The Four Matthews by Leigh Mathers

At twenty-six, Naomi Ball has the world at her feet – literally.

She has just quit her job working for the boss from PR hell, and has high hopes of walking into a new career.  To that end, she is off on the historic 50-mile Four Matthews route.

The gorgeous Lyndon Hyde looks set to brighten up her holiday.  In him Naomi finds a kindred spirit, whose passion for walking and rural beauty she shares.

Join her on her life-changing week in the Shropshire and Staffordshire countryside, as she meets such engaging and eccentric characters as bat-loving Hazel Boden, garrulous Shane Craddock the Dieting Dustman from Dudley, the timid Salad Couple, Posturing Polly, the Reverend Ellery Crisp, Pat Codd, Alexandra McClowie, Trannii Minogue, Javier (AKA Colin) and Julian Crowfoot.

And find out whether Naomi and Lyndon are on the right path to love, or if for them there will prove too many insurmountable hills to climb.

Chapter 7

Sunday
Homeward Bound

The first time I stirred on Sunday was at 3:27, according to the blaring red display on the digital clock.

I had that initial disorientating sense of being in an unfamiliar room where everything was arranged the wrong way around – which was daft in a way because I’d never even slept in ‘my’ room at this hotel, having only acquired it late yesterday afternoon.  There was an undeniable naughtiness about waking up in my walk leader’s bed – like sneaking out of the dorm after lights out (to climb in bed with teacher) – but above all there was cosy contentment.

I wriggled inside his warm, solid arms, the left one of which I now knew bore a Cyprus-shaped birthmark.  He was fortuitously awake too, with morning glory rapping against the back of my thigh.  Hey, why waste it?  He squeezed me to him.  Wordlessly, we slithered into position for the inevitable second burst of sex.

The second time I awoke, it was to Lyndon, naked, serving me a cup of tea.  Were I in a cheesy sex comedy – Carry on Rambling, perhaps – I’d have uttered a comment like ‘Don’t use that to stir your sugar with,’ but this was real life and it didn’t quite seem appropriate.  Though, for the record, ‘that’ was pretty damn magnificent.

‘Thank you darling,’ I purred in parody of a married woman in bed with the Sunday papers.  I reached lazily up and pulled him back down to me.

‘You know, I feel like I’ve known you forever,’ he said languidly after another spun-out snog.

‘Me too.  Well I’ve certainly never slept with somebody on a Saturday who I’d only met on the Monday before.’

‘Oh, so I’ve turned you into a hussy then?’  He drenched my shoulder with a comically sloppy kiss.  ‘Anyway, it’s Sunday now, we’ve known each other nearly a week.  That makes it acceptable.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do.’

We lolled against the pillows and sipped tea silently for a few moments, semi-covered by the duvet, feet entwined.  It was very domestic yet sexy.

Lyndon’s room was scrupulously tidy.  His jumbo rucksack was not slouched in a corner like mine but upright alongside the wardrobe, as though awaiting inspection, with his boot bag nestling next to it.  He’d binned the condoms and wrappers, and all the clothes that had been consigned to the carpet last night were now draped over a chair.

‘I’ll have to sneak back to my room in last night’s clothes soon, to change for breakfast.’

I can lend you a shirt and some jeans, if you like.’

‘No, you’re all right,’ I declined, perhaps unwisely.  ‘It’s only a quick scuttle.  I’d best get a wriggle on, though, as I’m sure Shane’ll be up soon for his early jog.’

‘If he sees you, you can always pretend you popped in here to look at my famous map.’

I wrenched myself out of bed, and in the process of rooting out my clothes wandered into the full-length mirror’s unforgiving vision.  Ouch!

‘You could have reminded me my hair was still half up,’ I squealed, plucking out the now-redundant hair clips and ruffling my shambolic hair over my face in mock horror.

‘I don’t know,’ Lyndon vaulted out of bed and clinched me round the waist, ‘I kind of like the scarecrow look.’  I play-thumped him.  He swept a clump of hair back from my eyes so I could see us cuddling in the mirror.  ‘We look cute together, no?’  He made me laugh by grinning exaggeratedly cheesily, as though we were modelling for a Häagen-Dazs advert.

‘See you at breakfast then,’ I said as I stepped into my crumpled frock.  It looked incongruously party-ish in the morning light.

‘Why the need to arrive separately?  I’ll come and call for you, we’ll go down together.’  He kissed me on the lips.

‘Best give me half an hour then.’  I was so used to discretion being key with him, so was thrilling inside at his eagerness to descend for breakfast tellingly together.

‘You might want to make it an hour,’ he teased, ‘to sort that hair out.’  He flicked a lug of it, and I thumped him again, laughing.

‘You can go right off a person, you know!’

I slithered down the corridor with half an eye over my shoulder, like I was about to steal a cache of shower gels from the chambermaid’s trolley (not that I have ever done that in a hotel…ahem).

My key had made it to the lock when I heard the unlatching of a neighbouring door.  I clacked my door behind me, evading an encounter whoever that was emerging from their room (most likely Shane, or Ted and Enid).

I changed out of the purple dress, showered and raked a brush through my collapsed hairdo.

I contemplated rattling off a text to Kathryn or Stewart.  For some reason the prospective message formed itself in my mind in arch, semi-literary terms such as ‘Reader, I shagged him.’  But I couldn’t do it.  Not yet.  I could just imagine Stew squealing to Jason about it in their sleeping bag, and must admit I cringed a bit.  I would share my news later, and elicit jubilant responses, but for now wanted to cuddle the thought of what happened last night to myself for a bit.

My parents and brothers were still unaware of Lyndon’s existence.  A text message was not really an appropriate means of notifying them.

As I sat brushing on my unslept-in bed, I picked up my dress with the other hand.  It still smelt poignantly of last night: him, me, wine.  I was still for a few moments, for what seemed like the first time all week, letting everything swoosh over me, then I pattered my feet, childishly gleefully, on the floor at the side of the bed.

After I’d indulged myself with that little moment, I lovingly arranged the dress into my suitcase, tucking my as yet unopened Durex box inside a fold.

******

By the time Lyndon arrived, I was by all appearances as wholesome as if I’d just spent an uneventful night sleeping soundly in my own bed.

It’s funny it had never occurred to either of us to call for the other all week, the way I had always stopped by for my friend Hazel.  Perhaps I’d been oversensitive to how other folks might interpret our synchronised arrival at dinner or, more tellingly, breakfast.  Today I didn’t care.  As it happened nobody batted an eyelid, though Hazel shot me a wily smirk over the bacon.  Ted and Enid were burrowing feverishly into their scrambled eggs.

Julian was charm itself, apologising earnestly for ‘that ghastly scene last night’ as he dispensed an Alka Seltzer to Enid, who looked very peaky.  A royal blue bow tie jutted over the bib of his stripy apron.  ‘Those sheets have been fumigated,’ he advised.  ‘I might keep them for decorating purposes, but my conscience would never permit me to accommodate future newlyweds in them with the knowledge of what that vile woman did on them with her chocolate.’

This thread of conversation petered out as Martin entered the dining room.  He was with Shane, who had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirt on (I hadn’t seen one of those for years) and both of them looked sweaty.

‘I’m taking up jogging,’ Martin announced.  His voice was brave and proud.  ‘I met Shane outside and he took me for a scoot round the block.  I’m hoping this is going to divert me from the heartache.’

This news was greeted with a universal ‘Good for you’ chorus.

Later, as the debris of breakfast was cleared away and we eked out our last teas and coffees of the trip, Lyndon, teacup aloft, proposed a toast.  ‘To the Four Matthews.  We may not have champagne, but this will do.’

‘I’m sure Julian would bring us a bottle if we requested,’ Hazel said as we all clonked cups.  ‘Champagne is divine at breakfast time, but not terribly wise today when we all have to drive home.’

******

Once Julian had hugged us bye-bye, we were on that minibus, with the demeanour of dejected kids returning home from the best school trip ever.  Most of us were a touch hungover from the previous night’s wine-imbibing.

Lyndon and I sat together.  Were we on a real school bus, I’d have been the girl who felt all smug and grown-up because she was sitting with a boy.  I never was that girl in my actual teenage years.  It was never me ostentatiously snogging behind a copy of Smash Hits en route to the Black Country Museum or Shugborough Hall or wherever.

Ted and Enid were together too, naturally.  Enid guzzled water, and they conversed in their intimate mumbles, heads close together.

Hazel was with Martin.  She was gesticulating eagerly, and appeared to be saying empowering things to him, possibly about the future avoidance of psychotic tarts who liked to smear themselves in choccie body paint.  Whatever it was, Martin was listening intently.

Shane shared a seat at the front with Sooty, Sweep and Soo, which attracted one or two double-takes from passing motorists.  He was recounting his journey from flab to Charles Hawtrey weediness, to Clive the driver, the only person hitherto to escape the chronicles.  Clive replied in grunts.

I would much rather have walked back to Sneydley than taken the bus – partly to see the Matthews route ‘backwards,’ as it were; partly to simply prolong the holiday.  It was peculiar seeing it from a different angle, traversing the roads as opposed to rustic footpaths.  I know which I preferred.  I had adapted to the slower pace of life, observing the landscape from canal banks, meadows, even good old schwingmoors (that is such a cool word).

‘Only four weeks to go then,’ Lyndon said, referring to my job.

‘I have a feeling it’s going to be the longest four weeks of my life.’

I looked with love at our hands which were clasped in his lap.  He squeezed my hand, and I’m ashamed to say I suddenly started to cry.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t embarrassing bawling, involving snot bubbles; nor was it manipulative, to incite his sympathy.  Just a wayward tear and a sniffle.  That childish ‘holiday is ending’ feeling, coupled with the unbearable thought of another month working for that tool Adrian Raybould.

Lyndon dropped the hand-hold and put his arm round me.  I felt instantly comforted, warmed and optimistic, as though with him on my side I could never go far wrong in life.

‘It’ll be gone before you know it.  You’re going to shine in this job, Naomi.  You’ll love it.’

‘I know, I know.’  I swiped away my pathetic tear.

‘Aside from the obvious reasons, I have honestly never become so attached to a group as this one.  You’ll find this too.  You’ll make friends for life.  You’ll get the odd arse, but they’re few and far between.  Polly Dwyers hopefully strike only once in a lifetime.’

******

We drooped off the coach at Sneydley, where our forsaken vehicles dotted the Earlcott car park.  Once we’d retrieved our cases from the hold, Clive trundled off, leaving us to cluster, looking slightly lost in the empty area.  It was overcast and breezy, which added to the bleak ambiance.  Nobody was keen to leave first.

Ted stepped forward.  ‘Best holiday ever, Lyndon.  Many thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’  They shook hands, and Lyndon kissed Enid on the cheek, which caused her to blush.

A hug-a-thon inevitably ensued.  So did more tears – which this time did veer towards ‘embarrassing’ on the snivelling scale.  Numbers and e-mail addresses were circulated.  We had all bonded exceptionally this week.

‘That’s what I want with someone eventually,’ Martin said to me wistfully as we watched Ted and Enid saunter to their car, Ted’s arm comfortably resting around his wife’s shoulders.

‘Me too.’

‘I did think at one time that Polls was going to be the one, but obviously that wasn’t to be.  Do you know anybody nice, Naomi?’

‘Plenty.  I’ll flash your photo about among my friends.’

‘Don’t give them nightmares!’  The Ellimans drove away, waving shyly.  They had a beige Lada, with one of those Christian ‘fish’ stickers in the rear window.  We waved them off, and then Martin embraced me chummily.  ‘Seriously, Naomi, thanks for all the help you’ve given me, with, well, you know.’

I wasn’t sure I had significantly helped him with the ‘well, you know’ business, but accepted his sentiments gratefully.  ‘I’ll give you a call sometime, Mart, see how you’re getting on.  Take care.’

When Hazel squished me to her prodigious bosom, emotion was truly unabated.

‘Pull yourself together, girl,’ she sputtered, motioning ironically to her own dripping face.  ‘We’ll light up those wilds of Herefordshire in a few weeks, eh?  Best of luck with your job, sweetheart.’  She slapped me on the back in a gung ho gesture.

Shane had his long arms stretched around both of us; the outside wall, as it were, of the group hug.  ‘We ought to have a grand reunion,’ he suggested.

‘What a splendid idea,’ Hazel rallied.  ‘This time next year, on top of Machu Picchu.’

As my friends left before me, I noticed everyone’s modes of transport for the first time.  Martin had a Lexus; Shane an Astra.  Hazel blew kisses through the window of her decidedly avant-garde green and white 2CV.  There was a Bats Protection League sticker in the rear window, its logo bearing somewhat plagiaristic resemblance to the Batman one.

And so only Lyndon and I remained.  It was like the finale of a show, where most of the characters have taken their bows, leaving the main lovers last on stage.

We sort of shrugged at each other in a ‘Well this is it then’ fashion.

‘I’ll see you to your car,’ he offered.

‘It’s two feet away from us, darling, but the thought’s appreciated.’

His navy Saab was in the next space to my Ka, as it happened, which was kind of spooky since at the time of parking neither of us could have known whose car was whose.  We stood between them and entwined ourselves for a lengthy and heady snog.  Had any Earlcott guests witnessed us, they’d have been well and truly put off their breakfasts.

‘Still on for Friday?’ he asked when we finally cleaved apart for air.

‘Should hope so.  You’ll be my ray of sunshine at the end of this week.’

‘Where d’you fancy going?  I’ll come over your way if you like.  Take you out.  Know any good pubs?’

‘I do, as it goes.’

‘You PR girls!  One long booze and schmooze fest, eh?  Not much longer for you, though.’

‘You shut your face!  There’s a nice place not far from me called the Irish Harp.  Let’s go there.’

‘I’m in your hands.’

‘Ooh er!  Planning on staying for breakfast in Walsall?’

‘Hmm, depends on the service being offered.  You’ve got a lot to live up to, you know.  Don’t forget I’ve had a Bozzie breakfast this week, and fresh eggies from Alex McClowie’s wee chicks.’

‘Oh, I’ll send you round the corner to the bacon bap van.’

We continued in a similar vein for ages: flirting, necking, talking crap just to spin out our time together.

Eventually, I wrenched myself away.  ‘Better make tracks.  I’m due at Mom and Dad’s for Sunday lunch.  You’ll be invited too one of the days.’

‘Looking forward to it.’  He was being sincere, unlike certain immature boyfriends I’ve had in the past, who were sneery and defensive about the whole ‘meet the parents’ concept.

‘Mind you, I haven’t told them about you yet.’

My mom possesses typical mother’s intuition.  I was mentally taking bets on how long it would take her to notice there was a new bounce in my step and a smile on my face, and guess their cause.

‘I’d best be going myself, see if Splodgey’s OK, then re-pack for Exmoor.’

‘You be careful out on them moors.’

After another protracted kiss, I clicked open the Ka.  From my rucksack I extracted my mobile, which I placed on the passenger seat should anyone be trying to reach me in an emergency, and my sat nav.

I sat in the driver’s seat with my legs out of the car, chatting to him as I hooked up the sat nav.  I grinned, thinking of the Black Country voice on it that sounded like Shane.  I would think of him as I was guided home with ‘Goo over the roundabout’ or ‘Yow’m where you wanted to be.’

