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The Little Bed & Breakfast by the Sea
By Jennifer Joyce
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Jennifer Joyce
All rights reserved.
Mae was in a mad rush that morning as she flitted from room to room, eyes flicking to whichever clock happened to be nearest every thirty seconds. Right now, it was the digital display on the microwave that made her eyes widen in panic as she trundled into the kitchen, dumping the armful of goodies she'd collected onto the breakfast bar. Where had the morning gone? She could have sworn it was only five minutes since she'd dragged her weary body from beneath her sheets, forcing it in the direction of the coffee machine. And now it was almost time to go and she wasn't even ready. The caffeine hadn't had chance to work its way into her system, even after her second giant mug, gulped down between bites of toast.
Taking a calming breath, Mae added the goodies to the baskets she'd set out on the breakfast bar with a practised hand, arranging the mini bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion to the bed of scrunched-up tissue paper among the bottled water, individually wrapped teabags and sachets of coffee. The bar of chocolate, cellophane-wrapped biscuits and stick of rock added a sweet touch. Mae prided herself on attention to detail; it was the little things that stuck with guests long after they'd packed their suitcases and returned home, the unexpected touches they gushed over with their friends and family or added to their TripAdvisor review. Although the welcome baskets she left in the rooms of her bed and breakfast took time, effort and extra cost, Mae knew they could tempt a guest to leave a sparkling, five-star review instead of a four-star, and entice them back next year – and the year after that. Mae had dreamed of running her own bed and breakfast since she was a little girl. Now her wish had come true, she would put her all into the venture and make it the best bed and breakfast she possibly could.
'Hannah!' she called as she popped the final item – a note for her guests written on a postcard with a photo of the seaside town on the front – into the basket. 'Have you got your shoes on yet?'
She grabbed the baskets – one each for the two rooms she had available in the house she'd inherited from her grandmother four years ago – and headed towards the stairs, stopping outside the family room where she spotted her four-year-old daughter still glued to the television. Shoeless.
'Excuse me, little lady, but aren't you supposed to be putting your shoes on?' Mae arched an eyebrow at her daughter. 'We need to set off for Nanny's in two minutes.'
'It only takes me one minute to put my shoes on,' Hannah said, eyes travelling back to the screen.
Mae's eyebrow arched further. 'And how long does it take you to walk up the stairs to grab them?'
Hannah scrunched up her nose, eyes still on the television, as she calculated. 'Ten seconds?'
'And do you know where your shoes are?'
Technically, Hannah's shoes should be lined up at the bottom of the wardrobe with her other shoes, but Mae knew her daughter too well. Mae might be a stickler for the little details, but her daughter was not. In Hannah's world, there was a place for everything, but nothing was in its place.
'One of them is under my bed,' Hannah said. 'I kicked it under there this morning when I tripped over it.'
Mae closed her eyes, briefly. 'And the other?'
Hannah shrugged. 'In my room?'
Mae hoped the shoe was in Hannah's bedroom. They had guests arriving later and Mae lived in fear of the day one of them would trip over an abandoned shoe or toy. She did her best to keep the house in pristine condition, but it wasn't always easy with a four-year-old tearing about the place.
'So, actually finding the other shoe could take you more than the fifty seconds you have left. Plus, we've been discussing this for ...' Mae scrunched up her own nose as she calculated the wasted time. 'Twenty seconds? So, really, you only have thirty seconds to find your shoe. Probably twenty-five by now. So do you think you should turn the telly off and go and put them on?'
Hannah sighed, her little chest heaving dramatically. 'Fine.'
Mae watched as her daughter wriggled off the sofa and turned the television off before shuffling out of the family room and up the stairs. Hannah was four and already behaving like a teenager – how would Mae cope when hormones set up camp? But Mae didn't have time to ponder. She had welcome baskets to set out and less than two minutes to do so. She followed Hannah up the stairs, pushing open the guest room they had on that floor, and placed the basket on the end of the bed, smoothing the bedspread with the palm of her hand. The left curtain wasn't quite even so she moved across the room to open it a little more, smiling at the view as she did so. With the bed and breakfast on the seafront, Mae had the perfect view of the beach, with the pier in the distance, the Ferris wheel already turning slowly. The school summer holidays had started the previous week, so Clifton-on-Sea was jam-packed with holidaymakers hopeful of a warm and dry British summer. Growing up in Clifton-on-Sea, Mae hadn't always appreciated the beauty of her little town. Building sandcastles with her grandpa, the delicious scent of sweet candyfloss and hot doughnuts mingling with the sea air, eating fish and chips from the paper with her feet dangling over the harbour walls – these were ordinary occurrences for Mae as a little girl, and it wasn't until she left the town in her late teens, eager to see a bit more of the country, of the world, that she realised what a special place she'd left behind. Or how privileged she'd been to have such an idyllic childhood by the sea. She couldn't imagine a better place to raise her daughter.
