“The Lilacs” had gone through stages, since it first opened in the 1950s, of being called a Guest House (the first owner, Mrs Branson, had been quite determined it would never be anything so common as a Boarding House) and a Private Hotel, a Guest House again, and then simply a Hotel. Now, technically, it wasn’t classed as anything. The sign, already slightly faded by the harsh wind that blew in from the North Sea, but still pretty, with a picture of a lilac tree on it, just said The Lilacs and officially it was Guest Accommodation, but the current owner, Jessica Simpson, wasn’t going to correct anyone who did call it a hotel.
Jessica had been looked askance at by some of the older and more long-standing landladies and managers of South Parade when she first bought the property. Still, they were prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, and it was a shame that it had been standing empty after Edna Lowe had passed away. She had been a real character, Edna. True, even in her lifetime there’d been mutterings that at times she was a bit too much of one, and there was a difference between speaking your mind and being downright rude, and keeping up traditions and avoiding change for the sake of it and not bothering to paint your front door for the last Lord knows how many years and still having sheets and blankets instead of duvets. True, the big hotel on North Parade, the County still had old-fashioned bedding, but it was new old-fashioned bedding. As even one of Edna’s most loyal guests had remarked, Candlewick bedspreads had a use-by date.
Anyway, Jessica had moved in about 18 months ago, and though there were remarks about her “swanning in”, she had won her neighbours over, and they had to admit that apart from that sign – she evidently hadn’t learnt the truth of Buy Cheap, Buy Twice, but she’d learn, had done a sterling job of doing the place up. It looked cleaner and smarter than it had since most of them could remember but without being silly, and she was a pleasant and personable young woman even if she did keep herself to herself. That was regarded as something of a questionable virtue in that particular community, though nobody could say she was unfriendly.
Jessica practised what she didn’t preach, and adopted much the same attitude to her guests. She was always approachable, and saw to any problems quickly and willingly, and liked to exchange a few words, even a laugh and a joke with them over breakfast. There was no denying she was quite easy on the eye, with her chestnut hair (that some of the female guests suspected wasn’t natural but had to admit, after what they thought was subtle closer inspection, probably was) usually in a neat French plait while she served breakfast, neat and economical in her movements, and with a slightly wry, but never sardonic smile that was not, people agreed, insincere, but could be fleeting.. But she wasn’t one of those landladies you gossiped with and offered confidences to you wouldn’t even to your nearest and dearest, nor did she have any intention of offering them herself. She was expert at deflecting, and never the slightest bit rude, but not even Karen Murdoch, next door at the Gables Guest House, who had become quite fond of her and liked a chat, knew much more than that before buying The Lilacs she had lived in Leicester, and that she had a weakness for car boot sales.
Nowadays, like most but not all of the properties on South Parade, The Lilacs stayed open more or less all year round, though it was generally agreed that at some point owners had a right to a couple of weeks’ holiday of their own as long as they put up a sign saying “Closed for Annual Holidays, Look Forward to Seeing Guests Old and New”. But like most, but not all, of her colleagues, Jessica sometimes wondered if it was worth it.
It was that dreary transitional time of year when the colours of autumn had faded into sodden leaf-piles of an indiscriminate murky colour, but although some of the shops had other ideas, it was too early to really start thinking about Christmas. On the eastern extremes of a time zone, dark came before teatime. But there were still guests at The Lilacs. Even a couple of determinedly original holidaymakers. Jessica attended to their needs and left them to their own devices. Like, to be fair, the vast majority of present-day landladies, she was quite happy for them to stay in their rooms all day, and even gave them control over their own heating, though there was a pleasant little lounge with comfortable leather couches, a bigger TV than the ones in the bedrooms, and a couple of shelves of books.
When Jessica bought a book of tickets for the Raffle run by the local Rotary club, she had done so because it was in a good cause (the proceeds went to a school Breakfast Club) and because she thought the silk flower arrangement would look very nice in the foyer and the £100 gift voucher would come in handy. She won the enormous turkey. There were the predictable cries of “Oh, lucky you!” and “What a whopper!”. Jessica knew perfectly well that it was unthinkable to say something along the lines of thanks but no thanks or even to offer the Gargantuan bird to someone else. Though she had never been a person who felt forced to conform, she recognised there were limits. She dutifully agreed that she was lucky, and it was a whopper and bore her unwanted booty home. She didn't even like turkey very much, apart from an odd couple of slices from the deli counter now and then.
Tempting as it was in passing, she more or less instantly dismissed the notion of dumping it into the sea at high tide and letting it drift out towards Holland. Offering it to Karen would be far more sensible, and with two hungry growing lads to feed, apart from her guests, it wouldn’t be unappreciated. But then she had a sudden thought, and it was one of those thoughts that once lodged, obdurately refuses to be unlodged.
