We stayed at the Château de la Ferté Beauharnais, in the Blue Tower Room. Apart from the novelty of being round, it boasted a four-poster bed with beautiful linen and a mohair blanket. Elsewhere were pieces of period furniture, riding boots and some elegant hats. I wondered whose feet had trodden the oak boards and who had gazed out of the shuttered windows.
While our host, Daniel, was phoning a restaurant for us, my husband, Tony, discovered there were no bath towels (they arrived later). We then learned the restaurant was closed (vacation) and there was no key to the room (not even a key-hole).
We went in search of food. The nearest town claimed it was the home of the ‘véritable tarte tatin’, my husband’s favourite dessert. We found a lively restaurant and at dessert time, the waitress rattled off a list.
‘Is there no tarte tatin?’
Maybe Josephine suffered the same dismay at her wishes being frustrated.
The next morning, the breakfast table was laid with fine china and elegant cutlery. We avoided toast as the smell of burning was strong. I asked about the house and Daniel settled himself down beside us.
It had indeed belonged to the Beauharnais family, Josephine living there in her pre-Napoleonic days with her husband, Alexandre, before he lost his head in the French Revolution.
‘Do you have time to see the original kitchen in the cellar?’
Of course we had. In the centre was a wooden table, polished by many hands. It was where Josephine signed over the house to her son, Eugène de Beauharnais. I stroked the table and felt her fingertips.
What’s a bit of disorganisation when you get a treat like that?
Pompous bighead. There’s always one on a trip like this. A group thrown together in Sri Lanka. We shared a love of travel but probably little more.
I complained that the insect spray I’d used had dissolved my watch strap as I looked yet again at my empty wrist.
‘I’m wearing a cheap watch. Didn’t want to bring my good one.’
‘Well, it’s expensive. Just paid £600 to have it cleaned.’
‘It’s a Rolex.’
He had to get it into the conversation. Yet he didn’t have fancy ways, quite the opposite. Then I looked more closely. His clothes had designer logos on them; his wife carried a Gucci bag. When we all got chatting, he’d visited more places than most, owned a yacht, had driven a Ferrari and flown a helicopter. He needed to tell us.
When talk turned to jobs, he’d had more than all of us. Now he ran a number of businesses, had sold a few successful ones and was moving into property.
‘Not bad for a Secondary Modern boy, eh?’
Well, good for him. I was moving away, not wanting to learn more about his entrepreneurial lifestyle when a snippet of conversation floated by.
‘I didn’t know I was adopted. Learned it from kids in the street who taunted me with “She’s not your Mummy”. I was a war-time illegitimate baby, signed over to a woman with a mental age of eight.
‘Just a signature. Didn’t matter it was a slum with a hole-in-the-ground toilet. My adoptive parents never discussed it.
‘My real parents? I did find them. They didn’t want to know me. All posh cars, big houses.’
He needed the comfort of possessions. It gave him a place in the world. The recognition he missed as a child.
‘I’d never have married him if I’d known he’d turn out like that!’
‘It’s not Arthur, Betty.’
‘Isn’t it? Then where is he?’
‘He’s not here.’
‘Has he died?’
‘Yes, a long time ago.’
‘But just look at the way he’s dribbling. Arthur, Arthur, look! My friend will give you a tissue.’
‘No need, a carer is looking after him.’
‘But that’s my job. Not that I like it here. My boys are trying to get me out. I’ve told them not to make too much fuss or they’ll get themselves a bad name. But if I do get out, I’ll get the place shut down. Then Arthur will come home. They live downstairs, you know, the warders. On the ground floor.’
‘Warders? It’s not a prison, Betty. It’s a modern care home for people who find it too much living on their own. Your boys chose it.’
‘It’s a prison. You can’t get out. I know. I’ve tried the door. So has Margaret. Just look at her over there playing with her dinner. It must be stone cold. What a way to chew with her mouth wide open! Mother would be ashamed of her. We were brought up to eat nicely.’
‘Oh, Betty, it’s not Margaret. She died years ago.’
