‘Grace, have you ever seen anything more beautiful?’
Gladys and I both stepped out of the gratitude—oh for goodness sake, breakfast room—and onto the luscious lawn of the back garden. She was right, the Zen garden was quite possibly one of the most incredible things that I’d ever laid eyes on. Set on the edge of a cliff that overlooked the Yosemite National Park, with its craggy cliffs in the background and rolling blue skies, the Zen garden was nothing less than an enormous leaf-perfect, symmetrical maze of green bushes and plants.
A small river ran through the garden with some expertly chipped stones laid out for us to frolic over. After skipping over to one of the raised lookout points, we both sat down on a rustic white bench on the edge of the cliff. Gladys removed her Mickey Mouse shades and breathed in deeply as she took in the scenery. ‘This is the life, right? If only every day was this perfect.’
‘I suppose, but they don’t exactly have The Smokin’ Haggis Caff, do they?’
Gladys leant back. ‘Oh, come on, look at this.’
‘Okay, maybe you’re right. I swear, almost every time I’m in there for a breakfast, I look out the caff window and there’s a coffin arriving at the church. That’s not really the bad part. It’s just they’re such a bunch of butter-fingers. The amount of times I’ve seen them drop one as I’m mid-chew on a piece of sausage.’
‘Couldn’t you just sit in a different seat?’
‘Can’t play spot-the-serial-killer though, can I? And Liverpool’s full of them, so it’s a cracking game to play over a fry-up.’
The sound of an ear-caressing chime echoed through the Yosemite. It was Eric banging an enormous brass gong on one of the other large, raised platforms across the garden.
‘Come on,’ Gladys said. ‘Looks like they’re starting.’
Much to both Gladys’ and my disappointment, there were no seats on the other raised platform, meaning we had to sit in these ridiculous yoga poses on the floor. I counted ten fruit-loops in total, not including Gladys and me, who were gathered around in a circle.
To my left sat the man from the coach, Barry from London, who said he was going to spend all of his holiday in his room, finding himself. He’d gone from looking like an accountant to wearing nothing but a silk kaftan and a very loose pair of silk shorts. I covered my mouth with my hands as I watched him lecture me about sitting properly at the same time as attempting a full lotus. His chubby, thirty-five-year-old legs kept springing out from underneath him as he attempted to get his body to stay in position. I couldn’t resist telling him he should probably eat more chickpeas before dishing out advice like that next time, to which I swear I heard him mutter something unholy, but when I questioned him about it he simply said, ‘I will pray for you’, in a very strained voice and then closed his eyes.
Next to him sat two twin sisters named Dotty and Delilah from Australia, each doing a full lotus pose with their eyes firmly closed. They were in their fifties, with long blonde hair that reached their waists and very statuesque demeanours. They were so statuesque, in fact, that despite Barry falling into them three times, they didn’t so much as flinch once. I really needed to remember that for a later date.
Sat next to them was a Scottish couple, called Anna and Scotty McHappy, who were clearly newbies. Anna was wearing heels and Scotty was sat in a half lotus position with a face that said “kill me now”. I instantly liked them.
Next to them were a couple of high-flying New Yorkers in their twenties called Chad and Mia. I couldn’t stand them. Chad kept talking to me about the price of the dollar and some bloke he worked with called Dow Jones, non-stop. I swear he could talk without breathing.
His wife, Mia, who was clearly a professional, high-flying mother, spent the whole time chatting to a woman next to her, called Felicity, about the complications of organising and parenting. Their whole conversation seemed to be directed at all the things Felicity’s eighteen-year-old son, Poet, who was sat next to her, did wrong.
Poet handled it like a pro; he just kept saying, ‘Yes Mum, right Mum, in this dull-set tone whilst staring out into the garden. I quickly caught on to Poet’s clever tactics and decided that I too was going to take a leaf out of his book. ‘Yes Chad, right Chad, interesting, I see, I will, yes Chad.’
The final person in the group, and possibly the most annoying, was sat right in between Gladys and Poet. It was the woman we met on yesterday’s coach who insisted that we call her “Spirit Butterfly”. She had struck up conversation with Gladys about the anatomy of an aura, and Gladys was less than impressed.
In the end, Gladys kept continuously calling her real name, Donna, and the conversation between the pair dried up very fast. Gladys smiled like a Cheshire cat when Donna announced that she was no longer able to converse with her unless she called her by her spirit name.
It wasn’t a moment too soon before the king and queen of fruit-loops, who owned the hotel, glided in. I had to double-take as they swanned towards us looking all serious and a bit related. I swear, at first glance, I thought the Krays had gone into the five-star yoga retreat business. They both wore faces of steel and matching boho outfits, which didn’t help their cause one little bit.
