The Price of Love

He knew he should not have had that last pint. Typically Richard had insisted when the landlord had called last orders and Simon`s brain had tried to make the rationale choice but the lure of more alcohol easily won the argument. Still he had just managed to catch the last bus home and get back to his flat just after midnight.

That was the least of his concerns at this moment. For some reason he always booted up his laptop when he got back from a drinking session. It was force of habit and a need for him to do something before he went to bed. He had just pressed the enter button on the keyboard and he knew there was no turning back now. He could not believe what he had just done. Still the combination of the tiredness and alcohol meant that he was somewhat numbed to the implications. He decided he would go to bed and think about it in the morning. It was a work day the next morning and he knew he was going to have a hangover.

The next morning Simon was not wrong. He had the mother of all hangovers when he awoke. He dragged himself to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He looked like hell. All he saw was a red bleary eyed image grimly staring back at him. He had looked better he thought. His hair was spilling out in all directions. Normally, with a little gel, there was a little semblance of order to the thick brown covering. Still a shower might help.

He felt a little better after his shower but his head stilled thumped a steady beat. After getting ready he drank a cup of thick black coffee with a couple of painkillers before he left for work. This was becoming his usual breakfast after a night on the beer. He barely took any notice on the commuter ride into the office preferring to catch up on the sleep that he had missed out on the night before.

It was only when he got off the train he thought back to the night before and realised what he had done. Now the worry and concern would set in. When really it should be excitement and anticipation. On the way to work he stopped at a newsagent to buy a copy of Rugby World. He might need this he thought.

When Simon arrived at the office Richard was already at his desk and knowing him had probably been there since 8 am. Simon knew that Richard`s powers of recuperation were second to none.

Richard looked up from his desk. His round freckled face grinned when he saw Simon. “Looks as though you had a rough night, Si!”

“Remind me next time not to go out with you on a work night again.” Simon replied as he made his way to his desk over beside a window.

Simon`s first priority was another coffee before he booted up his desktop computer. At the coffee machine he spotted Penny at her desk working. She was a nice dark haired girl who had moved into the area about 3 months ago. She was quiet but had a bubbly personality just under the surface he had discovered on the few occasions he had engaged her in conversation outside work. He liked her but did not have the courage to ask her out. Besides she still had a boyfriend in the South Midlands where she had moved up from.

“Er, how are you today, Penny?” he said, blurting out the first thing that came into his head. He could feel the blood rush to his facial area.

She looked up and studied him carefully. “Better than you look,” she said. A gentle smile spread over her face.

He liked her smile. His turn to stay something. Simon stumbled for his words. “Richard`s fault, leading me astray again,” he managed to force out looking in Richard`s direction and taking the attention away from his glowing face. He glanced and saw Penny smile again. That would help him get through the day he mused.

Simon went back to his desk with his hands tightly clamped around his coffee. His colour had returned to normal as he switched on his computer and saw Richard ambling over. All he wanted to do was try and get through the day with as little social interaction as he could he thought.

“We nearly scored with those two birds last night, Si?” He made sure he was overheard.

Simon thought we had as much chance of scoring with them as turning out for the England soccer team. Still he would humour Richard. “Shame their boyfriends were at the bar though,” he replied.

“I had some good chat up lines though, Si!” Richard liked to think of himself as a bit of a lady`s man. In reality he was as sad as Simon when it came to girls. He did have bluff and bravado on his side which is why Simon tagged along with Richard when he was out.

“You certainly were on tip top form,” Simon lied. They had a brief exchange of the highlights of the previous night before Richard wandered back to his desk.

Simon found it hard to concentrate on work. His thoughts were on last night and he visibly cringed the more he thought about it. He had been browsing an online auction website when he came across that advert. He had seen it two nights previous and knew he would look back to check out how it was going.

He could not really believe what was being auctioned. He had never seen the like of it before. Probably smacked of desperation he thought Not even worth a bid. Too risky and a complete waste of money.

When he had looked again last night he saw that there had been a lot of bidding activity. For and for some reason he had impulsively keyed in a maximum bid well above the most recent bid. He did not know why. Well, yes he did, a beer too many that gave him that extra bravado. Now he was the highest bidder, or at least he was last night. What if he won? He did not even know what exactly he was getting for his bid or whether he could pluck up the courage to go through with it. The auction finished at 8pm that night and that was the only thing on his mind. He just wanted to get through the day and watch the minutes tick down on the screen, not sure exactly what outcome he wanted.

