We stood on the concourse of Marston Railway Station and stared up at the departures board, attempting to select a destination. For the last two weeks Michael and I had been randomly zig-zagging our way through the landscape in an attempt to throw off the seemingly inexhaustible pursuit of the Explorer’s Club. When we’d arrived in this relatively small backwater town in the early hours of the morning we felt like we might finally have succeeded in giving them the slip. But after a hearty breakfast it was decided that perhaps one more arbitrary journey might be a good idea just to be sure.
“So where do you fancy?” Michael asked, cheerfully scanning the options. “Madrid? Marrakech?”
“Middlemarch… Mordor… Midwich,” I read aloud. “Hmm, maybe not.”
“Monaco!” exclaimed Michael excitedly. “That’s got to be top of the list, surely.”
“There’s something a bit strange about this railway station,” I said after a thoughtful pause.
“How do you mean?” asked Michael.
“Well, it’s rather empty, don’t you think?”
“It’s 9.45 in the morning,” shrugged Michael. “We’ve probably just missed the rush hour.”
“I suppose,” I said, not entirely convinced.
“So what do you think?” asked Michael. “About our destination, I mean.”
I considered for a moment. “I quite fancy Madrid,” I eventually said. “I’ve never been to Madrid.”
“Could be a bit dicey,” Michael demurred. “You never know which Madrid you’re going to get. We could run slap bang into the middle of the Spanish Civil War. Or the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Yes but any destination in the landscape has its risks,” I countered. “If we go to Monaco there’s always a chance we might get run over by a racing car.”
“Alright then, Madrid it is,” conceded Michael. “I’ll go and barter for a pair of tickets, shall I?”
“Need any help?”
“No thanks, I’ll manage,” replied Michael and he bounded merrily off in the direction of the ticket office.
I took a seat on one of the many benches dotted around the concourse and awaited his return. He took rather longer than I had anticipated (due no doubt either to the complexity of the negotiations or the handsome-ness of the ticket clerk) and so I was rather lost in thought when a stranger approached and sat down at the opposite end of my bench. He was a short, tidy man wearing an unseasonably heavy overcoat and fastidiously trimmed facial hair. I felt a momentary annoyance that, despite the fact that there were several other unoccupied benches in the vicinity, he had chosen this one upon which to park his behind. But as he initially observed a respectful gap between our persons I ignored his presence and soon sank back into my own thoughts.
After a couple of minutes though the stranger edged cautiously along the seat. He glanced warily around before leaning in towards me. “The Calypso Orchid rarely blooms in early March,” he solemnly announced in a low tone.
Typical, I thought. The station was virtually empty and yet still I managed to attract the attentions of the sole nutter in the place. “Does it?” I replied in the most disinterested voice I could muster.
This response did not appear to be quite what the stranger had been hoping for. He stared at me expectantly for a few moments before leaning in still closer and repeating in a more insistent tone, “The Calypso Orchid rarely blooms in early March.”
Reluctantly I turned to face him. “Look, I don’t mean to sound rude but I’m expecting my boyfriend back any moment,” I told him. This wouldn’t be the first time that Michael had been press-ganged into playing the part of temporary boyfriend to ward off unwanted advances. He could generally be relied on to carry off the role with a certain panache.
“I’m not trying to pick you up,” retorted the stranger in a mildly offended tone. “I have a message for you.”
“A message about orchids?” I said, somewhat puzzled.
“No, of course not,” replied the stranger. “The orchid line is merely the ice-breaker.”
I stared at him blankly.
“It’s a secret message,” he added with an exasperated sigh, “so I’m obliged to use an ice-breaker. I open with the line, ‘The Calypso Orchid rarely blooms in early March’, to which you reply with the pre-determined response. That way I’ve ascertained that you are the correct recipient for the message.”
“Oh I see,” I said, the light slowly dawning.
“Well then what?”
“Well then, ‘The Calypso Orchid rarely flowers in early March’…”
“Oh right. Sorry but I haven’t been given any pre-determined response.”
“Oh dear,” said the stranger. “That makes things rather awkward.”
“Perhaps then I’m not the correct recipient of your message,” I suggested.
