“I’ve just about had enough of that wretched girl!” exclaimed Marjorie Beaumont as she swept with regal dramatics into the living room of the apartment at the top of the Foxholme Hotel. Her green mascara-shaded eyes held a flinty sharpness and her thin red-painted mouth was twisted in anger. Her exclamation had been in a shrill tone that seemed to reverberate back from the room’s high ceiling.
Her husband, Angus, meanwhile continued to read his paper, sitting in a high backed, Regency-striped armchair with one leg decorously crossed over the other to better support the broadsheet in his lap. His wire-framed reading glasses were perched on the end of his nose. Beside him, on a thin wooden table, was a cut-glass tumbler filled to the brim with gin, ice and tonic together with an opened bag of salt and vinegar crisps, one of which he had just deposited into his mouth and was noisily crunching down upon. Seemingly oblivious, he did not look up but continued reading a piece about the economic expansion in China and the woeful prospects this foretold for the West.
“When I think of all the things I’ve done for her . . . and how does she repay me?” Marjorie continued, even more stridently. “By throwing a complete spanner in the works, that’s how! She’s forever trying to spite me. Her and that friend of hers. And that’s another thing. I’d like to know what the two of them get up to – but then again, I don’t think I do. But it’s certainly not natural, that I will say.”
With shaking hands, Marjorie picked out a cigarette from the rosewood case on the sideboard and irritably flicked the silver lighter several times until it eventually sparked into life. Inhaling and then exhaling as if she were a circus fire eater, she turned and her steely expression fell upon her engrossed husband.
“Angus…? Angus, are you listening to me?”
“What’s that, dear?” he replied, reaching for his gin, his eyes still on the paper.
“That girl!” she shouted. “That Sophie creature. Her and that peculiar friend of hers.” More patiently, Marjorie continued slowly, as if explaining to a dim-witted pupil. “I have spent hours working out the staff rotas for Christmas and New Year. I found last year’s diary and I checked back to see who had worked on those days and tried my damndest to be as fair to all of them as possible. I tried to make sure that all of them – all of them, mind – had the opportunity to earn some extra money as well as – as well as – have sufficient time off to enjoy the festivities.”
Angus had slowly lowered his newspaper but not closed it. In truth, he simply wanted to get back to the article about China’s financial threat to the West, but he also knew that to completely ignore his wife’s tirade concerning her current catastrophe would bring about his own peril.
“Problem, dear?” he asked with a brief smile.
“Yes!” she replied, as if he had finally grasped the crucial aspect of an algebraic equation. “Sophie has point blank refused to work behind the bar on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve!” She threw up her arms dramatically.
“Oh dear,” he replied solicitously.
Angus and Marjorie Beaumont, both in their late fifties, had been married for only three years. Angus had been widowed a decade earlier and Marjorie had divorced her previous husband of thirty years after having found him in bed with his secretary, a nice young man named Robin.
They had both been teachers at the local Grammar school but had had a career change two years ago when Angus – having once again been passed over for the position of Head Teacher – had opted for the opportunity of taking early retirement. Marjorie had quickly followed suit and together, cushioned by their respective generous pension settlements, they had bought the lease on the Foxholme Hotel, an 18th Century coaching inn in the centre of the village by the same name.
Within only a few months, it became apparent that Marjorie – as in their private life – was to be the dominant partner, and Angus now had little or no authority over the running of the business. He was, however, more than satisfied with this outcome, content to let Marjorie have her will and he be left in peace with his books, his vinyl collection of Beethoven symphonies, and his gin. After all, he had chosen to retire.
Being drawn into one of his wife’s litany of complaints about the hotel staff was not something he felt he had signed up for, but he also knew that he would need to fulfill his role as a sounding board until this latest cataclysm had run its course.
Marjorie irritably turned off the teak-veneered radiogram and Ludwig’s Third Piano Concerto came to an abrupt end. Angus winced and braced himself for the next installment.
“You’ll just have to have a word with her, Angus,” said Marjorie, matter-of-factly.
“Me?” replied her startled husband, the much-needed gin glass almost at his eager lips.
