Sunday, January 09, 2011

la plume de ma tante

My Famous Aunt (the competition winner)

won the latest short story competition @ Cooldog publications with the following entry:

Welsh Rarebit


Margaret Thurgood

(2900 words)

Why do people assume I'm Welsh because I'm called Tom Jones? I don’t have his voice or his stage-presence. I'm tone-deaf and only a sex-bomb when I’m primed. I hate rugby, leeks, hymn singing choirs and sheep-strewn mountains. My joints ache in damp weather and the last time I visited it poured and the food was abysmal. I care about food; it’s my profession, but it’s also my passion. I'm an inspector for a well-known Hotel Guide. So, what do you think my employer does? You’ve guessed, haven’t you? That’s right - sends me on a tour of Welsh country house hotels.

“I'll go anywhere,” I tell her, “Outer Hebrides, Aran Islands, Scillies, Orkneys even - wherever you like – but don’t send me to Wales.”

“Get on with it,” she replies, her eyes half closed, “it has to be done, don't waste my time.”

Amber is half my age. She has a TV chef husband, who’s always travelling, four children, a nanny, and a four-storied house overlooking the Thames in Cheyne Walk. I never argue with Amber. She knows more about hotel management than I know about food. I can tell, for instance, when a lobster's been re-heated rather than freshly cooked, but she moves kitchen units and beds from walls to check for dust on the skirting board.

“That Anne Robinson was right,” I say.

She glares at me. She doesn’t own a television; it would clutter her lifestyle and remind her kids that somewhere they have a father.

“What are you moaning about now?”

“The Welsh,” I explain. “She said what's the point of them?”

“What’s that got to do with it? Just think how many people visit Wales, and how many guides we sell there, Dummy,” she says, tapping me on my bald head with a brochure entitled ‘Welsh Rarebits.’ “I’ve marked the ones with new chefs. Check them out. Choose your own route and get the office to book. Don’t you dare miss any.” And she drops it in my lap.

I drive first to Beaumaris, on the island of Anglesey, one of the most northerly of the inns she’s circled. I reason that if I’m on my way home it’ll make the trip bearable. “Ye Olde Bulls Head” is fifteenth century and half-timbered, though re-built. It has creaking floors. My room overlooks the main street and is charming, if small, with a brass bed, but it is noisy, as yachtsmen in a regatta mood are out on the town on a Saturday night. Amber, I know, is at a dinner party with our publishers in Kensington, and my wife is, most likely, uncorking one of my best bottles of Beaujolais after her bath. It’s as if she celebrates me being away. But even talking perennials and mulch with her would be better than eating on my own. The wild boar with red currants is robust and well cooked, but will disturb my sleep if I finish it. The steamed sea bass with samphire would be a better choice, but it’s not enough of a test for the chef. The staff looks after me well, the waiters don't ignore me or seat me in a corner and they know what they’re talking about when I grill them about the terrine and the soufflé.

After a lie-in and a late breakfast of squeezed juice, a perfect poached egg and lean bacon with warm toast, I enjoy the complimentary newspaper and sign for my bar bill. The room has been pre-paid, so I set off across the bridge over the Menai Straits. It has rained overnight, as it always does when I visit. I call in on Ty’n Rhos, a farm guesthouse with a new restaurant, close to Caernarfon. I write my comments in a slim notebook tucked inside a newspaper and relax with a gin and tonic, served by a rather striking waitress, and elaborate on my previous night’s entry. My next destination looks close on the map, but I see there’s a barrier of mountains to cross. I have no desire to step outside and look at them, for one’s the same as another to me, but I can’t avoid the damn things. I drive through a misty pass, skip lunch as I’m eating on expenses later, and arrive with time to spare before dinner. The evening has turned balmy and I’m looking forward to a bath and perhaps an hour’s snooze before my meal.

“You mean you’ve no reservation at all?” I cannot believe the receptionist.

She shakes her head.

“You’ve had no confirmation? You’ve taken no deposit from my company?”

“No, sir.”

“They’ve sent me to the back-of-beyond and have forgotten to make a booking.”

“Afraid so.”

To make matters worse, Amber’s not answering her phone, so I try her mobile. Nothing. She hauls her kids around galleries and museums on Sundays. Damn the woman! I take it out on the girl behind the desk.

“What do you expect me to do then, sling a hammock? Shall I sleep in the laundry room, or on the beach?”

She could react but she’s been well trained. She inhales deeply and controls her temper.

