I’m on a mini break. And it’s not going well.
An old friend had got in touch, told me she’s had a baby, moved out of London and now lives in Hampshire, bang in the middle of the New Forest. ‘It’s glorious!’ she emailed me. ‘We are in the most amazing spot, with views to die for. Loads of dog walks on the doorstep. You must come and see us! You’ll love my husband, he’s really funny!’
Oh, well, that’s nice, I thought. I could do with a cheap break and it would be lovely to take the three collies. I emailed her a date, in the not-too-distant future. ‘Perfect! We’ll be here! I’ve attached a list of nice holiday lets.’
Ah. Oh dear. I thought when people invited you to their home for the weekend, that is where you’d be sleeping and eating and dog walking.
The words ‘holiday’ and ‘let’ always turn the blood in my veins to ice. But, given all the nice boutique hotels were fully booked as it was half-term (‘Why don’t they go to Disneyland?’ I wailed at the nice woman at The Pig), I reluctantly trawled through the websites my friend had sent me.
I settled on a cottage that is in the forest and takes ‘one small, well-behaved dog’ (I wonder why hotels don’t start measuring husbands) for an extra £50. The cost for three nights was £900.
I know my dogs aren’t well behaved, and that there are three of them, none of which is particularly small, but I figured no one would know, given I was to use a code to get in the front door.
And so, on Friday afternoon, exhausted having driven the length of the country, I arrived at the ‘cottage’. Although the photos had shown the view of trees and ponies from the garden, it turns out on the other side is a busy road. I started to unpack the car when a woman, accompanied by her husband, who never spoke and was acting as a sort of bodyguard, appeared at my elbow. ‘Are you Mrs Jones?’
‘Yes. Sort of.’
‘I live next door. I thought I’d show you what’s what.’
At this point, all three dogs started barking in the car. ‘Are they yours?’ she said.
‘Um. Yes. But we won’t be here much. My friend is nearby.’
‘That will be £150. They are not allowed upstairs, or to poo in the garden.’
Great. OK. She showed me in. Despite the fact she lives next door, she hadn’t bothered to switch on the heating or a lamp. The lovely dining table in the photos was covered in a plastic tablecloth decorated with orange segments. While she was explaining, in a manner that you might use to talk someone off a ledge, how to wipe the ceramic hob, I opened the fridge. It was full of milk crust and a strange smell, but not a single provision. No water, no wine. As she was telling me about not lighting the fire as the chimney was blocked, probably by a previous guest wanting to go out without being spied on, I hunted for a cafetiere. ‘Oh, there isn’t one. It got stolen. Can’t you have tea?’
I eventually ushered her out, at which point she asked, ‘Did you bring enough pound coins for the meter? I can lend you one.’ I was composing my review for TripAdvisor in my head while I retrieved the puppies. They are always so thrilled to be somewhere new. Given there was no signal, we then climbed something the equivalent of K2, and I phoned my friend.
‘Oh, hi!’ she said over a child screaming blue murder in the background. ‘We thought we’d eat out tonight as you’re vegan. We’ve booked Lime Wood. Such a treat for us! They don’t take dogs in the main house but they’ll be fine to leave in the cottage.’
I texted my ex ex. ‘Hi. Am in holiday hell. I have to be a third wheel with a married couple and infant over dinner – unless, please God, they’re leaving it on its own, which is what they suggested I do with the puppies, as the restaurant won’t allow them. And the cottage I’m staying in is owned by a woman who thinks because she has inherited (probably) a run-down dump on a motorway she’s better than me. Can you come? Now?’
I can see he’s read it. There are three little dots, vibrating.