MUMS ON THE RUN
‘A DIP BEFORE
a comedy by
This book is set a few years
The Spa That
Came In From the Cold
It was winter, cold, dark and wet. Biddy knew this without even looking out of
the window because her tights seemed to be on fire, due to the heat from the
blower she kept under the reception desk, while the tip of her nose was
definitely evincing symptoms of frost bite.
It was an unhealthy situation, but little could be done. Hartley House needed a receptionist, she was
the self-appointed receptionist, and everyone knew that a receptionist had to
sit behind a desk, no matter what the temperature inside. Nevertheless she could not help envying her
nephew Tom whom she knew was sitting with his feet against the lower oven of
the Aga reading an ancient Elizabethan recipe book, all of whose recipes seem
to begin with ‘for the poffet take one
dozen of hennes eggs’ Boris, Hartley House’s handyman/butler too was seated,
not in the cosy kitchen, but on a chair in front of Biddy’s desk, hoodie up,
mittens on hands. He had just placed Biddy’s off-season dread, her worst of all
worsts, the staff suggestion box, in front of her.
“I don’t think I will open it now, thank you, Boris,’
Biddy announced, over-brightly, because since taking charge of Hartley on Tom’s
behalf she had developed an almost permanently bright manner which seemed to
cope with most of their emergencies better than her normal more measured
“Dah, open it,”
Boris commanded, from inside his nylon-fur lined hood, and he pointed a mitten
at the offending box.
“Later no good, time is present when Hartley House is closed,
time for re-definitions, organic suggestives, green plans for future. Time when guests are not present, time to do
Boris tapped the suggestion box in front of Biddy in
such an authoritative manner he might as well have been hammering the
parliamentary mace against the door of the House of Commons.
Biddy sighed, and the sigh might well have passed as a
groan, nevertheless she picked up the staff suggestion box, which was actually
a plastic cow, removed the cow’s udder, and started to pluck out small rolled
up pieces of paper on which the staff had written their suggestions.
The first, in nephew Tom’s writing was quite explicit.
‘Get a gardener
for God’s sake, Boris is hopeless!’
Biddy quickly screwed this up and for security
reasons, put it in her handbag. She really did not want Boris seeing that.
The next said in carefully pencilled writing.
‘PLEASE start using
recycled vests to coddle the boiler,Mrs Checkendon, they can be purchased at
the local charity shop, Mind The Gap, in
Moreton High Street.
PLEASE leave crushed up egg shells
overnight in loos for ideal cleansing. PLEASE add chopped dandelion leaves to outside drains
to encourage endorphins in baby frogs! This is VITAL. The Moreton Frog Society is militant.’
No guessing that these suggestions were from Hartley
House’s new housekeeper, Mrs Cropper, who was, to say the least, exhaustingly
green. Not so much a cleaner as an ever
green warden, always watchful in case Hartley House was adding to global
warming, or enlarging its carbon footprint, etc. Thank heavens the dear lady
was currently on what she insisted on calling ‘leave’ – a remnant obviously
from her military upbringing - which meant that everyone could relax for a
little while, until she returned, at which point the eggshells by the back door
of the kitchen would once again become a speaking testament to Hartley House’s
commitment to ever green issues.
Another piece of paper was emerging from the cow’s udder,
this time in Boris’s hand, written in capitals as commanding as his finger.
Biddy felt Boris staring at her intently as Biddy
perused his suggestion before putting it aside without comment.
She took out another suggestion from the cow. It was Tom again, on the same theme.
‘GET A GARDENER
OR WE REALLY AREALL SUNK! I NEED BROCCOLI, CAULIFLOWERS and PEAS NOT TURNIP TOPS AND NETTLES!’’
This last was also put in her handbag, before Biddy
looked across at Boris, immediately deciding to seize the bull by the horns, or
in the case of the now thankfully empty Staff Suggestion Box, the cow by its
udder, and address his concerns.
‘We can’t afford a swimming pool or a sauna, yet,
Boris. We still have to pay off the
repairs to the roof that were so necessary.’