‘Looks like her! And I suppose Mother’s dead?’
‘Of course she is. You’re ninety-six.’
‘Mmm. I’m the only one left with any manners. Arthur slobbering, Margaret making a mess of her food.’
‘Shh, they’ll hear you and it might upset them.’
‘Well, if the warders hadn’t hidden my hearing aids, I wouldn’t have to shout! My rings have disappeared, too. You can’t trust these people.’
‘I think you’re just a bit confused, Betty. It’ll be alright. Give me a hug. See you next week.’
What hoops applicants have to jump through to get a job! Online tests, presentations, in depth interviews by a daunting panel – and that’s just to get on to the short list. Terrifying stuff.
I didn’t so much jump as wriggle on my stomach past the observers.
In the 80’s, my husband’s job took him to Norway so, being a pharmacist, I applied to a score of pharmaceutical companies in Oslo for an opening – just speculative, no advertised vacancies. It was a gamble – I’d never worked in the industry. Half ignored me; many rejected me. A handful made positive noises. One company called me in to talk to them at their UK branch.
We had a pleasant chat. They told me what they did – I wasn’t well prepared but fortunately they didn’t ask much. They said they couldn’t offer me a job at an affiliate office in another country but they told me who to contact when I arrived.
It worked. I met a charming office manager in Oslo. He introduced me to the staff, a small group who preferred to speak Norwegian rather than English. I contributed haltingly having learned a little of the language. They made jokes about English pots of tea – theirs was made in a coffee machine. It was laid back and casual. Nobody wore a suit.
I wondered what the next step would be. Another, more formal, visit? An interview with a senior member of the company? No.
They simply asked me if I could start the following Monday.
Did everyone think someone else had done the interview? Who knows? If I didn’t wriggle past them, then I slipped through the net.
I worked successfully for the company for the next twenty years.
I am a serial loser of handbags. I’ve left one in Italy (on a train), Norway (in a mountain cabin), Scotland (in a distillery). Then there was Canada.
We headed along Highway One, the Trans-Canada Highway, a straight line into the distance.
‘You’d think the Romans had been here,’ my husband said.
Not the Romans but the early pioneers, going west, not knowing what lay head. We knew. We were going to the Rocky Mountains. The land was flat as we left Calgary. Then we saw the ski jumps, challenging monsters for other brave men, a legacy from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped to take photographs and have lunch in a café.
Then on again. We drove slowly, taking in the ever more spectacular view. At Canmore, a ski resort near Banff, we stopped to look around.
I reached for my handbag by my feet. Not there. Nor on the back seat. I froze as I re-lived the last hour of my life.
‘I left my handbag behind at lunchtime.’
My husband’s face was eloquent. There was much he could have said, but didn’t. Instead we simply headed back east.
He didn’t need to berate me; I was giving myself a bad enough time. We listed the bag’s contents: passports, credit cards, $500, glasses, mobile phone.
The return journey was unpleasant. The scenery irritated us with its slow passage. The 90 kph speed limit mocked us.
I ran into the café, to the table we’d used. No handbag. Jumping the queue, I told my story.
And there was my bag, handed in by a customer. Thank you, honest Canadians!
‘They do everything together. Lovely to see friendship like that.’
My parents were delighted when Graham bought a house next door to David.
‘How lucky they were it came up for sale!’
Mum had a close affinity to David, an avid traveller who loved the mountains, just like her. David planned all the trips while Graham took the photos. Not photos, slides. Much better reproduction, they agreed. They had slide shows and Mum and David recommended places in Switzerland and Austria to each other. David and Graham went on holiday together every summer. It was the highlight of their year. Their journeys were legendary.
I liked David. He was chatty and sociable whereas Graham retired into the background. But he was okay. We invited them both to our wedding and they came.
I was upset when Mum said David wasn’t talking to his parents any more. She didn’t know why. She’d tried asking his Mum, Auntie Beryl – not a real aunt, but every older lady was an aunt in those days – but had got nowhere. ‘Don’t like to pry,’ she said, ‘so I didn’t press the matter.’ None of us could understand why such an easy-going, likeable character like David would cause a family rift.
