It was a surprise.  Sir Richard and Lady Elinger’s four children, all accomplished in their own fields, had clubbed together and arranged for them to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary at Milton Court, a manor house hotel in the Cotswolds with Three Michelin Stars.  The hotel’s strap-line was ‘Beyond Excellent, Beyond Sublime’. 

The children (two sons, two daughters) had organised everything down to the last detail: a Mercedes to convey their elderly parents to the hotel in style (a journey of 62 miles), a suite with a sitting room, a huge bedroom with a king-sized four-poster bed, and a luxurious marble bathroom with gold-plated taps.  In addition, the following items were to be placed on a highly polished round-table in the sitting room: a generous bouquet of flowers, a home-made lemon drizzle cake, a bowl of fresh fruit, a bottle of Glenkinchie 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (Sir Richard’s favourite tipple), a bottle of Harvey’s Amontillado Sherry (Penelope’s favourite tipple), and two glass bottles of spring water.

Milton Court was approached along an immaculate avenue lined with whimsical topiary. The building, of honey-coloured stone, was vast, with many gables, mullioned widows and a forest of chimney stacks.  The date 1633 was carved in stone above the front entrance. A huge cedar tree stood proudly at the west end of the building and, beyond that, the River Windrush flowed swiftly by, with trout nosing their way against the current.  The hotel’s grounds were impeccable, with numerous paved pathways, a small lake, a Japanese garden, a croquet lawn, a well-stocked kitchen garden and a vast expanse of greenhouses.  The whole place reeked of opulence.  You could not fail to be impressed.

The Elinger’s Mercedes drew up, the tyres crunching deliciously on the gravel, during a sudden April shower and two porters with umbrellas dashed out to greet them.  Sir Richard and Penelope alighted from the back seat, struggling slightly, while a third porter lifted their cases out of the boot.  Short of having a guard of honour, it was as if royalty had arrived.  They were an elegant couple, tall and thin, only slightly stooped.  Penelope took great pride in her hair — long and grey and swept up into a chignon.   A receptionist, a charming young woman called Dawn, greeted them by name and escorted them to the lounge where, while sitting on a generous sofa with ample cushions, they were offered a welcoming glass of champagne and a bowl of olives.

‘Thank you,’ beamed Sir Richard, ‘start as you mean to go on, I say.’   Penelope, fussing with the cushions, declined champagne, opting instead for a glass of filtered tap water.

‘When you’re ready, I’ll show you to your room,’ said Dawn.  ‘You are in one of the  honeymoon suites with fine views over the garden.’

‘Our honeymoon was sixty years ago,’ Penelope said wistfully. ‘I assume our luggage has preceded us?’

‘Of course, Lady Elinger,’ Dawn replied reassuringly. ‘Take your time, everything is in hand.  Just let me know when you’re ready to be shown to your suite.’

They sat in silence for a while, recovering from their journey, Sir Richard with his eyes shut and Penelope flicking through the glossy pages of Country Life.  There were two other couples in the spacious lounge: a man with a large stomach accompanied by a black woman wearing bangles and beads and a brightly coloured dress and a young couple, smiling coyly at each other.   Nobody spoke.  They just sat there reverentially, sipping champagne, with piano music — it sounded like Mozart— playing softly from concealed speakers.   A waiter hovered in one corner, occasionally busying himself by plumping up cushions and needlessly rearranging the mustard-coloured window drapes.   

The Elinger’s suite, on the first floor, looking south across the croquet lawn, was sumptuous.  Dawn briefed them on how to unlock and lock their door, how to use the remote control for the TV, which light switches worked which lights, how to connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi, where to charge their phones and how to use the coffee percolator. 

‘Oh dear,’ said Penelope. ‘I hope we can remember all that.’

‘Don’t hesitate to ask if there is anything you need, anything at all.  Just phone Reception,’ Dawn smiled, moving gracefully across the plush carpet towards the door.

Sir Richard and Penelope unpacked their cases, hanging their clothes in the generous ‘his and her’ wardrobes and putting their toilet bags in the marble bathroom with ‘his and her’ wash basins.  Penelope, conscious as ever about the need to save the planet, tut-tutted at the proliferation of large, white, fluffy bath towels. 

By the time they had unpacked, the rain had stopped and the gardens were bathed in sunshine.  ‘Let’s have a look around,’ suggested Penelope. ‘It would be good to stretch our legs after the drive.’  Donning raincoats and armed with a furled umbrella just in case, they stepped out into the April sunshine.  As they passed the croquet lawn, Sir Richard, a keen croquet player, muttered to himself about the wrong sort of hoops, wire instead of iron.  Penelope sighed, having heard the same complaint many times on their annual visits to Glyndebourne. 

