This brisk pre-breakfast walk, Ralph thought to himself as he hopped over yet another brown puddle, is not working out at all as I hoped it would.
He was lost and late; if he didn’t get back to the hotel soon, his boss Richard was not going to be impressed.
From the warmth of his hotel room, a short, sharp bucolic jolt had seemed like the perfect kick-start to a long day’s photo shoot. This print campaign for a new lactose-free milk alternative made from runner beans was a big deal for the advertising firm he had just joined and a big deal for him too: Richard seemed to have taken him under his wing and it was a huge vote of confidence to have been asked along.
It was a good look and one that he’d really perfected since moving to Brixton. Over the years, he had worked through a few different ones – grime (too cool), ’80s retro (too puffa jacket), hipster (too beardy) – before finally settling on Urban Country Gent.
It was, without doubt, the more expensive option – all that bespoke tailoring – and he drew the line at smoking an e-pipe, but it had made him feel smart and also a bit David Beckham, which, let’s face it, was never a bad thing.
And to top it all off, his name made a very easy transition to the UCG version.
“You’re called what?” his colleagues had wondered when he joined the firm.
“Rafe,” he had repeated slowly. “Sounds like safe.”
But what “Rafe” hadn’t done – until now – was put his look in context. The English countryside had never really been his thing – too much grass and far too little to actually do – but he was not at all averse to this high-end hip members’ hotel version.
Unfortunately, the map of the surrounding countryside had been hand‑drawn by a famous fashion illustrator who was one of the hotel’s most long-standing VIP members, and it was of absolutely no use to man or beast. Ralph soon found himself in a field full of angry bullocks and, after a quick exit, on a dirt track that seemed to be a road to nowhere. There was no phone reception, so he was forced to rely on his sense of direction, which he hadn’t put to practical use since about 2012.
When he saw a vintage green Land Rover – which he recognised as one of the authentic ones the hotel sent to collect guests from the station – bumping over the brow of the hill, he let out a sigh of relief and waved an SOS with his pocket handkerchief. As it chugged to a halt beside him, he saw that it was full of reassuringly well-dressed gents.
“Working on the shoot?” the driver shouted over the roar of the engine.
“Hop in,” said the driver. “We’re late. Starts in 10 minutes.”
Ralph wrestled with the door handle long enough for one of the passengers – extras for the photo shoot, he presumed – to open it from the inside. He climbed in, taking great care not to muddy himself in the process.
“First time?” said one of them.
“First of many, I hope,” said Ralph, beaming.
“Not if you don’t have a stick” came the reply, to scoffs of laughter from his fellow passengers.
This was getting a bit surreal, thought Ralph. As he looked around the assembled party, he realised that they were all holding ominous-looking sticks. “I’m not sure I got the ‘stick’ memo,” said Ralph, a note of nervous hauteur creeping into his voice. “You see, I’ll be working with Richard to…”
“Here we are!’ cut in the driver, grinding to a halt on the top of the hill. Through the low-hanging morning mist, Ralph could make out a line of men in the distance, with Labradors standing to attention by their sides and shotguns hanging in the crook of their arms…