Tuesday, 1 January 2019

All You Can Eat

Adam Macqueen
New Year 2019

She slept much better than she had expected to, and woke up ravenous the next morning.

“I hope you’re hungry, dear!” trilled the landlady as she walked in to the hotel’s small dining room just after seven. It was crowded, not with guests – Maddy seemed to be the only one up – but with chintz, every surface a riot of pattern and ornament. The rule of the establishment seemed to be that if anything stood still for long enough, it got a doily and a china animal plonked on top of it. And if an edge was capable of bearing a frill, it got one.

“I am, actually.” Maddy threaded her way between the tightly-placed tables to the  one in the bay window, where a view of the neat garden and the hills beyond could just be made out between the heavily-swagged curtains. 

“You’ll want the full English then,” said the plump woman. It wasn’t a question. “Cereals are the side there, dear!” she added as she disappeared through the swing door to the kitchen.

I can forgo that at least, thought Maddy, but as she sat there looking at the view her stomach gave a rumble of disagreement. Two thoughts followed in quick succession – Just this once can’t hurtand Ooh, they’ve got Alpen– before she found herself over at the sideboard and cracking a thumb into the perforated corner of one of the dinky little boxes while simultaneously reaching past the jug marked semi-skimmed for the full-fat one beyond.

What’s wrong with me? she wondered briefly as she resumed her seat in the window, a spoonful of the cereal already downed before she had even got back to the table. It wasn’t as if she had gone wanting the night before. The prospect of a sad supper had vanished almost as soon as she had checked in the previous morning: no sooner had she asked about takeaways in the village than the landlady had assured her that they would run her up something themselves, all she had to do was let them know what time she would get in.

“It’s no trouble,” the blousy woman had assured her as she bustled out from behind the  desk in the hallway and commandeered Maddy’s wheeled case to lead her towards her room. “Cooking’s hubby’s hobby, and it’s justas easy to run up something for three as it is for two. Besides, we do prefer guests not to have food in the bedrooms,” she added with an air of finality.

“Well, if you’re sure,” said Maddy doubtfully as she followed her around the ornate staircase and through a fire door into a modern extension on the back of the Victorian villa.

“Of course!” the woman beamed back over her shoulder. “Now you don’t have any special dietary requirements, do you dear?”

“No, no,” Maddy assured her, thinking that under the circumstances she would probably disavow them even if she had.

“Good, good. Not that it would be a problem, of course. We’ve a vegan in at the moment, as it happens.” The landlady pursed pink lips and nodded towards a door on one side of the corridor as she stopped to unlock one on the opposite side. “We can cater for all sorts here. ‘Never let an unsatisfied guest leave’, that’s our motto. This is you, dear.”

“Oh – thank you,” Maddy had said, flustered, as she took in the room, which was slightly larger and a lot louder than she had expected. She had counted four different patterns of wallpaper once she was safely alone inside. And the flowery bedspread clashed with every single one of them.

But if the décor left something to be desired, you certainly couldn’t complain about the service. There had indeed been a meal waiting for her when she got back from the office after nine that night, a great steaming plate of delicious meat stew she suspected might be Lancashire hotpot, though she could just have been assuming that for geographical reasons and it was too awkward to ask. Even better, it was served up at a table laid just for one. She had spent the drive back from the city centre worrying  she would be expected to eat with the proprietors themselves when the last thing she needed was to have to make yet more conversation with more strangers: as it was they left her alone save for the occasional check-in to make sure she didn’t want seconds (“there’s plenty!”) and supply her with suet pudding for afters. The husband was an almost identical shape to his wife, with the same smiling demeanour: the pair of them couldn’t have been more welcoming. She must write something nice on TripAdvisor, she thought to herself now as she chased the last of her cereal round the bowl with her spoon. She knew how important such things were to small places like this. They even had their own feedback forms in the room, with their motto printed at the top in Comic Sans. She hadn’t bothered to fill it out yet.

