Chapter One


Americans say ass instead of arse. They’re different from us. Less up-tight. The tiny American pensioner in front of my reception desk looked like a delicate miniature. She barely came up to counter level.

‘Thanks, Hun,’ she said. ‘You’ve been real helpful.’

Hun?  I’d only just met the woman.

I looked down to check my name badge. It was still there. But maybe she needed glasses. Her small, tanned face was like a wrinkled peach and the wispy, white hair no more than a thin halo. I suppose she’d shrunk with age. Is that what I had to look forward to? A ripple of depression overtook me.   

Ignore me. I’m not usually this bitter, or mean to senior citizens. But it’s been a bad day, and my normal cheerfulness has vanished thanks to the family from hell complaining about the size of their en-suite and because their T.V. wasn’t a massive flat-screen, like the one they had at home. Why hadn’t they stayed home then?

‘All part of the service,’ I said.

The old girl was sweet, and at least she’d said thanks. Not everyone did. But even so, I’m happy to be the capable and smiley type that guests expect to find behind their hotel reception desk. For I enjoy my job. But like I said, you’ve caught me on a bad day.

‘Stevie? Strange name for a girl, that.’ The woman had figured out the name badge bit and smiled. So I smiled back, despite the fact that I’m not a girl but a fully grown woman, and even on a rough day don’t look anything like a guy.

Blame my mother for the Stevie thing. I always have. And I suppose I could have had Stephanie Anderson printed on my name tag, but anyone who knows me says I’m definitely not a Stephanie. Still, after thirty-four odd years of being called Stevie, and all the smartarse comments, I’ve grown into it.

Anderson, I’ve always been happy with. I share it with an American novelist, a Nobel physicist, a foxy lady in Ireland, and that actress who played Scully in the X-Files. Google has its uses. 

‘How the hell am I s’posed to park on that pocket-bloody-handkerchief you’ve got out front!’ The man’s face was screwed up and scarlet. Hard to tell if it was anger or blood pressure, for he could have done with a few pounds off, most of it from around his middle.

And if life was fairer, it would be me getting angry. He’d been rude. Had pushed up to the counter out of turn, elbowing in past the old lady I’d been dealing with. Some people leave their manners at home when they come on holiday. And lots of people came on holiday to Newquay, the Cornish Riviera. It wasn’t Saint Tropez, but when the sun shone and the surf was up, it came in a decent second.

Saturday. Changeover-Day. It was often a challenge. When one set of guests left and the next arrived expecting to stay at The Ritz when they’d only paid for the economy version. The guy leant heavily on my chipboard counter and pushed his face in closer to mine.

‘Can I help you, Sir?’ Sometimes the word stuck in your throat, but I was a professional. Plus I needed the job.

‘Car park!’ he said (a little harshly, I thought) and pointed to the Peugeot abandoned haphazardly across our front drive. It was a family car. With a family still in it.

‘Sir, the sign out front directs you to the large parking area at the rear of the hotel.’

‘Sign? What bloody sign? I never seen no bloody sign.’

I looked him in the eye, not something I’d recommend to the novice, and passed across one of our courtesy slips with Hotel Royal written on its header. There wasn’t much ‘royal’ about the place, unless you count thirty mediocre bedrooms, some with dodgy plumbing and floors that slope, and a restaurant badly in need of refurbishment.

‘Write your name and licence number on there, if you would, Sir. First right onto the road, then right and right again will take you to the parking lot. If you’d like to bring your luggage in now, I’ll have someone help your family up to their rooms.’

The man grunted, wrote something on the slip, flung it across the counter at me and headed back out to his car.

‘Unpleasant man,’ said the old lady.

The in-house phone rang. Which was just as well, for it saved having to think up a reply. It was a definite no-go-area, discussing guests with other guests. We may not be The Ritz, but we were still a long way from Fawlty Towers.

‘Shit, Stevie. How long does it take to answer a bloody phone?’ My boss didn’t wait for an estimate. ‘Just get your butt down here, Alfie’s about to walk out.’ Alfie’s our cook. ‘He’s had a fight with the K.P. again.’

   ‘Which one?’ I asked. It might make a difference.

My boss, Harry Evans, didn’t bother to learn Kitchen Porters’ names. He didn’t see the point, for they never stayed long. Harry wasn’t known for his people-skills.

‘The spotty kid with the jeans half-way down his ass,’ he said.

