The Longbleat Health Spa and Farm was located in the luxurious Sussex countryside, surrounded for miles around by farmland, forest and heavy vegetation. The brochure – glossy, smelling faintly of lavender, and reported to taste like Epsom salts (Barbara hadn't actually licked the pages to find out) – talked about the opportunity for long walks around the Spa and Farm, admiring the vegetation and generally healthfully benefitting from the close proximity to nature. It also devoted double page spreads to the rooms, which were panelled in dark woods and furnished with soft white linens and knitted woollen, white blankets so that the effect was of snow-fall in a Narnian wood. There was a chapter on the food, which while claiming to be nutritionally balanced and dietetically analysed still appeared to have obtained a Michelin star, and was mouth-watering enough that some of the pages were now stuck together for entirely wholesome reasons. Barbara had stared at the pages until she could no longer resist temptation, and had then booked a week there for her and her daughter, Megan.
Megan was staring out of the taxi windows in horror as they passed another bog on the narrow, single-car road that apparently led to Longbleat.
"Babs," she said, knowing that her mother hated the informality. "Where the eff is this place? Are they going to have television there? Or internet? Wi-fi?"
"Megs," said Barbara, knowing that the name-calling was childish and yet unable to stop herself. "It's a health spa, you won't need the television. It'll be leisurely meals, gentle exercise, massage, exfoliation, heated stones, and comfortable beds made up by room service. It's a chance to relax and get away from it all. It's paradise."
Megan scratched at a spot on her chin. It did sound quite appealing when put that way, and her mother was paying for it all, so perhaps she shouldn't sound too ungrateful. But she didn't much fancy missing any of her evening soap operas; perhaps there'd be free wi-fi so she could watch them online. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked for reception. Nothing.
"There's no reception!" she said incredulous. Babs stared at her for a moment, and then pulled the well-thumbed brochure out of her Louis Vuitton handbag.
"Yes there is," she said, pointing to page four. "Look, it's done in a Louis XIII style. The reception looks a bit sixties, but I think that's supposed to be part of the charm."
"No, I mean mobile phone reception," said Megan, and then stopped. "Louis XIII? Wasn't his mother a Medici?"
"What if she was?" Barbara hated history almost as much as she hated the news. It always got depressing when you got to the good bits, and there was never enough sex. She preferred OK! magazine, and its newly published sibling, F-U!
"Poisoner and political intriguer," said Megan. "Interesting choice of monarch for reception then."
"Oh really! It's the style of the furniture," said Barbara, her tone dismissive and snappish. "I hardly think they're going to poison guests in reception."
"No," said Megan. "It would make more sense to do it on some of the blasted moorland that surrounds the farm."
"That's farmland, woodland, and rich, saponiferous vegetation," said Barbara, reading from the brochure to make sure that she got the long words right.
"You won't be going for many walks this week," said the taxi-driver, who'd been silent up until then. Megan and Barbara exchanged looks, and Megan got the task of talking to the man that Barbara thought of as 'the help'.
"Why's that? Is the weather bad?"
"Foot and mouth," said the taxi-driver. There'll be sheep-pyres all over the place up here. Look out for them at night and open the window. Great mutton flavour."
"Oh that's horrible!" Barbara's hand flew to her mouth. "Of course we won't be opening the windows, there'll be air-conditioning!"
"I don't much care to walk anyway," said Megan. The taxi-driver, who'd noted the suspension drop when she got in, wisely said nothing.
"Well," said Barbara, annoyed by the taxi-driver and determined to get back to the positive of the Longbleat spa, "there's a heated indoor pool."
"Presumably not heated by burning sheep?" Megan subsided when she saw the little red spots begin to burn angrily in Barbara's cheeks. "I don't really swim much, either, Babs. It's a bit... well, wet."
The taxi-driver coughed, which could, just, have been a stifled snort of laughter. Both women looked at him, but when he stayed silent returned to the brochure and their conversation. "The hot stone massage sounds nice though. Do you think they use special stones?"
"Oh yes," said Barbara immediately. "They're volcanic in origin, smoothed by centuries of passing water at the bottom of rivers just beyond the main volcano. They have special sherpas go and collect them and bring them back to civilisation."
"Oh good," said Megan. "You know, I heard a rumour that in America they just use house-bricks, or old cobblestones."
"That's awful!" Barbara's hand was at her mouth again. The taxi swung to the left as they took a tight corner and turned onto the Longbleat drive. "Oh look, what's that under that tree?"
They both peered out of the window as a spavined horse, foaming at the mouth, shuddered its last beneath the tree and collapsed, its mournful face bouncing heavily off the ground.
"Nature at its finest," said the taxi driver into the silence.