“I appreciate how annoying it must be for you. We are busy, but not full, Mr Jones. You could have the honeymoon suite or one of the superior doubles; they’re vacant. But, if you can allow me fifteen minutes to deal with these residents, who’ve been waiting patiently, then I'm sure I can find you something smaller and simpler. Would you leave it with me? I’ll sort it out well before dinner.”

I dump my overnight bag in a corner, stalk outside to blow off steam and start walking. The hotel complex contains an Italianate village, which I’ve not visited before. There are pastel-coloured houses, varying in style and available to rent. Weekly rates I guess, but surely one will be empty? They are on different levels, tucked into lush gardens in a steeply terraced valley, overlooking a broad estuary. When I’ve unwound I return to the white painted hotel.

The desk clerk says, “I’m sorry for the delay, Mr Jones, but I have found you a single in the main building.”


“And, because it’s a Sunday, we can offer you a half-priced deal. Would you like that, sir?”

I accept, and celebrate by going into the lobby bar and ordering a Campari and soda. Yes, I think, licking my lips and watching the barman spearing a slice of orange, Amber will not know of the offer. I play with a coin on the polished counter top, wondering whether to tell her or not. If I pay by card, I think, I can say it cost the regular rate and pocket the difference. The barman disappears.

“Heads or tails?” a woman asks.

I haven’t noticed her. She is sitting on a stool at the other end of the bar. She’s not young but she’s attractive, with sparkling black eyes. Her snub nose reminds me of our spaniel, her curls are dark and she’s drinking a small beer. Definitely a local, I decide.

“Forget it,” I say, scooping the pound and slipping it in my pocket, not wanting to be thought indecisive, “it's not important.”

“Gambling can be fun, can’t it?” she says, sliding a bowl of nibbles in my direction.

“No thank you. Salt desensitises the palate.”

Something I’ve said has amused her, as she does not smile exactly, but her nostrils flare and the fine lines at the corners of her eyes crinkle. She would not stand out in a crowd, I think, but there’s a plump peachiness about her that draws the eyes.

“Do you often make decisions that way?” she asks.

“No,” I look down, feeling awkward, “I rarely have doubts.”

Her legs are short and the tips of her toes are tucked behind the footrest. She follows my glance and crosses one leg over the other, arching her instep. It has no effect on me, for at that moment I decide that Amber shall reimburse me with the full rate. Because her secretary messed up the booking she cannot insist on an itemized receipt. I’m free to indulge myself, for once. She’ll have to apologise too and that’ll be satisfying. She’s so seldom wrong. I break the habit of a lifetime and select a black olive from the bowl, noting that the woman's figure is as curvy as her legs.

“Are you staying or just dining?” I ask.


She must be well pretty well paid, I think.

“And you?”

“Just for the night. I’m going to Oswestry tomorrow, wherever that is. Have you ordered?”

She wrinkles her nose. “I can’t decide. I had a lunch. I'm not that hungry.... and there's nothing that particularly tempts me.” She hands over the menu and returns to her book.

I've lost her. Damn! I should have chatted her up more. I’m trying to think of what to say next when she says.

“Is there anything you fancy?”

Her voice is soft and lilting and the question’s seductive. I stare at the menu, wondering if she knows what she’s just said, but she looks straight into my eyes and there’s no hint of innuendo. I flip the pages, ignoring the steaks and grills and anything too easily prepped: it's my job to irritate chefs.

“They’re making a big fuss about this Welsh Black sirloin, don’t you think?” I say. “Have you tried it?”

“No. I'm vegetarian.”

She’s thrown me again. She doesn't look the type. The veggies I know are scrawny creatures, like Amber and her crew, not shapely country girls. I see that half-smile appearing again as she turns to the bar mirror and strokes her neck. She marks and closes her book and slips it into her handbag. Her fingers are short, the nails tapered, not spades like Amber's, nor nibbled like my wife’s. She may be a provincial, I think, but she’s not naive. She remains calm and poised when I mention my wife in passing, as I always do. I never mislead women you see; I have my principles. I cannot bear unpleasant scenes. Life’s too short.

The barman returns and interrupts my thoughts. “Another Campari and soda, Mr Jones?”

“Yes. How about you?” I ask her.

It takes two more rounds of drinks and an hour of coaxing to persuade Olwen, for that’s her name, Olwen Owen-Jones, to join me at my dining table. What succeeds eventually is giving her the opportunity to critique the food. Flattery, I find, is such a useful tool. Most women think they know everything about food. A few do, but not many. I have no intention of using her views, of course, but a shared opinion brings people closer.

When she excuses herself to visit the cloakroom just before we are called to our table, I slip out too and have a quiet word with the receptionist. I switch my booking from a single to a double room with a sea view and a four-poster and arrange for an early morning call. I decide to tell Amber that it’s the only room left. She won't know any better.