Harry came from the British side of the pond, but he always said ass anyway. He’d watched loads of American movies and often slipped into a confusing Brooklyn accent. He was a Yankees fan, pronounced New York Noo Yawk and I believe he even thought he was cool. Harry definitely wasn’t cool; still he wasn’t a bad bloke. He had a few rough edges, but I’d had worse bosses.

‘Frigg’s sake, Stevie. What is it with the kitchen staff? And why does this Prima Donna of a Chef only want to talk to you? He’s trying to throw me out of my own God damn kitchen, the one I paid for.’

   Why does he want to talk to me, Harry? Well, maybe because I don’t start every conversation with a swear word, like you. Or it might even be the faint waft of body odour that Harry carried around with him. Although most of us were used to that by now.

I thought about going back to bed. Sticking my head under the duvet and coming back on duty when Changeover-Day was over. But instead, I stuck a ‘back in five minutes’ sign on my reception desk, smiled sweetly at the old American woman who still seemed to be waiting for something and let out a small, hard-done-by sigh. It wasn’t as satisfying as swearing, but life is often a compromise.



Chapter 2



It’s sometimes said that we humans are a race of problem solvers. You’d be wise to add problem makers to that. My boss Harry makes more than his fair share and expects me to solve them. 

  Like Changeover-Day, when he took his snotty attitude into the kitchen and we almost lost another good K.P. These poor kids get paid a pittance to do the most menial, skanky job on the planet, and then they’re expected to salaam to a mediocre cook who calls himself a Chef. Harry (an innocent abroad when it comes to kitchen etiquette) jumps in with both feet when he doesn’t know a crème brûlée from a custard tart.

There’s an uneasy truce in the kitchen now. But I don’t kid myself that it will last, for Alfie, our cook, is not an easy man to get along with. He comes with tattoos across his knuckles that say ‘game over’ and questionable cooking skills. When he’s having a bad day, he takes out his anger on the nearest body to hand, usually an unfortunate Kitchen Porter.

Our present full time K.P. - the one with spots and ‘trouser issues’ - is a willing lad and there was no way I was going to lose him. So, I’ve wangled an hourly raise of fifty pence for him. Not much compensation for the grief Alfie gave him, but the guy seemed made-up. And I’ve massaged Alfie’s ego (calling him Chef, and dropping him a pack of Marlborough). I’ve also moved one step closer to a stomach ulcer. But it’s all part of the cut-and-thrust of the hotel business and when things are going well I really do love my job.

But maybe that won’t be enough, for there are doomsday rumours coming out of the staffroom. Mostly Doris, our head chambermaid – we only have two – and Doris has a nose for the latest gossip. I try to steer clear of the rumour mill, but fear that the Royal was going bust and might not even make it through to this year’s summer season wasn’t something I could ignore. The place was my home. Not a metaphor, for I actually lived in the tiny, attic flat.

‘Hey! You Stephanie Anderson?’


‘I’m looking for a Stephanie Anderson,’ the guy shouted in my face, like I was in the first stage of Alzheimer’s. ‘Got a packet to be signed for.’

It was the postman’s choice of name that had thrown me. For I’m clearly not a Stephanie - as you know.

Oiy! Stevie. I was here first. What about this invoice?’

Another man waved a paper dramatically in the air. It could have been anything. ‘Boss says I’m not to come back without the readies in me hand.’

I looked at the hand. It was large, like the rest of him.

His name was Skelly, and he was one of those muscle-bound guys you see in gyms, bulking up their biceps. He brought us cheap house wine and booze with labels I’d never heard of. The kind that fell off the back of a lorry somewhere. I didn’t like the idea, but Harry told me to stop worrying. None of the guests had ever complained and it saved him a few bob.

‘Sorry, Skelly. You’ll need to see Harry about that,’ I said. ‘Not my department.’ 

‘Will somebody please sign for this? I’ve got the rest of my round to do.’ The postman slid an assortment of envelopes across the counter followed by the large brown packet he’d been trying to off-load.

It was addressed to: Stephanie Anderson, Hotel Royal, Newquay, Cornwall, U.K. It was mine, so I signed. At least it got the postman out of my hair, and I sent Skelly off to Harry’s fancy office outback. The place suddenly went from the madness of a three ring circus to the quiet of Dead Man’s Gulch.