She had never offered dinner at The Lilacs. And she had no intention of doing now, as a regular thing. But Aileen, who was housed at The Lilacs while the local authority tried to find her permanent accommodation, and Steve, one of their intermittent sales reps, would almost certainly appreciate a turkey dinner, and she obviously couldn’t ask them without asking the two self-proclaimed holidaymakers, Della, the young woman in Room 23, who kept herself to herself even more than Jessica, and Marvin, the studious looking middle aged man in Room 29, who always paid cash, and came with a stack of books ranging from spy thrillers to ornithology. There were no families or couples there at the moment.
Once I’ve done this, and once they’ve seen it, I can’t undo it, and can’t say I’m not going to do it, thought Jessica, and then she put up the notice by the reception desk. “ONE-OFF DINNER AVAILABLE ON THURSDAY NIGHT. FREE BUT OPTIONAL. PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF YOU WILL BE ATTENDING.” Of course they could let her know at breakfast if they wished (or use her mobile number if they had to) but she also left a little notebook and pen on the counter. The next time she passed, a few hours later, there were four entries in it. “Generous offer. Will be there, thanks, Aileen.” “Welcome change from supermarket sandwiches. Count me in. Steve.” “Looking forward to it! Della”. “Will be highly appreciated. Marvin”.
Jessica would have willingly admitted she wouldn’t have offered dinner on a regular basis even if she’d been a potential winner of Masterchef, but did admit, and equally willingly, that though she could manage a decent breakfast, she wasn’t one of life’s cooks, and thought that ready meals were unjustly maligned. Still, with a bit of help from the Internet, she was capable of roasting a turkey, even a whopper. She certainly didn’t intend going overboard on the “trimmings”. She bought some apricot and almond stuffing balls, and feeling vaguely hypocritical (though she’d tell the truth if anyone asked her!) offloaded cranberry sauce from a jar into a little glass dish. The frozen rostis she used had had a brilliant review in a magazine, and she did assuage her conscience (not that it was troubling her overmuch) by cooking some fresh broccoli and baby carrots. Dessert would be some decent quality ice cream. Pistachio flavoured. After all, a cook’s perk was picking the flavour, wasn’t it?
At breakfast, everyone sat at their own table and seemed to like it that way. But somehow you couldn’t do that for a turkey dinner. She pushed the tables to one side and relocated her own folding table (luckily it had castors) from her private lounge, opening up the leaf and putting the chair around it. She remembered that she did own a large tablecloth though she rarely used it, sent up a silent prayer that it wasn’t stained or mildewed, and discovered it wasn’t. She certainly didn’t intend getting any fresh cutlery and crockery. What they used for breakfast would do very nicely. When it was too late to amend the situation and pop round to the supermarket, she realised one bottle of wine between five did look a bit mean. She had decided against a starter, and once her guests were gathered round the table, brought the star of the show in straightaway. It had turned out very pleasingly, she thought, with relief. The Whopper was a lovely shade of gold, and smelt delicious. The vegetables were in separate dishes, so her guests could help themselves. “I used to make out I didn’t like broccoli long after I’d realised that I actually did,” Aileen said, “I’m sure my Mum saw through me! I ignored all her advice anyway …..” She was hungry, and though she’d never been allowed to starve, this was different. “This is great, Jessica. I wish I’d listened to her.” Her words flicked from subject to subject, and yet the others round the table knew that in truth they were one and the same. “She said I never did appreciate the value of money, and I said she was mean. But she’s not. She’s anything but.” She swallowed hard, and after she had swallowed her food.
“Why don’t you tell her, then?” Marvin asked. “Oh and you’re right. It is great. Thanks, Jess.”
“I won it in a raffle,” Jessica admitted. “The turkey I mean …..”
“Pride, I suppose,” Aileen said, “Though God knows I’m not in a position where I have any right to be proud.”
“Never say that!” Della’s intensity took them all by surprise –or maybe it didn’t. “You cope with all this incredibly well and I’ve never heard you whine or feel sorry for yourself.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t. But I don’t know if she’d want to listen. I said some pretty harsh things.”
“When were you last in touch?” Jessica herself joined in the conversation, and forgot her own self-imposed rule about not poking her nose into her guests’ business.
“Nearly a year. I mean – after I walked out, I did send her a postcard saying I was okay ….”
“And with any details about your whereabouts?” asked Marvin.
“No,” she admitted.
“Up to you, but I’d get in touch – properly –“ he said. “I never really had a family. Well, that’s not true. I wasn’t an orphan and in their way my parents loved me. But Dad was a diplomat, and I was sent to boarding school quite early. I suppose they had no choice – some of the places might not have been best for bringing up a child. And this isn’t one of those horror stories. I was actually very happy at school. You might almost say, too happy.”
