Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Davies.
Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess (and who are the sole copyright property of Studios USA Television Distribution LLC) but it was clearly inspired by them.
This story depicts a love relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
BREAK OUT '99
(Alternate title: Uber the Rainbow)
(Email: email@example.com )
DAY ONE: "WE'RE NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE."
Charlie goggled at the people surrounding her. A dashing pirate, her arms akimbo, was telling off a kilted man in blue-and-white face paint. A bald-headed convict - the arrows on his grey tracksuit gave the game away - was arguing with a medic in orange surgical scrubs. And a nun in a voluminous black-and-white habit was giggling with a satchel-wearing girl from St Trinians … who had a moustache.
With a start, she realized she knew the 'schoolgirl' whose navy miniskirt was half tucked into her 'sensible' knickers.
"Hi, Ben," she called.
The systems analyst she'd frequently eaten her lunch with in the days before the Office Canteen was shut down 'as an economy measure' turned and did a double take. "Hi, Dorothy."
Charlie rolled her eyes. Guess I'm going have to get used to that.
He ambled towards her. "Fed up with being a blonde, eh?" He fingered her wig.
She pulled away. "Hey! Hands off."
"Pigtails take years off you." He made a show of looking around. "Where's Toto?"
"The Wicked Witch ate him."
"Raw or cooked?"
"Still alive. That's why they call her wicked."
"Why the Wizard of Oz?" He gazed appraisingly at the puff-sleeved blouse and dove-grey pinafore frock which, because of the cold, she was wearing over a long-sleeved white T-shirt.
"Why not? Actually," she grimaced, "Heather chose the theme, then conveniently went and got flu."
"Poor you!" Ben struck a saucy pose and batted his false eyelashes. "I chose our theme. What do you think?"
She shifted her duffel bag (it didn't match the Dorothy outfit but what could she do?) into a more comfortable position. "It's very you," she said dryly.
He glanced around. "So where's the rest of your team?"
She had been wondering the same thing herself.
"More to the point, who's the rest of your team?"
She pulled a slip of paper from the pinafore's pocket and squinted at Heather's scrawl. "Urm … Sam Walker and Poppy Jones."
Ben nodded approvingly. "You'll be in safe hands with Sam. And Poppy's a good laugh."
"So I hear." She looked around anxiously. "Have you seen them? I'm supposed to meet them here, according to Heather."
Ben shook his head. "They'd better get a move on, though. Only ten minutes to kick-off. Your team will be disqualified if you don’t register in time."
Charlie sighed. "Don't tempt me."
There had been a rumour the new Accounts Manager was going to cancel the annual charity event this year. It had turned out to be untrue … unfortunately. The thought of spending 3 days on the road in a British October really didn't appeal, but Charlie had known she couldn’t escape taking part in the event forever … six years had to be some kind of record as it was.
Two more St Trinians girls appeared - one of them was even female - and Ben waved at them then turned to Charlie. "Gotta go," he said. "May the best team win … as long as it's ours."
"Same to you."
He strode away, almost knocking someone over in the process. Charlie gaped at the new arrival, who was dressed all in silver, and whose hat looked like an inverted funnel. The Tin Man! She peered closer at the good-natured face caked in silver face paint. Darren Liggett?
The Post Room clerk smiled shyly at her. "Morning, Miss Heywood. Fancy seeing you here. I was expecting Miss Taylor."
"Please call me Charlie," she said automatically. "Heather couldn't make it. Flu." She frowned at him. "Darren, what are you doing here? I thought the Post Room was sending Poppy Jones."
"She's got the flu too. It was too late to get anyone else, so I'm her substitute." He took his place beside her and waited expectantly.
Oh great! thought Charlie. Two substitutes (she hoped they wouldn't be disqualified) neither of whom had been on a Break Out before. Still, Sam Walker would know what he was doing. The amiable Personnel Manager always did.
She checked her watch anxiously, then scanned the carpark again. The teams of three were beginning to drift towards the tethered bunch of balloons that marked the registration table. She glanced at Darren. "Have you seen Sam Walker?"
He shook his head. "Poppy said he told her he was coming as The Cowardly Lion, if that helps."
At that moment, a sleek black BMW turned in through the carpark entrance and screeched to a halt by the far wall. A tall figure wearing a tawny coloured lion costume got out of the driver's side, grabbed a haversack, slammed the door shut, and sprinted towards them.
Charlie exhaled in relief. "Sam's here. Come on, Darren." She grabbed his arm and started after the other competitors. "Let's register before it's too late."
As the Cowardly Lion drew nearer, she paused. Something about the furry clad figure looked 'wrong', for want of a better word. It seemed to lack the bulk of the Personnel Manager, and looked a few inches shorter than Sam's 6ft 4ins. In fact, that graceful easy stride reminded her more of -
Charlie put a hand to her mouth. It can't be!
The tawny lion halted in front of her, and she found herself gazing up into ice blue eyes. Sam's were brown.
"Miss Heywood." Falcon Insurance's new Accounts Manager pulled off one paw-shaped glove and held out a hand.
What the hell is she doing here? She doesn't have a charitable bone in her body. "Urm ... Miss Carlton." Charlie shook the outstretched hand, trying not to wince at the firm grip. And shouldn't she be dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West?
Jennifer Carlton had been brought in two months ago when 'good old Bill' Munson unexpectedly resigned - due to ill health, so it was said. She had immediately doubled the paperwork surrounding monetary transactions and introduced draconian budget cuts. Charlie's last encounter with her had not been a pleasant one.
The emergency meeting had been in progress for an hour when Heather called in her second in command to bolster her arguments against proposed cuts to the Customer Services budget. Charlie had got into a heated argument with the Accounts Manager, and when Jennifer Carlton had suddenly backed down, she had felt almost light headed.
Heather's gratitude and praise had been satisfyingly effusive - their department was one of the few to survive the subsequent cuts unscathed - it hadn't, however, stopped her boss from lumbering her with this charity do. Damn!
The striking blue eyes Charlie had been unwittingly staring into blinked, and she came to with a start.
"Please call me Charlie," she managed. Well, she was damned if she was going to address this bloody woman formally for the next three days.
"Charlie?" The blue eyes blinked again. "Oh, OK. Then you’d better call me Jen."
While Charlie mentally picked herself up off the floor, the tall woman turned to regard Darren and smiled warmly.
"Hello, Darren. Nice to see you. But I was expecting Poppy." The smile faded as Jen turned back to regard Charlie curiously. "And Heather. This is supposed to be a Managers team, after all."
"And we were expecting Sam Walker," said Charlie. Don’t like mixing with the lower ranks, eh?
"He's gone to a funeral," said Jen absently. "So … we're all substitutes, then? Hmmm." She pulled one glove down and checked her watch. "Hey! Shouldn't we register?" Without waiting for a reply, she set off towards the jostling balloons that marked registration.
Grumbling under her breath, Charlie followed.
"This is going to be fun," said Darren, catching up with her.
Charlie gave him a disbelieving glance. His experiences of the other woman must be very different from her own.
Darren and Charlie found Jen standing next to the bunting covered trestle table, signing registration documents. They had just finished appending their own signatures when one of the organisers, a plump woman Charlie recognised as Brenda from Stock Control, pulled out a chair, climbed awkwardly onto it then onto the registration table itself, and raised a megaphone to her lips.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Brenda's voice boomed. "May I have your attention, please?"
The loud chatter died to a murmur.
