The Divine Miss M

After that agreeable interlude and a well-digested lunch, the grassy path southwest feels easy. In no time at all my battered feet are patrolling the perimeter of Chew Green Roman Camp and marching steadily up-slope through reedy pastures towards Coquet Head and my last ascent of the day, the marshy gradient terminating on Raven’s Knowe.

A lone walker descends, and we stop to exchange pleasantries. He’s a Northumberland man, lean and fit, looking a good few years older than me. He’s been hiking through the forests on a day trip of about twenty miles.

‘I usually do that sort of distance,’ he says. ‘My daughter worries about me, so I carry this thing.’

He brandishes a mobile phone, and his expression tells me he’d like to throw it away.

Then he adds, ‘It doesn’t work in there anyway,’ nodding towards the conifers whose topmost branches peep above the steep flank of Redesdale.

Agreeing that women do indeed worry, we part, he to complete his circuit and phone home, me to wonder why, if he scorns the technology so much, he took the trouble to check whether it worked.

Rain sweeps across from the west, obscuring the higher summits as I splash along the ridge to Byrness Hill, tired but content, my early morning fears and doubts now proven groundless. Eventually I turn right at the gate where the Way plunges down the rocky outcrop, through bracken and into the forest on its straight line approach to the valley floor. Hitting the A68 road, I peel back my coat-sleeve to look at my watch and laugh out loud in delight. The time is 4.45pm, precisely eleven and three-quarter hours since I left Kirk Yetholm, the same duration to the minute as my northbound traverse with Gary.

Across the road at the Border Services Café, the owner meets me in the doorway.

‘You’re not going to tell me you’re closing, are you?’ I say firmly.
‘Come in, lad,’ he replies with a smile, no doubt recognising a seriously hungry customer and his last chance to significantly top up his day’s takings. I give him my order, and soon I’m filling up on home-made soup and bread, followed by roast chicken and chips and peas, washed down by several mugs of hot sweet tea. He keeps checking I have all I want and that his servers are looking after me. Rarely have I enjoyed such solicitous attention.

I amuse myself watching the other customers. They leave their cars and roll in, unable to conceal their relief at finding food and drink, toilets and fuel, in this remote spot. They smoke and overeat before lumbering out to haul their heavy loads to the next filling and emptying station, which for all they know could be as much as several minutes away. In the afterglow of my strenuous efforts, I feel piously superior.

‘You staying at the youth hostel?’ the café owner asks me.
‘That’s a good question,’ I reply. ‘It depends on what time you’ll be open for breakfast tomorrow.’
‘Breakfast? Tomorrow?’ he says, looking aghast. ‘After tonight’s fiftieth birthday party?’
‘Yours?’ I enquire, my heart sinking.
‘No!’ he snorts. ‘Whoever heard of owt so daft as a fiftieth birthday party! But I’ll be there, and there’s no saying what time I’ll get to bed.’
‘Seriously,’ I say, ‘if you can feed me in the morning, I’ll go to the youth hostel. If you can’t, I’ll look for bed and breakfast.’
He takes my point. ‘I’ll be open at eight o’clock or just after,’ he promises, ‘so you’ll get your breakfast. Will you be coming to the party? It’s over the road at the Byrness Hotel.’

It’s nice to be asked, but the thick head I suffered after just three pints and a whisky at Kirk Yetholm is too close a memory. Since my first visit to Byrness my ability to weather alcohol has peaked and is now in steady decline.

‘I’ve been up since 4.30am, so I think I’ll get an early night,’ I say. ‘Don’t forget I’m depending on you for breakfast, but before I go I’ll have another slice of that apple pie.’

With the pie and a final mug of tea sloshing in my belly, I carry my self-satisfaction through the dripping trees to the youth hostel.

A Bette Midler smile greets me when I walk in.

‘Hello,’ the mouth says, ‘are you a surprise guest?’
‘If I am,’ I reply, ‘you must be a surprise warden, and a great improvement on the bearded bloke who was here last week.’

Miss Midler switches several thousand extra watts into her dazzle. The eyes twinkle and the crow’s feet wrinkle as she smiles at her undisclosed thoughts. She is booking me in and relieving me of my cash when a commotion in the passageway heralds the appearance of two youths who jam themselves in the doorframe as they attempt to enter her office together at speed.

‘We can’t find it,’ one says.
‘Not anywhere,’ adds the other.

They stand there breathing rapidly, staring at Miss M and awaiting her response. At first I take them to be hostel guests but soon learn they are with Miss M and are searching, on her instruction, for the solution to some domestic problem. I inspect them closely. I’m sure I’ve seen them before but can’t think where. They look physically clumsy, quicker in action than thought, willing but untalented buffoons. Facially, they remind me ever so slightly of early photographs of the Kray twins. Their actions are part Laurel and Hardy, part Abbott and Costello. Suddenly I have it. I remember them from the Grand Theatre in Leeds, almost fifty years ago. They are pantomime characters from ‘Cinderella’. They are the Broker’s Men.