“Oh wow,” she couldn’t help saying as the kitchen door swung open again and the landlady bore down on her table carrying a plate piled high with everything you’d expect from a full English and a bit more besides. As well as two sausages and several fat-marbled rashers of bacon there were slices of black pudding and another meaty concoction she didn’t even recognise: the egg, which was slightly pallid and crammed in on the very edge of the plate next to a fried slice oozing lard, looked like an afterthought. She could feel herself starting to sweat just looking at it.

“Best start to the day there is,” the woman said cheerily as she plonked the plate down on the table in front of her. “Every bit of it locally-sourced, too. We have a personal relationship with every one of our suppliers. Now, d’you want tea or coffee, love?”

Much to her surprise, Maddy managed to polish off the lot. She even got some entertainment laid on during her meal, when another guest turned up in the dining room and made a great show of fiddling with the cereal boxes and sighing before going over to knock on the door of the kitchen.

It was the landlord who eventually opened it, wearing a grease-spattered apron and letting out a cheery “good morning!” which wasn’t returned. He stared at the newcomer through steamed-up specs for a moment before saying “Oh yes, I’ve some special milk for you, haven’t I? Hold on,” and letting the door swing to again.

That’ll be the vegan, then, thought Maddy. She watched the man silently make his way to the furthest table rather than wait, so that when his host returned carrying a carton of almond milk which he’d placed on a saucer specially he was obliged to carry it the length of the room to deliver it. He got the barest of “thank yous” in return, and she noticed that the guest immediately pulled his phone out and started typing away on it before he even deigned to pour the stuff on to his cornflakes.

--

She was grateful for her big breakfast later on, because things at the office were so hectic – she turned up a whole load of VAT records that Damien hadn’t even filed, let alone dealt with – that she didn’t manage to grab any lunch. Actually Maddy was quite glad of the excuse. She didn’t really fancy the look of any of the sandwich places near the office (they didn’t seem to have heard of Pret A Manger up here, let alone sushi) and bumping into any of the staff on their lunch hour could have been awkward. She had already decided several of them were going to have to be let go, and having to make idle chit-chat in the meantime was not a prospect she relished.

It did mean she was starving by the time she got back, and as she pulled into the last available parking space on the hotel’s gravel drive she was pleased to see the windows of the dining room illuminated and the landlady laying out her place at her usual table. She met her in the hallway as she was going in. “Go straight in and sit down, love, it won’t be a minute. Got a beautiful bit of meat for you tonight, fresh in today. Corn fed!”

Maddy quite fancied changing her clothes, or at least getting out of her bra which was killing her, but it seemed rude to make them wait, so she went straight in. She wasn’t disappointed. The meal was incredible: the meat was just falling off the bone.

“Now I’m afraid we’re going to have to move you tonight,” said the landlady apologetically when she came to take away her empty plate. “We’ve had a bit of a problem in the room across from yours, and it means there won’t be any hot water in the annexe while we’re sorting it out, so I’ve put you in the main house with us. You just pop back and pick up your bits and bobs after pudding, and we’ll get you settled in.”

After a generous helping of some sort of mincemeat tart that she guessed was another local speciality, Maddy did as she was told. There was a toolbox open on the patterned carpet in the corridor and the landlord was just emerging from the room opposite hers when she got there: he pulled the door to with an apologetic smile. “So sorry about this,” he told her. “Bit of a mess in there, I’m afraid.”

“It’s no problem,” she beamed back. She was amused to see that he kept his toolbox as spick and span as his house: he was even using a little rag to wipe down the head of the hammer he was holding before he put it back in its allotted place.

--

The breakfast the next morning was, if anything, even better: the bacon was a cut she had never seen before and much tastier than the stuff they usually got from the supermarket, even the Taste the Difference one. “We cure our own,” the landlady told her proudly when she asked about it.

It was all so good that when she had a spare five minutes that morning she logged on to TripAdvisor to say so. She got as far as the hotel’s page – the vegan man had left a very snitty review that not only said they wereclearly unprepared for guests with allergy issues or food intolerances but that the staff were set in their ways and rather surly, which was so unfair it needed correcting straight away – but at that point Louise put a call through from a supplier who was ranting about not having been paid for over three months and demanding to speak to Damien, and she had to close her laptop and deal with that instead.

