Extract from The Seafront Tea Rooms
Kathryn Murray and her three-year-old son Leo walked together along the beach in flip-flops, his small hand in hers. The rock shops and arcades of the South Bay were busy with holidaymakers and weekenders, making the most of the rare burst of warm sunshine on the British coast. As the two of them neared the harbour, the familiar smell of fresh-caught fish from the pier reminded Kathryn that they were almost home.
Leo dropped his mother’s hand and ran towards the shop underneath their flat, with its neon-pink sign and a doughnut model that was bigger than him. She ran after him. ‘I’m the winner!’ he called out, touching the doughnut.
‘Not again,’ Kathryn said, sighing in defeat, then ￼￼￼￼smiling at him. ‘One day. One day I’ll beat you.’ She got the keys out of her bag.
She unlocked the front door and Leo climbed the hallway stairs ahead of her. She and Jake had moved into the flat four years before, when they were twenty, in love and carefree. A lot had changed while they’d been living there.
‘What’s for tea, Mummy?’ Leo called over his shoulder.
Kathryn tried to recall what was left in the kitchen cupboards and fridge.
‘Dinosaurs,’ she replied. ‘On the menu tonight, sir, are Tyrannosaurus rexes and Diplodocuses. I hope you’re not vegetarian.’
‘No way,’ Leo said, joyfully. ‘I love eating T. rexes.’
Upstairs, Kathryn took a slice of rye bread and a sharp knife and cut carefully around the paper template she’d made – a dinosaur’s body shape. She cooked some long-stemmed broccoli and placed it around the dinosaur to make trees, then formed the earth with a homemade vegetable chilli.
She’d decided to stay on in the flat after she and Jake broke up – they had to keep something constant in Leo’s life. Anyway, there was something about the place – the sea view, the cheap rent, even the bent-clawed seagull that tapped with its beak at their window each day, that she thought she would miss.
She took the food through to Leo in the living room, and he smiled when he saw it.
￼￼￼￼‘I like him,’ he said, looking at the plate. ‘I’m going to bite his head off first.’
‘You go for it,’ Kathryn laughed. ‘Before he does it to you.’
Leo chuckled, picking up his fork.
‘Mummy, can you bring my Stegosaurus to watch?’
‘Sure.’ Kathryn went into Leo’s room and found the stuffed toy on top of his red chest of drawers. Above the chest, on the wall, was the Gruffalo mural Jake had painted. She paused for a moment to look at it. Things had been good, when they were good.
She put Leo’s Stegosaurus down on the kitchen table, so that he could see it while he ate.
‘Mummy, you know where I’d like to go soon?’ he said, chewing on a piece of broccoli.
‘The Sea Life Centre!’ he pronounced, slamming his fork down in glee.
Kathryn nodded, smiling. He had been asking almost daily through the summer. But it wasn’t cheap, and each time she put money aside, a bill would come. Hopefully, tomorrow things would change – her friend Cally, receptionist at the South Cliff Hotel, had put her forward for the job there. Apparently the manager had all but confirmed that it was Kathryn’s if she wanted it. A job just a few hours a week would mean enough money for the extra things Leo needed, and with the hotel within ￼￼￼￼walking distance of his nursery, she’d still be able to pick him up easily.
‘Billy says it’s really fun. There are jellyfish. And sharks.’
‘I’m sure it is. We’ll go there soon,’ she said, kissing her son’s head. ‘I promise.’
Leo looked up at her, his green eyes so distinctively his dad’s.
She’d get the money together.
The next day, Mr Peterson, the hotel manager, ticked Kathryn’s name off on the list of interviewees. She turned her silver and turquoise ring around on her finger, waiting for him to say something.
Kathryn must have passed the South Cliff Hotel a hundred times, on days when she’d taken the funicular up from the beach – but today was the first time she’d been inside the grand white building. She’d arrived at the same time as a coachload of Italian tourists, and from the back room she could still hear them talking out in reception.
For the interview, she’d concealed the tattoo on her wrist – a bold circle, identical to Jake’s – underneath the long sleeves of a black blazer, and blow-dried her dark cropped hair so that it lay smooth. It was warm in the room though, and she longed to take the blazer off. It wasn’t the kind of thing she’d normally wear.
‘What is it that attracts you to working here at The South Cliff?’ Mr Peterson asked.
￼￼￼￼She tried to remember what she’d practised in front of the mirror the night before, and took a breath.
‘I’m really interested in working in hospitality, and The South Cliff is internationally renowned. I’d be proud to be part of the team and I feel I could contribute a lot in terms of …’
Mr Peterson looked down at her CV, then took off his glasses and laid them down on the table. His expression seemed to soften.
‘This is primarily a cleaning job, you know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Cally told me.’
‘Right … ’ Mr Peterson nodded slowly. ‘Well, Cally is quite insistent you would be perfect.’
‘I work hard,’ she said. ‘Whatever I do, I work hard. ’
‘Yes,’ the manager said, putting one hand on her CV. ‘It certainly looks like it.’
