The Chalet – Catherine Cooper

I hate these kind of people. They come out here on holiday once a year with their brand shiny new Salomon this and K2 that and think they know it all. They’re so annoying. They know nothing compared to me. ‘So we want some virgin tracks today. Back country. Somewhere no one else goes. Somewhere a bit challenging. Know what I mean?’ says one, his accent plummy and entitled. Yes, I know what you mean. You think you’re it, just because you went on a few trips with your posh school and now your smart City job or whatever pays enough for you to come out skiing once or twice a year. Well, let me tell you, you’re not. That’s why you have to pay someone like me who actually knows what they’re doing to come with you as soon as you venture of -piste. For all your flash gear and trying to use the right lingo, you know nothing about the mountains. Nothing.

But of course I don’t say that. These are my clients, after all. Instead I say: ‘Yup, no problem. I know exactly the place.’ I smile, rictus-like, and answer their pointless, predictable questions as we take the various lifts up to the very top. Yes, it’s fun living in a ski resort. Yes, I live here all year round. I lie about how long I’ve been here – I always do – that’s none of their business. No, I don’t have any plans to go back to the UK, etc., etc.

, etc. I love the mountains. They are my home. And my job would be almost perfect – if only I didn’t have to deal with clients. It must be around a Force 8 wind as we get out at the top. The less confident of the two – I can’t be bothered to learn their names – pulls a face as the wind slams into us. ‘Bloody hell, it’s freezing!’ he yelps. The other one, maybe a few years older, but it’s dif icult to tell the way they are so swaddled up in scarves, claps him on the back and booms, ‘Don’t be such a girl! This is what it’s all about!’ I snap my goggles on, pull my hat down over my ears and click my boots into my skis. My two clients are still faf ing around with their gloves. Hurry up! I scream inwardly.

I’m freezing. ‘Hey,’ shouts someone in a logoed jacket, one of the annoying tour reps who seem to change pretty much every year, schussing to a stop next to me. ‘You taking these guys down the couloir?’ ‘That’s the plan,’ I reply, not that it’s any of his business. He pulls a face. ‘I hope they know what they’re doing.’ And I hope you know what you’re doing, is what he actually means. I roll my eyes – he can’t tell as I am wearing my goggles. ‘I wouldn’t be taking them if I didn’t think they were up to it,’ I snap. ‘I’ve done the risk assessment and they’ve signed all the correct forms.’ ‘Hmm.

Well, they’re my clients too and it’s a lot of paperwork and hassle for me if there’s an accident,’ he warns. Like I care about his paperwork. ‘Guys!’ the rep, I think he’s called Richard, calls to his clients, who are finally putting on their skis, thank Christ. ‘You be careful down there, OK?’ ‘Right-ho!’ the older one yells. ‘We ready for the of ?’ Just then, my business partner Andy turns up. Not for the first time, I wish I’d set up Skitastic on my own. ‘Why are you here?’ I ask. Checking up on me, no doubt. ‘My clients have decided to call it a day. Too cold, for them, apparently.

Shall I come along with you?’ I’d much rather go on my own – I don’t want Andy babysitting me and picking holes in the way I do things – but even I know I can’t say that and still look like a reasonable person. So I shrug and say: ‘If you like. Makes no dif erence to me.’ And of we go. The visibility is appalling. It was bad enough at the top, but once we’re over the back, the wind blasts directly into our faces. As I predicted, my two charges are barely up to the task. They both ticked boxes saying ‘confident black-run skiers’ on the forms – yeah right. It’s already clear that that isn’t true. I told them this was back country, but it isn’t really, luckily for them.

I knew they wouldn’t be able to cope with anything properly hardcore. ‘Couloir Noir’, as it’s called, isn’t actually a couloir at all, it’s just a steep, narrow slope. Of icially it’s of -piste, but it’s about as vanilla as of -piste can get. As long as you know where you’re going, like I do, you start at the top of the chairlift and you pop right back out at the bottom of the chairlift, no major deal. No hiking, no putting on skins. Nothing much to be alarmed about at all. But because it’s at the top of the glacier, these losers can boast about how they went ‘down a couloir of the back of the glacier’ when they get back to their pathetic little of ices or university or wherever it is they go when they’re back at home, which is all they want. I know their type. It’s no surprise to me that they don’t look like they’re enjoying it in any way. Andy has hung back a bit, saying ‘I’ll pick up any stragglers’ and left me leading the clients.