Boris stood up, pushed back his chair, and shrugged
his shoulders with such a dreadful finality that it made his hoodie seem
somehow even more threatening.
‘No pool, no sawnah, no visitors.’ He waved the same fearful finger at Biddy. ‘All
visitors want spahs.’ He spat the last word out so hard that Biddy
found herself putting her hands to the side combs in her hair and tightening them,
for want of something better to do.
‘Never say so, Boris, surely?’
Boris leaned forward and taking the
plastic cow from Biddy’s desk, with a dreadful air of finality, he screwed the
plastic button back into the cow’s udder.
‘Old Polish saying, milk only come
from cow which is fed,’ he said in an even more sinister tone, and this time it
was his turn to sigh.
Biddy cleared her throat once again.
What a doom, not just the weather outside the window, not just the bills in the
desk drawer, but also Boris in battle order.
‘I take the point, Boris, really I do. But the bottom line is that if you can’t
afford the cow in the first place, there is not much point in talking about
milk, or even butter and cream.’
For a few very brief seconds, Biddy
felt really rather proud of her riposte, but Boris was not yet done with
her. From the pocket of his fake fur
lined nylon coat - bought at Mrs Cropper’s urging from the charity shop in
Morton - he took out a sheaf of brochures, and in the manner of a card player
who has just been dealt a clutch of aces, he laid each of the brochures one
after another in front of Biddy, but instead of saying ‘ace, ace, ace’ he said
‘spa, spa, spa!’ Except the way Boris said it the word had somehow acquired an
aitch. So he seemed to be saying ‘spah, spah, spah!’
Biddy picked up each of the brochures
one by one and started to look through them.
There was no doubt that Boris was right. Each of the brochures contained
pictures of handsome men and women with impeccable tans seated on wooden
benches clutching immaculate white towels around their bronzed bodies, or
perched on the edge of deeply blue swimming pools sporting bikinis and shorts,
and colourful smiles to match.
‘Swimming pools are not easy to
maintain, even if you can afford them,’ Biddy murmured.
‘Pool pay for itself, once visitors
come, pool attract visitors like wasps to dung.’
To avoid thinking about Boris’s
analogy Biddy stared at the telephone on her reception desk. It was hardly a week since New Year’s day,
and the truth was that they were emptier of bookings than the Hartley House
Fighting Fund was empty of cash.
‘I suppose I could go to see Mr Peters
at the bank in Milborne? But things are not what they were at banks since the Yentse
For once Boris seemed to understand.
‘Dah, Yentse sunk again. On telly this
morning. Right down. And falling more
He leaned forward.
‘Breakfast telly man, Mister Moneybags, dah? He say copper has
gone crazy. Tom has copper, plenty of copper, turn into swim pool!’
Biddy frowned. She knew Tom had collected plastic toys which
he had kept in perfect boxes for many years. He had treasured them since he was
hardly out of nursery, and their sale had certainly gone to help do up Hartley
House before they opened to visitors - but copper? How much copper in or out of perfect boxes
had Tom managed to store?
‘Copper pans, copper coal scuttle,
copper shovel, big run on copper, now mines closed for a hundred years – copper
‘I don’t think we should sell Tom’s
copper, Boris, truly I don’t.’ Biddy stood up, if only to get away from the
sauna under the table, not to mention the talk of one.
She headed for the kitchen to warm the rest of her.
She would not mention Tom’s copper to him. Poor Tom had made quite enough
sacrifices what with selling off his Tinky Tank toys, all boxed and in perfect
condition, to help with the mending of the roof, and so on, but she would get in touch with Mr Peters at the
Milborne branch of her trusty old bank.
After all you never knew, did you?
Mr Peters might think a pool and a sauna was a good investment for
Later that day she managed to speak to Mr Peters on
‘Oh no, Mrs Checkendon, no, no, we will visit you.
Please. That is our policy. We visit you.’
When Biddy told Tom this, he rolled
‘He’s coming to see if the roof is
still on, and whether or not we are worth investing in, Aunt Biddy.’
‘Oh what a doom, Tom, do you really
Tom said nothing for a few seconds as
he chopped some basil with his new mini Blade Runner blender.
