Chapter 6

Saturday
Urdale to Tunclough – The Fourth Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why not?’

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

‘Oh ah?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not surprised!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was baffled.  ‘Kirsty?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s good to know.’

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Evening folks.  Hello Naomi.’

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

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

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

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

‘And you –’

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Never better, hic, never better.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Impressive legs,’ he murmured.

‘Thank you very much!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My room or yours?’ I queried brazenly.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polly!’ Martin yelped.

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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