tagRomanceAt Peak Lodge

At Peak Lodge

bySamScribble©

I could have flown. But flying at Christmastime is always such hassle. Full flights. Expensive flights. Everyone trying to sneak aboard double their allocation of carry-on baggage. All tripping over one another. Chaotic airports. And even after putting up with all that, I would still have needed to hire a car at the other end. So I decided to drive.

I set out shortly after nine o'clock on Christmas Eve morning. By 10:15 I had got as far as Enfield, where I stopped for gas. I was still on the outskirts of Enfield when the first sploshes of soft snow started to fall.

Getting from Enfield to the other side of The Divide I had two options. I could go through Old Man's Gap, or I could take the road through Cooper's Pass. In some ways, it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. But the weather forecast that morning had suggested that Old Man's Gap might be in for a serious dumping of snow, so I headed for what I hoped might be the lesser of the two evils. And there was also another reason for choosing Cooper's Pass: Peak Lodge.

Peak Lodge was originally built as a coaching stop. After a horse-drawn coach had made its long slow journey up to the top of the pass, the passengers would have been more than ready for some refreshment and a chance to stretch their legs. And, with the passengers off feasting on yeasty bread and slices of mutton and bacon and slabs of fruitcake, the coachman would have a chance to hitch up a fresh team of horses for the second leg of the journey. With the end of horse-drawn coaches, Peak Lodge struggled on as a sort of 'tea room with a view'. And then, goodness knows why, given its location, it was acquired by an eccentric Austrian chef who spent a small fortune turning it into a boutique lodge with an award-winning restaurant.

By the time I reached Hamberly, which I guess marks the start of the long climb up to the top of the pass, the snow had set in. It wasn't that heavy. But it was steady. The cops had set up a checkpoint just outside Hamberly and they were turning back any vehicles that didn't look to be equipped for the conditions.

'You should be OK,' one of the cops told me after he had checked the snow tyres on my four-wheel-drive SUV. 'But drive carefully. Drive to the conditions. And keep an eye out for the snow plough.'

'Thanks. I will,' I assured him.

My plan was to make it to Peak Lodge in time for a leisurely bite of lunch. From there it would be pretty much all downhill to Millerton. And, if the weather forecasters were anywhere near right with their predictions, by mid-afternoon the snow should have given way to light rain -- and maybe even a spot of sunshine.

I pretty soon caught up with the snow plough that I had been warned to look out for, but that was about the only other vehicle on the road. Whatever was ahead of me going up the hill was already too far ahead for me to see it. And, after a while, there was absolutely nothing coming back down the other way -- which, the more I thought about it, seemed kind of strange.

I arrived at Peak Lodge almost spot on midday. From the road, Peak Lodge looked like the remains of a small castle surrounded by some of those scrubby pines that you tend to get up above the snowline. I pulled off into the car parking area and wondered for a moment or two if the place was actually open for business. I was pretty sure that their website had said 'open seven days a week'. But maybe they had decided to close for the Christmas-New Year period. Oh, well.

I got out of the car and hastily made my way to the Lodge's big wooden front door. One firm push, and there was a soft click, and the door opened. It seemed that the establishment was open for business after all.

'I thought for a moment there that you might have been closed,' I said to the rather attractive (but worried-looking) woman who was hovering in the reception area.

'Well ... umm ....'

I waited for her to continue.

'The thing is ... Herman and Krista went down to Millerton first thing this morning, and apparently there has been a slip or something. And Marcus and Louise are with them too.'

I knew that Herman and Krista were the owners of Peak Lodge, and Herman was also the award-winning chef. I had no idea who Marcus and Louise were.

'Did you want coffee or something?' the woman said.

'I was hoping for some lunch,' I said.

'Lunch. Oh. Yes. Well ....'

'Is that going to be a problem?' I said.

It was at that point that the phone she was carrying rang. She answered it and, while whoever was at the other end apparently did most of the talking, her frown got deeper and deeper.

'Herman,' she said when she rang off. 'They can't get back. Maybe not until tomorrow. The road's closed.'

'The road to Millerton?'

She nodded.

'Damn.'

'Not just snow. A big slip. You know ... an avalanche. With rocks and stuff. It's going to take a while to clear.'

And then her phone rang again.

'And the road through to Hamberly is also closed,' she said after a brief conversation. 'A big slip at Cottley's Corner.'

'I've just come from Hamberly. That's where the cops had their checkpoint. And Cottley's Corner? Is that where the road does that sharp right-hander? And then there's a dip? And a narrow bridge?'

