Authors: Jane Costello
For Joy Wolstenholme
Some things just don’t work together. Chocolate and teapots. Straw and houses. Lead and balloons. Now I’ve discovered another combination to add to the list: high
heels and the Lake District.
If we were tourists, we’d be forgiven for dressing like this to negotiate a landscape that’s timeless, rugged and catastrophically ill-suited to four-inch strappy numbers. But my
friends and I are not tourists: Cate and I have lived here for ever and Emily long enough to know better.
I should stress that we wouldn’t ordinarily come out like this. Normally, you couldn’t pick us out from lots of other women in their early thirties around here, the ones in slouchy
tops, boho prints, combats, cut-offs and, an occasional necessity, given our changeable weather, waterproof jackets.
But Cate was convinced a different approach was required where we’re heading tonight on a warm spring evening. And for a reason I can’t quite remember, Emily and I listened to her.
So, blossom-cheeked and perspiring, we teeter up one of Bowness’s steepest hills, the vast blue-grey ribbon of Windermere behind us.
‘Just so you know, Cate, even if I end up enjoying this, I’m not wearing these shoes again,’ I tell her.
‘They’re dancing shoes. What were you expecting to wear – trail boots?’ she grins.
‘Converse would’ve done,’ I protest.
‘Oh, Lauren – not for
.’ The last two words are delivered in an unconvincing Latin American twang and accompanied by a J-Lo-style bum wiggle. I struggle not
The reason we’re en route to the class, on this evening in spring, is because a regular customer at Cate’s florist’s shop in Ambleside asked her to put a card in her window
this week. It read: ‘
LEARN TO SALSA DANCE
Experience the red-hot vibes of Latin America right here in Lakeland. Beginners and singles welcome.
Thanks to recent events, all three of us fall into both categories.
Which is why, despite the fact that I’m absolutely
on my way to meet the man of my dreams – I’ve already met him, even if I’m nothing more than a friend in
his eyes – Cate has dragged me along tonight, when I’m not even remotely in the mood to mambo.
‘I have to admit, Lauren,’ says Emily, ‘the shoes suit you. They’re gorgeous.’
‘What did I say? They’re fantastic,’ Cate adds, satisfied. She said the same about the false eyelashes she persuaded me to try out tonight, for the first time in my life. It
feels as though my eyelids have been smothered in Pritt Stick and adorned with a catatonic tarantula.
‘Fantastic or not, the chances of me being able to dance in them are slim, given that I can barely walk in them,’ I say.
Emily, I hasten to add, didn’t need the false eyelashes. The eyelashes nature has bestowed on her – just like
feature nature has bestowed on her, from her luminous
blue eyes to her translucent skin – are already beautiful.
Nobody could begrudge her though, since Em is one of those rare creatures who are unequivocally lovely inside and out – something that was immediately apparent when I first met her four
years ago, after she moved in next door to Cate’s old place in Windermere. It’s not only that she’s easy to get along with, she’s just incredibly
: the kind of
friend who sends cupcakes for your birthday, texts after a night out to check you’re home safely, and doesn’t even flinch when a check-out girl presses
to the question
Is the customer obviously over 25?
If that isn’t evidence of a soul entirely devoid of ego then I don’t know what is.
‘What time does this go on until?’ she asks now. ‘Only I’ve got to be up at six tomorrow morning to take a group of Americans up Helvellyn and Striding Edge.’
Emily is originally from Derbyshire, but for the last four years has worked as a mountain leader for Windermere Adventures, taking hikers up some of England’s most challenging fells.
She’s passionate about her job and entirely at home on the most treacherous crags, even those with names like ‘Bad Step’ and ‘Sharp Edge’, which as far as I’m
concerned might as well be called ‘Best Stay at Home With a Nice Cup of Tea’. She can turn her hand to everything from gorge scrambling to wild camping, for which there is an unfeasibly
large demand. She’s basically Bear Grylls, but with nicer hair.
‘Are they aware of the torrential rain that’s forecast?’ I ask.
‘No idea. Nobody ever enjoys it less when it rains anyway though.’ She’s apparently being serious.
‘If you say so, Em.’
‘I’ll prove it to you – if I ever manage to get you up a mountain with me one day, Lauren.’ She’s aware the likelihood is minimal. I’ve lived here all my life
and, although I’d only ever whisper this, have never wavered from the view that the mountains are best appreciated from a distance.
