Answer to a Madman’s Prayer

A rare ray of noonday sun strayed through the clouds and snaked over the rippled surface of Bowmont Water to the strand as I crossed the bridge linking Town Yetholm to Kirk Yetholm and wended my way past the old pinnacled church, through a row of trim, mixed cottages, then—carefully skirting a small group of youths playing soccer—up across the tree-sheltered village green into the large, slate-roofed, half-timbered, wattle and daub Border Hotel.

    The wood-beamed barroom was empty except for the innkeeper, a tall sober Scotsman clad in a plaid vest and a white shirt topped off by a black bow tie. He stood behind the bar at the far end of the white stucco room wiping water spots from a glass, which he then held up to the light and slowly turned to make sure all the spots were gone. He frowned, made a few more careful swipes with the cloth, then held the glass up again.

    As I approached him, Lady Macbeth’s oft-quoted line came to mind.

    Apparently satisfied that he’d accomplished the task, he placed the glass on a shelf and took up another from the drain board. Without looking up, he said, "Good day, sir. How may I help you?" Lightheartedly—as is my usual way—I told him of my lack of success finding maps and a room in Town Yetholm. He continued wiping the glass. Crustily—as must have been his way—he informed me that I was out of luck on both counts. A Donald Crispy glower bespoke what was left unsaid: Only a fool would have not had the foresight to make reservations on a weekend, and what sort of madman would even consider an attempt to walk the Pennine Way without first obtaining proper maps? He asked if I had tried the youth hostel. They might have both, though he sincerely doubted it.

    I didn’t understand why he would send me to the youth hostel; it was apparent that I wasn’t young. I didn’t understand his bluntness, either. He was the first unfriendly bartender I had met since my arrival in Scotland. It couldn’t have been because he was having a bad hair day, there wasn’t much of it. What little he had was well groomed, as was everything else in the place. Maybe he was merely having a bad head day. Or perhaps it’s because he’d just opened and was busy preparing for the afternoon rush. Whichever, I followed his pointing finger and eventually found my way to the hostel.

    The door was locked. It hardly mattered. The sign on the bulletin board read: NO VACANCIES.

"Any other suggestions?" I asked as I sipped the half-pint of ale I’d ordered on my return. "Well, I don’t know where you’ll find maps, but as for the other you might try Blunty’s Mill. There’s a new woman in town . . . Mrs. Brooker, I think her name is . . . I believe she has some rooms."

    Whether he had taken pity on me or his preparations were finished and he was ready for service, I can’t say for sure. Most probably because I had bought a brew: That always puts an owner in a better mood. But his attitude had softened—somewhat—and this time he gave me more detailed directions.

I was sure that I had followed his instructions exactly. Yet when I reached a complex of stone buildings at a cul-de-sac, there was no sign indicating a B&B, nor was anyone around to ask. A moment ago I had passed some children at play up the lane. Perhaps they’d know. I turned to go, and—

    "Are you looking for something, sir?" A young boy stared up at me quizzically. Thick, tousled blond hair framed his cherubic, ruddy face like a halo. He wore a bloused yellow Macintosh, with blue trousers tucked into knee-length black boots—sort of a cross between a farm boy and a choirboy.

    I told him I was looking for Mrs. Brooker. "The innkeeper said she might have a room available."

    Unsure quite what to make of me, he scuffed the toe of a boot in the gravel and pondered. Finally, he reached a conclusion. "I’ll go get mum." While I waited in the gravel parking lot, looking at the new-planted herbs and flowers and congratulating myself on having found the place, he ran off and disappeared into a doorway about halfway down the long building.

    A few minutes later a sandy-hair woman in a coarse-knit, blue-black pullover opened the door closest to me. I was taken aback . . . away back. She’s not at all what I expected. I must be prejudiced from the films I’ve seen. They usually show a middle-aged Spinster as the owner of a boarding house. This woman is young—and beautiful. Reminds me of an old lover, a woman I nearly married.

    "I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting. I was doing some chores in the rear." She’s awfully flushed and uneasy. Suppose she can read my mind? "My son Charles said you would like a room." She smiled, then hesitantly extended her hand. "Please. Do come in. I’m Gail Brooker."