At lunchtime he sat by himself trying to avoid conversation and reading the magazine he had bought on the way to work. Richard sat beside him briefly and asked why the sudden interest in rugby. Simon fobbed him off with some excuse and then went over to try to talk with Penny when he saw that Simon`s attention was elsewhere. Simon managed to get through the rest of the day.

On the way home he got himself a takeaway which he quickly consumed back at the flat before switching on his laptop. He navigated to the auction site to check on his bid. Simon did not know whether he was happy or not when he discovered he was still the highest bidder.

The clock was ticking away. He read the auction details one more time :

Hello potential bidders. I am female and 22 years old and live in Leeds. The successful bidder will be entitled to a blind date (hence no photo) with me at a public venue of their choice. They will need to pay all costs and expenses for the evening. As I am straight, this auction is open to males only in the age range 20-30.

Good luck with your bids.

Rugbygirl54

Sparse on detail Simon thought. Yet people had bid. He and they had no idea what she looked like. It all seemed a bit desperate. What sort of girl would subject herself to this type of auction he wondered. What must she look like? A multitude of questions buzzed through his mind. What about the bidders themselves including me? He tried to console himself with the fact he had not taken a girl out in 11 months. But that did not make him feel any better. It did sounded as if she might be into sport or rugby at least. Did that mean she was fit? His imagination shifted up a gear and was really working overtime now.

He looked at the auction clock ticking down. Two minutes to go. Someone was bound to put in a last minute bid. That always happened to him. Forty five seconds to go and then that fateful message came through – You have been outbid!

Simon felt some relief at first but then disappointment. He would not have to go through with it. Twenty seconds left – he decided quickly he would put in another bid. This would be nearly a months salary but what the hell it was only money. Quickly he keyed the amount in. Two seconds. He pressed the enter.

Almost instantaneously came the message – Congratulations, you have been successful with your bid!

He had done it now he thought, no turning back. He quickly made the payment through the auction site and did not have to wait long for an email to come through from the seller. It simply read :

Congratulations Macho-Man1534 on your successful bid. Thank you for your payment. I will leave it to you to arrange the details of our date and look forward to hearing from you.

Rugbygirl54

Of all the auction nickname he could of chosen, what possessed him to choose that one. Maybe it was the fact he was going to the gym at the time. So cheesy, but there must have been 1533 others he thought with the same idea. This offered him some reassurance.

He decided to reply straight away while he was on a roll. Quickly he typed :

Hi Rugbygirl54

Let`s meet in the Red Lion near the bus station in the town centre at 8pm tomorrow night.

Macho-Man1534

He pressed the enter button and then worried about how he would recognise her. He need not have bothered. The reply came back :

Hello Macho-Man1534

Perfect. I`ll be wearing a pink T shirt with black jeans. I will have a pink shoulder bag. So hopefully, recognisable.

See you tomorrow night.

Rugbygirl54

No backing out now he thought. He could not concentrate on anything else the rest of that night and at work the next day.

So it was now Friday night and he had just walked through the main door into the Red Lion bar with a certain amount of hesitance. He had forgotten how busy this place got on a Friday night. There were people all around him as he pushed his way to the bar.

He tried to peer past the melee of people but was finding it difficult and wished he had thought more carefully about the venue and picked somewhere more quieter. He heard the loud tones of what sounded like Richard off to his side near the bar despite the constant beat of the music all around. . Yes it was him, the last person he wanted to see. He knew if Richard saw him he would want to come over and see what he was up to especially as he had declined a Friday night drinking session earlier in the day.

Simon quickly veered off in the other direction. Was that Penny in another corner. He could not see who she was with but suddenly he went into panic mode. Too many people he knew here. He should of gone for a meeting place. Too late now or was it? In that instance he decided to head back towards the entrance.

He heard a voice above the crescendo of noise call out to him and turned around to see Penny making her way towards him. Too late he thought.

“Hi Simon, or should I say Macho-Man?” she said with a glint in her eye. Had he heard her right? Then he noticed she had a pink bag and it all became clear.

“It`s you, I mean Rugbygirl. How did you know it was me?”

“Well Richard does have a big mouth and I think he might have mentioned that nickname of yours when I first arrived. If you remember he was always trying to chat me up until he eventually got the message.

When I saw you reading that rugby magazine the other day I had a little inkling but couldn`t be sure.” she said.

“Right. So you like rugby?”

“No, I hate it. The rugby connection – well you know I`m from the South Midlands. Well our family home is in Rugby.”

Realisation suddenly sunk in for Simon. While he was on a roll he thought he had better ask that awkward question, “What about your boyfriend?” He winced as he spoke.

“It`s all right. We split up just after I moved here.”