‘Mum used to say that bank managers
only want to give you money if you don’t need it,’ he returned at last, once he
had reduced both the basil and Biddy’s hearing to a fraction of its former
With these less than re-assuring words
to boost her confidence Biddy went to the telephone to cancel Mr Peters’ visit,
but the manager was adamant. He had not visited Hartley House for some years,
he would come next week.
‘No need to light a fire or put on the
coffee, I’m not an estate agent, Mrs Checkendon,’ he joked.
Biddy’s heart sank to the bottom of
her still over-heated tights. That was probably exactly what he was going to
do, force them to put the old place on the market, and by doing so put everyone
out of a job. Although, not Biddy herself, now she came to think of it, because
she had actually retired, officially, as it were. She sighed thinking of what she had imagined
were going to be blissful days spent gathering wild flowers before pressing
them into pictures to sell for charity; or making fairy light sponges to take
to friends newly arrived in the vicinity. So far she had achieved none of those
ambitions, instead her conscience had dictated that she go to the rescue of
nephew Tom and Hartley House, although only until both were up and running in
such a way that she could stop worrying about them, something which had not yet
Still, there was no doubt about it winter in the
English countryside could give you a bit of a bashing, what with the Wuthering
Height-style winds whistling through the old conservatory, and Boris’s boots
clanking about on the old floor boards, and Tom trying to make ends meet by
cooking what he called ‘mangle worzle broth’ on any day that had an ‘r’ in it,
and some of the others too.
‘We’ll have to get smartened up for Mr
Peters’ visit,’ Biddy announced to Boris the following week. ‘It’s this afternoon, you know.’
She looked at Boris, and then mentally
closed her eyes. His ex-Army jacket was
missing some buttons on the sleeve, and his ex-Army boots were now pointing skywards
on account of the fact that he would insist on gardening in them. Clay did that
to shoes, it made them dip in the middle and then point upwards. Too late to do anything about the boots, except
give them a fresh polish, but the jacket could be helped.
‘Can I sew you on a button or two, Boris,
before Mr Peters comes?’
Boris looked affronted.
‘Nah.’ He shook his head. ‘Nah. Jacket must keep wartime look.’
Biddy thought differently. She went to her sewing box, found some old
brass buttons, and returned to Boris who was poking some damp logs in the
drawing room fireplace with a ferociousness that brought to mind hand to hand
fighting in what used to be known as the Balkans.
‘Jacket please, Boris – no, not shirt,
Too late, Boris had removed both.
Well, to give him his due, both jacket and shirt had come away as one. Biddy
wished they hadn’t, not even the smell of Big Boy, Boris’s favourite after
shave, could help the atmosphere now he was standing before her in only his old
vest. She realised she should have sewed on the buttons as he stood there,
actually in the jacket. Nevertheless, determined
not to be put off, she started threading her needle. The only thing that she could say about
Boris’s vest was that Mrs Cropper would heartily approve of it in every way
because it was quite definitely green.
‘Aertex vest from 1966, aeration
definitely good for body, purchased charity shop in Moreton,’ Boris told Biddy,
as she quickly sewed the brass buttons on to his sleeve.
This task finished Biddy hurried off
to make the coffee. As she busied
herself she glanced at the kitchen clock.
Tom was out for the afternoon. There was only Boris and herself to
receive their visitor who was even now knocking at the door. She placed the coffee pot carefully on the
tray. Everything was as it should be.
The house was now filled with the smell of the logs, for all that they were
hissing really rather loudly, and the coffee was at the ready. In fact, to
Biddy’s immense relief, everything was just as it should be, and just in time,
even as Boris was preparing to open the door to the newly arriving Mr Peters.
Except Boris was doing no such
thing. He was standing in the hall pointing at Biddy’s handiwork.
‘Buttons not Army! My Major he have Boris
shot! Naval buttons on regimental
jacket! Boris shot at dawn, Major would say!
Too good for shooting even!’
Biddy could see that Mr Peters could
see Biddy and Boris through the half glassed doors, and pretty soon he would
not be just seeing Boris, he would be enjoying Boris’ unique odour of Big Boy.
