So he stopped the car and gesticulated for me to interpret through a local bystander. We pointed at the tiny map in H’s Lonely Planet guide and nodded a lot until he was able to convey directions to our driver. None of this inspired confidence, but we crawled on slowly through the noisy, crowded streets and finally spotted the name of our hotel down a tiny capillary.
We drove in and were transported into in a different, secret world just a few yards off the bustling streets. Suddenly all was quiet and calm. We were at the aptly named Courtyard Hotel; a foreign embassy secreted in the middle of Kathmandu. Michelle, the owner with a distinctive American accent, greeted us and parked us on some benches in the eponymous courtyard, whilst she fetched some wine. We sat down with relief, adjacent to a small group of other westerners.
After two days of rubbing shoulders with the local Nepalese and a few humble foreign walkers, we had unexpectedly dropped in amongst some high society types. Introductions ensued – most were regular patrons of the hotel, if not semi-permanent residents, drawn in from various international outposts. We were being welcomed into a cross between an ex-pats outpost and a high-society retreat. These were not the poor, humble, straightforward Nepalese – these were people with money, ambition, egos, opinions, complexes and loud voices. We had arrived in a hybrid of a Graham Greene and an Agatha Christie novel. All we were missing was the quite distinguished Belgian detective in the corner.
We explained why we were here and where we had come through. The IT job in Specsavers suddenly seemed a little drab, unexciting and unimportant. They humoured us and asked polite questions, but it was clear that they were singularly unimpressed by the fact that we worked for the world’s most successful optician. And they certainly weren’t the IT types. They were far too bohemian. I think one of them asked if I could fix his laptop. I laughed and inwardly growled.
We sipped our wine and they invited to go out for dinner with them. First we had to check-in. Michelle returned and we were escorted upstairs to our rooms. My room was ridiculously enormous – a massive four poster bed and a wardrobe bigger than some rooms I have been in. I decided to unpack, take a much-needed shower and try to scratch my internet withdrawal itch. This all took some time and I walked back downstairs later than planned to rendezvous for dinner. Nobody was around so I sat back on the benches on my own playing with my phone. As you do when you are trying not to look like your friends went off without you.
A guy came out of a side door and enthusiastically gestured me in. There they were – our new society friends – in a small cosy room behind a bar. H was already comfortable with a second glass of wine being talked to by a silver haired trek leader. The room was a library, wallpapered with endless CDs and books. I noticed a candlestick and I glanced round at the assembled players. There was Michelle; the placid Mrs Peacock with her fiery husband Colonel Mustard. Our trekker friend, the erudite Professor Plum was quick to inform us that he had been educated at Oxford. And joining us for dinner were Mrs White and Rev Green, of whom more later. I cast myself as Dr Black, the perpetual victim, leaving H to fill the role of the glamorous Miss Scarlet.
On the roll of a dice we left the library and proceeded back through the busy streets of the city to our dining room. Nepal has a wide and fascinating choice of unusual food and restaurants and I am a firm believer in eating what the locals eat. I have eaten kangaroo and crocodile in Australia, alligator sausages in Louisiana, Chinese in Hong Kong, Indian delicacies in Delhi, Mexican in Mexico and black pudding in Lancashire. Somehow we ended up at Dolce Vita – Italian Pizzeria. I can have Dodgy Eata any Tuesday or Wednesday in Hamble thank you very much.We sat upstairs – four of us on a bench and four opposite, slightly elevated, on chairs. Five colourful characters, H, me, and one person who I really can’t remember. I suspect he can’t remember me either.
I sat opposite Professor Plum, my fellow Oxbridge-er. He had humbly explained how he had been operating at the dizzy summits of the corporate world and then decided to “leave it all behind” to lead treks through the Himalayas. As you do. To my right was our Rev Green – a quiet, pleasant young Optometrist from Singapore. Unfortunately we quickly exhausted our shared interest in the optical sector on account of my rather superficial knowledge of pupil distances and astigmatisms.To my left – between Miss Scarlet and myself – was Mrs White, another young American. She boasted how she jogged 10k per day and yet, of all the guests she mostly closely resembled the shape of a Cluedo piece. Her compatriot, Mrs Michelle Peacock – sat quietly opposite, her husband Mustard, at the end of the table opposite Green. Always best to have Mustard at the end of the table.
So – who was sat to the right of Plum, and who diagonally opposite Scarlet? Hands up if you have drawn a diagram.
The social dynamics of this little group were a case study for any psychologist or zoologist. Plum held court. Not only did he look like Richard Branson, he sounded like him. With confidence and impressive verbal dexterity, he recounted stories, anecdotes, witticisms and opinions. And all at a volume which was sufficient to repress all us with quieter voices and smaller egos. His comparative analysis of business class services between Jet, Kingfisher, BA and Air India was thesis material as well as cleverly elitist. They were all rubbish of course.
Mrs White’s described how she has seen a rat in Air India business class. I tried to make a joke about boarding passes, but it had the conviction of a rapidly deflating balloon. Better not to try to compete I told myself, and settled back into my role of the strong silent one who is happy to smile politely with a subtle degree of detachment and a hint of disdain. Truth is, Plum was unassailable and intimidating and I didn’t have the energy or the inclination to fight him.
No such reservations for Mustard. He saw Plum’s business class analysis and raised him a whole soliloquy on Armarni suits, of which he was a proud male model. He tapped in a reference to “my tailor” and volleyed home a loud-mouthed repost on the quality of the stitching. Green was very impressed, feeding him questions like a Tory back bencher at PM Question Time. “Would my right-honourable friend agree that his suits are stylish, expensive, exquisitely sewn and mark him out as a superior human being?” In his own estimation, Mustard was home and dry in the pretentiousness competition.
But Mustard was making the fatal error of trying too hard. Plum remained unruffled, steady and calm, like one of the Himalayan Peaks he lived with every day. A man who had done it all, left behind the pathetic trappings of fashion and privilege and now lived in a tent in the mountains. He melted snow with his eyes and ate raw Yeti-meat brought to him by tigers.
Mustard, on the other hand, was like a mad hyena trying to impress, and the more he tried the higher pitched and less coherent he became. He laughed manically as he tried in vain to out-wit and out-attention-seek Plum. Mrs Peacock remained calm and quiet, unresponsive to her husband’s increasingly embarrassing, unintelligible and outlandish comments. I don’t think she was a proud Peacock. I think she was sighing inwardly and hoping that one day he might grow up.
I wrestled with my spaghetti – wishing I had not chosen a dish easier to eat like an expert. Occasionally I dared to chip in a frivolous or deliberately self-depreciating comment in a vain attempt to mock the pretentious one-upmanship. Miss Scarlett played it with a genuine straight bat, laughing politely and looking relaxed, but without pandering to the egotists. The whole thing resembled a pack of male animals performing in front of the females. I was glad when it was all over.
Back in the library, we drank a another glass of wine and listened to a young man strumming a guitar. We encouraged him to sing. I had a slightly hesitant attempt at Stairway to Heaven, before passing the instrument back to the maestro. Outside Kathmandu shut up shop and returned home after another long day of activity.
We mellowed with the wine and music, relaxing into our easy chairs. Even Mustard had stopped trying so hard. Mrs Peacock looked placid and strangely content. Plum had disappeared after the meal. Where was he? Suddenly it all became clear. For once it was not me who was the victim. It was Plum. Murdered by Mustard, with the lead piping somewhere between the dining room and the library. It was time for bed.