Simon`s stance relaxed as Penny words came out. A big smile spread over his face.

Penny looked around and asked, “It`s a bit noisy in here Simon, besides Richard …”

“That would be a great idea,” Simon interrupted. “I know a place just down the road.” Definitely worth a month`s salary he thought as he gently reached for Penny`s hand and led her towards the door.

Short Fiction Story

RECURRING DAWNS

It was morning again and I tentatively looked at my bedside clock. The bright digital number display read 6.57am. However it was the date that my eyes were drawn to. It was Tuesday 17 April, the same date as yesterday, and I knew it was happening all over again.

It had been 12 weeks now and I had awoken at precisely the same time on each of these mornings. The date was always the same and I knew exactly what events would unfold during the course of the day.

As I ate breakfast the same tunes played out in sequence on the radio. It was the same breakfast news report as yesterday and the day before that. I knew the train would be precisely 8 minutes late and so I left the house later than usual.

I had tried varying my routine after that first week to see if that would alter the course of events that would unfold and break this spell that was cast over me. At the end of the day I`d lie in anticipation in my bed at night waiting for the morning to arrive . Dozing finally in the early hours I would always awake to the inevitable. Same time, same date. No matter how I varied my routine it was always the same the next morning. I even tried not going to work but that made no difference.

As I walked to the railway station I knew with a mechanical precision who I would see. There was the man walking his two dalmatians in the park both tugging their owner along. The boy with his kite blowing in the wind. It would fall to the ground as the wind calmed. The dogs would chase it. All of this was like clockwork.

I got to the railway station. The platform was almost devoid of people which took me by surprise. The station clocked changed to 8.12am. I saw a station attendant and walked over to him.

“Has the 8.04 arrived yet?”

“Yes son, it was on time and left a few minutes ago”

“Thanks” I retorted, not quite believing what had happened.

I had missed my train because I`d assumed it would be late as it had been every other morning for the past few weeks. I could hardly contain my elation.

I decided to stay at home today and phoned work to explain I`d been up all night. it must have been something I`d eaten. I hurried home. Switching on the radio in my kitchen I listened intently for any differences in the days news reports. An air crash in northern China. This had not been reported in the preceding weeks. At last it was over.

That night for the first time in weeks I slept soundly. I awoke with a start the next morning and looked at the clock. 7.04am. I smiled, but then saw the date, it was Tuesday 17 April.

Another travel article …

A WEEKEND RETREAT TO BEAUTIFUL ULLSWATER

FOR those that like scenic breaks and the healthy outdoors, I can think of no better place to spend a weekend than in Ullswater. It is truly a lake of great beauty which attracts visitors from all around the world. It was this tranquil setting which inspired William Wordsworth`s to write the famous “Daffodils” poem.

It is England`s second largest lake and set in the north easterly corner of the beautiful Lake District National Park in Cumbria. Adjacent to its shores are the villages of Glenridding, Pattedale and Pooley Bridge. Close to Patterdale looms Helvellyn, the third highest peak in England. The remnants of a recent high level snowfall cling on to its upper reaches.

My hotel was in Glenridding, the Inn on the Lake, and it is in a perfect location right by the lakeside with superb views of the peaks and the lake to wake up to. The gravel paths from the hotel wind their way towards the lake through the ornamental lawn areas. Antique lamp posts line the path and no doubt are a useful lure for the insect life at night. Bunches of daffodils poke their way through the green lawn. A small wooden jetty reaches into the lake and a guest`s yacht is moored up alongside The protective awning provides some protection against the elements. On the lake, yachts majestically glide along the water, carving their mark on the water’s surface. The resultant ripples encourage the lapping waves to to encroach further up the shore line.

Glenridding village was busy with the hustle bustle of walkers and climbers who take a welcome respite before their assault on the peaks the area has to offer. The tourist information centre is fully occupied by people searching through the information packs to take in details of the local sights and activities and also the opportunity to purchase a trusty souvenir to take back home. Greystones coffee shop welcomes walkers to take on refreshments before embarking on their travels. A shuffle board inside the cafe provides a distraction from the sweet and savoury treats on offer.

Located nearby are the Ullswater “Steamers” which are an ideal way of seeing the lake with minimal effort, although they are also useful to ferry walkers to the start points of many of the walks in the area. These vessels run all year round (except for 24 and 25 December). In addition they run private charter packages for any occasion. Stopping points aside from Glenridding are Howtown and Pooley Bridge.

