This is one of the best anecdotes of the weekend - and that is no mean feat, given the calibre of the rest of them.
Once Lucy and I had decided on the venue etc, we had to sit down and work out the logistics of transporting 10 girls, ourselves, and several "bachelors" to a remote castle, about 80 minutes' drive from Glasgow.
Initially Lucy and I planned to drive ourselves and do various airport/station runs. But then she hit on the idea of hiring a bus.
The more we talked about the weekend as a whole, the more we felt it would be fun/appropriate to have Miss Hammond-Grant collect the girls in character. However we had two problems:
1) There was a significant gap between the airport pick-up and the train station pick-up. Suppose the first batch of girls alerted the others on Twitter?
and 2) Your average hire-firm minibus/coach driver is potentially going to be - at the very least - a bit unnerved by some tweed-clad, posh snow queen shouting at slightly frightened grown women who have no idea where they're going, had their phones taken off them, and been suddenly plunged into role without any warning.
We decided therefore that we would confiscate all phones when we picked up each batch, and also that I would see how the land lay with the driver on the day and see if he'd be up for letting me be in character if we slipped him a wee tip.
As mentioned previously, due to the various upheavals and obstacles in the run up to the actual event, not much thought was given to the whole driver thing, and on the arrival day we were so snowed under with last minute food buying/lesson prep after the astonishing 2 hours' sleep, that I basically had to throw everything of mine into Lucy's car and drive on my own out to the castle so I could actually meet the bus driver there.
I had 20 minutes to transform into AHG, which also included ironing and putting some make-up on, so when the driver turned up early and rang the castle bell, I had to leg it, half-dressed, down two flights of stairs and draw back the huge bolts on the front door to ask him if he wouldn't mind just waiting in the coach for a few minutes. Agh.
By the time I was ready, Lucy had just arrived having been driven up by our father. They'd invited the driver into the kitchen for a cuppa, and started chatting a bit. When I got Lucy on her own before I left, she said "I think it's 50/50, but go with your instinct."
I pointed out that given the average of 3 hours' sleep a night for the last couple of weeks, and given the fact we were both stricken with a cold, which rendered me deaf in one ear (and still has done), I might not actually be switched on enough to judge it, but I'd see.
We were ready to leave for the first pick-up at the station. I nipped to the loo, and when I came back, Lucy grabbed me and said "we have to abort the plan: dad's told him the whole party is our dad's 70th."
This is actually less confusing than it appears - we'd hired the venue after checking it would be somewhere we could chill out undisturbed for a "party of friends and family." and were told that would be fine.
Cue Lucy and I picking the keys up from the owner on the Thursday and finding him to be rather more precious about the place than your usual holiday-home hire-owner. He was pressing quite heavily for details of why we were partying - presumably concerned that it would be some horrifically raucous 21st party which would trash the place, so we told him it was "dad's surprise 70th." with guests coming from as far afield as San Francisco. Which was true. Well. The latter bit. And much of the "surprise" bit.
When we got home in the small hours of Friday (yes, the same day we then went back and did the prep and picked the girls up. What sleep?) we'd mentioned it to dad, so it was logical for him to say to the driver, who had asked casually about the party, that it was a 70th for our dad. Except of course, Lucy had mentioned at a different time to the driver that the other man in the kitchen - clearly not someone of 70 years of ages- was her father. Cue slightly perplexed driver.
I then went out to do the hour and 15 minute journey in which I had to be probing and scoping the situation the whole darn time. I suppose at least I wasn't driving this time. (I incidentally made that journey 7 times on the Friday. Splendidly sick of the view and corkscrew roads by the 6th go...)
I started up a standard, friendly conversation. Talking about cars and driving, his family and home etc, which engaged him nicely and let me see him speaking without reserve. After about 20 minutes I steered us back to talking about the pick-up. I needed an opener that would let me properly test the waters, so went with a bit of silence, and then:
Me: "Wow. I guess you must get a fair few rowdy groups on your buses?"
Driver: "Oh no. The boss is really precious about the buses. We don't allow any weddings, or hen parties, or rugby/football teams."
Erk. Not a good start. I make sympathetic, slightly disapproving conversation about how badly said parties can behave after a drink or two.
He asked if the group we were picking up would be excited about the party. I said that yes, they would be, but also probably a bit nervous, as they didn't know where we'd be going.
He silently queried this, so I ventured further with a nice, laid-back "We're actually doing quite a cool theme for the weekend. It's kind of like... oh, how can I describe it... role playing?"
A brief pause, in which my mind is hammering various-case scenarios and distraction prospects...
Driver: "Oh, like a murder mystery weekend?"
