by Margaret Thurgood
Why do people assume I'm Welsh because I'm called Tom Jones? I’ve had my moments but I’m no sex bomb. I don’t have his voice or his stage-presence. I'm tone-deaf, hate rugby, leeks, hymns and arias and sheep-strewn mountains. My joints ache in wet weather and it pours whenever I visit the place. The food’s abysmal. I care about food you see; it’s my profession, but it’s also my passion. I'm an inspector for a hotel guide. So, what do you think my boss does? You’ve guessed, haven’t you? That’s right - sends me on a tour of Welsh country house hotels.
‘I'll go anywhere,’ I tell her, ‘Outer Hebrides, Aran Islands, Scillies, even the Orkneys - wherever you like – but please don’t send me to Wales.’
‘Get on with it,’ she replies, her eyes half closed, ‘it’s got to be done; don't waste my time.’
Amber is half my age. Her husband’s a TV chef; so he’s always travelling. She has four children, a nanny, and a four-storied house overlooking the Thames in Cheyne Walk. I never argue with Amber. I may know if a lobster’s been freshly cooked or re-heated, but she knows more about hotel management than I know about food. I’ve seen her move kitchen units and beds from the walls to check for dirt on the skirting board.
‘That Anne Robinson was right,’ I say.
She glares at me. She doesn’t own a television; it would clutter her lifestyle and remind her kids that somewhere they have a father.
‘What are you moaning about now?’
‘The Welsh,’ I explain. ‘She said once, “What's the point of them?”’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ she says, ‘Think how many people visit Wales, and how many guides we sell there, Dummy,’ as she taps me on my bald spot with a brochure entitled ‘Welsh Rarebits.’ ‘I’ve marked those with new chefs. Check them out. Choose your route and get the office to book you in. She drops it in my lap saying, ‘Don’t you dare miss any.’
I drive to Beaumaris, on the island of Anglesey, the most northerly of the inns she has circled. I reason that if I’m on my way home it’ll make things more bearable. ‘Ye Olde Bulls Head’ is fifteenth century and half-timbered, though re-built. It has creaking floors. My room overlooks the main street and is small and charming with a brass bed. Yachtsmen in regatta mood are out on the town on a Saturday night and it’s noisy. Amber’s at a dinner party in Kensington with our publishers, and my wife’s probably uncorking one of my best Beaujolais after her bath. It’s as if she celebrates me being away. But talking mulch and perennials with her would be better than eating in Wales.
The wild boar with redcurrants is robust and well cooked, but will disturb my sleep if I eat any more. Steamed sea bass with samphire would have been more digestible, but not a test for the chef. The waiters look after me well. They don't ignore me or seat me in a corner and they know what they’re talking about when I grill them about the terrine and the soufflé.
- 1 -
After a lie-in and a breakfast of juice, poached egg and bacon with warm toast, I enjoy the complimentary newspaper and sign for my bar bill, as the room’s been pre-paid. I head across the bridge over the Menai Straits. It has rained overnight. It always does. I call on Ty’n Rhos, a farm guesthouse with a new restaurant, close to Caernarfon. I write in a slim notebook tucked inside my newspaper as I relax with a gin and tonic, served by a striking waitress, and elaborate on my previous night’s entry. My destination looks close on the map, but there’s a barrier of mountains to cross. I have no desire to look at the damn things, for one’s the same as another to me, but I can’t avoid them. I drive through a misty pass, skip lunch, as I’ll be eating on expenses later, and arrive with time to spare before dinner. The evening has turned balmy and I’m looking forward to a snooze in the bath before my meal.
* * *
‘You mean you’ve no reservation?’ I cannot believe the receptionist. She shakes her head.
‘There’s been no confirmation, no deposit from my company?’
‘They’ve sent me to the back-of-beyond and have forgotten to make a booking.’
To make matters worse, Amber’s not answering her phone. I try her mobile. Nothing. She drags her kids around galleries and museums on Sundays, damn the woman! I take it out on the girl behind the desk.
‘So what do you expect me to do, sling a hammock? Shall I sleep in the laundry room or on the beach?’
She’s been well trained. She inhales deeply. ‘I appreciate how annoying it must be for you. We’re very busy, Mr Jones, but not completely full. You can have the honeymoon suite or one of the superior doubles; they’re vacant. But, if you’ll give me fifteen minutes to deal with these residents, who’ve been waiting patiently, then I'm sure I can find you something smaller and simpler. I’ll sort it out well before dinner.’