There is one walk to do while you are here and it is probably one of the best lakeside walks in England. First you need to make sure you have a good pair of boots as the terrain is undulating and rocky in places. Walking poles will help with some parts of the walk and in any event take the strain off your knees. A waterproof is also a must as the weather can change very quickly in this area. The day I chose was sunny and I took a picnic – the hotel did a very nice one with no effort from me.

I did forget to pack my map but the “Steamer” office on Glenridding pier has single sheet paper copies describing the walk which are detailed. However, I would always recommend having a map as a back up. From here you take the ferry to Howtown, a small hamlet midway across the lake on the south shore.

The views on the walk are mouthwatering, looking across the lake, which enclosed by the mountain peaks. The area has it`s fair share of Herdwick sheep or “Herdies” that are native to this part of the country. There also plenty of plenty of wild fauna to take in. Swans and ducks are scattered on stretches of the lake with the occasional Steamer passing by. There were not many walkers out and the scene was quiet aside from the bird life and the occasional cry of a Herdie.

The walk itself takes a little bit of effort but you can complete it in about 4 hours at a leisurely pace and also with time to take in that picnic you packed. There are plenty of lakeside spots from which to enjoy the view while munching through the hidden delights of a picnic you haven`t prepared yourself. An exhilarating walk and the chance to finish off with a beer at the Ramblers Bar before getting ready for dinner.

My stay was short but well worth it and I must book another visit to this area sometime soon!

Where I stayed
The Inn on the Lake, Glenridding. http://www.lakedistricthotels.net/innonthelake/index.php
An excellent hotel right by the lakeside. The lake view bedrooms are to die for. The food and service was first class and they also offer a number of special deals all year round.

Transport on the Lake
Ullswater Steamers – full details can be found on their website at http://www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk/

The Walk
Howtown to Glenridding “Streamer” walk – 7 miles, moderate. Further details together with other walks at http://www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk/about-us/things-to-do/walks.htm

Other places to visit close by
Pooley Bridge which is on the Steamer route. It is a busy village catering mainly for the tourist trade.

Further afield are Penrith, Keswick, Ambleside and Windermere all worth visiting.

SALZBURG : CHRISTKINDLMARKT MAGIC!

This is a short non fiction piece I did on one of my favourite cities.

SALZBURG : CHRISTKINDLMARKT MAGIC!

THERE is nothing quite like the atmosphere of an Austrian Christmas market. It a fresh crisp, clear day and it’s time to get into that festive spirit – after all this is Salzburg and the Christmas market here has over 500 years of tradition to uphold!

A winter trip to Salzburg is a joy to behold at this time of year. For those planning a 2012 trip the main market opens in earnest on 22 November and extends right through to 26 December – plenty of time to fit that essential Christmas shopping trip in for those Austrian gifts and specialities that are just a little different from back home. The bonus is you get to soak up this great festive atmosphere as well.

Salzburg (Salt-Castle) is steeped in history and tradition and renowned for its baroque and gothic architecture. The old town centre has some delightful and pretty squares. Being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, you can hear snatches of his distinctive melodies as you explore the narrow streets of the city. There are reminders of this world renowned composer all around  you.  Mozart`s birthplace is a distinctive yellow building on the Getreidegasse which is the main shopping area.

The river Salzach, which runs through the city, has an icy green hue to it  which comes from the limestone deposits that the waters flow through as they descend from the glaciers. The Hotel Sacher stands in all its glory on the banks of the river and is worth a visit by chocolate lovers to sample and purchase its famous Sacher Torte – a speciality chocolate cake that was first made in 1832. I definitely must stop by there on the way back to the hotel!

My first stop after leaving the hotel is to one of the many little coffee shops for that essential Austrian speciality – coffee and cake. The Cafe Würfel Zucker (http://www.wuerfelzucker.at/) is the one that lures me in and is tucked away in the corner of  the Sternbräugasthof Courtyard off Getreidegasse. There is an assortment of cakes and tasty snacks to whet the appetite. The cafe is frequented by locals and the service is both personal and friendly – the owner even recognises me as one of his regular tourist visitors to his establishment. I enjoy my favourite Austrian dessert apfelstrudl washed down with one of the many fine coffees he has to offer.

Having been suitably refreshed, I am ready to make my way to the main Christmas market along the narrow streets. The market is situate on the Cathedral and Residence Squares.

There are approximately 100 wooden specially designed market stalls. Wares on display include a variety of festive crafts, confectionery, gingerbread items, jewellery, figurines for the nativity scene, toys, sheepskin items and clothing to name but a small selection. There is a general buzz about the place with plenty festive cheer all around as I weave my way past the shoppers.