As I finally shut the door I said, ‘Love you.’  It was automatic; instinctive.

Lyndon did not appear nonplussed; in fact he replied, ‘You too.’

When he didn’t follow that with a list of other Irish rock groups, a luscious warmth flooded through me.  It was as though Fate had decreed that the declarations would be exchanged at that moment.

He loves me, he loves me!

Lyndon made me laugh doing that ‘Phone me’ gesture with exaggerated cheesiness like an X Factor contestant, extending his fore and little fingers, middle fingers curled into his palm.  His expression then turned more serious as he did a kind of wave against the window, rapping his fingertips on the glass.

I eased away, sniffling, guided by the sat nav absurdly instructing me to ‘tairn left.’  I waved like mad until I exited on to the main road and Lyndon was no longer in my rear-view mirror.

Two minutes later, my mobile beeped on the passenger seat.  I opened the text message while poised at the next convenient traffic light.

‘Missing you already,’ Lyndon had written.

‘Daft sod,’ I said aloud, bouncing the phone back on to the seat.  I grinned joyously as the light turned to green and I drove away.

 **********

Addendum to Julian Crowfoot’s Wikipedia page:
______________________________________________________________________________
In 2010 Crowfoot received undisclosed damages from the News of the World after they published allegations by 29-year-old receptionist-turned-glamour model Polly Dwyer that he smeared her in melted Cadbury’s Wispa and seduced her in the honeymoon suite of his hotel.

‘Those days are well and truly behind me,’ he commented.  ‘I’ve been celibate for years, and hardly touch chocolate these days either.’

Polly subsequently competed on Celebrity Coach Trip.  A scene in which she fell off a camel in Lanzarote subsequently became a popularly repeated clip on Harry Hill’s TV Burp.

**********

From:  Adrian Raybould
Sent:  15 October 2010 12:12
To:   Naomi Ball and 154 others
Subject: Raybould Communications Autumn Newsletter

***IN THIS EDITION***

** Adrian and Sian get married!!!
** RC welcomes new celebrity client Polly Dwyer to our books!! ………………….
…………………..

From:  Naomi Ball
Sent:  15 October 2010 12:16
To:   Adrian Raybould
Subject: RE: Raybould Communications Autumn Newsletter

Ade, I’ve asked you twice now, please remove me from the mailing list!

*********

Notice in the Autumn/Winter 2012 BFF newsletter:

CONGRATULATIONS to two of our leaders, Lyndon Hyde and Naomi Ball, on their recent wedding!!

BFF played matchmaker in this case.  The couple met two years ago, when Naomi was a participant on our popular Four Matthews walk, led by Lyndon.  Formerly employed in Public Relations, Naomi subsequently switched careers to herself become a valued member of the BFF team!

Lyndon and Naomi married in a civil ceremony at one of our most popular hotels, Julian Crowfoot’s Rosterbury Manor, in Tunclough, Derbyshire, on 14th July.

Bridesmaids were the groom’s sister Caroline Hyde and the bride’s friend Kathryn Wood.  Lyndon’s best man was his friend Peter Rudge.

The couple honeymooned on an epic trek of a lifetime to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Here at BFF we wish the new Mr and Mrs Hyde all the very best for a long and happy future!

Chapter 6

Saturday
Urdale to Tunclough – The Fourth Matthew

By the time my ‘real’ alarm clock woke me at seven, order was fully restored and I was half unsure whether the toaster blaze drama had occurred in real life or a scene from one of my dreams.

The indications it really had happened were a heavy, disorientating feeling, the result of a disrupted sleep, and the sight of my fleecy socks drying on the radiator as I’d washed them following my shoeless wade through the car park puddles.

Downstairs, most of us yawned our way through breakfast.  Despite the lack of toast, Frankie’s Fry Up was A-number-one, top of the list, as Frankie himself would have put it.  We had to incessantly reassure poor Ralph of this, as he was almost embarrassingly apologetic about both the toast shortage and our pre-dawn wake-up call.

‘I couldn’t be more mortified, guys.  Believe me, I gave those kitchen lads a damn good bollocking this morning about not cleaning out the toaster.  They’re on their last warning, the lot of ’em.’  (The fire seemed to have robbed him of his pretentious dialect too.)

He looked about ninety-nine years old after the night he’d had, and performed his hand-wringing routine at every table.  I had a sudden mental picture of him having slept, sobbing, with his scorched Sinatra tea cloth cuddled to him like a comfort blanket.  It was a disturbing image and I chose not to dwell on it too much.

There was nearly consternation, as the toast crisis jeopardised Ted and Enid’s obligatory scrambled eggs.  They would not make much of a meal splatted on a plate with no wholemeal base.  The Ellimans conferred about alternative breakfasts for a minute or so, until Ralph offered, ‘Now if anyone really wants toast, I can make a bit of room under the grill next to the tomatoes.’

So the Ellimans got their scrambled eggs on toast (from the menu’s ‘How D’Ya Like Your Eggs in the Morning?’ section) and all was well with the world.

Hazel was last to join us, as usual, a blearier version than the one she’d presented to us last night.  Her hair was spiralling in its usual thousand anarchic directions.  She looked so endearing.

‘Morning Vernon,’ she called to her friend, Sean Connery, who was tucking into bacon and eggs with his fellow Dodderers.

‘Ay up, me dear,’ he bellowed, broad Derbyshire.

‘Vernon, eh?’  I winked at Hazel, elaborately saucily.  ‘Single?’

‘Widower.’  She grinned archly.  ‘Don’t you go getting any ideas, though.’

‘Why not?’

‘Blimey, the old boy’s as deaf as a post.’  The ‘old boy,’ incidentally, must have been all of five years older than her.  ‘I’ve got a sore throat after last night.’

‘Oh ah?’

‘We’ll have no smut, thank you, young lady.’  She wagged her finger at me with mock austerity.

My face was a picture of prim innocence.  ‘Wasn’t being smutty.’

‘Good company’s all you desire when you get to my age, believe me.’  She swiftly changed the subject, addressing the table at large.  ‘Bit of a rum to-do in the night then, eh?’

We compared notes about our respective ‘fire’ experiences, which helped lend perspective to the incident.  By the end of breakfast we had downplayed the hullabaloo to the status of an adventure, or a ‘rum to-do,’ rather than the catastrophe it might so easily have been.

The topic changed again, to our general disbelief that we had reached Saturday already and thus the last stretch of our epic hike.  We were like a gang now.  The fire, and Polly’s departure yesterday, seemed to have cemented us all.  Martin was more forthcoming with us, and even Ted and Enid were starting to emerge from their communal shell.

‘Well I hope you’ve enjoyed this week, folks,’ said Lyndon, to universal murmurs of assent.  ‘I’ve loved it.’  He sneaked the briefest of looks at me, which engendered a lovely melty feeling in my stomach.  ‘Now I suppose you’d like to hear where we’re going today, eh?’

‘Y’know what,’ Shane interjected, ‘I’ll miss your itineraries, Lyndon.  Every time I goo out for a stroll around Dudley, I’ll be expectin’ yow to pop up and tell me what route I’m a-takin’ today.’  He chuckled into his tea.

‘Perhaps I could record my voice on to a sat nav.  Anyway, we’re doing eleven miles again.  Our ultimate goal today – and of this whole week, you might say – is of course the summit of the Fourth Matthew at Tunclough.  It’s the highest one, at 517 metres – 1,696 feet.

‘We firstly pass through Urham.  That is what’s known as a linear village, which is a community that was built along a transport route such as a road, river or canal – in this case a river, the good old Ur.  It essentially consists of a single street.  The housing was added as the transport network and employment burgeoned.

‘Rostham is next along the route.  That’s a place with some colourful history, an intriguing road name too, more of which later.  The river marks the border between the two counties, Staffordshire and Derbyshire.

‘We have lunch at a charming spot called Throstlenest.  Restaurant called Casa Javier.  It’s nice grub, not exclusively Spanish cuisine, despite the name.  They do all sorts of things.  Lots of seafood, salads.’  He smiled comfortingly in Ted and Enid’s direction.  ‘In actual fact, Javier’s accent is more Cannock than Catalan at times, and his real name is rumoured to be Colin!

‘Now Tunclough, if you’ve never been, is absolutely delightful.  I’d defy you to find a prettier spot, certainly in the Peak District.  It’s an absolute gem of a place.  Rosterbury Manor is a super hotel, and I think you’ll all like Julian.  So let’s get cracking, eh?’

******

As we (with the exception of Ted and Enid, still clinging steadfastly to that damn suitcase) stacked our luggage in the foyer for Clive’s collection, it was weird to think it was the last time we would be doing this; that the next time those cases travelled on Clive’s minibus we would be accompanying them.  Back to the Earlcott at Sneydley, and thence back to reality.  Albeit a reality considerably rosier than the one I’d left last week.

Shane had deposited Sooty, Sweep and Soo on top of his case, it being too full to accommodate them.  I could imagine the gruff minibus driver rolling his eyes at the sight of those plump teddies before chucking them unceremoniously into the luggage hold.

We bade our farewells to the tea towel-bereft Ralph, who still looked drained and haunted, and apologised yet again for the toaster annihilation.

Then the Dodderers trooped out, like superannuated Venture Scouts in their matching sweaters and baseball caps.  They were the types I could imagine warbling that frightful ‘val-de-ree’ song ad nauseam on their travels.  Whilst I couldn’t help but admire their zeal, I also couldn’t help feeling relieved they were doddering in the opposite direction to us.

Vernon kissed Hazel’s hand and boomed, ‘Bon voyage, me dear,’ but there was no apparent exchange of phone numbers.

Minnie the moocher, of whom I had seen quite enough last night, blew Lyndon a kiss.  ‘Ta-ta, young man.  If you’re ever in Derby, pay us a visit.  Eh, Mavis?’  Her purple-rinsed friend, who was ferreting in a bag of mints and appeared as deaf as Vernon, responded, ‘Yer what, Min?  Wanna Murray Mint?’

Humouring people was an intrinsic skill in Lyndon’s job.  ‘I’ll bear that in mind, Minnie.’  He grinned across at me.

I grinned back, enjoying the easy, friendly feeling between us.  ‘Good job I’m not the jealous type, eh?’

******

‘So what’s Julian Crowfoot like then, Lyndon?’ I asked, a few minutes into the route.  We were two abreast through Urham, the linear village built along the Ur’s banks.  It was chocolate-box pretty, with no centre as such but bunches of cottages, festooned with hanging baskets, flanking a narrow street.

It had started to dribble with rain.  I wasn’t fazed by walking in the rain today; it gave everything an energising, earthy feel.

‘Very pleasant chap.  I’ve got a lot of time for him.’

‘When I told my mom we’d be meeting him, she said, “Aw, I’m sure he’s changed since he was so rude to poor Su Pollard and Larry Grayson.”’  She’s big on second chances, is my mom.’

He smiled at me, as though liking the sound of my mother.  As prospective mothers-in-law went, he definitely could do a lot worse.  ‘She’s right.  When I did that walk for the hospice, and when I told him my reason for doing it, he made a very generous donation to the charity.  I’ll never forget that.  And all credit to him, he’s built that hotel up from nothing.  The place was a carcass when he took it on.  He jokes that he’s carried on the tradition of Rosterbury Manor being owned by successive drunks and wastrels, but in fact he has really cleaned up his act.  You should hear the passion in his voice when he talks about the place.  It’s obvious he loves every brick of it.’

None of that information was on Julian’s lurid Wikipedia page, which I’d made the mistake of rereading that morning.  I suppose it wouldn’t have made as juicy a read as his alternative uses for chocolate bars.

‘Let’s hope it’s supplanted certain other passions in life that he used to have,’ Hazel barked.  ‘Saying that, though, I used to rather enjoy his show.  Got a dog-eared copy of his book squirreled in a cupboard somewhere.  Should have brought it for him to sign, I suppose.  Mind you, I’m sure the pages are gummed together with prehistoric chocolate splodges.  Oh crumbs, look at that!’

She pointed as a decrepit Austin Montego chugged along the lane, with a coffin (I had to look twice) tethered to the roof rack.  There were half a dozen blue ropes threaded around the thing to prevent it skating off on to the road.  The poor car wheezed up the gentle incline through the village, its roof practically sagging in on the elderly driver.

Shane (he was so adorable) doffed his baseball cap in respect.  ‘I hope when I goo I’m transported with a bit more dignity.’

‘I’d hope there’s no body in there at present,’ said Hazel, and Shane paused with the cap in midair, uncertain whether he was being deferential towards an empty box.  ‘Unless undertakers are cutting back on the cost of hearses these days.’

After the Montego, a Saab – which could have been part of the bizarre cortege or completely unconnected – passed us, with a Great Dane on the back seat.  The massive dog looked so ludicrously human sitting up like that, with its head and shoulders filling the rear window.  I thought Hazel was going to explode.  She had such a heightened sense of the silly.

‘Who’s he then,’ she spluttered, ‘the pallbearer?’

I’ve said it before: you see some wacky sights out on walks.

******

‘Fanny Scranton Lane’ just has to be my favourite road name ever.  It invokes all kinds of colourful images – most of them not all that far-fetched, as Lyndon explained when we queried the origins of the name in the village of Rostham.

‘She was allegedly the mistress of Desmond Theodoric, and bore eight of his sixteen children.’

‘No wonder he died in debt,’ Hazel commented, photographing the quaint road sign.

She did all right, though.  She was a big-hearted benefactor.  Left a tidy sum to the village, by all accounts.  Popular character in Rostham, was our Fanny.’

‘I’m not surprised!’

Fanny Scranton was such a perfect misstressy name.  I pictured a cartoon-ish plump wench: bosoms erupting out of her corset; raucous laugh; penchant for ale.

The village itself was sort of pinched and gritty looking, with tight little cottages, and alleyways in which it was easy to picture dark deeds being perpetrated.  The traffic lights controlling the narrow main road looked outlandishly modern in such a place.

It was here we parted company with the River Ur, our unvarying companion for the best part of nine miles in total, at the point it veered north-west in the direction opposite to the one we were taking.  We crossed the river, and the border from Staffordshire into Derbyshire, via what Lyndon reported was colloquially christened the ‘Murder Bridge.’  ‘Village legend maintains that it continues to be haunted by the ghost of a chap who was pushed off it.’

‘Who was it, someone who didn’t pay Fanny?’ Hazel quipped.

‘I don’t know about that, but he’s evidently still quite disgruntled as he keeps coming back.’

The aptly-named Fanny and her free-and-easy nature drew comparisons in my head – and probably others’ too – with Polly, though of course nobody voiced that of course in front of Martin.

However, Lyndon intriguingly referred in quieter conversation with me to Des Theodoric’s floozy as ‘a bit of a Kirsty type.’

I was baffled.  ‘Kirsty?’

‘Oh, I don’t think I told you her name, did I, sorry?’  He flushed.  ‘The ex-wife.’

It was all I could do to repeat ‘Kirsty?’ like a gormless parrot.  Not Sian? I wanted to ask, but I realised how wild and silly my ‘coincidence’ theory would have sounded.  Of course he’d never been married to Sian Whyton!  I had simply put two and two together and made eighty, based on a half-heard conversation in a bar.

