MY NIGHT WITH MRS GRANTHAM
I couldn't find the house. I had the address and I had an OS Map, but I could not find it. I walked up and down the road and there just wasn't a number 8. Nor was there anything that said "Amboise". I pulled the letter out of my pocket. Was my memory going, like poor old Charlie's? Surely not? No, there it was. In black and white. "No 8 Amboise".
When I say letter, I really mean "email". Nobody sends letters nowadays, do they? We all use email, I thought - letters are so old-fashioned. All the B & B's on this trip had been fixed up by email. Well, perhaps that was not quite true: some had been fixed up over the phone and then confirmed by email.
Using email made people like me, people of my generation, feel up to date. Feel "with it". But of course, we aren't. The younger generation think email is now very old fashioned: they always text each other. And if they heard me saying “with it”, they’d think I was about one hundred years old.
I pulled out my mobile. No signal.
It was 4.30 in the afternoon. A rather warm, not to say steamy afternoon. There wasn’t a soul about – no one to seek directions from. Everyone, I imagined, must be asleep. The steamy atmosphere was getting to me, as well. I’d had a hot afternoon. I’d walked 11 miles that day and all I wanted was to get access to my B & B, take my clothes off and have a shower.
I was getting a bit agitated when I saw a movement down the side of one of the houses. A little man with a little goatee beard was heading for his front gate. “Excuse me!” I called, hurrying towards the outside of the same gate. We faced each other across the peeling paint. His gate had seen better days. Now that he was in close up, it was evident that he had too.
“I’m looking for No 8”, I said, “but there are only three houses here: 2, 4 and 6. No 8 Gypsy Lane I want. It’s a B & B. It’s called Amboise”.
His initial answer was to point a finger down the road, away from the three houses. The road ran for a field’s length and then curved away to the left.
He was still holding the pose, with the back of his right hand towards me and his forefinger pointing. The he started to waggle his hand up and down. He looked for all the world like a child playing Cowboys, pretending to shoot.
“Down that way”, he said at last “and it’s not eight, it’s eighteen”. His voice was reedy. “Up this end, we just use numbers”, he said, “we don’t need these fancy-dan house names”. The finger was still waggling. “Amboise, indeed”, he went on, “they think they’re a cut above the likes of us, they do!” “Them down there” , he said, with a final waggle, and turned back up his path.
It could be described, almost literally, as his parting shot.
I put both hands behind my back, under my rucksack, eased it up, and set off with renewed purpose. When I have been walking all day and think I have reached my overnight stop, the last thing I want is delay.
I soon reached the bend in the road and could see, ahead of me, two more houses, this time set well back from the road. I soon reached the gate of the first, and it proved to be, as the pointing gun had promised, “Amboise”.
Unlike the house of Mr Waggling Finger, this house had an ornate wrought-iron gate and a wide sweeping gravel drive. For a person like myself, arriving on foot, there was a small gate and a path to the front door. I wondered whether I needed to look at the email again, in case it said “Please Use the Tradesmen’s Entrance”, but I did not do so.
I marched purposefully up to the front door and rang the bell. Inevitably, instead of the familiar sound of a normal bell (available from all good hardware shops), the Westminster Chimes rang out loud and clear. Just when I was ready for Big Ben to strike, the door opened and my Landlady for One Night stood in front of me.
“Hello”, I said brightly, “Armstrong: single room, B & B for one night”. The lady who stood there looked formidable. She was taller than me and solidly built. Not fat, but well-muscled. “Good afternoon, Mr Armstrong” she said, “please remove your boots before you come in”.
I looked around for somewhere to sit, but realised that there was nowhere suitable. There was a chair in the hall, but I sensed I would not be allowed to use that. It had been a dry day and my boots were clean and dry. Mrs Grantham stood, impassively, silent, arms folded. I undid the straps of my rucksack and shrugged it off, so that I could kneel down on the concrete and undo my laces. It seemed to take me a long time, under the unrelenting gaze of Mrs Grantham.
At last they were off and I made to enter the house. A random thought came to mind: “entering the Dragon’s Den”. “No!” said Mrs Grantham, “Please put them in there”. She pointed. “Oh, no! Not another pointer”, I thought. I hate people who point.
She was pointing at a small wooden structure, rather like a tiny dog kennel. It was a Boot Kennel. A little house for my walking boots. They would be dry in there, out of the rain, should any fall in the night. I supposed that they would be alright there, but I’d never, in my years and years of staying in Walkers B & B’s, been asked to leave my boots outside.
I padded inside in my socks, this time without let or hindrance. “Please follow me”, said the Drag – Mrs Grantham. I followed her through the hall and along a corridor. She stopped at an open doorway and I could see a couple of tables with place settings. “That’s the Breakfast Room. Eight o’clock sharp!” said my friendly hostess.
She led me further on and we soon came to a back door. In a moment we were outside again. “That didn’t last long!” I said with a grin. Her face was carved granite. “Your room is through here”, she said, pointing. I almost said, but didn’t: “Will you please stop pointing!”