It is mid morning and the atmosphere is just starting to build. Whilst the most common language you hear is German, there are the sounds of many other nationalities that resonate from all around you. A group of Japanese tourists pause for a photo call in front of me each with their shiny camera equipment in hand. They smile and are enthusiastic for the sights and sounds around them.

Next to the cathedral I can see a group of Peruvian pipe musicians piping out their soothing notes – a smiling audience is starting to gather around.

The smell of cinnamon and Christmas spices is in the air. A waft of sweet smelling  roasted almonds attracts my attention and I happily hand my euros over for this temptation. With warm bag in hand I take in the sights around me.

Towering majestically over the market is the distinctive Hohensalzburg Fortress. This medieval castle has taken shape over many years. You can best enjoy this sight by taking the funicular railway (Festungsbahn) up to the fortress – for those of a more energetic disposition there is a path that winds its way up the steep incline. But beware — only the brave attempt this!

Aside from exploring the history of the fortress, the views from the top are breathtaking as you have an excellent view of the city of Salzburg and the surrounding areas. The Salzach can clearly be seen snaking its way through the city. There is a cafe at the top where you can pause and reflect on the scene below you. For those with children there is a marionette museum to explore and learn a little about the history of puppetry in this region. There is also another small Christmas  market within the fortress walls. However this is only open on certain days over the Christmas period. So be sure to check out the opening times beforehand.

If you descend back down using the Festungsbahn, there is a large amber jewellery collection at the station exit to view and purchase from. From here you can head back down to the market.

Once back in the market you can snack at a wide range of food stalls to suit your palate and personal taste. These range from a wide variety of pretzels, sandwiches, German sausages, sweet treats and other gastronomic delights. I have to have my favourite when in Austria – a bosna, which is a bratwurst sausage in a bun with onions and a blend of ketchup, mustard and curry powder. This really is tasty! I wash this down with a mug of mulled wine (gluhwein) from one of the many stalls. Eating and drinking in the crisp, cold air with all the festive hustle and bustle is hard to beat!

For Sound of Music lovers there are a number of locations in close proximity to explore. These include St Peter`s Cemetery, the Residence Square and the fabulous Mirabell Palace and Gardens. It is interesting to note most locals will not have seen the movie. The movie does distort Austrian history and culture but is a major reference point to Austria for many visitors from all over the world. You could even join one of the many Sound of Music coach trips provided for the visitors.

It is also worth experiencing the horse-drawn carriage ride through the city centre which will help in getting your bearings. The carriage drivers will normally do their best to point out the main sights and attractions with some of the history behind these.

Tonight is really special night at the markets as the Krampus are in town! They are making their yearly appearances at the markets. These are mythical creatures and accompany Saint Nicholas in warning and punishing naughty children so the story goes. This doesn`t sound very Christmas-like but is great fun and generates plenty of excitement in the market. The beast-like creatures have Germanic folklore roots and are popular visitors to the market and the adjacent areas. The locals and tourists take great delight in seeing the bands of Krampus that walk the streets despite their horrific appearance. I snap a few photos which will be an interesting talking piece for when I get home.

The sound of a choir can be heard from the steps of the cathedral, a different one each evening. The sound is delightful and reinforces that yuletide feeling which pulsates in the market from the sights, sounds and smells which are all around. I can`t help feeling Christmas has finally arrived!

The evening is drawing to a close and locals have gathered at many of the markets’ watering holes with mugs of gluhwein in hand to warm their spirits. The banter is happy and high spirited in nature.

The ice rink near the market area is ablaze with lights. Skaters whizz around the circuit, some with expert confidence, others however with deliberate and robotic movements. It is time to make my way back to the hotel for the night.

Here’s to my next trip to this festive land!

Travel Tips

The official website for the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt gives a lot of detail about the markets and can be found at http://www.christkindlmarkt.co.at/index.html . Don`t worry if your German isn`t great, there is the option to translate to English on the website.

Apart from the main Christmas market in the old town, there are smaller markets in front of the Mirabell Castle, Hohensalzburg Fortress, St Peter`s Monastery, Sternbräu Courtyard and nearby Hellbrun Castle, just south of Salzburg.

There are regular flights to Salzburg offered by British Airways – prices and further flight details can be obtained from their website.

I stayed at a lovely hotel, the Wolf Dietrich, which is approximately 10 minutes walk from the main market located in the old town.

To sample some excellent Austrian cuisine why not try the Zum Eulenspiegel for its traditional dishes and authentic local atmosphere.

Details of both can be found at :

http://www.salzburg-hotel.at/en
http://www.zum-eulenspiegel.at/en