapping about like windmills.  Isaac led us through about twenty minutes of warm-up exercises.  It was true what he said about some of the exercises involving standing in positions which probably looked extremely silly yet felt entirely comfortable.  At one point he got us balancing wobble-free on one leg while twirling the other ankle for several minutes.

‘Rub your hands together for about ten seconds,’ he bid us once we were sufficiently warmed and loosened up.  By now the thuds above had died down, so Isaac readjusted the music to a more serene level.  ‘Then hold your palms about an inch apart.  You should be able to feel the flow of energy between them.’

There was a definite force between my hands; as though something tangible and spongy was held here, like a ball of dough.  It was an electrifying and lovely feeling.  I felt so alive, yet in a different way to when I’m hiking over hills.  These exercises were neither aerobic nor gymnastic; in fact I had barely moved from my spot, but as Isaac said it was all about internal energy.  Mine was positively surging around my body.

Isaac took a gulp from his canister of water.  ‘Now I’m going to take you through a few rudimentary movements of what we call “the form.”  There are thirty-seven postures, or steps, altogether and it can take a year to learn them all in sequence.’  He took us through a few of the flowing postures, which had glorious names like ‘stroking the peacock’s tail,’ ‘white crane’ and ‘cloud hands.’

‘Another plus,’ he said, ‘looking at the relaxation aspect of tai chi, is these intricate steps require such intent concentration that all thoughts of everyday stresses are temporarily pushed out of your mind.’

Looking around, everyone was so focused as to be almost trancelike.  Ted and Enid, obviously old hands at this, moved in typical synch.  It was really rather beautiful.  I found myself hoping to have reached a level of such devoted, unquestioning unity with someone by the time I reached their age.  Preferably with the tousle-haired man currently standing alongside me, looking all sexy and intent.  Mmm.

‘Lean forward on your left leg,’ Isaac was instructing.  ‘Weight on your left leg.  The left.’  He was actually pointing at that particular limb now.

Whoops, I realised he was addressing me, dolly daydream with my right leg thrust to the front.  I swiftly swapped, murmuring ‘Sorry, Isaac.’  Hmm, what was that he was saying about concentration?

The hour just seemed to slip by.  Isaac finished with what I assumed was a ceremonial bow, with his feet together, right hand curled into a fist and pressed into his left palm.  We responded in kind.

I ended the class with a lovely sense of wellbeing.  Everybody else appeared to have derived similar enjoyment, judging by the way we all grouped around Isaac afterwards to shake hands and chat.  Isaac had brought a pile of business cards, which he doled out.  I took one, even if I couldn’t quite see myself venturing out here to learn tai chi.  I did plan seeking out a class closer to home, though.

There was a convivial atmosphere as we mingled and then started to disperse for bed.

Ted and Enid scuttled away before I had chance to attempt conversation about their tai chi expertise.

Isaac and his iPod soon departed into the night.  Alex and Hope saw him out, then took their leave so they could finish tidying up and prepare for the breakfast onslaught.  I was developing such admiration this week for hotel personnel.  Their work was never done.

‘Nighty night Naomi,’ Stewart winked at me and nodded meaningfully in the direction of Lyndon.  ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite.’  He draped an arm around Jason and they sauntered upstairs.

I hoped to engineer a spot of time alone with Lyndon, and was resolutely staying put while the others started to trickle away.

Hazel, reading my mind, was next to go up.

Shane proved a tad more immovable, of course, though I could hardly resent him for it.  This was as much his holiday as mine.  He was perfectly entitled to spout on about how ‘marvellous’ tai chi was and how he was ‘over the moon’ to have found a new hobby.  Eventually he declared that he was ‘gooin‘ upstairs’ and it was just us two left.

I gave him a ‘here we are then’ sort of shrug.  ‘Wanna come back to my place then?’  I twiddled my fingers into quotation marks to reassure him the hackneyed line was delivered with ironic intent.  Well, ironic-ish.

‘Shouldn’t really.’  Lyndon scratched the back of his neck nervously.  ‘Ted caught us earlier, didn’t he?  Wouldn’t really do for me to be seen – or heard – sneaking into your room after sundown.  I probably shouldn’t have been there at teatime really.’

Aaarrgghh!  ‘You and your scruples!  Anyway, you were only in there to look at a map, remember?  Come on up.’  I held out my hand, as though he’d really take it.  ‘If anybody asks, we’re doing a spot of map-reading by torchlight.’  What was I doing?  By my standards this was full-on Mata Hari behaviour.

He vacillated, pacing needlessly over to the window, as though he could see much out of it.  ‘We could always have a stroll outside.  Pretend I’m showing you where Alex keeps her chickens.’

I could have uttered any number of ripostes containing the word ‘cock,’ but I refrained.  ‘We’d be more conspicuous walking about outside, you wally.  If you don’t want us to be seen, we might as well just stay in here.’

‘S’pose you’re right.’

He looked all shy and smouldering standing by the little awning window, so different to the authoritative, calm Lyndon who led groups across hilly countryside by day.  I’m afraid I threw myself at him again.  ‘Oh sod it, I don’t want to be your little secret.’

I slid my arms around his back.  He felt solid and warm, though it was not the clammy warmth that comes from aerobic limbering (I can’t bear a clammy man) but the enveloping energy Isaac had promised we would all radiate.  Mmmm.

About two minutes later, the door squeaked open and Hope entered, now with a tabard over her fleece, Mr Sheen and dusters stuffed in the huge front pocket.  Protecting her wonderful hair was one of those pale blue headscarves I’d only ever seen women wear to do housework in American sitcoms.  Lyndon and I leapt apart like guilty adolescents.  Thwarted again!

‘Sorry, didn’t know anyone was still in here.’  Like hell, I couldn’t help thinking.  ‘I was just gonna put the lights out and shut the windows.’

‘No worries, Hope, we were just off up anyway.  Best call it a night, eh, Naomi?’

I wasn’t quite capable of speech.

‘Nighty night then, both.’

And yes, we did retreat to our separate rooms again, leaving Hope flopping her duster about and lugging windows to.  It wasn’t until the next day I discovered we’d been eavesdropped upon through one of them.

I have democratically…

…given myself this week off writing my novel.  Work has been manic this week (usual short-staffed summer season, covering other people’s work, not knowing whether I am coming or going in the office) and the last thing I have felt like doing upon my return home is being creative.

I know how easy it is to make excuses like ‘it’s too hot’ or ‘I’ve had a long day,’ but have to admit it has been a relief to take the pressure off my shoulders of late.

I really ought to knuckle back into it without too much delay, though.  I am enjoying The Four Matthews, and the urge to complete the manuscript is still there.  I read voraciously, and every novel or short story I read fires my enthusiasm to churn our words myself.

I love being creative.  Although some of my closest friends are accountants, I will never understand folks who find working with numbers exciting!  I love words.  I hate numbers.  At primary school, Friday mornings used to be given over to spelling and multiplication tests.  My marks would invariably be 20 out of 20 for spellings but something like 4 out of 20 for my times tables.