“But you match the description,” insisted the stranger, retrieving a slip of paper from the pocket of his overcoat. “White female, mid twenties,” he read out. “Medium height, slim build, brown hair, blue eyes. Usually accompanied by a tall, good-looking man with a natty moustache.” He paused and looked me up and down. “I’d say that was you to a T. Except for the good-looking companion.”
“Oh, he’s off chatting up a ticket clerk,” I explained.
“Ah, there you are then,” said the stranger with a sense of satisfaction. “The message must be for you. Have you been expecting a message at all?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied. “Who’s it from?”
“I can’t tell you that,” protested the stranger haughtily. “That’s confidential information for the message’s intended recipient only.”
“But I thought you’d just decided that I was the message’s intended recipient.”
“Ah but you still haven’t given me the pre-determined response.”
“That’s because I don’t know any pre-determined response!” I exclaimed, starting to feel a little dizzy with all this going round in circles.
“Hmmm, that does make things awkward,” conceded the stranger once more and we both settled into a somewhat exasperated silence.
“Couldn’t you just give me a clue as to who the message is from?” I said after a moment, searching for a way to break the deadlock. “Then at least we can be sure whether it’s my message or not.”
The stranger regarded me with a frown. “That would be highly irregular.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
The stranger shifted uncomfortably upon the bench. He looked up and down the concourse twice. Finally, with a nervous sigh, he leaned in close once again and whispered, “The sender of the message has a name that rhymes with porridge.”
I had to consider this for some time before I eventually came up with, “Sturridge?”
“Shhh!” hissed the stranger in alarm.
“But Sturridge doesn’t rhyme with porridge,” I objected.
“It’s close enough,” retorted the stranger.
“Hardly. It’s a completely different vowel sound.”
“They do it in poetry,” asserted the stranger. “What’s that word for when something almost rhymes with something else but not quite?”
“Assonance?” I suggested.
“That’s it. I used an assonant rhyme.”
“Well, that might be alright for poetry but it doesn’t work as a rhyming clue,” I complained. “I mean, it completely defeats the purpose of saying it ‘sounds like’ something if it doesn’t actually sound anything like it at all.”
“Well, you try thinking up an exact rhyme for Sturridge,” protested the stranger. “It’s impossible.”
I scanned my mind for a few moments in an effort to prove him wrong but was eventually forced to admit that he had a point. “It’s still a lousy rhyme,” I muttered.
The stranger shrugged. “It’s the best I could do,” he retorted in what could only be described as a sulky tone.
“Do I at least get to hear my message now?”
“You still haven’t given me the pre-determined response,” sniffed the stranger.
“I don’t know the pre-determined response!” I exclaimed. There was another awkward silence. “Couldn’t you skip the pre-determined response just this once?” I eventually asked in my most conciliatory tone.
The stranger regarded me warily. “That would be against all protocol,” he said.
“Nobody need know,” I replied.
The stranger shifted uncomfortably in his seat once again and stared thoughtfully at his shoes for some time. Finally, he looked up. “Alright,” he eventually conceded. “But if anyone asks…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said with a touch of impatience. “Ice-breaker – response. Consider it done.”
The stranger took a deep breath. “Your friend, whose name almost rhymes with porridge, would like to meet you here in Marston. Be at the Café del Mar on Hope Street at 10.30 this morning.”
“That’s it?” I said, unable to keep a small hint of disappointment from my voice. After all the palaver I had expected something a trifle more earth-shattering.
“That’s the message,” replied the stranger firmly. “Café del Mar, Hope Street, 10.30. Be there.”
“Okay, well, thank-you,” was all I could think to say in response.
The stranger nodded courteously in acknowledgement. Then he pulled up the collar of his overcoat in a somewhat melodramatic fashion, stood up abruptly and moved sharply off down the concourse with the air of a job well done, leaving me to chew over Sturridge’s message.
I hadn’t had long to consider the proposal when Michael returned from the direction of the ticket office, looking rather pleased with himself. He settled down onto the space on my bench so recently vacated by the strange messenger and brandished two large, shiny rail tickets in my face. “It took some haggling but I’ve got them,” he announced triumphantly. “Two seats booked on the midday train to Madrid.”
I looked at him and sighed. “I’m afraid Madrid will have to wait,” I told him. “It seems we have an appointment first at the Café del Mar.”
To be continued…