"Thank you. I'd like to welcome everyone to Break Out '99." Cheers and catcalls greeted her and she raised a hand for silence. "This year we'll be donating all funds raised to The Sutton Coldfield Community Project." She paused. "On that point, I should inform you that there's been a slight change to the procedure since last year. Falcon Insurance will match, pound for pound, the sponsorship monies raised," - more cheers- "but only for the three winning teams."
"Good old Bill wouldn't have stood for that," called someone in the crowd.
"Shame," called someone else.
Jennifer ran a finger round the neck of her costume.
I bet this is your doing, thought Charlie, giving the tall woman a disgusted glance. Just can't bear to give Company money away, can you?
Brenda shrugged and held up a piece of paper. "That's what it says here, people. First three teams only … so you'll just have to make sure your team is one of them, won’t you?"
"Piece of cake," yelled one of the nuns, causing a ripple of laughter that eased the mood somewhat.
"Just to recap," continued Brenda. "Each team will be assigned a driver -" She indicated the group of smirking Falcon employees standing nearby. "- who will take them to a secret destination which the organising committee has assigned to the teams completely at random."
"Hey, how about Paris?" yelled a man in orange surgical scrubs.
"Or Rome," shouted a pirate.
Brenda rolled her eyes and ignored the hecklers. "All destination are in the UK, 150 miles from here by road. Each team has 3 days to get back to this spot." She stamped on the trestle table which rocked alarmingly. Helpers rushed to steady it.
"Three days? Easy peasy," yelled a convict.
"Not as easy as you might thing," warned Brenda. "Remember, you are not allowed to use either money or maps."
What? Heather conveniently forgot to mention that, thought Charlie. She glanced at Jen, but the tall woman seemed unperturbed by the restriction. Darren's face, however, even beneath its coating of silver face paint, had paled visibly.
"Hey, Charlie," whispered someone nearby. She turned to see Ben glancing meaningfully at the Accounts Manager. "I thought you said Sam Walker was coming with you?"
"Change of plan," she whispered back.
He mimed terror and she rolled her eyes at him.
Brenda was continuing with her instructions. "What you are allowed to take with you - and I hope each of you remembered cos it’s too late if you didn't! - is one small bag each, containing food and drink for 3 days, pajamas, underwear, socks, and something to keep the rain off if the weather turns bad - and I should warn everyone that the forecast for the next few days isn't very promising."
A murmur of dismay greeted this news.
"In order to make sure all rules are adhered to, we will check your bags and pockets," continued Brenda through the megaphone, "before you go."
"Is that really necessary?" protested a man in a kilt.
"Sure," chimed in someone else. "Who knows what you've got in that sporran."
Catcalls and laughter greeted that remark, and the plump organiser gestured for quiet once more.
"One other thing. We will require proof of your journey back. Lack of proof will mean … what will it mean?" She paused significantly.
"Disqualification," chorused the onlookers.
"Spot on," agreed Brenda, smiling. "So we will be issuing each team with a Polaroid camera and three rolls of film. Every time you pass a significant landmark or roadsign, take a photo of it that includes all three members of the team."
"But if one of us is taking the photo …" objected Ben.
"Get a passerby to take it," said Brenda briskly. "Right, I think that's all. Any questions?"
"Yeah," muttered Charlie. "Someone tell me why we're doing this again?"
"Suppose we don’t make it back in time?" shouted a pirate with absurdly large hooped earrings.
"Then you'll be disqualified," said Brenda. She smiled sweetly through the boos and hisses. "Hey, folks. I don’t make the rules." She paused and scanned her audience. "Any more questions?".
Silence greeted her and she looked visibly relived. "Right then. Let's get you all properly registered and your bags and pockets checked. Then we'll get you blindfolded."
"Blindfolded?" asked Charlie in alarm.
"Ooh!" said Darren.
Jen didn't say a word.
* * *
Crammed in the back of a van, wearing a silly lion suit that fitted too tightly round the neck and itched like crazy - not to mention the bloody blindfold! - was not Jennifer's idea of fun. For the umpteenth time in the past … what was it now, nearly half an hour? … she cursed Sam Walker.
Break Out was something of an institution, so Sam had told her, while filling her in on the things he thought she should know about Falcon Insurance. Apparently, the event had been introduced a decade ago with the aim of promoting interdepartmental harmony and at the same time raising money for a good cause. And since paid time-off for those employees who took part was one of the perks, there was usually no shortage of volunteers.
In fact Falcon, one of the last of the patriarchal insurance companies, had been big on employee perks. Unfortunately, Jen had already been forced to cut two of them: the subsidised canteen and the Christmas Party for the employee's kids. Getting the company out of the hole 'good old Bill' had dug was taking every trick in her accounting book and then some. It didn't help that she wasn't allowed to tell the workers why she was doing it - the Board was afraid even a whisper of the affair could damage their share price
Sam had convinced her to leave the annual Break Out intact, though, arguing that the expenditure involved was small change beside the 1 million pounds Munson had embezzled. Besides, he relished the challenge of 3 days on the road - he was the kind of guy who liked camping trips.
"Fair enough," she'd told the Personnel Manager grudgingly. "It's your funeral." And she had merely tweaked the Break Out's pound-for-pound matching mechanism.
When Sam had stridden into her office two mornings ago and told her he did indeed have to go to a funeral (his favourite aunt had died) and so for the first year ever would not be able to take part in the charity event, she had laughed hollowly.
"But I can't go in your place! Can't you duck out of it?"
His look of genuine shock had made her flush.
"Look," he'd continued, draping one beefy arm round her shoulder, and making her glance round anxiously to see if anyone was watching - she really didn't want other people to know that beneath her hard-as-nails exterior beat a heart of pure marshmallow. "You'll have fun, I guarantee it. And you never know, you might even make some new friends."
"I'm not here to make friends."
He'd laughed loudly at that. "Since when did saving the company's bacon mean you had to be Public Enemy Number 1?"
She shrugged ruefully. "I'm the one who took the party away from the kids."
"It wasn't you," he growled. "It was Munson. 'Good old Bill', my arse!"
"Yeah, well." She had turned the subject back to the matter at hand, and somehow found herself agreeing to substitute for him.
Of course, then she'd thought she'd be spending the next 3 days in the company of Heather Taylor and Poppy Jones, both managers with whom, while she wasn't exactly friends, she shared a mutual grudging respect. Instead, here she was cramped thigh to thigh with the amiable but bumbling Darren Liggett, who delivered her mail every day, and Charlotte - oops, better make that 'Charlie' - Heywood, who seemed to hate Jen even though she had bent over backwards to save Customer Services from the budget cuts.
Jen sighed. That's the last time I allow passion and eloquence, and, let's face it, a cute bod, to sway me.
The van lurched round a corner, and she found herself in a tangle of arms and legs with one of her team members. From the feel of soft skin and the pleasant perfume, which came as a nice respite from the stink of petrol fumes, it wasn't Darren.
"Sorry," came Charlie's voice.
"S'OK," said Jen sincerely. "Not your fault anyway. Whoever's driving us is a lousy driver."
"It's Nigel from the Print Shop," said Darren. "I recognised his voice."
A few minute later, the vehicle swerved the other way, and Darren, who had just begun whistling 'Fernando' under his breath (It could have been worse, but not by much, thought Jen), stopped abruptly as Jen's elbow drove into his ribs.
"Sorry," she said. But not very.
"No problem," he gasped.
For a while after that there was only the engine noise, the creaks and groans of the van, and the sound of tyres on wet tarmac - it must be raining. Jen wondered whether to twiddle her thumbs.
