Date: 4 September 2015.
Location: Winchester, on my boss's couch.
I take the 6.30pm express train from Waterloo to Winchester. The carriage is thick with suits and umbrella commuting out from grey London to the viridian of southern England. My boss and her two little munchkins (3 and 6 and cute) pick me up from the country station. We drive along country lanes and pull up a long drive between oak trees. The name of the property — Lainston Grange — is hand-painted on a sweet little sign but the original sign, bearing the property's original name, is still there too. It bears a more imposing title.
“Dark Walk?” I say in surprise.
“Mm,” my boss says. “You can see why we changed it.”
There is something macabre about the name, ill-suited to this sprawling country family home on a clear green guarded by slipping-sun-dappled forest. We bump up the drive. The little boys start telling me about their fascination with spiders and make me guess which is most venomous, which biggest, which smallest, which most likely to kill me in England. But my mind is elsewhere: indeed, small wonder the family chose to change the name — but why Dark Walk in the first place? Agatha Christie would have loved it.
I'm crazily nervous about spending a weekend with my boss and her family. We get on incredibly well but that's at work or for a few hours at a time at a work event, third glass of wine in hand. This is much more intimate. Further, she and her husband are renovating their large country house, a huge project which has squeezed the family of five plus nanny into five rooms in the garage/guest cottage. It. Is. Intimate. Thankfully there's wine and kids. We spend a happy few hours mucking around, the kids crawling joyfully all over me. My boss and I, and then her husband, all merrily natter about nothings. The kids go to bed and we have a really lovely dinner. I'm embarrassed and touched that she — General Counsel of a big British business, mother of two, mid-renovation nightmares — has gone to so much effort to make baked salmon, massaged kale salad with homemade hummus because I'm a 'foodie' and again when her husband learns that I like big bold red wines and opens a dusty bottle of South African GSM while proudly explaining his investment strategy in his wine cellar. We get a bit drunk and end up listening to classical music and talking about life. I pass out in the absent nanny's bed around 1am.
At 7am I hear the boys wake up. I hear adult voices warning them not to wake Alex. I doze back into happy oblivion. Ten minutes later there is a polite kick in the door. Drat! I'd set my alarm for 8.15 thinking that was a compromise between the time the family would wake and the 'oh my god it's a Saturday let me sleep for God's sake!' that I so need after Ibiza. Seems I'd been optimistic.
“Morning!” I call.
“Tea?” A muffled voice asks politely.
“Come in!” I push my sleep mask up off my face and groggily sit up, expecting my boss.
It's two very sheepish looking little blonde boys. No tea. They look at one another then at me.
“Can we come into your bed too?”
Who could say no to that?
My boss comes in a few minutes later to scold them for waking 'mummy's guest' but by then they're firmly entrenched under the covers along with twenty odd soft toys and we're playing zookeepers.
It's like the whole morning has been staged. After zoo then pancakes, the boys help their dad repair the chicken coop, and my boss and I let ourselves out the 'pub gate' with bikes. We ride under arches of green trees and draping vines away from Sparsholt towards Littleton and soon we're out in the weak British sunshine on a beautiful country lane. There's birdsong and tall hedgerows and just enough hills to keep my legs burning.
Back in the forrest I hear 'Oh dear!' and think that my boss has hit a rock. In fact, she's hushing me because there's a doe in our path. The beautiful creature surveys us with dignity then bounds off between the trees. Every walker we pass is in wellies and says 'hallo' while entreating their jumpy dog or their kids — an Elsa, Hugo or Theodora — to behave. It's all very Horse And Hound.
As we ride by the teeny tiny post office and I learn that everyone in the village 'owns' it, that they all contribute annually. We go past the cutest little pub nestled in its own rose garden. I almost wish something creepy would happen just to add the final Marple flair. But, alas, all is cheerful. No one is murdered.
We cycle back past the Sparsholt church. The sky has clouded over and the tombstones, set in the church yard like crooked teeth, look wildly dramatic. We hop off our bikes and we pop our heads into the church. A figure rises up from a little seat in the ante chamber. We both halt in shock.