‘Bring the tray from the kitchen,
Boris,’ Biddy commanded.
But Boris was still apoplectic,
pointing at his jacket sleeves.
‘Anchors and rope! Like pub sign!’
Biddy’s mouth tightened, but she knew
once Boris started to become indignant, there was no stopping him.
‘One, two, three, into the kitchen,
and I will open the door to Mr Peters.
While you – you can snip off the wretched buttons, and bring in the tray,
when you’re dressed again.’
Boris did as commanded, but even as he
closed the kitchen door, and Biddy opened the front door to the bank manager it
seemed to Biddy that she, and Mr Peters too, could hear the sounds of his
Polish moans escaping from the kitchen.
‘Your er chap – ’ Mr Peters nodded
towards the kitchen sounds.
‘That’s Boris, our handyman. He used
to be a batman.’
Mr Peters smiled.
‘Very good, now where’s Robin?’
Mr Peters seemed to be enjoying his
own joke so much, that Biddy hardly dared to carry on explaining that Boris was
an ex-Army batman
‘And, greeter. Boris also greets people in the summer, shows
them to their rooms, generally makes them feel at home, helps out in the dining
room, he is really rather part of the fabric of Hartley House now, and the
visitors, all our many visitors, love him.’
Mr Peters had walked ahead of her into
the drawing room, Biddy following, which she didn’t much like, but new manners
were like that, Biddy had found, everything upside down. Men first women last,
no one standing up when you went into the room. It was all due to women’s
liberation which meant that men now behaved like women used to, and women
behaved like men used to, and everyone else behaved like people on television,
which sometimes wasn’t very nice.
Biddy left Mr Peters, and went into
kitchen for the coffee tray, but Boris, once more jacketed, but with the
offending naval buttons left in a sorry row on the kitchen table, was now
firmly in charge of the tray.
‘Boris duty take tray in. Boris does trays, Mrs Checkie does talking.’
He lowered his head a little, putting the tray up close to his head so that the
cafetiere was on a level with his face.
‘Mrs Checkie not forget swim pool and sauna for spah! Plenty of dips before breakfast for guests?’
Biddy walked ahead of Boris into the
drawing room where the room was gradually filling with smoke.
‘Oh dear, and the chimney has only
just been swept.’
Mr Peters smiled.
‘Ours does that,’ he told her in a
kindly voice. ‘So,’ he turned to
Boris. ‘So this is Batman?’
It seemed Mr Peters couldn’t leave his
wretched joke alone. Perhaps it was the
only one he’d ever made?
Boris straightened up from placing the
coffee tray on the table between the sofas.
‘Boris,’ he announced to Mr Peters.
‘Batman to Major Arkenshaw. Very brave man.’
He looked momentarily reverent as his thoughts strayed to Major
Arkenshaw and his military record, before giving Mr Peters the kind of look that
must have made his enemies either lay down their arms and flee, or faint.
‘Much decorated was he, this Major
Arkenshaw?’ Mr Peters asked seating himself.
‘Dah, very brave man. Gone to Pee Wee country now, roads are not
crowded; people stand up on buses, like England before.’
‘He means Kiwi,’ Biddy told Mr Peters.
‘Actually Boris was decorated too, but he would never say, he’s far too modest.’
‘My wife is a Kiwi,’ Mr Peters announced
as Biddy, for want of something better to do seized the coffee pot and
poured. ‘No milk, no sugar, please,
thank you, Mrs Checkendon, kindly meant, I’m sure.’
In her confusion Biddy had given him
both milk and sugar. She kept the cup
for herself and handed him a single black coffee in a very pretty gold
cup. Smoke was still gradually filling
the room, but Biddy decided to ignore it.
No doubt about it, Hartley House was at its worst that afternoon, and
drawing attention to it would do no good at all.
‘So. Perhaps you would like to show me
your Visitors Book, Mrs Checkendon, show me the kind of people who come to
Hartley House for rest and recuperation, or R and R, as the Americanos call it?’
