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.
"I think you've got a deal, Ms Bradshaw! We tend to all muck in here to get things done: in the kitchen it's mainly planning and food prep; but all chefs have their own ways of doing things, so as long as you're flexible ... But there are times when maybe you can help me out in Reception, and even waiting tables if necessary."
"Yeah, I can do that, Tony! Back home I waited tables while I was in high school, to earn some cash: you're a bit more up-market here, but I'm sure that I can adapt. And I'm sure that you'll find I can be pretty flexible in other ways..." she said with a certain look and a grin. " ... So when do I start, Boss!"
"Why don't you have breakfast with your daughters and get them on their way, tomorrow. Then we can see in what ways you can help me!"
" ... Sounds real good to me, Tony! I guess I'd better get some sleep soon, then: I'll see you in the morning! Goodnight!"
As I mentioned, my guesthouse was once a Georgian-era private home. Over the years it has changed hands several times and by the time that me and Mel bought it, it was much as it was now, except that it was rather shabby and run-down. After a tip-off from a friend of mine in property, it was bought with a manageable mortgage, due to its then state, leaving Mel and I to invest a chunk of our savings in bringing it back to a reasonable condition again.
The house has three levels: part of the ground floor is taken up by a small office off of the Reception area; the kitchen, which of course was refitted to my specifications; the dining room and a lounge. Other rooms on this floor are my private living area, bedroom and bathroom.
The first floor contains the six largest and best guest bedrooms: each fitted out to a reasonably high standard. On the floor above that, in what was originally the domestic staff accommodation area, there are four more, budget, rooms, some with twin beds instead of doubles. When reservations are low, these upper rooms are left empty and prices for the better rooms are reduced slightly: both myself and Mel believed that this was the most equitable solution, even if our profit margin was reduced as a result.
The same attention is devoted to the meals: good value for money and good food are what keeps user ratings high, and so I always shop carefully for my provisions and try to ensure that wastage is kept to the absolute minimum. As a result, I'm proud of the fact that we have never received a negative feedback comment since Mel and I took over: even after Mel's death, my staff ensured that standards never fell significantly while I was in mourning.
Although it is always an option, the classic 'English breakfast' is rarely featured unless specifically asked for: and even then it is cooked in the healthiest way possible. In its place, guests can have unlimited amounts of toast with preserves, fresh fruit and cereal; together with fruit juice, tea or coffee. How do I manage this: by using local suppliers if possible, and by buying in sufficient quantities to make decent discounts viable.
Wednesday 26, June
This morning Leni, Laura and Lyndsey rose early for breakfast. They chatted for some time before Leni waved her daughters off in the taxi that would take them to meet with their friends for the next three days. Even after the girls were gone, she was still smiling, however. I was in the office having a coffee and checking the computer for new messages: the dishwasher was loaded and in action in the kitchen ... it is more cost effective than paying someone to do it manually. Leni knocked politely and waited. She was wearing a skirt that was perhaps a little on the short side: but let us say that I think that it was chosen for this reason.
"Help yourself to coffee and have a seat!" She sat as demurely as possible, but from where I sat, I couldn't help noticing that another tantalising inch or so of bare thigh came into view as she sat down near me. "I take it that you all slept well!"
"Yes indeedy, thank you! The girls were so excited ... I bet they won't even think about me while they're gone!" Leni said this with a not unattractive pout of her lips: which just happened to emphasise their fullness. "So, what have you got planned for me today?"
"Well, everything's in hand: Maureen's here to look after the reception and answer the phone, so I thought that you might like to come produce shopping with me, first thing. As you no doubt already know, getting the right produce is the first step in producing a good meal! I don't know what things are like where you come from, Leni, but we are spoilt for choice here when it comes to meat and poultry and fruit and vegetables. Fish is the only thing that isn't grown or caught locally, but it's usually only on the menu once, or maybe twice, a week. If you are a little squeamish, you ought to know that you might be seeing birds and animals today that are nearly all destined for somebody's plate! As a nation we do eat lamb; but I never personally serve veal! I guess that that's kind of strange considering the amounts of beef, pork, chicken and eggs that we use; but it's just my personal statement!"
" ... No, I can live with that! I live in a suburb of Chicago, so most of my produce is totally impersonal and bought from supermarkets: but go back a few generations and my great-grandparents were farmers! So, am I dressed okay?" I smiled.
" ... No complaints from me! But we'd better see if Mel's Wellingtons fit you..."
"What are they?"
" ... Oh, yeah ... knee-length rubber boots. People who have to spend time in wet and muddy places wear them. You might need some thick socks as well..." Leni followed me into my private quarters.
" ... Yeah ... this sure looks like a man's place!"
While I was gone to sort out the boots, she must seen the framed photographs of me and Mel. I found a green pair and a black pair of Wellington boots.
"Your wife was very pretty, Tony!"
"Yes, I thought so! Have a seat on the sofa!" Kneeling in front of her, I carefully fitted the boot onto her outstretched left leg; trying hard not to follow the shapely contours of her calves and thighs with my eyes. " ... How does that feel?"
" ... Hmm ... a little roomy, I guess ... but I'll try the other one with a sock on!"
This time she raised her right leg slightly higher as I slid the sock on first, then the other boot. She smiled when she watched me trying hard not to look at the gap between her thighs! She stood upright.
" ... Definitely better with the extra thickness! Yes, I definitely appreciate a little extra thickness!"
I knew she was grinning when she saw my facial expression when she said that!