There were obviously at least two adulterous cows in the West Midlands who had left their husbands for men they met at breakfast seminars.

‘She lives in France now.  Last I heard, she was pregnant with twins.  Not mine, thank God!  But you don’t really want to hear about her, I’m sure.’

‘And her name’s Kirsty?’  I had to double check; give him one last opportunity to amend, ‘Nope, joking.  Her name’s Sian, she lives in Sutton Coldfield, she isn’t pregnant and she holds a senior PR position for which she is unqualified and which she secured by nepotistic means.’

‘That’s right.’  He looked at me a tad oddly, for which I couldn’t exactly blame him.  ‘Oh hell, you don’t know her, do you?’

Bless him.  I laughed.  ‘No, no, I don’t know any Kirstys.’  Hysterical relief was bubbling through my body like champagne.  I was not entirely sure why.  It still didn’t alter the fact he’d had a wife, of course; I suppose it was just the notion of him with her that was so obnoxious.

Lyndon had been the perfect gentleman, reticent about bedding me, but perhaps I subconsciously hadn’t pushed it either because the imagined past association with her would have spoken volumes about his taste.

Well now my harebrained theory had been blown out of the water.  He didn’t even know Sian; had never heard of her.  He was no longer sullied by association.

I had never felt so utterly happy as I did here, on this damp spring day, in this washed-out looking village.  And now I looked forward to seeing what a combination of this brilliant feeling, a few sips of wine (no Wispas, though) and my best purple dress might initiate tonight…

******

And so we left behind Staffordshire and its disgruntled apparitions, veering off the murderous bridge and out into the wild and lovely Peak District.  It was open, unspoilt countryside virtually all the way thence.

‘We’re coming into Throstlenest now,’ Lyndon related, ‘so-called due to the one-time profusion of song thrushes in the area.’

‘The Albion am known as the Throstles, an’ all.’  Shane was chuffed to share another factoid, this time about his favourite football team.  ‘West Brom.  Cuz the pub they used to change into their kit in kept a pet thrush!’

We clomped down a long field, keeping a line of pylons to our left as a constant marker.  Our passage into the neighbouring field was via either an elderly stile or a heavier and more modern gate, with one of those heavy-duty springs that you feel is going to zing back and snap your finger off.  This second field led down to a rustic lane, and suddenly, in the apparent middle of nowhere, was Casa Javier, AKA the house of Colin from Cannock.

It was an obviously old building painted white and jazzed up, with contemporary but very in-keeping timber windows, silver lettering, wall lights made of slender twigs of metal, and a menu, typed in a chic font, mounted in a glass wall case alongside the door.

The decor inside was simple and tasteful, with venetian blinds and light oak furniture.  Some of the large, flamboyant paintings on the walls had price tags dangling from them.  Not unreasonable prices.  I might have been tempted, had such purchases not been a tad impractical to cart in a rucksack.

Javier/Colin was effusively welcoming.  He was little and brisk, with very wiry legs and a swarthy brush of a moustache, and he came flapping around us as we started to unlace our grimy footwear.

‘Ah, no need-a, no need.  Muddy boots are a-welcome here.’  The remote setting of his restaurant meant the vast majority of his clientele were probably walkers.

His Spanish accent was certainly elaborate and sibilant enough to be phony.  To be fair, it could have as easily been honed by a Birmingham upbringing with Spanish parents as by watching Fawlty Towers reruns.  There was the odd lapse from Madrid to the Midlands, such as when he invited us to ‘peruse-a the woyne list.’

We all declined to peruse-a the woyne list (for my part certainly, lunchtime drinking tends to induce a need to nap) and opted for soft beverages or coffees in preference.

Javier set down two long wooden boards in the centre of our table, each bearing a heavenly medley of breads and olives.  ‘Nice-a little appetiser for you before I take-a your orders,’ he declared.

It was like he was trying to tick all the boxes on a list of Spanish clichés – suffixing ‘a’ to random words being one of them.  He stopped just short of clicking his fingers and doing a flamenco stomp.

A quick mobile check revealed I’d received two texts.  One was from Stewart, in response to a message I’d sent recounting the night’s commotion.  ‘Firemen???  U lucky cow!!  That’s it – I’m torching the tent tonight to get them out to us!!  BTW, how u getting on with Lyndon? Luv n hugz S&J xxx’

The other was from Kathryn.  ‘We’ve been best mates since sixth form college,’ I explained to Hazel, as she dunked a wodge of bread into the olive oil trough that was built into the wooden board.  The bread smelled divinely tomatoey.

She chomped.  ‘Why not bring her along when you come for the weekend?’

My initial selfish instinct was to say no; keep Hazel to myself.  As walking was ‘my’ thing, Hazel was ‘my’ friend.  Then I mentally berated myself – Kathryn would probably love it.

‘OK.’  I accordingly modified the text I was dispatching to Kath.  ‘She isn’t too keen on walking, but she is keen on cider.  I’ll invite her.  If you’re sure you don’t mind.  She’s a good cook too, as it goes.  I’m sure she’d make a cake for the craft fair.’

‘That’s super.  More the merrier, I always say.  Now what are you going to have, my dear?’

‘Some of this tomato bread for a start.’  I tore a crust in two and swiped it through the oil.  My taste buds squealed.  ‘Wow, that’s lush!  And then possibly the calamari.’  Deep fried calamari with garlic mayonnaise.

‘The braised pork tortilla for me, I think.’  Hazel shut her menu with a typically decisive snap.  She rarely dithered.

At that point an enormous group of people of varied ages came clonking in, wearing anoraks and boots and wielding walking sticks.  Now I may have been wildly off the mark here, but I sensed they may have been a fellow walking group.

‘Table for twenty-four booked for the Kinver Ramblers,’ announced a tall man who possessed a booming, beardy, Brian Blessed quality and appeared to have assumed the mantle of leader.  Kinver is a village at the southernmost tip of Staffordshire, quite close to Lower Bratchley, where we’d been on Tuesday.  Kinver Edge was one of our family haunts when I was a kid.

Javier fussed and cooed over the group, whipping off their coats as though they were matador’s cloaks and piling them over his arm.

‘Where’s the loos, Javier?’ one of the ramblers queried.

‘Yer what?  I mean, que?’  Lyndon caught my eye across the table and winked when we heard this vernacular slip-up.

The meal at Casa Colin – sorry, Javier – was lovely.  My calamari was lusciously crispy.  A combination of Javier’s exuberant hospitality and the ramblers’ boisterous presence on the next table made it a lively lunch.

Shane, who I truly believe could spark up a conversation among an order of monks who had taken a vow of silence, was soon enthralling the Kinver lot with his recurring ‘slimmer of the year’ story.  Javier was not spared either.  He cooed and gesticulated with suitable ‘Spanish’ flourish over the now very tattered photo of Shane’s flabbier incarnation.

What with Shane, and Javier being equally garrulous, I was beginning to fear concluding our journey after sundown.  However, we finally managed to extract the bill from our fulsome host, thus greatly increasing our chances of reaching Julian Crowfoot’s hotel without the aid of torchlight.  Still nobody was allowed to make it to the door without a double handshake from Javier, who simultaneously showered business cards upon us and entreated us to ‘Please-a come back!’

******

And so this was the final stretch of our epic trudge up through the scenic and occasionally hilly Midlands.  That was a somewhat sad thought; an inducement for reflection.  I’d been facetious about the notion at the start of the week, but this truly had been a journey in every sense of the word.

We’d passed through some exquisite places: Sneydley, the ethereally peaceful Quanswood – about which I entertained those visions of wicker picnic hampers and smoked salmon with Lyndon – Lower Bratchley, the canal at Crockington, Manderwood Manor, Bhylcroft, the Bozzie, Brabban Bog, Urbridge, Urdale.  I’d learned what a schwingmoor was – though the delights of Peter Lawford’s Parsnip would sadly have to elude me until a later date.

I had met some unforgettable people.  Apart from Lyndon, of course, and my new mates in the group, there were the glorious characters of the week: Pat Codd, Donald, Rod AKA Trannii Minogue, Alexandra and Hope McClowie, Jason, Stewart, Isaac, Ralph, Vernon, Javier/Colin, and shortly Julian Crowfoot.

Julian had a somewhat colourful reputation, though appeared a reformed character these days.  We all make mistakes, after all, and the guy was hardly a mass murderer.  As my mom had said, I was ‘a bab in my pram’ when he had his very public meltdown.  She has always loved her telly, my mother.  The snooker seemed to be permanently on when we were small, and in fact I’m told she went into labour with me during an episode of Duty Free.

But back to now.  The weather perked up a touch as we crossed the numerous fields that divided Throstlenest from gorgeous Tunclough.  The rain had ceased, and a slice of sun was actually venturing through the slate sheet of sky.

As I’ve said before, I love that sense when walking in remote countryside that I could be anywhere; that civilisation and work and reality are a planet away.  I took a greedy gulp of air, wishing I could store that country freshness inside my lungs for when I returned to the sterile office on Monday.  It would be wonderful to bottle four weeks’ worth of that air – enough to keep me going until my joyous leaving day – and treat myself to gasps of it at work, as an alternative to a fag break.

My application form to BFF had been burning a hole in my suitcase since Tuesday.  Once home, I would methodically complete it – stirring up memories of all those Anglepoise-illuminated evenings when I took my time formulating clever answers to try and impress university admissions staff.

‘In the distance on your left,’ Lyndon signalled an austere, square structure whose ornamental chimneys and box-shaped towers poked out of the valley, ‘is Millstrop Hall.  Victorian manor house originally, but been a youth hostel for years and years.  And never was there a more appropriate name.  The old warden from way back was in a permanent strop.  He was an absolute ogre.’

‘Not Mr Fletcher?’ Hazel exclaimed, seizing his arm in recognition.

‘Oh yes, and mind you don’t forget the Mister!’

‘I’m just amazed he wasn’t way before your time.’

‘No, he was still going strong well into my Duke of Edinburgh days.  I’m thirty-four, so we’re going back, what, sixteen, seventeen years.  Terrorised the life out of me when I was but a callow hiker.  I remember him hurling a frying pan at my head because apparently I hadn’t washed it up to his standards of spotlessness.’

‘Were you hurt?’ I asked, outraged at the thought of teenage Lyndon being assaulted by a Teflon-wielding tyrant, though at the same time fascinated by these insights into his past.  I had never actually been youth hostelling, which in the context of an outdoorsy group like this gave me the feeling that I somehow hadn’t lived.

‘No, my ducking technique was finely honed!  He was a troll.  Had this crazy jet black hair that at first I thought was a wig about as convincing as Javier’s accent but was actually the most hideous comb-over ever.’

‘No wig could survive being gusted about on these moors,’ Hazel hooted.  ‘He refused to let Ken and me through the door initially – this was, ooh, good thirty years ago – because we hadn’t brought passports with us as security.  Never mind that no request for our passports had been made on the telephone when we booked the blessed weekend.  Ken was all for turning back and going home – wimp that he was – but I said, “Look, Mr Fletcher, I recently scaled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with no requirement to produce identification documents.  I’m damned if I’m going to be refused entry to a youth hostel on my own doorstep because it never occurred to me that a passport might be required for a weekend’s walking in Britain!”  Strangely enough, he relented then.’

I loved Hazel.  I was wiping tears of laughter picturing the scene.  ‘Machu Picchu?  That’s Peru, isn’t it?  Somewhere I’d love to go.’

‘It’s on my “to-go” list as well,’ said Lyndon wistfully.

‘Oh, you must,’ Hazel insisted, in her schoolmarmish way.

She reminisced about her trek to the ancient ruins, intercut with asides about the sociopathic Mr Fletcher, until we crossed a bridge over the busy A515 into Tunclough.

The pathway fed into the main village lane, and as we were afforded our first glimpse of Tunclough I literally gasped.  The place was storybook idyllic.

Tiny, old buildings were grouped cosily together, constructed from the same fawny-grey stone.  There was a tearoom, a gift shop, and the duckiest little nursery school (not quite sure where the kids came from, as there wasn’t exactly a plethora of houses in Tunclough) with sugar paper Easter chicks taped to the windows.

Alongside the lane was a pond, on which a cute little duck family made V-shaped ripples in the perfect reflection of the surrounding lime trees (OK, I admit I couldn’t actually identify a lime tree – Hazel told me what species they were).
At the top of the village, glancing over to Rosterbury Manor itself, a box-shaped church stood on a knoll, behind which was the somewhat larger protuberance we were about to ascend.

There was a uniquely unspoilt, peaceful air there.  We could have been in the grounds of a stately home.  Tunclough had retained its private charm of old and felt more like the private estate it once was than a village as such.

‘Here we are then,’ Lyndon announced, as though ushering us into Oz.  If a troupe of Munchkins had skipped along chomping lollipops at that point, I wouldn’t have been overly surprised.  ‘It’s a gem, this place.  I never tire of coming here.  The church, St Mary’s, dates back to the Norman period.  If anyone’s interested, you can have a little tour of the graveyard after we’ve done the hill.  Many Theodorics from assorted generations are buried there.  Now we shall meet Mr Crowfoot very shortly, he’ll be waiting for us with the coffee pot poised, no doubt, but first we’ve got the small matter of a hill to climb.’

The final and tallest Matthew was commercialised to the extent that stone steps had been built into the hillside to facilitate the ascent.  So it was a breathtaking climb, in every sense of the word, though considerably less dicey than it would once have been.

Hazel gambolled like a little girl up the last few steps.  ‘Yeah,’ she squealed, ‘I’m on top of the world!’  She and I whacked hands in a high five.  ‘Let’s have a celebratory Midget Gem.’  She dispensed her seemingly infinite bag of sweets.

‘Well done folks,’ Lyndon beamed.  ‘Let’s have a siddown and enjoy the view for a bit.’  He eased his rucksack off, set it down and deposited himself on the smooth ridge.  We all followed suit.

The uphill exertion left me with the sensation that I was going to choke on my own lungs.  I had to take a long slug of water from my bottle before I could so much as talk.

It wasn’t the clearest of days, but that view of all the acres of valleys and villages beyond was still pretty extraordinary, and we duly photographed it from every conceivable angle.  It was all the more poignant knowing we’d covered a lot of that land.

‘I never get blasé about all this, you know,’ Lyndon said to me, simultaneously a lover confiding feelings and a future colleague imparting experience.  He looked thoroughly chuffed.

‘That’s good to know.’

This would become another of Our Places, I just knew.  That fabled gingham picnic blanket (I made a mental note to explore eBay for one) would find its way up there once we’d ticked Quanswood off our Romantic Places to Lunch list.

Sitting up there presented a weird parallel of our first day, when we ate our hilltop lunch at Sneydley.  The differences were that Polly had gone, Lyndon and I were sitting much closer together, Ted and Enid had come out of their shells a little, Shane appeared to have shed another half a stone, and we were admiring the same vista in reverse.  It was like turning round to watch where you’ve been out of a car rear window.

I took a huge breath, savouring the purity of it before getting spannered tonight and then going home.