I dump my bags in a corner and stalk outside to blow off steam and I start walking. The hotel complex is an Italianate village, which I’ve heard about but not visited before. There are pastel-painted houses, varying in style and available for rent. Weekly rates I suspect, but surely one of them is empty? They’re on different levels and tucked into thriving gardens in a steeply terraced valley, overlooking a broad estuary. Once I’ve unwound I return to the whitewashed hotel.
‘I’m sorry for the delay, Mr Jones,’ the desk clerk says, ‘but I’ve found you a single in the main building.’
‘I should think so.’
‘And, because it’s Sunday, we can offer a half-priced deal. Would you like that, sir?’
- 2 -
I accept, and celebrate by having a Campari and soda in the lobby bar. Bingo! I think as I watch the barman spearing a slice of orange, for Amber will know nothing of the offer. I spin a coin on the polished counter top, wondering whether to tell her or not. If I pay with my credit card, I think, I can say it cost the regular rate and pocket the difference. The barman serves me and disappears.
‘Heads or tails?’ the woman asks.
I haven’t noticed her. She’s sitting on a stool at the other end of the bar. She’s not young but she’s attractive, with sparkling black eyes. Her nose reminds me of our spaniel’s, her curls are dark and she’s drinking a small beer. A local, I decide.
‘Forget it,’ I say, scooping up the pound and slipping it in my pocket, not wanting to be thought indecisive, ‘it's not important.’
‘Gambling’s fun, isn’t it?’ she says, sliding a bowl of nibbles in my direction.
‘No thank you. Salt desensitises the palate.’
What I’ve said obviously amuses her. She does not smile exactly, but her nostrils flare and the lines at the corners of her eyes crinkle. She would not stand out in a crowd, but there’s a plump peachiness about her that is not unpleasant.
‘Do you often make decisions that way?’ she asks.
‘No, I rarely have doubts.’
Her legs are short and the tips of her toes are tucked behind the footrest. She follows my glance and crosses one leg over the other, arching her instep. It has no effect on me, for at that moment I decide that Amber shall reimburse me with the full amount. Because her secretary has messed up the booking she can’t insist on an itemized receipt, so I’ll be free to indulge myself, for once. She’ll have to apologise too and that’ll be satisfying. Amber’s never wrong. I break the habit of a lifetime and pick a plump black olive from the bowl, noticing that the woman's figure is as curvy as her legs.
‘Are you staying or just dining?’ I ask.
She must be well pretty well paid, I think.
‘Oh just the night. I’m off to Oswestry tomorrow, wherever that is. Have you ordered?’
She wrinkles her nose. ‘I can’t decide. I had lunch. I'm not that hungry... and there's nothing that particularly tempts me.’ She hands over the menu and returns to her book.
I've lost her. Damn! I should have chatted her up more. I am trying to think of something to say when she murmurs.
‘Is there anything you fancy?’
The voice is soft and lilting and the question’s a turn-on. I stare at the menu, wondering if she knows what she's said, but she looks into my eyes and there’s no hint of innuendo. I flip the pages, ignoring the steaks and grills and anything too easily prepped: it's my job to irritate chefs.
- 3 -
‘They’re making a big fuss about this Welsh Black sirloin. Have you tried it?’
I’m thrown again. She doesn't look the type. All the veggies I know are scrawny creatures, like Amber and Co., not shapely country girls. I see that half-smile appearing again as she turns to the bar mirror and strokes her neck. She sighs, inserts a bookmark and slips the slim volume into her handbag. Her fingers are short; the nails tapered, not spades like Amber's, nor nibbled like my wife’s. She may be provincial but she’s not naive. She remains calm and poised when I mention my wife, as I always do. I never mislead women; I have principles. I cannot bear unpleasant scenes; life’s too short.
The barman returns and interrupts my thoughts. ‘Another Campari and soda, Mr Jones?’
‘Yes. How about you?’ I ask her.
It takes two more rounds of drinks and an hour of coaxing to persuade Olwen, for that is her name, Olwen Owen-Jones, to join me at my dining table. What succeeds eventually is giving her the opportunity to critique the food. Flattery is a useful tool. Most women think they know all about food. Few do. I have no intention of using her views, of course, but shared opinions bring people closer.
When she excuses herself to visit the cloakroom while we wait to be called to our table, I slip out and have a word with the receptionist. I change my booking from a small single to a superior double with a sea view and four-poster and arrange for an early morning call. I shall tell Amber it’s the only room left. She won't know any better.
‘My wife’s joined me,’ I explain to the girl and see her enter ‘Mr and Mrs Jones’ on the register as she hands me my key. She summons a porter to take my bags upstairs. It’s settled in no time, before my dinner guest returns. The name Jones in Wales, I think, is like Smith in Brighton.