"Why don’t we could play a game," suggested Darren brightly.
Jen snorted. "What? I Spy?"
"Don’t be silly. There are plenty of games beside that one," chided Charlie.
In the safety of her blindfold, Jen rolled her eyes.
"Let's think of animals," continued Charlie. "You know - beginning with each letter of the alphabet in turn? I'll start us off. Anteater."
Silence fell. "Urm … Antelope," said Darren.
"Your turn, Miss Carlton … I mean Jen," prompted Darren.
Jen sighed. I'm in travel hell. "Aardvark."
"Oh, good one," said Darren.
"On to the letter B," came Charlie's voice. " Bear."
"Boar," said Darren.
How appropriate, thought Jen. Aloud, she said, "Baboon." …
Jen woke with a start to the muffled cries of seagulls. For a moment she wondered where she was, then memory came back with a rush.
Her companions in adversity had refused to believe yaffle was a real bird - in spite of her protestations that it was a green woodpecker - and she had (rather sulkily, she admitted) declined to play any more. After that, she had simply listened as they continued the childish game without her. Somewhere along the line, she must have fallen asleep.
From the lack of engine noise, the van had stopped somewhere. Just as well - her bladder felt full and she had a crick in her neck. She put out her hands and blindly crawled towards the doors, disturbing her companions in the process.
"Are we here?" asked Darren drowsily.
"Hope so." Charlie yawned. "I'm getting cramp."
Jen was just fumbling for the handle, when she heard the driver's door opening and closing and footsteps coming round the side of the van. Then came a tortured screech of unoiled hinges, and a cool breeze on her hot forehead confirmed that the van's doors were now open.
Someone took hold of her outstretched hands. "Everybody out."
Awkwardly, Jen accepted the assistance of the man Darren had identified as Nigel from the Print Shop, and climbed out.
The screams of the seagulls were deafening as she inhaled, gratefully purging her lungs of petrol fumes and scenting the salty, fishy tang of … the seaside?
Her blindfold was removed, and she squinted against the sudden glare. Moments later, the Tin Man was also blinking rapidly beside her, his eyes tearing. Then 'Dorothy' was knuckling her eyes too.
As her pupils adjusted, Jen gaped at her surroundings. She was standing on a bustling quayside, overlooking a jumble of fishing boats and yachts. There was even a tall ship, like something off a movie set, moored alongside. She gaped at the blue stretch of water that was too wide to be a river. I know this place.
A quick glance to her right revealed three bridges, one a picturesque suspension bridge, crossing the river … no, the estuary.
Of course! She turned and gazed at the grey stone medieval castle she had known would be there and which dominated the little walled town of … What was its name? Ah yes. … "Conwy."
"What?" Darren was still rubbing his eyes.
"Conwy. We're in North Wales." Jen pulled a glove half off and looked at her watch. Almost noon. Their driver had made good time.
He seemed more than eager to be off again too. Having checked they'd got all their belongings, he was climbing back into the driver's seat. The door slammed shut. "Good Luck," he called. And with a little wave, he drove off.
With mixed feelings, Jen watched the green van disappear along the busy quay and turn the corner out of sight. We're on our own, now.
A couple of tourists, Americans by their clothes, were strolling towards them and now they came to a halt in front of the three newcomers and quite simply stared.
"Hey, Melanie," said the bald headed man to his wide hipped companion. "Lookit that! Guess we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Oooh!" she squealed excitedly. "Wonder if they'd mind us taking a few photos."
Jen suppressed a sigh. They'd be getting a lot of this from now on, she supposed. Thanks very much, Sam!
Charlie smiled warmly at the couple and went over to talk to them. Seconds later, she was beckoning Jen and Darren over. Somehow - Jen wasn't sure quite how - the tall woman ended up smiling and posing with the tourists for photos. Then it was all change and she found herself with Darren and Charlie's arms round her waist having her photo taken against the backdrop of the castle. Wryly, she acknowledged the smooth way the young blonde had cajoled the Americans into taking the Polaroid the team would need as proof.
Photos taken, Jen left Charlie patiently explaining Break Out 99 to the interested couple and wandered across the road. She would need to find a loo pretty soon, but first she wanted to see if the tourist attraction she remembered from childhood holidays was still there. It was.
"What are you looking at?" asked Darren, who had followed her like a puppy.
She pointed to the tiny terraced house whose facade had been painted a garish crimson. "S'posed to be the smallest house in Great Britain." It looked even smaller than she remembered … but then, she had been a lot smaller herself.
He stuck his head inside the door of the 72 inches wide by 122 inches high house. "Hey!" his voice was muffled. "It's cute. Not much furniture though."
"No loo either, if I remember rightly."
"Eww! Where did they go, then? In the harbour?"
"I didn’t ask. Place wouldn't have suited me anyway," she said wryly. "I'd have had a permanent crick in my neck."
"I might have managed all right, though."
Charlie's soft voice startled Jen and she turned, at rather a loss. "Finished with your new friends?" she asked inanely.
"If you mean that sweet American couple who were kind enough to take our photo," said Charlie rather acidly, "then yes."
Jen felt chastened. "Oh."
Darren's head reappeared from the doorway. "Hi, Charlie. Isn't this place great?"
"Mm," said the blonde woman noncommittally. "So this is North Wales. We always went to Spain for our holidays."
Figures. "I'm going to look for a loo," said Jen shortly.
"Good idea," said Darren.
"Right behind you," said Charlie.
They hurried along the quay towards the castle, then turned right through the gate in the town's encircling wall. It brought them out opposite an old building called the Guildhall. To Jen's relief, a sign indicated public conveniences nearby. Other customers turned to gape as The Cowardly Lion and Dorothy made their way into the Ladies and The Tin Man headed for the Gents ….
Jen coaxed some gooey pink liquid out of a soap dispenser then washed her hands. I look ridiculous, she thought, ruefully regarding her reflection in the mirror. At least she'd had the good sense to decline the fake whiskers. She dried her hands at the hot air dispenser then stepped back, almost tripping over her tail in the process. Damned thing's too long.
One of the toilets flushed and a door creaked open. Charlie Heywood joined her at the row of basins.
Jen smirked at the blonde's grimace when she saw her own reflection, and was caught red-handed. Oops! Now I'm for it.
But Charlie merely sighed. "Heather chose this." She indicated the Dorothy outfit.
Civilised conversation. I can do this. "What would you have chosen?"
"Something comfortable, warm, unobtrusive," said the blonde. "The nuns had the right idea."
Jen considered that. "Their moustaches will still attract attention, though."
Charlie smiled. "Mm." She moved to dry her hands, then turned and gazed assessingly at Jen, who raised an eyebrow.
"What fancy dress outfit would you have chosen?"
"One I can take off easily when I need to go to the toilet."
"What makes you think I wouldn't have chosen this one?"
Charlie wrinkled her nose. "Oh, just a feeling."
"Hmph." Jen thought for a moment. "A cowboy, maybe."
Charlie's green eyes brightened. "I can just picture us as cowboys and Indians. You'd make a good outlaw."
I was thinking more of sheriff.
"I’d be Pocahontas, of course," continued Charlie, indicating her wig. "Plaits instead of pigtails." Then she frowned. "But what would Darren be?"
"A totem pole?"
A snort of laughter greeted that remark, and Jen wondered if the other woman was warming to her at last. She hoped so.