******

Rosterbury Manor was a squat but wide stone hall, with a flat, parapet-fringed roof and dozens of tall chimneys (‘chimbleys,’ they call them in the Black Country).  If the place had been a shell when Julian acquired it, there was little evidence today.  It was handsomely restored and proudly inviting.

It was akin in style to Manderwood Manor, being of the same period, but was somewhat larger, as though designed with the hedonistic Desmond Theodoric’s intention to outshine his brother.  An extremely attractive building, it possessed long, low mullioned windows – easy to climb out of, no doubt, to facilitate his discreet visits to Fanny Scranton in Rostham.   The now obsolete coat of arms, with those three gold lions in the attack position, was depicted over both the gate and the main entrance.

Lyndon unlatched the wrought iron gate and held it open so we could all pass through.  Julian appeared immediately, and it was oddly comforting to see that even if he had sobered up his dress sense had not.  Buttons clung on for dear life as his tweed blazer strained over his tummy.  He’d teamed it with a gold velour bow tie that on anybody else would have looked ludicrous.

‘Welcome, welcome,’ he urged warmly.  He squashed Lyndon to his robust body in a hug.  ‘Splendid to see you again.’

I’d seen a snippet of Choc Wise, Julian’s 1980s show, on YouTube and his appearance hadn’t altered vastly.  He was still corpulent, with teeth that resembled chewed bits of twig and a big wobbly face that a master of the understatement might describe as looking ‘lived-in.’  He made Sid James look velvet-skinned.  At least here was one celebrity nobody could accuse of having undergone Botox.  He spoke in a plummy accent that was rich with the legacy of too many cigars and gallons of port.  He was jolly, gracious, and absolutely at home in his role as host.

‘So you’ve reached the finish line then,’ he beamed at all of us, as he handed out plastic covers for our boots.  At least they were a serviceable black rather than screaming pink like Alex’s.  ‘Well done.  Most of my guests do tend to arrive sporting a look of weary relief.’

I wouldn’t say I was relieved exactly.  I was elated with the effort of the slog, but would have loved to turn around and repeat the journey in reverse.

The large hallway had a fresh, cheery look, its walls painted maize yellow, but the more traditional features had not been obliterated during the manor’s makeover into a hotel.

A large and obviously very old oak sideboard, flanked by two equally antique and flimsy-looking chairs, housed the visitors’ book and a vase of vibrant red, white and purple tulips.  The motif from the family crest was carried through to the gorgeous staircase, where a pair of lions adopted cocky poses atop the newel posts.

There was a rogues’ gallery of enormous Theodoric portraits (thankfully Julian wasn’t cheesy enough to have posed for one of those egotistical oil paintings himself).

‘That’s Desmond Theodoric,’ Lyndon pointed out a dandy straight from Central Casting.  Tights, ruff, haughty yet roguish expression.  No wonder Fanny Scranton whipped her drawers off for him with so little protest.

Long ornate rugs were cast along the oak floor, and we padded along them in our plastic bags to the elegant drawing room.  The oak panelling (yes, I was sensing an oak theme here), we were advised, was original, as was the highly elaborate ebony fireplace which was carved in exhaustive detail with bold flowers, garlands and those lions again.

Another oil painting dominated in here, that of Theo Theodoric (yes, that was his name), eldest son of Des.  Presumably, to have merited such a portrait, he was ‘official’ offspring, from Desmond’s marriage rather than his dalliances with Fanny.  Young Theo certainly inherited his dad’s playboy looks (in addition to his house and debts).

Julian had indeed got the coffee pot on, and accompanying the very welcome beverage was a plate of lusciously buttery shortbread and – my favourite – a bowl artily piled with brown and white sugar lumps.

And so it was in this grand old room, over a civilised pot of coffee and in the company of a renowned chef, that the seven of us celebrated completing fifty glorious miles in seven life-changing days.

******

I was getting ready for more than dinner tonight.  Every droplet of shower water on my body, every zap of perfume, every fleck of blusher, every sensual swipe of brush through my hair, was loaded with significance.

I dried myself and imagined him rubbing me in the same places.  I had one of those silly hotel towels round me that seem designed for scrawny dwarves, so it barely covered my bum and the edges didn’t quite meet over my breasts.

I caught sight of myself in the mirror with all that tit and thigh on display.  It’s a sight I see every day, of course – being in possession, funnily enough, of a shower and mirrors in my home – but tonight it turned me on.  Not that I’m narcissistic, it was just that the next time those acres of tit and thigh were revealed, it would – hopefully – be to him, and the prospect was thrilling beyond description.  Everything was suggestive tonight.

My lovely silvery-purple dress was hanging on the wardrobe door.  I’d given it a brief smooth down, it not being of an iron-friendly fabric, though in fact it appeared little the worse for having been folded in my suitcase all week.  Whilst the dress had looked limp on my bed on Monday, now it looked seductive, full of promise and suggestion.  The beading on it seemed to wink at me.

Oh, but I was so nervous.  Almost unbearably excited.  I was all jangled and wobbly, as though I’d consumed eighteen chocolate bars.  I could have done with a bottle of Julian’s rum; a few swigs might have quelled my jitters.  Hopefully the forthcoming wine would assist in that direction.

Ooh, how long had it been since I went through such a ritual of preparation?  Too bloody long.  My last boyfriend – if you’re concerned to know these things – was Ed, who I met at a Kaiser Chiefs concert.  We had fun for six months or so, then it fizzled out as these things often do.

I hadn’t come on this holiday with any intention of getting laid, but now there were condoms in my handbag for the first time in (go on then, I’ll admit it) two years.

I’d felt like a furtive slut when my money clanked into the machine Julian had astutely installed in the ladies.  Then I’d told myself not to be silly.  I was mature now: no longer seventeen, pacing past Boots twice before slinking in and eventually coming out with three lipsticks and a Shapers sandwich.

I flipped Radio Two on.  It was Alan Carr’s show, which Kath and I love.  We often listen to him while getting ready for a night out.  Or in.  I focused on his camp banter, and the cheesy music he played, rather than thoughts of daunting and beautiful sex.

I spontaneously decided to attempt something different with my hair, having hitherto simply straightened and let it flow loose every night.  I brushed back a section from each temple and entwined them together to create a half-up style, leaving a few coiled wisps to tickle my face.

I physically jumped when my mobile pulsated on the dressing table where it was charging (the battery being, as Shane would say, ‘flat as a dodo’).

The text was from Kathryn.  ‘Your Hazel sounds like a scream!  I’d love to come and meet her.  Want to meet Lyndon too tho!!  Have a gr8 nite chick xx  PS – u listening to Alan Carr?’

For some reason I was shy about sharing with her my objectives for the evening ahead.  I was wary of jinxing my ‘gr8 nite,’ I suppose.  Plus, Lyndon was potentially special; to reduce him to text gossip fodder seemed insulting now.  I kept my reply to Kathryn succinct, centred around Alan Carr and silent on the subject of Lyndon.  She would just have to wait for updates.

******

‘Sad to think it’s the last time we’ll be doing this,’ Hazel lamented as I called for her, as per our routine.  She blitzed her entire body – and some of mine in the process – with a wildflower perfume that seemed to bring the very room to life.  ‘Look at you,’ she clucked like a proud mom on prom night, ‘perfect little hourglass.’  I swear there was a tear in her eye.

‘Never mind me, what about you!’  Hazel had gone for the medieval seductress look, with a high-wasted, long velvet dress in forest green which showcased her amazing figure in a way that, with the best will in the world, floral waterproofs were never going to.  ‘That colour’s fab against your colouring.’

‘Goes well with the rust, eh?’ she chuckled, rubbing at her suntanned forearm.  ‘Now come on, girl, let’s go taste the wine!’

Downstairs, Shane was getting the drinks in.  He greeted us with a hug each and told us we looked ‘a right pair of bosters’ (that’s a compliment in the Black Country).  He had donned a suit for the occasion, bless him – ‘It’s me only one’ – and with his little specs looked handsomely geeky, if not exactly comfortable in the formal garb.

Despite my earlier thirst for alcohol to quell my jitters, I decided to play it safe-ish with a spritzer.  ‘We’ll be necking the vino all night as it is.’  I was also loath to render myself sloshed and incapable for later on, but of course didn’t say that.

Hazel had no truck with temperance.  ‘Ah, I’ve done wine tasting courses before.  You only get a thimbleful of each.  Scotch and water, please Shane.’

Everyone had dressed up.  Martin looked relaxed and trendy in a cream roll-sleeved shirt.  Enid wore a delphinium blue jersey dress and, for the first time this week, make-up.  Ted was actually sporting a bow tie, in which he resembled, appropriately enough, a teddy bear, of the marzipan variety you might see on top of a wedding cake.  I noted with some surprise that they had both forsaken their usual cordials for sherries.  Liberal measures at that.

And Lyndon?  I knew without even looking that he’d walked into the room.  That familiar cliché about a crackle of electricity.  It took a remarkable amount of willpower not to whip my head round and thus appear uncoolly eager.  My instinct was to make a show of laughing sociably at the bar, nudging Shane throughout our conversation, demonstrating just what a tactile friend I was, before feigning surprise at Lyndon’s sudden presence.

I was like the proverbial swan, though: nonchalant on the surface but paddling wildly beneath it.

‘Evening folks.  Hello Naomi.’

‘Hello.’  I turned extremely slowly, as though moving through jelly.  Then ruined the nonchalant effect by practically dribbling at the sight of him.

He had teamed a black jacket with a chocolate brown open-necked shirt, of the slim-fitting variety that clung to his wiry body, exposing teasing slivers of skin between the buttons.  Again he smelt gorgeous, of something attractively masculine and woody.

We just stared at each other for an aeon.  The bar, everything and everyone in it, were reduced to a fuzzy backcloth.

‘You look lovely.’  His voice was all dreamy and husky.  Mmm.

‘And you –’

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Julian Crowfoot came crashing into the daze, ‘the wine is uncorked and ready for your appraisal.  Would you care to step this way.’

******

There were thirty-nine of us for the wine tasting evening (would have been forty but for Polly’s absence).  Most attendees were overnight guests; a minority were there just for the course and meal.  We were grouped onto tables of eight – or seven in our case – in a small function room.  There was a spittoon in the centre of every table, and we were each kitted with a notebook and pen.

In startling contrast to the drawing room, this white-painted room embodied twenty-first century minimalism.  Anything antiquated had been scraped away.

Lyndon was next to me.  Frankly, it was a wonder I could hold the glass.  The sexual crackle between us was intense.

I could feel my handbag, soft and cool against my ankle.  Those condoms seemed to be burning a hole in it.  I had a ludicrous vision of them inflating and floating out of there shrieking ‘Heeere’s johnnies!’

Concentrate on the wine, Naomi.  Look at Julian.  Pay attention.

Mr Crowfoot looked every inch the vintner in his aptly claret waistcoat and trademark bow tie (he’d stopped short of adding a monocle to the ensemble), with a flotilla of wine bottles lined along a Persil-white tablecloth in front of him.

‘Now those of you acquainted with some of the ghastly things I’ve done in the past,’ he was saying, ‘may fear I’m something of a loose cannon amid all this wine.  If you’re too young to remember, lucky you – though, if you fancy a cautionary history lesson, the gory details are on Wikipedia, and sadly they are all true.

‘Don’t fear.  I’ve done my stint in therapy, as they all do nowadays, and I am, as they say, over it now.’  He made quote marks with his sausagey fingers.  ‘Now this is not about to turn into some so-called celebrity confessional.’  He did the air quotes again.  ‘I despise that kind of thing, truth be told.  My objective these days is to pass on the knowledge I gleaned the hard way: that alcohol can be savoured and appreciated without having to be consumed to excess.

‘This evening I’ll go through the basics of what to look for in a glass of white or red; how to analyse its colour, nose and palate.  We shall be sampling nine wines altogether: three white, three red and then a further three with our meal, one appropriate to each course.  I’ve tried to come up with a good mix from the Old World, which is Europe, and the New World, which is everywhere else.  Now we’ll start with this one,’ he held aloft the first bottle in his sequence, ‘this is an Argentinean Torrentes.’

The Torrentes turned out to be my favourite.  It was dry, pale and almost silvery in colour, with a hint of pineapple and elderflower, and apparently a lovely accompaniment to light dishes such as fish and grilled vegetables.  I kept it to one side, rather than tipping it in the spittoon, so I could compare it to subsequent samples.

Julian educated us on the art of tilting the glass to examine the colour and clarity of the wine, swirling it around, checking the length of the ‘legs,’ or droplets, running down the side of the glass which denote the alcohol or sugar content, sniffing the wine and gargling it like Listerine to reach every corner of the mouth.

He brought around each bottle in turn, left us to talk amongst ourselves for about ten minutes and make notes before inviting us to share our impressions with the group at large.  In each case he gave us details of the alcohol percentage, average price for a bottle (none of them were pretentiously expensive) and what foods it might appropriately accompany, as well as a bit of background information about the grape variety.

‘Now everyone’s taste buds and senses of smell can differ enormously,’ Julian advised, ‘so try not to be influenced by other people’s responses.  There are no right or wrong answers on this subject.  If you can smell petrol, leather, nutmeg, or even cat pee, while others are smelling blackcurrants, neither impression is necessarily wrong.’

It was a truly fascinating evening.  The unpretentiousness of it all put me at ease immediately.  Surprisingly, Julian was quick to dispel a lot of the snobbery that can prevail in the wine world.  He even put paid to the myth about screw-top kinds being inferior.

As Hazel had suggested, the actual quantity we each consumed in the whole evening probably added up to about two to three glasses.  We were also supping plenty of water in between each vino serving.  I certainly wasn’t Brahms and Liszt.

We compared favourites.  My red preference was a South African Syrah Mouvedre; my white the aforementioned Torrentes from Argentina.

Lyndon’s were the same as mine.  ‘Honestly!’ he protested when Hazel shot him a sceptical grin.  ‘What about you then, Hazel?’

‘The Tempranillo for me.  Nice and robust and leathery.’  She looked like a true buff: all serious in her specs, lifting her glass to the light, twirling it round to scrutinise every leg and dreg.

Enid, whose face I noticed had taken on a cerise, dreamy quality, hiccupped that she ‘liked zzhem all.’

‘You OK, Enid?’ Lyndon enquired with concern.

‘Never better, hic, never better.’

At eight-thirty we moved into the main restaurant for our magnificent dinner.  As in the function room, the decor was minimalist chic: ice white walls decorated with those brashly colourful abstract canvases that I always think resemble a four-year-old’s potato prints but are so effective at breaking up the starkness.

We were served the promised soupcon of wine appropriate to each of the three courses: Verdejo from Spain with the starter of porcini mushrooms and pine nuts on toasted brioche, Californian Zinfandel with the main course of spicy Malayan chicken with coconut and lime sauce and sweet potatoes, and Sauternes dessert wine with the crème brûlée and lemon shortbread.  It was all aesthetically displayed on large square plates and in bold and contemporary glassware.

We were arranged around a long banquet table, which enabled the group to fragment and intermingle with fellow guests.  Ted was merry, beaming like a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Amazingly, he and Enid did not request the salad option.  Perhaps this banquet was their reward for a week spent munching lettuce.

