Outside the newsagent's shop Major Percy is becoming increasingly agitated, as the charabanc appears to be running late. The time is eleven am and forty-three seconds precisely. The Major checks his wristwatch and scowls.
"It's late," he says.
"Yes dear," says Mrs Percy. "I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation."
"Are you absolutely certain that you synchronised our watches precisely?"
"Yes dear," says Mrs Percy, patiently. "I did it last night, just before I turned in at ten o clock sharp."
"Ah, but did you set them precisely?"
"Yes dear. To within a tenth of a second, using the speaking clock on the telephone."
"Well, by my calculations, the charabanc is already running one minute and forty-three seconds late," the Major snaps, irritably.
"It's probably stuck in traffic Major. Calm down."
"Nonsense woman, the wife!" the Major barks. "I'll brook no excuses for unpunctuality! They should have made contingency plans. I'm a stickler for punctuality, as you know. I'll not stand for this sort of thing! I shall compose an angry letter to the charabanc tour operator demanding that the driver be instantly dismissed. This is outrageous!"
"It's here dear, I do believe," Mrs Percy says evenly.
Sure enough, the charabanc, its cream and emerald green livery glinting in the morning sunshine like a highly polished sabre, turns out of Crimea Street and approaches the charabanc stop outside the newsagent's.
It rolls serenely to a halt before Major and Mrs Percy, and the driver gets out to open the door.
"Good morning all!" he exclaims. "Lovely day for it!"
"You're late," Major Percy grumbles.
"Awful sorry mi'lud," the cheerful charabanc driver explains. "But we had a momentary delay on Castle Street when we stopped to offer assistance to an elderly gentleman, who was apparently suffering a coronary. Turned out to be a false alarm. Severe indigestion."
"That's not good enough, damnit man!" Major Percy chides. "You should have left it for somebody else to deal with. Blithering idiot."
Major and Mrs Percy board the charabanc, taking the front pair of seats on the left, opposite the charabanc driver. The Major explains that the view is better from this position, and that he will also be on hand to harangue, or issue instructions to the charabanc driver, whichever is necessary.
Mrs Percy seems a little distraught hauling the picnic basket and the provisions case up onto the luggage rack, but the Major assures us that she is all right.
"She does tend to sweat profusely in warm weather, especially when she's doing something strenuous, but she'll be all right."
Eventually the charabanc gets under way. The cheerful charabanc driver makes an announcement over his antiquated tannoy system that there will be one further pick-up point on the Lowfields Estate, and that once that is completed, the tour proper shall commence, and he will make a further announcement regarding the itinerary as soon as the charabanc has loaded its full complement of passengers.
The Major is not happy.
"They never said when we purchased the tickets that they'd be picking up on the Lowfields Estate," he grumbles. "We wouldn't have booked for this trip had we known that. Would you, the wife?"
"Louts they are," the Major says. "Yobboes. No idea how to conduct themselves in civilised company. They always sit at the back of the charabanc singing football songs and start passing a hat round for the driver on the way back."
However, when the charabanc picks up passengers from the Lowfield Estate, there is no obviously yobbish behaviour in evidence, as a young couple with two children in tow quietly board the charabanc, along with another young couple, the latter pair minus accompanying offspring. The man has long greasy hair and his face bears marks of acne; he is wearing a suit, which is a little on the threadbare side and was probably bought from a charity shop. His companion is wearing a simple floral print dress, sensible shoes, and carrying a small shopping bag.
"Salmon paste," the Major whispers.
"Excuse me..." Mrs Percy enquires with a slightly raised eyebrow.
"Salmon paste," the Major hisses, trying hard to keep his voice down. "I bet they've got salmon paste sandwiches - that stuff in the little jar. And margarine. Not even decent margarine. The horrible runny stuff, I'd wager. The type that makes the bread go all soggy. They look on that sort of thing as being sophisticated, you know. I bet they have a couple of tins of India Pale Ale too. Philistines..."
"Yes dear," says Mrs Percy as the charabanc moves off.
Some time later, as the charabanc eases gently along a sun-kissed and leafy lane, the Major makes a revelation to Mrs Percy.
"I've been to the Caves Of Doom at Lower Doom before," he says. "I came with Binky Tomlinson and Sniffer Enright. We brought dressed crab and a nice chilled bottle of Chardonnay."
"You never told me that before," Mrs Percy says, and it looks like she's struggling to keep up with the conversation because her eyelids appear to be growing quite heavy. She looks tired. "It sounds...interesting..."
"I'll say!" the Major says. "There's something quintessentially English about the Caves of Doom at Lower Doom. Binky, Sniffer and I had a grand old time. We chatted to some girls from the village who were quite outrageous in their flirtatiousness. The menfolk weren't too pleased, I can tell you. But that was back when I was in my prime."
Mrs Percy appears at this point to have drifted into a light sleep.
Presently, the charabanc arrives at the Caves of Doom at Lower Doom. The village nestles on a valley floor, between bleak and barren hillsides. The passengers are disgorged, and make their way up the stone steps to a turnstile at the cave entrance.
"Do we have to pay extra, Major?" Mrs Percy enquires.
"A nominal fee, Mrs Percy," the Major reassures her. "Merely to assist with the running costs. It shan't put a severe dent in one's disposable income."
After forking out forty four pounds, for two tickets and a guide brochure, Mrs Percy, struggling to keep her eyes open, stands within the Caves of Doom at Lower Doom and fixes the Major with an accusing stare.
"It smells quite strongly of urine Major," she sniffs. "And the cavern is littered with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and what look suspiciously like used condoms."
"You're missing the point," the Major says. "These caves are a miracle of nature. Look at the rock formations displayed in the glow of that paraffin lamp. Truly wondrous!"
Mrs Percy appears unconvinced.
"It whiffs of ammonia, and it's strewn with rubbish, and what could best be described as 'surgical waste.' Also, it says 'caves' on the brochure. This is just one cave. Singular. Not 'caves' in the plural. And it isn't very big."
"There are other caves up the hillside," the Major explains.
"Are they included in the price of admission?"
"Of course. But it's a little awkward getting into them, because you need climbing ropes and pitons to get to the entrances, and then they are a little claustrophobic."
"You have to crawl in for about fifty yards on your belly, and you need a pot-holing helmet with a light on. Otherwise you can't see a thing, and you can easily take a wrong turning in the dark. You could become lost forever in the labyrinth."
"Marvellous. Now can we get back to the charabanc Major? Only the smell of ammonia is starting to give me a headache."
"Certainly," the Major grins. "The charabanc will be due to depart to our next destination in four minutes and...twelve seconds."
"I hope it's a more worthwhile attraction than this one," Mrs Percy wrinkles her nose up.
"Don't worry! It'll be splendid! Absolutely Splendid!"
To be continued...