    I introduced myself and entered the vestibule. "The bartender at the Border Hotel sent me. They were completely filled. He said you were new here—so he wasn’t sure—but he thought you had some rooms. Kind of a cold fish, isn’t he?"

    "Oh, he’s all right. He was probably just preoccupied. Actually, I’ve been here quite some time. But unless you were born here, everyone’s ‘new’."

    It was obvious from her accent that she wasn’t Scots: possibly a well-bred Londoner. Although I’d had little trouble understanding anyone so far, the last time I was in England I had needed an interpreter. The British have either learned to speak more clearly during the past thirty-eight years or my ear has greatly improved.

    Dialects still exist of course, also lower, middle and upper class vernacular. In such a polyglot nation you would expect as much. But they’re less noticeable, particularly among the young: Films, television and an increase in travel have undoubtedly brought about this equalization. In Britain, as in America, it is the rhythms and the vowel sounds rather than diction or grammar that most often mark the regional speech differences (Cockney rhyming slang excepted). Unlike Americans, however, the Britons use more inflection. They also articulate more precisely and pronounce all the vowels, notably "ou" and double vowels (though many do add an "r" at the middle or end of a word where none belongs and drop it from where one does). And despite some different spelling (they spell civilized with an "s" but they’re so civilised they still manage to pronounce it properly), you can almost see the words—though I still don’t see how they get "Woostersheer" out of Worcestershire. This tends to make them sound more intelligent and better educated than they may truly be. Still, their speech is humbling. Most Brits can read the list of ingredients on a shampoo bottle and make it sound like poetry.

    Gail showed me the room, the most spacious and beautifully decorated I had yet seen. Sunlight, softened by gossamer curtains, streamed in through a big bay window and lighted a long row of bookshelves. Another window gave view to a greenhouse and a sheep pasture. The walls were overlaid with embossed, milky white paper. A love seat and a cozy chair were covered in a bold floral pattern, complemented by a faded-rose-colored duvet, rumpled and carelessly thrown over an unmade queen-size bed.

    She apologized that the room wasn’t ready. Last night’s guests had made a late departure, and she had so many things to do that she hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Also, it wasn’t en suite. The bathroom was right outside the door, however. "Sorry, it has only a shower. But if you prefer a bath (rhymes with moth), you can use Charles’ bath upstairs."

    I tried to put her at ease by telling her not to fret; I was in no hurry. Even if I were, and this the most squalid hut in Scotland, I would still be content. After all, it was the only available room in town. And she was the loveliest woman I’d yet seen.

    Like all proper B&B hosts, Gail showed me the bathroom, which, in addition to a shower, a lavatory and a basin, contained one of Britain’s greater contributions to comfort: a plastic radiator for warming and drying towels. I used them to dry my laundry, also.

    She led me to the dining room where breakfast would be served. Since there was only one guest’s room, which had a "telly" and books and everything else one might want, there was no sitting room. "I soon hope to add more rooms. This was once a woolen blanket mill, so there’s plenty of space. But it takes so frightfully long when you’re on your own."

    Outside she showed me around the garden, then the potting shed where she started her herbs (pronounced with an H), lettuce and tomatoes. Eventually she planned to prepare evening meals for her guests, and thought it would be "ever so nice" to have produce fresh from the garden. "Don’t you agree?"

I told her I did. "If I were home I’d be planting my own garden about now, and I always plant plenty of herbs (pronounced without an H)."

    Several pots of basil caught my eye. "This is a very popular herb in Puerto Rico—though it’s rarely used for culinary purposes. The women add it to their wash water to make the rooms fragrant. It’s also used in santeria, a local form of voodoo. It is rarely used in cooking, therefore impossible to buy unbruised, so I grew it on the roof of my restaurant in Old San Juan. It seeded itself wherever there was a spot of dirt, including chinks in the concrete walls. Be careful or it will take over everything." I asked if she had heard of cinnamon basil. She hadn’t, so I explained that it was similar to sweet basil, but was purple and had a strong hint of cinnamon. She thought it sounded lovely. I promised to send her some seeds when I returned home.

    There was also a pot of rosemary. I gave her one of my favorite Piedmontese recipes for chicken thighs, with butter and rosemary stuffed under the skin. It’s sautéed, baked, then sautéed again under a weight. It may be fattening but it’s quick, easy and crisply delicious, exactly the sort of dish she wished to serve her guests.

