“Of course I like Sandra,” people often said, and those who also knew Sandra waited for the “but” and to nod in agreement. Sandra Gordon always had a shoulder to cry on, often took on the more tedious tasks  entirely of her own volition, and was cheerful but not to the extent it was irritating. And none of it was her fault, or hardly ever, and it would have been unfair to say it was. BUT.

    She was one of the last to be picked when the children at school were left to their own devices to pick teams for soccer or netball or whatever. And the thing is, though she was never going to be a professional sportswoman, she was by no means a bad player. But if every anyone was going to score an accidental own goal, or fall foul of a decision, it would be Sandra. Even though she wasn’t especially clumsy, Sandra would be the one to knock over the jar of water and spoil a classmate’s painting just when they’d produced their masterpiece. Though it was proven to have been caused by an electrical fault, Sandra was in the room when there was the sizzle and frazzle and the fire alarm wasn’t just a practice drill. 

    Though she inevitably inflicted some collateral damage, the person who suffered most because of her bad luck was, of course, Sandra herself. Even the family doctor struggled to explain how she was the only one who got food poisoning when everyone had eaten the same meal. It wasn’t as if she had any food allergies or was even an especially picky eater. “I’m just not a lucky person, I suppose,” she said, with a shrug and a stoical smile when, later on in life, her car inexplicably got a flat tyre, or her computer was the only one to lose all its data when there was a power outage. Even those like her long-suffering best friend Jessica, who firmly believed that we make our own luck, had to admit that Sandra, most definitely, was not a lucky person. 

    Most of the time, Sandra had, out of necessity, perfected the art of being a Good Sport. The shrug and the smile were second nature. True, she was nearly pushed over the edge when she decided to put a colorant on her hair and it turned her natural rather pretty nut brown a strange mixture of grey and orange (which Jessica said, in some amazement, she wouldn’t even have thought chemically possible) instead of the promised chestnut glow. Still, she smiled, shrugged, put a scarf on if she were feeling especially self-conscious, and said, “At least it’s not a permanent one. A couple of washes and it’ll be fine. You hear of folk getting burns from hair products. It could be worse.” Sandra was very fond of the phrases “at least” and “it could be worse”. Or at any rate, they came in handy.

    Though her friend was good company and generous to a fault, Jessica still hesitated about asking Sandra to come with her on holiday. Oh, she didn’t have any bizarre notions about her friend making the coach crash or the hotel burn down (they hadn’t gone to the same school, so she didn’t know about the fire alarm business). But they shared a love of historical buildings and mountain scenery, without being rampaging culture vultures or hardcore hikers, and the coach tour of North Wales, with some escorted tours and walks included in the price was such good value it would be almost criminal to miss the chance. Neither of them had been on an actual coach holiday before, though of course they’d travelled by coach at times, and had some misgivings, but were relieved that they were proven groundless. There was no enforced communal singing or the like, and though the atmosphere of the group was perfectly friendly, the tour was mercifully free of such annoyances as the Nosey Parker or the Complainer, or the equally grating counter-irritant of the Gusher. 

    There were disadvantages, like not being able to always choose their own stops, and let’s just say that using a toilet on a coach isn’t one of the more delightful parts of life’s rich tapestry unless you like the sensation of your nether regions bouncing along the road, but there was something to be said for being freed from doing your own driving, too. Their two drivers, Mark and Mary, were informative and cheerful, but did not feel the constant need to entertain. Like all their fellow-passengers, Sandra and Jessica were quite sorry to discover they wouldn’t be staying with them at what they nicknamed the “Base Camp” at the Stranraer Hotel. There was something a bit perverse about calling a hotel in Wales after a town in Scotland, but apparently the owners originally hailed from there, so it made sense. Jeanie and Albert made a nod to their origins with some tasteful pastel water colours of the Highlands in the reception area, and though they didn’t actually say the salmon at dinner was Scottish, nobody doubted it was. Sandra loved fish, and this was good; very good, but she still couldn’t help sending up a repeating mantra of please don’t let me get a bone in my throat. She did not, and reached the sanctuary of the chocolate mousse with no mishaps. 