Enid, obviously overloaded with booze and meat, was swapping anecdotes, at increasing volume, with a lady from Bolton.  ‘Well knock me down with a flip flop and call me Elsie,’ I heard her screech, ‘she’d been there all the time!’

What a fabulous expression ‘Knock me down with a flip flop and call me Elsie’ was!  One of those you just hear and have the urge to jemmy into a conversation of your own someday.

Lyndon’s arm was resting across the back of my chair.  We were so open and casual with each other now.  He twirled his glass, letting the liquid loll down the inside, and looked straight at me through it.

‘Impressive legs,’ he murmured.

‘Thank you very much!’

He peeped meaningfully under the tablecloth.  ‘You’re right, they’re not bad either.’

There was a lovely sexy, squishy feeling in my stomach.  Even when we diverged off into separate conversations with the folks either side of us, there remained this permanent undercurrent, this pull, between us, which I had truly never experienced before (go on, throw up if you want to, I’m merely expressing the slushy truth).  It took only a flicker of eye contact to draw us back together.  I could see that Lyndon obviously hadn’t shaved religiously during his holiday, and the stubble he’d cultivated was giving him a kind of Indiana Jones vibe.

Across the table, Enid cackled a raucous punchline to a joke.  ‘Come back in two weeks time and bring a pair of your old underpants!’

‘Two sniffs of the cork and she’s turned into Amy Winehouse,’ Lyndon whispered.

I saw Ted attentively prise his wife’s glass from her and place it at a point out of her reach.  ‘Don’t have any more, darling.’

By the time the waiters started to dole out the coffee and luxuriant orange chocolates, Enid was slumbering on his shoulder.

‘What you doing after this?’ I asked Lyndon, oh so nonchalantly, as I stirred my coffee.  My heart was going like a jackhammer; my spoon performing a similar action in the cup.

‘I usually like to have a drink with Julian in the bar.  On this occasion we could make it just the one, though.  To be polite.’

‘Right, right, of course.  Can’t be rude.’  My poor coffee was frothed to death.  I removed the spoon and clanked it into the saucer.  ‘And then?’  I was beyond caring whether I sounded forward and cheesy.  We were past the point of retreating chastely to bedrooms at opposite ends of the corridor.

It took him the longest time to answer, during which I’m pretty sure I ceased to breathe.  ‘Nightcap in the mini bar, perhaps?’

‘My room or yours?’ I queried brazenly.

‘Makes no odds really.  Mine if you like.  Room 12.’

‘Room 12 it is then.’  My voice sounded squawky and mangled, like a Speak & Spell with a duff battery.

A look zinged between us that said we both understood it was not the contents of the mini bar that were set to be explored that night.

******

‘I tell you,’ Julian gently closed his hefty photo album, ‘this hotel is my baby.’

He had talked Lyndon, myself, Martin and an American couple called Ernie and Jen through every ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot of his vast project to revamp the once ramshackle Rosterbury Manor.  Lyndon was right: enthusiasm oozed out of him when he spoke of his role as developer and hotelier.  There was nothing pompous or vulgar about this new Julian Crowfoot who had, in his own words, ‘derived a million times more fulfilment from this than I ever did making a buffoon of myself on the telly or consorting with inappropriate women.’

His big face looked wistful, though, as he added, ‘My actual babies haven’t spoken to me in twenty years.  But Josie, my first wife, and I are friends now, so I’m hoping she might sway them towards a reunion.  I’ve got two grandkids I’ve never seen.’

‘Price of fame, and all that,’ Lyndon reflected, and we each took a silent sip of drink as though in agreement.

It was just after ten.  Ted and wobbly Enid had retired to bed, Shane and Hazel were immersed in another food-related discourse, and the rest of the bar was heaving with both fellow walkers and folks who were taking less energetic weekend breaks.

‘I’ve applied for a Civil Wedding Licence.  The intention is that ceremonies will be conducted in the drawing room.’  Oh, to exchange vows before that gorgeous fireplace!  ‘The honeymoon suite’s finished since you were last here, Lyndon.  Got a four-poster, separate living room, Jacuzzi.  Actually it’s unoccupied at the moment.  Fancy a tour?’  An eager chorus greeted the offer.  ‘Righto, then.’  Julian stood up and tugged a forest of keys out of his pocket.

Despite what I was planning to do with him later on, I couldn’t look at Lyndon as we followed Julian.  I was blushing absurdly at all these public allusions to bridal suites and whirlpools and wedding nights.

You’re in company, Naomi.  Focus on the decor, not on thinking about Lyndon carrying you down this corridor and over the threshold of our wedding night boudoir!

The upstairs was much more contemporary in design than down.  There were fawn carpets throughout the corridors, acres of blond as opposed to dark wood, and white walls artistically illuminated by indigo uplights.

Julian selected the appropriate key from his assortment.  The door was not in fact locked, which clearly surprised him.

The porter, a gangling lad with an Adam’s apple the size of a snooker ball, came clomping in our direction at that moment.

‘Tone, why’s the honeymoon suite open?  There’s nobody staying in it.’

‘Tone’ looked as though he feared being shot.  ‘The new chambermaid borrowed the spare key, sir,’ he gulped.  ‘Said she’d forgotten to change the towels earlier.’

‘We haven’t got a new chambermaid.’  Julian’s face clouded.  ‘Tony, what is going on here?’

‘Can’t remember her name.  The blonde one.  She told me she – ’

But Julian was halfway into the room.  So were most of us by that point.  All the lights were on, and there was a peculiar but unmistakable stench suggestive of a chocolate fountain that had been left outside in a heatwave.

The rancid waves were radiating from the vast four-poster bed, whose beautiful cream sheets were soiled by an occupant who resembled a mud wrestler.

Polly!’ Martin yelped.

And so the poor man’s humiliation was complete, as his ex of one day was sprawled before us in a porn-star pose, apparently re-enacting the famous scene from Goldfinger, only instead of gold paint her buxom flesh was gilded in chocolate.

Tony’s Adam’s apple practically bounced out of his neck at the sight of her.  A chambermaid’s uniform, in which she had presumably disguised herself to wheedle the key from tremulous Tone, was discarded on the carpet.

Callously ignoring Martin, and not a bit abashed by our presence, Polly tilted herself up on to her elbows, letting her absurdly gooey boobs sway between them.  ‘What kept you so long, Julian?’  Her voice was like that of an actress in a particularly corny porno.  She patted the mucky bed.  ‘Gathering an audience for me, I see.  Well you know what I always say – the more the merrier!’

******

‘I’ll never be able to look a Wispa bar in the face again,’ Lyndon shuddered.  Polly had long since been forcibly escorted from the premises, threatening to scream to the News of the World about her invented tryst with Julian.  Peace was restored, and now Lyndon and I were walking to the long-anticipated room 12.  Alone at last.

‘She’s such a brazen cow, Lyndon.  There’s nothing she won’t stoop to.  I feel so much for poor Martin.’

‘He’s had a hell of a week, hasn’t he?’

‘He told me Polly has always wanted to bag a celebrity.’

‘I have no doubt she will one day.  Somebody Z-list and desperate.  Julian had nothing to do with her, I’m certain.  He’s turned over a new leaf.’

‘Oh, I know.  I could tell he was as shocked as the rest of us at the sight of her.’

After all the earlier flirting, we were walking without touching, along a tunnel of a corridor that appeared to taper and lengthen the closer we got to Lyndon’s door.  We were both in a kind of trance.  To a casual observer we may have appeared a standoffish pair, but in fact ours was the loaded reserve of two people who knew that if we did touch, or even look at each other, we would probably burst into flames.

We’d said goodnight to the others in the bar.  No one can have been in any doubt about why we departed together, but frankly it was too late to fret about being discreet.

Hazel gave me a huge hug, as though I was going off to war.  ‘Tally ho,’ she urged me, in typical Hazel fashion, and then whispered, ‘Have one for me, girl!’

‘Hazel!’  It was the closest I heard her come to smut.

‘Where would she have melted the chocolate?’ Lyndon wondered now.  ‘Did she infiltrate the kitchens, or just bring it along with her ready melted?’

‘I doubt it was actually Wispa, probably chocolate body paint.  You use that straight from the jar, smear it on with a brush.’

‘You sound very knowledgeable.’  He grinned at me with interest.

‘Research,’ I replied cryptically.  In fact I had never used chocolate body paint in my life, but it turned me on immensely to give him in the impression I was arch and knowing.

We had finally reached his room, that blond wood door with the portentous silver ‘12’ winking on it.  I brushed against him, enjoying the effect on him; the look of nervous enthralment on his face.  My tits – even if I do say so myself – looked glorious in the crisp, boned bodice, chafing against his arm.

He scrabbled with the key, jabbing it around the lock like he was playing pin the tail on the donkey, before dropping it.  I shot out my hand, caught the key and purposefully plunged it into the door – an action charged with meaning and innuendo if ever there was one.  Lyndon looked fascinated at the determined way I took charge.

The door shut behind us with a very suggestive click.  It was dark in there, of course, and Lyndon flipped the nearest light switch.  Rosterbury Manor had one of those confusing hotel light systems that you finally start to figure out when you are about to leave.  This switch inexplicably activated the bathroom light.  Well that was good enough.  The door to the en suite was sufficiently ajar to cast a slice of light upon the proceedings without being too harsh as the main bedroom light would have been (and without exposing too much of the rather off-putting toilet).

But that’s enough about the electrics.  We kind of leapt at each other.  I must have had the stronger leap because it was Lyndon who ended up against the wall.  Rid your mind, though, of those images of his lips crushed by mine, his arms flailing like an octopus to resist the onslaught.  No, it wasn’t a comical scene the like of which Hope and her duster had disturbed at the Grange on Thursday.

Lyndon had one hand somewhere in my bra this time, the other hugging my bum.  Like so many women, I had spent far too long being self-conscious about the dimensions of my arse, but under his touch it felt voluptuous.  I grinded against him, enjoying the sensation of giving him a handful, so to speak.  Not to mention the handful he was starting to give me in return, as a result.

Amidst all the activity he pressed against another light switch, which – again inexplicably – brought the bedside lamp to life.  This proved handy, as we progressed from the corridor, stepping between miraculously shed clothes along the way.  I was as thankful as hell I hadn’t restricted my holiday undies to just ‘can’t be bothered’ comfy cotton walking knickers.  I had lilac silky briefs on, with a frilly trim that, whilst lacking the exposure level of a thong, flashed teasing contours of my much-maligned bum.

He had armed himself with condoms too, of course – the old ‘Be prepared’ adage extended to birth control.  His were conveniently poised on the bedside table, which saved me the fag of having to inch back to my handbag, which had been jettisoned on the clothes pile back near the door.  It meant the clinch was able to continue as we edged towards the bed.

My thighs have always been on the plump side – I guess walking bulks them up – but he seemed to love them.  As my lovely dress slithered off, he caressed them solemnly as though fascinated.

At the height of this acute passion, I couldn’t help but laugh.  ‘Never seen any so huge, have you?’

By way of response, he hunkered down and actually kissed them.  And up between them too….mmm, wow!  The latter literally took my breath away.  Believe it or not, I had never actually been a recipient before.  My last boyfriend, Ed the Kaiser Chiefs fan, refused to go ‘there’ with his tongue (not sure why – it’s not as though I don’t wash), though selfishly expected me to pleasure him in an equivalent fashion.  Well stuff Ed!  I was on a different plane altogether now.  I had never felt so wanted or womanly.

His stubble was exquisitely bristly against the tops of my thighs.  I grabbed the back of his neck and gave him a rather unceremonious little tug, as though attempting to eat his entire head with my fanny.

An instant later, we tumbled on to his bed and were, frankly, at it like a pair of alley cats.  I burrowed myself into his torso, revelling utterly in the woody scent and his hairy, sticky skin.  He was fit, of course, on account of his profession, had a delicate brown birthmark in the shape of Cyprus at the top of his left arm and, while no yeti, was happily not an exponent of the waxed, boyband look.

From the unrolling of the condom to my quite startling orgasm, we clasped and scrabbled at one another.  I had never felt so much want in my life.

If climbing the fourth Matthew had been the pinnacle of the walk, then this was my personal peak (OK, I won’t labour the ‘summit’ or ‘peak’ analogy); the fulfilment of a week’s shamelessly ravenous yearning.  Yes, I know a week is not a long time, but Lyndon and I had been in constant and rather intense company and, if you think about it, you can know a person a lot longer but spend cumulatively fewer hours with them.

When I came I thought I was going mad, for I had never experienced anything like it before.  My lower body parts seemed to be encased in a warm, invisible jelly.  I didn’t want to stop but at the same time the unbearable excitement frightened me.  I was torn between wanting to be calm and still again, and longing to recreate that unique feeling.

The shy, composed Lyndon seemed surprised by his own prowess.  With his hair all damp and disorderly, he looked like a proud lion.

‘Didn’t know I had it in me, eh?’ he panted and flaked out on top of me.

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.

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.

Chapter 3

Wednesday
Crockington to Manderwood – The Second Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were seven typed random items:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sounds promising,’ Hazel grimaced.

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

‘No zebra then?’

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

‘Bless him.’

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

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

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

‘No problem.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good ruse, teammate.’

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

******

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That poor boy looks exhausted,’ Hazel murmured.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Martin gazed at the floor.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s very poetic.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

‘Splodge?’ I enquired.

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

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

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

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

‘He must love living in the country then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well done Shane,’ commended Lyndon.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel was virtually doubled up, hooting into her whisky.

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

******

Our gang failed to win a line between us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hazel!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well you’d hope so.’

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

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

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

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

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

Kids?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I reckon that Lyndon’s after her.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thank you,’ I responded automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Or at least only to Splodge.’

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

Oh wow!

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

Naomi!  Will.  You.  Shut.  Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

Tuesday
Sneydley to Crockington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What species?’ Hazel asked.

‘The brown long-eared variety, Hazel.’

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

‘Hateful thing, nepotism,’ Hazel tutted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re moving on.  That’s positive.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Absolutely.’

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

‘Have you complained?’

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

‘Good for you.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am sorry about your uncle, though.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Another of your childhood haunts?’

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Come again?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Eighteen.’

‘Got any more coming up?’

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

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

Rev Crisp nodded.

‘Never!’

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Four weeks,’ I answered happily.

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

My thumb prodded the delete button.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Druid?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

Zebra!

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

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

Shane chortled.  ‘Is it stripy steak?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s impala?’  I had to ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel’s adjective was ‘Sizzling.’

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

Martin: ‘Erm, chicken-like.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Would it?’ I drooled inanely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart could have broken for the bloke.

******

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

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

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

‘Me too.  Fascinating creatures, people.’

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

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

‘A disco?  Blimey.’

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

‘Nor yours, come to that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1

Julian Howard Crowfoot (born 5 May 1943 in Buxton, Derbyshire) is a chef, restaurateur and hotelier who at one stage became infamous for certain behaviour which allegedly caused a slump in Cadbury’s Wispa profits.

Career
___________________________________________________________________________
Public school educated, Crowfoot did not excel academnically and entered the catering trade at the age of 16, working his way up from washer-upper to owner of a string of restaurants. He won renown as a dessert chef, and also popularised wine tasting courses at his various establishments.