Biddy, heart sinking, went into the
hall. Most unfortunately there were some
comments in the Visitors Book that you wouldn’t want a bank manager to
One or two of Tom’s friends had put things like ‘a great stop off, just get the bathwater flowing Tom!’
And a certain grey pound visitor had put ‘came for a holidaytook away a great egg in the person of your housekeeper! Thank
you Hartley House!’
And then there were the drawings that the Russian
party had left which were a bit, well, overt, really.
‘You have certainly been busy since
you opened,’ Mr Peters opined, coughing slightly on account of the smoke from
the fire as he thumbed through the Visitors Book. ‘Yes, I can see you have had a really quite
good clutch of visitors for a first season.
Yes, quite a good clutch.’
‘We have been very lucky,’ Biddy
‘No undue incidents? Sometimes these places can attract the wrong
‘No, not really,’ Biddy stated,
mentally crossing her fingers as she remembered several very undue incidents
involving vicars and older ladies, and Armstrong the painter; oh, and all those
Russians, of course. ‘No, we have been really very lucky.’
‘So, it is a swimming pool that you
lack, is it, Mrs Checkendon?’
‘I understand that a spa attraction
can add considerably to business.’
At that moment the door opened and
Boris stood to attention by it.
‘Visitors! Three visitors!’ he boomed from the doorway.
Biddy turned round.
Hartley House was not meant to be open
to visitors at that time of year. There
were no beds made up. There was no food
in the larder. Everything uncooked until
tonight when there would only be enough for the three of them, and even then
rations would be meagre and possibly in the modern manner, perhaps a small
piece of chicken balancing on two piece of asparagus, and a sauce swirled about
it on the edge of the plate ending in a sort of pattern.
Biddy stood up, for once at a loss,
completely stumped as to what to say or do.
‘Not now, Boris,’ she finally murmured. ‘Really.
Mr Peters and I are in a meeting.’
But it was too late the ‘visitors’ had
pushed by Boris.
Biddy stared at them. Oh, cry murder! Someone come to her help! The ‘visitors’ were two of Tom’s friends from
the village pub. Tom, obviously with the best intentions, must have dragooned
them into pretending to be winter guests to impress Mr Peters.
‘We are a trifle early, I’m afraid,’
Tom said, in a voice that was not his own at all. ‘But don’t let it worry you.’
‘No, of course not. And you are?’
Boris gave Biddy the kind of look that
must have made armed guards blench and surrender their weapons.
‘These are Mr and Mrs Chivers, from
the US of A,’ he announced in the manner of a major domo, and his gaze switched
to Mr Peters who, despite the stench of moth balls, looked impressed.
‘Please, don’t trouble yourself; your
butler here can take care of us.’
The speaker was June from the pub. Quite apart from
the perfectly dreadful American accent she was attempting, she was wearing what
she obviously imagined were smart clothes, and they might indeed have been
smart if they had not smelt so dreadfully of moth balls, and looked as if they
had spent the last century in someone’s trunk.
‘We are so pleased to meet you, Mr Peters,’ June
drawled from under her 1940’s veiled hat.
‘Nice, people,’ Mr Peters said, nodding approvingly as
they turned to go.
‘They are going to dining room now, Mrs Checkie.’
Boris leaned forward and addressed Mr
Peters as the ‘visitors’ left the room.
‘Hartley House busy place,’ he boomed
at Mr Peters prodding him with his bony finger.
‘VERY busy. All year round, busy,
His Army boots thundered on the wooden
floor as he left the room.
Biddy and Mr Peters sat down again
both feeling relieved, albeit in very different ways.
There was a small silence.
Mr Peters smiled across what seemed to
Biddy to be an ever widening gap, but was actually only the width of the coffee
‘I thought you were closed in January,
Biddy felt she was floating above
herself, somewhere around the ceiling rose in the middle of the room. Everything
around her, her whole life seemed to be turning into one of those dreams where
you put out your foot and it lands in a plate of porridge.
How on earth had all this happened?