“Yes, you,” she confirmed, now standing threateningly before him with her hands on her hips. “After all, that is part of your job, is it not? Staffing and hiring and firing? Eh?”
Angus slowly closed his eyes, keeping them that way for as long as he reasonably considered he could, rather in the vein of the proverbial camel and the sand. Technically, Marjorie was correct in what she had stated, Angus was forced to concede to himself. When they had first bought the lease on the hotel, with all good intentions for their exciting new venture together, they had divvied up certain responsibilities between them. As neither possessed even the slightest experience in the catering trade or of hotel management – or any type of business experience per se, for that matter – they had decided – or rather Marjorie had decided – that they would use the nucleus of their academic skills as a basis to their newly formed commercial partnership. As Marjorie’s scholastic bent had been mathematics, she had immediately nominated herself to head up all and any of the hotel’s aspects of finance and accounting, including pricing, stock purchasing, banking and staff wages. Angus – a former history and classics teacher – was then informed by Marjorie that this admirably qualified him for the role of ‘Customer Liaison and Staffing’, bestowing upon him that official title.
It had never occurred to either of them that the running of a licensed hotel and restaurant would ever necessitate them having to roll their sleeves up and pull a pint, clear a table or strip a bed. None of the hands-on aspects of the business held any appeal, and in this respect at least they were of an accord. In truth, they had not only bought the lease on a thriving business that had been profitably trading for over fifty years, they had also inherited a workforce that was more than capable of keeping the place running efficiently.
The Head Chef, Kevin, an ex-merchant navy man, had worked at the hotel for the last decade and was perfectly able to oversee the food preparation and ensure that the kitchen stock was ordered in a timely fashion. Sam, the only full time bar man, was the person they relied upon to organise the rota for the youngsters who worked on an ad hoc basis serving the drinkers and diners. Sam’s duties also included managing the wet stock, producing a weekly list of beer, wine and spirit orders for Marjorie’s approval before being told by her that “That is satisfactory, Sam,” as if his homework was up to scratch.
Marjorie still busied herself at the hotel on a daily basis, inspecting the bedrooms after Sophie and Ruth had finished cleaning and keeping a beady eye on Sam and the waiters and waitresses. She was however a little wary of Kevin, a tough looking shaven-headed Glaswegian with an accent like a nail scratched over a blackboard, so she seldom ventured into his domain except to occasionally inquire, with only half of her body through the kitchen door, “Everything, erm . . . no problems, Kevin?” to which he would slowly turn his bullet-shaped head, frown at her and slowly respond, “No. Why should there be?” and she would reply, “Oh, right . . . that’s good . . . super!” and then retreat backwards into the dining area.
In the beginning, Angus had routinely ventured down to the business side of the hotel, sitting perched at the bar with one long tweed-trouser encased leg crossed over the other, his newspapers and gin before him, feeling like some Raj plantation owner making sure the natives kept their noses clean. He would sit there for hours, exchanging pleasantries with the customers and even engaging Sam in the one topic they could exchange views on: cricket.
But eventually he had read all the newspapers and Sam had become too busy to talk to him about the Test Series. At this juncture, Angus would climb down from his stool, peering around and giving an impression of a hesitant meerkat, to check whether or not his wife was in sight. When he was satisfied the coast was clear, he would head resolutely to the door and make his escape to the Crown & Anchor over the road, where he at least did not feel he was constantly in the way. Now, he only came down from the apartment sporadically, or when Marjorie insisted he should.
“But what do you want me to say to her?” he now asked imploringly.
Marjorie placed an A4 sheet of paper on the top of his now abandoned broadsheet. Upon it, neatly typed, was a list of dates and corresponding names. Reading upside down, Marjorie stabbed with her index finger at Christmas Eve and New Years’ Eve.
“You see here?” she asked. “Well, what does it say?”
Angus obediently read aloud, “‘Christmas Eve – Sam, Becky and A. ANOTHER.’” He then obediently moved his finger down the page and continued reading. “‘New Years’ Eve – Sam, Chris and A. ANOTHER.’”
“And A. ANOTHER,” Marjorie chanted with him. “I don’t care if A. ANOTHER is Sophie or Ruth, but it has to be one of them! So, Angus – you tackle them. Point out that they are part of a team. Let them know they are letting the side down. Tell them, we don’t want to lose them but they must do their bit. For heaven’s sake, assert yourself, Angus!”