Me: "Sort of, yes. Except it's not as conventional... *thinking fast* actually, it's going to be quite unusual... Lucy and I are really into retro fashion and activities, and we're going to teach the girls things like flower-arranging and deportment and lady-like walking. It's like a kind of... Finishing School? I'm going to be this teacher who talks like this and is quite strict about them doing things properly."
I hold my breath slightly and hope that didn't sound too weird. The driver thinks for a moment.
Driver: "Sort of like Ladette to Lady?"
Me: *making rather enthusiastic gestures in much the same way as a charades player* "Yes! Exactly like that!"
Driver: "That's a really cool idea. Really unusual. So are you an actress then?"
Me: "Yep. it's a lot of fun. Basically, like in the programme, they're going to do a meal and performance to show what they've learned when the guys arrive tomorrow for the proper party."
Driver: " So basically these guys are going to come in and just be cosseted by women all night? Is that not a bit sexist?"
Me: "Well. Yes, I suppose so. But it's more like an exhibition of their new skills rather than slavery. I think the girls are pretty excited to learn this stuff to be honest - it's quite a fun game to them."
Driver: "Yeah, I guess so..."
Here is the tricky bit. I've already sown the seeds for him being ok with me playing a mad posh woman on his bus, and also am insured for any freaked-out "where the hell are we going" reactions from the girls. So technically I can get away with just this. But if I want to speak to them about bad behaviour on the bus - and it's a bloody long journey in the dark with no phones - I need to push this a bit further and test the water just a bit more.
We're crossing the Erskine Bridge, and the conversation has tailed off, which means I have about 20 more minutes to plant the seeds and harvest the proverbial crop. Not a long time for such a gamble, and I'm conscious that it is definitely a risky gamble for various reasons, so it does take digging deep to trust my instincts - which are good, and are actually telling me that it's ok - as it's not just me on the line if it backfires. (If it was just me and a couple of people I knew well, I'd have already told the driver by the time we turned onto the hill road. This was a bit more critical though, especially given that I had never met or spoken to pretty much half of the people going.)
I take a deep breath and fix his body language in my peripheral vision.
Me: "To be fair, I'm not sure how much they'll be up for learning anyway. I think some of them might mess about a bit and be naughty..."
Driver: "Oh. But if they're putting on the party for the guys they'll probably need concentrate on that."
Me: fuck it, I'm going for it. "Well the thing is, part of the reason they're doing the whole Finishing thing is... well... goodness, how can I explain it... in their personal lives they're all into... well, spanking."
*insert pause while I monitor his reaction from the side whilst desperately trying to appear nonchalant.*
Me: "Er. Yes."
Driver: "Hang on, this just took a turn - you're saying they like spanking?"
Me: "Yeah. So if they're messing about or drop dinner or whatever then they'll get punished. But they actually find it very exciting, I suppose."
Driver: "Sounds a bit like something in the News of the World."
Me: *swallows a tonsil* "Well. I think they cover plenty of that these days. They've moved on to much more exciting things."
Driver: "Well... That's really something... I had no idea things like this happened. I've never done anything like that. Though I did get spanked once - my leaving do at my last job, they got me this woman to come in, and she dressed in a skimpy nurse outfit, and she spanked me with her hand, and then a cane."
Me: "Ooh, the cane is rather severe!" *guffaw*
Driver: "It didn't do anything for me though. Just hurt."
Me: "Well, obviously it's each to their own. Some folk like this kind of thing, some don't. There shouldn't be an issue either way if everyone's happy."
We then have another few moment's silence. I've been texting Lucy updates throughout the journey. Starting with "Don't think it's a goer." Then progressing through "Still scoping -I've explained it's a role-playing weekend" to "Well, I've told him it's spanking. And he seems to be ok. If perplexed."
We're driving along in the dark now.
Driver: "You've got me quite shocked about that now. I'm thinking about it all."
Hmm. I need to do a bit more gentle banter I think.
We're approaching the station where 6 girls are waiting outside Thorntons, oblivious to their fate. The driver informs me he'll drop me and then go round the block if he can't park. I need to make this seem like more of a game, so proffer "Wow, this is going to be quite funny - I must practise my accent and making sure they sit nicely on the bus for you!"
Driver: "I can be Parker!"
Me: *air punches like a mad woman on the inside whilst maintaining outward friendly composure* "If you like! You're our driver!"
Driver: "I mean, if that's ok as a name. I just thought of Lady Penelope's chauffeur."
Me: "That's brill. I hope they're not cheeky to you, you might have to tell them to sit quietly..."
