It was the time of year when Ulysses liked to plan the Annual Expedition. As a result, the dining room was redesignated as the Campaign Room, and holiday catalogues thumped down from the letterbox onto the doormat in a constant stream.
Philomena ate her breakfast in the kitchen – a soft-boiled egg, and buttered toast soldiers – and got on with her morning writing. After an hour, just when she was thinking about a fresh cup of tea, there was a polite tap on the glass of the kitchen door.
‘Hello Bertie, you’re up bright and early.’
‘I’m taking a leaf out of your book,’ Bertie gave Philomena an affection peck on the cheek. ‘Uncle U. asked me to help out with the watering while you were both away.’
A series of muffled thumps and expostulations came from the dining room. Bertie and Philomena exchanged a look Ulysses had never seen.
‘How’s it going?’ Bertie said.
Philomena refilled the kettle and laid out two more cups. ‘Don’t get me wrong, Bertie, I love our holidays, I jut don’t understand why, every year, it takes your uncle two weeks to prepare for a fortnight away. It does get tiresome.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘No idea!’ Philomena said cheerfully. ‘Never do. Last year it was Angkor Wat, the year before, we went to Brighton. I like surprises, and Ulysses likes the preparation.’ A look of puzzled despair crossed her face. ‘I’ve no idea why.’
Bertie’s latest ‘How To’ book had been all about confronting fear of the unknown. ‘I’ll go and ask him.’
‘You might get barked at,’ Philomena said as Bertie put his hand on the dining room doorknob.
‘But he won’t bite me, will he, aunty?’ Bertie said.
‘Oh, he doesn’t bite, dear.’
Bertie closed the door behind him.
Alone in the hall, Philomena smiled at some private memory. ‘Not hard,’ she said under her breath.
The dining table had been extended to its full extent. It was covered in several maps, taped together at the edges, and the maps were covered in a scatter of little cubes of cheese, each with a black or green olive pinned to it by one of those little paper flags children use on sandcastles at the seaside. Two high wooden easels flanked the fireplace, one supported a cork board covered in neat rows of pinned notes, the other a whiteboard covered in a multicoloured spider chart of circled words joined by different coloured lines.
Lord Ulysses Plott was using his mobile phone. As soon as he saw Bertie, he beamed happily, and waved him into the room.
‘10:47 hours departure, 15:53 arrival, local time, five hours, six minutes, elapsed. Splendid.’ Ulysses’ vast, white moustaches wafted up and down with his enthusiasm. ‘Marvolio, effendi, uber-cooperando! I genuflect across time and space.’
Conversation over, Ulysses slipped his phone into his waistcoat pocket, beside his pocket watch. ‘Helps to speak a bit of the lingo,’ he said. ‘It’s only polite. Learn a lot from other languages, you know. English may be wonderful, but so are Arabic and Chinese, and so on.’
‘So this is where you’re going?’ Bertie examined the maps.
‘Yes, but don’t tell Philly. Mum’s the word.’
‘Cross my heart,’ Bertie said earnestly.
‘Splendid.’ Ulysses plucked one of the flags off the map, slid the cheese cube and olive off the stick and popped them into his mouth. ‘Not going there, no time. Now. This watering you’re doing. Forget the garden, just do the tree ferns in the conservatory and keep an eye on the orchids. They should be fine, I’ve put them in the bath, damp and cool. Questions?’
‘I’ve been talking to aunt Philly,’ Bertie said.
‘Oh. Ha-humph, have you, indeed?’
Bertie held open the door. ‘I don’t have a question, but she does.’
‘Oh dear,’ Ulysses looked quite crestfallen. ‘Oh my.’
Back in the kitchen, Philomena had laid out tea for three, including a plate of buttered muffins. Ulysses sat down with a heavy sigh. Feeling like an intruder, Bertie joined them.
‘Lissy, it’s just that I don’t understand why you do all this holiday preparation,’ Philomena said.
‘I just like to get things straight in advance. No hitches, nothing unexpected. Holidays should be spontaneous, and fun. That takes hard work and planning.’
‘I do appreciate that, my dear, but does it have to be the same every year?’
Ulysses brow furrowed like a freshly ploughed field. He sat back and folded his arms. ‘I don’t see what’s the problem.’
Philomena turned her head and looked out of the window.
The silence became collar-tightening. These are my favourite relatives, Bertie thought. I dug this hole, I’d better get them out of it.
‘Uncle, how do you write your books?’ Bertie said.
‘What? I plan, I design, I take notes. No writing until I get too excited by all the ideas. Weeks of work before pen hits paper.’
‘The same way you plan your holidays?’
‘Absolutely.’ Ulysses looked at Philomena out of the corner of his eye. ‘It’s not the only way, but I like it.’
‘I agree there’s nothing wrong with it. Aunt Philly, how about you?’ Bertie said.
‘If you put it that way, I suppose I’m guilty too. I get a few ideas and set out straight away. That’s part of the adventure, discovering where you end up, and how you get there.’
‘I don’t understand. If you don’t know what’s there, how do you know where to go?’ Ulysses said.
‘Well, I might wander around a bit, but once I get to know the locals, so to speak, they let me know.’
‘That’s exactly what I mean. I might set off with an itinerary, but once we arrive we find there are other things we’d rather do. It’s just like my old CO used to say: “Planning’s essential, plans are useless”.’
‘So why do you-?’ Philomena exclaimed.
‘Why don’t you?-’ Ulysses retorted.
This time Philomena folded her arms and Ulysses looked out the window.
This wasn’t going well. ‘So who gets their book finished first?’ Bertie said in desperation.
Philomena and Ulysses gave Bertie a strangely contrite look. They both leaned forwards, elbows on the table.
‘That’s the funny thing,’ Ulysses said.
‘We take about the same time,’ Philomena said.
Bertie spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words, ‘Don’t you think you’re both doing the same things, just in a different order?’ Philomena and Ulysses gave non-committal shrugs. ‘And in the end you both get the same result, in about the same time – a decent book.’
‘She’ll do a bloody good book,’ Ulysses slapped the table.
‘Lissy! Language,’ Philomena exclaimed.
Bertie took a deep breath: ‘So why don’t you take turns? Uncle, you plan this year’s holiday, Aunt Philly does it the next.’
‘I’d like that,’ Philomena said.
Ulysses moustaches quivered in near-panic. ‘But I wouldn’t know- I’d need to-‘
‘I think you’d both come up with the same thing – a good holiday,’ Bertie said.
‘Can’t just wander about, I-‘
Philomena put her hand on Ulysses’s and gave it a squeeze. ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’
A lopsided smile twitched Ulysses’s moustaches. Surreptitiously, he brushed the corner of his eye. ‘Of course not, m’dear.’ He lay his other hand on top of hers, ‘Very well. I’m not too old for a new kind of adventure.’
Philmena gave Ulysses a kiss. Two bright red patches glowed on his cheeks.
‘Just as long as I can keep a map in my back pocket,’ Ulysses said.
‘Emergencies only,’ Philomena said with a laugh.
Arm in arm, Philomena and Ulysses waved Bertie goodbye from the front door.
‘Thank you, Bertie,’ Philomena called. ‘You’ve been a great help.’
Bertie beamed with happiness, he departed with a distinctly jaunty step.
‘Smart young chap, that,’ Ulysses said. ‘Old dog, new tricks. Taught me a thing or two today.’
‘You and me both,’ Philomena said.