He gulped and, at last, finally managed to get the gin glass to his lips.
The next morning, Angus strode down the flock-wallpapered corridor of the Foxholme Hotel with far more purpose in his step than he in reality felt in his heart. Earlier, he’d had to endure a further pep talk from Marjorie over breakfast and, although he was now resigned to having to ‘assert’ himself as she had instructed he do, he was no more confident than he’d been before. He tried his best to buoy his feelings, telling himself that this was ridiculous. He was the proprietor of the village’s most prominent hotel and restaurant. He was a man with over thirty – no, over thirty five – years worth of experience of handling recalcitrant youths like Sophie and Ruth. He was their employer. What Marjorie was asking of them was perfectly within her rights. And . . . and if they didn’t like it then they could pack their bags and go!
As he made his way further down the passageway, passing both open and closed bedroom doors with bundles of used bed sheets and damp towels piled along the edge of the corridor carpet, he began to slow his pace, cupping a hand behind one ear. He could hear the faint sound of someone singing.
“Last Christmas, you gave me your heart but the very next day, you gave it away . . . this year, to save me from tears, I’ll give it to someone special. . .”
Angus stopped in his tracks. There were two voices, one ahead in a room to the left and one to the right.
“Now I know what a fool I’ve been . . .” started up the first voice again.
“I’m gonna . . . de, do, de, do, de, do . . . AGAIN!” answered the second.
“Bloody hell, Ruthie, don’t you know the bloody words yet?” giggled the first voice, which he identified as Sophie’s.
To announce his presence, Angus noisily cleared his throat, but not noisily enough because the girls resumed their song, together singing “Last Christmas, you gave me your heart,” and suddenly emerging from opposite doors, clasping each other’s upheld hands as they met and then skipping away from him along the corridor. The dance reminded Angus of Morecambe and Wise. When they had nearly reached the end of the passage, Ruth and Sophie then swiftly turned in balletic fashion and started back the other way, towards him. They then saw Angus.
Ruth stopped in her tracks immediately, her cheeks flushing crimson and her head abruptly bowed. Sophie however, releasing her friend’s hand, continued to dance towards him, kicking her long legs up high and waving her arms above her head, her bright, long-lashed eyes boldly holding his stare as she did so. For one awful moment, he thought she was going to mow him down and he actually closed his eyes, braced and waiting for the point of impact. Suddenly, Sophie veered off into one of the bedrooms and immediately began stripping a bed, still defiantly singing, although slightly softer than before.
Angus opened his eyes and cleared his throat again. “Ah, Ruth,” he said, as if seeing the girl for the first time, “I need a quick word with you and Sophie. Would you come in here, please?” He waited for the girl to meander towards him and then stood to one side to usher her into the room with her friend. Ruth stood obediently to one side but Sophie simply sat on the still unmade bed, her eyebrows raised expectantly.
“So, girls . . . er, ladies . . . are you, er, are you looking forward to Christmas?” he began brightly. They did not answer but simply stared at him. Ruth had her habitual vacant look, as if she was always rather surprised to be where she found herself to be and was worried that she should not be there at all. Sophie’s expression held its usual mix of defiance and plain contempt.
What a really pretty girl Sophie was, Angus thought to himself. She was almost classically beautiful really; worthy of a painting by John Everett Millais, a modern day Ophelia in denim jeans and Doc Martins. They certainly did make an odd pairing, her and Ruth. Oh, he was perfectly cognisant of and awake to romantic liaisons between genders of the same sex and had no bigotry in that respect. As a devotee of the classics he was well aware that the invention was not a twenty first century one – or even twentieth century – but had manifested itself throughout man-kinds’ time on this earth; the Greeks and Romans for example. He certainly did not follow Doreen’s narrow views. She always saw things in such a jaundiced way, black and white, right or wrong. He supposed it was the mathematician in her. One and one always made two, no exceptions.