"Anyway," she reached for the haversack she had propped against a wall, and shouldered it, "we'd better get a move on. The totem pole will be wondering where we've got to."
* * *
Charlie followed the tall woman out to where Darren was waiting, surrounded by a gaggle of onlookers. She took no notice of them - ignoring the looks her costume attracted from passersby was becoming almost second nature to her now.
"About time," said Darren.
Charlie opened her mouth to retort, but her stomach beat her to it. It grumbled long and loud. Her cheeks burned and she avoided the others' gazes.
"I was about to suggest we eat something before we set off anyway," said Jen mildly. She pointed to a sign indicating the Vicarage Gardens. "It's not far and there are bound to be some benches in there. Come on."
She scooped her tail over one arm and set off. Charlie sighed and followed her.
It was only a short walk up Rose Hill Street to the gardens in question, which, since it was early October, weren't looking their best. Still, at least that meant there were plenty of empty wooden benches
Charlie joined her companions on the nearest bench and delved in her duffel bag. Did The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Dorothy eat sandwiches in the film? she pondered. They certainly didn’t go to the loo.
"I've got corned beef and tomato," said Darren, jolting her from her thoughts. "What have you guys brought?"
"Tomato soup, bacon baps, and an apple," said Jen. She poured thick orange glop from her flask into its cap and took a gulp.
Charlie pulled out her own flask of carrot and coriander soup and began to pour.
"I didn't bring any soup," grumbled Darren.
Silently, Jen handed him her cup. He beamed and took a mouthful then handed the cup back to its owner, unaware he now wore a bright orange moustache. The contrast with the silver face paint was startling.
Charlie exchanged an amused glance with Jen but said nothing. She drank her own soup, then unwrapped her tuna salad roll and took a bite.
"So," said Darren, round a mouthful of corned beef and tomato. "Without maps, how do we know where to go next?"
"Simple," said Jen. "We head east along the coast road, cut inland to Chester and after that head for the M6. We'll be home in no time." She grinned.
Charlie stopped chewing. "I don’t think that's a good idea."
Jen's grin vanished. "Why ever not?"
"Because taking the motorway is totally against the spirit of Break Out, that's why. The aim isn't to get home as fast as possible, you know."
"Isn't it?" The grim-faced Accounts Manager was back.
Charlie's dislike of the tall woman resurfaced. "Remember Brenda talking about 'significant landmarks'? Well the hard shoulder of the M6 doesn’t come into that category as far as I'm aware."
"I see. And what do you propose?"
The question stumped Charlie for a moment, then she had it. "Well, I've never seen Snowdonia, and since we're so near it would be a shame not to, besides being a bit of an adventure -"
"Snowdonia?" Jen's tone was incredulous.
"Yes," snapped Charlie defensively. "Beautiful Welsh scenery, that kind of thing … or have you been shut up with your dry-as-dust accounts books so long, the wonders of nature no longer means anything to you?"
"Guys, guys," said Darren peaceably. "Shouldn't we take a vote on which route home to take?"
Charlie and Jen both gaped at him. "Vote?" they said simultaneously.
"Yeah, you know … one person, one vote kind of thing."
Charlie couldn’t be certain, but she thought Jen was grinding her teeth. She took a deep breath. When the older woman didn't say anything, she took up the baton.
"Uh, OK, Darren. … So, the choices before us are: we take the coast road, then -" she shot Jen a displeased glance, "- head inland and take the motorway and get home in 3 hours instead of 3 days … or -"
Darren frowned in thought.
"- we go inland through the mountains." Sudden doubt overtook her and she turned unwillingly to Jen. "There is a way through the mountains, isn't there?"
The other woman gave a reluctant nod. "Via Betws-y-Coed."
"And it is about the same distance back to Sutton Coldfield, either way?"
Another grudging nod.
Charlie beamed. "Great." She resumed her train of thought. "So. Coast or Mountains. Which is it to be?"
She turned to Jen and wrinkled her nose in query.
"Coast," said Jen shortly.
Charlie nodded. "And I vote Mountains."
They both turned to regard the patiently waiting Darren. "Oh, is it my turn?" His smile slipped as he realized he held the casting vote. "Oh!"
"Well?" Jen's voice had deepened to an intimidating growl that went well with her costume.
"Weeeellllll … Motorways are boring, and I always like mountain scenery," gabbled Darren. "So I vote Mountains."
He gave Jen a sheepish grin, but she turned her face away in … what? Fury? Disgust?
"Right," said Charlie, trying to avoid a gloating tone and failing miserably. "Then Mountains it is."
* * *
Jen eyed the corrugated cardboard sign Darren was carrying and tried not to wince. It was full of crossings out and corrections - it had taken him three attempts to spell 'Betws-y-Coed' correctly.
"Well, it’s a stupid name!" he'd protested, when she pointed out yet another mistake. "What does it mean anyway?"
"Betty's Cod," she snapped, her patience all but gone.
"Really?" he asked seriously, and she turned away, afraid of what else she might say.
Charlie had chuckled, but far from appreciating the response to her sarcastic riposte, it had irritated Jen even more. If it hadn't been for the stubborn blonde they'd be half way home by now instead of standing stranded at the side of a deserted B5106 where their first lift, a milk van, had dropped them.
As though the Welsh Mountain Gods had heard her plea, a lorry appeared in the distance.
"Hey, guys," called Darren excitedly. "We're in luck!"
His statement became debatable as the lorry drew closer and it became painfully clear to Jen that it was not exactly in tiptop condition. Its engine sounded as though something vital had broken loose, and every few minutes there was a loud bang, followed by a cloud of blue exhaust fumes. To top it all, the prevailing wind was blowing towards them the unmistakable bleating of sheep … and the smell of them too.
She squinted at the faded stencilmarks on the lorry's cab door. What did it say? Llew something or other … Llewellyn's Sheep Farm? Uh oh. "Um … maybe this isn't such a good -"
But Darren had already stepped purposefully into the lorry's path and was holding up the pathetic cardboard sign.
The lorry's brakes wheezed asthmatically, and its tyres left rubber on the road as it screeched to an abrupt halt. Then a window was wound down and the furious driver, who looked like a medieval gargoyle in need of restoration, scowled down at Darren.
"Duw! Have you got a death wish?" Darren's odd appearance must have registered then, because the man's bushy eyebrows suddenly crawled skyward. "What in God's name are you meant to be, boy?" His Welsh accent was pronounced..
Darren flushed. "The Tin Man." He gestured to Jen and Charlie who ran to join him. "And these are The Cowardly Lion and Dorothy."
Jen didn't much like the way the driver's eyes glinted when they saw Charlie.
"Um, could you give us a lift to …" Darren trailed off and pointed at the sign. "This place?"
"No problem," said the driver, presumably Llewellyn himself. "I'm going to Capel Curig so I go right through Betws anyway." He smiled at Charlie, revealing nicotine stained front teeth. "Come up here next to me, cariad." The others might as well have not existed for all the notice he took of them.
"Let me go first," growled Jen. A surprised Charlie hesitated then acquiesced.
As Jen climbed into the grimy cab and took the battered seat next to the driver he scowled and she suppressed a grim smile. I've got your number, boyo.
Charlie was next up, but when Darren tried to climb in as well, they belatedly realized there wasn't room for all three.
"Oh him? He'll be all right in the back," said the driver dismissively.
"With the sheep?" asked Jen, taken aback.
"Of course with the sheep." He glared fiercely at her. "You saying there's something wrong with them?"
