Authors: Ali McNamara
‘Yeah, so what? Loads of people have.’
‘I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it. Gosh, you’re hard work.’
I look at Jake. I’ve been giving him a tough time and it isn’t fair, he’s only trying to be nice. ‘I know. I’ve heard that before too. Some people call it “high maintenance”.’
‘What do you call it?’ Jake asks, his dark eyes twinkling again in a very attractive manner.
‘I’m just an awkward bitch really,’ I reply, lifting my glass and taking a drink while I wait for his reaction.
To my delight, Jake laughs. We smile at each other across the table, and any previous tension between us melts away.
‘Shall we order some food?’ Jake asks, looking at his watch. ‘I know it’s only five o’clock, but I’m starving.’
‘Yeah,’ I reply keenly, never one to turn down food. ‘So am I.’
‘I’ll get us some menus,’ he says, standing up. ‘Then I have to make a quick phone call.’
‘Sure,’ I say, watching him as he wanders over to the bar. He collects Miley and couple of bar menus, walks back and hands me one. ‘I’ll just be a sec,’ he says, holding up his phone.
I pretend to take a look at the menu while Jake goes outside to make his call, but really my mind is racing. Is this wise, Poppy? I ask myself. You’ve only been here a couple of hours and you’re about to have dinner with a complete stranger – a fairly hot stranger, yes, but that shouldn’t make any difference.
Jake isn’t my usual type at all. He’s a bit more mature than the type of guy I’d usually go for – I’m guessing he might be in his late thirties to early forties. His broad shoulders and well-developed arms suggest he works out regularly too, but that could be because he does a lot of manual labour at his nursery. He seems like a nice guy, but I don’t want to get involved with anyone right now, especially anyone who lives here in St Felix, or I might never get away.
No, I need to remain calm and focused on what I came here to do, even if Jake does have one of the cutest smiles I’ve seen in a long time…
Jake returns, sitting down opposite me again with Miley on his shoulder, and I pretend I’ve been busy with my menu.
‘Sorry about that,’ he says, as I look over my menu at him. ‘Had to tell the family I’d be late getting home.’
‘No problem,’ I reply casually, as my mind races again.
I covertly glance at his left hand while pretending to examine my menu, and notice a gold wedding band for the first time.
Damn, I knew it was too good to be true. He’s married.
‘Is your wife OK about you having dinner out?’ I feel very uneasy about this. Having a meal with a man you’ve just met is one thing, but a married man…
‘It wasn’t my wife I was calling,’ he says. ‘It was my children.’
Oh God, he has children too!
I begin to run through ideas for getting out of this pub as quickly as I can. This is why I try to steer clear of the male of the species. I’ve only been here five minutes and already I’ve been duped by a nice smile and a tight butt.
‘Ah, I see,’ I reply carefully, my menu swiftly becoming very interesting again.
‘They’re teenagers, so they’re quite capable of getting their own dinner,’ Jake continues, apparently unaware of my unease. ‘But I like to let them know where I am if I’m going to be late.’
‘What’s wrong?’ Jake asks, looking at me questioningly over the table. ‘You’ve gone all quiet on me. And you may be many things, Poppy, but you’re certainly not that.’
Never one to mince my words, I tell him straight: ‘I don’t see married men.’
Jake looks around him. ‘Where don’t you see them?’
‘No, I mean I don’t date married men. It’s one of my rules.’ I sit back smugly in my chair and fold my arms. Actually I’m lying, I don’t have rules for dating, but it makes me sound good.
Jake’s tanned forehead furrows at first, puzzled by what I’m saying, and then his expression changes to one of mirth. ‘You think this –’ he waves his finger backwards and forwards between us – ‘this is a date?’
Miley, sitting on his shoulder, mimics him by shrieking and holding her tummy as if she’s belly-laughing.
My cheeks annoyingly redden once more. ‘Well, what is it then? You ask me out for dinner, then you tell me you’re married. I’m sorry, but the two
mix in my world.’
Jake nods. ‘Ah, now I see.’