He was aware that Ruth, her mouth slightly gaping, was still standing rigidly to attention so, remembering his resolution to take control and assert himself said to her, “Ruth, will you please be seated,” and indicated a spot on the bed beside Sophie. Looking around him, his eyes fell upon a chair positioned at the vanity unit by the wall and, pulling this closer, he sat down himself, facing them directly from only four feet away. He felt it was important to set the scene aesthetically and this way he was no longer looking down on either of them and was able to make easy eye contact.
The three-way swivel mirror on the vanity unit was in his peripheral vision and he suddenly saw both himself and the girls in profile as well as face on, which he then decided was slightly alarming. He felt suddenly very old. With some effort, he manoeuvred the chair a little closer so that he could no longer see their collective reflected images.
“Well now,” he began again, aiming at breeziness, inwardly beseeching himself to calm. “I understand from Doreen . . . er . . . my wife tells me that there is a complication in respect of the rota for the Christmas and New Year periods.”
Sophie and Ruth continued to stare voicelessly. Angus attempted another tack. “It seems we will be missing each of you on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve . . .” Still nothing was forthcoming. “It appears that neither of you are able –“, but Sophie cut him off in mid sentence by saying:
“If you mean that me and Ruthie want to be together on those nights, then you’re right. We had to spend them separate last year and we don’t want to this year. Do you know what I mean, Gus?”
“Yea”, Ruth threw in bravely, her wide eyes momentarily meeting his and then sweeping down to stare at her clasped hands resting in her lap.
Angus sighed inwardly. Gus! When they had first taken on the hotel, Doreen had insisted that they were referred to by the staff as Mr. and Mrs. Beaumont, but he had been the one to suggest that in a sociable business – and indeed in the modern world – this would make them appear aloof and draconian, not only to the staff but also to their clientele. Foxholme, he had argued, was an inherently informal sort of village and although they had both spent most of their working lives as Mr. or Mrs. their new circumstances now decreed that they be seen in a warmer and more approachable light. It was one of the few notions that he’d come up with that Doreen had – reluctantly – agreed to. But Gus!
“Mmm, well I can certainly appreciate that you would want to be together,” he replied slowly, “but why can’t you be together at the hotel, working behind the bar? It is only for a few hours, after all.” He smiled at them both, his hands held out to them, palms uppermost, reason personified.
“’Cos Dor – Doreen – said she only wanted one of us,” said Sophie. “One at Christmas and one at New Years! Now how fair is that, I ask you?”
“Yea,” Ruth agreed quietly.
“Yes . . .” Angus had to concur, stroking his chin while he thought. “Yes, I can see now . . .” He sat and pondered. Doreen, it would appear, had neglected to thoroughly brief him on all the facts of this matter. Why on earth had she not given him the full story before sending him on this thankless errand! What was he to say now? He looked down at his brown brogues and then over at the far wall, thinking.
Sophie had now turned at an angle on the bed so that her back was to Ruth, who then wordlessly proceeded to untie the other girls pony tail, putting the red ribbon between her teeth whilst she used her fingers to comb out the luscious locks and then carefully retying the hair and sitting back a little way to adoringly inspect her ministrations. Her scrutiny complete to her satisfaction, she then kissed her fingers and tapped them on the side of Sophie’s alabaster neck and Sophie turned herself back to face forwards again. Although keeping his gaze averted, Angus was aware of what was happening before him and was made further uncomfortable by their blatant intimacy.
“So,” he said, eventually, “just to be clear, what you are saying is that you will work on Christmas and New Years Eve’s if you can both work – is that the case? Yes?”
“And on double time,” said Sophie, her timing consummate, choosing her moment like a seasoned advocate.
“Oh . . . ah,” Angus said, meeting her eyes. Blast! was the word that came into his mind. Just when he thought he’d gotten somewhere. Then, looking down at his feet again, as if reporting this new information to them, he continued in a voice that even to his own ears sounded small and defeated, “so you will both work if you can work together and if you are paid double time – yes?” he finished, looking up again.
“OK Gus,” Sophie confirmed and Ruth nodded along.
“Right!” he said, as if a landmark had been reached, sounding like a man of action who now had a plan that he could put in motion. “Right, well you just leave it with me!”
“Cheers, Gussie!” said Sophie, and Ruth grinned at him shyly under her lowered brows.