The woman nodded.

'So which way will I need to go when I leave here?' I asked.

'Umm ... you can't,' she said. 'Not really. You're stuck. Well, for now anyway. There's only one road. And now it's blocked at both ends.'

'Oh.'

'Yes. Umm ... right. Lunch. Let's see,' she said. 'I could probably cook you a steak. And maybe a salad. Or perhaps an omelette. Ham and cheese? Mushroom? Something like that? I'm not really a cook -- if you see what I mean. Herman is the chef. Marcus is the sous chef. And when we're really busy, either Lucinda or Darren comes in. But they both live in Hamberly. So, of course, they're not going to be able to come today.'

'Is there anyone else here?' I asked.

The woman shook her head.

'Just you and me?'

'Umm ... yes,' she said. 'Sorry.'

'No, no. Hardly your fault,' I said. 'Unless, of course, you're the local weather god.'

'What?' And then she said: 'Oh, no. I see what you mean.'

'Well, given that it is just you and me,' I said, 'why don't you take me to the kitchen and we'll see what we can rustle up? I assume that you probably need something to eat too. And I'm sure that we can manage something between us. By the way, I'm Tom.'

'Noelle,' she said.

'OK, Noelle. Lead the way.'

But she didn't. She just stood there. Frowning.

'Something the matter?' I said.

'Umm ... it's just that Herman doesn't really like other people in his kitchen.'

'Yeah, but Herman's not here is he?'

'No. I suppose not.' And, albeit a little reluctantly, she led me out the back to Herman's beautifully set up kitchen.

'Right,' I said, stepping into the chiller. 'Let's see what we have.' Actually, the chiller was very well stocked. I guess with the Lodge being a bit out of the way, Herman made sure that he had plenty of stuff on hand. 'The salmon looks good. Do you like salmon?' I asked.

'I do. Although I'm not sure how good I would be at cooking it.'

'That's OK,' I said. 'If you could just pass me one of those trays and some tongs.' I selected a couple of salmon steaks and half a dozen green tiger prawns.

'What can I do?' Noelle asked.

'If you could just twist the heads of these prawns and then peel the tails -- and then we'll put the heads and the peelings into a small oven-proof pan.'

While Noelle dealt to the prawns, I got a pan on to the heat and put one of the ovens onto high. Next I found a couple of small bricks of dried fine-cut noodles, some rosemary, some basil leaves, and a bottle of Chinese-style oyster sauce. I put the noodles in the bottom of a medium-sized bowl and covered them with boiling water.

After that, I inspected the salmon for pin bones, trimmed the ends, and generously salted the skin.

'Are you a chef?' Noelle asked. 'You're doing stuff the way that Herman does it.'

'A chef? No. I'm a lawyer. But my parents owned a pub. I guess, today, we'd probably call it a gastro pub. As a kid, I often helped out in the kitchen.'

Noelle nodded. 'Right.' (I think that she found the idea that I had been in a proper kitchen before somehow reassuring.) 'OK. What now, chef?'

'We'll just add the salmon trimmings to the prawn heads, and the whole lot can go into the oven for ten or 15 minutes.'

The dried noodles were starting to plump up nicely, so I drained off the first lot of water -- which was now cooling -- and covered them again with fresh boiling water.

'I'm assuming that there will be some garlic somewhere? And perhaps a few dried chilli flakes?'

Noelle went into the other part of the kitchen and returned with a head of garlic and a jar of chilli flakes. 'OK?'

'Perfect.' I smashed a couple of bulbs of garlic with the flat of a knife and threw them into the oven with the roasting prawn scraps. 'Right, now I think we need some wine,' I said.

'Cooking wine?'

'No, drinking wine. Maybe a pinot gris.'

Noelle frowned.

'Or even an unoaked chardonnay. Up to you. You're going to have to help me drink it.'

'Herman doesn't let us drink while we're working,' Noelle said.

'Very wise,' I said. 'Health and safety and all that sort of thing. You'll just have to stop working. Take the rest of the day off. It's not as if you're likely to have any more guests today, is it? In the meantime, Herman probably wouldn't want you upsetting the one guest that you do have: me.'

Noelle frowned briefly -- but then smiled and nodded. 'Pinot gris? I'll see what I can find.'

While Noelle went in search of wine, I checked on the roasting prawn heads. They could have done with a little longer in the oven, but the aroma was starting to make me hungry, so I took them out and deglazed the pan with a generous slosh of Herman's excellent chicken stock. I added a sprig of rosemary and good pinch of chilli flakes, and put the pan on the back burner to simmer for a while.