‘What’s going on?’ I ask.
‘It’s the hot water,’ Miss M says. ‘We can’t get it to work.’
Visions of a cold shower flood my brain.
‘Do you mean for showers or for radiators?’ I ask in trepidation.
‘Only radiators,’ she assures me.
‘Good,’ I say, and I leave to repair the damage of the long day.

My room has only two bunks, which means little likelihood of having to share unless the hostel becomes full. I pull off my socks, peel away the plasters protecting my battle-scarred feet, check for new damage and then stake my claim on the shower to wash off the muck and sweat of the day. After a shave I pull on spare clothes and step outside to clean and wax my boots. I remain determined to persuade them they are loved, despite a recurring inclination to thrash them for their continuing cruelty to my feet, in emulation of Basil Fawlty’s attack on his recalcitrant car. So I apply kindness in an appeal to their innate but hidden goodness, maintaining my faith that one day we shall become best friends. Finally I wash my hiking clothes and start the drying-room heater. I am ready at last to converse and socialise.

Two lads are preparing dinner. They are second-year students at Newcastle University on the last lap of the Pennine Way. I love hearing stories from Wayfarers, especially those around the age I was when I first struck out from Edale.

‘We’ve never done anything like this,’ they say, ‘and it was really tough at first. We managed OK on Kinder Scout, but we took the wrong way off Bleaklow. We followed a line of stakes, and when we realised we’d gone wrong we made this really terrible descent through the rocks. Then we had to walk along the old railway track to get to the hostel.’

Echoes of 1963. Most newcomers starting their expedition at Edale find the early days dreadfully hard. These two speak modestly of a fearsome struggle from which they have grown in strength, and their weather-beaten faces reveal a fully justifiable inner pride. They are quietly confident of walking to Kirk Yetholm next day in eleven hours, a proposition that would have filled them with dread three weeks ago.

‘Anybody else in tonight?’ I ask.
‘Only a German girl,’ one says.
‘A real looker,’ says the other, ‘or so we’ve been told.’
‘Where do you two live, apart from Newcastle University?’
‘Sheffield,’ they reply.

Byrness is a strange hostel: two adjoining terrace properties with no interconnecting doors. Leaving the side that houses the bedrooms, bathroom, drying room, kitchen and dining room, I enter the half containing office, staff quarters and common room. Miss M’s slack-jawed young men have increased to three, but their struggles with the central heating are not over. They are engaged in a ritual with the control panel, repeatedly pressing keys as one does in frustration over an unresponsive computer. It proves about as fruitful as cardiac compression on a headless corpse.

I wonder how Miss M has recruited her supporting cast. As Volunteer Warden, she is quite properly in charge but also apparently above all forms of labour. The newest arrival looks nearer to her age and seems to enjoy a higher status than the Broker’s Men but falls short of parity with the Leaderene. What interrelationships link members of the strange band? What shared experiences or desires have drawn them together for a weekend in this midge-infested clearing? Surely they don’t…..? No! I shudder at the unsavoury possibilities and resolve to think about them no more. Some enquiries are best unvoiced, particularly when one is seeking reassurance rather than information. My reticence is deep-rooted in healthy respect for a trusted maxim from my past: Never Ask The Georgie Miller Question.

Georgie was a familiar figure in a town where I once lodged. In his younger days before the Second World War, Georgie demonstrated an exceptionally hearty appetite for heterosexual activities. It was widely understood that he hadn’t restricted himself to the single girls of the locality; more than one married woman was believed to have been grateful for his attention. Evidence of his potency abounded, particularly on market day when the town centre filled with shoppers from the surrounding villages, and one couldn’t fail to notice the influx of attractive young people with striking blond hair and imperious pale blue eyes, trademarks of Georgie’s distinctive genes.

All good things come to an end. Georgie overstepped himself when he started a relationship with his landlady, almost under the nose of her dozing husband. There he met his match, in more ways than one; Mrs H knew how to have her cake and eat it. Armed with the knowledge that Georgie’s boss, a strict disciplinarian, had sacked his own son from the family business for scrumping the vicar’s apples during his lunch hour, she presented the young gigolo with an ultimatum: wed my Doris, or your boss will find out what’s been going on here between twelve and twelve-thirty, five days a week.

Georgie recognised a superior force and meekly surrendered. He married the admittedly plain Doris and thereafter kept his courting tackle for use at home. He and Doris lived blameless and happy lives together, and when Georgie reached his eightieth birthday he died in his sleep.