"S'OK," interrupted Darren good-naturedly. "I don’t mind."
While the Post Room clerk walked round to the back of the lorry and climbed over the tailgate, Llewellyn leaned across the cab, ostensibly to close the door, but more likely to take a closer look at Charlie's legs.
Jen grimaced. Thank heavens Charlie's considerable assets were well protected by tights and socks. Hang on a minute? Does she really need both?
With a screech of protest from the clutch, the driver put the lorry in gear, and next minute they were in motion. Jen could only hope that Darren had got on board safely and wasn't as uncomfortable in the back as they were in the front.
"So why are you dressed up like Hollywood filmstars?" asked Llewellyn, as the lorry (Its MoT certificate must be forged.) banged and clattered up the road snaking through the valley.
"It's for charity," said Charlie, obviously feeling the least she could do in return for the lift was be sociable - Jen had no such qualms. "We're being sponsored to get back to Sutton Coldfield in 3 days."
"Sutton whatchermacallit? Never heard of it."
"Coldfield. It's near Birmingham," expanded Charlie.
"Ah." He glanced at the two of them then back to the road again. A slight smile curled his lip, and a few minutes after that, he began what turned out to be a series of increasingly offensive anti English jokes.
Knowing that a reaction was likely to make him worse, Jen contented herself with silently grinding her teeth. Charlie sighed and stared out the window. Jen followed her colleague's gaze to the River Conwy and the sheepdotted slopes beyond ….
The valley was becoming progressively narrower, the slopes to the east steeper and more thickly wooded with oaks, when they passed a signpost which indicated they were only 3 miles from Betws-y-Coed.
Thank God, thought Jen. The driver had by now run out of offensive jokes but was smoking a battered old pipe instead and she could feel a headache brewing.
Llewellyn changed down a gear, and she became suddenly aware that his meaty hand, rather than returning to its rightful place on the steering wheel, had clamped itself onto her right thigh. For a moment, she simply gaped at it in disbelief - it wasn't as if she even looked sexy in the lion outfit. - then she reached down and grabbed the offending hand, bending the fingers back until with a whimper the driver released her.
The lorry lurched sideways, then overcorrected, then came to an abrupt halt that almost sent Charlie through the windscreen.
"Out!" bellowed the driver, cradling his injured hand. "That's as far as you go, you English … "
The next bit was in Welsh. Jen tried to remember the tiny vocabulary she had gleaned from a Linguaphone course she had never completed. Gast meant bitch, didn’t it? And Diafol was the devil? …
"But this isn't Betws-y-Coed!" protested a confused Charlie, when the driver's invective petered out.
"Your friend should have thought of that sooner. Now, get out."
"Come on," said Jen. "I need some fresh air, anyway." She threw the driver a disgusted look. "It's pretty rank in here."
Still protesting, Charlie let Jen hand her down out of the cab and onto the verge, and soon Darren, who had popped his head out of the back to see why they had stopped, had joined them.
"Change of plan?" he queried.
"Yes," said Jen shortly.
A loud bang startled them and then they were choking in a noxious blue cloud as the lorry rattled away from them up the road.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," muttered Jen, as it disappeared into the distance and a fresh breeze dispersed the exhaust fumes.
"What on earth was that all about?" asked Charlie, her gaze keen.
"Yeah. Did I miss something?" asked Darren.
"Couldn't keep his hands to himself," said Jen shortly.
"Oh!" said both of them simultaneously.
Jen frowned at the amused look the two other members of the team exchanged, uncertain whether to be offended or not, then pushed it to the back of her mind. Then Charlie' s stomach rumbled, and she was glad to be able to change the subject.
"We'll walk for a bit," she said, "then have something to eat. With a little luck, there'll be another lift along soon."
Charlie nodded her agreement, but at the mention of eating, Darren's face fell and he started looking agitatedly around him. "Oh no!"
"What is it?" asked Charlie.
"I left my rucksack in the back of the lorry."
Great, thought Jen. Just great! Aloud she said, "Never mind. Charlie and I probably have enough food for the three of us." She turned to Charlie. "Right?"
The blonde looked doubtful, but nodded. "Right."
Darren grinned with relief. "Thanks, guys." Then his face fell again.
"What now?" asked Jen, suppressing a sigh.
"What about the other things in the rucksack? My silver face paint was in it. Not to mention my plastic mac, underwear, socks."
"Can't help you with the face paint. We can take turns with my mac. But I'm sorry, Darren, " - Jen strove to lighten the mood - "no one wears my underwear and socks except me."
"I'm really sorry, you guys." Darren sounded depressed.
"Hey, it's all right, " said Jen. "These things happen."
"At least you kept hold of the camera," pointed out Charlie. "Without that for proof we’d have been disqualified immediately."
He brightened at that and patted the camera round his neck almost affectionately. "That's right. I did, didn’t I?"
"Anyway." Jen hefted her haversack into a more comfortable position over her shoulder. "We can't just stand here." She looped her tail over one arm and set off purposefully in the direction the lorry had gone.
Darren came up alongside and she wrinkled her nose. The Post Room clerk smelled strongly of sheep. "So, did the sheep behave themselves?"
He eyed her uncertainly then decided the question was serious. "Eventually." He rubbed his buttocks ruefully. "Some of them must have been rams."
"What kind of sheep were they?" asked Charlie, who was now walking on Jen's other side.
He pulled a face. "Small, brown, and bad tempered."
"Sound more like their owner," said Jen.
Charlie laughed and the three of them walked on in silence for a hundred yards then came to a green sloping bank.
Just the place for a sit down, decided Jen. "We'll rest here and have a snack."
"Thank heavens," said Charlie. "These shoes are really uncomfortable." With a groan of relief, she flopped onto the grassy bank and eased off the ruby slippers. Then she reached for her duffel bag, opened it, and took out a Mars Bar.
With a regretful glance, Charlie broke a third of it off and handed it to Darren. He beamed at her and swallowed it in a single gulp. He then turned his attention to Jen, reminding her of a dog at a banquet waiting to be flung a gnawed joint of meat.
Do we have enough food for three? Well, we'll soon find out. She gave him one of her Twix bars.
As they munched, Jen scrutinised the shoes that were causing Charlie grief: a pair of red high heels to which scarlet sequins had been glued. Hardly suitable footwear for hitching, or mountain walking, come to that. At least her own costume's paws were flat, thank God.
She eyed the blonde woman's feet, noticed again the socks and tights. Hmmm. Quite a thickness of material there …
"Take your socks off."
Darren's eyes bulged, and Charlie almost choked on her Mars Bar. "I beg your pardon?"
"The shoes are already tight, because Poppy's feet are smaller than yours and the costume was ordered using her measurements, right?"
"Right." Charlie still looked puzzled.
"And you're wearing socks and tights … so that makes them even tighter."
Understanding dawned in the green eyes. "Duh! I am such an idiot." Charlie removed the ugly socks and stuffed them in her duffel bag. "I'm sure that'll be much better," she said, giving Jen a warm smile.
Jen shrugged. "They're still going to cause problems if you walk too far in them."
"Then we'll just have to get plenty of lifts," said Darren.
Jen raised an eyebrow at him. "Riiiiight," she drawled.
"There'll be a car along in a minute," he said optimistically. "Just you wait and see."
Having gulped his chocolate bars down, Darren was now restless, and he got up and strolled a little way up the road where he stopped, crouched, and began to pick something.
