by Oonah V. Joslin
The Pig's Blanket had changed hands. The taciturn landlord had been replaced with a more efficient taciturn landlord with a business degree, who strongly suggested we take the key with us, as the outer door would be closed at nine o'clock. Also there were no nightclubs in the vicinity and did we want an evening meal because we'd have to book now and breakfast finished at half past eight.
Whilst we filled in a triplicate form, he went to answer the query of an early diner with regard to the trout.
We regarded each other's jowls and paunches and wondered whether we looked more typical of acid house or rave.
“Is the trout very fresh?” we heard the lady ask.
“No, madam. At the minute, it's very frozen.”
We decided to eat out. We took any valuables with us since the room door didn't seem to lock and made a mental note that The Pig's Blanket had 'gone downhill'.
Quarter past eight saw us helping ourselves to juice.
“Full English?” the landlord asked without further explanation.
“No egg for me,” I said.
Mine came complete with runny egg and some other crispy, oatmealy looking pat that I couldn't identify.
“Hash browns,” he said.
Full English? Hash browns? Whatever they were, I left them.
Eating up the miles between towns used to be easy but this time it seemed we'd been driving forever just ahead of a family of thunderstorms and just behind a family of traffic cones and it was getting towards evening.
A searing cramp in the arch of my left foot demanded stretching. We determined to leave the motorway at the next exit and head for any town or village that seemed worthy of our attention. We'd traveled this route many times but it seemed to have got longer, and recent experience suggested to us that towns were no longer the domain of people but of the car.
The pedestrian precincts that separated the traffic from people also ironically excluded visitors from ever finding the town centre, and this had lead to the demise of many of the small hotels and guest houses we'd stayed in, in the past.
In this case a Chinese Takeaway stood where our hoped-for rest should have been, and we were forced to follow the one way traffic system north, out of town and in low spirits, there seeming to be no other hotel or boarding house on the route.
Just beside the motorway, there was a choice of motels where people who just wanted to get from A to B would while away an hour playing fruit machines and Internet games. A benevolent electric chair would jiggle their spasmed limbs, and standard motorway comestibles would fill their gut. We wanted more. We wanted a good meal, a civilized drink and a comfortable bed. In short, we wanted hospitality.
Where had England gone? Where were the pubs with friendly bar staff, local beers from the hand pump and yellowed nicotine decor? Where was the jovial landlord with his repertoire of politically incorrect jokes and his buxom wife who smelt of steak and kidney pie and chicken in the basket? Where was the old fellow at the bar with his Peterson pipe, slurry-coloured wellies and unfathomable accent?
Earlier we'd stopped for lunch in a country inn called The Ploughman, but no ploughman would ever have recognized the menu. Spanish ham in ciabatta rolls with Roquefort and fresh figs, garnished with rocket in a delicate balsamic dressing.
No? How about a French stick of goat's cheese and caramelized red peppers, lollo rosso leaves and garlic vinaigrette or Mediterranean roast vegetable and blue cheese quiche with parsnip and beetroot chips or a bowl of hot chilli with nachos and sour cream and chive dip?
“You couldn't do me a cheese and pickle sandwich with a side order of chips?” said I naively, and a pair of superior young I'm a student working here on my hols and I've got half a degree already so why don't you go back to the slum you came from eyes regarded me with fat old bitch contempt.
“Well we have to eat something!” said my other half, in despair that the cafetière of muddy, bitter coffee with cold milk was the only truly English thing about this indigestible selection.
An illiteracy of hope pointed us next left to a knife, fork, spoon and bed. We gladly turned off and at length reached a chocolate box of a village complete with thatched roofs and a hostelry with small lead-paned windows. Directions lead us to a car park behind the pub. The car park was empty. Come to that, the village, as far as we could see, was empty.
But that can be the impression any English village — or town for that matter — gives around tea time. Tea time being that time when the day has closed for business and the evening is not yet open and you can't get a cup of tea for love nor money unless you are in your own home.
Not a soul. No dog nor cat nor blade of grass moved as we walked round the side of the inn to the shiny black front door. We could see through the windows that the lounge bar was empty. The brass knocker seemed stuck fast so I pressed the doorbell. For a while this seemed to have no effect either. Just as I was about to press again, shuffling noises were audible within, and the door opened — just a crack, held fast by a security chain in case we were axe murderers or serial rapists.
The face that peeped out betrayed no expression.
“We wondered if you have a double or twin room for the night?” my husband said, trying not to sound like a werewolf despite his whiskered appearance.
“No, not tonight,” said the landlady in a tone that led us to believe either that guests were a nuisance — she had a business to run, after all — or perhaps that we should have been cognisant of some pressing occasion that would undermine any such hopes.
The door clicked shut and we walked back to the car.
“Of course, not tonight!” I said with conviction. “It's that big Summer Phantom Fest tonight, isn't it?” My spouse waited, being used to such insights from me. “This must be the North Yorkshire venue of the fancy dress Phantom Ball and this year's theme is transparency.”
“So the bar is actually full then...” he said, nodding.
“Yes. And there's no face under that wig and mask she was wearing. That's why it took her so long to come to the door! She had to literally put her face on.”
“She could have put on a pleasanter one,” he remarked.
We drove on.
I ask myself now: was it real — that well appointed Georgian house hotel with its cobbled archway to the old stables where we parked; the super king-sized bed, mini-bar, luxurious bathroom, welcoming smiles and a choice of smoked haddock on the biggest breakfast menu I'd ever seen. Was the jam really homemade and did the windows truly open wide to admit the cool night air? Did I really not have to carry my own case up that winding staircase to the turn on the landing where a convenient chair welcomed the weary or elderly?
The chocolate limes!
Bonbon dishes of chocolate limes like peridots had been jeweled about the place. I'd put some in my handbag as refreshers for the onward journey — yes there they were in my handbag. It was real! It does exist! There is still an England. Only... I'm not telling you where.
Copyright © 2008 by Oonah V. Joslin