And so I go and fetch the girls. Still not entirely sure how cool he is with the whole thing, but confident at least that he won't freak out when AHG returns.
I see the suitcases first. And the winter coats. Leia-Ann spots me striding towards them in my highly unsubtle Mulberry check waistcoat in mustard yellow, a pencil skirt and heeled brogues, and the smile on her face as she is about to greet her friend Amy is disrupted when I fix them all with an unamused stare and ask if they're for Darling's.
it's rush hour. The station is full of commuters, and I'm very aware that I am not dressed subtly. Or behaving subtly. Or walking subtly. I do a head count, locate them all, and then instruct them to follow me. A nervous hush has descended over the group. People look over at the strict, polished brunette and her brisk, loud walk and see a gaggle of girls in her wake.
We locate the bus, and Parker comes out and opens the door.
I ask him if he could put their cases in the back, and he says "Certainly Madam." and then once seated he informs the girls that they will be expected to wear their seatbelts at all times on the journey and not make a mess.
I confiscate the phones and take my seat at the front again, smiling to myself and occasionally interjecting their conversations with reprimands when the subject is inappropriate.
Parker starts to join in with this, asking if "Madam thinks the young ladies would be interested to know some of the landmarks on the way." and "I must say, Madam, that I do not feel the young ladies should be discussing their favourite beer."
Brilliant. I am responding in the affirmative and silently listening to the conversations behind me for things that will drop them in it when we arrive at the Academy. Things like discussion of multiple partners, shagging and lewd comments about ferrets. I am also texting Lucy with "Parker is being strict!!"
The atmosphere in the bus starts to chill the further into the dark we drive. After about an hour, they are thoroughly disorientated. The route involved a drive past an MOD base, and Lucy and I were a bit concerned when we hit it the first time due to poring through the directions and suddenly assuming we'd gone very wrong. We both laughed that it'd be funny to imply that the huge barbed-wire gates and armed posts were for the Academy, so as we approached it I announced to the girls "Ladies, we will shortly be met by Mrs Darling at the gates of the Academy..." and Parker slowed right down to approach the gates.
The hush that descended over the girls was exquisite - except for Leia-Ann, who pretty much came in her pants. Then we pulled away down another road and I exclaimed "Only joking, girls!"
Relieved laughter from behind me accompanied my text to Lucy saying that I'd pretty much made them shit themselves.
Upon arrival we rang the front bell, and Lucy drew back all the big bolts and slowly opened the doors. I told Parker to go and get another cup of coffee, and we sat 6 very unsure ladies down in the drawing room and handed out the folders containing the rules, the timetables, and the group information.
Lucy then asked me to read them the rules - two pages of them that I hadn't seen before and that she'd typed up at 5am, incidentally - as her voice had nearly gone by then.
I did this in full booming AHG voice, and it clearly carried around the ground floor.
I got ready for the second pick-up from the Airport - now at the end of my second or third wind of the day and throwing back a cup of coffee to prepare for yet another journey. I had a quick word with the driver in the kitchen to check he wasn't freaking out, and he giggled and commented how nervous they'd been and how funny it was. Winner.
As we left, I stopped to put the confiscated phones in a safe place (and also to empty my poor handbag a bit - I'd been carrying my ebony hairbrush with me as a character prop, and that plus my phone, a wallet, and 7 smartphones was a bit excessive.) and as I headed out, Parker came back in to find me.
Parker: "Madam, one of the young ladies is smoking outside already, and that is against the rules you read. Should you come out and chastise her?"
Me: *doing some wild celebratory dance in my head* "Why yes, thank you for alerting me to this, Parker."
And so it was that Leia-Ann found herself having her first run-in with Miss Hammond-Grant before lessons had even begun.
I'd not told Parker that Lucy and I would be spanking the girls, but I figured he'd taken to the idea so well I might as well just go for it, so informed her to lift up her coat and bend over.
The driver's cab faced directly on to her jean-clad bottom, and the outdoor light illuminated every aspect as I took the hairbrush out and walloped her 6 times with it.
Then I marched off to the bus. As I shut the door, Parker asked
"Was that for my benefit?"
Me: "Partially, yes."
Parker; "Gosh, I'm all a-quiver."
Me: *grins in the dark*
We chatted about all sorts on the journey back to the city. I needed a bit of time out of character and even a little zone-out, and he respected that.
As we approached the airport he said he was going to pop in for a Caffe Nero, and asked if I wanted one too. As much as I love it, I had to decline, as I don't think it's a very Hammond-Grant drink. Not in the takeaway cup, anyway.
As we walked into the airport I handed him the cash tip, which he tried to refuse, but I insisted, saying that he was being such a good sport and it was making everyone's weekend so much better.
