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We called it our “Last Holiday Together”, but could do so with both gravity and levity, as there was no reason to presume it would be. We were all young or relatively young, all, so far as we knew, in good health, and though we had our niggles and nuances, we got on well, and there was no hint of hostility simmering in our group. So we could call it our “Last Holiday Together” with the unspoken subtext except it probably isn’t, 

     So, a long August Bank Holiday weekend, between exams, we booked our long weekend at Last Chance Cottage. We laughed at the ironic name, inappropriate and endearing for a cottage that, if not exactly thatched and with roses round the door, certainly seemed welcoming and comfortable. We booked online, feeling very modern and pretending we didn’t, in that last decade of the 20th century. And in our last term together at university. 

     Plan A for the Last Holiday Together had been to go and watch the total eclipse in Cornwall or Devon. But we weren’t really surprised to discover we had left it too late to book accommodation, and with the possible exception of Harry, none of us were keen on the idea of camping. So we decided to watch the eclipse on TV, and booked a cottage on the North Sea coast. I don’t think any of us regarded it as particularly perverse going as far away from eclipse territory as possible. Well, not as far as possible, of course.

     We all had some idea what we were going to do “afterwards”. Harry, who to be honest, had more or less seen to the online booking single-handed, was going to work for a “dot-com” firm. That was back in the days when “dot-com” still sounded vaguely alien and esoteric. Harry was a person of extremes. He seemed to be equally happy in a windowless room staring at a computer screen or out on the moors with nobody around for miles – it was just the bits in between that seemed to irritate him and where he was never entirely at home. Sabrina was having what she termed her “Belated Gap Year”. She’d originally planned to have one before starting at university, but had been ill – happily, she made a complete recovery – and started a year later than planned anyway, so had decided to have her gap year after university and not before. Her plans were modest compared to those of others, and certainly compared to what some do (or given that I’m writing in 2020, DID!) nowadays. She was seeking out neither the exotic nor squalor, nor that bizarre combination of the two, but was going to an ecological project in Ireland, dredging a river and restoring the natural environment. She never minded getting her hands dirty, but somehow you always thought she did, and something about her slight, delicate looks (which had nothing to do with her illness – I’d seen pictures of her when she was little and she looked just the same!) made it hard to imagine her wallowing in river mud. Geoffrey was going into his father’s accountancy firm, and said, frankly, “Yes, I know it’s boring and I also know I’m lucky.” We hurried to assure him it wasn’t boring (even though we probably thought it was) and weren’t so sure (and probably neither was he) if he was lucky. 

     And what about me, Pamela? Well, I was the one who wasn’t flying the academic nest at all. I had been accepted on the MA in Creative Writing and would be back on campus that autumn! I had to put up with a certain amount of teasing about that. And I had my moments of wondering if I really was so reluctant to fly the nest, but in truth I was looking forward to it, and had every intention of working on my writing during the holiday at Last Chance Cottage. I’ve been surprised to discover that laptops actually did exist then, but even Harry didn’t have one, and Geoffrey (in whose car we were travelling) had not issued specific guidelines concerning luggage, but I knew he would have looked askance at my large word processor – and yes, I mean Word Processor, not computer with a word processing programme. Well, I didn’t mind. I thought, on the contrary, there might be something quite liberating about writing the way I had started writing, in notebooks with a cheap biro. 

     It was one of those journeys that is really not long enough to justify a break, but rather long to do without one. We compromised, and stretched our legs and had a quick coffee while Geoffrey filled up the car at a garage with a little café attached. The temperature had noticeably started to rise throughout the day. I don’t just mean that there was the normal warming-up that comes after dawn when you realise that sunrise is coming later and the year has turned and autumn is on the horizon, but a heat that prickled at the skin, and made us shed layers as we paused at the garage. We had joked that though we probably wouldn’t need it, heating at Last Chance Cottage seemed rather basic – electric fires with artificial logs! – and now I said, “Looks like we’ll need to worry more about the air conditioning!”

     “There’s a perfectly good form of air conditioning called a window,” Geoffrey pointed out. 

     “Play nicely, you two,” Sabrina said, lightly. Of course I knew that there was no air conditioning at Last Chance Cottage, and we all knew that Geoffrey sometimes liked to imitate his famous cricketing namesake and play the bluff Yorkshireman and it wasn’t to be taken too seriously. It was a something and nothing incident, as he’d have said himself.

