It was all coming back to her, Harriet Turner realized. The key to being a successful tour guide was to think of herself as a duck. A mother duck, to be precise. A thirty-two-year-old mother duck in charge of twelve elderly, excited ducklings.
She glanced back over her shoulder, doing a quick head count of her tour group. Good, all twelve were still in sight, obviously tired but upright at least. They’d followed her obediently as she led the way off the plane, through passport control, and here into the baggage collection area of Bristol Airport. Ten gray-haired women, two balding men, none of them under sixty-five years of age, all in comfortable clothes and sensible shoes. Each sported a large turner travel: tours tailored just for you nametag on one shoulder and a homemade i’m on the willoughby tour! badge on the other. Some looked bedraggled from the long journey, but more than half were still smiling. The excitement of arriving in England had obviously lifted their spirits. Harriet was glad to see it.
Her protective feelings toward them had grown with each step of the journey. She’d arrived at Melbourne Airport two hours early so she could greet each of them personally. On the plane she’d regularly checked whether they were too warm or too cool and if they needed anything to eat or drink. During their overnight stopover in Malaysia, she’d kept a close eye when they crossed roads, walked across bridges, or ate anything that might have bones in it. All the simple rules of being in charge of a group had come flooding back. Of course she could do this, she told herself for the hundredth time since her brother’s surprise phone call. The tour would be a success. She’d do everything she could to make it a success.
They were among the first passengers from their flight to arrive at the baggage carousel. Harriet found a prime position, near the start of the conveyor belt and close to the exit. She was taken aback when the group clustered in a circle around her, looking up with big smiles and expectant expressions. It took her a moment to realize what they were waiting for. The customary Turner Travel welcome speech. James, her eldest brother, had begun the tradition, marking the start of each group tour with a little poem or funny speech beside the baggage carousel. He was usually so organized he had copies printed to hand out to the group members as souvenirs. Harriet’s mind went blank. She had been brought in to this tour on such short notice she’d hardly had time to learn the itinerary, let alone write a funny ditty.
She looked around at them again. Twelve faces looked back. Pushing embarrassment to one side, she smoothed down her official Turner Travel uniform, gave a big smile, and threw open her arms.
“Welcome to England!” she cried.
It wasn’t enough. They needed much more than that. She could see it in their eager expressions. She tried to ignore the curious looks from the other passengers coming into the baggage area and racked her brain. A rhyming game she used to play as a child with James and her other brother Austin sprang to mind. She’d have to give that a try. She threw out her arms again, hoping she looked confident and theatrical rather than weird and scarecrow-ish, and said the first lines she could think of:
Here we all are on the Willoughby tour
Through Devon and Cornwall, across several moors
I hope you’ll all have a wonderful time
And quickly forget this very bad rhyme!
She cringed inside even as they rewarded her with a burst of laughter and applause. “She’s definitely James’s sister,” she heard one of them whisper. She was saved from attempting an even worse second verse by the sound of the conveyor belt starting up with a metallic groan. Everyone sprang to attention, their eyes fixed on the emerging luggage.
As the first bags trundled past, Harriet felt a tug at her sleeve. She looked down. It was Miss Talbot. At seventy-three, she was the oldest member of the tour party. At four foot eleven, she was also the tiniest.
Her soft, wrinkled face was all smiles. “That was a lovely poem, Harriet. You hit the nail right on the head.”
“Oh, thank you, Miss Talbot,” Harriet said, smiling back. She had known Miss Talbot for as long as she could remember and was very fond of her. The little white-haired woman not only ran the Country Women’s Association craft shop in Harriet’s hometown of Merryn Bay but also knitted most of the contents. She specialized in yellow matinee jackets and small knitted penguins with crocheted orange beaks. She was also well known in the town for buying her clothes from children’s-wear shops. Harriet glanced again at Miss Talbot’s traveling outfit of pink tracksuit and matching shoes, trying not to look too obviously at the Groovy Chick logo embroidered on the front. “How are you feeling? Not too tired, I hope?”
“Oh no, Harriet. I snoozed like a bug in a rug the whole flight. And those little meals on trays were just delicious, thank you so much.”
“You’re very welcome, I’m glad you liked them.” No matter how many times she’d tried to explain, Miss Talbot remained convinced that Harriet was responsible for every single thing that happened on the trip, meals included.
Miss Talbot gave another happy sigh. “I just can’t believe we’re here at last. All these years of seeing Willoughby on TV, and tomorrow we’re actually going to meet him. I know I’m old enough to be his grandmother, but it really is so exciting. He’s such a dreamboat.”
Harriet grinned at the old-fashioned term, fighting an urge to pick up Miss Talbot and give her a cuddle. She wasn’t actually sure whether Willoughby was a dreamboat or not. She could never admit it to Miss Talbot—or any of the others in the group—but she had only a dim recollection of the Willoughby TV series on which their entire trip of a lifetime was based. All she knew was that it featured a dark-haired detective disguised as a postman solving crimes in beautiful seaside villages in Cornwall.
Her brother James, lying in his hospital bed, had tried to assure her it wouldn’t matter.
“You’ll never know the series as well as the tour group, anyway. You know where the word fan comes from, don’t you? Short for fanatics. And that’s what the Willoughby fan club members are.” He’d lowered his voice. “More Willoughby weirdos than fans, some of them, if you ask me.”
A bright blue suitcase decorated with a gaudy yellow ribbon came trundling past. “That’s mine, that’s mine,” one of the tour group called. Harriet leaned across and retrieved it. In the pretravel information pack, each member of the group had been advised to attach a distinctive ribbon as well as the Turner Travel label to their suitcases so they would be easy to spot on the carousel. They had certainly taken up the challenge, Harriet saw, as more of their bags appeared. They were decorated with everything from tartan bows to shiny red ribbons and chiffon scarves. It looked like they’d been on holiday in a haberdashery.
Another suitcase came toward them, decorated with the Turner Travel label and a bright pink pompom. It belonged to Mrs. Dorothy Lamerton, official president of the Willoughby fan club. English born, wealthy, polished, a widow, she thought of herself as the social Queen Bee of Merryn Bay. Harriet thought of her as the High Queen of the Willoughby weirdos. She had a matching pompom around her wrist. Harriet leaned forward and lifted her suitcase off the carousel, too.
Mrs. Lamerton gave an imperious wave. “Thank you, Harriet. Those conveyor belts go by far too quickly, if you ask me.”
A simple thing like collecting their clients’ luggage off the carousel was just part of the Turner Travel personalized service, but Harriet still got a little glow inside at the thanks. Harriet’s late parents, Neil and Penny Turner, had prided themselves on delivering personal touches. They had started the business thirty years previously in the small coastal town of Merryn Bay, two hours from Melbourne, after emigrating from England as part of the “ten-pound pom” assisted-passage scheme. The business had started slowly but grown successfully, with its emphasis on tailored tours and, latterly, themed tours like this one for the Willoughby fan club members. Harriet didn’t have to try hard to be able to picture the handwritten list of Turner Travel official rules her father had pinned to the wall of the staff room:
•Always be punctual.
•Help our clients in any way you can.
•Check passports and tickets twice.
•Confirm everything and then confirm it again.
•Be sure to memorize everyone’s name.
From the Trade Paperback edition.