The stepping stones in the Japanese garden were an unexpected challenge for the elderly couple, with Penelope losing her footing at one stage, only saving herself from a fall by grabbing her husband.  They clung together momentarily, swaying like an old wooden fence in a breeze.

‘Surely there should be a warning notice, these steps are perilous,’ said Penelope.  ‘I shall tell them about it.’

‘I’m sure you will, dear,’ said Sir Richard, compliant as ever.

Safely back in their room, Sir Richard decided to take a shower before changing for dinner.

‘Wait a moment, Dickie, you’ll need a nonslip mat.  That marble floor will be treacherous once it gets wet.’  They searched all the likely places where a mat might be stored: the wardrobes, the bedside cupboards, under the wash basins, beside the bidet.  All to no avail.

‘Very remiss of them not to provide a nonslip mat,’ grumbled Penelope.  ‘I’ll phone Reception.’

The receptionist, a different one, Dawn had gone off duty, sounded puzzled.  ‘Certainly, madam.  I’ll arrange for one to be delivered immediately.’  And sure enough, after a short wait, a man called Stuart arrived with a rolled-up mat, carrying it as if it was a crown on a cushion.  ‘Apologies.  Are you sure there isn’t a nonslip mat on the shelf behind the bath taps?’ 

‘Well, we’ve looked everywhere,’ said Penelope indignantly.

‘May I check, madam?  If there isn’t a mat, I’ll need to alert room service.’

Stuart stepped into the bathroom and, unfurling a towel with a flourish, revealed a nonslip mat. 

‘How extraordinary!’ said Penelope.  ‘I’ve never seen a mat disguised as a towel before.’

With both mats safely installed, Sir Richard showered without mishap, relishing the enthusiasm of the rainforest showerhead.

Dressed, Penelope in a flowing turquoise dress and Sir Richard in a dark suit with a colourful tie, they locked their room and went to the dining room, a large conservatory with views of floodlit statues on the terrace beyond.   A dozen or so couples were already seated, including the people they had seen in the lounge.  A waiter, with a heavy French accent, fussed over them, installing starched white napkins on their laps and, as if he’d never done it before, explaining the 7-course taster menu they were about to explore and the selection of classic wines that would accompany each course.

‘No idea what any of that meant,’ grumbled Sir Richard cheerfully, adjusting his hearing aids.

‘Just sit back and enjoy it, dear,’ Penelope replied.

They had just finished their fourth course, Cornish crab ravioli with a courgette and lemongrass bisque, when another couple were ushered past them.  The man, tall and distinguished, with a well-trimmed grey beard, suddenly paused.  ‘Good God, is that you Penelope?’ 

Penelope looked up.  Her mouth dropped open.  ‘Arnold?’  

‘It is you!  Well, I’ll be damned!   How long has it been?  Forty years?  More?’

Penelope, fell slowly forward, her head narrowly missing a wine glass and her arm sending a plate crashing to the floor.  There was a shocked silence, with Sir Richard momentarily frozen, before guests at nearby tables gasped and waiters rushed to help.

A&E in Cheltenham General were very thorough.  They insisted on giving Penelope a scan to check that she hadn’t had a TIA.  In a curtained cubicle, waiting for the verdict and to have the cut on her forehead stitched, Sir Richard popped the inevitable question.

‘What on earth happened?  Who was that fellow who recognised you?  An old work colleague?’

‘Yes, dear, you could say that.  I haven’t seen him for as long as I can remember.  Seeing him again was quite a shock.’

‘Obviously.  I’ve never seen you in such a state.’

‘Yes, dear, he’s someone I don’t want to see again.  I’m afraid I can’t go back to the hotel.  I’m sorry to spoil our anniversary, but we’ll have to go home.’

And so, in the early hours of the morning, a taxi was called to convey Sir Richard and his wife home.  During the journey, their driver occasionally glanced at the elderly couple in his mirror and assumed they were dozing.  But Sir Richard was busy speculating about the significance of Arnold, and Penelope was busy worrying about what she would say to her children.        

Later that day, a chauffeur from Milton Court delivered their luggage.  It was exquisitely packed and was accompanied by a huge basket of flowers and a ‘get well’ card signed by the staff.  Cunningly concealed inside a large, fluffy, white towel, was a nonslip mat. 

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