More than it ought to be; more than it ought to have been (8.0 units, I reckon); 1,435; Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica.
This was probably the worst possible day I could have chosen to escape from London to a windswept hilltop in Northumberland, since doing so hardly maximized my chances of obtaining the Leap Year proposal of which I have long dreamed. As long ago as 29 February 1984, I was desperate enough to host a party for that express purpose. It wasn’t an unqualified success. As usual, I had not thought it through properly, and invited more men than women. Lots of the women came with partners, and I had failed to ensure that all the other single men present were real mingers (as they weren’t called in those days). Added to which, the women were all (like me) on the right side of 30 at the time, even if by a rather narrow margin. So, even allowing for their faster-ticking biological clocks, there was no way that any of them were going to be so desperate as to propose marriage to the likes of me. I grew increasingly frustrated as the evening wore on, and finally distinguished myself at around midnight by telling everyone to blank off home, just as they were getting down to some serious dancing. I had to be up at the crack of dawn to catch the 7.30 to Newcastle, for a meeting with the first financial PR client I had ever won through my own efforts. They’re still a client today, I’m still unmarried, and I’ve never given another party. Ever, not just on 29 February. Someone did tell me a few days later that if you want people to clear off, it’s kinder just to stop filling their glasses rather than swearing at them, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try it out.
The day actually got off to quite a promising start, when I hailed a taxi outside my London club and it proved to be driven by an attractive blonde. Finding a taxi driven by a woman of any description is still a rare enough event, but this was something really rather special. I idled away the journey to King’s Cross day-dreaming about a series of scenarios that might have been lifted straight from story-boards for the 1970s Confessions of … film series. I also composed in my head the sort of letter that might have appeared in Mayfair at around the same time: “Imagine my surprise when my reverie was interrupted by my driver pulling into a quiet mews and walking round to open the back door of the cab. As she did so, her mackintosh fell open to reveal that she was wearing only a black basque with …” At this point, we came to an abrupt stop in York Way and my driver politely requested £10, offering no extras. I toyed with the idea of telling her the old joke about the schoolboy who asked the bus conductress for a hand job, and got tossed off at the next stop, but I didn’t think it would do me much good. Let’s face it, it never has up to now.
The first class accommodation on the 09.00 to Newcastle was packed with upmarketish people on their way to a wedding in Edinburgh. (Not that upmarket, evidently, since it was presumably taking place on Saturday, the least posh day of the week to get married.) I found myself sitting diagonally opposite a mesmerizingly good-looking 30ish couple. He was tall, dark and handsome in the style of a 1930s matinee idol, though at least he was clearly none too bright, since he was reading a book of Jeremy Clarkson’s columns and I reckon he only got through one of them between London and Newcastle. His finger was not actually moving across the page, but I’m sure I caught his lips moving. She was simply gorgeous in a dark and voluptuous way, a bit like Nigella Lawson. In fact, come to think of it, maybe it was Nigella Lawson. She certainly packed some food away, including a hot sandwich from the buffet and a big, sticky bun. Eating for two, I reckoned, or sufficiently confident in her relationship that she saw no risk of it foundering when the matinee idol woke up one morning and found that he was sharing his bed with a whale.
It was incredibly cold when I got to Newcastle, and the traffic lights were flexing in the way that they always do in TV reports from US coastal cities that are battening down for a hurricane. By the time I had collected one hoarse dog from the kennels and driven home, the shrubs in the front garden and the swinger-friendly Pampas grass to the rear (yeah, well that’s what happens when you let someone else design your garden) were being blown horizontal by the gale, which was made even more fun by the addition of lashing rain. I started addressing the dog with “If you think you’re going for a walk in that …” but he shuddered at the very thought. So we huddled by the smoking fire and watched TV until it was time to go to bed. I had both my phones close to hand and checked my e-mail every half hour or so, but the proposals failed to come. (Late submissions will still be given sympathetic consideration at firstname.lastname@example.org.) After a bit, we realized that there was absolutely no chance of getting to sleep because of the noise made by the howling wind doing its utmost to tear the roof off. I suggested a game of cards, but the dog gave me one of his looks, so we went to hide in a downstairs bedroom designed for the guests we never have, which proved marginally more peaceful. I finally drifted off to sleep and had vivid nightmares about the giant ash tree I no longer need to worry about flattening the house.
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