‘To answer your question, the class itself lasts for an hour,’ Cate says. ‘But then there’s a “social” afterwards, when we get to dance with all the gorgeous,
single blokes who will
Em and I flash each other a look.
Em’s been single for a couple of months, having finally split up with a guy called Beck who was working in a hiking shop in Grasmere; she’d been seeing him on and off since last New
Year. She’d made the schoolgirl error of assuming that being surrounded by crampons and camping stoves automatically made him the action-man type she always goes for, until she worked out
that she never actually saw him
. Not ever. The most dynamic thing he ever did was getting up to go to the bar in the Golden Rule, where he’d apparently set up long-term
In Cate’s head, the fact that Emily has been single for a couple of months, that she herself has been single for around the same time and that I’ve been single for so long there is
virtually rust in my knickers . . . means that we
At times like these, it’s just easier to humour her, not least because I can’t claim I’d usually be doing anything more exciting on a Tuesday evening – unless you count
marking Key Stage 2 literacy tests for the primary school where I teach.
‘Why didn’t we just drive here?’ I ask, as we leave the outskirts of the town behind us and cross the road towards the Moonlight Hotel.
‘Because it’s launch night and there are free margaritas.’
‘How many people are going to be there?’ asks Emily. ‘I just want to know if I’ll be able to slip easily into the background.’
‘Marion, the salsa teacher, is expecting forty or fifty. But for the record, you won’t need to slip anywhere,’ Cate insists, pushing her short blonde bob behind the four
piercings in her ear. I used to have a couple myself in my late teens but Cate’s never fully grown out of her alternative phase and never really wants to. ‘Nobody’s expecting you
to be any good on the first lesson – none of us will be.’
As we crunch up the driveway, the pale stone towers of the hotel rise up above a watery sunset.
When I was growing up, I had a vague awareness of four types of holiday establishments here in the Lakes: campsites for the walkers; pubs for the walkers soft enough to want a hot shower;
chintzy guest-houses overflowing with paper doilies; and grand, old-fashioned establishments like the Moonlight Hotel, with heart-stopping views, abundant history and gingerbread high teas served
in bone china cups.
In recent years, much of the National Park’s accommodation has been renovated for a younger, trendier, distinctly fussier market. But some of those older places have been frozen in time,
refusing to relinquish their floral curtains and drag themselves into the twenty-first century. The Moonlight Hotel is one of them. And I’m glad.
It’s nothing to do with the aforementioned floral curtains, but because this is not just any old hotel to me. It’s part of my childhood, the backdrop to my most precious memories
– of long summer holidays making dens in its gardens and mischief in the kitchens on the pretence of helping to wash up.
So despite the fact that I’m not here often these days – I’ve popped in with Mum for a tea a handful of times in the last five years – when I push through the door into
reception, a rush of familiarity engulfs me.
Everything, from the austere oak walls and imposing reception desk, is exactly the same as it always was, only a bit quieter. Any evidence of throngs of people arriving for a riotous night of
Latin-style hip-swivelling is thin on the ground.
Cate pulls out a business card from her purse. ‘It definitely says the Moonlight Hotel, every Tuesday. Let’s see if one of the staff can shed any light.’ She pings an aluminium
bell, or at least tries to. It sticks a couple of times, before responding with an unexpectedly loud
A middle-aged woman with thick glasses and slightly greasy hair appears looking so stressed out you’d think she was on the trading floor of Wall Street. She isn’t someone I
recognise, although most of the staff who were around when I was a child have long gone. It’s clear she has no time for pleasantries, so we’re simply directed to the Lake Room at the
back of the hotel. Not that I needed directing.
The door is firmly shut and it’s deadly quiet when we reach it. Then suddenly, the throb of music bursts out from behind the door.
‘There you go,’ Cate declares. ‘The red-hot vibes of Latin America – as promised.’
She turns the knob and flings open the door, and we stand mutely, surveying the room while our eyes begin to water with the volume. It’s fair to say this was not what we were expecting.
Apart from one couple and the teacher, we’re literally the only ones here.
‘You came – excellent!’ cries the woman I can only assume is Marion as she battles with the remote control from a music system, flings it down, then hurtles
across the empty room. ‘Come on in. Don’t be shy!’
When I was a little girl, this grand room reminded me of the one in
The Sound of Music
, but it was only much later that I found out the house was built in 1895 as the private residence
for an Austrian baroness – although what she was doing in the north of England I couldn’t tell you. To my young and untrained eye, this was the kind of room where balls should be held,
where elegant ladies should swish across the floor in silk gowns and white gloves.