“My wife has joined me,” I say and see the girl enter “Mr and Mrs Jones” on the register as she hands me my key. She summons a porter to take my bag to the room. It is all settled before my dinner guest returns. The name Jones in Wales, I think, is like Smith in Brighton.

I select noisettes of salt marsh lamb, pink and tender, with a pea risotto and Olwen the penne with roasted vegetables.

“It’s good but slightly unseasoned,” she says, blotting oil from her lips. There’s a finesse about her I’m beginning to find entrancing.

The apricot tart with cinnamon cream is crisp and delicate, but the shavings of crystallised ginger leave too strong an after-taste. I make a few notes, adding her comments, as I am charmed by her undivided attention. My wife multi-tasks when I'm around, it’s most annoying. We talk mostly about me - and my interests, but I do remember to ask her about her job.

“I’m a librarian, but I travel a great deal.” She talks about poets, novelists and book conferences I've never heard of, for my reading is confined to newspapers and trade journals. I change the subject. She is knowledgeable about food, and from what she says is an adventurous cook. A tasty morsel, I decide, a delicious Welsh Rarebit. I persuade her to forego the Llanboidy for some Pont L’Eveque; so ripe it oozes on the board.

“Do try it,” I say. “It’s a luscious cheese when it’s stored correctly and it’s better than that farmhouse product the waiter’s plugging.”

I wave away the biscuits and insist on warmed bread and can tell by the twitch of her nostrils that she approves. When, over our decaffs, she fingers the room key I've left on the table, gives me a lopsided smile and says, “I must go to bed,” I almost flush.

“Don’t worry.” I murmur. “I’ll sort out the details,” and think of “Tom Jones,” a favourite film from my youth, where a couple share a feast before a night of abandon.

After my bath I throw on a dressing gown and turn off all the lights. I stand on the balcony, my eyes slowly adjusting to the luminosity of the river and the shining sands of the estuary. There’s the softest tap as she slips in through the door I've left on the latch. Our shoulders touch as we lean on the parapet and I take her hand in mine. The reserve she has shown in public has vanished. When I wrap her in my arms she’s silky and perfumed and when we kiss she responds warmly. I’m not able to carry her to the bed as I have a dodgy back, and my knees creak under strain, but soon we’re sinking into clouds of cotton. Her skin glows in moonlight as she arches and stretches. As dawn breaks we lay curled, recovering, watching the tide flooding the inlet. For once, I think, I am mistaken about Wales, then she rolls away and sleeps, like our Cavalier after a scamper through the park.

When the phone call comes I find my dream has flown. She has slipped away as silently as she has arrived, and I am relieved. Some women have the gift of knowing when a man needs space. For when it comes down to it there’s nothing to talk about. It has been a delightful interlude someone like Amber, tied to an office routine, or Ann Robinson, tied to a television studio, can never experience. I’m exhausted and would dearly love a long lie in, but decide it would be churlish not to breakfast with her after such a night. I feel I should stick to my story with the hotel too, but as I shower I change my mind. What does it matter? Do I care what the hotel staff thinks? It happens all the time, I’m sure. My priority is to reach the next inn by lunchtime and it’s going to be an interminable drive over more mountains.

It's easy for women, I think; they don’t have to make the decisions. It’s we who choose whether to see them again and risk upsetting our domestic life, or drive away regarding the episode as one of life's pleasures. I don't think for long. I don't feel guilty; I’ve used no pressure. I desired her, what man in my place would not? We had enjoyed a mutual passion, but she was the one who’d made the first move. It may have been a reduced price room but it was not a cheap meal. She might have done the same thing before. I pack and go to settle my account.

The Manager is on duty.

“Good morning, sir. I do hope you and Mrs Jones have enjoyed your stay?”

I nod, in a hurry to be gone. “Thank you. The bill please. I just need the total.” I put my credit card on the desk and search in my pockets for my sunglasses.

“Of course.” He presses a few keys and hands me an invoice for four thousand, three hundred pounds and eighty-three pence.

“What the hell?” I say, knowing with sickening certainty that Amber will never compensate me for anything approaching that figure. “Two dinners and a double room at half price, you’re conning me!”

“But Mrs Jones, has been here for three weeks, sir,” he cooed. “When she asked for her card after you’d retired last night, she explained that you'd be settling her account. She asked us to ensure that all was ready, as you were setting out in different directions.” He feeds my card into the machine, which prints out a receipt as I stand there, dumb and gaping.

“Now, if you'd insert your pin number.... Just.... here - sir?”


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