I was an innocent. We were then. I knew little about the world. I didn’t ever consider their friendship was more than just brotherly affection. Took decades before realisation hit me. Mum never knew. She wouldn’t have believed it if someone had spelled it out.
How sad they had to buy neighbouring houses! I never saw a single expression of intimacy, never a touch. A secret, fearful life. They were teachers; they couldn’t risk their jobs. It was illegal in the early sixties; they couldn’t endanger their freedom.
We thought it would be relatively easy after the Coast-to-Coast walk. Around fifty miles on five days, no day longer than twelve or thirteen miles. Easy to be seduced by numbers.
None of the hills is as high as in the Lake District; there is no rocky clambering. But we went up and down a lot. All four of us noticed that.
We decided to travel to and from the walk by train and bus – it solved the parking problem – and ate a picnic lunch on the way there. Tony managed to lose a crown while munching. Not totally lose it – we wrapped it in cling film only slightly smeared with mayonnaise from the sandwiches to keep it safe. There must be a dentist somewhere along the Cotswold Way who could glue it back in.
While enjoying the fruits (or rather the cakes) of a coffee shop in Chipping Camden, we investigated dentists. After some googling, Tony booked an appointment in Winchcombe for two days hence.
While sorting out our rucksacks ready for the start of the walk, we had a major triumph. Our spare car keys, missing since April, turned up in a deep, zipped pocket. As they would have cost around £400 to replace, I announced at dinner we were now £400 better off! We didn’t, however, buy a bottle of best Bordeaux.
The pattern of the days established itself. Was there anywhere we could stop for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea? Pam was on the case and found us somewhere every day. The walk started on June 8th – the election – and we saw folks going to the polls. The result gave us plenty to talk about the following day. When we had enough breath, that is. Martyn had been complaining about his balls. The balls of his feet, I should add. Changing to a different pair of boots did the trick and he was fine.
It was a shorter day and we felt good. Luckily we got to the B & B in Winchcombe just before the torrential rain arrived. Our son, Tim, who lives near, picked us up and we had a lovely evening and dinner with him and Jessi. Idris, their one-year-old, had been sick that day but we said we’d risk it.
We were now a further £90 better off. The dentist’s receptionist had phoned to say the cost of replacing the crown would be £90. Tony was not in pain so he cancelled. His own dentist, who fixed the crown in the first place, would do the job for nothing. The money was mounting up!
We needed to order the following morning’s breakfast. I asked for a bacon sandwich.
‘What’s that?’ The landlady replied. ‘I’ve never made one.’
Not sure if this makes her posh or deprived. She made an attempt for me but I suggest she doesn’t try again.
It was Cleeve Hill the next day. Windy but what views over Cheltenham! There was a double marathon coming towards us – some runners doing it in one day, some in two. Had a coffee and chips at the Cleeve Hill Golf Club – very naughty! Felt we shouldn’t complain about tiredness after seeing marathon runners. Puts distances into perspective. Lovely stop overnight at Detmore House in Charlton Kings. It wins our award for the best B & B of the walk.
Day four and a lot of ups and downs. A group of Charity walkers came towards us, totally shattered, having started at midnight and still with miles to go. Such admiration! The final climb up to Birdlip seemed to go on forever and I wasn’t feeling great. No details, but Idris’s bug got me. However, missing a meal always has its positive side if I lose a pound or two.
Final walking day – and I felt well enough to do it. It was the day of the mud. Rain, which we’d mostly missed, and the pounding of marathon runners’ feet had churned up the path making it hard going. We plodded on, the end in sight. We passed both the bottom and the top of Cooper’s Hill where the famous cheese rolling takes place. It’s steep!
Finally, pretty Painswick with its churchyard with ninety-nine yew trees. Legend says the hundredth will never grow.
We thanked Martyn for carrying the unused trowel the whole way (if you’re caught short, you have to bury it…) Celebrated our achievement with a bottle of bubbles – only Prosecco, in spite of the financial gains of the last few days!