The warning notices on the huge black wrought iron gates were in stark contrast to the elegant, sweeping driveway that lay beyond. Matthew Evans put down his small suitcase, pressed the buzzer set into the stone pillar and gazed blankly into the camera. Without a word being spoken, the gates slowly drew aside and an irresistible avenue of lime trees ushered him gracefully up to the house.
As he strode towards the imposing Georgian portico, an equally imposing figure emerged into the bright sunlight to greet him.
'Good afternoon Mr Evans and welcome to Gladsheim. My name is Eva and I will be your personal mentor for the next seven days; please follow me.'
Before Evans could deliver a suitable reply, his suitcase had been snatched up and the tall, athletic and very blonde Eva disappeared effortlessly into the shade. Evans followed obediently, walking into a tasteful reception area furnished lavishly with cosy seating formations. Behind the reception desk, Eva was already vigorously attacking a keyboard beneath a bank of security screens, screens giving live witness to every area of this impressive country estate.
'We have prepared a very comfortable room for your stay Mr Evans, so please follow me and we will get you settled.'
The lift jerked to a sudden halt on the first floor and Evans pursued Eva along the thickly carpeted corridor to room number seventeen. The door was unlocked.
'This will be your home for the duration of the course Mr Evans, so please make yourself comfortable. The group introduction is at four thirty in the Loki Room, just off the reception area and dinner will be at seven o'clock. Oh! and before you ask, Loki was one of the Norse gods and we do not provide the means to lock our doors in Gladsheim.'
Evans walked across the room and looked out of a large sash window onto manicured lawns at the rear of the house; not a longship in sight. A number of rather urgent questions were forming in his mind, but as he turned inwards to consult his mentor he saw the door closing gently behind her. He stood there for some time, looking at his hard won forty years in the full length mirror on the back of the door. He felt mildly unsettled.
Following a few brief words of welcome and encouragement from Eva, the twenty four people on the Norse Meditation Experience introduced themselves to each other in the Loki Room at four thirty, a convenient split of twelve women and twelve men. Some had enrolled in hope and some in desperation, but all seemed determined to make the most of their expensive week's course in meditation and relaxation. They stood
chatting, telling half truths and assessing each other quietly. Doing
what all such groups do when competing subconsciously for as elevated a place as possible in a new pecking order. Copious amounts of fruit tea and fizzy mineral water were consumed as they mingled cautiously and by five thirty, early alliances had been forged and prejudices filed away.
At dinner that evening, in the splendid Valhalla dining salon, there were four tables of six for the participants and a table for the three course leaders Lars, Ingrid and Eva. All three were tall, blonde, confident and Viking and during the meal, took it upon themselves to navigate between the tables like three powerful ice breakers. The charismatic Lars in particular, took no time at all in melting the hearts of the twelve
female guests and then very skilfully returned to harbour whilst Eva
and Ingrid in their tastefully revealing dresses, captivated the men.
At ten o'clock, the group left the dining room and occupied the cosy
seating area. Here, they relaxed into the leather wing chairs and
congratulated themselves on their choice of venue until bed time.
Tomorrow, they all agreed, their Norse Meditation Experience would be
the beginning of the rest of their lives. The lack of a means to lock
room doors had been consciously avoided by all.
* * *
Matthew Evans surveyed the breakfast table with quiet dismay. There was not a sausage in sight, so he loaded his plate with two croissants , butter and a miniature pot of strawberry jam, seated himself strategically at a corner table and surveyed the room. The dress code appeared to be casual-baggy, in readiness for their first session of meditation technique and Matthew quietly congratulated himself on his choice of tracky-bottoms and All Blacks rugby shirt.
'May I join you?' enquired a confident female voice.
Margaret Bradshaw didn't wait for a reply, but slid gracefully into the seat opposite and placed a bowl of yoghurt with fresh fruit and a glass of orange juice onto the table.
'We spoke briefly yesterday,' she said, 'and I immediately sensed a fellow sufferer, was I right? Matthew isn't it?'
Matthew Evans was briefly taken aback by this sudden encounter, so he threw a smile across the table to give himself thinking time.
'I suppose 'sufferer' sums up my life quite well,' he surrendered. 'I'm sorry, but I can't remember your name. My mind always blanks when meeting so many new faces.'
'Margaret Bradshaw, intrepid explorer of alternative solutions,' she beamed. 'Is this your first time at Gladsheim, Matthew?'
'Yes it is,' replied Evans. 'It was recommended by a fellow sufferer, so I thought I'd give it a try. What about you?'
'First time at Gladsheim, but I have been on similar courses elsewhere.'
The two newly acquainted pilgrims settled comfortably into their breakfasts. Margaret tucked into her bowl of good health with gusto, whilst Matthew scattered fragile flakes of fresh croissant across the
pristine table cloth with blatant disregard. They were soon chatting
like old friends.
'What was it that your fellow sufferer said about this place that made you decide to come here Matthew?'
Matthew paused, jam laden knife suspended above his second unsuspecting croissant.
'It was all rather strange really Margaret. It was Gerry, a friend of mine from work, and he said it had been a life changing experience and that he'd left here feeling like part of a new family. When I tried to push him a bit further for more detail, he just smiled blankly into the distance and told me that I could only really ever understand by coming here myself.'
Margaret Bradshaw slowly placed her spoon into her empty bowl and looked meaningfully across the table.
'That's very interesting Matthew, because I've been told the same thing myself by a number of people and in exactly the same way. A strange refusal to elaborate and blank looks into the distance.'
Margaret picked up her orange juice and drank thoughtfully before gently replacing the glass. She looked across at Matthew hesitantly.
'What really brought you here Matthew? What made you fill in the application form, attach a photograph, answer a lot of very intrusive and personal questions and hand over an exorbitant amount of money; not just intrigue surely?'
Matthew paused mid mouthful, swallowed and made a split second decision.
'I need to put my life back together Margaret. My marriage has failed, my career is faltering and my confidence is shattered. My kids won't speak to me and I've completely lost any sense of direction or motivation. I came here to cleanse my mind and get back on track before it's too late. I need an infusion of that Viking spirit that the brochure bangs on about.'
Margaret Bradshaw looked across at Matthew with genuine concern in her eyes and slowly rose from the table. She walked towards Matthew and leaned slightly forward to speak.
'You have been remarkably honest Matthew, but I feel I must tell you that I fear this place is not all that it seems. Now is not the time or place, but if we meet up again this evening I will tell you exactly what
brought me here.'
* * *
The office behind the reception desk was a hive of Viking activity. Lars was carefully studying the course list of attendees and marking certain names in yellow. He prided himself in recognising future potential and he was nearly always right. When he arrived at Margaret Bradshaw's name he put down the marker, picked up a pencil and put a question mark in the margin.
'Ingrid, did you find
anything of interest on Miss Bradshaw?'
'Not really Lars, she says she's a writer, but I haven't come across anything by her on the internet.'
'We'll leave her as a question mark then, until later in the course. We'll know if she's any threat to us within a couple of days.'
'She looks harmless enough Lars,' said Eva, 'and I spoke to her at the reception party. I don't think there's anything to worry about with her. She'll succumb to your charms easily enough; just like the rest of us did.'
Eva and Ingrid both laughed at the comment. Lars, locking away the list in his desk draw, smiled at his disciples with everything but his eyes.