I'm back in England. I'm meeting someone off the Eurostar at Saint Pancras. We're going to a hotel. A romantic weekend. A mini break.
There is nothing more romantic than exit-ing London by car on a Friday in the midst of a financial crisis: taking off mid-afternoon before the the arteries of the city clog up, before the weekend rush-hour has had time to accumulate. There is nothing that feels more like escape, like privilege.
We leave the suburbs and the home counties behind then drive through villages named for Yardie Gangstas: Nuneham Courtney, Kingston Bagpuize, Stanton Harcourt. We're looking for Earls Farley, where the hotel is located.
The hotel is big and well-known. It has a spa and a shop selling relatively obscure international brands normally only available in big cities. It is decorated in a style which might be called London funky: the patterns on the carpets are bright and oversized, as are the armchairs and the lampshades which hang from the ceiling like giant sinister mushrooms. There is a children's area, which looks very much like the bar.
I swim in the spa pool, alone. There are other people here, eating the acidic green apples which are placed for decoration on the slate-tiled reception desk. They read newspapers, drink tea and text on their mobiles, wearing spa dressing gowns, as though just being here might make them fitter. Outside, there's a rack of unused wellington boots suggesting that you might like to take a healthy walk. The country appears as a pleasant backdrop through the French windows, but I don't see anybody making use of it. It's like being in town with all the possibilities of the country, but they're strictly optional. That's what we're paying for. "Ahhhh," we sigh contentedly, while checking our email at the bar, imagining ourselves coming in cold from a long walk to a log fire and a glass of whisky. We drink they whisky anyway. It's a lovely, seductive place, like a very expensive Centreparcs.
After dinner we decide to take a real walk to the pub in the village. Ouside is dark, the sort of dark you very rarely see now. We're really in the country. There are no streetlights and no sign, amongst the obscuring hillocks, of the village we are looking for. We have one torch, which casts a pinpoint of light. I am holding the torch. I can tell already that this could cause problems.
He is standing a little way off, deliberately out of the circle of light. When I move toward him with the torch, he moves away again. I begin to get the feeling he is manipulating our progress.
I say, "The village is this way."
"No," he replies. "We should take a right. The other way is back to the hotel."
"But I saw the village when we drove in. The road curved round the hotel then the village was on the other side."
"But the road splits. And, look, there are lights over there."
We follow the lights. The road gets unaccountably spongy underfoot. I stumble over something. I shine the torch around. We are in a graveyard.
"I don't think this is the pub."
We are still at an amicable stage. He laughs. We go back. We go left. We see the glowing yellow lights of the hotel settlement. The road splits again.
"Look there's a sign."
"I can't see. Give me the torch."
I hand it over, although I know this is some kind of power play. He shines it at a battered arrow with the words, Earls Farley. It does not point to the road on the left. It does not point to the road on the right. It has been twisted or perhaps has just settled so that it points, perversely, straight into the hedge between the two routes.
I say, right.
He says, left.
We go right. We walk hopefully for five minutes, ten. As the going gets softer, we realise we're no longer on a road, or a path of any kind. When the moon comes out from behind a cloud (and it's dark enough here for moonlight to make a difference) it is revealed that, at my suggestion, we've been heading across a ploughed field. There is no need for voiced reproaches. Unable to get anywhere in the real country, we turn grimly and silently back to the the hotel.
As we pass the sign to the village, something falls out of the air onto my head. Hard.
"What the f**k was that?"
Whatever it was, it hurt. Could he have thrown something at me in revenge for my poor orienteering? I am frozen with disbelief and rage and horror. I shine the torch onto the ground to discover that my assailant was actually Earls Farley: that I'm standing beneath the overladen boughs of a fruit tree and that, sitting in the torch beam circle, is a large ripe pear.
A little way away, I can hear, rather than see, that he is doubled up with laughter.
"I think," he snorts, "you've been the victim of a 'drive-by-fruiting..."