As one of them snowploughs and picks their way down, the other one bolts past me, thinking he’s something special because he can go fast, whereas in reality he’s simply out of control. It’s not big or clever, it’s downright dangerous. Andy races past me and I shout, ‘Make that guy wait! He doesn’t know where he’s going!’ but my voice disappears into the howling wind. ‘This is trickier than I expected,’ says the slower one. He’s trying to sound confident, but I can hear a wobble in his voice. I know I should say ‘You’re doing great,’ but I can’t bring myself to do that, because, well, he isn’t. Being nice is Andy’s remit, not mine. That’s the only reason I have a business partner, I’m not that good at the being friendly bit, while Andy is. I’m just here for the mountains; as far as I’m concerned, the clients are a necessary evil. Andy does the client stuf : the showing them Mont Blanc, the boasting about how the mountains are our of ice, the going on about how we have the best job in the world and all that.

So instead of of ering the struggling skier some platitude like Andy would (or lying, if you will), I turn away and simply say: ‘Follow my trail. Stay close.’ We catch up with the other guy, who has mercifully had the sense to wait, but after a brief chat about the importance of skiing within your limits I set of again, faster than I would normally like to in these conditions, to make sure I stay ahead of him. He is not going to out-ski me – I am clearly the better skier here by a mile, as well as being in charge. They should be behind me, following my trail, like I told them. Why would they book me if they’re not going to do as they’re told? Totally unhelpfully, Andy has disappeared again, who knows how far down the slope. I make a few more turns, faster this time to make sure the clients can’t overtake me again, and then look back to see where they are. And by the time I do that, they’ve both disappeared. 2 January 2020, La Madière, France Ria ‘Champagne?’ says the devastatingly pretty girl in a discreetly logoed polo shirt, holding out a tray of silver flutes. I smile and take one.

‘Thank you.’ ‘How was your trip?’ she chirrups, and then surprises me by actually waiting for an answer. ‘Oh. It was fine. Thank you.’ ‘I’m Millie. I’m your chalet girl for the week, and if there’s anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable or enjoyable, you only need to ask.’ There’s a whoosh of cold air as Hugo comes through the door and puts a proprietorial hand on my waist. I flinch. ‘Champagne, sir?’ the girl asks, proffering the tray.

‘I’m Millie. I’m here to make your stay as comfortable as possible,’ she repeats. ‘Lovely stuff,’ he says. ‘Would you like to take a seat by the fire while Matt brings your things in?’ Millie continues. ‘And I’ll bring you some canapés. The others are due in the next hour or so, so I thought we’d wait for them before we start dinner?’ With a small nod, she turns and disappears through a wooden door into what I assume must be the kitchen. Hugo and I sit down on one of the two huge sofas by the roaring fire. I take a swig of my champagne as Hugo slowly sips his. ‘It’s quite a place, huh?’ he says. It is.

An entire side of the building is plate glass – it’s dark now, but even so the view of twinkling lights across the valley is amazing – I bet it’s even more impressive during the day. The ceiling is double-height, the walls are made of stone, there’s a large granite dining table and expensive-looking fur throws everywhere. Real flambeaux were burning outside when we arrived. ‘It’s quite a place,’ I agree. Before I met Hugo, I’d never been anywhere like this. ‘It was a good idea of yours, coming here,’ he says. ‘I knew you’d like it,’ I say, blandly. ‘I’m sure Simon will love it too,’ he adds. ‘Very … suitable.’ ‘Suitable?’ I say, trying and failing to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

‘Really?’ He looks momentarily hurt, and for a split second, I feel bad. Hugo can be annoying, but he means well. And this week is important to him, I know that. ‘What is he, royalty or something?’ ‘Well, maybe “suitable” was the wrong word,’ he mumbles. ‘But if Simon has a good week, I’ve got a much better chance of him buying into the company. You know how these things go.’ I nod, wondering if I’m imagining a subtext of ‘so make sure you behave yourself then and don’t do anything to embarrass me’. He takes my hand. ‘Are you glad you came along too now?’ I turn to him and smile. ‘Yes,’ I lie.