The wife, named High Mistress Breeze, had this flyaway brown hair which literally screamed “comb me”, and clearly had decided to give up pruning herself a long time ago, opting for the “au naturel” look which she coordinated perfectly with a face that had an answer for everything.
Behind her, her husband, who I thought was more of a Meerkat Heart rather than a Lion Heart, as he was named, shuffled in with his head down.
Eric bowed as they arrived and proceeded to bang the gong before anything that High Mistress Breeze said.
High Mistress Breeze stepped forward and spoke in a calm yet stern voice. ‘Namaste everyone, welcome to the The Hardcore Mind, Body and Soul Lodge Next to The Yosemite National Park.’
High Mistress Breeze continued. ‘I see we need to work on our sitting positions; however, Grace, I can’t quite explain yours.’
Everyone looked at me. ‘It’s called spread-eagle,’ I said, slapping my legs.
‘I see, well, maybe you should follow Gladys’ perfect example of a Makarasana if you’re finding it difficult.’
Everyone looked at Gladys who was lying down flat on her stomach with her elbows out in front of her and her chin resting in her hands. Gladys turned to me and smirked. I couldn’t bloody believe it.
Eric banged the gong again.
‘Today we have a special day of yoga and meditation in the Yosemite planned, so please bring your yoga mats for comfort. Grace and Gladys, I don’t see your names on the sign-up form? There are lots of different classes going on. I’m taking a session in the Yosemite but there’s also butterfly catching taking place here in the Zen garden.’
‘Ahh, we are …’
Eric banged the gong and then spoke in a monotone voice. ‘I am taking Grace and Gladys into Hollywood to purchase green stones. We will return later on’, and then banged the gong again.
‘Well then, if anyone would like green stones then please ask Eric who I am sure wouldn’t mind purchasing some for you. Please check the activity book on the front desk and sign up to as many activities as you like during your stay here with us. Tomorrow night we will be holding a one-off seance, so I expect that you can all make it.’
Then High Mistress Breeze said no more. She simply bowed to everyone and made her way back across the garden with her sheepish husband scurrying behind her. As she did so, Eric very skilfully played a soothing tune, using some half-filled water bottles, as we watched them both bounce over the stream and into the lodge.
‘Well, that couldn’t have been any more weird,’ I said, turning back to Gladys.
‘You heard what she said, didn’t you?’ Gladys replied.
‘Yes. That you shouldn’t date your doppelganger like she did? Whatta weirdo.’
‘Date your doppelganger? Grace, no, when did she say that? I meant the bit where she didn’t say ‘I hope you can make it’, instead she said ‘I expect that you can make it’. Does that mean we have to go to a seance?’
‘I hope bloody not. What if a ghost turns up? Don’t think I can handle that.’
‘Oh, come on, Grace, don’t be silly.’ Gladys sank back into her Makarasana position and snorted. ‘Yeah, right, as if the ghost of King Kong will suddenly manifest in the truth room.’
I pointed straight at Gladys and held my finger firmly to her nose. ‘Gladys, Gladys, Gladys. Are you saying to me that there is the slightest possibility, or even a chance or a bigger possibility, that King Kong might just have a ghost?’
‘No, Grace, I’m just saying—’
‘So you are saying that, like … that general apes or gorillas have ghosts too? Or do monkeys have ghosts? Or … where does it end? Are you also saying that other things have ghosts too? Like, could our imaginations have ghosts? Or could some of the animals on that programme you watch have ghosts? Or are you—’
‘Grace, I’m not saying that.’
‘I think that’s what you said though. Let me get this straight, we are—’
‘Grace, let’s go.’
‘I really think we need to talk about this.’
Gladys stood up. ‘Okay, you know what? We will go to this seance and I will prove to you that there’s no such thing as ghosts, okay?’
‘Fine, but if a ghost of anything turns up I will hold you fully responsible.’
‘You’re also wrong about something else.’
‘There is no such thing as a truth room. It’s called a li-ving r-oom.’
Eric George Broadbent—that was what his parents called him, not Spirit Fire as he liked being referred to.
On our way to the Squirrel Reserve, we told Eric about my mix up at the bank and he dished the gossip on the Squirrel Reserve. ‘Rumour has it,’ Eric said as he drove, ‘that High Mistress Breeze and the Squirrel Reserve are arguing over the land. High Mistress Breeze owns the land and rented it to a man called Amos Ames, who built a Squirrel Reserve on it. Now she wants the land back though because the business is struggling, so she can extend the lodge over it, but Amos is refusing. All normal enough, but here’s the weird part. Squirrels have been going missing and everyone is blaming High Mistress Breeze.’
