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.