Jonny McCambridge: The hotel break - peace, pool, prunes … and a clear victory in the steam room challenge

​In the midst of the tempest, a rare opportunity for calm.
Prunes - or the dried form of the European plum - are a rare treat these days and are the true prize of a visit to a hotel breakfast buffetPrunes - or the dried form of the European plum - are a rare treat these days and are the true prize of a visit to a hotel breakfast buffet
Prunes - or the dried form of the European plum - are a rare treat these days and are the true prize of a visit to a hotel breakfast buffet

My wife and I have procured some prized days off work to coincide with the mid-term school holiday. The P7 transfer test looms large, bringing with it stress and tears, and I decide a short hotel break would benefit us all. I announce the plan and, trying to realise the ancient Greek ideal of demokratia, I want everyone’s input.

I select a blank piece of paper and ask everyone what they would like from the mini-break. My wife answers instantly.

“I’d just like a couple of days of peace.”

I nod my head solemnly and write on the paper, “PEACE".

My son also has a ready answer.

“Can we go somewhere with a swimming pool?”

I nod again and write “POOL”.

It is my turn. I take a few moments.

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“I’d like to go,” I begin in a tone of deep profundity, “somewhere that has prunes for breakfast.”

I notice my wife and son exchanging glances and shaking their heads as I write down “PRUNES”.

Several days later and we are at breakfast in the hotel. My son is buzzing excitedly about the prospect of going to the pool and I am trying to hold him back, telling him that I want a third bowl of prunes first.

I am unashamed in declaring my love for the dried form of the European plum. It reminds me unfailingly of primary school dinners. The truth is that I am not sure I have ever enjoyed food as much as I did back then. The array of cakes and steamed puddings with thick custard, the rice pudding with strawberry jam and the semolina topped with prunes, their sweet dark juice rippling through the white creaminess.

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But prunes are not something that I think I have ever bought at the supermarket. Nor can I ever remember seeing them on the menus of fancy restaurants or cafes. I only get to enjoy them for breakfast at hotels. Of course, I love the hot food buffet, but the fact is you can get a fry anywhere on any day. The prunes are the true prize.

Soon my son’s enthusiasm for swimming can be held back no longer and we arrive at the pool. Mindful of my wife’s request for peace I offer to take him in while she relaxes at the spa. But there is a problem, there are an abundance of other families who have obviously had the same idea.

The pool is crammed with children and parents so that it is difficult to spot any area of clear water. I am reminded of the scene at the end of the Titanic movie where hundreds of panicking and flailing passengers are deposited into the freezing Atlantic as the great liner slowly sinks.

My son is undeterred and goes straight in. I follow, slightly more hesitantly, allowing myself to become used to the temperature of the water. Soon, we are paddling merrily while being regularly deluged by teenagers sending up huge splashes as they jump in at the deep end.

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We spend more than an hour in the pool and I begin to fear that it will be impossible ever to persuade my son to leave. My hands become wrinkly like the prunes I consumed for breakfast.

But then my son spots something in the water, amid the multiple pre-school children. It is a UFO (unidentified floating object). He asks me to examine it more closely. I decline and instead we flee the water.

There are two points I feel I must make at this point:

1. I did not get close enough to make any positive identification of the object. No inferences can be drawn on it;

2. Categorially it cannot be linked to my consumption of industrial levels of prunes for breakfast.

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We decide to join my wife in the spa. I head straight for the steam room. As I open the door another man also enters. We take our seats facing each other in the tiny blue-tiled room while steam rises about us.

However, we have stumbled straight onto a sticky problem. As we both entered the steam room at the same time, it is clear that neither of us will want to be the first to leave it. It is an unspoken but deeply understood male challenge – who can endure the steam for the longest? The shame of being the first to crack and leave the room would be too much to bear internally.

We sit there. He looks at me. It is hard to be sure amid the thick steam, but I think I can discern a sneer of disdain. I look at the ceiling and try to ignore the fact that my backside is on fire on the ceramic bench.

The agony goes on for what seems like hours. We are both clearly wilting, but remain resolute, stubborn and determined. I am taking deep breaths and really want to lie down. My eyes are watery and I start to doubt if my feet are still attached to my legs.

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And then, a breakthrough. The door is opened and a woman I don’t recognise peers in.

"What are you doing hiding in there? Come and play with the children!”

The man meekly complies and the victory is mine. The fact that it was achieved through the intervention of a third party does not, in my opinion, make it in the least bit pyrrhic.

I wait there just for a few more seconds, underlining my triumph before I burst from the steam room. I am reminded of the scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy emerges from the wardrobe after her first visit to Narnia.

I find my wife and son in the jacuzzi.

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"It’s me!” I proclaim gaily. “I’m alright! I’m OK! Were you not worried?”

My wife, seemingly annoyed at having her peace shattered, looks puzzled.

"What are you talking about? You were only in there for two minutes.”