Crowfoot became a household name via his 1985 primetime BBC2 show Choc-wise with Julian Crowfoot, exploring the wonders of chocolate and its many and varied uses in cookery. An eponymous book was published to accompany the series.

A large proportion of his recipes contained alcohol. His speciality, rum and Wispa soufflé, became one of the BBC’s most requested recipes of the 1980s.

However, an infamous appearance on a 1989 edition of the chat show Wogan, during which a clearly inebriated Crowfoot repeatedly swore, despite the programme’s pre-watershed slot, and insulted his fellow guests Larry Grayson and Su Pollard, saw the demise of his terrestrial television career.

In the 1990s he acquired a short-lived presenting stint on the obscure – and now defunct – cable channel Menu TV.

After an ineffective attempt at reviving his obsolete TV career with an appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!, Crowfoot opted to bow out of the public eye altogether and throw himself into the hotel business.

He returned to his Peak District roots to purchase the historic Rosterbury Manor Hotel at Tunclough, where, although virtually teetotal these days, he runs regular wine tasting workshops and residential cookery courses.

Personal life
_______________________________________________________________________

Crowfoot’s first marriage, to teenage sweetheart Josie, the mother of his two children, collapsed at the height of his fame following his high-profile affair with the children’s TV presenter Cassie Pincher, who shortly thereafter became his second wife.

However, her affairs with two members of the Chippendales male strip troupe were exposed in the media.

In a lurid kiss-and-tell to the News of the World following their acrimonious divorce, Pincher claimed her infidelity resulted from her repulsion at Crowfoot’s preference for lolling around their house in baggy green Y-fronts, and his fetish for smearing his 18-stone body in melted Wispa and inviting her to lick it off.  Hence sales of the chocolate bar briefly dipped.

Crowfoot subsequently suffered a well-documented nervous breakdown and battled alcoholism and obesity. He was banned from driving for 18 months after pleading guilty to driving his Jaguar XJ6 at more than twice the legal alcohol limit.

Following his infamous Wogan interview, he admitted himself to the Priory rehabilitation clinic.

It was there he met his third wife Wendy, a fellow recovering alcoholic, whom he married following a whirlwind romance. That union too ended in a swift divorce, however, when it was discovered that Wendy was allergic to chocolate and thus unable to enjoy her husband’s recipes or indulge his aforementioned Wispa fetish.

References
_______________________________________________________________________

1. ^ “‘How Crowfoot’s careless Wispa made our marriage a total choc-up,’ by TV babe Cassie” News of the World, 5 August 1988.
2. ^ “‘Cooking sherry doesn’t count, sshurely,’ pleads troubled chef as magistrate imposes driving ban” Daily Mirror, 15 October 1989

External links
_______________________________________________________________________

– Rosterbury Manor official website
– Whatever Happened To…?

**********

From:  Adrian Raybould
Sent:  16 April 2010 15:53
To:   Naomi Ball
Subject: Jumping ship

Nay

Just spent my spare 10 minutes between appointments flicking through your resignation letter.

You pick your moments, girl, I’ll say that for you – sneaking that in on a day when I’m in back-to-back meetings and you’re about to escape on your jollies!

Only joking (you know my sense of humour by now), it’s just that you’re a valued employee and I can’t deny I’m gutted to lose you.

All this overtime you’ve put in to help Sian learn the ropes during her first few weeks has been immeasurably appreciated.

As you know, we work as a team here at Raybould Communications.  With Sian being relatively new to PR, and our lunchtimes currently eaten up by appointments with wedding suppliers (we intend getting spliced ASAP now Sian’s Decree Absolute is through), we have had to think outside the box for a while now.  Your continued help on these evenings and weekends is crucial.  Obviously some of it can make up for that day you had off for your uncle’s funeral.

I know you were disappointed not to get the senior marketing exec job this time around, and you must be kicking yourself for not correcting those typos in the McConnell Group press releases the other week.

I am unsure quite why you raise that matter again in your letter.  I have long since forgiven your slip-up.  Nova has repeatedly assured me that she passed you the message about the press releases requiring amendment, and I have made allowances for your undoubted distress that day following your unc’s death.  It is unfortunate that they were dished out to the newspapers containing misinformation, but these things happen.

May I beg you to, whilst slogging across the wilds of Shropshire next week, spend some time reconsidering your decision to quit?  We’ll touch base a week on Monday.

Regards.

Ade

**********


BEST FOOT FORWARD WALKING BREAKS

The Four Matthews

* 2-8 March, 19-25 April, 12-18 July, 4-10 October 2010
* 7-11 miles a day + ascents of up to 517 metres (1,696 feet)

Roam into Anglo-Saxon England on this 50-mile trek across some of the Midlands’ most fascinating yet forgotten natural landmarks.

The quartet of hills rise to varying heights at virtually equidistant intervals across the one-time Earldom of Matthew Theodoric, the 11th century Earl of Rosterbury.  The Earl (modesty never his strong point!) commissioned a marble bust of himself to crown each hill – thus they became dubbed The Four Matthews.

The ‘Matthews’ at Sneydley in south Shropshire and Tunclough in the Peak District mark the perimeters of his former land, with the two in between gracing the Staffordshire village skylines at Bhylcroft and Hisley.

The Earl’s powers were drastically curtailed during the reign of William the Conqueror, and the Earldom became obsolete.

The busts were torn down over 600 years later by rampaging anti-Royalists who opposed the Earl’s descendents’ support for the Cavaliers during the English Civil War.

Only the fragmented and centuries-ravaged head of the Bhylcroft bust remains, preserved in Manderwood Manor on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, the Jacobean manor house owned by subsequent generations of Theodorics before being acquired by the organisation History for Britain.  Earl Matthew’s ghost is a reputedly frequent visitor!

BFF will be taking groups of up to 8 on this idyllic yet testing hike.

We will stay in homely guesthouses along the route, and for our last night have negotiated a very special rate at the prestigious Rosterbury Manor Hotel, another historic Theodoric family home, now owned by famed chef Julian Crowfoot.  That evening’s activity, for those who opt to partake, will be an introductory wine tasting course.

The total cost of the break includes all bed, breakfast and evening meals, packed lunches where provided, and admission to Manderwood Manor on Day 3.  Please bring your own packed lunch for Day 1 only.  On 3 of the days there will be café or pub lunch stops, which will be payable separately.

Stout footwear is essential.  Parts of the route may be steep or muddy, and there are several stiles to negotiate.

We transport your baggage door to door between each destination, so you can enjoy the beautiful countryside unburdened by heavy cases.  Our luxury mini coach will return all participants to the Sneydley starting point on Day 7.

For full booking and costs information, see page…

**********

Monday
Sneydley – The First Matthew

Monday had a definite ‘first day of the rest of my life’ feel to it. The spring sun flooding my room seemed auspicious; the sensation of being bathed in it on that guesthouse candlewick could not help but uplift me.

The three computer printouts I’d been rereading surrounded me like dog-eared  islands.  I planned barricading my bedroom door at Julian Crowfoot’s place on Saturday, on the off chance he lapsed into infamous habits – especially since Cadbury’s recently re-launched the Wispa.  I’d printed off that Wiki entry to learn a bit about him – a decision I was now somewhat regretting.

As for Adrian stupid Raybould, about whom my dad often told me I had grounds for complaint to an employment lawyer, it was remarkable how my de-frazzled mind was already downgrading him to panto baddie status. His pudgy hands and ‘comedy’ ties might at this moment have been on another planet.

The little tosser had snubbed me for the rest of Friday, after his e-mail, which incidentally pointedly failed to address my more incriminating motives for resigning (it was understandable there were things he wouldn’t be admitting in writing).

Nova Bagnall’s family connection to the firm, for example. Adrian oh-so-earnestly denied that was an automatic basis for his accepting her word over mine (distress or no distress, I know she never passed me that message).  Then there was his hideously patronising suggestion to sharp-clawed Sian and me, who have never exactly clicked, that ‘you girlies have a bonding session sometime over a nice lunch.’

April Fools Day was the proverbial final straw the other week, though.  I tore over to the Fairlawns Hotel (yes, I was somewhat slow on the uptake that day)  to greet bemused staff who had no knowledge they were hosting any ‘urgent press conference.’  Only when the receptionist sympathetically thumbed towards her desk calendar did I twig the date.

When I returned incensed to the office, my dear boss guffawed that it was ‘just a more sophisticated version of the old “go and get a long stand” trick’ and ‘if you’re not blessed with a sense of humour I’m afraid you ain’t going to get far in this life, my wench.  No harm done, though.  Here, I think you’ve earned yourself a biccie.  You’re just in time for tea break.’  He jiggled the tin in my face but I declined, not caring to take a chance on it containing rubber biscuits, or one of those fake packets with a finger trap inside.

I now sipped tea on my bed, thinking elatedly of how I was free of the abominable Ade, for this glorious week and then shortly for good.  Any ‘touching base’ we’d be doing in a week’s time would be only for the purposes of agreeing my departure date.

I wondered whether there was any merit in lodging a complaint now I was leaving. I really hadn’t the funds for solicitors, due to my impending unemployment (temporary unemployment, I assured myself).  Dad had offered to pay for a consultation, but I refuse to leech off my parents. It’s one of my rules.  I knew I stood to inherit from Uncle Terry soon, but had no intention of dipping into that sum either.  It would be a backup, on which I would allow myself to subsist only if desperate.

I had career plans brewing, you see, and actually hoped this week would assist me in that direction.

I covered Adrian’s e-mail with the third printout on the pink bedspread, from the Best Foot Forward website, the very reason for my presence in what he called ‘the wilds of Shropshire.’  In fact Adrian’s definition of ‘the wilds’ is a location devoid of a Starbucks.  Sneydley village, according to its Wiki page, boasts a large primary school, small supermarket and post office, Chinese takeaway, Norman church – and the ‘distinguishing ratio’ of one pub to every 400 residents.

And The First Matthew (dubbed thus for our purposes – it’s the Fourth one, of course, to walkers who opt to follow the southbound route), the country peak I was to spend this afternoon scaling with seven strangers.  This was to be a gentle ascent to ease us in, with a packed lunch at the summit.

I wondered what friendships I might have forged by the time I returned to Walsall on Sunday; whose numbers I might have added to my mobile; in what ways – if I wanted to get all philosophical about it – I might have grown as a person.  What decision I might have reached regarding a prospective vocation.

I could employ any number of clichés here, about ‘finding myself’ or ‘going on a journey.’  People talk a lot these days about going on a journey, if not always a literal one.  It’s become an overused term on shows like X Factor.  Now I can’t sing (which admittedly is no hindrance to a lot of contestants on that show), but have been avid about walking ever since childhood Sundays when Mom and Dad packed my brothers and me into the Astra to Sutton Park or Kinver Edge to exert our tiny legs.

Innumerable walkathons, rambles and casual strolls later, completion of the Four Matthews path became an aspiration as I reached my twenties.  I nurtured it as my pet project – to the extent that, six years on, I had chosen to fulfil it with an organisation which promoted itself as friendly to ‘the solo traveller.’

I had Majorca to look forward to with Kathryn in September, but this week was my thing.  She and my other friends either couldn’t get the time off this week or didn’t share my passions for walking and local history.

As far as my soon-to-be-ex-workmates were concerned, though, I was with Kathryn this week too.  I’ll admit I felt silly and weak for telling a white lie, but without it I’d be labelled ‘Norma no mates’ in no time.  I was apprehensive enough as it was about taking my first solitary holiday.  The fact BFF advertised itself as ‘welcoming to the single traveller,’ therefore I was unlikely to be a Gore-Texed gooseberry, would never hinder their derision.

They thought it hilarious enough that I was ‘going to Shropshire for a holiday.’  To be fair, I suppose it could be seen as mildly amusing that I would at one point this week be about eight miles from my hometown (go on, laugh if you want to).  But then this was a specific trail I wished to follow, and I couldn’t exactly get the hills shipped to Ibiza in order to meet with Adrian Raybould’s approval.

I should stop now, as I’m sounding defensive, as though I’m justifying my actions to Ade himself.

Right, quarter-to-one.  I folded the printouts and weighted them down with my alarm clock on the bedside table.  Flipping my mobile open, I dashed off a text  to Mom – ‘Arrived safely.  Just about to go & meet the others.  Love u loads xx’ – while simultaneously draining my last slosh of tea, swilling the mug in my minuscule sink and standing it upside down next to the tub of tea bags.

The vista of sky and hill from my window was the uncompromising blue and green of a primary school painting.  The vivacious shades were so energising.  Standing up straight and determinedly, I flexed my arms into a ‘right, here we go’ kind of marching posture.  Then I zipped my rucksack and headed downstairs.

******

My first sight was of his back.  Cagoule-clad, of course, and in extremely heavy-duty hiking boots, he seemed to fill the tiny lobby of the Earlcott guesthouse (yes, the first of many Earl- or Matthew-derived place names gracing the route) where he was engrossed in the rack of leaflets.

I guessed at once this tousle-haired man was our leader.  Besides all the super kit, he had the assured, tranquil posture of an organiser. He wasn’t pacing the carpet, or compulsively checking his watch.

As soon as I approached he attentively turned, returning a Severn Valley Railway brochure to the shelf, and greeted – nay, dazzled – me with the most deliciously gregarious smile.  Now I hate to sound teenage, but this was a real ‘helll-ooo!!’ moment.  Already he was proving worth coming for, even without the walk.  I only hoped I wasn’t blushing too garishly – a tomato in Gore-Tex was never a good look.

‘Are you with Best Foot Forward, by any chance?’ Aged around thirty, he spoke with a faint Brummie accent, and his whole being seemed to exude this amazing quiet strength.  I hated to think what I was exuding, in the beam of those expressive grey eyes.

‘Yes, I’m Naomi Ball.’

‘Lyndon Hyde.’  Mmm, strong handshake.  Calm down, Nay, he’ll have women in every national park in the country, I cautioned myself, even as I was inspecting the other hand and thinking: Way hey, no wedding ring!  ‘Welcome. I shall be leading you all this week. You obviously found the place OK then?’

‘Yes, no problem.  Got a sat nav.’

‘What would we do without them?  Should be a good ’un this week.  The long range weather forecast looks promising.’

‘Yes, it does.’

‘Well it seems you’re the first, Naomi.  Oh, here’s another one.’

A spindly man, whose snug tracky bottoms revealed he’d be a frontrunner in any knobbly knees contest, materialised from a ground floor room, terminating my time alone with luscious Lyndon.  For the time being.

‘Shane Craddock,’ he declared in a Dudley twang, pushing his tiny glasses up the bridge of his nose.  His voice actually sounded remarkably similar to the Black Country one I’ve downloaded for my sat nav (instead of ‘You have reached your destination,’ he notifies the driver ‘Yow’m where you wanted to be,’ the ‘be’ phrased at a high pitch characteristic of the regional dialect, to make the statement sound like a question).

Then the rest surfaced in succession.  I fancied they’d been listening behind their doors for activity, none wishing to arrive first at the one o’clock meeting point. There were actually two couples – one fairly elderly and clad in matching khaki anoraks, one around my sort of age – plus a fun-looking lady in floral waterproofs and a ton of eyeliner. We exchanged fleeting introductions, but I hadn’t quite memorised all their names by the time we ventured outside for the afternoon.

