For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

South West Coast Path. Day 12: Sidmouth To Seaton


The landlady of the small, terraced, seaside guest house, The Walker's Retreat, greeted me and showed me to my room. The house was as quiet as a morgue and there were no other lodgers. A moth-eaten cat fussed round my ankles. The landlady was a tall, elderly woman with dyed blond hair, grey at the roots, and a skirt far too short for her age. It was hard not to notice her wobbling thighs and prominent varicose veins as she led me up the stairs. Her face was painted with an unnecessary amount of rouge and lipstick, I thought, and bore a rather hawk-like expression, with hooded eyes and an aquiline nose. I surmised she was probably a widow and ran the place on her own to make ends meet. My room was adequate, though old-fashioned — the furniture and decor were stuck firmly in the 1970s — and sorely cried out for a man about the place: the bathroom tiles needed regrouting, the toilet handle was rickety and the toilet roll holder fell off the wall as soon as I touched it. Clearly my hostess was no expert with the rawlplug or the screwdriver.

Later that night, after a mediocre meal in the local pub, The Sailor's Armpit, I returned to my room, undressed and switched on the TV to watch the weather forecast. I followed these forecasts regularly as the weather had been so unpredictable of late. The TV was in a strange position on a table at right angles to my bed, so I shifted round on the bed to see it properly, my back resting partly against the wall and partly against the curtains. Crash! In an instant all havoc broke loose. The pressure from my back had caused the whole curtain track and both curtains to come tumbling down about my ears. I surveyed the damage. Some plastic brackets had also popped out of the wall and lay broken on the floor. This had been a disaster waiting to happen: the flimsy, plastic track was obviously too heavy to support the heavy, flowered curtains, and the slightest movement would have brought them down. I felt like Jim Dixon, the clumsy anti-hero in Kingsley Amis's novel, Lucky Jim.

After this deafening crash the house now resumed its habitual silence. You could have heared a pin drop. I tiptoed round the bed, pulled up a chair and, standing on it, tried to squeeze the track back onto the remaining brackets. With the curtains still attached, all that happened was that more brackets were wrenched from the wall. I slid the curtains off the rail and tried to reposition the track without them. It was hopeless. I could have done with a small screwdriver to loosen the bracket screws.

Suddenly I realised I was standing naked in front of a curtainless window in full view of a modest and decent seaside town, a place where parents brought their children and where the beaches were always clean and safe. In a paranoid flash I saw before my eyes the headlines of next morning's local newspaper screaming: Naked Rambler Destroys Elderly Widow's Bedroom or Nude Guest House Resident Caught In Bizarre Sex Act With Curtain Rail. I hastily retreated from the window and put out the light. My mind was jumping all over the place. My God, had the widow heard the stupendous racket? Had anyone outside seen anything? Was someone on the phone to the police right now?

After an uneasy night's sleep — several times I woke up sweating from nightmares about interrogations and police cells — I took my seat in the breakfast room downstairs. Eerily, all the other tables had been set for breakfast too, even though I knew I was the only guest. My landlady entered the room, bearing down on me with a coffee pot over which a pair of wrinkled breasts loomed from a low-cut, lilac blouse. 'Kippers,' she announced. 'I'd go for the kippers, if I were you. Freshly caught and smoked.' 'Have you any bacon and eggs?' I asked, weakly. 'Clean out of bacon,' she replied, defensively. 'I couldn't get to butcher's yesterday. Why don't you have the kippers?' Reluctantly I complied. 

A few seconds later she brought them in. Her ample bosom heaved as she placed a cold platter of unappetising, pungent fish before me. When she had gone I removed a couple of wiry, blond hairs from the side of the plate, then slid the two dried-up pieces of fish into my napkin. They smelled like an old fisherman's crotch. As if out of nowhere the woman appeared again. 'Finished already?' she enquired, sadistically. 'Let me fetch you some more.' 'No, I've eaten enough, really,' I stuttered, and suddenly felt something clawing at my leg. The cat had had a whiff of the kippers and was desperately trying to climb onto my lap and push its nose into my paper parcel of piscatorial booty.