The tension in Kathryn’s shoulders eased a little.
Mr Peterson sat back in his chair. ‘I hope you’ll take this the right way. A degree in Hospitality and Culinary Arts, courses in tea-tasting, patisserie…’
‘I know what you’re going to say, but really, I’m happy to do—’
The words rang out and Kathryn tried to think of a reply to counter them with.
￼￼￼￼‘I should have looked through your details more carefully, but you know Cally. She can be very persuasive. Look, Kathryn – you’re young. You’re only, what—’ he glanced back at her details, ‘Twenty-four? You’ve still got time to build a career for yourself. I don’t think I’d be doing the right thing employing you as a cleaner, not for either of us.’
‘Is it that you think I’d leave? Because I wouldn’t. I need something steady.’
Mr Peterson shook his head. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’
‘OK,’ Kathryn said numbly. She got to her feet. ‘Well, thanks for seeing me all the same. Could you—’
‘Of course. We’ll keep your CV on file.’
Outside, Kathryn took off her jacket, the sea breeze cool against her skin. She crossed the road to the rose garden on the cliffside, sat down on a bench and texted Cally a quick message to update her. Putting it down in writing made it more real. She felt as if she’d let Leo down.
Kathryn had been the one to suggest she and Jake break up. She’d promised herself she’d never argue in front of her child the way her parents had in front of her, yet that had started to happen. Life was too short for regrets. But occasionally, at times like these, she wondered if things would have been easier if she and Jake had stayed together, if they could somehow have smoothed their issues out. Now he was back home in Scotland, his work was no longer steady, and it was Leo who was having to go without.
She walked down through the park, until the view opened up to reveal the full expanse of the sea. Just in front of her a little further down the hill was the place she was heading to: The Seafront Tea Rooms.
A couple of people were sitting at tables outside, but inside the café looked quiet. She pushed the stained-glass front door, a bell signalling her arrival. As she stepped inside, she breathed in the unmistakeable aroma of freshly baked scones. It enveloped her, comforting, like a duvet on a chilly winter’s day. The interior of the Seafront was reassuringly familiar – the wooden tables neatly laid with pressed white tablecloths, delicate china teacups lining the shelves and the 1920s table lamps.
‘Kat,’ Letty, the owner, said with a smile, tucking a strand of her silver-grey bob back behind her ear. ‘Come in. I was wondering if we might see you today.’
Kathryn closed the door behind her. ‘Hi, Letty,’ she said, leaning in to kiss her hello. Letty was in her usual pressed black slacks, and an apron with a dusting of flour on it. Her son Euan was sitting up at the bar, dressed in a suit, looking at something on his iPad.
‘Thought I’d pop by and say Hi.’
‘Everything OK?’ Letty asked, her pale blue eyes enquiring gently.
￼￼￼￼‘Yes,’ Kathryn said, as light-heartedly as she could, sitting down at her usual chair by the window. ‘Just had a job interview. It didn’t work out.’
‘Sorry to hear it, love. But it’s their loss.’
‘Thanks. It’s fine, really. It probably wasn’t right for me anyway. It’s just Jake hasn’t sent through any money this month and things are a bit tight.’
Letty’s brow furrowed. ‘Are you OK to cover the rent and bills?’
‘Just about,’ Kathryn said. ‘But it’s the extra things – Leo’s growing so fast. New clothes, and the food – that boy can really eat …’
‘Oh yes,’ Letty said. ‘I remember how it was. Euan was the same.’ She nodded over at her son, who was eating one of her scones. ‘Thirty years on and he’s still over here eating my cakes on his teabreaks.’
‘I can hear you talking about me, you know,’ he called over, a glint in his hazel eyes.
Letty rolled her eyes indulgently. ‘Cheeky monkey.’ She turned back to Kathryn. ‘Can you have a word with Jake?’
‘I will. But I know what the answer will be – he’s still getting the business set up in Scotland and it’s taking time.’
‘Right. I guess that’s not something that happens overnight. He’ll get there.’
￼￼‘Yes. Or I will.’
￼￼￼￼‘Until then, what can I get you? An Earl Grey? I’ve got a Victoria sponge fresh out the oven. Cake’s on me today.’
Kathryn looked over at the counter, where she could see the scones that were scenting the air so irresistibly, a Victoria sponge cake and a tray of brownies.
‘Oh, go on then,’ Kat said, a smile creeping back onto her face. ‘Thank you.’
Letty disappeared off into the kitchen and returned to the table a few minutes later with a pink and green patterned teapot, a matching teacup and a slice of cake layered with jam and cream.
‘Here you go,’ she said, putting the things down.
Kathryn thanked her, then took a bite of Victoria sponge cake. ‘Wow, this is really good, Letty.’
Letty smiled. ‘Thank you. High praise. I know what your standards are like.’
Euan got to his feet and pulled his suit jacket back on and came over to them. ‘See you later, Mum.’ He gave her a hug.