Lyndon shepherded us into the little lounge for a brief preface.  We shyly clustered in front of the armchairs.  Nobody sat down, as though to make a point (‘We’re hardy hikers, you know – sofas are for wimps!’)

‘Now this afternoon we’re going to be climbing 506 metres, or just over 1,650 feet for those of us ot quite up to speed on the old metric system. This is the second highest of Matthew’s hills, the southernmost tip of the ancient Earldom.’

He stood in front of the fireplace, placid yet authoritative, like a favourite college lecturer.  Were abseiling a required element of this trip, I knew I could cheerily dangle off a mountain and trust him with the other end of the rope.

‘Our journey this week, as you know, will take us the entire length, bottom to top, of historic Earldom of Rosterbury, which comprised chunks of what later evolved into Shropshire and Staffordshire.  These Earldoms often encompassed numerous shires, or counties as we would now term them.  It was following the Norman Conquest that the vast Earldoms were dissolved and carved up into shires.

‘Any questions along the way, just shout, it’s what I’m here for.  We’ve got a reasonably leisurely ascent today, just to break you in for the week.  The path is nice and wide, not too craggy, and the view up there is something else, so I hope you’ve all brought your cameras. We’ll have our picnic at the top, then stroll back down in plenty of time for a cup of tea, or something stronger if you’d prefer, before we go in for dinner at half-six.  Now,’ he did a self-conscious little point in the direction of the front door, ‘let’s get going!’

******

‘To tell you the truth, bab,’ Shane Craddock was chattering, ‘I don’t know much about ’istory.  Ha, sounds like that song, dunnit?  Who was it sung that now, Marvin Gaye or someone?’

‘Sam Cooke, I believe.’  We were ten minutes along the path, comparing our motivations for taking this trip.

‘Oh ah, that’s the chap.  See, I’m no expert on ’istory but I’ve been bit by the fitness bug since me divorce.  The ex used to stuff me up with chips, y’see.  Every day.  That was all she knew how to cook.  Fish and chips, pie and chips, steak and chips, faggots and chips.  Eighteen stone I was by the time she left me last year, bab.’

Really?’ It was hard to picture scrawny Shane carrying any surplus lard.

‘I must admit I used to eat whatever was put in front of me.  I’m a binman, but I became a human dustbin.  She did all the cooking because she wanted to be an old-fashioned housewife. Her choice.’  He raised his hands, as though to fend off an onslaught from the feminist police.  He lowered his eyes.  ‘Then she ran off with her manager at Netto.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘She’d only bin working the tills three months – gone back after having the kids, like.  Got two – Bart’s me lad, named after Bart Simpson, he’s nine, and the little girl, our Myleene, is coming up to four.  I wanted to call her Beyoncé, but Debbie – that’s the missus – thought it sounded naff.  I see ’em twice a week now.  Not this week, of course, cuz I’m here.  Well anyway, it turned out this manager fella was slipping Debs a lot more than cheap groceries, if you catch my drift, bab.’

‘I do, unfortunately.’  At the head of our little convoy, I could see the female half of the younger couple simpering up to Lyndon, while her boyfriend/husband drooped silently in her wake.  I sensed somehow she could be of Debbie’s ilk.

‘Sorry to be crude, like.’  Shane turned burgundy, and toyed with his glasses again. ‘They’ve gorra fancy house together in Sedgley now and she’s fattening him up. When she left she took the chip pan, of course.  I’m sure you ladies’ll think it’s shocking that I couldn’t cook,’ he addressed myself and Floral Cagoule Lady, who had drawn level with us, in this sheepish admission, ‘but I’d lived with me mom, see, right up ’til I met Debs, which worn’t ’til I was thirty-four.  Anyway, I enrolled on a cookery course at Dudley College, learned how to do amazing things with vegetables.  I joined Slimming World, started eating salad and took up walking in a big way.  I’ve lost seven stone in a year.’

‘Wow!’  I was impressed.

‘I won Slimmer of the Year in their mag. They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley.  I could see me feet for the first time in
yonks.  The old gut’s as flat as a dodo now.’  He patted his diminished stomach with an expression of coy pride.

‘Bravo Shane.’  Floral Cagoule Lady actually slapped him on the back.  ‘That’s noble spirit.  Noble spirit.’  Shane ducked his head, doing that thing with his glasses again.  Noticing that the man was a touch overwhelmed by his own openness, our floral friend tactfully changed the subject, sweeping out her hand as if to embrace the boundless greenery before us.  ‘Now isn’t this all
just glorious?’

‘Idyllic,’ I agreed.  We had progressed now from meadow to the gentle gradient of Matthew number one.  We were blessed with comfortable walking weather: a resplendent sun, but its fire diluted by a jaunty breeze.

‘You don’t get scenery like this in Vietnam or Peru.’

‘You’ve done a fair bit of travelling then – sorry, what was your name?’

‘Hazel.  Boden.  And you’re Naomi, yes?  Oh Naomi, these boots have tramped across continents.  But give me the Pennine Way
any day over the Inca Trail.  There’s just something about the English countryside that calls to the heart, I find.’

Hazel Boden took an exaggeratedly hearty breath in, as though attempting to ingest Shropshire.  She had weather-beaten colouring, hair like a sooty dandelion, and an actressy manner which would probably grate on some people though I rather warmed to her.

As though shed read my mind, she said, ‘My father used to say I was probably a dandelion in a previous life. He had a quirky turn of phrase at times, bless his soul, but it’s true I do thrive outdoors.  I am not a person who can be contained within walls. Consequently I chose landscape gardening as a profession.’

‘Interesting job.  Must be so rewarding making people happy for a living. I’ve just walked out of a horrid one. PR company with a boss who’s a reptile in human form.’

‘Good for you, darling.  Life is far too short to be discontented at work.  I’m long retired now actually, hence I have so much time for rambles.  This is my fifth with BFF in the last twelve months.’

‘You rate them then,’ I had my ‘research’ hat on now, ‘as an organisation?’

‘They’re a super group to be with.  The leaders really know their stuff.’

Shane had dropped behind, and was now regaling the mousey older couple at the back with his diet history.  I decided to confide in Hazel.  That can be the beauty of groups like this. You find yourself, with no preamble, launching into confidences with strangers.  These people know nothing of your background, you are not usually likely to see them again, therefore an assumption exists that they will be non-judgmental.

‘To tell you the truth, I’m considering becoming one.  I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be contained by walls too, I suppose.
another part of my motivation for being here, to see whether I’d be suited to this kind of vocation.  I assume I could train.’

‘I suppose so.  No harm in making enquiries.  I imagine a sort of Butlins redcoat type with map and compass skills is what they’d be after.  You seem pretty passionate.  I think you ought to go for it, girl.’  Hazel’s gusto was infectious.  She was one of those women-who-won-the-war-but-still-got-home-in-time-to-make-a-nice-cup-of-tea types.

‘You do?’

‘I’m sure the good Earl himself would approve of your enterprise.’  She jabbed with her thumbstick towards the bare summit from which the marble Matthew once surveyed his subjects.  ‘Why not have a little word with that nice young man?’  She pointed towards another impressive male figure, Lyndon Hyde.

I smiled surreptitiously.  ‘Oh, I intend to.’

******

The climb was steady but energising, and by the time we sat down to eat in Earl Matthew’s spot the first layers of thermals were coming off.  Though it was reasonably breezy up there, being so exposed, there was real intensity in the sun when it burst forth.

I tethered my cagoule round me, and delved in my rucksack for the ham rolls I’d brought.  My new pal Hazel and I did the old school trip thing of comparing sandwich box contents.  She had delectable-looking slabs of rustically nutty bread, encasing tuna and lettuce.

‘Homemade?’ I enquired.

‘I bake all my own loaves.  Got a freezer full of ’em.’

‘You should go into business.’

I made ravenous inroads into my more prosaic but nonetheless delicious Tesco baps.  One thing regular walking teaches you is that the childhood cliché about food tasting better outside is so, so true.

The collage of fields and ant villages below us might have been all there was in the world at that moment, stretching into Staffordshire on the north-facing side and towards Kidderminster to the south.

‘There you go, bab, this is what I looked like.’ Shane was thrusting a photo at me. An engorged version of himself in a West Bromwich Albion top the size of a trade show gazebo. ‘I keep this on me all the while.’

‘As inspiration?’

‘Yow gorrit,’ he beamed. ‘It reminds me of what I never want to goo back to, and how much better off I am without bloody Debbie and her vegetable oil.’

‘Good on you, Shane.’  He was an open, sweet, surprisingly profound soul.  The contrast between this scarcely recognisable image and the Ryvita-crunching Shane of today was peculiarly touching.

I had a sudden vision of Adrian, Sian and the way they’d undoubtedly sneer at Shane were their paths ever to cross.  It made me feel extraordinarily protective towards this man I had just met.  More Shane Craddocks and fewer Adrian Rayboulds, that’s what the world could do with.

‘And here,’ his face glowed with love, ‘are my nippers.’

‘Aw, they look lovely.’  Bart was a mini Shane, specs and all; little Myleene dainty, with a bubble of curls.

‘Proper little bosters, they are.’

I handed his pictures back, and he showed them to the matching anorak couple – ‘There you go, Ted, Enid’ – who exchanged mutters in a low, fast, kind of animal language before returning to their forage of Tupperware salad.

Hazel produced a bag of Midget Gems from her rucksack and dispensed them among the group.

Lyndon was striding over to us.  I actually felt a blush seep up through me right from my feet. How pathetic.  Hazel winked knowingly at me.

‘Enjoying yourselves so far, ladies?’

‘Yes thank you, Lyndon,’ we chorused like schoolgirls answering the register.  Hazel thrust her sweets at him.  ‘Midget Gem?’

‘Thank you.’  He selected a red one.

‘Have another.  They’re only tiddly.’

Lyndon was clearly only circulating, to make sure none of his charges had sprained an ankle or knee, or been eaten by ferocious squirrels, but even this innocuous attention was resented by a certain faction.

Lyndon’s blonde fan was watching me, her eyes like bullets.  She had a tight cerise fleece on, strategically unzipped to allow liberal boob overspill.  Her make-up was about as subtle as a drag queen’s, she had nails that could tear out a rival’s eye if need be, wore earrings the size of toilet seats and pink boots that were pristine and impractical-looking.  The tall, timid man who accompanied her might as well have been invisible; I recognised it was Lyndon she had in her inexorable sights.

Lyndon continued, ‘I truly think this is one of the best views in Shropshire.  I was just saying to Martin and Polly over here’ – so those were their names – ‘this was reputed to be Earl Matthew’s favourite of “his” hills. Nice to have a selection at one’s disposal, eh?’

I somehow doubted Posturing Polly was enthralled by Lyndon’s views on, well, views.  I was sure Martin was the walker or history buff of the two.

My own conversation skills were hardly stunning at that moment.  ‘Quite,’ I gulped.

‘He used to relax up here, no doubt with his goblet of mead and his bag of Monster Munches, and survey his domain.’

‘Who could blame him?’  Woo, four words that time.  My voice as I chuckled at his wit sounded strained and echoing in the open air.

Polly, with her hostile eyes still on me, was now virtually fellating a Flake bar.  I felt like yelling at her: ‘Yeah OK, we get it, you’re The Sexy One!’

I met her glare with an exaggeratedly ingenuous smile which seemed to nettle her further.  Good!

Lyndon repeated his ‘Any questions, just ask’ encouragement, smiled gorgeously at me and loped away to check on Shane, Ted and Enid’s progress.

And – oh cringe! – I noticed a wodge of tomato had plopped out of my roll while he was talking to us, and landed on my lap.  I flicked it on to the grass in disgust, thinking it was no wonder he was smiling.

******

Tomato stains aside, the post-lunch descent was more successful, in terms of interaction with Lyndon.  It was Polly and Martin’s turn to be filled in on Shane’s divorce-and-diet saga, and the comical sight of bored Polly pouting as the Dieting Dustman from Dudley ploughed on obliviously about chips gave me the confidence to monopolise our leader for a while.

‘You must have done this route a few times,’ I ventured.

‘A few dozen.  It’s one I never tire of, though.  You?’

‘I’ve never done the Matthews before.’  I often giggle needlessly when I’m self-conscious. I did so now, cringing at how dippy it sounded.  ‘Well, only sections of it.  Actually this is the first time I’ll have attempted a route this length.’

‘What made you choose this one?’  He had an attentive manner that was so appealing, as though everything you said was of
real interest to him.

‘I’ve lived in the Midlands all my life, know the area well.  And history always fascinated me at school.  I loved learning about the Four Matthews, and when I found out there was a footpath across the land it became a bit of an obsession that I just had to get it out of my system before it drove me mad.’

Hazel, who had slunk diplomatically apart from us, caught my eye and grinned, as though approving that I had found my voice.

‘You’re an experienced walker then?’ Lyndon asked.

Why does the urge to spout inane one-liners strike when you’d really prefer to appear sophisticated?  I swallowed ‘Been doing it since I was a year old – I’m shattered now,’ and instead responded, ‘When I was a kid, my parents took my two brothers and me out every weekend in the summer.  Sometimes my Uncle Terry came too.  Gary and Simon used to moan and groan – they preferred to stay in and watch The Chart Show – but I always loved it.  We used to pile the bag up with cheese and tomato sandwiches and a box of Mr Kipling cakes, and play poohsticks if we happened to be near a river.’

‘Sounds very similar to my sister Caroline and myself.’

‘There just the two of you?’

‘Yeah.  She’s six years younger.  A teacher. PE teacher.’

‘Quite a sporty family then?’

‘S’pose we are really.  Going back to childhoods, I bet the sun seemed to be permanently shining on your excursions too, eh?’

‘Absolutely.’  I’d got carried away blethering about my childhood, but sod it, he seemed more interested than he had in whatever Posturing Polly was saying to him earlier. ‘Happy days.  I think we did every beauty spot within a twenty-mile radius of Walsall.  Gaz and Si grew out of picnics with the parents, and so did I eventually but I’ve always kept up with the walking.  That’s why my big brothers are lard-arses now!  No, they’re not really, it’s just that I’m the family mountain goat.  As I grew up, I progressed to longer and longer trails.’

‘You get such a buzz from pushing yourself that bit further, don’t you?  Saying that, I only have to get a couple or three miles under my belt before I feel as though I could carry on and on until I’ve reached the Equator.’

‘I know what you mean.  It’s addictive.  You know, I’ve never taken drugs in my life.  I get all the natural highs I need from the exercise and fresh air and country landscapes.  My school and college mates thought I was a bit eccentric when I used to say that. Certain people I know still do.’

‘You never need to worry about what people like that think.’  Lyndon shook his head earnestly.  I expected he’d been on the receiving end of similar digs.

‘Oh, I never have.   A simple stroll brings untold joys.  If swotting for my exams ever got too much, I used to put my boots on and after a few miles I’d walked the stress out of my system.  I do the same nowadays, when work woes start to mount up.’  I veered away from that topic, not wishing said work woes to excessively encroach on this break.  ‘The Matthews has been an ambition of mine for some time.’