She opened the door of the outbuilding and I found myself in a small single room, quite nicely furnished. A decent-sized single bed, an armchair, a dressing table, a television set, a small wardrobe. Perfectly adequate for me: I’d seen a lot worse. “Shower-Room” said Mrs Point-Grantham. I took a peek: decent-looking modern shower, toilet and wash-basin.
“A very nice room”, I said. I thought to myself: “I always say that, Mrs Grantham, but I nearly made an exception in your case”.
I was still clutching my rucksack. “Put your rucksack there”, came the next command. There was a rectangle of carpetless wooden flooring. “Please fill in the Registration Form”, said Mrs G, pointing (arrrgh) to a document on the dressing table. I sat down obediently and filled in my name and address and other details. “Thank you”, said Mrs Grantham, whipping the Registration Form away and revealing another document underneath it. “Your Account”, she said “Would you like to pay me now, please? Cash only. I do not accept cheques or credit cards”.
Fortunately, the route of that day’s walk had taken me through the centre of a small town and I had had the foresight to use the only bank’s cash point. I paid up and Mrs G made to leave me.
“Are you able to recommend anywhere for an evening meal, Mrs Grantham?” I asked. “There are several places listed in the Room Guide”, she answered, “but if you go to the Coach and Horses and mention my name they will give you a small discount”.
As she left, she handed me the room key. It was attached to a piece of metal, about as large as a pocket diary, with Amboise engraved on it. “There’s just the one key” she said. “People who stay in this room don’t need a house key, so I don’t give them one. The back door will be open when you come for breakfast in the morning”. Then, with a final command of “Eight o’clock sharp!” she was gone.
I flopped on the bed to recover. I had a bit of shut-eye. I shut my eyes but didn’t go to sleep. You can’t be sure can you though, if you’re alone? Soon, however, I stripped off and investigated the shower more closely. This one certainly seemed OK. I am very short-sighted without my specs and showers can do me a lot of damage: they can hit me with either freezing cold or scalding hot water, seemingly at a whim, unless I have acquired a comprehensive understanding of the controls.
Mrs Grantham’s Amboisian shower was excellent, however. Most enjoyable. Towels very good as well. I put on a clean pair of pants and my “evening” shirt and trousers. The latter two were looking a bit creased and crumpled after six days walking, but I didn’t care.
I picked up the shirt and pants I had worn for the walk and rinsed them through in the basin. Then I put the pants on the towel-rail to dry and used my telescopic hanger to hang the shirt in the shower cubicle. I was sure that both these actions were against Grathamian Regulations, but sometimes you have to live dangerously.
I sat in the armchair and browsed through the Room Guide. The “several places” mentioned by Mrs G turned out to be three only. Two had a single line entry, with an address and a telephone number.
The third one was the Coach and Horses, with an expansive description, a map showing how to get there and a sample menu. Mrs Grantham seemed to be giving me one or two hints.
When I’m on one of my long-distance walks, the crucial thing about the evening meal is not the quality of the food or the amount of choice: I just ask one question – how far is it? When you’ve walked all day, you don’t want a long walk in the evening as well. I have found through bitter experience that B & B owners, geared as they are to catering for clients who come by car, hardly ever bother to mention distances in their information.
So out came the Ordnance Survey map for a check on the distance to the Coach and Horses. A mile and a quarter by road, making an evening mileage of two and a half. I didn’t really want to do that, although doing the return after eating would help. Then I spotted a short cut. There was a path across the fields which just about halved the total distance. Walkers one, Motorists nil!
The evening was very pleasant, the walk was easy, the food was first class and the 15% discount was quite acceptable. I returned to Amboise a happy man. My washing was drying nicely, the bed was very comfortable and I slept like a log. What more could one want?
I left my room and went across to the house at 7.59 am. I tried the door handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. Almost immediately, however, there was a rattling of keys and a scraping of bolts to signal the ceremonial unlocking at 8.00 o’clock sharp. I opened the door, expecting to see the welcoming face of Mrs Grantham, but there was no one there. Could she have unlocked by remote control?
The Breakfast Room was empty except for a young lady I had not seen before. It was immediately apparent that she was The Staff. She greeted me with a smile and took my order. No other guests appeared: could I be the only inmate in the Detention Centre? Surely other guests would not be brave enough to defy the stentorian cry of Eight O’clock Sharp?
I ate my breakfast in silence, returned to my room, packed my rucksack, left the huge metal key jangling in the keyhole, padded painfully round to collect my boots and left Amboise for ever. There was no further sighting of Mrs Sharp Grantham.
Four days later I had completed my walk and travelled home. There was the usual pile of post waiting, most of which proved to be bin-fodder. There was, however, a rather mysterious brown-paper package. I opened it up, saw the contents and read the accompanying note. It said:
“Dear Mr Armstrong,
This handkerchief was found under the pillow in your room. It has been washed and ironed and I now return it to you.
S D Grantham (Mrs)
It had been a curious experience, living for a brief time under the military discipline of Mrs Grantham, but she had, at the last, revealed her softer side. I did check in case she had enclosed a bill for services rendered, but found nothing: it had just been done out of the goodness of her heart.