She did manage to get away at a decent time that afternoon – she’d sent out an email calling an all-staff meeting for the following morning, and she couldn’t bear to sit there looking at their long faces while they wondered which of them was for the chop – and it was still daylight when she arrived back at the hotel. Her way to the parking spaces at the top of the gravel drive was blocked by a pick-up truck which was busy loading a car onto its back, a yellow Golf she recognised as having been parked outside ever since her arrival. “Oh dear – problem?” she said through her wound-down window as the landlord emerged around the side of the vehicle.

“No, not really: we’ll be out of your way in a couple of minutes,” he said with his customary smile, and she drew in close to the hedge so that the truck would be able to get past her when it was ready. The landlady came out of the side door by the kitchen with a couple of heavy-looking plastic coolbags and gave them to the driver before he went, seeing him off with a kiss on the cheek and a wave. That’s nice, thought Maddy as she watched: they’ve got a whole local economy going on here. It certainly looked as if the hotel owners had enough to go round: through the door behind her she could see what looked like an entire carcass hanging up in what must be the larder.

--

“So sorry to disturb you, dear, I just wanted to check how you felt about liver?”

“Oh – er – fine!” trilled Maddy, pressing the open door into her shoulder to ensure her body blocked as much of the gap as possible. She was only in her dressing gown, about to jump in the bath, and she was slightly embarrassed about the smell that might be coming from the bathroom. The unaccustomed diet was playing havoc with her insides.

“That’s good, then.” The landlady gave her a beaming smile, revealing what looked like lipstick on her teeth. “Only some people are funny about offal, aren’t they? Personally hubby and I can’t get enough of the stuff – waste not, want not! – but there’s no accounting for taste. I’ll leave you to it, dear. Shall we say half past seven?”

That was just over an hour away, which gave her plenty of time for a proper soak. “Lovely!” she said to the broad back as it disappeared down the stairs.

After her bath she tried to call Greg again, but he still wasn’t answering.

--

The next morning she got up and put on her most fuck-you power suit – the one that made her feel like Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl– ready for the staff showdown. It felt a little tight around the waist. For heaven’s sake, she thought to herself, I am supposed to be dieting. Although, come to think of it, what she had been eating over the past few days came pretty close to Atkins.

She took the jacket off and tucked a napkin into the front of her shirt before tucking into her breakfast. It wouldn’t look very professional to be firing people with meat juice splashed all over herself.

She usually felt all sick and nervous when she had to sack someone – normally she wouldn’t be able to manage any more than a cup of coffee on a morning like this – but today she was actually relishing the prospect. HR had offered to take care of the individual exit meetings, but as she mopped up the very last drops on her plate with a triangle of fried bread, she decided she would actually like to see each of them one-on-one herself.

--

She had just seen off the last of them, and was sitting in the empty boardroom using one of the toothpicks she had been obliged to buy from Boots on the way in to the office, when the call came through from head office.

It went on for a while, and the conversation was somewhat circular, but what it boiled down to was that they couldn’t get rid of Damien. A formal complaint he had put in about management not responding to repeated requests for extra resources made it too awkward to sack him: the last thing the company needed at this point was another tribunal. They were still hopeful that he could be managed out over time – a “promotion” to one of the other regional offices, as far away from his kids’ schools as possible, was mentioned – but for the moment, they were stuck with him.

“You mean I’m stuck with him,” Maddy said grimly.

“If anyone can find a way to make it work, you can,” came the reply. “Alvin and the board have every confidence in you. There’s just not the appetite for a showdown here.”

“Speak for yourselves,” said Maddy, and put the phone down.

She sat for a while, ruminatively working the toothpick into the difficult gaps between her incisors and canines and listening to the rumble of her hungry tummy. Then she picked up her mobile and called the hotel. First of all she wanted to make sure they had seen the rave review she had given them online after dinner the night before. And then, although she knew she was being cheeky, she had a big favour to ask them.

They said it was no problem at all, they would be delighted.

The second call she made using the office landline. “Damien?” she said when he finally picked up. “It’s Maddy. Yes. Well, the important thing is to find a way to move forward. I thought we should meet up. No, not the office. I’m staying at a little hotel outside town. Could you come tonight for dinner?”