I gripped my mouth. ‘No way.’
Gladys leant towards us from the backseat. ‘Do you think High Mistress Breeze is stealing the squirrels then, to drive Amos off the land?’
‘Well, it looks that way,’ Eric said. ‘But it gets even weirder. I asked High Mistress Breeze about this and she got very upset and snapped at me. She said that she didn’t want the land back at all and was happy with them renting it for now. Then she stormed off. I’ve never asked her about it again. She can be pretty scary when she wants to be.’
‘Stealing squirrels, that is the worst.’
‘No, Grace, it gets even weirder,’ Eric continued. ‘Not only are squirrels going missing, but last year one of the guests did. He was a Hollywood executive who checked in for one night and then by morning had completely disappeared. The police never found him. A coincidence maybe, but now you show up saying the Squirrel Reserve had taken loads of money off you. What next?’
‘Well, we are about to find out,’ Gladys said, pointing to a sign for the Squirrel Reserve.
With a thick backdrop of trees and foliage surrounding us, we made our way down a thin dirt track towards the Squirrel Reserve. Halfway down, I squealed with delight as I spotted a small Californian Grey Squirrel on the path ahead. I followed the beautiful little creature as he led us to a small clearing in the woods set in front of a badly beaten wooden shack.
The cute little mite scurried up a tree stub in the middle of the clearing and sat down. Gladys and Eric hung back whilst I wasted no time in creeping up on the squirrel and making their favourite squirrel noise as I neared. ‘Choochy-coo. Choochy-choochy-coo.’
Looking back, I now realise that had I not have been so wrapped up in hugging this beautiful little creature then I might have been able to notice the fact that there was strange silence hanging in the forest, or the fact that there was nobody in the Squirrel Reserve, or the fact that a couple of the bushes were moving inconsistently in the breeze. But I didn’t.
And that’s when it happened: four screaming bushes sprang up from the ground, to at least twenty feet in the air, and began descending towards me like a fight scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Needless to say, I was the epitome of calm, so I ran and hid behind Gladys. Gladys, however, placed hands on her hips and said, ‘I think someone should start telling me exactly what is going on here and, before you even think about it, I can tell when you’re lying.’
All four bushes landed with a thud on the ground and then stood up with their heads hanging low and sighed; they knew full-well they were rumbled.
Once the bushes had brushed themselves down and removed the final twigs, I quickly realised that stood before me was just about the weirdest ambush team I had ever laid eyes on.
‘Names and particulars. Now,’ Gladys said.
‘Howdy, I’m Amos,’ said a pensioner at the front wearing a cowboy hat, brown leather trousers with frills and a checked shirt. ‘Born and raised in Texas. I’m eighty-five, I like saving squirrels and playing hoop. I moved here seventy years ago to chase my dreams of becoming a Western film star, except no one watches Westerns.’
‘Thank you, Amos. Now, how about you?’ Gladys pointed to an old man at the back who was wearing a flouncy red shirt with a pair of incredibly tight, white trousers.
‘I’m Miguel,’ said the pensioner at the back whilst stroking his long black hair. ‘I’m seventy-five, born and raised in Mexico. I love singing, dancing and everything. I moved to Hollywood about fifty years ago to chase my life-long dreams of becoming a stunt driver for big budget films except, on my first ever job, I was about to drive a car through a burning building when I realised that it was a very, very dangerous thing for a Mexican man like me to do … so I drove away.’ Miguel hung his head down. ‘I never work since.’
‘Thank you, Miguel. And you?’ Gladys pointed to a pensioner who was stood to the right of Miguel wearing a multi-coloured shirt with a cockatoo design and khaki shorts.
‘Name’s Stevie Stars, I’m a—’
‘Ohh, ohh, Miss, please, me, Miss.’ Miguel held his hand up.
‘I just wanted to say that I love saving squirrels too.’
‘Well, thank you, Miguel. That’s what we like to hear. Stevie Stars, please continue.’
‘Right, so, did I say my name was Stevie Stars?’ We all nodded. ‘Right, well, okay, so I’m a game show host from a little place called Finland. I’m seventy-nine and moved here aged ten years old to host my own game show called “Bedtimes And Other Rubbish Rules” but that sank, so at eleven I started my own game show called “I’m Pretty Sure My Homework Is Making Me Stupid” but that sank, so aged thirteen I started my own game show called “My Friends’ Parents Don’t Give Him Chores” but that sank, and then at fourteen I started my own game show called “Dishes Do Not Need Washing Straight Away” but that sank …’
Everybody got comfy as Stevie Stars continued.
‘… but that sank too, so at eighteen I started my own game show called “I Like Asking My Parents Their Advice and Then Disagreeing with Them …”
Miguel put the kettle on.