We hallo back at an older lady in an unflattering floral dress with flaring nostrils.
“We've just come to see the stained glass windows,” my boss explains.
“You're very welcome, I'm sure! And where are you from?”
“I'm from around here. My friend is Australian.”
The former is clearly of more interest. “Oh now? And whereabouts?”
“Lainston Grange?” No sign of recognition registers on the lady's face. I can see my boss sigh a little. “Dark Walk?”
“Oh of course Dark Walk! I know your little boy from the school! I volunteer there you know, doing dinners and such. Isn't your boy just the sweetest –and you have a little girl?”
No, just two boys, my boss says.
“Oh how sweet. Your eldest, now he's such a nice boy. Funniest thing he said to me the other day don't you know? He told me how you're building on Dark Walk! Said you had 22 rooms at the moment but that soon it would be 27! 27! I say. So I said to him, and will you be having an indoor pool? And he says 'not yet'. Just as princely as you like! 'Not yet!' Well, la. Sweetest little boy, really.”
My boss looks suitably embarrassed and assures the lady that she's sure that there are to be no way near that many rooms. (There definitely are.)
“I don't mean to be nosey like but it's a beautiful house it is Dark Walk. What do you need to be building on it for? I mean, the Halloways they had their parents coming to live with them they did and that makes sense but with just the two little boys and you and your husband it's a lot of rooms to have having isn't it just? Indoor pool or no!” She chortles. “Not yet!” The lady takes a breather and explains that her old back won't let her stand for very long. She shuffles over to a pew and we follow.
“And how are you finding Dark Walk? Not too big for you? Not too lonely?”
My boss explains that her parents live in a village nearby, as does her sister's family. Names and professions are exchanged. There's a whoosh as the wind blows the door closed.
“Ah yes, I think I know them. Well now. Look at that. Looks like there'll be rain, can't be though. It's the Littleton Fair today and bless them they're always so lucky — dry as you like until everyone's packing up at 4pm then the heavens open they do! You'll be going to the the fair I hope?”
We explain that we will indeed. This seems to please her.
“Good, good. You'll have fine weather until four, never mind you those clouds out there now.”
At this point we begin to make our escape, edging closer to the door, complimenting the flower arrangements as we shuffle.
“Mr Pickering's wife does those, bless her. We have a wedding here next week and with just a bit of luck they'll last. It's cool in here you know, helps the flowers last. Now, enjoy the fair! Your little boy, now, isn't he an angel, funniest things he says. 'Not yet' about his indoor pool! Confident as you like!” She chuckles to herself.
We run out and get a decent way through the graveyard before bursting into laughter.
“Don't you just get the impression that she's been here for years, collecting cobwebs and just waiting for someone to speak to?”
At this stage I'm exhausted but feeling so relieved. This weekend could have been such a disaster but it's been a lot like hanging out with family friends — where you're a little in awe and intimated by one of them. And she pays your salary and has really high expectations and the perfect life.
We return home for lunch and I find that the chickens now have a winter cover for their coop and that her husband has been on strict orders to put the vegetables in the oven for a 1pm lunch.
After a beautiful lunch we go to the country fair. It's my first British country fair, a big field of more people in wellies and windbreakers. There's a Womens' Association tea in the cricket shed. There are ferret races and a dog gymkhana where Holly the lab takes first place for the second year in a row and Teddy brings down every jump barrier. We play the coconut shy and little Ollie wins a coconut. My boss and I pay a pound to throw things at crockery in the plate smash (it's great). Best of all there's the flower and vegetable show. The boys are sad because their sunflower hasn't blossomed in time to compete in the tallest sunflower competition but we still have fun browsing the showings of those more fortunate and commentating: yes, it's easy to see why that rose got first place; hmm, not sure this bunch of carrots is manifestly superior to the others; what a lovely tomato.
Just after four I'm almost ready to catch the slow train home and, sure enough, just as augered by the old lady in the church, the skies open up and rain comes down on Hampshire.