“How do you mean?” Della asked. He gathered his thoughts, enjoying the mouthful of turkey he’d put in as Della spoke. “I was more or less at the same school from when I was 8 to when I was 18 – the prep school and the senior school were in the same grounds. Different buildings, but it was still more or less my home for ten years. Sometimes I even stayed there in the holidays. I expect you’ve all heard the phrase about becoming institutionalised. I started as one of the youngest and left as a senior prefect, though I never made it to head boy. You hear about boarding school food being awful, but ours was fine, especially the Sunday dinners. We quite often had roast turkey. Though I don’t know if it was as good as this one. I went straight to university, but missed school quite dreadfully until I’d found myself another niche. Then I went back to the school to teach. I was the master at the head of the table while the boys had their roast dinner. But the numbers were falling. In the end it closed. It just wasn’t viable. I’ve not had any money problems, though I’m not rich – and don’t misunderstand me, I do appreciate that. But it’s true that there are things it can’t buy. I’ve travelled quite a bit, seen the world, or at least some of it, but I had a hankering to go to where I’d spent a holiday with my Auntie Lily one Easter. The hotel we stayed is just a café now – the one called the Cottage Loaf. But it used to be called The Laburnums and – well, The Lilacs seemed closest, so to speak.”
“They do a very nice toasted teacake and hot chocolate at the Cottage Loaf,” Steve said. “I didn’t know it used to be a hotel.”
“Neither did I, and I live here,” Jessica said, “Though I’m sure plenty of people can remember it.”
“I think people are too snobby about places like McDonalds and Subway,” Steve said, “Though I’m sometimes up to here,” he gestured to his neck in a surprisingly theatrical way “with motorway service stations. But there’s a lot too be said for a good old-fashioned café. My wife and I thought about opening one once.” He gathered his thoughts. “In case you’re wondering, she’s still very much alive, and has married again, and I was far more the one at fault. She lets me see the children any time I want, she’s very good about that. But since I changed jobs and went to work for the stationery firm, I’m not flavour of the month the way I was when I was with the toy firm. Mind you, they’re getting past the age for toys, now. God, time goes by too quickly.”
“That was one of the few things I wasn’t so sure about about school,” Marvin admitted. “I mean – we were allowed toys, there were no harsh rules about it, but obviously you couldn’t have as many and – the clutter, I suppose, as when you’re at home in your own room. But you get used to it. And like you say, Steve, you grow out of them ….”
“Until you grow into them again,” Aileen said. “Uncle Dave – Mum’s brother – adores his train set. It’s a proper, old fashioned one, with little trees and people and signals that go up and down. I always did like Uncle Dave. Sometimes, though – appropriate phrase, I guess – he must have felt like a buffer zone between us.”
“I’d have liked to have been an uncle,” Marvin said, “But as I was an only child and never married, I suppose that ruled it out!”
They all fell silent for a while, but it was a companionable, if thoughtful silence. After a moment of so, Steve fished into the bag he seemed to carry out of force of habit, even when there were no samples in it. “Bit more wine for us, Jessica. Only “Chateau Tesco” I’m afraid, not as posh as this lovely stuff, but I hope it might be welcome, though I’m not sure if we should be encouraging this child to drink!”
“I am not a child,” Aileen protested, good-naturedly. “Been legally entitled to drink – if I could afford it! – for three years now. But I’ve certainly acted like one. I think I will make that phone call!”
“Have your pudding first,” Marvin said, gently, his expression indicating that he wasn’t in any way belittling the significance of it.
“You know,” Della said, “I nearly didn’t accept the invitation. I’ve never been much of one for communal meals. In our household – they were always a bit of a battle zone, and I don’t just mean about eating your broccoli. I don’t even know now if I’d ever book into a hotel where they’re a regular thing – don’t take offence at that, Jessica!”
“I wouldn’t myself,” Jessica said, “Why do you think I don’t do them, apart from not being a great cook?”
“On the evidence of this, you’re fine,” Della said, “My Gran used to do a lovely roast turkey. She was always my refuge.”
They lingered over the ice cream and another glass of wine, and the guests insisted on doing the washing up, realising too late that narrowing it down to two of them would probably have been more sensible as many hands made decidedly awkward work with much dodging and dancing. But there was laughter, too, and the crockery survived unscathed.
Jessica had put up a token protest, but was glad of a few moments to herself. She most definitely would get round to having her two weeks off. But she would not go abroad, not this time. She would go back to Leicester, and to the memorial garden where her husband’s ashes were scattered. It was time to stop blocking it out. And time to tell him that she had opened her own business, and it was doing well. Time to forgive herself for delaying him with a phone call over something and nothing that meant he was in the path of the lorry that lost control. The hardest person to forgive was yourself. And forgiveness was optional. But it was free.