While Gail prepared my room, I went back to the Border Hotel. The place was bustling, as though some sort of celebration was going on. Sounds of laughter, clinking glasses and the clanking of cutlery against china filled the large room, along with heady aromas of ale and chips and fried fish. When I made my way to the bar, I found that even the bartender was a bit more cheerful.

    "Were you taken care of?" He slowly drew me a pint of bitter. "Yes," I answered. "Very well indeed . . . except for the maps." He placed the glass before me on a small plastic drain. "Perhaps you should talk with those young people over there." He made a slight head gesture toward two tables in front of the multi-pane mullioned window on his right, where several young men and a young woman sat knocking back pints of ale. "Maybe they can be of some help. They’ve just completed the Pennine Way."

    The publican was right. They proved a great help, particularly the soft-spoken, personable, black-hair young chap who seemed the spokesman for the group. He told me they were the impassive, stiff-backed guards who stand outside Buckingham Palace. They surely weren’t that way at the moment—except for a lad who’d passed out at a nearby table.

    "Pay him no mind," the young man said. "He’s had a rough time of it. We just now finished hiking the Pennine Way, and the innkeeper here buys a pint for everyone who completes the entire distance. This lad’s added a few to it. I’m afraid he’s not used to so much ale. That, and the last hill’s completely done him in."

    When I inquired about the Pennine Way, he told me it was difficult. "Extremely difficult!" At leave from guard duty, they had walked it to relax and stay in shape before transferring to their new post in Central America. They had walked it in twelve days. "We may need another two-week’s leave just to recover."

    I asked about the weather. He said that until recently it had been like summer. "Just look at him." He motioned to the same redheaded chap sprawled across the table. His arms and legs, and the part of his face that I could see, were blistered and peeling. "And the bloody flies. I’ve never seen so many!" That explained the large red bumps rising between his mate’s mottled patches of skin.

    Their daypacks were strewn about, inside and out. Thinking of the enormity of my pack, I asked was that all they carried? "Heavens, yes! We have a lorry to provide backup. It carries the tents, food and water. If we had to carry more we’d never have done it in twelve days."

    Recalling the time I’d watched the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace, and my days as a bandsman in high school and the difficulty the drum major always had keeping his headgear on in stiff breezes, I joshed. "Well, at least you didn’t have to wear your shakos. Those things must weigh a ton."

    He looked puzzled. "Oh! Those aren’t shakos; they’re bearskins. And you’re right. We’d never have managed those in strong winds—especially up on Windy Gyle!" I didn’t know what or where "Windy Gyle" was, but I didn’t like the sound of it one bit.

     "Are they really made of bearskin?"

    He laughed. "Not anymore, there are no bear left to make them from. Hasn’t been since the ninth century. The officers still have real bearskins, but ours are made from papier-mâché pasted over a frame and sprayed with black flock." I asked how they managed to keep them on in a stiff breeze? "You tuck the strap under your lower lip, stiffen it, and pray."

    When he told me about a man who had run the complete 270 miles of the Pennine Way in only three days, I expressed amazement. After a brief reflection, thinking he might be exaggerating a bit, I said, "I’ll bet he didn’t do it with fifty-five pounds on his back."

    "No one knows. He was moving so fast no one could see him."

    The offhanded way he said that made me believe he might be "having me on." It’s often difficult to tell with the Britons, they’re renowned for their dry sense of humor. Later I read that this had truly happened. Such an incredible achievement and the book didn’t even give the man’s name.

    I told him I was troubled by my lack of suitable maps. "Is the way clearly marked? Is it possible to follow the path without them?"

    No one answered immediately. The young woman snorted, got up and left. The others merely stared blankly at each other. Another young fellow, a blond—who judging from the deference the first young man showed him was the senior of the two both in age and in rank, and up until this moment had been totally silent—looked at me in amazement. "You’d be insane to attempt it! Even with maps you’re constantly getting lost!"

    "Well, I have a large road map from Hadrian’s Wall throughout the rest of the Way, but I’m not certain how far it is from here to Twice Brewed. I’ve tried everywhere to find topo maps or an official guidebook. No one has had them."   The first young man looked at his chum. "An official guidebook? I didn’t know there was one!" Everyone laughed . . . except me.

