We had only been in the apartment for a few minutes when a figure came up the steps, tapped on the door and let himself in. He was wearing a stained and worn high visibility jacket, which we scarcely noticed because our eyes were drawn to his face. His eyes were slightly bloodshot and had what is sometimes described as “the thousand yard stare”, a phrase I had not really understood until then. It was clear that this was an exhausted man drawing on the very last reserves of his endurance and composure.
It all began a few months before when I spoke to him on the phone to book his apartment for our week in Looe. I was attracted by the stunning views over the town through the large windows of the apartment. I got the impression that I had woken him up because he seemed rather bewildered that I actually wanted to make a booking. He also seemed very keen that I should do so by credit card, but I decided I would send him a cheque. I also felt - the first symptoms of the incipient paranoia – that he seemed strangely indifferent to the fact that we wanted to stay at his apartment, which I could see from the web site, had no bookings at all for the next four months.
Two weeks after sending the cheque and having heard nothing I rang him again. Another strange conversation ensued as he wrestled to remember who I was and did not sound at all pleased when he did. He had not, he said, received any cheque but - the green coils of paranoia again begin writhing in my mind – “Why not pay now by credit card?” he urged. I declined, sent off another cheque, he having promised to contact me as soon as it arrived.
Meanwhile it is off to the bank for Long Suffering Wife and I where we are relieved to find the missing cheque has not been cashed and we are able to stop it. (At the same time, owing to a dysfunctional system for filling in cheque stubs, I have managed to stop the cheque to pay my music teacher, who now regards me as a bit of a chancer. But that is another story.)
Four more days pass without any communication concerning our booking. By now the paranoia is approaching full blown. I have discovered an item on the internet about the “self catering con” and occurrences of holidaymakers turning up to find their apartments do not exist. Every day that passes and the phone does not ring and the e-mail does not come I become more convinced that this is an attempted con. After a week I can stand it no more and for the second time we find ourselves requesting that a stop be put on a cheque to a polite but slightly patronising bank clerk who probably thinks we are too confused and elderly to organise our finances.
“There is a message on the phone,” says Long Suffering Wife as we return from our mission to the bank. We look at each other and both know whom it is from. “Thank you for your cheque. I am taking it to the bank,” it says. Long Suffering Wife, who has listened to my reasoning and suspicions without committing one way or the other, gives me one of her looks and I brace myself for some recrimination, but she restrains herself and merely says, “I think you had better give him a ring.”
It was a difficult conversation. For my part I gabbled incoherently at times as I tried to explain and justify my actions and apologise. He sounded wearily indifferent and suggested I pay by credit card. I felt so cowed by my apparent lack of judgement, I even had the card in my hand about to read out the number at one point, but a faint echo from the evaporating suspicions lingered, or else I am just stubborn. I told him I would send a third cheque by registered mail. “If that is what you want, fine!” he snapped and hung up.
The Post Office confirms our cheque has arrived but from our prospective host, nothing. Two more weeks pass before we finally note that the cheque has been cashed. The only thing that prevented a third cheque being stopped before that point was the thought of having to ask the snooty bank clerk to do it. Although I did receive an e-mail agreeing to receive a Tesco grocery delivery for me from him, there is no contract, directions or receipt. We set off for Looe not one hundred per cent sure we had somewhere to stay waiting for us.
The taxi driver at Looe station had never heard of our apartment, but high above East Looe I spot the name and he drops us off. It looks extremely unpromising. There are two apartments attached to a large modern house where the owner claims to live. There is no one in. The house is very badly maintained and we can see through the window lots of “stuff” as though it is being stored there. The garden is completely overgrown with brambles climbing the walls of the house. I look at the taxi disappearing down the hill and wish I had told him to wait.
We have had a very pleasant journey to this point; a sleeper to London, first class seats from Paddington to Liskeard. But it is a long time since we left home and we are tired. When Long Suffering Wife gets tired she can be quite grumpy. As she sits down on our luggage and gives me one of her particular looks, I can sense that the dam is about to burst. My faults, carelessness and general deficiencies of character are about to be described in vivid detail. It is also starting to rain.