I took advantage of the lull to get myself a coffee. Then I settled at my desk in the small, airless cubicle behind Reception that some architect with a sense of humour had called an office. If anyone wanted me they knew how to ring a bell.

The coffee was great. That was one of the reasons I’d gone out on a limb for the young K.P. His coffee was legendary. Weapon’s grade.

I peered at the stamps on my package. It seemed to come from Canada, but I knew no one in Canada. I gave up guessing and opened the thing.

 There were two letters inside, one from somebody who called herself my grandmother. I didn’t know I had a grandmother. Well of course I had a grandmother; technically everyone needs one of those. But my mother had never talked about her and there were no photographs anywhere, like there had been no evidence in our family home of any kind of family. No sisters, brothers, father, grandfather, no aunts, uncles.

It was a state of affairs that I took for granted as an adult. Something I’d grown into, though not easily, as a child. But even now, there were times when I had this weird feeling there was somebody out there tugging at me, someone with my DNA. My mother always insisted this was wishful thinking and I suppose she was right, for surely she must know. No grandmother then. So I’d figured she was dead.

She was dead. I grabbed for the coffee to steady my nerves. Imagine how you would feel. One minute you have no grandmother. The next you do. And then suddenly she’s yanked dramatically from your grasp; slips through your fingers before you can say hello Granny.

How did I know the woman was gone? The letter, for one. It began by saying that if I was finally reading her letter, she was now dead and it had been forwarded to me by her solicitors in Ottawa. She’d sent a photograph too, and the effect of having this artefact in my hand was surprising. I forgot to breathe and whatever jelly you have in your bones - I’d never listened properly in human-bio lessons - seemed to solidify.

‘Hey. That looks just like you. Got that blazing red hair of yours, though hers is more like wire wool. And the eyes. Yours are green too. And look …’ Doris stabbed a fat, stubby finger irreverently at the photograph ‘… she’s got the same little pug nose. Like somebody’s stuck on a bit of putty.’

‘Yeah, okay. Thanks for that, Doris.’ Doris had made one of her silent entries; something she was famed for. It helped with her eavesdropping. ‘This mean you’ve finished the first floor?’

‘Coffee break.’

She looked pointedly at the mug on my desk. A shop steward sort of look that said she knew her rights and was a reader of Karl Marx.

‘Fair enough,’ I said. It wasn’t wise to upset Doris. She had power beyond her job description and she was a good worker. Like me, her wage didn’t match the galley slave role she played in the Royal. Harry was a cheapskate, but jobs weren’t that easy to come by, not ones where you could walk across the road to the beach and had your own built-in accommodation.

‘Who is it then?’ She poked another dangerous looking finger at the picture.

I thought about telling her to mind her own business, but like I said, Doris was a useful person to have on your side.

‘It’s my grandmother,’ I said, and the words felt like they’d landed from some alien planet. ‘She’s dead.’

‘Sorry for your loss. Maybe she’s left you something in her will.’ Doris looked at the other envelope, the one I hadn’t opened yet. ‘You hear that ruckus coming from Harry’s office?’

 ‘No,’ I said and wished she’d go, so I could read the rest of the letter. I hadn’t thought about a will, and the idea seemed mercenary, especially when I hadn’t even met the poor woman.

‘Not looking good, babe.’ Doris insisted on calling me babe in her more relaxed moments. ‘Skelly’s in there threatening to break Harry’s arm if he don’t get paid. Place is on its uppers, Stevie.’ She took up a feisty stance, and folded her arms across her ample bust. She was all bosom and batwing arms, the sort of figure that might have intimidated some.   

But I’d got the hang of Doris some time ago. Beneath her rock hard exterior beat a generous heart and once she’d taken to you, you were allowed odd glimpses of it.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘I’ll be getting on then.’

Good, I thought. Call me uncharitable, and I don’t think I am, but my grandmother had just died.

Doris was right about the photograph, though. The resemblance was spooky, except for the wire-wool hair. Though I should come clean that my own thick mane of mahogany red hair could also resemble a pot scrubber before I’d attacked it with the straighteners.

I thought about the nose. I wouldn’t say mine was pug, or like a lump of putty some unfeeling sculptor had just stuck on as an afterthought. I’ve always considered my nose jaunty and pert, if anything.

‘Stevie! Thought you said I could have tomorrow off.’