    A discussion ensued between the two men. I have no idea what they talked about; I had withdrawn inside and was enmeshed in a quandary, damning myself for being overly casual in my planning, and in trusting to hearsay: "There’ll be plenty of maps in Britain;" puzzling over what to do: They’ve made it sound near impossible. Should I go on, or simply forget the whole thing? No, I can’t do that; and wondering: Have I already pushed my luck too often and too far?

    While I pondered, the eldest went outside. Their backup vehicle had arrived.   As if by some unspoken command the whole squad rose, hurriedly finished their drinks and began gathering up the gear. When I stood to say goodbye, the man in command returned. "I don’t suppose we’ll be needing these anymore. They’ll get you to Bellingham. With luck you just might find a guidebook there for the rest of the Way." In his hand were two maps.

    Everyone wished me good luck. Brimful with gratitude for my deliverers, I watched as they hopped aboard their camouflaged lorry and rolled off down the road.

     "I see the gods have smiled on you," the bartender said as I placed my maps on the bar. For once, even he was smiling. "You’re a fortunate man, you know. You just might make it to Istanbul after all."

    Emboldened by his newfound cheer, I said, "The Queen’s guard told me you give a free drink to those who finish the Pennine Way. Do they do that on the other end?" His smile sagged slightly. "No! They’re English! And though you may call them the ‘Queen’s guard,’ here we call them the Coldstream guard."

    I appologized for my ignorance. Then to try and get back in his good grace, I joked. "Well, since they’re not as generous in Edale, perhaps you’d like to give me my pint in advance?" His smile declined farther. I tried again to restore his humor. "If you’re worried that I won’t finish the whole Way, I could call you from Edale and you could work out some kind of reciprocal agreement with the management there." None of it worked. The familiar scowl had returned.

    "Not on your life."

The two maps combined were as large as my tent and weighed almost as much. Back at the B&B, I used the tiny scissors on my Swiss Army knife to trim away the surplus. This time, however, I left a margin of a few miles on each side of the path. On one map I even left the legend. I hadn’t always been so careful in the past, only to discover that later—always when I needed them most—the pieces containing the requisite information were decorating the interior of some far-off trash can.

    There was a knock at the door. Hoping it was Gail, I hurried to answer. "Mum was wondering would you like a drink?" Disappointed—though not at the offer—I said I would like that very much. Charles turned to go. As an afterthought he asked, "What would you like?" I told him whatever his mother had would be fine.

    I had finished with my maps, carefully folded and stuffed them into a clear plastic map case, and was browsing the bookshelves when Gail brought my drink. She had changed out of her bulky sweater and was now handsomely dressed in a simple, yet elegant, floral print frock.

    "I do hope whisky is all right. I haven’t a very large supply at the moment. It’s another of those things that I must see to, I suppose. There just never seems to be enough time for it all." It was fine Highland single malt. As far as I was concerned she needed go no further. A dram of old John Barleycorn, a winsome lass, what more could a man ask?

    "You have some excellent cookbooks." I showed her the book I’d removed from its cubby. "I see several on interior decorating, too. Did you do this room?" She told me that she had. Interior decoration was her profession until she bought the old mill. And I was right about the accent, she was originally from London. Although it was unnoticeable in her intonation, she’d also spent several years in Hong Kong.

    She noticed my map case lying on the table in front of the love seat, and its untidy remnants lining the wastebasket. "I see you had success."

    "Yes, I was very lucky. The, er, guards from Buckingham Palace gave me theirs. I’m still not sure what to call those guards. When I told . . . Dave?" I think that’s what I’d heard everyone call him. She said, "Dev. It’s short for Devin." I guess my ear hadn’t improved as much as I thought; I’d have to pay closer attention to the short vowels. "Well, when I told ‘Dev’ that the Queen’s guard had given me their maps, he told me ‘Here we call them the Coldstream guard!’ Someone else said they were the Welch guard, so I’m still confused. They sounded more Welch than Scottish, but what do I know?"

    She laughed, a warm, rippling, liquid laugh, and told me not to worry. "These clannish rivalries are really more a silly game than anything." I hoped she was right, though it was difficult to tell. Brits joke about it a lot, but sometimes I had the feeling there was too sharp a cutting edge to their barbs. And why not? They’ve had over two thousand years to hone them.

