Natalie heard Tom's car horn at seven p.m. on the dot. He was never late. But Simon always had been. Not for patients, just for her. She was still on Simon time.
At seven ten he hooted again.
'All right, you bugger,' Natalie shouted, to the empty room behind her, as she slammed the flat door.
At least she had something to pack an overnight bag for, even if it was only Tom. Natalie liked packing overnight bags. She hoarded those little bottles you could buy at Superdrug, and sachets that came in magazines, and kept them in an Anya Hindmarch bag Susannah had been given once when she was upgraded on a British Airways flight. Ever ready. It made her feel glamorous—the thought that she could head off at a moment's notice to Babington House or Gleneagles. Now it was in her holdall (fake Mulberry, M & 5), nestled alongside a travel hairdryer and two sets of matching underwear. Underwear always matched in an overnight bag.
If he'd booked one room he could think again. She wanted six feet of Frette linen all to herself, thank you very much. Thank goodness he had a bit of money. He might want to dress up the cheering-her-up process as this stupid alphabet game, but she knew they were both in it for a laugh. She was looking forward to a bit of pampering. Maybe there'd even be a spa ...
Tom had opened the boot and was leaning against the passenger door. 'Come on.'
'Da-dah!' Natalie spread her arms and gave a little twirl. 'I'm ready for A. Or should I say, I'm Available for A, I'm Able to A, I'm Amenable—'
'You're L for late.'
She ignored him. 'Come on, then. Where are we going? Don't keep me in suspense!'
'We're going abseiling.'
'You have got to be kidding me.'
'Nope. Kit's in the car.'
'Sleeping-bag, boots—you're a size five, if the shoes I read last week were telling the truth, Rescue Remedy, ingredients for packed lunch—'
'But you're kidding really, right?'
'I am totally serious. We're booked into a bunkhouse on Dartmoor tonight, and it's going to take hours to get there, so could you close your big guppy mouth and get into the car? We had a deal.'
'I don't remember any deal where I agreed to something life-threatening.'
Tom smiled. 'You'll be as safe as houses. Trust me.'
'Yes, well, that doesn't sound very likely, does it? Trusting you has ended me up here.'
Tom started the car, and pulled out into the traffic.
Natalie watched him. His brow was furrowed in concentration, one eyebrow—the one with the tiny scar from when he had fallen off a diving-board when he was fourteen—a little higher than the other. 'Abseiling? Really?' she said.
'In January? Really?'
An hour later, on the MS, she still didn't believe him. Maybe Exeter, somewhere like that. Topsham. There must be lots of hotels around there, the ones with linen sheets, posh shampoo and spas. He couldn't be serious.
And if he was, it would prove what she had said all along, ever since that stupid conversation in the pub on New Year's Eve. He so wasn't the right man for her.
She woke herself up with her own snore, head snapping forward, and realised the car had stopped. And that it was almost pitch dark. Driving rain smudged the view of what was clearly the only building for miles around, illuminated by pale lights through tiny windows.
'We're here.' Tom stretched beside her, his forearms flat against the top of the car. 'Thanks for the marvellous company.'
'I was tired.'
'Just as well, actually. I dare say you're going to get all princess-and-the-pea-ish about the bunkhouse.'
The smell of wet neoprene hit them as they opened the door. A drying room was immediately to their left, full of dripping wetsuits swinging like carcasses in an abattoir. To their right, the living room was occupied by a couple of mouldy-looking sofas, some Formica tables and chairs, and a family in perfectly co-ordinating fleeces, engrossed in a game of Scrabble. Everywhere signs advised them to 'switch lights out', 'behave with consideration' and 'deal responsibly with litter'.
Tom was watching Natalie.
'Brownie-camp flashback. What the hell have you done, Tom?'
'You'll be fine. Let's go and find our room.'
'Our room?' She trudged after him, up the stairs.
She was about to call him presumptuous, but then she saw the bunks. You'd need to be a contortionist, let alone presumptuous. The mattress was about two feet wide, with no sides, and, it appeared, no ladder to the top. Blimey.
Natalie stood in the corner while Tom busied himself unrolling their sleeping-bags and laying them out. 'D'you want to go on top?' His eyebrows waggled suggestively at her. She was too horrified even to take the bait, and shrugged.
'So, do you fancy the pub, or a microwave meal with Mr and Mrs the Family Who Plays Together Stays Together down there?'
'Are you planning to speak in whole sentences at all this weekend, or are these monosyllabic utterances the best I can hope for?'
'If you want a whole sentence you'd better feed me, then drive me home.'
He was pushing her down the stairs.
The pub helped a little. An open fire and a big bowl of chilli. Several whisky macs.
'So,' she asked, 'have you ever done this abseiling thing, then?'
'Nah. Bungee-jumped once when I was in Australia. Do you remember?'
Tom's year off. Her finals. He'd rung her at three a.m. once, off his face in some bar in Queensland, to wish her good luck in an exam. She nodded.
'I figure this can't be harder than that.'
'But you're about fifteen years older now,' she said.
'True. But I hardly consider myself to be over the hill. What about you?'
Alphabet Weekends: Love on the Road from A to Z
- paperback: 425 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
- ISBN-10: 0061122181
- ISBN-13: 9780061122187