Tuesday 25, June
My name is Tony Gates and I own and run a ten bedroom, Georgian period guesthouse in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. I work long hours sometimes and I don't get rich as a result of doing it, but I'm my own boss and I suppose that I'm relatively happy. Most of the bookings are made through the Internet nowadays, so all that I have to do is check my email account for the automated notifications every morning after I've made the breakfasts and then cleared everything away afterwards. Looking at my bookings calendar I am only expecting one lot of new guests today: the email address for booking confirmation was in the name of email@example.com and was used in response for a complicated series of requests: two rooms for tonight, the 25th; one room for the following five nights, the 26th to the 30th; then two rooms again for a further two nights, the 1st and 2nd of July. This was a little different than the usual single or block bookings I get, but they had been made with plenty of notice and the computerised booking system that I subscribe to had no trouble accommodating them.
The only small fly in the ointment, was that two days ago I fell awkwardly and I've chipped a bone in his left wrist ... not my favoured hand, fortunately ... but it had to be strapped up, but hadn't warranted a plaster cast support. However, I'd made a few phone calls and I'd managed to find a few additional casual people to help me out with routine cleaning, making beds, and as necessary, an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. The check-in time is advertised as 1:00 pm, but that is flexible if reserved rooms are ready for occupancy before that.
At 12:40-ish I was in the Reception area, when I heard the taxi that stopped outside the front entrance. I could see that three passengers got out and the driver took their cases out of the boot, then a woman paid him. There was one older woman and two younger; who looked like they could have been twins. It was the older woman who approached the small reception desk:
"Hi!" she said, in a distinct American accent, "Elenora Bradshaw and party: I believe we are expected!"
"Yes, of course, Mrs Bradshaw ... welcome! As you pre-booked I only have to get your keys. You are on the first floor: rooms 8 and 9 tonight; room 9 is the one reserved for the week. We have a service lift for luggage, but I'm afraid that you'll have to take the stairs! Would you like me to show you your rooms?" The woman smiled at me.
"That won't be necessary, thank you ... and it hasn't technically been Mrs Bradshaw for quite a few years now! My girls here call me 'Mom', but my friends and family know me as 'Leni' I see that you offer breakfast and an evening meal: how does that work, Mr Gates?"
" ... Tony ... please! Well, the evening menu changes every day. There's a copy of each day's menu in the dining room at breakfast time and also here in Reception. It helps me if you can pre-order early, but it's not mandatory! We also leave a copy of the menu in each of the occupied rooms when the beds are made, so you can also ring down with your orders at any time after that. The dining room serves breakfast between 08:00 am and 10:00 am, evening meals are served between 6:00 and 8:00 o'clock, except on Sunday. If you don't pre-order and you decide to eat late, I'm afraid that your choices may be limited to what's left. There is a licensed bar in the dining room that stays open until 11:00 pm, usually. I'm afraid that we don't have the staff to offer room service like a hotel, but if you're desperate and you smile at me nicely, I can probably rustle you up a sandwich after 8:00 o'clock if you come down and get it!"
"That all sounds very good, Tony! I think we'll go up, now: I'll ask the girls what they want for dinner!"
Now I'm a red-blooded male and Elenora Bradshaw was certainly an attractive woman, so I found myself looking at her rear view as she made her way up the stairs. I'd loaded their luggage into the service lift and sent it on its way, so that it would be waiting for them. Upon closer inspection, I thought that the daughters looked to be in their late teens, so the mother must be at least in her mid- to late-thirties, I presumed.
A little background information is necessary: Anthony Michael Gates ... no relation to Bill that I knew about! I'm 37, and until I was 32, I had been an up-and-coming chef in a fashionable restaurant in Oxford ... I read that in a newspaper review, by the way. At that time I had been married to my wife, Melissa, for seven years. We were childless: my chef's lifestyle didn't really suit fatherhood; but Mel, as she was usually called, wanted a family before she got much older, so we made the life-changing decision to move to the West Country and open the guest-house. Unfortunately, for Mel, it wasn't so much life-changing, as life-ending: she was dead at 34. I seriously debated at the that time whether to sell up and return to Oxford, but I knew that my heart wasn't really into being a full-time chef anymore and I had also come to love my new home and lifestyle in Somerset. It has only been three years since Mel died and I still miss her, of course, but the business keeps me busy and the pain from her loss has eased considerably with time.