It was Joe Hines, part time receptionist in this house of fun. I like Joe and I’ve come to think of him as a friend. He’s thirty-two, closer to my age than anyone else here and I suppose that’s why, when Joe first came to the Royal last year, some of the other staff tried to pair us up. They worry about my love life. Bless.

And it’s true that Joe and I see eye to eye on many things, music for one. We both like Jazz. He’s an intelligent guy and somebody you can have a grown up conversation with. A glorious looking man and impressively tall. I have to look up at him, but then I have to look up at most people. He has fine chiselled features and fabulous blond hair – which I suspect he dyes. But he’ll have trouble with his hairline when he’s older, for he’s already chasing after it.

Still, there was no way Joe and I could ever make it in any romantic way, for he sails under a different flag. I don’t think anyone else realises that Joe’s gay. And frankly it’s none of their bloody business. I guess somebody who looks like that; you assume his bedroom history includes a tonne of classy women. But Joe had confided in me, although he wants to stay in the closet as far as everyone else in our little family is concerned. I suppose he’s seen prejudice at first hand.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘Well what?’ I countered.

‘The staff rota.’ He waved a flimsy paper in front of my eyes, like some kind of proof were needed that we actually operated a staff rota. ‘It’s been changed. And you promised me faithfully I’d have Tuesday off this week.’ The sad look in his eyes and the way he emphasised the word faithfully made it sound like I’d broken some kind of blood-oath and could never be trusted again.

‘And I gave you tomorrow off,’ I said. ‘I’m covering your shift myself. Let me see that thing. Where’d you get this? It’s not the one I printed off for you.’ It looked like the dog had eaten breakfast off it. (Harry has a dog but we try to keep it away from the restaurant and kitchen areas in case of food hygiene inspections.)

‘Misplaced mine,’ he mumbled, looking uncomfortable, for in most things Joe was a perfectionist. ‘That’s the one from the notice board in the staff room.’

 The staff room was a small space that Harry hadn’t been able to think up another use for. It had once been a storeroom, so there were no windows in there and it was hardly luxurious. He’d thrown in a couple of dog eared sofas for staff morale and an antiquated coffee maker, and the navy blue carpet was now threadbare in places. But despite its shortcomings, the place was a cosy retreat. Somewhere you could meet friends and gripe about what life threw your way.

I looked at the staff rota. The print out had been altered, the names scratched out and rewritten in red ink. ‘That mess isn’t my writing,’ I said, ‘and I’d hardly have put the two of us down for a full shift together on a Tuesday night. They’re not exactly queuing in the aisles this week.’

‘That’s what I thought.’

‘Looks like Harry’s scribble,’ I said.

‘It’s our anniversary tomorrow.’ His voice took on a whining tone. ‘Wilbur’s got something special planned. I can’t let him down.’

Wilbur was Joe’s life-partner; a decent man. I liked him.

‘Leave it with me. Some kind of foul up. I’ll sort it.’

‘Bless you, Stevie. You’re a brick. I’ll be in town shopping before my afternoon shift.’

I shuffled the two letters and the photograph in front of me back into their brown envelope, shoved them in my desk drawer. I could take a hint; the Gods were against me this morning. But if they changed their minds, maybe I’d get a chance later to read the rest of my grandmother’s letter and study the face in the photo. The one that looked so much like me that it must be my grandmother when she was young.

She’d lived in Canada, which sounded far more exciting than the council estate in Enfield where I’d grown up. A place where I’d watched my mother give up her unequal struggle with the damp mould, and sink into a sad complacency.

But watching my mother settle for second best in life and going off to her mind numbing job, day after day, had one positive effect on me. It had made me determined not to follow her down the same road. To go to college. To aim for something in life. I’d learned early on to stand on my own two feet. So, I suppose if I had anything to thank my mother for, it was that.

I took in a long, calming breath and tried to find the serenity that one of my friends who did yoga insisted was out there somewhere. I’d just reached some sort of peaceful plateau, ready to take on whatever challenges the rest of the day had to offer, when a noise like a siren erupted throughout the hotel.

Shit!  Failed again. It was the day in the month when we tested the fire alarm. And I’d forgotten to put out the warning notice for guests. Any minute now I’d have them flooding to the front desk twittering on about shock, and the more astute of them trying to get money knocked off the bill for psychological trauma. Then Harry would join in and look at me like I’d personally started World War Three. Some days you’d be better off working as a traffic warden.  





Chapter 3





‘You change the staff rota?’