It's too late for bilberries, surely? Jen exchanged a surprised glance with Charlie then shrugged, unscrewed the top of her blue flask (red for soup, blue for coffee) and poured herself a drink. Beside her, Charlie did the same.
Moments later, clutching something in one hand, Darren hurried back towards them. "Look what I've got for dessert," he said excitedly, opening his hand for them to admire its contents.
"What kind of berries are those?" asked Charlie, peering at the brown-black pellets.
Jen sighed. "The rabbit dropping kind," she said flatly.
A sudden fit of coughing overtook Charlie, sending a fine spray of coffee everywhere.
"Ha ha." Darren grinned good-naturedly. "You're kidding me, right?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at him. "Nope." She took a sip of her own coffee. "Try eating one if you don’t believe me."
His expression changed to one of disgust. "Urk!" Dropping the pellets as if they were the proverbial hot potato, he stooped and wiped his hands vigorously on the grass. "Urk, yuk, urk …"
Charlie had recovered from her coughing fit but seemed unable to meet Darren's eyes.
"You had the right idea," Jen consoled the stricken Post Room clerk. "But even if they were in season, bilberries would be too sour to eat raw … besides staining our teeth and tongues purple."
He gaped at her. "Purple?"
"A Tin Man with purple lips might have given people nightmares." From Charlie's odd expression, Jen knew she was babbling, but what the hell … it had served its purpose. Darren looked much more at ease.
The level in her cup had dropped to the halfway mark, she noticed. Reluctantly she stopped drinking and turned towards Darren. "Want some coffee?"
Eagerly, he accepted the cup and drained it at a gulp. Charlie offered him the remainder of her coffee too, and Jen nodded approvingly, then busied herself repacking her haversack.
When she'd finished, she checked her watch: 2.15pm. "Right then, break over." She got briskly to her feet and turned to regard the others. "I think it's time we got this show on the road, don’t you?"
* * *
It had started getting dark half an hour ago, so for safety reasons the trio were walking single-file along the narrow mountain road against the flow of traffic.
Ha, that's a good one, thought Charlie bitterly. What traffic?
"You're limping," came Jen's voice.
She turned to peer at the tall silhouette. "I'm sure I've got blisters. It's these bloody shoes." A few spots of rain spattered her face and she sighed. That's all I need!
They had finally reached the little Welsh mountain resort of Betws-y-Coed, where the motherly owner of the Coaching Inn took pity on the three exhausted travellers and served them tea and biscuits free of charge. She also, to their immense gratitude, sweet talked one of the locals into giving them a lift in his Landrover. Only to Cerrigydrudion, as it turned out, but it was better than nothing, and 12 miles closer to Llangollen where Jen hoped they could find somewhere to stay for the night.
Unfortunately, the only traffic since Cerrigydrudion had been a man on a bicycle, taking his dog for a run, and an ancient tractor that wouldn’t have taken all three of them even at a pinch.
Charlie's heels twinged. 'Pinch' was right. She wished she could go back in time and alter her decision to go through the mountains. But there was nothing she could do about it now.
"Your ruby slippers look nice, though," came Darren's voice from behind her. "From what I remember, anyway."
"Who cares about looks? I knew I should have worn my Reeboks." The rain was intensifying and she wondered whether she had the energy to get her showerproof jacket out of her duffel bag.
Darren sniffed loudly. "Can you two smell something?"
"What?" asked Charlie.
"It smells like …" - they trudged on a few more yards - "…wet wool. Are there sheep nearby, do you think?"
"It's me," said Jen grumpily. "I'm a wet Cowardly Lion now … Sod this!" She stopped abruptly and began to rummage in her haversack.
Charlie limped back to join the Accounts Manager.
"I've got a plastic mac in here," explained Jen. "You'd better put your raincoat on too, Charlie, if you don’t want to get soaked."
"It's a jacket," said Charlie - As if it mattered. - but she reached obligingly for the duffel bag's drawstring ties, which were slippery with rain.
Jen pulled out a plastic raincoat, its colour indeterminate in the gathering darkness, and slipped it on over her costume.
A lion in a plastic mac. Odd, to say the least. thought Charlie absently as she succeeded in loosening the ties and then began the struggle to get the crumpled jacket out. Shit!
"Here. Let me give you a hand." Jen reached over, grabbed a jutting corner of the garment, and tugged. The jacket came free with a rush.
"Thanks," said a relieved Charlie.
"It's all right for you two," grumbled Darren, as Charlie put her jacket on and pulled up the hood, glad of the extra warmth and protection against the rain. "The sheep have got my raincoat."
The mental image of sheep wearing macs made Charlie laugh. She felt guilty instantly, and put a hand on Darren's arm. "I wasn't laughing at you."
He sighed. "I know. It's my own fault, anyway."
They continued on for another hundred yards, this time Jen leading the way. A minor road joined the main one from the right and she halted at the T junction so suddenly Charlie barely avoided cannoning into her.
"What is it?"
Jen had retrieved a tiny torch from somewhere and was shining its pencil light onto a signpost. She pointed. "I don’t think we're going to make it to Llangollen tonight. It's too far."
'Llangollen 10 miles' read Charlie in dismay.
As if on cue, the rain turned into a downpour.
Darren tried to tuck his head into his shoulders, but since he wasn't a tortoise, failed miserably. "Ten miles," he said gamely. "We can do that, no problem."
"If we were rested, and all wearing comfortable shoes, and all had waterproof clothes, I’d agree with you," said Jen. "But we're not. We're cold, hungry, wet, and worn out."
Charlie could only agree. "So," she said. "What do you suggest?"
Jen gestured at the signpost again. Darren looked none the wiser, and Charlie was in the same boat though she didn't like to admit it.
"See that little red triangle?" asked Jen, shining her torch on the symbol in question.
Charlie peered at the sign again. "Hey, that means Youth Hostel, doesn't it?"
"Yes," said Jen. "And according to this, there's one half a mile or so thataway." She pointed to where the minor road disappeared up the mountainside. "Do we need to take a vote?" She raised an eyebrow at her companions.
"If you mean Llangollen or the Hostel?" said Darren, as the rain pitter-pattered noisily on his metallic hat. "Well, I'll take the Hostel."
"Hostel," agreed Charlie. Right now, even The Smallest House In Great Britain looks good.
"Then youth hostel it is," said Jen.
* * *
'Off Season: CLOSED'.
Jen blinked the raindrops away and stared balefully at the sign bluetacked inside one of the hostel's downstairs windows. I've brought them half a mile out of their way for nothing.
"Well, that's that, then." Charlie sounded resigned.
Jen contemplated the trudge to Llangollen. They might as well call the whole thing off now, because after that they'd be in no fit state to continue tomorrow. "I can't believe this has beaten us!"
"Win some, lose some," said Darren.
Is that supposed to make me feel better? She suppressed an urge to hit him. He looked tired and bedraggled, and Charlie didn't look in much better condition - for the last few yards she had been limping badly.
Jen growled under her breath. Damn it! People in need, here.
She studied the window. The Youth Hostel was old, its woodwork warped and peeling. It might be possible … She began searching through her haversack.
"Um, Jen," said Charlie. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for the right tool," she said absently. "Aaah! Here it is." She pulled out her Swiss army penknife, selected the strongest blade, then advanced purposefully on the sash window.
"Hang on a minute!" squawked the blonde. "What are you -" A screech of wood drowned out her words as the window abruptly jerked a few inches upwards.
