Fergus was feeling more than a little peeved with his wife. Having spent Sunday afternoon at the Goat in Boots with his three best mates planning their annual boys’ skiing trip to Méribel, he had come home only to discover that Sarah had booked them on a winter activities break in Norway over the very same dates.
“Norway!” he had spluttered in dismay. “Who the hell wants to go to Norway? And what, may I ask, is a winter activities break?”
When Sarah explained that they’d be on a digital detox staying in a tiny hotel in the middle of Norwegian nowhere learning how to snowshoe and cross-country ski, his heart had plummeted further. It wasn’t as if he didn’t live and breathe Norway all week now that he’d been moved reluctantly to the Nordic desk at Brownhill & Co where he was battling to finalise a multimillion‑pound deal with an elusive fish-farming magnate.
He was doubly annoyed by the fact that from the moment Sarah had put a promising career in due diligence on hold to have their first child, she had come over all holier-than-thou about where and how they should spend their holidays. Long, rosé-quaffing lunches, whether on the slopes or by a pool, were a thing of the past; their focus now, particularly as new parents, was to be all about health and wellbeing.
Thus, Fergus found himself on a cold week in February, grappling with a pair of skis barely wider than matchsticks in temperatures some 20 degrees below zero. It was a beautiful spot for sure – a farmstead-turned-hotel set in a white and frozen wasteland where, by night, the aurora borealis tripped the light fantastic overhead. But all was not love and laughter in this winter wonderland.
For starters, a bottle of half-decent claret cost an arm and a leg. But then, Fergus’s arms and legs were so stiff by the second day, he could barely hobble to the hotel bar, let alone lift a glass to his lips.
Never had he imagined that skiing on the flat could require such balance and finesse, or that the slightest downhill incline could pitch him repeatedly into the snow. While his heart and lungs felt fit to burst, his mind was tortured with longing for Méribel’s fast and furious Combe de Vallon and a serious bit of après at the Ronnie with his old muckers.
The only saving grace was Silje, the young, impossibly lissom owner of the hotel who had been befriended by the exasperated Sarah and who had agreed, when she was off duty, to take Fergus under her wing. Silje was a vision of Norwegian loveliness – blonde and blue‑eyed with a mesmerising curve to her smile and her rear.
While Sarah strode coolly and effortlessly ahead on the parallel tracks in the snow, Silje waited patiently for Fergus, pulling him up whenever he fell, coaxing him onwards with gentle instructions to alter his upper to lower body ratio of effort and to neutralise his spine. He began to feel that even on his hands and knees he’d be happy to follow Silje to the most distant, white‑tipped horizon.
And so the week progressed – Sarah delivering a punishing programme of exercise that had Fergus canyoning through ice-gripped river gorges, steering dog-pulled sleds on rip-roaring trails through fields of deep snow, marching up mountains with footwear like tennis rackets, and tobogganing by moonlight on paths of sheet ice. In-between times, he slept like a corpse, ate as if there were no tomorrow, soothed his aching, alcohol-free body in the sauna, and followed Sarah and Silje kilometre by painful kilometre until he had finally mastered the art of cross-country skiing.
At breakfast on the last day, Silje joined them at the table, whereupon Fergus’s insistence on a final skiing expedition was politely declined.
“Today,” Silje explained nervously, “will be a busy one for me. My father arrives this afternoon and I need to have the hotel in perfect order.”
“Perhaps,” she added, perking up a little, “you’d both like to join us for dinner?”
“We’d absolutely love to,” said Sarah with, what seemed to Fergus, almost indecent haste. “And what is it that he does?”
“He’s big in fish farming,” replied Silje, and from across the table Sarah dropped Fergus a slow, knowing wink and a cunning little smile.