‘Meant to tell you,’ said Harry. ‘But stuff’s been hectic lately.’

I thought back to Doris’s latest keyhole report. And how Skelly had threatened to break Harry’s arm if he didn’t come across with the money he owed. Hectic wouldn’t have been the word I’d use, but then maybe I’m picky.

He shuffled uncomfortably in his seat like his haemorrhoids were playing up again, said ‘Got some people coming in tomorrow night. Special people. I want us to make an impression. That guy Joseph’s got a lot of class; looks good in the uniform, posh accent.’

‘And what am I, Harry? Something the cat sicked up?’

I can be rash at times. The mouth rushes in while the brain’s still figuring stuff out.

‘Stevie, you look great and you’re one hell of a worker, but you can be a smartarse when somebody tees you off.’

‘A what?’ That was rich, coming from Harry who peppered most conversations with swear words.

‘Look girl, you do a great job.’

 ‘Yeah, right.’ I’ve been patronised before, so I recognise the signs.

‘But for reasons best known to me, I want you both out there on the desk when these guys come in on Tuesday night. Big beaming meet and greet. Courteous, professional, charming.’

‘And you don’t want to tell me why.’



‘Last time I checked it was me who paid the mortgage, owed the bills and didn’t sleep nights.’ Harry’s face hardened. ‘I want you both on Reception tomorrow night even if there’s a nuclear attack, got it?’

‘Got it.’

He waved a dismissive hand towards the door and looked down at the papers on his desk.

I needed an Aspirin. Doris was right, we were in trouble and Harry wasn’t sleeping nights. Usually, Harry slept like a baby. Not that I had personal knowledge of his sleeping habits. Yuck! He was a tub of lard and fifty-five if he was a day. But trouble-free sleep was something he bragged about.   




‘What you want me to do next, mein Fűhrer?’

Joe was only baiting me, but his insults were wearing thin now, so I shot him a sarcastic look. It was hardly my fault he’d lost his night off tomorrow. Life can be a bitch. Join the club.

 ‘Try growing up,’ I said. ‘And go whinge at Harry instead of me.’

So far, today hadn’t been one for the record books, unless you measure it in crap value. And I suppose if you were an optimist, the upside was that things could only get better. I try to be an optimist. And that’s why, when I wrap up here and hand over to Joe, I’m going into town to look for a new smart-casual top to wear on my date with Nigel tonight. Someone would need to be an optimist to go out with Nigel. But maybe the guy’s got hidden talents that haven’t been discovered yet and a night out at Butcher’s Bistro will do the trick.

I know I shouldn’t go. It can only end badly. For me. For Nigel. He’s a decent enough man, but he’s made boring into an art form. He delivers our fresh fish, so there’s usually a faint smell of Mackerel wafting from him, which I’m hoping tonight he will have overcome with a good aftershave.

So why go? Why touch the man with an extra long bargepole and a pair of reinforced rubber gloves? Nigel has worn me down after countless fumbling attempts to get me on a date, and I suppose I figured that if we finally went out it would bring a dose of reality into his life. That he’d stop thinking of me as some sort of prize to be won, but see me as I really am. Human, feet of clay, sometimes cynical, sometimes confused by life, loyal to friends, looking for companionship and love - like so many other people on the planet - and so far been disappointed.

I’d started the New Year with a new slogan – All Men are Bastards. But I had a fair enough excuse, for a slimy, smooth talker I’d dated for two whole months had borrowed a 100 quid and hadn’t been heard of since. So I guess you can add naive to my list of virtues and vices.

Two months was a record for me. At least since my partner and I broke up two years ago. I hadn’t realised we’d broken up till I came home from work one day to find that my flat had no furniture in it. A moving van had shifted the lot, and he’d set up in the Midlands with a 24-year-old nurse from Halesowen he’d met on the beach. You had to admire the guy’s planning skills and grasp of logistics.

That’s when Harry had offered me my own place in the hotel, for a small rent that he takes from my salary. He calls it The Penthouse - a sense of humour, it’s a gift. My place is certainly the highest point in the building, the attic. It’s tiny. The floor slopes and in places the roof slopes to meet it. So, it’s just as well I’m not tall. But it’s all mine. No kitchen, no living room, just a miniscule bathroom and a bedroom so small that only a bed and a wardrobe fit.

The phone rang in my office.