Hannah's voice broke Mae's reverie and she backed away from the window, smoothing the bedspread one last time as she passed.
'I can't find my shoes,' Hannah said, poking her head out of her bedroom.
'What about the one under the bed?'
Hannah shrugged. 'It's not there any more.'
Mae pressed her lips together. She didn't have time to hunt for misplaced shoes. She still had to take the second basket of goodies up to the little room in the attic and drop the keys with Mrs Hornchurch next door (where she would no doubt get caught up in a ten-minute chat while she did her best to politely escape) before ferrying Hannah across town. They were already cutting it fine.
'You'll have to wear a different pair.' Mae was already shuffling backwards towards the narrow staircase that led to the fourth bedroom. 'Your sandals. Or your trainers if you really must.' Trainers wouldn't really go with the red gingham summer dress Hannah was wearing, but desperate times called for mismatched outfits.
Mae scurried up the stairs as Hannah's head disappeared back into her bedroom. Placing the basket on the end of the bed, she gave the pillows a fluff before heading back down to check on Hannah's shoe status.
Hannah looked down at the Doc McStuffins wellies and shrugged. 'They're all I could find.'
Mae could have made many arguments against the wellies – not least the ridiculous mismatching and the fact it was a glorious summer's day – but she really, really didn't have time to discuss the matter, nor locate more suitable footwear.
'They'll do.' With a decisive nod, Mae led the way down the stairs, heading for her desk to grab the keys for today's guests from the drawer. With her car keys, handbag and sunglasses in hand, she was ready to go.
'Hannah?' The girl had disappeared. 'Hannah! We need to go!'
Mae scurried through the rooms of the house, finding Hannah crouched in the kitchen, her outstretched palm full of Frosties.
'Hannah,' Mae groaned as the cat nibbled at the proffered cereal. 'I've told you not to feed him. And especially not Frosties. Come on, cat. Out!'
'But he's hungry,' Hannah said, hand still outstretched.
'And we'll be hungry if I'm late for work again and lose my job. Come on.' Mae swung the back door open and nudged the cat gently with her foot until it slunk away into the back garden. 'Please stop feeding him. It'll only encourage him to come back.'
'But I want him to come back,' Hannah said as Mae closed the door. 'I love him.'
'He isn't our cat.' Mae wasn't sure he was anybody's cat, judging by the state of his matted fur and lack of collar. The jagged ears from ancient fights gave him a definite alley cat vibe. 'Now, let's go, little lady. Nanny will be wondering where you are.'
As lovely as the Seafront Bed and Breakfast was, and as busy as it kept Mae, the profits generated from the small establishment weren't enough to pay the bills, so Mae topped up her income by working part-time at one of Clifton-on-Sea's pubs. The Fisherman sat opposite the harbour, in the quieter part of town away from the beach, but it was popular with the locals and the holidaymakers who liked to venture a little further afield. Mae had known the owners – Frank and Corinne Navasky – for as long as she could remember, as Frank and her grandpa had been friends since childhood. Mae had fond memories of sitting by the open fire in the pub with a glass of lemonade and packet of crisps while Frank, her grandpa and their friends played dominoes on chilly Saturday afternoons.
'Ah, she's here. I was about to send out a search party.' Frank winked at Mae as she burst through the doors of the pub, breathless from the dash from the car. As predicted, she'd ended up chatting with Mrs Hornchurch for a good ten minutes when she'd dropped off the keys, plus she'd had to deal with a lady who wanted to book a room on her way out of the house, meaning she was even later for her shift. But she couldn't complain too much about Mrs Hornchurch as her neighbour was doing her a massive favour. As Mae needed to work, Mrs Hornchurch often stepped in to help, keeping watch for any guests and showing them to their rooms when they arrived. Mrs Hornchurch was a godsend, so Mae could forgive her chatterbox nature.
'I'm so sorry.' Mae threw her handbag onto one of the shelves under the bar and rolled the sleeves of her cardigan up. 'I'll work through my break to make it up to you.'
'You will not,' Frank said. 'There's no harm done. It isn't like I'm rushed off my feet.'
It wasn't yet lunchtime so the pub was pretty much deserted, with only Tom Byrne, a permanent fixture in the Fisherman, sitting with his pint of bitter. Soon, however, the place would be filled with patrons wanting a pint to go with their fish and chips from the chip shop next door.
'Do you need me to do anything before we get busy?' Mae asked Frank. 'Any glasses need washing? Barrels need changing? Do the loos need cleaning?'
Frank raised his eyebrows at the last suggestion. 'You must be feeling guilty. But no, love, everything's in hand. Why don't we put the kettle on and have a quick game of dominoes before the rabble descends?'
Mae had learned to play dominoes by watching her grandpa play in the Fisherman, and the clatter as the pieces tumbled from the box onto the table always reminded her of him. Her dad hadn't been around much when she was growing up, so it had been her grandpa who'd been the father figure in Mae's life. She'd loved staying with her grandparents by the beach, going for a paddle with her grandpa, their skirts and trousers lifted or rolled up to their knees as the cold water washed over their feet, or sneaking off to the Fisherman with him when it was too cold to build sandcastles. Double trouble, that's what her granny had called them.