We discovered Caffe Nero had gone, so he said he'd walk to the meeting point with me. The airport was rammed. God knows what was going on, but there were crowds everywhere. I had a "Darling's Academy" sign with the crest on it and was holding it in front of me, as I hadn't met or seen any of the airport group before.
Parker looked with me, and we eventually spotted them huddled with their cases. Again there was the realisation on the faces that this was not an informal, chatty meeting, and I checked they were all there. Then Parker suddenly announced himself as Parker, their driver, and told them to bring their luggage along to the bus.
I set off alongside him, and was aware almost straight away that they were not following immediately behind us. Looking back, they were bunched up, suddenly very unsure about following these two strangers out of an airport.
I slowed my pace a bit, and Parker said he'd go ahead and meet me at the bus.
When we arrived there, he had put on his smart chauffeur's jacket, and then opened the door for "madam", went to the back of the bus and told the girls to line up smartly and pass their luggage to him one by one.
I am suddenly hugely glad that they are all facing away from me, as this strictness makes me grin involuntarily.
We get on the bus, and he stands up at the front and gives them an introductory lecture about behaviour on the bus. My life!
Of course, the girls all assume (as did the previous set) he's a scene guy we have gotten to hire a bus, so start to behave like little madams. We've not left the airport before the singing starts. Songs bordering on very rude, and enthusiastic renditions of numbers from highly non-PC show Avenue Q.
Caoilfhionn starts baiting Parker, asking questions incessantly. Are we there yet? Would you like some cheese? Can we drink water? Would you like us to sing another song?
We stop for petrol and I am serenaded by the four of them singing a song for Miss Hammond-Grant, accompanied by what I think is a kazoo. (Bear in mind I am deaf in one ear and facing away from them.)
I get banter back for every reprimand I try, and so I sit back and let them talk themselves into trouble - again, storing up things they're saying for later - and let Parker deal with some of the back-chat.
He throws in a few comments about how cold it is in the academy and he hopes they have brought their winceyette pyjamas as we might get snowed in (ho ho, how apt!)
The girls move on to the Sound of Music, and I send Lucy another text saying that I might lose the will to live. She replies with "Are this lot a bit more boisterous then?"
"The Hills are Alive" starts up, and after the first line an angelic "Ah-ah-ah-ahhhh." is added. Not having a full field of hearing, I am about to reprimand Jemima for this, who I believe is able to actually get that high and that loud. Then the girls chorus in delight "Parker is singing!"
My eyes widen slightly, as they continue, and another set of "Ahh"s is heard. This time I see Parker actually singing it. They finish the song and express disappointment that he didn't do a final Ah at the end. To which he replies;
"I think the ladies will find that the song does not end with that chord."
Well that shut them up.
An attempt at "Doe, a deer" was then made, which disintegrated after the first two lines, and Parker exclaimed "If you're going to sing that at least get the words right, ladies."
Fabulous. Our bus driver is a musicals fan. This is almost better than the Parker stuff.
I do the MOD trick again on the way past, which also results in 4 tightened bum-cheeks on the back seat, and then we arrive at the academy.
I didn't explain that Lucy and I would be using different names for the weekend - feeling that detail was probably a little bit unnecessary in the grand scheme of "please don't have me arrested for being a mad, abducting pervert" things - so as we pulled into the driveway he announced to the girls that
"Lady Lucy will be waiting for you in the grand hall."
Well if that's not initiative, I don't know what is. He'd had to call me to chastise Leia, and had said "Miss Amy" at that time, so this was even more fabulous.Talk about getting into the spirit of things.
We bundled the girls into the castle, and Lucy and I popped out quickly to express our thanks. He said it had been the weirdest hire he'd had, but the most fun, and to ask for him if we ever needed school transport again.
We said we'd definitely do so, and would be giving his boss a glowing report about how fab he was. Then off he went, probably playing over everything in his head the whole way home.
We had a bit of sushi and sandwiches as an easy evening meal, and Lucy told me that while I'd been gone, they'd had a little down-time out of character as it was all a bit intense, so we had a little more over the evening meal, which I found a bit tricky to get into at first, but then once she suggested I told the girls the truth about the driver, I was able to relax. And thoroughly enjoy the mortification on the faces. Especially Leia, whose "penny dropping" moment was priceless.
The Airport girls were horrified, exclaiming that they'd only behaved badly because they assumed he was "one of us".
I was asked to relay the story to all the guests at the end of the weekend, and then once I had delivered the whole tale, was asked if I would write it all down.
And so here it is.
Rather like Jackanory. But much cooler.