‘Trust him to get more than his three score years and ten,’ an old acquaintance whispered at the funeral.
A week later, Doris answered a knock at her door. A woman stood outside. She gave her name.
‘I wonder,’ she asked tentatively, ‘would it be possible to have a word with Mr Miller?’
Doris explained she was too late.
‘Oh dear,’ said the woman, clearly embarrassed. ‘I am sorry I’ve troubled you. I was hoping Mr Miller would be able to help me. You see, I’m trying to trace my father. Mum always refused to talk about him, and she’s not long since passed away. A friend of hers told me Mr Miller might be able to help me.’
She departed, her mission a failure.

Doris felt disturbed by her visitor with the piercing pale blue eyes, and next day she sought reassurance from her best friend. Despite knowing there was only one answer she wanted to hear, she asked what became known as The Georgie Miller Question.

‘You don’t think Georgie had an affair with that woman’s mother, do you?’
Doris’s friend told her not to be so silly; Georgie had been a good husband, and she shouldn’t entertain thoughts that might sully happy memories.
‘I know, but those eyes,’ Doris said.
‘You can’t go by appearances,’ said her friend. ‘It’s just coincidence. You’d have laughed about this if she hadn’t turned up so soon after the funeral.’

Doris returned home mollified, if not entirely satisfied. Her friend breathed a sigh of relief, put on her coat, and hurried round to see my landlady.

‘It was terrible,’ she said, enjoying rapt attention over a cup of tea and an unusually generous supply of chocolate biscuits. ‘She asked me whether I thought Georgie could be the father. The thing was, I knew! That woman’s mother came to see me when she found she was pregnant. She asked me to give Georgie a note. Then she disappeared - went to live somewhere Manchester way. Nobody saw her again ‘til the baby was growing up, but believe me, that girl was the spitting image of young Georgie!’

As I observe Miss M’s gang, I realise I don’t need to ask The Georgie Miller Question. The Broker’s Men are so gormless and physically unattractive that if anyone is on Miss M’s agenda for the night it can only be the late arrival. He and Miss M sit on the settee and watch their inept companions struggling to uncork a bottle of red wine. Neither makes any move to help, so I offer my services. Miss M tastes the wine then asks her superior friend what he thinks of it. He takes a sip and ponders for a moment.

‘I wouldn’t travel far for a second glass,’ he replies.
‘I must consider paying more than two pounds a bottle,’ she says, unfazed by his lack of enthusiasm.

The Broker’s Men return from the staff quarters and block the narrow doorway, bearing empty wine glasses and wearing hopeful expressions.

Miss M gives them a withering look.
‘You must be joking,’ she says. ‘It’s too good for you.’
She turns to me. I fear she may be about to offer a taste of cheap plonk.
‘What are your walking plans?’ she asks.
I briefly explain my south-north and north-south odyssey.
‘Are you obsessed?’ she demands to know.
I think about that for a moment.
‘Yes,’ I admit, ‘I suppose I am. I’ve always been obsessed by one thing or another.’

She’s put her finger right on it, damn her! At work or at play, whenever I get involved in anything, it takes me over. I ask if they are going to the party.

‘Party? What party?’
‘It’s somebody’s fiftieth birthday bash, and it’s in the bar at the Byrness Hotel. Anyone can go, so far as I know. So, why not?’
‘Why not?’ echo the Broker’s Men.
‘The only reason why not,’ I suggest, ‘is that if there’s only Donald behind the bar you might never get served.’

My knowledge of Donald dates from the previous week, when Gary and I suffered the slowest service south of John o’ Groats.

‘Never get served?’ the Broker’s Men repeat slowly, as the gloomy prospect sinks in.
‘But since there’s a party, they might bring someone in to help him.’

Miss M decrees they’ll all go. She orders the Broker’s Men to leave post haste and buy her a pint of whatever is in the hand-pump. They obediently put on their coats and go outside, where for several minutes they stand aimlessly in the pouring rain, like dogs that don’t know how to take themselves for a walk. Eventually, heads bowed, they shamble away and out of sight. A few minutes later, Miss M and her elite companion step out arm in arm through the spreading puddles.

I phone home
‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Byrness. It’s been a lovely day, but it’s raining now.’
‘It’s been awful here. Cold and grey and drizzly.’
‘Everybody OK?’
‘Yes. I had a letter from your mother. Her bowels are working again.’

By the time I climb the stairs the Sheffield lads are already in bed, preparing for their final test. The only other guest, the elusive German girl, hasn’t shown her face. Perhaps she concluded that Miss M’s party, two young hikers preoccupied with the following day, and one old stager tired after his own Cheviots trial, had little to offer. Content in my quiet bedroom, soothed by the sound of steady rain, I fall asleep and dream of Olivia, Virginia and Amelia and the Great Jacuzzi of Hetherington.

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