‘What? What do you see?’ I demand.
Jake takes a long drink, draining the last of his pint, then he places the glass firmly back down on the table.
‘Well, thanks for making me feel like the local letch – which I can assure you I’m not. I was merely being friendly, that’s all. Rose was a lovely lady and a good mate of mine, and I thought it would be the right thing to do to look after her granddaughter. Obviously I was wrong.’ He stands up. ‘Enjoy your evening, Poppy. Maybe I’ll see you around before you leave St Felix.’
Then to my horror, without a backward glance he turns and walks with Miley in his arms through the doors of the pub.
Sitting still in my seat, my cheeks flaming as hot as the plates of steaming fajitas Richie is serving to a couple at a nearby table, I lift my glass of beer and sip quickly, glancing around me to see if anyone else has witnessed what’s just happened. But the pub is fairly empty and the few people who are in here are too involved in their own business to be watching me. So I quietly stand up and slip out of the door unnoticed.
Which is exactly the way I like it.
Snowdrop Cottage, my grandmother’s old home, is a tiny two-up two-down terraced house in the middle of another narrow street, bizarrely called Down-Along, which leads up from the opposite end of the harbour to The Daisy Chain.
It’s not that far from the shop, but I need to pull up in front of the narrow whitewashed cottage to unload my stuff from the Range Rover, and in doing so I manage to block the entire road for a few minutes.
Eventually, after apologising to the queue of drivers I’ve held up, I park the car back at the nearby Pay and Display car park then return to the house to unpack.
It doesn’t take long, I haven’t brought that much stuff with me, so as soon as I’ve hung a couple of bits up in the bedroom I used to sleep in as a child with my brother, found some bedding and made up one of the twin beds, I take a quick look around the house.
The downstairs is much as I remember; the quiet, pretty bedroom I’ve chosen to sleep in is at the back of the house next to a tiny bathroom. At the front, looking out on to the street, is a cosy kitchen with pale blue wooden units, a black Aga range cooker, and a kitchen table with four chairs. Upstairs, my grandmother’s old bedroom at the front of the house is exactly as I remember it; there’s a huge wooden bed with a feathery patchwork eiderdown, standing in the middle of whitewashed wooden furniture that belongs in a much bigger room. At the back of the upstairs of the house there’s a light, bright sitting room, with a plump scarlet sofa covered in further patchwork cushions, a rocking chair, a small TV, and a large bookshelf packed with books, magazines and papers. The reason my grandmother had chosen to have her main living room upstairs is easy to see when you enter the room. Through an ornate pair of French windows that lead out on to a small balcony, the back of the house commands a glorious view of St Felix Bay that I remember vividly.
I take a quick peek through the windows. Sadly much of the view is blanketed in a dense sea mist and it’s tipping down with rain. But what I do notice standing out on the balcony, drinking up the raindrops pelting down on them, are bunches of drooping yellow daffodils and colourful tulips in a series of wooden planters.
My stomach growls as I stand there, and I realise I’ve not eaten since I stopped at the service station earlier. So I head downstairs and pull on a big navy mac with a hood that’s hanging on a peg outside the kitchen. I toy with the sou’wester that’s hanging next to it, but decide I look daft enough already in this get-up without adding to my humiliation.
Then I grab my bag, lock the door and head down into the town to find food.
It’s not long before the smell of fish and chips comes wafting towards my nostrils, so I head into Harbour Fish & Chips – shaking myself like a dog before I go through the door to remove as much water as possible from my person.
There are a couple of people already queuing in front of me so I stand back and wait.
‘Just the one portion tonight, is it?’ I hear the round, jolly-looking counter assistant ask. ‘That’s not like you, Jake. With your lot it’s usually a bulk order!’
Oh no, it isn’t, is it?
But it is.
‘Change of dinner plans, Mick,’ a familiar voice says. ‘The kids have already eaten. It’s just me tonight.’
I shrink back against the wall and pretend to be examining their noticeboard in great detail – a meeting of the Town Council; a bring-and-buy sale; a missing cat…
‘Ah, I see, that makes sense.’