'Something smells good,' Noelle said when she returned with a bottle of wine.

'That'll be your prawn heads.'

'Are we going to eat them?' she asked.

'No. But we are going to eat their essence.' I grabbed a sieve and separated the flavour-infused liquid from the now-exhausted husks. Next I rinsed the excess salt off the salmon steaks and patted them dry. 'Right. We just need to cook the salmon and the prawns ....'

Cooking the salmon steaks was just a matter of putting them, skin-side down, into a hot pan with a little bit of oil. The prawn tails I briefly poached in the stock.

'Nearly there,' I said. 'Where are we going to eat?'

Noelle smiled. 'Well, since you are the VIP guest today, I think it will have to be one of the tables overlooking the terrace. The view from there can be quite spectacular.'

'Perfect,' I said.

I grabbed a couple of warm serving bowls, drained the now-reconstituted noodles, and placed a small pile into each bowl. The salmon skin was getting nice and crisp, but the flesh probably needed a minute or so in the oven.

Meanwhile, I whisked a couple of generous spoonsful of the oyster sauce into the reducing stock and checked the seasoning. 'Hmm ... maybe just a tiny squeeze of fresh lime juice.'

And then it was just a matter of arranging the salmon -- skin side up -- on top of the noodles; placing three prawn tails beside each salmon steak; and gently pouring in some of the deliciously pungent prawn and oyster broth. 'Oops! Almost forgot. A little chiffonade of basil leaves. And there we are. What shall we call it? Salmon Noelle Noel, perhaps?'

'Are you sure you're not a chef?' she said. 'I think Herman would probably give you a job.'

'You bring the wine,' I said.

To be fair to Noelle, she had said that the view from the table overlooking the terrace could be spectacular, not that it would be spectacular. By the time that we sat down to eat our Salmon Noelle Noel, it was snowing so heavily that we could barely see beyond the edge of the terrace.

'So how did you end up here at the top of the world?' I asked.

'I answered an ad. I was a school teacher. English and geography. But I wanted to take time out to try to write a novel. Working here seemed like a good idea. In exchange for being on call as required, it gave me somewhere to live and time to write without too many distractions.'

'And how is it going? The novel.'

Noelle laughed. 'Well, I started with a hiss and roar, wrote about fifty thousand words, and then I decided that all of the characters were really rather boring, and if I didn't care about them, why would anybody else?'

'Oh.'

'Yes. Oh.'

'So, do you have a rescue plan?'

'I'm working on one. I promised myself a new year and a new start. That was about a month ago. Now the New Year is only a bit over a week away. Still, I'm normally pretty good with deadlines.'

Even I had to admit that the Salmon Noelle Noel was pretty nice. While looking out at the mounting pillows of snow beyond the window, I wondered, albeit briefly, if we should have chosen a pinot noir rather than a pinot gris. But the pinot gris was still pretty good.

'Cheers,' I said. 'Here's to a white Christmas.'

'I think they all tend to be white up here,' Noelle said. 'The first dusting this year was almost a month ago.'

'And this is not a dusting,' I said.

'No.'

It was at that point that her phone rang again. 'Oh, hello, Herman. What news?' she said. And for the next couple of minutes, Noelle just nodded. Then she said: 'Well, we have one guest. Tom. He came for lunch. But I guess he's going to need a room.' And she looked across the table.

I nodded in confirmation.

'OK, Herman. Don't worry. We'll manage. Somehow. You guys look after yourselves.'

Noelle pressed the End button on her phone and shrugged her shoulders. 'Herman says that they definitely won't be back until tomorrow. At the earliest. Oh, and he also said to give you the Vienna Suite.'

'Is that good?'

'Well, it's probably the Lodge's only six-star room.'

'With a six-star price tag?'

'No, no. Herman says it's FOC. But he's a bit worried about how I will feed you. I think he's worried about his online reputation. He doesn't want you bombing him on TripAdvisor or wherever.'

'I think we'll manage,' I said.

'That's what I said -- although, I didn't mentioned that you had actually made the lunch. Oh, and Herman says that I should put the closed sign up. Not that anybody is likely to come knocking. And, in the unlikely event that they do, then we're hardly going to turn them away, are we? Still, it's Herman's Lodge. If Herman wants the sign up ....'

'And I should phone my sister,' I said. 'I'm certainly not going to be there for Christmas Eve supper. Well ... not for Christmas Eve anything.'

'Does your sister live in Millerton?'