Simon arrives around an hour later and is exactly as I expected him to be – overweight, red-faced, and with a booming voice. His comb-over looks distinctly Grecian 2000-ed. Conversely, his wife Cass isn’t what I expected at all – she’s about twenty years younger than the rest of us – easily young enough to be Simon’s daughter – with immaculate blond hair and, most surprisingly, a tiny baby in her arms. Hugo didn’t mention that. They are trailed by another young woman, in her very early twenties like Cass, who I guess must be the child’s nanny. After a round of shoulder-slapping and mild insults (Hugo and Simon) and air-kisses and fussing over the baby (Cass and I – totally insincere on my part), the nanny, Sarah, whisks baby Inigo away and we all sit down for dinner around an enormous table. Dinner is exquisite. More champagne and dainty amuse-bouches are followed by an incredibly light soufflé, then quail with dauphinoise potatoes, and a platter of desserts. And lots of wine, of course. I thought it was traditional for chalet girls to eat with their guests, but it turns out this isn’t that kind of chalet.

I should have guessed. In fact, I should have known, being the one who booked it. Millie moves efficiently between the table and the kitchen, bringing dishes, clearing plates, pouring more wine and water, so no one’s glass ever runs dry. Simon is booming away about something – I’m not really listening – and every now and then Hugo laughs or agrees sycophantically. I feel a stab of hatred for him, and then feel guilty. I knew what I was getting into when I married him. It isn’t his fault. Cass and I make polite conversation during dinner. She is sweet but dull. I ask her about the baby even though there is probably no one in the world less interested in babies than me, and she answers politely but somewhat uninterestedly.

Before Inigo’s birth she worked in catering; she hasn’t decided if she’s going back to work yet but probably not; Simon is keen she stays at home. She’s not very forthcoming. I talk a bit about my work and mine and Hugo’s wedding and she smiles and nods, her eyes glazing. I’m beginning to wish I had tried harder to persuade Hugo I didn’t need to come along this week. Millie returns with a tray of coffees and herbal teas and places it gently on the table. ‘Unless you need anything else, I’ll say goodnight?’ she says, tactfully phrasing it as a question. She must be desperate to leave by now. ‘I’ll see you all in the morning. What time would you like breakfast?’ ‘Eight o’clock please!’ Simon says, without as much as catching anyone else’s eye for agreement. ‘We want to be out on the first lift tomorrow, don’t we, Hugo?’ ‘Absolutely!’ he agrees, as I knew he would.

Whatever Simon says goes this week. ‘Ladies?’ Simon adds. ‘I’ve taken the liberty of booking you an instructor – I hope you don’t mind.’ I open my mouth to object – I don’t want to get up at eight o’clock and nor do I want a ski lesson. But Hugo shoots me a look and I close my mouth again, silently fuming. ‘Sounds great,’ says Hugo. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go to bed,’ I say, yawning theatrically and picking up a mug of herbal tea. ‘I’m going to have this in our room.’ ‘Be there in a minute, darling,’ Hugo calls. My skin prickles, and I pretend I haven’t heard.

Our room is almost as impressive as the living room. The enormous bed has crisp white linen enclosing an incredibly puffy duvet which is practically obscured by various furry throws and rugs. I stroke one of the throws. Real fur. There are exposed stone walls and wood panelling everywhere, like downstairs. A huge sliding door rolls back to reveal a freestanding bath for two in the enormous bathroom and there’s also a massive marble tile-lined shower. I kick my boots off to feel the heated floors which can be controlled by a touch panel on the wall. The room is immaculate because all our things from our matching Mulberry luggage (a wedding present from Hugo’s mother) have already been unpacked and put away. That’s one of those services that these kind of places always offer which I hate – I don’t want other people touching my things. I check that my purse and iPad are still in place in my handbag, not that I suppose for one moment they would have been stolen.

I turn the taps on in the enormous bath and tip the entire contents of one of the little green Hermès bottles in. Hermès – very nice. I strip off and throw my clothes on the floor. The mess will annoy Hugo, but I don’t care. I sink back into the bubbles, turn off the taps, and close my eyes. Only seven more days to go. ‘Ria?’ Hugo’s voice is sharp and too loud. I open my eyes. The water is lukewarm – I must have fallen asleep. ‘Have you seen my book?’ He gives me a look – I can’t quite work out if it’s reproachful or sympathetic.

‘You shouldn’t fall asleep in the bath. It’s dangerous.’ I haul myself up and Hugo hands me a robe, but not before his gaze flicks up and down my naked body. Ugh. ‘I know,’ I say. ‘I’m exhausted though. It’s been a long day.’ He trails his fingers lightly down from my neck across my breasts and down to my waist. ‘Too tired to …’ he asks. I kiss him chastely on the cheek and say: ‘Why don’t you have a quick shower and then we’ll see?’ knowing full well that I will pretend to be asleep by the time he gets into bed.

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