Getting there from Merseyside, for a start, is a leisurely four hour drive through the green hills and cow-parsley – a rural cocktail of a drive: once you pass the Chester Business Park there is almost no industry, just old farmhouses set at wonderful sideways-on-angles to the road, and a buzzard slamming up from the hedgerow as if no car had been a long this stretch of the A483 for years, and hog roast pork rolls from a small roadside van outside somewhere just south of Llandridrod Wells (ok – my map and iPhone reading had taken me a little off track); three glamorous chestnut roans posing like arty equine beauty queens in a steep drop of a field. And, finally, even cliffs, bluffs, softly monstrous, and high sheep pastures rolling down into riverbed valleys. My little Polo struggled for the last 20 miles, and we had to use first gear to arrive at The Dunn Cow*, my home for the night. And oh, that cow, dear reader, was certainly done.
It was mid-afternoon and the village was still and very hot and silent. The Dunn Cow was ancient and respectable looking. I did notice some stuff in the car park out back but I blanked it, and headed inside, to the cool stone interior: it was hot, I’d been driving for more than three hours.
The Cow was empty but for two figures, perhaps man and wife, one missing some teeth, the other, with floribunda eyebrows, had the figure of Friar Tuck. They both had on dun coloured clothing of an indeterminate nature – trousers – jackets. They were both drinking newly full pints of scrumpy. The Friar Tuck indeterminate went to get my key and came back huffing. The toothless indeterminate knew too well what that huff meant.
‘Has he gone?’
‘Oh dear,’ I said. ‘Have they taken it?’
‘It’s all right,’ said Huffy, ‘There’s a spare.’ (Giving it to me) ‘Room 5. Upstairs, end of the corridor.’
‘See if the key is in the lock’ said Toothless to me. They were both staying with the scrumpy. It was a sort of order.
Let me advise you, if you ever go to The Dunn Cow, not to accept Room 5. It is situated above the kitchen and smells of old warm fat, fat that has never really cooled, never been strained off, never been replaced, a warm ancient indeterminate grease of a smell. As I entered the room that penetrating smell of warm cooking grease was present but not too overpowering. I thought it would be bearable. Inside the room everything was of the poorest quality – lamps, small and dim, beds cheap and thin, carpet thin and cheap, the walls, the doors, the curtains were thin, the bedding – clean, yes, but heavy with the smell of grease. And finally, the door wouldn’t lock – but it was only for one night. I opened the window and the smell flew at me, talons outstretched.
My greasy window:
My beautiful view:
I went downstairs and fortified myself with a half pint of cider. Toothless had gone but indeterminate huffer was there and when I asked for something in the cider line, offered me a taste of it. I swear he turned his back to me and drank some of it before giving it to me (as if he feared it might be off and wanted to make sure it wasn’t) but this seemed so enormously and unacceptably odd – even in The Dunn Cow – that I had to tell myself that it had not happened. He did not put a small splash of cider into a spirit glass, turn his back to me, surreptitiously taste it, and then hand me the glass. Even in this Cow, that wouldn’t be done, would it? The long hot drive had me hallucinating!
The event at Hay was a delight – Sold Out! Sold Out! We took photos of the sold out sign with Dave Fearnley’s Mum:
The audience seemed interested and asked good questions. Benna, an intelligent and lovely psychologist, interviewed Dave, Blake Morrison and myself and had done her research. A lot of people wanted to talk to us afterwards. I gave away all my books, copies of The Reader, forms, print-offs and business cards and left with a light basket and a lighter heart.
And turned back towards The Dunn Cow where grease conditions had worsened. My room was thick and awash with it, lapping, choking. I went downstairs to ask for a change of rooms but the Cow was full to bursting.
‘I’ve finished cooking now,’ said the indeterminate. ‘It should clear. Don’t open the window, it’ll come in worse. Open the fire escape outside your room, open your room door, create a through draught… that should clear it. It depends which way the wind is blowing.’
It’s the way he offers this culinary-meteorological certainty from his barstool that gets me. He’s not giving up his scrumpy time for a bit of a whiff of grease. I’m dreading my breakfast! What can I do but ask for a double whisky and go to open the fire escape?
*I don’t know what cowardliness or kindness prevents me naming the true name of this hostelry. The public is unlikely to stumble upon The Dunn Cow, and if the public did, it would quite likely think ‘I’m not going in there. It looks too down at heel, I do not like the old washing machines in the car park nor the immersion heaters leaning against the outbuilding. No’, the sensible public would say, ‘I’ll give this Cow a miss. I’ll go on’. But this being Hay, and Thursday, I went in, because I did not think there would be a ‘on’ to go to: for miles around there’s scarce a bush that some literary festival goer isn’t sheltering under.