'She and her husband have a farm just out of Tarnsville.'

Noelle frowned.

'You keep going through Millerton and then follow the river almost out to Buckley Heads.'

'But first you have to get to Millerton,' she said.

'Indeed.'

'And that's now not going to be today.'

We finished our salmon and put a serious dent in the contents of the wine bottle.

'That was really nice. Would you like me to make some coffee?' Noelle asked. 'I think I can just about manage that.'

'Coffee would be great. Why don't you do that, and I'll just give the kitchen a bit of a tidy up.'

I had just finished loading the crockery and cutlery into the dishwasher, and I was starting to scrub the pot and the pan that we had used, when I realised that Noelle was standing watching me.

'Are you married?' she asked.

'Married? No. Why? Are you?'

She shook her head. 'But I might reconsider if I could have a husband who would tidy the kitchen and do the dishes.'

'Pick me,' I said, jokingly. 'I can load dishwashers with the best of them. Although we might have to have a slightly smaller kitchen than this.'

Noelle laughed. 'Yes. And I'm not sure that we would need a separate dining room. Certainly not one with quite so much furniture anyway.'

'Agreed. Friends to supper is all very well, but not 30 friends. And definitely not every night.'

'I'll take the coffee through to the sitting room,' Noelle said. 'We may as well enjoy the log fire.'

I finished up in the kitchen and then, as I passed through the reception area on my way to lounge, I noticed that my car -- which had the carpark all to itself -- had almost disappeared under a bank of snow. I decided that I had better go and grab my bag before the snow got any deeper. I was definitely going to be spending Christmas Eve in the Vienna Suite. No ifs, no buts.

When I got back inside -- having grabbed my bag -- Noelle was once again on the phone. And, once again, it seemed that it was the person on the other end who was doing 99 percent of the talking.

'Stop worrying, Herman,' she said eventually. 'We'll be fine. Go and find somewhere nice to take Krista for supper. It's Christmas Eve. Remember? And stop fretting. I'll look after Tom. I'll make sure that he's properly fed and watered. I'm sure he'll give you the best TripAdvisor rating ever.'

'Is Herman still worrying?' I said when she had rung off.

'Well, he's like that. He likes everything to be just so,' Noelle said.

'Fair enough,' I said. 'And it is just so. Just perfectly so.'

And it was. The wine at lunch may have had something to do with it, but I felt as if Noelle and I were off on some kind of adventure. Two strangers -- thrown together -- all alone in a mysterious castle -- on the top of a mountain -- in the middle of a snow storm. Oh, and it was Christmas Eve. All the ingredients for a gothic romance. Not that I'd ever read a gothic romance -- unless you count Wuthering Heights.

'Herman suggested that I should roast you a duck. Not now. But later. You know ... this evening. He didn't think that would be too difficult.'

'Really?' I said. 'I'm very fond of duck. But, to be honest, I'd be just as happy with a plate of sandwiches or something like that. We could have a picnic in front of the fire.'

Noelle looked relieved. 'Shall I take you to your room?' she said.

When Noelle had said that the Vienna Suite was probably the Lodge's only six-star room, I could see what she meant. It certainly wasn't over the top. But everything about it was 'just right'. It struck me as being the kind of bedroom that you would have in your own house -- if you had unlimited time and unlimited budget. Oh, and unlimited space. It was more than twice the size of my bedroom at home. 'Very nice,' I said. 'Very nice. I'd ask what the rack rate is; but if I'm not paying, perhaps it's better that I don't know.'

'Probably. Nevertheless, I thought that you might like it.'

'I do.'

'I'll leave you to unpack,' she said. 'If you need anything ... well ... just shout.'

'Thanks.'

I unpacked my stuff. And then I briefly sat down in the deep-burgundy leather Eames-style reclining chair and used my phone to see if I could find an updated weather forecast. When I next opened my eyes, it was pitch black outside. I glanced at my watch. It had gone five. Oh, well.

'Sorry about that,' I said, when I re-joined Noelle in front of the big log fire. 'I just sat down for a couple of minutes -- can't remember why -- and I must have fallen asleep.'

Noelle smiled. 'Well, it's not as though you had to be anywhere, is it?'

When I had arrived, earlier, Noelle had been wearing a plain black tailored dress of the type favoured by smart hotels. While I was napping, she must have changed because now she was wearing a soft, silky Christmas-red top teamed with a full, silky skirt. The skirt had a random gold pattern on a dark navy background. It all looked very festive.

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bySamScribble© 10 comments/ 17897 views/ 8 favorites

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