I have noisettes of salt marsh lamb, pink and tender, with a pea risotto and Olwen selects the penne with roasted vegetables.
‘It’s good but under seasoned,’ she says, blotting oil from her lips. There’s a finesse about her I’m beginning to find entrancing.
The apricot tart with cinnamon cream is crisp and delicate, but the shavings of crystallised ginger leave too strong an after-taste. I make a few notes, adding her comments, and I am charmed by her undivided attention. My wife multi-tasks when I'm around, which is annoying. We talk mostly about me - and my interests, but I do remember to ask her about her job.
‘I’m a librarian of sorts, but I travel a great deal.’ She talks about poets, novelists and book conferences I've never heard of. My reading’s confined to newspapers and trade journals so I change the subject. She is knowledgeable about food, and from what she says is an adventurous cook. Quite a tasty morsel all round, I decide, a delicious Welsh Rarebit. I persuade her to forego the Llanboidy for some Pont L’Eveque; so ripe it oozes on the board.
- 4 -
‘Try it,’ I say. ‘It’s rich and luscious when it’s stored correctly and it’s better than that farmhouse product the waiter’s plugging.’
I spurn the biscuits and insist on warmed bread and can tell by a twitch of her nostrils that she approves. We drink our decaffs and she fingers the room key I've left on the table. She gives a lopsided smile and says, ‘I must go to bed’ and if I were younger I would I flush.
‘Don’t worry,’ I whisper, ‘I’ll sort out the details,’ and I think of ‘Tom Jones,’ my favourite film, where a couple share a feast before a night of abandon.
* * *
After a bath I slip into a towelling gown and turn off the lights. I stand on the balcony, my eyes slowly adjusting to the luminous river and the shining sands of the estuary. There’s the softest of taps as she slips through the door I've left on the latch. Our shoulders touch as we lean on the parapet and I take her hand in mine. The reserve she’s shown in public has vanished. When I wrap her in my arms she’s all silk and perfume and when we kiss she responds. I don’t carry her to the bed as I have a dodgy back, and my knees often creak, but soon we’re sinking into clouds of cotton. Her skin glows in the moonlight as she arches and stretches. As dawn breaks we lay curled, recovering, watching the tide flooding in to the creek under our window. For once, I think, I am wrong about Wales, then the lovely creature rolls away and sleeps, like our Cavalier after a scamper through the park.
When the phone rings I find my vision has flown. She has slipped away as silently as she arrived, and I must admit I am relieved. Some women have the gift of knowing when a man needs space. For, when it comes down to it, there is nothing to talk about. It has been a delightful interlude someone like Amber, tied to an office routine, or Ann Robinson, tied to a television studio, could never experience. I’m not as fit as I was and I’m exhausted. I would dearly love a lie in, but decide it would be churlish not to breakfast with her after such a night. I feel I should stick to my story with the hotel too, but as I shower I change my mind. Really, what does it matter? Do I care what the staff thinks? It happens all the time, I’m sure. My priority is to reach my next inn by lunchtime and it’s going to be an interminable drive over more of those damn mountains.
It's easy for women; they don’t have to make such decisions. Men have to choose whether to see them again and upset their domestic life, or drive away regarding the episode as one of life's little pleasures. I don't think for long. I don't feel guilty because I’ve used no pressure. I desired her, what man in my place would not? We’ve enjoyed a mutual passion, but she was the one who made the first move. It may have been a reduced price room but it was certainly not a cheap meal. She might have done the same thing before. I pack and go to settle my account.
The Manager is on duty. ‘Good morning, sir. I do hope you and Mrs Jones have enjoyed your stay?’
I don’t want a conversation; I’m in a hurry to be gone. ‘Thank you. The bill please. I just need the total.’ I put my credit card on the desk and search in my pockets for my sunglasses.
‘Of course.’ He presses a few keys and hands me an invoice for four thousand, three hundred pounds and eighty-three pence.
‘What the hell?’ I say, knowing that Amber will never compensate me for anything like that figure. ‘A double room at half price and two dinners; you’re taking the mickey!’
‘But Mrs Jones has been here for three weeks, sir,’ he cooed. ‘She asked for her card when you retired last night when she said you'd be settling her account. She asked us to ensure that all was ready, as you were going in different directions.’ He feeds my card into the machine, which prints out a receipt as I stand there, dumb and gaping.
‘Now, if you'd insert your pin number.... Just.... here - sir?’
- 5 -
© Margaret Thurgood, 2012