‘Adam just called and there are some problems on site. I’m going to head back.’
‘Bye, love.’ Letty said, putting her hand gently on his arm.
‘Bye, Kat.’ Euan gave Kathryn a nod goodbye, then walked out, starting up a conversation on his mobile.
‘What’s Euan working on?’
￼￼￼￼‘Converting the old cinema.’
‘I saw the scaffolding. What are they doing with it?’ ‘It’s going to be flats, with a coffee shop downstairs.
It’s a shame they couldn’t keep it open – but this is better than it sitting empty.’
‘Euan said he’d keep his ear to the ground for you,’ Letty said, ‘if any work comes up in the new development.’
‘Sure. That’s nice of him.’
There was no point being sentimental. Her old job at the cinema ticket office hadn’t been perfect, even though she’d liked working there, the daytimes full of friendly pensioners and new mums. Kathryn sipped her tea slowly, gazing out of the window. Life moved on, and places changed. She had to find a way to move forward too.
An hour later, Kathryn was waiting by the door to Leo’s nursery, holding a jumper for him. She was glad she’d put it in her bag – the warm day had cooled a little and Leo had only been wearing a T-shirt when she’d dropped him off before her interview that morning.
She’d browsed on her phone at the tea rooms and found one new job that might be suitable – as an administration assistant at a vet’s surgery. She liked the idea and had decided to apply. It was outside town, so would mean a long journey there and back, but she could manage that if she had to.
A metre or so away two mothers were chatting – Carin, ￼￼￼￼a redhead with a pregnancy bump, and Emma, a dark haired woman carrying a pink scooter. Kathryn knew the women a little, from pick-ups and drop-offs, and had chatted to them occasionally. Today she just kept her eye on the nursery door, waiting to see Leo come out.
‘How about this Sunday – are you and Sam free for lunch?’ Carin was asking her friend. ‘Work has been crazy, so I could do with something to look forward to.’
‘Sounds great,’ Emma replied enthusiastically. ‘Sam and I are taking Lily to soft play in the morning, so some adult company after that would be great. Can’t count on my husband for that.’
Carin laughed. ‘It’s a date, then. Do you like rhubarb crumble? We’ve got some rhubarb fresh from the garden and—’
A tickle in Kathryn’s throat made her cough. Carin turned, noticed her and looked faintly embarrassed. ‘Hi, Kathryn, didn’t see you there.’
‘Hello,’ Kathryn said with a smile.
‘I was just saying—’ Carin seemed to stop herself. ‘You know, we really must have Leo round for a playdate one of these days. He and Charlie get on so well.’
‘He’d like that,’ Kathryn said.
They stood quietly for a couple of minutes that stretched out. Finally, the nursery door opened.
Kathryn looked out eagerly for her son. He was towards the back of the room, taking his time as he ￼￼￼￼walked over. Carin and Emma greeted their toddlers. ‘Well, best be off,’ Carin said, with a smile at Kathryn. The two women walked with their children, who were squealing with excitement, towards the shops.
Kathryn clutched Leo’s jumper to her chest. She spotted him by the door. He dashed over towards her, waving a quick goodbye to his friend and then turning back towards her with a huge smile. He gave her a bear hug,
encircling her legs.
‘Hello, sweetheart,’ Kathryn said, ruffling his dark blond hair. ‘Here, put this on.’ She passed him his red jumper and he slipped it on over his head quickly.
He looked at her suit skirt and wrinkled his nose. ‘Why are you wearing those funny clothes?’
‘Oh,’ she said, looking down and touching the synthetic material. ‘I had to be smart for something.’
‘Not very colourful. Will you put your green dress on at home?’
‘Sure,’ she said, smiling. ‘I’ll do that.’
That night, after she’d put Leo to bed, she opened the antique wooden cabinet in her kitchen. Inside were boxes and jars with the different types of tea she’d collected over the years – from fragrant Indian blends to refreshing herbals, each one with a white label with details on it. She chose a jasmine bud that expanded in the water into a flower, put it in a delicate china teacup ￼￼￼￼and took it over to the sofa. She picked up the quilt she’d been working on for Leo, made from sections of old duvet covers, and pushed the needle into the fabric, bringing together colourful sections of material. Each fresh new stitch of white cotton soothed her.
Tomorrow morning she’d apply for that job at the vets, tailoring her CV differently this time. After two months of unreturned applications, and interviews ending in apologetic shakes of the head, this might be the one.
She heard a buzzing sound over the music.
Her phone was vibrating on the suitcase, the screen lit up. She reached for it.
The name that used to be half of her world. Now it was just a few letters.
‘Hi, Jake,’ she said, picking up.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘How’re things?’ His Scottish accent had got stronger again.
‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘What’s up?’
‘Nothing. Listen, Kat, I’m here. Downstairs. The bell’s not working.’
She got up and went over to the kitchen window, peering out. Jake looked up at her from the street and smiled, still talking into his phone.
‘Can you let me in?’