‘Hey, Stevie. You put up the Karaoke poster out there, yet?’

It was Harry and I’d been hoping he’d forgotten about the Karaoke poster. But Harry was a frustrated performer and the highlights of his week were the two Karaoke nights he ran in the bar.

Monday and Wednesday, come flood or famine, Harry would entertain guests with the lame Karaoke backtracks he’d got Joe to download. These nights attracted a smattering of people, ones who hadn’t yet discovered the delights of the British Legion Club down the road where you could buy a pint for a fraction of the price that we charged in our ‘newly refurbished cabaret lounge’ – the bar. Once the night progressed, Harry often managed to drive away the few remaining customers with his tired jokes that staggered their way to punch lines.

‘Oh, and Stevie?’ What now? ‘Phone up that guy with the keyboard. Young bloke. The one who played that background shit for us at Christmas.’

Harry had a way with words. ‘Matthew?’ I said.

‘Could be. You know me and names.’

‘You want Jazz in the bar?’

‘Sure, why not. Bit of culture for Tuesday night. Show these guys from London we’re not running a cheap sideshow down here. And tell the bloke to wear that white tux he wore at Christmas.’

‘You want him tomorrow night?’


‘Only that it’s short notice. He’s a muso. These guys usually get booked up months ahead.’

‘Do your best. And if you can’t get him, try and book somebody with a bit of class. No bloody stand-ups with mother-in-law jokes. And try to keep the price down. You know the form.’

I knew the form. Cheap. But with a touch of class. Yeah, right.

I riffled through the rolodex. Maybe Matthew Barry would have a cancellation. If he had any sense he’d be fully booked, but that wasn’t the attitude, of course. I’d do my best to get somebody decent to play, for there had been a hint of desperation in Harry’s voice.

We needed to pull something out of the fire or the Royal might go down in flames. We may not be the most sophisticated, or elegant, or most sought-after hotel in a town where you fell over the things every step you took, but we did the best job we knew how with the tools to hand. And we were a family. A strange family with all its quirks, but a family just the same. None of us felt like leaving to start over again.

I managed to book the pianist, but had to agree to an extra twenty pounds. New year, new price, he’d said. I guess he’d made some New Year resolutions as well.

So, things were looking good. Positive vibes were out there somewhere, and I hoped that would include my date with Nigel. I was finally off duty and could head into town; get myself that new top and a turkey and ham sub. No way I’d chance eating anything that came out of Alfie’s kitchen, not for a while yet. He might still have a grudge because I’d been kind to the K.P.

I remembered it was Monday, so made one more pass by Reception. Joe was standing behind the desk looking bored.

‘Put the Karaoke poster up,’ I said. It would give him something to do.

‘Jesus! He’s not still doing that. Not after that bloke threatened him last week.’

‘You know Harry. He’s an optimist,’ I said.

‘He’d need to be.’

‘Just put the bloody poster up, Joe.’ Maybe Harry was right. Maybe that was all we needed for the Royal to survive. A proper dose of optimism.




February’s a mean, hard month to get through. It’s often cold. The joys of Christmas forgotten and the next one almost a year away; it can also be a depressing time. But let’s hear it for optimism, for this year February’s a leap year. And any woman mad enough to propose – my advice would be to go for it anyway. Give the men what they deserve. Notice my irony and bitterness kicking in there? I try to hold it back, but I’m still remembering the 100 quid and my stolen furniture. So you’ll hardly blame me.

February’s noted for something else, as well. Valentine’s Day. As if there wasn’t already enough pressure out there for us singletons, this is the time it really piles on. People in work sending you lame cards with doves or hearts on, or those pathetic little love-bears kissing each other, and sniggers from the staff as they wait for you to open them.

People mean well, I guess. But I refuse to fall in with this stuff anymore. I’ve sat in a restaurant with lots of other romantic hopefuls, a mass produced red rose on every table - guaranteed to be scent-free; red candle shimmering in its glass bowl, and eating my way through a three course meal that included oysters. (I’m not that keen on oysters.)

   What’s the point? Anyway, romantic love isn’t something you can buy. Is it? Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not an oracle. But surely if you love someone like that, you wouldn’t have to wait until February the 14th to shower them with flowers and chocolates.

I shuddered as an unsettling thought floated in from the dark side. Nigel. Please, dear Lord, I’m begging you now – don’t let Nigel send me a Valentine card.