If I'd wanted to, I could probably have expanded the restaurant side of the business, at the expense of the accommodation side, but I thought that, at least for the moment, I had the balance just about right. There are certain times of year when renting rooms alone just isn't that profitable; and at those times I supplement my income by catering for private functions in the dining room, and where once again my advanced culinary talents can be used more widely.
"Wow! That meal was so much better than I expected!" Leni extolled, "To be honest with you, for a place this size we weren't expecting more than basic British fare, which has a bit of a reputation for ... dare I say it ... blandness! But I've eaten in American restaurants where they charge top dollar, and the food there didn't taste as good as yours! Honestly, Tony ... why are you hiding that talent away down here!"
"It's a long story, Leni: but perhaps I'll have time to tell you before you leave here! Would you like another drink ... on the house?"
" ... Well, if you have any more of that excellent cabernet sauvignon left ... I can probably force myself!"
I motioned to Maureen, my regular waitress, who understands my wordless gestures and she soon returned with Leni's drink.
"You're right about the food, though: most people in Britain are brought up on basic foods. But social habits change over time and every generation seems to be a bit more adventurous than their parents! I don't personally go in for nouvelle cuisine and fashion foods here: but with thought and attention to detail, no food needs to be bland! But if I can ask you a question: I admit to being a little curious ... about your booking?" She smiled at me.
"It's because of the girls: Laura and Lyndsey ... their father's choice of names ... are real big UK music nuts! We have a lot of things in the US, but we don't really have anything like your Glastonbury Festival anymore, so I promised them that once they were old enough I'd bring them over here! So they had their seventeenth birthday this year ... and here we are! Tomorrow they are off to meet up with some friends of theirs and then they are going to be letting their hair down, as I think you say over here, for the three days of the festival; then they're coming back here for two days to come down from the buzz! Whereas poor old me, I have to sleep in a comfortable bed and eat your fabulous food for a week! I guess I must be getting old, Tony, because I know which I prefer!"
The question was on my lips, but I couldn't bring himself to ask it. But my facial expression must have given me away ... Leni just grinned.
" ... The girls are 17 and I was their age when they were born! So now that's out of the way: how old are you, Tony?"
"I'll be 38 next January."
" ... And while I'm being inquisitive ... how did you hurt your hand, Honey?"
"Oh, just a bit of stupidity on my part: we have a cellar where I keep the wine and other things, and I tripped on the stairs. It wasn't far to the bottom, but I put my hands out to break my fall, and my left hand and wrist twisted awkwardly. There's no serious damage done, but it'll complicate my life unnecessarily for a few weeks!"
" ... And while I'm on a roll, Tony: I'm sure that I saw a wedding band under that wrapping, but I haven't seen or heard you mentioning a Missus Gates..." I smiled at her, wistfully.
" ... She died three years ago: a brain aneurism, the doctors said; undetectable and unexpected!" Leni reached out and touched my arm.
" ... I'm so sorry ... both for your loss and my mouth! I'm afraid booze makes me a little too bold sometimes; but I'll shut the hell up, now!"
"There's really no need to apologise, Leni: you weren't to know; and besides, you are very pleasant company!"
" ... Well ... since you put it so graciously: I've been thinking, and I have a proposition for you..."
I had to smile as the wheels in my brain began to turn at the thought of the possibilities.
" ... I like to eat good food and I like to cook, but I'm not in your league, Tony, so how about for the three days that my girls are away, I help you out here in whatever way I can, and in return you give me a few pointers in the kitchen!" Leni continued. I smiled again.
.... There is more of this story ...