Chapter 1

The West Country was as beautiful as ever. I enjoyed my job, but the times when I came down to Devon and travelled the western counties were special. The views were spectacular with hills and valleys, hedgerows delineating the irregular shapes of meadows and pastures providing a kaleidoscope of shades of greens, dotted with the white of sheep or the dun red of cattle. All this was balm to an unquiet mind. To divert the eye were the fields of yellow rape contrasting with the rich red earth. The complete aspect resembled a hand-made quilt thrown casually over an unmade bed. The peaceful atmosphere here would put all the negative thoughts to the back of my mind. Negative thoughts had been for some time my constant companion, a result of my divorce. The divorce itself was reasonably simple; the prologue to the divorce was a nightmare; as was the aftermath. The prologue was the fighting and arguing; the aftermath was the self-recrimination. Why I should blame myself I do not know as the fault lay with my ex-wife. But I did blame myself for seeing her through rose-coloured spectacles and not as the evil person she really was. Love can blind you and for those early years of my marriage I was blinded.

I turned off the air conditioning and wound down the window to take in deep breaths of that wonderful soup of oxygen rich air, garnished with the scent of abundant hedgerow flora, the sweet smell of new grass and cattle manure. People may turn their noses up but at certain times even the pungent aroma of dung can be pleasant. It was certainly a change from the acrid odours of petrol and diesel fumes that prevailed in the towns and cities. I was heading towards Tavistock and the small hotel I used on these trips. The beds were comfortable, the food delicious and they had a very pleasant garden to wander for an evening stroll and the occasional cigarette I would allow myself. It was an excellent base from which over the next four days I would make my calls and hopefully write some good orders.

The sun was setting low in the west as I turned into the drive. The few remaining clouds were tinged with a blush, a promise for another fine day tomorrow. I parked and pulled my case from the boot. The hotel was a conversion of one of those large country houses that the flourishing Victorian businessman would build to demonstrate his success. The twentieth century with its high taxes and minimum wage demands made running such houses impossible and they were sold off, some to become asylums, others to be turned into corporate headquarters and many as in this case as a hotel. The reception was a large square area with settees around the perimeter and old paintings in ornate frames hung on every wall. The paintings were dull foreboding landscapes so typical of Victorian artists; dust and the patina of age had not improved them at all. Usually the receptionist was Angela but today a different face looked at me from the desk. She was very good-looking, medium height, dark brown hair and a very shapely figure, however the look on her face marred her beauty; no smile just a grim forbidding expression. This was a far cry from the smiling welcoming face that was Angela.

"Good evening. My name is Hammond, I have a room reserved."

Without acknowledgment she turned her back to me and spoke to someone in the office. "Hammond. He says he has a reservation."

A squeal of delight came from the office. "It's Greg!" Angela came out to the desk, a smile lighting up her face. She was a plump busty woman in her late forties and full of life invariably wearing that welcoming smile. "It's so good to see you again, Greg. How long will you be here this time?"

"Four days, Angela. I would like to stay longer, but mammon is a hard taskmaster." She grinned and took a key from the rack.

"Your usual room of course, and are you dining tonight?"

"Where else would I go? I can't get better anywhere else."

"There's a good chippy opened in the town." She joked. I picked up my case.

"John would never forgive me." We laughed and I made my way to the stairs. As I climbed them I looked back to see Angela making a point to the woman on reception.

My usual room was a double charged as a single. I would have been happy to pay the double rate but Angela gave me the preferential rate as I was a regular customer. It was on the side of the hotel, overlooking the superb gardens. Raising the eyes upwards from the garden allowed me the vista of the foothills sloping upwards towards Dartmoor and in the mornings the emergent Sun cast patterns of light and shadow over the rolling moor. I unpacked, settling myself in and made a cup of tea. Then I sat down to write out my orders for the day. I worked for a company that made cushions, very special cushions. If you had a stately home and you wanted the right cushion to go with your silk curtains and antique furniture, you came to us. We made cushions with the finest silks, jacquards, brocades and matelasses. We used trimmings of silken cords often twisted with gold thread, and tassels of silk knotted by hand. Our cushions were seen in Palaces, Castles and Stately Homes and they cost a fortune. It was only those retailers who catered for the very top end of the trade who would stock from us, consequently my calls were few and far between, but each call could take as much as half a day. The orders were complicated as my customers had strict specifications, annoying perhaps but when they were paying as much for one cushion that another would pay for a two seat settee, they have the right to be particular.

Before dinner I took a stroll to see what changes Arthur, the gardener had made this year. The Rhododendrons and Azaleas were blooming well, but they always did well in the acidic soil of the west. I noticed a bed of Geraniums that was new; they would look great when in flower later this year. One feature of the garden was the abundance of roses chosen so that as one display faltered there would be another coming into bloom to keep the plethora of colour. I took a seat on a bench which the staff referred to as Arthur's Throne. It was where he habitually took his lunch every day. Also habitually the fare would be the same; Crusty bread, a wedge of strong Cheddar cheese and a raw onion, which he would slice with his pruning knife. He carried a dark brown bottle with a wired flip top from which he would drink deeply from time to time, it was rumoured to be filled with Rough Cider, a most potent of drinks. If it was he must be inured to its alcoholic effects as no one had ever seen him drunk. I hadn't been borrowing Arthur's Throne for long before I was approached by the woman who had not greeted me at reception. I thought she would be about my age, slim and quite good-looking. She stopped when she arrived at the bench and I looked up.

She cleared her throat. "I have to apologise to you. I was not very polite when you arrived." She said this in a tone that sounded as if the apology was being forced out of her.

