There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.
That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.
Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.
By the time, I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots; it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on, but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet. Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.
Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.
On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift, but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glinting of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village, I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.
I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on, and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and burled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?
I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.
I couldn’t find it.
I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.
I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift, and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor, I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’
She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’
‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’
‘No, sir, I don’t recall having seen you before. However, we do have vacancies. Do you want to book in?’
‘I am booked in! I’m in Room 241! All my clothes are in there! My suitcase, everything!’
She must have pressed some sort of panic button because a manager appeared, an older woman, suave and smart-suited but with a hint of steel beneath the surface.
‘Can we help you, sir? I’m Ms Dennold, the duty manager.’