“What are you talking about, I don’t have a sister!”
Maurice Humphries was taken aback. Surely this gentleman, the last of the group to arrive, was the Reverend Herbert Galton? Apparently to be accompanied by his sister, Dolly. “You are Reverend Galton, are you not?”
“I am Colonel Galton. Kenneth. The reverend is my brother.”
Humphries regarded the motley crew of walkers gathered underneath the old railway bridge at Woodman’s Hyde. They stood, shuffling, fiddling with maps and compasses, clad in brightly coloured tops sporting names such as North Face, Berghaus and Patagonia. The colonel, by contrast, wore a Barbour jacket and high leather boots, looking for all the world as if he were going on a pheasant shoot.
“Oh, I don’t have you on the list,” Humphries said.
“No matter,” snapped the colonel, “you can put me on it now.”
Humphries hesitated, his travel agent training taking over, “Well, um, I’m not sure. There’s insurance to be considered—”
“Herbert said it’d be OK.”
“Oh, here he comes now,” said the colonel, as a tall thin man wearing a dog collar approached, accompanied by a woman with a round pink face encircled by a halo of white hair.
“Ah, hello, Ken, good morning, everyone,” said the reverend, “sorry we’re a bit late. Dolly here couldn’t find her dentures.”
Dolly’s rouged lips parted in a smile, showing a large area that could have been a black hole.
“OK, everyone,” Humphries announced loudly, deciding to let the insurance matter go. “As you know, the plan is to walk along the old railway line to Glebe Farm then to take the bridle path to Dunnock’s Hill then back here, over the fields, for lunch at the Railway Inn.” He gestured to a large white building just visible in the distance through the blackened stone arch that dwarfed the narrow country lane. “I understand they do a very good all-day breakfast, and I can personally recommend the mild, I could drink a gallon of the stuff!”
“Can we go there now?” someone asked. Everyone laughed.
“There won’t be any dogs at this farm will there?” asked a frail old man with a walking stick. “It’s just that … well, I’m scared of dogs. Ever since one bit me in the crotch when I was a nipper.”
“Why didn’t you nip it back then!” laughed Nurse Sandra Bagshot, a comely woman in her forties.
Humphries consulted his map. “Don’t worry, Mr Peebles, if there are, they’ll already have been fed, and, anyway, you’ve got your stick to beat them off with.”
“Oh, dear, well I don’t know if I can beat off a pack of vicious dogs with this.” Peebles brandished his stick feebly in the air.
“Come on,” said Humphries, leading the way up a steep path to the old track bed.
Two hours later, the group sat at adjacent tables in the dining room of the historic Railway Inn, where a roaring fire kept the old room at a claustrophobic temperature. Humphries looked around the dozen in the group, unloading rucksacks and taking off layer after layer of outdoor gear. Surely they were the most incompetent bunch it had ever been his misfortune to lead on a walk. It wasn’t as if they’d been going up the north face of the Eiger, for heaven’s sake!
“Mr Humphries, may I sit next to you?” It was Nurse Sandra Bagshot.
Humphries nodded assent and was mollified by the feeling of her large soft hip against his. He took a pint of mild from a tray and swallowed several mouthfuls, enjoying the silky warm liquid in his mouth and throat, and feeling the room reel slightly, despite the low alcohol. “It was fortuitous, you joining us today, Sandra. Thank you.”
She smiled, “Well, I thought I was just coming on a walk. I mean,” she whispered conspiratorially, “I thought the reverend and the colonel were going to come to blows, all that sibling rivalry!” She laughed. “And I hadn’t expected to give resuscitation,” she nodded towards old Arthur Peebles, clad in a blanket and sipping whisky, who smiled weakly in their direction.
Humphries coughed. “How was I to know there’d be a pack of foxhounds at the farm? It was just bad luck.”
Dolly tapped him on the shoulder, “Thank you for the nice walk, Mr Humphries, and I’m sorry about your foot. Why I’d wrapped them up in that handkerchief I simply can’t imagine.” She gave an unbroken pearly smile. “Thank goodness Nurse Bagshot had a first aid kit in her rucksack.”
“It was my fault,” said Humphries, “if only those damned laces hadn’t broken.” He removed a boot and rubbed his foot where a denture-shaped cut lay under a bandage. “A highly unfortunate coincidence!”
“I say, Humphries,” came the strident voice of the colonel, “what’s the next walk you’re doing?”
“The Viking Way, in two weeks’ time. And don’t worry, Mr Peebles, there won’t be any Vikings!”
He felt the comforting squeeze of Sandra Bagshot’s hand on his arm. “Just rest your foot for a week, won’t you, Maurice? It’ll soon heal then.”
Her large blue eyes gazed into his. “And could I get you another drink?”
“Oh, er, yes, please. Another pint of mild would be nice.” Humphries watched as Nurse Bagshot’s fulsome figure headed towards the bar. Well, maybe it hadn’t been such a bad day after all!
Taken from the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth, 146 pp. Dec 2021
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