‘… then at thirty-seven I started my own game show called “I Moved Back Home with My Parents and They’re Still Just as Annoying” but that sank, then at thirty-eight …’
I hugged a passing squirrel and Amos fired up the barbecue.
‘… but that sank. Then at forty-nine I started a game show called “My Parents Are Both Dead and They Left Everything to The Zoo” but that sank, then at …’
Eric got bitten by a squirrel and I nearly wet myself.
‘… and so last year I retired from the business. I like saving squirrels now.’
‘Well, thank you very much, Stevie Stars, for your detailed explanation. And how about you?’ Gladys pointed to a young woman who had long black hair to her bum, a Corpse Bride dress with striped leggings on and looked in desperate need of a sunbathe.
‘Hi, I’m Lucy from France. So, I’m twenty and I moved here to be in a heavy metal band so I could be an extra in a film that required a heavy metal band, but nobody has ever accepted me.’ Amos patted Lucy on the shoulders. ‘It’s just, like, I can never tell what they’re playing so I’ve never been able to play the same song twice, so I ended up saving squirrels instead. But that’s okay, isn’t it?’ Everyone nodded. ‘Because I love squirrels, and being here, you know, you’re all like my family, so it’s okay.’
Amos stepped forward. ‘And who are you?’
‘I’m Grace,’ I said.
Amos, Miguel, Stevie Stars and Lucy all let out a gasp and stepped back. ‘You mean, Grace from Britain?’
I scrunched my nose to one side. ‘No, Grace from Liverpool.’
‘Oh, thank goodness.’ Amos bent over and rested his hands on his knees as he sighed. ‘It’s just this woman called Grace has been stalking us over some money she donated. Miguel accidentally told the bank it was more than it was supposed to be and we’ve been hiding from her ever since because we spent it all.’
Lucy, Stevie Stars and Miguel all laughed. ‘Phew, right,’ they said as they wiped their brow.
‘Liverpool is in Britain.’
‘Don’t worry, Gladys. I got this. Now, Amos, that brings me to my problem. You see … hold on … you spent all my money?’
‘Miguel, how could you have done that?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Grace, it’s just in Mexico we don’t have forms—’
‘Amos, you spent it all?’
‘I’m a cowboy.’
‘So where’s my Nobel Peace Prize?’
‘How about a tour of the squirrel facilities, see what we’ve done with the place, right?’ Amos said.
‘Well, I suppose it would be nice to see what you have spent all my money on.’
One minute later, after inspecting three tyres, twenty squirrel feeding boxes, twenty pieces of rope that were fixed to trees and an abandoned car, we found ourselves stood back in front of the shack again.
‘And also,’ Amos said, ‘we fixed the shack up.’
I inspected the cracked, grimy windows and loose wooden boards that had been nailed onto the front of it.
‘We fixed the leaking roof, installed a toilet and connected the telephone.’
‘I see.’ I rubbed my chin for a minute and looked around the place. Everyone stood quietly as they waited for my opinion. There was nothing for it. I flung my hands in the air and shouted, ‘I love it!’ Everyone let out a cheer.
‘Ohh, Grace, also, look what we did.’ Miguel passed me some fancy black goggles and I tried them on. ‘We can see the squirrels in the dark with these on.’
Amos pointed to a tree. ‘And look up there.’
‘There, in the tree. The tiny black box. We installed cameras all over the place so that we can catch whichever lickspittle is stealing the squirrels.’
A cold chill swept through the forest and my eyes widened. ‘Stealing the squirrels. Eric told me. That is about the worst thing that I had ever heard.’
Amos removed his cowboy hat and rested it on his chest. ‘Grace, there’s been so many of our little friends that have gone. That’s why we jumped out on you. Some yellow-belly has been stealing them. We think it’s—’
Eric stepped forward. ‘Now Amos, I’m not so sure High Mistress Breeze would do that. I spoke to her and she says she doesn’t want the land.’
‘Are you calling me a liar?’
‘No, Amos, I’m not. It’s just I’m not sure she would harm squirrels, that’s—’
‘Then who else could it be?’
‘I don’t know. I just don’t think that … I just don’t think she would, that’s all.’
‘We should find out,’ I said, stomping my foot hard into the muddy ground. ‘Me and Gladys will help. We can help you on the next stake-out.’
Stevie Stars jumped up and down. ‘Grace, we can do a stake-out tomorrow night if you want. You should come, all of you, it will be so much fun.’
‘Gladys, shall we?’
Gladys tutted so I took that as a yes. ‘Eric, what about you?’
‘Fine, and I will prove it’s not High Mistress Breeze. It will have to be after the seance though.’