David Randall: Man About World

Then again, there are weekends like this ...
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The Independent Travel

Picture the scene. It is the bar of a hotel that claims to specialise in weekend breaks and working the optics is the same man who checked you in at reception just half an hour ago and explained that, if it's all the same to you, he'd rather you

Picture the scene. It is the bar of a hotel that claims to specialise in weekend breaks and working the optics is the same man who checked you in at reception just half an hour ago and explained that, if it's all the same to you, he'd rather you

didn't park outside the hotel, and, since the porter is on his break, would you see yourselves to your room. "It's number 47. Third floor, right at the stairs, second left, up another little flight, and there you are."

You found it, eventually; and now here you are looking forward to a drink and determined not to let your evening be spoiled by the discovery that the bedside lights don't work, the view from your room is of the rear of a carpet warehouse, and the television reception is so bad John Logie Baird would have wanted the set adjusted. "Now let me see," mine host says in response to your order. "We had a bottle of Pimm's somewhere." He disappears. "No," he announces on his return, "I'm told the Masonic ladies' night finished it off." You order something else, give your room number, but mine host says he prefers cash. He mutters as he puts it in the till. Just as he will when he is waiting at your table at dinner and you ask for more bread, and just as he will in the morning when you ask if they have any cereal other than Sugar Puffs.

You turn to find a table. There are nine, five are already occupied, and at one, a woman sits with a man considerably older than herself, looking at him through her fringe. They talk quietly, but animatedly. She giggles, he smiles smugly. They are married, but not to each other.

This is plainly not the case at two other tables. At these, couples of early middle age sit looking everywhere but at each other, taking occasional sips from their drinks, and then, as they replace their glasses, adjusting them so that they sit perfectly centred on the little mats. It is something to do while the tension mounts. They are, after all, on a mission. For them, this is not any old break, this is Make-Or-Break. Before the weekend is out, one pair will have succeeded - united once again, if nothing else, by opposition to a hotel whose concept of service owes more to Lenin than Marks - another will not. For her, the final straw will be the way he looks in swimming trunks; for him, the fact that she's 10 years older than Sandra in accounts.

Then there are the Dirty Weekenders, taking a chance to escape the children and fan the flames of a passion that has glowed a little dimly of late. Before the night is out, the thinness of the walls will tell you that, in the case of room 45, a physical reconciliation of rare force has occurred. You could have sworn that, at 3am, you heard the belated recoil of a bedspring.

Enter a small man of about 60 trailing his consort. He bids the bar a cheery "Good evening", sits down, and begins reading the menu to his wife. Mine host appears at their side, notepad in hand, and ready with the repartee. "Have you come far?" he asks. "Oh, yes," says the wife, for she relishes this question. "A long way. He started with nothing. Got six shops now. Looking for one round here." He is, for every weekend break hotel must have one, the Self-Made Man.

You are not casing the town, or trying to save your relationship. You always promised yourselves you'd see this bit of the coast, and this is what brought you here. That, and mine host's misleading advertisement. You're just starting to giggle over the menu ("drizzled in a raspberry coolis..."), when another couple sit down nearby. They did not see advertisement. "We had our honeymoon here," confides the elderly woman with a coy smile. "It hasn't changed a bit."

Oh, but it has. As you discover the following afternoon when you return from a day's walking, bookshop browsing and country pubbing to find the hotel seething with overdressed people. "It's a wedding," mine host explains as he hands over your key. "Couldn't keep going if I had to rely on weekenders, you know." You didn't know. Otherwise you'd have booked elsewhere. Somewhere, perhaps, where the bar didn't have a sign on the door "Closed to guests. Private Function", and somewhere where the floors were not still trembling with the thump-thump of a bass line at 1.30am. Still, if you had, you'd have missed the performance in the sun lounge (where the nuptials have banished you all) of Doomed Couple Number Two. When you enter, She is alone, talking on a mobile. "...Sorry to call again Fatima, just checking if Joshua was still playing you up..." At this point, He walks in. "God," he says to no one in particular, "The Merc's a bugger to park in these narrow streets..." Getting no response, He adds: "Should have brought her SUV. At least I can drive it. God knows she can't."

She breaks off what will be the first of seven calls home that evening. "Andrew! Will you stop putting me down!" And so begins what must be their third row since arrival, interspersed, at intervals, with the ringing of Her mobile and His attempts to set off a public bragging match among the guests over size of house, salary, driveway, garden, mortgage, and Christmas bonus. Before he gets far, Self-Made Man offers to buy him out.

You, meanwhile, are too busy discussing what you'll do tomorrow and wondering where the old honeymooners are. At 11.20, they show up. "We've been at the reception," she says. "Just popped our heads round the door, and once they heard why we were staying here they wouldn't let us go." She smiles at her husband."I even had a dance with the bride," he says. Tonight, in room 16 ("The one we had in 1954 ... of course, we had no bathroom then, just a thingy under the bed") there might be some hanky, and, possibly even panky, too.

You pass on that. Too much fresh air. And more again on Sunday as you visit that old ruin you saw in the distance on Saturday's walk. Mid-afternoon, you return, carry your bags down to reception, settle up, and leave. "Oh," says mine host as you're nearly out the door. "Roadworks on the motorway. Nearly forgot to tell you. See you again."

And, do you know, he might.

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