I scraped back my chair, stood up and rushed to my room. Thankfully I'd already packed and was ready to go. 'But you haven't finished your coffee!' a voice wafted from below. I wrote a scribbled, apologetic note about the curtains and left it on the rumpled bed. In the twinkling of an eye I was at the doorway ready to leave. The bill was £28 — the cheapest I'd yet paid in any B&B. I thrust a £20 and a £10 note into the hands of my hostess. I couldn't help but observe that her hands were enormous, the biggest hands I'd ever seen on a woman, and the fingernails were chipped, their magenta varnish flaking. I took one last look through the hallway and saw a small, stooping, bald man with his back towards me washing up at the kitchen sink. So she had a living husband after all. 'Keep the change,' I blurted guiltily, fleeing in relief across the street and down to the sea front.           

16 comments:

What Remains Now said...

An epic walk and this will probably be what I remember most. Hilarious.

Vagabonde said...

What an adventure! Such an un-picturesque inn! This would hurt the image the average US citizen has of lovely “olde” England… and a pub called The Sailor’s Arm pit? You are kidding, no? that must be what the place smells like – the real name must be something like the Anchor Inn or the Kings Arm I suppose.

The Solitary Walker said...

Im glad you enjoyed my little piece of creative writing, What Remains Now.

Vagabonde — the piece is highlighted in blue (in accordance with my blog protocol) to signify a piece of 'creative' writing, rather than it all being absolutely literally true! Having said that, the gist of it is correct (eg the curtain disaster, the low-cut neck-line, the single residency, the reclusive husband). But I've embellished for humorous effect! It's artistic licence with a hard kernel of reality, should we say.

George said...

A seasoned traveler such as you, Robert, needs no advice from anyone. My inclination, however, would be to seek an instant upgrade in the accommodations as soon as I spotted "The Sailor's Armpit" or encountered kippers with the smell of "an old fisherman's crotch." With experiences like these, you were probably more than ready to walk through torrential rains and gale force winds.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, George, for joining me in the joke. Though, believe me, I don't think I can ever face kippers again...

Ruth said...

A wonderfully horrible tale! I don't think you've lived until you have at least one terrible B&B experience.

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh, I've had more than one, Ruth!

Laura said...

Your posts usually lead me to a place of peaceful reflection. This one just cracked me up! Thanks for the very entertaining account of your night in the "guest" house!

The Solitary Walker said...

Great to be jolted out of peaceful reflection from time to time, Laura! I'm so glad you appreciated the humour in my piece.

dritanje said...

This is hilarious! Particularly liked the imagined headline of 'nude rambler caught in bizarre sex act with curtain rail'.

Susan Scheid said...

What a remarkable journey! I have been watching the list of posts grow from the last time I got here and was eager to get back. So now I've had the enormously guilty pleasure of following your journey from the safety of an armchair where I can remain warm and dry throughout. And you leave us with a cliff-hanger of an ending today, fleeing that guest house. I look forward to the next installments!

The Solitary Walker said...

Glad you enjoyed it, dritanje! Re. the headline — I knew reading 'The Sun' would pay off one day.

And so pleased you can relish my walk vicariously, Susan!

Rachel Fox said...

So how much of this one is true? Anything? It had moments of the Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected and others of Fawlty Towers!
x

The Solitary Walker said...

As I commented to Vagabonde, Rachel, it's based on a true experience, but with a lot of embellishment. (The curtain incident is absolutely true.)

Dominic Rivron said...

There's a book there - Landladies of the South.

Great photos. I've been away from blogs for a bit, so -my apologies- I hadn't read your previous posts on this journey. I have, however, scrolled through the photos, which make me want to go down there myself.

The Solitary Walker said...

No apologies needed, Dominic — getting away from cyberspace for a while is, I'm convinced, a very good thing!