Yes! Jen eased her shoulder under the rim and heaved. The window slid up a little more … then a little more still. When she judged the gap was wide enough, she pulled herself up onto the ledge and wriggled through, in the process banging her ankle against a piece of furniture and sending whatever it was flying.
For a moment she remained where she'd landed, rubbing her stinging ankle and catching her breath. Then she stood up, felt her way gingerly to a wall and then along it until she found was she was looking for.
Jen clicked the light switch on, waited for her pupils to adjust to the sudden brightness, and thanked God that whoever owned the place hadn't thought to turn off the power at the mains when they left.
From the wellworn stoves and enamel sinks, three long pine tables and matching benches, that met her gaze, this was the Hostel kitchen. Jackpot! She smiled widely, trotted back to the open window, and poked her head through. "Are you two gonna stay outside getting wet or are you coming in?"
"Um, Jen," said Charlie hesitantly. "Isn't this breaking and entering?"
"We'll pay for the damages and anything we use while we're here."
"What with?" asked Darren, and Jen remembered that her credit cards and money were at home in her favourite handbag.
"We'll leave the owners a note and pay them later," she said impatiently. "Come on … or would you rather keep walking to Llangollen?"
Darren shrugged and looked at Charlie, who sighed. "OK," she said, and the next minute Darren and Jen were helping the younger woman squeeze through the gap.
When they were all inside, Jen tugged the sash window closed. She took off her mac, shook the rain from it, and draped it over a chair back, then turned, rubbing her hands together for warmth.
Charlie, didn't look her best, she noted with some concern. The smaller woman had pushed back her hood, and knocked her Dorothy wig askew in the process. Its pigtails were sodden, and mascara had smudged her flushed cheeks.
Hmmm. Got to get us warm quick.
There was a boiler in the corner of the kitchen and she crossed to it and examined it carefully. No pilot light.
She turned to the bedraggled man in the silver suit. "Darren, see if you can find the gas tap, will you."
He hesitated. "Umm … where …?"
"It's probably by the gas meter. Turn it on and then give me a yell. OK?"
"OK." Obediently, he trotted out of the kitchen.
"What shall I do?" asked Charlie between chattering teeth.
"We need to get something hot to eat and drink inside us." Jen began to open and shut the kitchen cupboards, searching for tins of food, but finding only saucepans and plates and cutlery. Well, they'd need those eventually.
Silently, Charlie joined in the search.
Ah, a tin opener. Good. Jen set the implement on a counter top.
"Gas is on," came Darren's faint cry.
She returned to the boiler, pulled the ignition lever and waited, mentally keeping her fingers crossed. Whoomph. A little blue flame - the pilot light - popped into existence; the boiler itself remained quiescent, though.
Conscious of Charlie's doleful gaze, she pursed her lip and thought for a moment. Of course. She crossed to the open doorway and yelled into the interior, "Darren."
"Find the heating controls. They're probably in an airing cupboard somewhere. Turn them to 'Hot Water And Heating' and put the timer on 'Constant'." Silence greeted her instructions. "You got that?"
"Got it," came the faint reply.
She shrugged and turned back into the kitchen, pleased to see that Charlie was now eagerly examining the labels on some tins stacked on a counter top.
"Baked beans," she told Jen. "Tomato soup."
"Good girl." The blonde seemed uncertain whether to grin or grimace at the remark. Jen suppressed a smile.
Abruptly, the boiler flared into life and a low hum of electric motors and gurgle of water through pipes told Jen the central heating system had come on. Good old Darren.
"Shouldn't be long now 'til things warm up." She grabbed the tin opener, opened the tins Charlie passed her, and poured their contents into saucepans. "Tomato soup, frankfurters, and baked beans. Not too shabby."
"I'll heat these up, shall I?" said Charlie, carrying the saucepans to one of the three stoves.
The question was clearly rhetorical, so while the blonde busied herself at the stove, Jen set about exploring the cupboards again. It was in the last one she found buried treasure.
Triumphantly, she displayed the catering tin of freeze-dried brown granules. "Coffee. But we'll have to drink it black."
The stove's gas jets and the rapidly warming radiators were steadily raising the temperature in the kitchen, and Jen thought that Charlie looked better already. The blonde's next words confirmed her guess.
"Can you keep an eye on these while I take my jacket off?"
Jen nodded and took Charlie's place by the stove. The aroma rising from the soup and simmering frankfurters made her stomach growl with hunger. Pity we don’t have any bread. I could murder a slice of toast …
Darren poked his head around the kitchen door. "Something smells nice."
Jen indicated the saucepans. He grinned and came eagerly towards her, but his path was blocked by Charlie, who having taken off her jacket and her wig (Her short blonde hair is a great improvement, thought Jen) now wanted her cook's job back. Jen was more than happy to oblige.
While Jen perched on a hard pine bench, waiting for their meal to finish heating, her thoughts ranged ahead. "When you were upstairs, Darren," she said, "did you notice if there was any bedlinen in the airing cupboard?"
He turned to her and nodded. "Sheets and blankets … that kind of stuff."
Good. She drummed her fingers on the table thoughtfully.
When no more questions were forthcoming, he turned back to the busily stirring Charlie. "Anything you want me to do?"
She pointed to the electric kettle Jen had earlier dug out of a cupboard. "How about some hot water for the coffee?"
"Sure." Darren filled the kettle from the cold tap and switched it on. By the time the water had boiled, Charlie was dishing out bowls of steaming soup.
The others took their places at the table with audible sighs of relief.
"I'm so glad to sit down," admitted Charlie. "My feet are killing me."
"Take your shoes off," said Jen through a mouthful of hot tomato soup.
Jen rolled her eyes. "We don’t mind, do we, Darren?"
He grinned and shook his head.
The sound Charlie made as she eased off first one ruby slipper then the other was unabashedly sensual, almost erotic, though she didn't seem to realise it. Darren blushed a beetroot red and Jen felt a bit warm herself.
If she makes noises like that when she takes her shoes off, I wonder … Resolutely, she pushed that thought away and concentrated on her food.
Charlie finished her soup before the others did, then fetched the plates of food she had left warming in the oven. When she had sat down again, she didn't wait for the others but dived straight in to the frankfurters and beans.
Jen had never seen food disappear so quickly. Well, maybe she had. There were those piranhas in that movie …
Charlie caught her look. "Hey, I'm hungry," she said indignantly.
She must be! thought Jen. Those frankfurters look disgusting, the beans are semi-congealed, and there's no trace of any trendy herbs or spices.
"Me too," said Darren, smacking his lips appreciatively and reaching for his share.
By the time they had finished their makeshift meal, and Darren had poured them each a black coffee, Jen was feeling a lot warmer. The food had stoked her internal furnace, and her woollen costume, which had been cold and clammy, was now warm and clammy.
Though the others hadn’t commented on it, she was sure they must be sick of the smell of wet wool. What she wouldn't give for a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. She ran a finger round the tight collar and sighed.
"What?" Charlie was gazing at her.
"Just wishing I had a change of clothes," she said. "This bloody lion suit itches."
"So does my wig," said Charlie.
"My hat's leaving a dent in my head," complained Darren, not to be outdone.
"I'm going to have serious words with Sam when I get back," said Jen. "Almost anything would have been a better choice of theme than this."
Charlie snorted. "Wallace and Gromit, perhaps?"
Jen raised an eyebrow at her. "At least that would have given me the perfect excuse to pig out on Wensleydale."
Darren frowned. "But that's only two characters. Who would I have been?"
"Sean the sheep," chorused Jen and Charlie. They burst into surprised laughter and grinned at one another.