     But I felt a tiny niggle. Though we were great friends at university, how much of it was shared interests outside our academic ones? We were all in the choir, and all in the chess club, and all liked Chinese food. Though Sabrina and I had been on the same corridor back in our first year when we lived in hall, none of us had actually lived together before, though somehow it felt as if we had. Could a holiday together turn out to be awkward and not the success we were hoping for?

     I brushed the thought aside as we settled in the car again. It would be fine. And if it wasn’t wonderful, it was only a couple of weeks. Yes, but what if it spoiled the memories of our friendship? Quit the YES BUTS, I determinedly told myself. 

     The owner of Last Chance Cottage, Mrs Thelma Henderson, had forewarned us that the last bit of the journey “wasn’t exactly a main road”, and we were fine with that, but realised she might just as well have said “not a road at all”. 

     “I don’t like to think what this is doing to my suspension,” Geoffrey said, fretfully, as he nursed his precious Ford Fiesta up the rutted dirt track. He had a point. But even as he said it, it occurred to me that to actually go anywhere, we would have to persuade him to do just that. It wasn’t that we minded walking, but the not exactly a main road was at least 2 miles long, though it seemed more, and we had left behind anything approaching civilisation at least 5 miles before that. And though we had sensible shoes with us, this had never been envisioned as a hiking holiday. The implications began to sink in, and they weren’t promising ones. 

     Mrs Henderson was there to greet us. I would hesitate to use the word welcome. I know you shouldn’t instantly jump to conclusions (and know we all do!) but she struck me as the kind of woman who was perpetually bothered. I don’t mean worried, or annoyed, or cross, though it didn’t preclude any of those, but bothered. She was wearing a multi-coloured sundress (we still used that term a lot more regularly then, I think) that exposed her slightly plump, deeply tanned shoulders. As the weather had only recently turned so good, I presumed it came either from a sunbed or from a holiday of her own in a warmer place. The thought of such a holiday seemed decidedly tempting. She had paired her sundress with boots with a fur or, more likely, false fur trim, turned down . “So you got here,” she said. There’s really no reply you can make to that that doesn’t come over as sarcastic, as she seemed to realise, going on more or less without pause to say, “I don’t generally take groups of young people or students or whatever.”  That, too, was verging on the unanswerable. I suppose there might have been times when I felt both approved of and disapproved of at the same time, but I couldn’t think of one. “Not had good experiences. And my friend Sonia has had worse. Had to get all fresh bedding.”

     “We’re all perfectly house-trained, Mrs Henderson,” Sabrina said, with her disarming smile. Sabrina’s disarming smile usually worked, not least, and I might as well be honest, because she was so slight and unthreatening, and had a “butter wouldn’t melt” look in her large blue eyes. I told myself there was the flicker of a reluctant upturn to Mrs Henderson’s mouth, but it could have been a delusion. 

     “Well, let’s get all this straight, though I covered it in the letter,” (her son apparently ran the website, she swore by good old-fashioned correspondence). “You’re all adults, at least so far as age goes. I don’t care about your conjugal arrangements, none of my business,” (in fact we were all just platonic friends at that time) “and if you want to drink the off-license dry every night, though students always go on about being poor, that’s none of my business either. But smoking is only allowed outside, and any mess you clean up, and any breakages you report and pay for.”

     With that, she bustled back to her own car, and left us to our own devices.

     “She said the off-license,” Harry said, hopefully.

     “I could do with a drink, too,” I was only half-joking. But did it also mean there was a shop nearer than we thought? Perhaps we should have asked her, though after she had mentioned the words off-license it could have come out rather unfortunately. 

     We did know what the sleeping accommodation was, and the website had been broadly speaking honest, but only when we actually saw it did we realise just how – well, minimal, it was. There was one small actual bedroom, up the stairs that constituted a safety hazard, another room with bunk beds in it, and a convertible sofa-bed in the lounge. “Bunks for the lads, I think,” Geoffrey said. Sabrina and I exchanged a glance that said we agreed that it was appallingly sexist, but we weren’t going to argue. We agreed between us that she should have the bedroom, and that I would have the sofa bed. I had seriously odd sleeping patterns even then, so was probably better on the ground floor. The kitchen was pokey, and equipment pared to a bare minimum, but at least it was clean (even if Mrs Henderson probably thought students weren’t bothered about such things) and had a functioning kettle, and credit where it’s due, though we had brought some in case of emergencies, she had left a packet of tea bags, a jar of coffee, and some UHT milk. 