‘But they won’t be best pleased if I waltz in with take-away when they’re not involved. I’ll probably eat this in my van.’
‘Good plan,’ the counter assistant says. And I hear paper being expertly wrapped around chips. ‘Nah, this one’s on me, mate. The wife loved them flowers you got for her. I owe you one.’
‘Cheers, Mickey!’ I hear Jake call. ‘See ya later, Lou,’ he says to the woman ahead of me in the queue, and as he leaves, the bell rings above the shop door.
Phew, he didn’t see me!
The lady called Lou orders, but has to wait for her chicken to be cooked; so then it’s my turn.
‘Yes, my love,’ Mickey says, grinning at me with a set of perfect teeth, which look even whiter against Mickey’s dark skin.
‘Cod and chips, please.’
‘Certainly, my love. Large cod?’
‘Oh yes, please, and large chips too.’
Mickey smiles over the counter. ‘Got an appetite, have we, tonight?’ he asks jovially.
‘A bit.’ I smile.
‘Cod’ll be ready in two minutes,’ he says. ‘Be good and fresh though. That OK?’
I stand back and smile at the other customer. Lou is an older lady wrapped up in a similar fashion to me to protect herself from the rain.
‘It’s a rare old night out there,’ she says, nodding at my mac. ‘Forecast is clear for tomorrow though.’
‘It’s been a quiet day today in the town, I barely saw any customers.’
‘Which shop are you in?’ I ask, wondering if she’s one of The Daisy Chain’s neighbours.
‘I run the post office and newsagent,’ she says. ‘April can be a funny month; you see your regulars, obviously – they’re always about, whatever the month – but your tourists, they can vary so much at this time of the year, depending on the weather. We sell ice creams, drinks, sweets, all that kind of thing. Trade will rocket in a sunny week and dive in a wet one.’
I nod, wondering why she’s telling me all this in so much detail.
‘I notice a lot of the shops are empty these days.’
‘Yes, it’s very sad to see. It’s only really happened over the last year or so. Place used to be a bustling little town. It’s a real shame.’
‘Lou, yours is ready,’ Mickey calls from the counter. He hands her a large bag of wrapped food. ‘Blimey, where are all these appetites coming from tonight?’ he asks, grinning at us.
‘Oh, this isn’t all mine,’ Lou says. ‘My brother is down from Birmingham for a few days. He likes his food.’
Mickey nods. ‘Bon appetit to both of you then!’
Lou thanks him and heads out of the door. ‘See you around, Poppy,’ she calls, smiling at me.
I lift my hand and sort of half wave goodbye before it hits me:
Hang on a minute, how did she know my name?
I try to watch her through the misty window as she stops to untie a large basset-hound whose lead is tied to the shop door opposite so he’s in the dry; then they head off down the road together.
‘Right,’ Mickey says, not allowing me time to think about it further. ‘Large cod and chips it is!’
He proceeds to pull a huge piece of cod from the fryer and lay it on some paper, then he fills a paper bag with chips. ‘I hope you won’t be eating this in your van alone?’ he asks.
I look blankly at him.
‘Oh, you mean like Jake?’ I say, then wish I hadn’t.
‘Yeah, poor fella. He’s never quite got over it, has he?’
Mickey has assumed because I know Jake’s name, I also know Jake.
I shake my head. ‘No…’ I say cautiously. ‘Do you think he ever will?’ I try, hoping this will prompt an appropriate answer.
Mickey finishes filling my parcel with chips, then deftly wraps white paper around the outside.
‘I don’t know. Losing your wife like that, it’s gonna hit any man hard, ain’t it. He’s done well though – I reckon the kids kept him going.’
‘Yes…’ I nod hurriedly, hoping Mickey will continue.
Does this mean Jake is a widower? Or did his wife leave him?
‘That gravestone at the church is one of the best kept you’ll ever see,’ Mickey says, totting up my bill on his cash register. ‘That’ll be £7 please, love. Fresh flowers every week without fail.’
So he’s a widower… Now I feel really bad.