    Though she and Jessica were close, and there was a single room supplement (though the Stranraer was a lesser offender than many in such matters) the women had decided on single rooms. If it had just been the one night, it might have been different. But Sandra was a lark and Jessica an owl; Sandra felt better with the radio on softly through the night and Jessica preferred absolute silence, and as Jessica had admitted, she snored, which Sandra didn’t think she did.

    Sandra was just the tiniest bit disappointed that there was neither a tartan throw on her bed nor a picture of a tall-hatted Welsh lady on the wall. But she still found something rather comforting about bland and tasteful hotel rooms with pastel shades. Her TV was playing up. The picture kept pixellating. She thought of going down to the reception desk and asking Jeanie or Albert or whoever might be on duty to do something about it, but decided, long before the desk closed, as the notice said, at 11 pm, that as it was picking up the radio stations easily enough, and she was more of a radio person anyway, and even if it gave up the ghost on that she could listen on her phone, it was no big deal and not worth bothering anyone about. She wondered if Jessica’s, or anyone else’s, telly was playing up, and doubted it. It was what she was used to.

    The next day started well enough. True, the weather could have been better, but Sandra knew perfectly well it wasn’t just picking on her, and the nearby newsagent opened early enough even for her, and had her newspaper of choice. She was already, in her resigned way, beginning to wonder about breakfast. She really hoped she would be asked if there was anything she didn’t like (baked beans) and how she liked her egg (hard). And if she were not, would she state her preferences? Or decide it really wasn’t worth bothering about? After all, she could shrug and smile and say it was fine. She recalled she had once stayed in a hotel where a fellow-guest (who appeared otherwise amiable and amenable) had been very firm about her toast being cut thin and with the crusts cut off, her egg being lightly poached with the crusty bits left on, and her mushrooms served separately. Jessica found that neither admirable not irritating – they were just the words of someone who, unlike her, was used to having things, whether large or small, going their way. 

    She was asked about her breakfast preferences, and told herself that she was not pathetically grateful that they were regarded as entirely reasonable.

    That day was to begin, for those who so wished (which of course, it was presumed, was everyone) with a hill walk. Words mattered. A hill wasn’t a mountain, and a walk wasn’t a climb. But it was also not going, either literally, or figuratively, to be just a walk in the park either. Still, she quite looked forward to it. And just as she was looking forward to it, she lost her footing on the steps leading down from the reception area to the car park. They were rather wet, and she wasn’t unduly clumsy, but as Jessica, rushing to her friend’s aid whilst being careful not to suffer a similar fate herself, couldn’t help thinking, if it was going to happen to anyone, then it would be Sandra. 

    Sandra knew she was injured, and not just bruises and dignity. Her left ankle was at an odd angle, and it also hurt. She wanted to believe those stories about fractures not hurting, but was not convinced. She was helped to hop into the reception area and one of the comfortable armchairs and generally made a fuss of. By this time she had decided her ankle probably wasn’t broken, but was relieved when Albert, who was a trained nurse, said that he shared that view, though of course he would drive her to A & E if she wished. She didn’t wish. But it was definitely a nasty sprain, and there was no question of her going on the hill walk. In a gesture of solidarity with her stricken friend, Jessica said she’d forego it too, but at once Sandra said, “No, you get off, and enjoy it! I mean it!”

    Jessica still looked dubious, but duly got off.

    They took such matters as the first aid box seriously at the Stranraer – well, what else would you expect, with a nurse around? Albert saw to it that Sandra’s ankle was strapped up in a compression bandage, and helped her hobble to the couch where she could elevate it, with the almost clichéd pack of frozen peas (wrapped in a bag) to help reduce the swelling. She was provided with ibuprofen, and generally fussed over, but not in a bad way. I am in my familiar territory of at least and it could be worse land, thought Sandra, resignedly. 

