Brian Cornelius Alexander Hawthorn sipped from his mug of tea and listened to the noises coming from the pub below. They were jolly, smiley sorts of noises. The sort you would expect from a contented bar staff three days before Christmas. But Brian wanted none of it. Other people; especially people who worked for Brian, had no place feeling smug and self-satisfied. He looked out at the rolling hills and frosted farmland and sighed. So much promise, such utter disappointment.
The Frog & Garter was certainly successful if measured financially. Since he had taken it on profits had more than quadrupled. People came from miles around and invariably left twittering about the good old English Fayre, purity of the beer and charming rural atmosphere. The trouble was Brian hated it and them in equal measure. The building was listed which simply meant bits kept falling off it and even the most fundamental design features like floors that didn’t trip you up were denied him. Practically the only culture he’d been exposed to in a decade he had to personally scrape off the walls of the beer cellar.
He looked up and cast a sour eye at Mrs. Hawthorn as she shuffled awkwardly into the kitchen. Whatever she had been, Holly was now a source of tremendous irritation to Brian and someone the locals joshingly referred to as a ‘character’. She was large, dim-witted and unfailingly happy in the way only demented people can be. And she was still very much here.
When Brian was first told of her condition the specialist had sat him down, handed him a plastic cup of luke-warm coffee and told him in the most serious tones to prepare for the worst within a few short months. There was talk of major brain irregularities, rapid tissue degeneration and control not cure. Despite their separation and his ambivalence towards her the news had shocked him and left him feeling numb and responsible. That and the fact that there wasn’t one member in her appalling family to have made bones that were even remotely old, convinced him to give up his London job, abandon his Wimbledon flat and take over the running of the pub. He would put aside their differences, care for his sick wife and still be back in London a man of considerably inflated means before Christmas. Twelve long damp years on and he found the idea of suing the National Health Service into oblivion almost irresistible.
Holly turned her large round head towards him and beamed. “If you want tea you’ll just have to wait. I’m busy.” Brian said instinctively. ‘Lovely. Shall I just have a cup now then?”’ Holly’s eyes stared dully at Brian and he resisted the urge to smother her with the tea cozy.“ Just sit down. I’ll put the telly on.” He nudged her into the chair and switched on the television. “It’s Celebrity Fit Club. Don’t touch the remote” It was all so incredibly unfair he thought. Something obviously had to be done. He walked into the kitchen, spooned fresh tea into the pot and thought dark thoughts.
The man on the telly has an orange face and kind eyes. He leans forward and touches a fat lady on the shoulder and says something to her. They both laugh and Holly laughs too. The lady then lumbers off towards some other fat people sitting on a swing that looks like the kitchen weights Holly’s mum left her when she died. She wonders why they’re sitting on them. Holly’s leg aches and makes it difficult to concentrate properly, so she uses her arms to push herself upright then very carefully, because everyone tells her not to run before she can walk, she leans down and plumps up the cushion. Satisfied, Holly lowers herself back on to it and sighs. She’ll tell Brian what she did when he comes in with the tea. He’ll be proud of her.
Downstairs in the dining area chef, Archie Allsop cast a satisfied eye over the table settings. Through a masterful combination of spatial thinking and sheer brute force twenty chairs nestled snugly around a table designed for 14.
Ostensibly the booking was for the Kent Advertiser’s Christmas dinner. Although the real reason had more to do with the editor in chief’s sudden decision to sell-up and spend more time with his wife and family. A decision that in its turn probably had something to do with the recent rumours concerning him and a nineteen year old model called Bubbles.
Either way, what mattered was that the newspaper’s restaurant critic George Sheers would be obliged to make an appearance. And one good word from him to any of the super chefs he claimed to know in London and Archie’s days at the Frog & Garter would finally be over.
It was this tantalising line of thinking that Sharon broke when she kick started the Hoover and thumped it heavily against the table legs.
“Do you mind?” He said.
Sharon switched the Hoover off and surveyed Archie’s table settings. “Your fat bloke coming today then is he?”
‘If you mean Sheers then yes, although he isn’t my bloke. Whatever that means”
‘He is fat though” She sniffed.
Archie studied the table again and frowned. “I’ve already thought about that. We’ll put him at one of the ends.”
“Just as well if you ask me.”
Which I didn’t you miserable, sour faced old cow. Archie thought unhappily. What if he couldn’t squeeze him in? The public humiliation would make a positive review highly unlikely. Archie was no stranger to failure. Things had collapsed around him for as long as he could remember. His childhood years in a post war suburb of Northampton were continually blighted by moments of humiliation brought about by his desperate desire to fit in and make the right friends. ‘Never mind love,’ his mother would say when she pulled the wet sheets off his mattress, ‘why don’t you go downstairs and make us a nice cup of tea.’ And he did, in fact he proceeded to go down and made the tea, breakfasts and evening meals every day until he was 19 and finally offered a full-time job as an assistant cook in a local family run hotel.
The job hadn’t lasted more than the summer but it had given him ideas and he quickly got another job working in a larger Hotel in the city centre. It was there that he met a chef fallen on leaner times who taught Archie that in the restaurant business, being unpopular and physically repellent could be a positive boon.
Between the sudden and terrible bouts of violence he would pass on skills and tips that he still drew upon today. On one occasion he even gave him a new set of titanium edged kitchen knives. It was the first time anyone outside his family had spontaneously given Archie a gift and it only added to the growing sense of debt he felt he owed him. Of course like all debts there came a day when he was expected to pay it. And pay he did.
In a moment of monumental sentimentality Archie took responsibility for a kitchen fire actually started by the head chef attempting to flambé a steak after several large glasses of claret.