Mae missed her grandparents, but she cherished the memories she had of them and smiled now as she picked up a cool tile.
'So, how's that goddaughter of mine?' Frank asked as they set the dominoes out facedown on the table. 'Enjoying the school holidays?'
'She's enjoying too much TV.' Mae had lost count of the number of hours Hannah had sat in front of the box over the past few days, but Mae had been so busy with the B&B – preparing rooms, looking after guests and taking bookings – and the television provided an easy distraction. Though Mae felt guilty, the school summer holidays were the busiest time of year for Clifton-on-Sea, and Mae couldn't afford to turn business away. She was fully booked from now until early September, with her largest booking due to arrive later that afternoon. Mae's B&B only had two rooms to let, but as well as a double bed, the attic room had a sofa bed, which her latest guests would be making use of. The Robertsons – made up of grandparents Shirley and Len, plus their daughter, son-in-law and two young grandchildren – had stayed at the Seafront B&B for two weeks every summer since Mae had opened for business three years ago, and although Mae was looking forward to their stay, she knew looking after six guests – plus Hannah and her part-time bar work – was going to be a tough juggling act.
'Why don't you bring her over in the morning?' Frank asked. 'Corinne and I are popping into Preston to do a bit of shopping. Hannah can come with us on the train and we'll take her for a burger for lunch. We might even throw in a trip to the cinema.'
Mae started to shuffle the tiles around the table to mix them up. 'You don't have to do that.'
Frank joined in the shuffling. 'I know that, but we love taking Hannah out. What are godparents for?' He gathered the tiles into the centre and, with a flick of his hand, invited Mae to choose a tile.
'She'd love that, thank you.' Mae plucked a tile and turned it over so they could both see it. 'One-Three.'
Frank chose his own tile and turned it over, giving a little whoop of victory when he saw the pips he'd uncovered. 'Five-Six. Me first.' They both returned their tiles to the collection on the table and gave them another quick shuffle.
'The vet was in here last night,' Frank said as they drew their tiles from the collection and placed them in front of themselves, balancing them on their edges so only they could see the value of their own tiles.
'Frank ...' Mae said with a heavy sigh.
'What?' Frank's bushy eyebrows lifted and his mouth was agape. 'I was only saying.'
'Hmm.' Mae rearranged the tiles in front of her, mostly so she didn't have to make eye contact with her opponent.
'He's a fine young fella,' Tom Byrne piped up, his voice making Mae jump. He'd been so quiet in his little corner of the bar, she'd forgotten he was there. 'Our Tiddles had a tumour last winter. Thought she was a goner, but Alfie sorted her out. She's got a new lease of life. She's like a kitten again.'
'Maybe I should take a trip to see our vet,' Frank said as he placed his first tile face up on the table. 'I could do with a new lease of life with all these barrels needing to be lugged around the cellar. I feel like I'm ready for the knacker's yard some days.'
'Rubbish.' Mae selected a tile and joined it onto Frank's. 'You've got more energy than anybody I know, including Hannah. I hope I'm as fit and energetic as you when I'm in my seventies.'
'Ssh!' Frank's eyes roamed the near-empty pub. 'Will you keep it down? As far as everybody else is concerned, I'm not a day over fifty.'
'Tom won't spill the beans, will you?' Mae asked and he shook his head.
'What happens in the Fisherman stays in the Fisherman. Ain't that right, Frank?'
Frank chuckled. 'Sure is. The tales I could tell ...' Frank chuckled again and shook his head. 'It's like being in a confessional some days.'
'I hardly think you can compare yourself to a holy man, Frank Navasky,' his wife said, appearing in the doorway that led to the living quarters of the pub. Corinne joined them at the table and dropped a kiss on Mae's cheek. 'And I don't think priests make a habit of mopping up vomit from their confessionals.' Corinne pulled a face and turned to Mae. 'Gary King, pissed as a newt, again. I've told him he's on his last warning. Once more and he's barred.'
'He's already barred from the Old Coach and the Lion,' Tom said.
'And no wonder. He'll be barred from here in no time, no doubt.' Corinne Navasky was short and slim with delicate features, but she was a no-nonsense kind of woman who had no qualms about chucking even the biggest, roughest blokes from her pub. She was so different from Mae's granny, who would weep over sentimental films and always, always gave somebody the benefit of the doubt, but they'd become as close as their husbands despite their differences. Corinne and Frank were like family to Mae, almost filling the gap her grandparents had left.
'That vet of yours was in here last night,' Corinne told Mae. Mae groaned and fought the urge to drop her head onto the tile-covered table.
Excerpted from The Little Bed & Breakfast by the Sea by Jennifer Joyce. Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Joyce. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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