‘It is such a picturesque path.  The distance between the hills is so uniform, it’s as though they’ve been carefully placed at those intervals along the edge of some colossal tape measure.  I truly believe the world has seen no greater designer than Mother Nature.’

Lyndon’s passion on the subject was so attractive. He had such a lovely easygoing manner – which made conversing with him
comfortable, once I was over my giggly, gabbly hot blush stage – but there was also vigour in those deep smoky eyes.

He had that tousled hair thing going on too, which gave him quite an arty appearance though there was nothing hippyish or unkempt about him.

‘I expect I sound a bit of a Matthew anorak,’ he chuckled apologetically.

‘Not at all.  So how long have you been with BFF?’

‘Just over a year.  After a decade of following a very different career path.’

‘Oh?’  I could picture him as a sculptor, throwing clay in a converted barn studio, or perhaps a landscape gardener like Hazel.  Nothing desk-bound.

‘Accountancy, would you believe.’

Really?

‘I’ve only let the old locks grow since those days.’  He gave his collar-length mane an exaggerated flick, chuckling at my unconcealed amazement.  The idea of him with sensible hair and a tie was way too silly.  ‘I kind of fell into the profession.  That may sound terribly pathetic and passive, but you know what schools can be like.  Exam factories, steering gullible teenagers
towards super duper careers, hyping you up to thinking you’ll be somebody if you acquire certain letters after your name.  Well I got my degree, qualified, attained these goals I thought I aspired to, then several years down the line finally woke up and twigged that it wasn’t me, you know.’

‘I understand.  Totally.’

‘I’d always had this love for the countryside too – well, affinity really – and used to escape there of a weekend.  It became a necessity, after spending Monday to Friday poring over audits.  My first step was moving out here.  I fell in love with a cottage half a mile from where we are now.’

‘Handy.’

‘Very.  When I’m on the rota for the Matthews trip at least.  It’s such a haven here.  I’m still at the stage of waking up every day feeling as though I’m on holiday.  I suppose, doing this job, I am in a manner of speaking.  Albeit other people’s holidays.  My dad first told me about the group.  He’d been on a few of these breaks.  Then I came on a couple, and was very impressed with how they ran the show. Other things had changed in my life, so I took the next plunge, quit the rat race, and here I am.’

‘Good for you.’  What ‘other things?’  I couldn’t help wondering.

‘Best thing I ever did, I tell you.  Used to be able to see the Clent Hills from my office window, well just about, on a clear day, but they seemed to tug at me.  One day – as I say, this was just over a year ago, and it was a glorious spring day – I happened to look out, and something inside me just snapped.  We were approaching the financial year end, and I thought: why the hell am I not yomping over those hills instead of being caged in this sterile office up to my neck in tax returns?’

I could have married him on the spot.  Was there ever a man who spoke to my heart so?

I opened my mouth, and would have requested an application form for BFF leader training there and then.

‘Lyndon mate, sorry to interrupt like – I was just wondering what that was up there.  That great big wheel.’  It was Shane, pointing out a monument on a distant slope.

‘A memorial, Shane,’ Lyndon flipped back into tour guide mode, ‘to the men who worked in Sneydley Pit.  This used to be a huge mining area.  Some of Earl Matthew’s descendents became wealthy mine owners, among other things.  The pit shut down in the late sixties.  It’s a country park now.  That big winding wheel was put up about ten years ago as a memorial.’

Thus ended my monopoly on conversation with Lyndon for a while.  I could hardly be irked by Shane.  He was entitled to ask questions about the local heritage, and this is what it’s like on long walks anyway.  Folks drift in and out of fluid groups, and
sights along the way spark conversation that is by its very nature spontaneous.

******

Back at the Earlcott, we dispersed to shower and change and were invited to reconvene for dinner at half-six, or in the bar from six if we wished to partake of a pre-meal drink.

I checked my texts.  There was one from Mom, in reply to mine, and one from Kathryn, to whom I rattled off an emoticon-peppered précis of our handsome walk leader.

Then I spread a few clothes on the bed, put the TV on, flicked through the early evening game shows and left Come Dine with Me on as a soundtrack while I climbed in the shower.  I wasn’t too muddy or sweaty today.  After more strenuous slogs, the anticipation of sluicing my grimy skin and throbbing joints in citrus shower gel is as much part of the experience as the walk itself.

After showering, I ran the stained square centimetre of my walking trousers under the tap, scouring at the faint tomato splodge, and draped them over the bath to dry.

Now for tonight’s attire.  On the telly (I’d seen this episode before) Rod from Keswick was bellowing bleeped-out expletives as he slopped half of his banana soufflé mix on to his kitchen tiles.  I meanwhile was cursing my lack of wardrobe foresight.  I think I’d been half hoping my splayed-out clothes might miraculously breed during my shower, to produce a week’s worth of sexy, Lyndon-wowing outfits. Nope, there was still just the one dress – Monsoon’s finest, in silvery-purple – staring back at me.

It was extremely pretty, though: a strappy mesh dress with a handkerchief hemline that hung flatteringly around my calves. It was gathered at the waist, with embroidered detail to obscure the slight bulge of tummy to which I’m irksomely prone despite all the exercise I do, while the pleating and boning at the bust accentuated me where I needed accentuating.

I had earmarked it for Saturday night at Julian Crowfoot’s, anticipating more casual nights in tops and trousers at the other boarding houses.  Not that said tops and trousers were not presentable, I just hadn’t banked on meeting a Lyndon type.  Or, for that matter, a Polly type who was bound to eclipse me in something strapless, backless and frontless.

Even as I was getting ready, a voice in my head screeched: ‘Let him take you as he finds you.  If he’ll only like you in a frock he must be shallow.  He’s already seen you in waterproofs anyway – any variation on that is going to be an improvement.  And he hardly seems the kind to judge if you wear the same thing twice!’

Obviously I could not pass up an early drink with Lyndon, so I called for Hazel and was bar-bound for six.

‘Woo, you look nice.  He’ll love it,’ she said conspiratorially, which instantly sent my self-esteem soaring.

‘You’re pretty striking yourself, Hazel.’  She was all floaty in a tangerine kaftan, the sort of garment I’d have actually put money on her possessing.  Her cloud of hair looked more windswept, her marker-pen eyeliner smudgier than ever.  It was fair to say her look would not have suited every woman.  ‘Been watching Come Dine with Me as well?’  The end credits were rolling behind her shoulder.

She zapped it off with the remote.  ‘Don’t care for television much as a rule, but that programme is rather an indulgence of mine.  That and Strictly Come Dancing.  Can’t believe the ninny with the soufflé won it, though.’

‘I know!  Gives us all hope for our culinary efforts, doesn’t it?  Shall we call for Shane on the way?  I remember which room he came out of this morning.’

‘Yes, of course.’

As we walked down, livid voices wafted through Polly and Martin’s door.  Or rather hers was livid; his more docile and placatory.

At first I couldn’t distinguish words.  Then I heard Martin mumble something like, ‘You know it was Sarah’s idea that we come on this week together.’

‘Bloody Sarah,’ Polly shrieked, ‘she’s all I hear about lately.  You’re getting quite boring on the subject, Mart.’

Hazel pulled an ‘Ooh heck!’ face at me.  Hmm, so maybe Polly’s attention to Lyndon was vengeance for Martin’s affair with sexy Sarah?  Somehow, despite apparent evidence, this was not a theory that convinced me.

Shane was already in the bar with Lyndon, as it happened.  His now familiar Dudley twang was audible as we arrived downstairs.

‘They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley. And this is the photo I keep on me as inspiration – ooh hello ladies.’  He stowed his now very dog-eared ‘fat’ picture back into his pocket.

Lyndon, with his wallet poised, flashed us one of his fabulous smiles.  ‘What can I get you both to drink?’

He had a black shirt on now, with dark jeans. Dark hues suited him.  I had an odd fascination with seeing these folks in ‘civvies,’ as it were, after an afternoon in fairly uniform outdoor gear. It reminded me of mufti days at school. I’m no fashion judge, never have been, it just interested me what my classmates wore in their leisure time.  Something to do with clothes revealing character.

Shane pointed to his pint.  ‘Haven’t had one of these in months.  Not since I found out how many calories are in beer.  Treating meself today, though, bab.’

‘You deserve it,’ Hazel insisted.  ‘Mine’s a Scotch and water please, Lyndon.’

‘Naomi?’

‘Red wine, please.  That’s very kind of you.’  I noticed he was drinking the same.

‘The house red all right with you?’ asked Bryony the barmaid.

‘Great, thank you.’

I was hungry, so it zoomed to my head on first sip.  But with it came that lovely softening sensation wine produces, and also a self-righteous sense that because I’d exercised today this was a glass earned. I’ve never been one to get pissed for the sake of it.  A glass of good wine is always preferable to a skinful of alcopops.

‘If you like your vino,’ Lyndon said, ‘you should enjoy Julian’s tasting course on Saturday.’

As long as his wine is all we’ll have to taste, I thought, bearing in mind the chef’s reputation.

My empty tummy chose that moment to rumble like a jet plane.  I clamped my hand over it apologetically.

‘Fancy a look at the menu?’ suggested Lyndon diplomatically.  ‘I can recommend the lamb.’

‘Think I might have that actually.’  I wasn’t saying that to ingratiate myself with Lyndon, I did genuinely favour the roast rack over the braised chicken with beans, salmon fillet or aubergine melts.  A surprisingly broad choice for a rural guesthouse.  ‘Plums baked in sloe gin – mmm, that sounds lush.  I won’t bother with a starter in that case, then I can make space for a pudding.’

My unruly belly gave another yearning roar at the thought.  I golloped some more wine, as though that would silence it.

Polly and Martin made their entrance as it approached half-past six.  While Martin appeared faintly distressed from their row, Polly shimmied in, a defiant sensation in a cerise bustier and leather leggings.  I saw Shane gulp.  I was forced to wonder what Polly lacked that the ill-famed Sarah could possibly possess.

Her standards were evidently slipping, however, as she wasn’t quite swift enough to bag a seat next to Lyndon at dinner.  I slid into one; Hazel swiped the other.  I had to stifle a smirk when Ted and Enid arrived just as we were being seated and nipped obliviously into the places opposite Lyndon and me, which left our stroppy couple at the other end, across from Hazel and Shane, who I hardly imagined were favoured company for them.

Over dinner – ‘You were right about this lamb, Lyndon, the food’s delicious here’ – I confided my new career ambitions in him.
His eyes unguardedly met mine; I could have been the only person in the room.

Happily he was receptive to my idea too.  ‘We’re always delighted to welcome new recruits. I’ll sort you out an application form. Once you’ve returned that, they invite you to go for an assessment.  That takes place over four days, usually somewhere in the Peak District.  Pretty intensive.  You’ll have to navigate a walk; they test you on the kind of scenarios you’re likely to encounter on one
of these breaks.  Once you’ve passed, they let you loose on the general public.’

‘Sounds right up my street.’

‘Once you qualify, though, you’re not on constant holiday.  We do a lot of non-residential walking days too – we take groups of students out, do corporate events, that kind of thing.  Still up for it?’

‘Absolutely.’

Hazel did a discreet thumbs-up at me.  I hid my crimson face behind my wine glass, which proved an unwise idea as it only drew
to my juddering hands.

I attempted to deflect attention from them by making conversation with Ted and Enid who, apparently unimpressed with the diverse menu, had both ordered salads.  I’m afraid to say I thereafter privately christened them the Salad Couple.

‘How’s your, er, watercress?’ I ventured.

They looked startled to be addressed.  ‘Very nice,’ Ted murmured, after peeking at Enid as though he sought permission to answer.  They then kept their eyes on their leafy plates to preclude further dialogue.

Over coffee, Lyndon said to the table at large: ‘Now I’m sure you’ve all brought your itineraries along but just to refresh you, we’ll be getting about ten miles under our belts tomorrow.  We head to Quanswood first – some interesting wildlife there – we’ll get to the village of Lower Bratchley by lunchtime, that’s in South Staffs, then we follow the canal north to Crockington, which is where we’ll be staying tomorrow night, at a delightful place called the Badger Inn. It’s a Georgian hostelry with an intriguing menu.

‘We need to leave here at nine.  Come down for breakfast when you like – it’s served from seven – as long as we’re all ready to assemble in the lobby with our cases at nine.  Clive who drives the mini bus will drop off whatever luggage we aren’t taking on the walk to the Badger.  So obviously make sure you don’t leave anything behind.  Any questions?’

‘Can you expand on the intriguing menu?’ I asked.

‘No, I won’t elaborate yet, Naomi, but I can guarantee it will be quite unlike any other you encounter this week.  Now the rest of the evening is yours to do with whatever you wish.  Anyone fancy a game of cards?  They keep a pack in here usually.’

Lyndon went over to the dresser and pulled a dog-eared pack out of a drawer, which I saw also contained chess and a tattered Guess Who game.

Hazel was up for it, so was Shane, so was I of course.  The Salad Couple conferred with one another before burbling that they would get an early night.

‘Polly?  Martin?’ Lyndon tipped the cards on to the table and started shuffling.

Polly had scowled at the rest of us like shit all night, but now that Lyndon was talking she instantly dimpled and adopted an oozy voice.  ‘Love to, but Mart and I really ought to be getting to bed’ – she emphasised the word – ‘as well.  Come on darling.  G’night everyone.’  Despite the cursory ‘everyone,’ she looked only at Lyndon.

I have to say he displayed no signs of being impressed as she floated out like a figurehead, or wildly jealous when, within minutes, ostentatious bedspring and orgasm noises filtered down from her and Martin’s room.  Evidently they were over their squabble.

I didn’t hazard eye contact with Lyndon while their showy shag was in progress.  Neither did I snigger or pull a face, because that would have seemed pitifully unsophisticated.  In fact all four of us were far too polite and British to acknowledge the shrieks in any way other than by talking over them, through an increasingly loud bout of rummy.  I was halfway through yelling ‘Jack of SPADES’ when they suddenly subsided and I found I was echoing.

Hazel proved an adroit card sharp.  She triumphed at rummy, and after a few hands we decided to disperse and retire.  ‘Naomi, dear,’ she said, ‘I’m not much of a morning person so don’t worry about calling for me – unless I still haven’t surfaced by ten-to nine.’

‘Right you are.  Well it’s been a very interesting day,’ I said woozily as I tucked my chair in.  Hazel and Shane murmured their agreement.

‘Glad you’re all liking it thus far.’  Lyndon gathered up the cards and crammed them back in the packet.  ‘I hope the rest of the week proves as enjoyable.  Naomi, I’ll sort you out that application form in the morning.’

‘Thank you Lyndon.’

‘My pleasure.’

All mine, I assure you!

I was not yet so forward as to engineer being the last one downstairs with Lyndon (I intended waiting until at least, ooh, Wednesday).  I had no idea yet whether a wife, girlfriend, or indeed boyfriend, existed on whose toes I potentially trod.

Heading for the door, flooded with lust and wine, I sneaked a last pre-bed gaze at him while he was at the dresser with his back to me.

‘Good night,’ I said.