Of course! The
staff suggestion box, Boris making her think that they had to have a spa, so he
must have set his horrible brain to work to create an impression of trillions
of visitors, even in January so Mr Peters would lend them some wampum.
For no reason at all Biddy found herself removing a
handkerchief from her handbag, and then putting it back, because she didn’t
want to blow her nose, she just wanted Mr Peters to go. Panic had induced in her the idea that waving
a hankie at Mr Peters might make him leave.
Oh dear, everything at Hartley House that afternoon had become not just
cold, and filled with smoke from the fire, but too tiring for words. What with Tom’s friends dressing up and
stinking of moth balls, and Boris being intransigent about his buttons. In the basement the newly installed pump,
installed against all flooding emergencies, suddenly sprang into noisy life as,
thankfully, so did Mr Peters.
‘Well, you must be doing well, if you
even have visitors at this time of year.’ He put his hands together, briefly,
in a praying position and lowered his nose on to them. ‘So. Yes. Good idea to
put in a swimming pool, and sauna, and make a spa, Mrs Checkendon, a very good
idea. Put the figures in front of me and
I will consider a loan. Must hurry
off. Please thank Batman, and tell him
only sorry not to have met Robin.’
He went off to his car, his shoulders
still shaking with laughter at his own joke.
him driving away before turning back to the house. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to
be happy or unhappy that Mr Peters might give them a loan for. What she did know was that at the earliest
opportunity she was going to get hold of Boris and Tom and box their ears.
‘Mrs Checkie crossy?’
Boris had his fur lined hood up once more.
‘You can say that again –’
‘Mrs Checkie crossy.’
‘No, Boris, not like that – ’
‘How to say then?’
‘Oh, never mind.’
Biddy sank down behind her reception desk once
more. The fire in the drawing room had
stopped smoking for a very good reason, it had gone out. She switched her desk heater back on, the hot
air turning her feet, almost at once, into small balls of fire. Her telephone rang. She picked it up slowly, expecting not just
bad news, but something really calamitous like Mr Peters’ car had broken down
in the drive and he would need to stay to tea while he waited for the AA.
‘Hallo? Yes, I
saw your advertisement in SUS magazine, and was wondering if you could tell me
a little more about it?’
‘Certainly, how can I help?’
A feeling of blessed relief ran through Biddy as she
realised that it was not Mr Peters, and he had not broken down.
‘What I was wondering was, do you have any spa
facilities, swimming pool, sauna, hot stone massages, that sort of thing?’
Biddy stared ahead of her. Boris was once more seated in front of her
desk, he was watching her intently, one of his Army boots tapping incessantly
on the floor. It stopped tapping as Biddy thought for a moment. She could not, would not say the ‘spa’ word
in front of Boris. It would give him too much authority.
‘No, I am afraid not.’
‘Oh well, thank you.’
Biddy replaced the telephone as the phone the other
end went dead.
Boris’ foot immediately stopped its tapping.
‘Visitor not interested? Visitor wanted spah perhaps?’
Biddy could not lie.
It was not in her nature. She
stared out of the window before replying.
Boris stood up, and then wandered off, humming
Biddy stared out of the window into the garden. It was raining again, and it was freezing
cold, except in the area of her tights. She would now have to telephone round
for estimates for pools and saunas and doubtless power showers, changing room
facilities, and hot stones, whatever they were.
She took a peppermint out of the bowl left over from the summer -
understandably it was very old. She heaved a vast edition of the Yellow Pages on
to the desk in front of her and started to look up ‘sauna’ and then ‘swimming
‘Hallo, Party Pools?
Hallo, Hartley House calling.’
Why did she say that?
If her lower regions hadn’t been so hot, Biddy would have kicked
herself. ‘Hartley House calling’ made
the place sound like a space ship.
‘Yes, this is Hartley House,’ Biddy went on. ‘We are
seeking estimates for putting in a spa, a sauna, a swimming pool, and so
on. I wonder if you might like to come
and advise us.’
The gentleman concerned would, indeed he sounded so enthusiastic Biddy was sure that when
he finally turned up his tan would be so bright, his hand shake so firm, and his teeth so white she would have to wear
She was not wrong.