     Over coffee for Harry and me and tea for Sabrina and Geoffrey, we looked over the decidedly eclectic collection of brochures and leaflets, some of them ten or more years out of date. And amongst them was a flyer for Beech Wood Stores. Apparently there was a little village if you carried on down (presumably) another dirt track, and not that far away. 

     “Handy to know, I suppose, but it’ll be over-priced”, Geoffrey said. “I know what I’m talking about. My Uncle Sam had a village stores, and they overcharged something rotten.” Still, he and I agreed to “recce” as he put it, the Beech Wood Stores while Harry and Sabrina volunteered to see to making up the beds and generally “sorting out” Last Chance Cottage. It was good to stretch our legs and – well, I was going to say get some fresh air, but though there was the sweet scent of grass and just the absence of urban and main road petrol and industry and the like, there was also a less than sweet presence that pointed to the fact that though we didn’t actually see that many cows, they certainly didn’t need any treatment for constipation. “Or perhaps they’ve been muck-spreading,” I said, as if I knew what I was talking about. “I’m not sure if it’s the right time of year,” said Geoffrey, as if he knew what he was talking about. We had resigned ourselves to the little map in the flyer not being exactly to scale, but after quarter of an hour or so, we realised we were entering “civilisation”, in the form of a mixture of modern bungalows, prefabs that had probably been meant for demolition thirty odd years ago, and a couple of authentic looking quaint cottages. Beech Wood Stores, despite its name (and we weren’t surprised) didn’t have so much as a beech twig in sight. It had that kind of shop window that is clean enough, but somehow always looks dusty, and a harsh clatter of wind-chimes alerted the owner or assistant to the fact that there was someone in the building. It was – well, pretty much how we’d have expected it to be, if we thought about it at all – bare floor boards, the type of cash register that was old fashioned even twenty years ago, a sign saying Please do not ask for credit, as a refusal often offends, and stock that seemed to consist mainly of tinned ham, beans, and soup, cigarettes, wine at eye-watering prices (which didn’t mean we wouldn’t be prepared to cough up, for once), confectionery, and a shelf of magazines. A lady wearing a nylon overall in the shade of blue that seems to be only made for nylon overalls appeared from the back room. “Can I help?” she inquired, in that tone that isn’t what you could call unfriendly, but seems as if the concept of serving customers, especially unknown ones, is somewhat alien. We did buy a bottle of wine, and almost as an alibi, milk, although we had a full tetra pack at Last Chance Cottage, a local newspaper (I always did have a weakness for local newspapers and mined more than one story idea from them), a loaf of bread, a packet of wafer thin chicken, and a couple of tins of soup, even though it wasn’t soup weather. 

     “We’re staying at Last Chance Cottage,” I said, just making conversation, and expecting a nod as if to say well, where else would you be staying. But our new acquaintance suddenly seemed to come to life – and in a not entirely reassuring way. “I didn’t know she was still letting out,” she said, “Not since – well, not for a while now. Funny sort of place for young folk like you to be staying. Off the beaten track,” she added, hurriedly, as if that were all she meant, but she wanted to say more. “Not that I know Thelma that well,” she said, “And I don’t have time for gossip. Will that be all, then?”

     “Well, they certainly know how to make you feel loved and wanted round here,” I said, as we trudged along the track, breathing in the grass and the cow pats. The heat was bearing down on us, and we didn’t talk much. Geoffrey did observe that he wished we’d got something cold to drink apart from the wine, but that was all for a few minutes. 

     Last Chance Cottage looked even more dejected and unwelcoming approached from that direction, and we saw the dying conifers in the back garden, the kind that were planted because they were quick growing and ended up being neglected. There was a definite hole in the roof, too. Not a big one, but enough to let in rain. 

     We opened the door and I called, “Supplies, booze included!” But nobody answered. Sabrina and Harry weren’t there. At first we didn’t panic or read too much into it because – well, you don’t. It’s a self-protection mechanism. The beds were made up, and they had unpacked their clothes. We ventured into the moribund back garden and there was no sign of them. Nor was there a note saying they had “gone exploring” or the like.

     Well, now it is twenty years later, and we are on the verge of middle age. At least, Geoffrey and I are. We never did find out what happened to Harry and Sabrina. Nobody was charged with anything. It still sometimes turns up on those “unsolved mystery” programmes. But Geoffrey and I don’t give interviews. Our children, Bethany and Nick, still don’t know anything about it, though at some time I suppose they will. Like all children, they look forward to their holidays. We have stayed in hotels, holiday camps, flats, and once, pushing the boat out, a villa.

     But never a cottage.

August 06, 2020 06:16

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