This is it - my "with one bound he was free" moment, also known as a "get out of goal free" card. More in hope than expectation I climbed the steps to the upper apartment and found that the door was open. Despair turns into some way towards triumph! We were so relieved to find the apartment existed, was more or less as described and we did have somewhere to stay that we did not notice, until sometime after our host had left, it was minimally equipped. There were no towels, toilet paper, soap powder, washing up liquid, cleaning up equipment and with three unlabelled remote hand-sets, I could not get the TV to work.
We attempted to communicate with our host. “It would be quite nice to be able to wash occasionally!” as Long Suffering Wife put it, but he ignored us. In the end we bought some of the missing essentials. To be fair to him, he did seem a nice enough chap at the end of his tether, and he obviously thought I was a bit deranged and to be avoided. We heard him get up around six in the mornings and his van was coming and going all day, sometimes until ten o’clock at night. I wish him well in whatever it is he is doing and hope he survives it, but he will have to get his act together if his letting business is to survive.
The holiday was splendid! I even got the TV to work after several hours of randomly pressing buttons on the three handsets and rebuilding the aerial lead.
On Sunday we walked from the estuary up the valley of the West Looe River.
On Monday we walked from Looe along the coastal path to Polperro with stunning scenery all the way.
On Tuesday we travelled to the Eden Project by bus and train. This is a most impressive development, although expensive and with a very smooth, well-trained team to separate you from your money. It must cost a fortune to run, so we forgave them that and enjoyed the experience.
On Wednesday we took the coastal path east from Looe as far as Seaton, a shorter walk than to the west but much harder as very little of it is on the level.
On Thursday we visited Heligan Gardens, a site we remembered from a documentary about it in the 1990s. A fabulous place!
On Friday, our last day, we took a bus to Polruan, about seven miles west of Polperro and made our way back there along the coastal path. Another memorable walk.
On the quayside in Looe there is a fish stall called Pengelly’s, which once featured on the BBC program “Coast”. Although our apartment did not have much equipment in the kitchen, such as an oven, it did have a frying pan and one of the highlights of the week was the beautifully fresh fish from Pengelly’s we enjoyed for our evening meals.
Our kitchen did have a dishwasher (though no dish washing tablets) and we had decided to not bother with it, since dishwashing tablets are expensive and come in huge packets. The prospect of having to wash up after fish encouraged a bit of lateral thinking in me. What would happen, I asked myself, if we put washing up liquid into the dishwasher where the tablet should go?
The answer is like something out of a cartoon or the story of the Magic Porage Pot! Having set the machine going we settled down to watch the TV, the controls of which I had finally mastered, while it whooshed and churned away. After about forty minutes Long Suffering Wife went in to check, came back and suggested I take a look in the kitchen. It was knee deep in foam that oozed out around the door of the machine, which almost seemed to be bulging outwards, and dribbled down the side in great gobs to the floor. (Although that idea was manifestly bonkers we subsequently found that ordinary soap powder works just fine in a dishwasher.)
Many years ago on a holiday in Harris with Former Colleagues an incident occurred that should have warned me that the washing up liquid idea was flawed. A mooring rope from the boat had become saturated in jellyfish. Former Colleague B decided to try and clean it off by soaking the offending rope in washing up liquid and then placing the rope under a waterfall on the small burn that flowed past the house. A short while later the stream was a mass of foam, a continuous ribbon of billowing whiteness, flowing a mile or so down to the sea, with lumps of it blowing off across the adjoining fields. Much teasing has followed over the passing years. The sight of Former Colleague running up and down in panic, trying to stop the foam with an oar will live forever in our memory. It was one of the few times in my life that I was literally helpless with laughter and rolling on the ground.
I think I will not tell him all the details of our holiday!