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  Her Express & Star newspaper had been replaced by a wordsearch, although if intellectual stimulation was the aim it apparently hadn’t worked as she was still yawning.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.