    "Charles and I have been invited to dinner. Here’s a key to the front door. It’s a bit tricky—you’ll have to pull it out slightly and jiggle it a bit—but I’m sure you can manage. There is no key for your room . . . actually I’m not sure I ever had one . . . but you needn’t worry, everything will be safe."

    I asked if there was someplace she could recommend for dinner. She thought for a moment. "Oh, I suppose the hotel is as good as any. But please let me know what you think, I would value your opinion. I do like to keep track of what the competition are doing." She smiled, turned to leave, paused at the door, then added, "Oh, I nearly forgot. There will be a gentleman arriving shortly. Could you please tell him we’ve gone on ahead?"

    Lucky fellow!

        Half an hour later a man did arrive—a tall, strapping, handsome fellow. I answered the door thinking I certainly wouldn’t have kept her waiting so long.     Either I wear my thoughts on my face or he was a mind reader. Suspiciously, like a hart in rut, he eyed me up and down while I relayed Gail’s message. After an insincere "thanks ever-so" he quickly hopped back in his Land rover and left.

    I’ve often wondered: do all males display a proprietary interest in unattached females? Is it in our DNA? I truly didn’t know if Gail was unattached. This man may have been her husband or fiancé. Still, I felt a slight twinge of jealousy. Or was it Envy?

After dinner I returned to my room, satiated by the fine food and drink at the hotel. The baked crab-stuffed plaice topped with béchamel sauce was superb. So were the ubiquitous chips, peas and carrots and cress-sprinkled tomato salad. Devin had been a pleasant and helpful host even inquiring to his missus in the kitchen as to how the fish was stuffed. "She changes the recipe every night. I never know what’s in it." He’d also told me where to find the start of the Pennine Way. He didn’t, however, buy me a pint of ale.

    Not yet sleepy, I turned on the telly to see if I could get the weather forecast. British TV, even with cable, has very few channels. That hardly surprised me. Despite modern technology these people have managed to sustain real lives, unlike their former colonists. What did surprise me was that most of the shows were American sitcoms, American game shows or American movies. Is it possible that all those excellent Thames and BBC documentaries, comedies and literary miniseries that we see on PBS are made only for export?

    Finally, having seen the American offerings many years before and being totally uninterested in the fatuous British game shows and inane sitcoms, with no news in the offing I settled on a French pseudo-documentary titled Le Cirque du Sex or some such thing. It at least showed something of mild interest—boobs and buns.

Sunday morning Gail served me breakfast. For a change I didn’t have a "proper" breakfast. I opted instead for freshly squeezed juice, muesli, and homemade muffins spread with preserves and orange marmalade that she had put up herself. Although the traditional breakfast kept me going until dinner, I’d discovered that walking with a full stomach was troublesome for the first couple of hours. That, I could do without. From what the guard had told me, this first day, like the last day to Edale, was the most strenuous part of the journey, a grueling distance of twenty-nine miles. For me it would be doubly difficult. Yetholm lies in a valley, so—unlike them—I would be going against the grain: uphill.

    A proper hostess, Gail stood. An improper guest, one who hates to eat alone, I asked her to join me. While we finished our coffee she told me of her plans for the place and what she had done to advertise and publicize it. It all sounded wonderful. Were I single and not on a quest, I would have gladly stayed to offer my assistance.

    After breakfast, she gave me her guest book to sign. I had her enter her address in mine. When I asked how much I owed, she looked slightly embarrassed. Hesitantly, she asked, "Would twenty pounds be all right?"  Everything considered, I thought that very reasonable. It was more than I had paid so far, but this place was truly exceptional. I more readily understood her timidity when she explained that the room normally rented for sixteen pounds per person. She had never before rented it as a single. That difference had not yet occurred to me. As I went along I would come to learn more about it.

    I thanked her for making my stay so enjoyable. As a parting favor she reluctantly allowed me to photograph her. Unfortunately, the packet which contained the film that included her portrait and photos of the first hundred miles of the Pennine Way vanished in the mail, so I shall never know how the picture came out. Yet, like other snapshots you’re certain you took but have somehow disappeared when the film is developed, I shall always remember her standing in the doorway, the early morning sun streaking her hair with honey, where I first and last saw her.


The Pennine Way


© Copyright 1999 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified
April 11, 2002