As time slips through our fingers it becomes easy for old friendships, as comfortable and reassuring as favourite pants, to recede into the distance. I tell people how closely knit my circle of friends from college still are but the truth is that we snatch occasional meetings maybe twice a year. On one of our gatherings, some four years ago now, we became separated on the platform at Exeter St David’s Station. I looked around for my dashing hombres but no one was in sight. Then I realised with a sigh I was with the grey haired, fat guys who looked just like any other bunch of ill-advised, middle-aged men chasing their youth. I was hardly a ray of sunshine on that trip. It was all I could do to stop myself impulse buying a mountain bike.
One of the joys of college is that you are thrown together with different groups of people, albeit not exactly a representative sample of the population. In the pell mell days of Freshers’ Drinks (a haze of lager, bands and year-off boasts) strangely enduring alliances are forged. So it was that I became friends with Mark, a truly lovely man of a wonderful disposition and a small pile in the country. Over the years we had grown thick and (my) hair had grown thin but we had collected many friendship miles. He had married Sarah, a woman of intellect, beauty and an occasionally steely manner.
While they took to the country, falling out of the orbit of the Metropolis and coming to rest in his estate, we remained in town, gradually moving further from the swirling vortex of the centre. Children arrived and time flew. Promises were made and dates broken until we realised it had been ten years since my family had been to his house. At last, the golden ticket came and we were off for the weekend to Mark Towers.
It would be wrong to think that my children and their dispositions were the only reason for the decade interval between visits. Their behaviour is, I think, perky and intriguing. Others may choose different adjectives. Nonetheless, I took the precaution of impressing upon them how much I wanted this weekend to be a success so that we might be invited back. Aged ten and eleven, they were old enough to understand the importance of good behaviour. They were also old enough to appreciate the efficacy of unspoken menace.
It was a glorious summer’s day when we tumbled from the car, sweaty and argumentative. Sarah was by the pool with two of their children; Mark was picking the third up from a party in the village (where presumably the girl from the big house had to win the pass the parcel just to be on the safe side – old habits die hard). Despite my dishevelled state, I eyed the pool somewhat warily. I have long had body shame. I think it may have sprung in part from a play I had done in college which required me to strip to my underwear. Originally the plan had been for complete nudity but none of the cast and crew could stomach the thought. The trauma of a performance in the round in a small space with no scenery to hide behind has stayed with me. I can still see the startled and mocking looks on the faces of the first three rows.
I have found that children are even less charitable. Particularly my own.
I changed hastily and quickly lowered myself into the distorting optics of the pool water, but not before my daughter had whooped a delighted, “Thar she blows” and canon-balled me. I tried bravely to ignore her and dashed off a couple of lengths to show that the old dog still had it. I was then on the horns of a dilemma. I was too exhausted to swim further, engaging with my children was asking for trouble, and I could not heave myself out of the water without risking further mockery. Eventually my skin had puckered and wrinkled to a state which seemed injurious to health. I swung myself up the steps, sucked my stomach in and attempted a nonchalant swagger to the pool lounger. Fortunately for me my exit had occurred as the absent third child had returned with Mark. My daughter and she were now engaged in a form of the stiff-legged prowl around each other that cats carry out while sizing each other up. This went on for some time until all of a sudden they clicked and in an instant they disappeared to pursue mischief.
“You are in the whale’s room,” said Sarah sweetly. I looked at her a bit startled but decided against saying anything. “It’s at the top of the stairs on the left. Do mind the wallpaper.” Lisa and I gathered our clothes and, popping on some robes, waddled (on my part) towards the cetacean suite. Isobel, my eldest, passed us on the stairs. It may say something about her that the fact she was carrying a mannequin’s head seemed of little note. Our room had an exquisite, yellow, Chinese wallpaper. The paintings had the worrying look of originals. My last hope that somehow there was an aquatic motif to explain the whale name was dashed on thorough examination of the decor. I looked in the mirror in the bathroom and miserably held my love handles.
“That was a bit much”, I moaned to Lisa.
” Sarah calling me a whale”
“You really are a fucking idiot.”
“Great. Thanks. A fat, fucking idiot.”
“It’s the Wales’ Room. The Prince of Wales. He stayed here. You oversensitive cock-piece.”
As ever my wife had managed to re-assure me in a way that left me feeling slightly more diminished than when she started. I left her to reflect on her marital decisions, and stalked off to find Mark. I passed Isobel on the stairs. She was carrying a plastic scimitar. “Isobel”, I nodded a greeting without breaking stride.
“Dad”, she nodded back. It’s best not to ask sometimes. I found Mark in his library, pouring himself a healthy slug of gin. I had long since given up booze, another decision that had further loosened me from the bosom of my friends. I struck up an artificially bright conversation in an attempt to show that I had lost none of my sparkle. Mark looked at me, fingering his glass subconsciously, as if my choices were somehow a challenge to his. “Sarah has bats. We have bats. Rare ones. Protected rare ones.”
I’m always slightly nervous around the landed gentry. The rules of engagement are somewhat different; just when you’ve got on top of where and who you are in the grand scheme of English Things, you open your mouth, and get relegated another couple of notches. The years of close quarters’ observation have not dimmed the sense of mystification. Nor had they equipped me for the socially acceptable response to having rare bats. Is that a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? I made a non-committal, all-purpose, “Ah” sound. Mark looked out of the window.
Lisa appeared and proceeded to help Mark with the gin. She could not be accused of slacking or failing to lend a hand. Mark had perked up considerably, and suggested a walk to work up an appetite. As we passed the kitchen I saw their chef looking at my daughter with a look of wry astonishment. Isobel appeared to be directing proceedings, her acolytes gathered around her as she issued instructions as to the cooking of her own recipe fake blood. What a girl.
As we neared the end of our walk, I felt that everything was going to be ok. The kids were getting on famously, Mark and Lisa were deep in conversation, the sun was shining and I could see Sarah, standing waiting for us by the back doors. Family bliss beckoned.
It is always awkward when a couple row in front of you, and Sarah was letting Mark have it with both barrels. “How could you let this happen, Mark?”
“I’m sorry, I think it may be our fault.” I tried to intervene.
“Not at all,” said Sarah with a smile as wintery as the tundra. She turned back to Mark, “There is blood everywhere and batshit on the Reubens, Mark. Bat. Shit.”
In the ceiling above our bed in the Wales’ room was a trapdoor leading to an irresistible attic running the whole length of the house. An attic full of opportunities. And rare bats. Isobel’s plan had been simple – rig up a fake scimitar, a mannequin’s head, a bottle of fake blood. Tie a string to the trapdoor from the doorknob to the bedroom et voila, the next entrant to the Wales’ room would trip the trap and a severed head, blood and sword would swing their gory way through the air.
I should have known. I mean it’s not like it’s the first time or anything.
We’ve not been back.