“You’ve told them what!” was Doreen’s horrified reaction when Angus reported back his conversation with Ruth and Sophie. They were in their living quarters at the top of the hotel. In hindsight, he wished now he’d told her more casually, perhaps when they had been down in the bar, with some of the staff and other people within earshot of a raised voice. He should have been more circumspect, he realised, more economical about the details. He needn’t have given her the blow by blow account, could have merely said, “All sorted, my love, they say that they can both work so nothing more to worry your pretty little head over. Oh, is that the time? Must be going, bye.” But no, he’d reported back, verbatim, all the painful details and agreements that had been reached. Why was he such a fool? Seeking approbation most probably, he conceded to himself; trying to get in teachers good books for a job well done. Well, that had backfired all right!
Doreen stood before him with her hands on her hips, looking down at the hieroglyphic-patterned rug on which they both stood, shaking her head slowly as if struck dumb by his insouciance. Angus mentally battened down his hatches, all too aware of the false calm before the storm.
“But I only thought . . .” he began to say in defence, but Doreen whipped a finger in the air to silence him as if she held a dagger ready to thrust into his heart.
“Oh, but you didn’t, did you, Angus?” she now said, meeting his eye. “You didn’t think at all. Because if you had thought, you wouldn’t have created such a mess. Another mess that no doubt I will now have to try and rescue us from.”
He hung his head, studying the Egyptian rug as if the ancient symbols may hold the solution. “So,” Doreen continued in a frighteningly quieter voice, “let us make sure that we are both clear on the chaos you have caused. Number one”, and she utilised her still upraised finger as the initial marker, “Sophie and Ruth have now capitulated insofar that they are both prepared to work over Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve – correct?” She spelled out all syllables of the word – capitulated. Angus nodded in agreement. “Number two,” she continued, raising another finger, “this magnanimous gesture on their part will only be supplied on the proviso that they both work on both occasions – correct?” Another nod. “And number three,” a third finger shot up, “both girls, for both of these days, will be required to be remunerated at double the hourly rate that they normally receive. Am I summarising all of this correctly, Angus? I haven’t misunderstood, have I?”
“The thing is, Doreen -” he tried again.
“The thing is, Angus,” she carried on over him, her voice still soft and patient, a becalmed sea with a shoal of piranha beneath the surface. “The thing is, we now have a situation where we are overstaffed for both evenings. Did it not occur to you that I had shown you the rota I had drawn up for a reason?” The last word held a shriller tone. “Did it not occur to you that I had already engaged Becky to work with Sam on Christmas Eve? And I simply needed one extra person? Did it not occur to you that Chris had already agreed to work with Sam on New Year’s Eve and so, therefore, I only required one more person to complete the triplet?” There were no more calm seas.
“Will it really matter, though?” Angus asked pleadingly. “One more person per shift? It could be a blessing, you know, if it gets busy later . . . don’t you think?”
As if he had not spoken, Doreen ploughed on, “And of course the icing on the cake – the almost insurmountable cherry to finish off the whole sorry confection you have created – is that now all of the staff – Sam, Becky, Chris, Chef – all of the staff will be expecting to be paid double time!” The shoal was now in frenzy, the waters bubbling with small bloody pieces of Angus washing out from the centre. He could do no more than purse his lips and stare in mute supplication.
Collecting herself, Doreen then continued, “So Angus, what is to be done? What solutions have presented themselves to you, eh?”
“Well, I suppose -.”
“Because to my way of thinking, Angus, the only solution I can see – the only redeemable step now to take – is for you to speak to those girls again. Am I right, Angus? You do see that, don’t you?”
Crushed, beaten and defeated Angus could do no more than nod in mute agreement.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
All names, people portrayed and incidents within the short story ‘Staffing Problems’ are entirely a work of fiction and come from the writer’s imagination.
Steven Elvy has had a varied working life as a film librarian, a cook, a barman, a labourer, a plastics-recycler, a salesman and a recruitment consultant. He grew up in North London then lived in East Sussex, The Midlands and The Lake District and now in a village in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. Always passionate about art and literature, he has published four novels. He has been married ‘a few times’.