I was going to meet the man in an hour. That’s probably what it was. My subconscious, like some patrolling, suspicious nanny, was preparing me for the worst. Or, maybe the best. Who knew? But I had serious doubts about Nigel, about actually sitting at the same table with him for any length of time. What would be a reasonable time to eat and run without taking a scouring pad to the guy’s self-esteem? I may be a smartarse and a cynic at times, at least according to Harry, but I’m not unkind.




In one way it was easy. For a start there were no expectations (on my part, at least) of anything romantic or serious leading from an encounter with Nigel. No pressure about whether my underwear was sexy enough. The man wasn’t going to get near it.

 I considered myself a bit like a social worker. Meet the guy. Try to have a passable evening without too many embarrassing lulls in the conversation. Get the date over with in as civilised and humane a way as possible, while making it clear there would be no future contact between myself and Nigel Jameson.

I got there first, which surprised me. I’d imagined him camped out on the doorstep of Butcher’s waiting for it to open, for he’d always struck me as someone who took being on time seriously. So I had a drink at the bar. And then I had another. And looked at my watch. Cheek. He was already fifteen minutes late and I was two drinks ahead - but the glasses were small.

 Well, if he thought I was going to sit here looking like some loser who’d been stood up, he was living in a fantasy world. And me doing him a favour. Bastard. I was right, all men were bastards. I got ready to leave.

The phone rang. The barman picked it up. ‘Nope, she’s still here’ he said and looked at me pityingly. ‘Want to talk to her?’

It’s not a comforting feeling, being discussed while you’re only a few feet away. It’s like you’re an object. I’m not a raging feminist or anything, but right then I was one step away from burning my bra.

‘He’s late.’ The barman nodded at the phone.

‘You don’t say.’

‘Says he’ll be another ten minutes. Wants to talk to you.’ He held out the phone.

I pulled back from it at first, like it was a snake ready to strike. It had been a long time since I’d been stood up. Then I changed my mind, decided to give Nigel the full blast he had coming. ‘If you think I’m going to sit here all night . . .’

The phone went dead. I handed it back to the barman. Was that a smirk on his face? 

‘Lost the signal.’

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Another drink? This one’s on the house.’

‘Did I want his pity? Or another drink? I’m not much of a drinker, but I had one anyway. I figured it would dampen down the anger that was threatening to take hold. I could feel my face redden, my lips tighten into a thin, pinched line, and I expect the tiny red veins had already appeared in my eyes. Joe insists they’re a warning sign that the volcano named Stevie is about to erupt. Not that I lose it often, at least not often enough to warrant anger management therapy.

I waited another twenty minutes, to see what pathetic excuse he could come up with. Some breadsticks (I was hungry) and another wine helped pass the time. He’d said ten minutes, but then Nigel-the-fishman-Jameson seemed to live in Neverland.

I was laid-back and mellow by the time he arrived. Chardonnay can do that to you. And maybe that was why his entrance made such an impact on me. Who the hell was this? Surely not the man who delivered our wet fish. He’d cleaned up really nice. Don’t you hate that expression? But then I was three-parts hammered, so finding sensible thoughts that weren’t clichés wasn’t easy.

‘Hell, Stevie. I am really, really sorry.’ He took my arm and steered me towards the table that had been waiting for us. ‘Can you forgive me?’ he asked; a forlorn look on his face.


‘Got stuck behind an accident at Mount Misery roundabout.’


‘Penzance. There was an accident. You okay?’

‘Sure.’ But I wasn’t.

Assumptions can be dangerous things. I’d assumed that the Nigel who delivered our fish and always looked slightly crumpled, the Nigel who discussed the weather or the current state of fish stocks when forced into conversation, was the real one.

I don’t know how he did it, but there wasn’t even a faint whiff of Mackerel about him, and he was the most un-crumpled I’ve ever seen him. He wore the expensive, well cut suit with an ease that said he hadn’t borrowed it from a mate. I sucked in a breath and looked at the man sitting opposite me as if I’d seen him for the first time.

Maybe tonight wouldn’t be a washout after all. I did a quick mental check of the underwear I’d decided on. Definitely not the sexy stuff, but not too bad considering. I’d worn the small NVL pants. I had the no-visible-line underwear in three different colours: white, beige and black. They only did them in three colours where I could afford to shop. I’d randomly picked up the black pair. Sometimes things just happen for the best, even when you haven’t planned them.