"Okay, then!" I said, composing himself, "Put your shoes back on, then we can get going!"
When Leni had fetched a jacket and her 'purse', as she called her handbag, we walked to the side of the house where my Land Rover Defender was parked.
"A little basic, I'm afraid, but around here it gets the job done better than most!"
"No, it's cool, Tony! In Chicago it snows a lot in winter, so I can totally see the point in owning this! Do get much snow here?"
"Not snow so much, but quite a lot of rain on this side of the country! I've never been quite sure how it works, but it's got something to do with air currents coming up from the Gulf stream meeting others coming down from the far north. And when it rains really heavily, the rivers sometimes overflow and there's flooding ... so a 4X4 is useful for getting people out of trouble!"
I walked round and opened her door: again trying not to make it too obvious that I was looking at her legs. But Leni knew, of course.
To be honest, I rarely deal directly with farmers, but many of them have set up small shops on their properties, so that they can sell their surplus produce directly to the public, while the bulk hopefully goes to wholesalers. One advantage of farm shops, is that, unlike the big supermarket chains, individuals don't care about funny, non-uniform shaped fruit and veg, as long as the price is right! Leni said afterwards that she thought that she had a good eye for fresh produce, but when she saw how the professionals did it, she changed her thinking! And by the end of the morning, she'd squeezed and sniffed her way through enough foodstuff to last her several months back home! She was also impressed that neither the farmers ... in fact, usually their wives ... nor I actually haggled over prices. I either asked for a price and accepted it, or I made a single counter offer, which was also usually accepted: but there is never a huge difference in the valuation; a few pence per pound weight is enough, because each party knows the realistic value and the difference between a profit or a loss. The latter is in no ones interest.
Meat and poultry is the same: it is because the buyer and the seller knows the true cost of how much it cost to produce. But as Leni soon came to realise: I never compromise on quality; if I can't get exactly what I want, the easiest thing to do is change the menu; with the sure knowledge that exactly what I want will probably be available another time; in fact the farmers will often tell him when it is! Yes, I think Ms Leni Bradshaw was mightily impressed!
Leni and I arrived back at the guesthouse in plenty of time to begin the preparation for the evening meal. All of the rooms except the one that Laura and Lyndsey had shared were occupied, so in theory there could be up to sixteen diners that evening ... however, Leni had refused to stop and eat while I was still working: 'We can eat together afterwards!' she said.
She even asked me what she should wear in the kitchen and I asked her what she usually wore in her own kitchen:
"Well, if it's just me and the girls, just regular stuff; but if I'm cooking for family and friends, my evening wear and an apron!"
"Well, I'm the same as you," I said, "When I worked in the restaurant in Oxford, I wore the usual pro-chefs uniform; but here I wear mostly jeans and a T-shirt, so it's up to you, Leni ... but maybe you should cover your legs, in case of splashes and because there are lots of hot surfaces!" She gave me one of those wicked grins of hers.
" ... And is that the only reason, Tony..." I had to laugh.
" ... Hmm ... as you Americans say: I'm taking the 5th!" That made Leni laugh, too.
"Okay, I'll go up to my room and put some pants on ... sorry, this is England, I mean jeans! You're the only one who's gonna get burned tonight, Mr Gates!"
Neither of us were greatly surprised when we found that we worked well together. Despite her protestations to the contrary, Leni wasn't a bad cook, and whenever I asked her to do something, she just said: 'Like this?' To which I'd either reply: 'Yes, that's fine!' or, 'Okay ... but why don't you try it like this... ' She was never annoyed at my suggestions: 'That's why I'm here after all!' she said. There was more pressure on her, of course, but she soaked it all up. And when the last dessert had been served to a paying guest, we took our own meals and sat together in the emptying dining room.
"Well, that was fun!" she said.
" ... But seriously ... you were great, Leni! If you ever want a job..." She looked me in the eyes and smiled.
" ... Now don't you go starting something you can't finish, Mister!" No more was said, but I think that both of us were definitely having some serious thoughts!
Leni told me that when she got back to her room that night she took her phone out and turned it on for the first time that day. There was a brief video message from her daughters:
"Hi, Mom! This is so cool! Love you lots and see you soon!" The video ended with them each blowing her a kiss. She said that she took off her clothes and then stood under a hot shower. She wasn't in bed long after that before she was asleep. One floor below her, I was sitting in an armchair, looking at a picture of my wife:
" ... Maybe it's time, Mel..." I said to the familiar image.
Thursday 27, June
Leni wandered downstairs to look for me: I was in the dining room getting everything ready for breakfast. Tables were set with clean tablecloths and against one wall a line of tables were arranged, buffet-style, with everything ready for when the guests arrived.
"I came to help, but it looks like you have everything under control!" she said.
" ... More or less! But if you want to do something, you can do the 'meeting and greeting' ... grab an apron, then you'll look 'official'! I've been to the States several times and I know how well you do hospitality over there. But have something yourself, first..."
"Sure thing, Boss ... can't argue with that!" Then for the next two hours or so Leni did as she was asked to do. Some of the guests have been here all week, but others were just one or two night stopovers. She offered help when she thought it was needed, but was otherwise unobtrusive. There was an older couple who had arrived the day before, who she remembered seeing at dinner the previous evening, and who it turned out were fellow Americans, from the mid-west, who were keen to chat. She remained vigilant to others' needs, but she spent a good deal of time with Bill and Iris Maythorne. A few guests had wanted more substantial food and that was my job in the kitchen.