She wrinkles her nose when she smiles, thought Jen. Cute.
Darren grimaced. "Don't talk to me about sheep … at least you two still have a change of underwear and your nighties." His eyes gleamed with sudden interest. " you do both wear nighties, don’t you?"
Charlie seemed uncertain how to answer this unexpectedly personal question, so Jen took up the challenge.
"That's for us to know and you to find out," she bared her teeth in a mock snarl, and tried not to laugh when Darren actually flinched. "And you won’t be finding out tonight because you're sleeping in the male dorm."
"Oh." He looked genuinely stricken.
A thought struck her. "I take it you did find some dorms upstairs?"
He nodded. "Oh yes. Several. They hold 6 people each. Bunk beds, unfortunately."
She shrugged. "I'm so tired I could sleep on a rock. … Come across any bathrooms?"
There was silence for a moment, then he said timidly. "You’re not really going to make me sleep all on my own, are you?"
Jen drummed her fingers on the table and glanced at Charlie, who merely shrugged unhelpfully. She sighed. "Do you promise to behave?"
"Ooh, of course!" Darren beamed her. "I'll be the perfect gentlemen. Scout's honour."
He saluted, but to Jen's gaze the gesture looked more like something Mr Spock might use than a Scout Master. She rolled her eyes and Charlie stifled a laugh then failed to stifle a yawn.
"What a day!" said the blonde woman.
"Yeah. The bedlinen should be warm by now and the water hot," said Jen, "so I suggest we each have a shower, then go to bed."
"Please," said Charlie feelingly.
Darren nodded his agreement.
"Good." Feeling a sudden craving to be free of the day's accumulation of grime and sweat, Jen got up; her calf muscles were already stiffening from all the unaccustomed walking, she noticed. Urk.
She carried the dirty dishes over to the sink and began to wash them. When Charlie couldn't find a tea-towel, Jen shrugged and said, "Just leave them to drain."
They tidied the kitchen as best they could, switched off the lights, and trooped upstairs. Darren pointed out a drying room where the airing cupboard was, and while the others helped themselves to sheet sleeping bags, pillowcases, and blankets - there were no towels, so they took some extra blankets to dry themselves with - Jen switched the heating controls to automatic.
There were four dormitories, so they picked the one that looked the most welcoming. Once the beds were made up - it was a while since Jen had stayed in a Youth Hostel but she hadn't forgotten how to tie sleeping bag tapes to bedcorners - they went looking for the showers. They were two sets of communal showers, and Jen briskly directed Darren to the men's, just in case he had any ideas about sharing theirs.
She found some precious dried scraps of soap in one hand basin and divided them equally between herself and Charlie.
"What about Darren?" asked the blonde.
Jen raised an eyebrow. "Do you want to take it into the men's showers?"
Charlie grimaced. "Good point!"
Jen turned on the nearest shower tap, then peeled off her costume and threw it to one side while she waited for the water to run hot. When the temperature was to her liking, she grabbed the fragments of soap and stepped into the hot spray.
After a momentary hesitation, Charlie followed her example.
Such a relief to be free of that itchy wool at last, thought Jen, as she soaped herself thoroughly and let the steaming water wash away the grime and ease the ache in her tired muscles. Bliss!
She became aware that Charlie was rushing her shower, and also that the other woman was carefully averting her gaze from Jen's nakedness. Is she shy? Or is it something more? She studied the other woman out of the corner of her eye.
Charlie's compact body was muscular and well-toned and Jen wondered briefly what sports she played or whether she simply worked out. Whatever she did, it was working … This was certainly not a young schoolgirl following the Yellow Brick Road!
Thinking of the Dorothy costume brought Jen's thoughts back to the ruby slippers and she dropped her gaze to Charlie's feet . Boy, those heels look sore.
She rinsed off the last of the lather, wrapped her dripping form in a blanket, and waited for Charlie to do the same. While Charlie was wringing the excess water from her hair, Jen stooped to examine the other woman's heels.
Charlie froze then regarded Jen curiously. "What are you doing?"
"Checking your feet," said Jen. She touched the tender red flesh gently but even so Charlie made a small sound and pulled away. "Sorry." Jen straightened. "You were right. You've got blisters." She thought for a moment. "I'll be right back."
It took her only moments to leave the shower room, jog along the corridor past a goggling, blanket clad Darren - the goggling was probably due to the fact her blanket had slipped; she hitched it up and winked at him - then pad downstairs to the kitchen.
Which cupboard was it in? She found what she was looking for on the second attempt. She opened the small green-and white box, checked it was fully stocked - it was - grabbed it, and hurried back upstairs.
The blonde was now wearing a pink 'repel all boarders' nightie - not very flattering, though Jen, but she'd be warm at least.
"Sit." She pointed to a chair.
A puzzled Charlie obeyed. Her puzzlement vanished when, with a flourish that threatened to set the blanket free again, Jen revealed the First Aid box.
"Aah." Relief showed in Charlie's green eyes.
It didn't take Jen long to spread Savlon over the other woman's blistered heels and then to put a sticking plaster carefully on top.
"That should help." She took the opportunity to admire the blonde's shapely calves and ankles.
"Thanks." Charlie reclaimed her feet, and stood up. "They feel better already."
"Wish I could do more." Jen straightened up too quickly and had to grab the errant towel again. "But you can't burst blisters … they might get infected."
She rummaged in her haversack for the T-shirt that doubled as her nightshirt, found it, then shucked her towel and put it on. An odd sound from Charlie made her look up. "Yes?"
"Um, nothing," said the blonde, who had turned her face away.
Jen shrugged. "Let's hang the costumes and wet blankets in the drying room," she said.
They traipsed barefoot along the corridor, draped the various components of their costumes over some hangers in the drying room and deposited their blankets over some heated rails, then headed for the bedroom.
As they drew nearer to the dorm, a tuneless whistling - Hmm. Is it meant to be 'Dancing Queen'? - grew louder and Jen exchanged a wry glance with Charlie. "Maybe we should have gone for single sex dorms after all, but it seemed so mean putting him on his own."
They went in tentatively, fearing the worst, but Darren, who was lying in a lower bunk bed, had fortunately pulled his blanket right up to his chin. He stopped whistling and sat up on one elbow. "There you are, ladies." He grinned amiably. "I won’t get up if you don’t mind … I haven't got any underpants on."
"Ew!" said Charlie. "Don’t remind us."
"And I'm no 'lady'," muttered Jen under her breath, earning herself a look from Charlie. She headed for the bunkbed she had chosen, and climbed easily up onto the top tier. Charlie, meanwhile, eased herself into a lower berth.
As Jen slid her feet into the opening of the flimsy sheet sleeping bag, she realized the dorm lights were still on. Great. She pulled her feet free, dropped lightly to the floor, and headed for the light switch. Then she turned and eyed her companions, both of whom seemed to be fascinated by her bare legs.
Hmmm. She tapped her fingernail pointedly against the lightswitch. "If you've seen everything you want, can I turn out the lights now?"
An unrepentant Darren yawned hugely. "You bet."
Charlie flushed and hurriedly rolled over onto her other side.
"I'll take that as a yes."
Jen switched off the light and felt her way gingerly towards her own bed, then clambered up to the top tier and eased herself into the sheet and blankets. Once settled comfortably, she sighed with pleasure. For the first time in a long time, she was fed, clean, and warm.
The faintest of snores was her only reply.
* * *
CONTINUED IN PART 2