"It was not quite the welcome I usually receive, I have to say. But thank you for the apology." I smiled. "I get used to my customers being less than enthusiastic when I call, so it is water off a Duck's back." If I thought that remark would smooth the situation I was mistaken.

"So my apology means little to you?" She retorted with a stony glare. "Well it was very difficult to make, so I would have expected you to accept with it a little more grace than water off a Duck's back." She stalked away leaving me perplexed. I accepted that my reply may have made little of her apology, but then I thought as the apology was not genuine why should I react as if it were?

I went in for dinner and Angela called to me as I walked through to the dining room.

"Greg. I am sorry that Mrs. Winton was less than polite when you arrived. She is new here and has had a bad time."

"It's alright, Angela. She has offered an apology. But I think I owe her an apology now, as I treated her apology lightly."

"Oh dear, She can be prickly at times. You won't see her until tomorrow. So wear your suit of armour when you get come in." She turned to go and on a parting note said. "The lamb is particularly good, if you're interested."

"Thanks, Angela. I'll bear that in mind."

The lamb was good. I had become used to the superb meals at this hotel. The co-owner; John Fitton was an enthusiastic chef, more interested in his culinary delights than the hotel itself. He concentrated on good English style meals with almost all of his provender being sourced locally. That singular interest left Angela, his sister and partner in the hotel in charge of reservations and housekeeping. She did that job very well, so much so that between them and almost by chance they ran a very profitable establishment. After eating I took another stroll around the garden and used Arthur's throne again to enjoy my cigarette. Later I would sit at the bar with a Whisky.

John would appear from time to time and would question me closely. "How was the meal, Greg? Was everything alright? The vegetables not overcooked?" He would ask these questions often, virtually the only conversation he had with anyone. If he wasn't cooking food he was talking food.

I had two appointments the next day in Exeter. Happily the second appointment was with a top end furnisher who had taken on a subcontract with a company restoring a large country home. The owner was a popular TV personality with more money than style. My customer was wearing an almost constant smile from the business he received from this contract, and the order he gave me for some very special cushions put a smile on my face as well. That order alone would pay for my entire trip. The smile remained on my face as I returned to the hotel. Approaching the front door I espied Mrs. Winton coming out as I made to go in. I pulled the door and stood back to allow her through. I was intending to make my peace with her, but before I could utter a word she attacked.

"I can open a door for myself. Women are capable you know, we don't need a man for that." She spat the words at me making the word 'man' sound as if the species were the lowest of the low. All thoughts of making peace vanished from my mind.

"I am sure you could have done, and women are capable I agree, but it would seem your main capability appears to be the aptitude for extreme rudeness." I went through and let the door swing close which cut off any reply she may be making. A man rarely gets the last word, however an alliance with a swinging door allowed me that pleasure on this occasion.

Angela noticed my demeanour as I approached the desk. "Not again?"

"Unfortunately yes again, Angela. I don't know why but I seem to antagonise Mrs. Winton."

"It's not you, Greg. We know you well, after all the times you have been here and what an easy-going man you are. I'm afraid it is Millie, and I shall have to have another word with her."

Uneasily I made my way up to my room. Now I was feeling guilty again, it was the same as my divorce, she throws her toys out of the pram and I feel as if it's my fault! What is this guilt trip that women seem able to lay on men so easily? Thankfully I didn't see Mrs. Winton, who I now knew was Millie for the next two days and it was only as I was leaving on the Thursday that I had another encounter with the virago. She marched determinedly towards me; her feet crunching the gravel like a Jack-booted soldier as I was putting my case into the boot of my car. I watched her warily as she got close.

"Thank you for your complaint. I have had a verbal warning about my attitude." She machine-gunned me with her tongue. "Typical of a male, takes offence and runs to mother." Wearily I closed the boot and opened the driver's door. I really didn't need this shit.

"First of all I made no complaint about you. Secondly your attitude is unwelcoming at the least and downright offensive at the most, and finally! I have no idea if your aggression is aimed specifically at me for some reason or if that is your natural disposition. However, I shall be back in three months, hopefully whatever your problem it will be resolved by then. Goodbye!" I got in and slammed the door. I could see her mouthing words at me but the engine noise drowned her out. I backed out and drove down the drive.

Driving while in a temper is not a good idea, but Millie Winton was bringing back all the angst and hatred my ex-wife had created. Not just for me but for all our mutual friends. I am convinced my wife had some kind of paranoia, she had to be the most important friend that her acquaintances had, and to that purpose she would start a whispering campaign against that friend's other acquaintances to alienate them. Her whispers bordered on slander. She would take the same steps with my friends in order to separate me from them. She did this by suggesting to them that I had made scurrilous comments about them. When I eventually filed for divorce it was of course a rejection which she could not possibly allow. She told her solicitor that I was a paedophile and that I had brought underage girls back to our house for sex. I was seeking a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour; she counter sued citing my unreasonable sexual demands and cruelty. This went on for months until with her inability to produce evidence to back her claims her solicitor declined to act for her anymore. The fact that my solicitor had affidavits from many of her former friends to prove her slander helped enormously. My petition went through unopposed. It cost me a great deal of money and I left the marriage with none of the capital I brought to it. The consolation for me was that I was out of it and if that meant the sacrifice of all I had worked for so be it. It was still a good deal as far as I was concerned. The surrender of all that capital was necessary to prevent her going after my interest in the cushion business. I worked for and was part owner in the business with two others.

By the time I got home my anger had worked its way through and I was calm again. I made a call on the way back and the order from that call helped dissipate the anger.

Three months later I was back in Tavistock.

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