    The tried and tested ritual of Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (with a couple of painkillers thrown in) did its job. Sandra’s ankle still hurt, and she still wouldn’t have liked (or been able) to over-exert it, but the swelling had gone down, and she could manage to hobble, though she was glad she didn’t have to hobble too far. She was very touched when Jeanie lent her a beautiful carved wooden cane that had been passed down the family from her great grandfather who had been a navy man, and was known in the family as the captain’s cane. It was entirely different from using a metal, utilitarian one of the kind they sold in those “mobility shops” alongside the electric scooters that seemed to get larger and more powerful every day.  She probably could have managed to limp up the road in the little market town in the shadow of the hills with no especial anguish to her afflicted ankle. But she couldn’t see any particular reason to. The cool, but pleasant morning, had turned into a horrible rainy day – the worst kind of rain, grey and driving and never quite developing into a storm that will blow itself out, but determined to stick around all day. And she discovered that the Stranraer was far more than a convenient base camp. It had a very inviting little tea-room, and Jeanie and Albert insisted she could have a complimentary coffee and cake of her own choosing, as they felt guilty about her hurting herself in (well, just outside) their hotel. Sandra pointed out truthfully that it was not their fault at all, and assured them that she had no intention of calling one of those compensation firms. It was just one of those things. “And I’m not a lucky person,” she said, “Ask Jessica.” But that didn’t stop her taking advantage of the generous offer and she did love coffee and walnut cake. The hotel had a small, but very well-stocked library, and there was an open log fire burning in the lounge. Sandra had the curious, but far from unpleasant thought that it was like being in one of those adverts for “Leisure Hotels”, but without the dubious looking pseudo-Caribbean drinks and having hot mud caked all over you in the interests of health and beauty. Jeanie asked her if everything was fine with her room, and, an intuitive woman, caught her slight hesitation. “Out with it, lassie,” she said, playfully exaggerating her accent, but making it plain that she expected an answer. Sandra admitted that there was a bit of an issue with the TV, but added, automatically, “It’s fine!”

    Jeanie sternly informed her it was not fine at all, and she should have said something the previous night. It was replaced within half an hour by one that worked perfectly.

    Out in the hills, Jessica and the others were desperately trying to persuade themselves that they were having a lovely time, but it was a losing battle. They weren’t. It was even colder up there, and the rain seemed to have the capacity of seeping through the most waterproof of so-called waterproof clothing, just as the mud appeared to regard the most sturdy of boots as a challenge. This might not have mattered nearly so much if they could have appreciated the views. After all, there are views that look better, certainly more atmospheric in the rain than in glorious sunshine. But up there, a mist had fallen. No, mist would be too poetic a word for it. This was no mist that was akin to mellow fruitfulness or went hand in hand with words like wisp. It was a damp, grey, blanketing fog, and they could barely see their hands in front of their faces, let alone hilly vistas. The route took them through fields where sheep were grazing, and somehow these harmless woolly creatures took on a vague malevolence when trespassers came onto their territory through the fog. Jessica also realised that she had stepped on something they left behind. “There’s a pub in the next village,” the group leader said, trying to raise their spirits and realising a change of plans was called for. There was, indeed, a pub in the next village. But it had been closed for work on the roof, and even though nobody was working on the roof that day, it was still closed. 

    Jeanie and Albert had provided them with very tasty packed lunches, or at least they had been tasty when they set out. They, too, had fallen prey to the damp and were just about edible as fuel, but no more. 

    In the way of things, nobody had liked to be the first one to say, they might as well call it off, but there was a collective sigh of relief when the group leader suggested it, and the show of hands (as much as anyone could make them out) confirmed it. They retreated to the coach and sat there smelling of damp and sheep-droppings as it wound its way back to the hotel.

    A couple of determined positive thinkers tried to make out, fair enough, it hadn’t been ideal, but was still an experience, and all that, but they were in the minority. 

    And for once, Sandra’s smile wasn’t wry and stoic at all. It was sympathetic. It looked like in the end, this time, she’d been the lucky one!

October 11, 2019 07:00

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