It’s half the price of the sort of place I’ve been going for lately, but I’ve decided it’s about time I stopped spending so much on hotels – I’ve been spoiling myself recently. Years ago, I would always go for the cheapest accommodation on principle – the principle that you’re going to be unconscious for most of your stay anyway, so what’s the point of paying more than necessary just to sleep somewhere? Ah, but as you get older, this sensible approach slips by the wayside. One starts to appreciate luxury. To enjoy posh hotels with grand entrance-ways, beautiful gardens, swimming pools and spas. To expect branded toiletries, complimentary slippers, all night room-service. But hey, not every time, and particularly not when you’re alone – sumptuous surroundings are always better shared.
I’m initially happy enough with my little ground floor room. (I guess the idea of not putting women on their own on the ground floor is outmoded, but I can live with that. At least no carrying of luggage upstairs, and I rather like having my car parked immediately outside the window.) It’s only when I return to the place later in the evening that things go downhill. As soon as you open the front door you’re assailed by the stink of boiled vegetables from the evening meal, and it’s depressing to realise when you get into bed that you can hear every word of what’s being said at Reception and in the lounge. The plumbing is outrageously noisy and even though it’s getting late, the person in the room above just will not stop stomping around on what appear to be exceptionally creaky floorboards. Oh well, such is the proverbial English Guest House, I suppose. Who knows, that delightful Country House Hotel down the road might have had creaky floorboards as well (though it’s unlikely to have smelt quite so strongly of cabbage).
But the lady proprietor seems to have her heart in the right place. I get an effusive welcome you’d have to rate as ‘excellent’ for friendliness. She’s well-spoken, youngish, smartly presented. She probably wouldn’t fit most people’s ‘ladylady’ stereotype, though she’s certainly chatty. They took on the place two years ago, I‘m informed. They’ve made lots of improvements and they’ve been really busy this year. She enthuses about the surrounding countryside and sighs over the pile of ironing she still has to get through. I find myself thanking her for being so nice!
It’s at breakfast that I observe her some more and start to puzzle over whether her overly polite and friendly manner is genuine or all an act for the benefit of her customers.
She bustles about, singing and humming to herself. Fusses over the coffee machine, rearranges the fruit juices, needlessly relocates the tomato ketchup. She’s attentive to the guests, reassuring an elderly couple that she’ll bring them extra boiling water for their tea, telling an American family the best places to park in the town centre. But I feel sorry for the French teenager who states that he doesn’t want the cooked breakfast. No cold meat buffet or vegetarian option here – “have a yoghurt”, he gets told.
Now a little more singing, a little more humming – and it’s getting embarrassing.
Is she trying to say, “look at cheerful, friendly old me being a jovial host”, or is it her natural state and she doesn’t actually notice or care if people think it’s a bit weird or is disturbing their subdued morning conversation?
Then I realise she’s talking to the crockery as she clears and lays her tables.
“Let’s see, you can go on the sideboard over here,” she tells a cup.
“Um yes, I think I can probably carry you as well,” she addresses a bread-basket. “But you – ” the sugar-bowl quivers “ – you’ll have to wait here.”
Maybe there’s only a small step between having to be ultra-polite to a different roomful of strangers every morning, and becoming a little eccentric and overly self-aware. I mean what else is there to talk about day after day except the weather, the parking, and whether anyone would like any more toast? People don’t want philosophy with their breakfast. Maybe she’d been doing something much more mentally demanding in the past, and personifying the condiments substitutes for previously more meaningful working relationships.
I reflect on whether being a Bed and Breakfast landlady is actually driving the poor woman slowly but surely mad!
But the funniest thing is listening to her comments about the guests which she makes to her colleague in the kitchen, apparently without realising that every word can be heard clearly in the breakfast room across the hall.
“You can never tell who’s going to make a fuss,” she tuts after someone has pointed out that the jug of milk for the cereal is completely sour (okay, it was me).
“The other day this big burly bloke with tattoos all over him surprised me, he was so sweet. And then would you believe poor Mrs Jenkins found a hair in her scrambled eggs, and won’t stop going on about it!”
In the breakfast room these remarks fall heavily into the polite silence. Everyone waits to hear if they will be singled out for criticism next, before eventually resuming their quiet murmurings with relief. I look around, wondering whether any of those present is in fact Mrs Jenkins.
But I guess the proprietress gets the last laugh because, after all, she’s making good money out of all those endless polite breakfasts, and whilst ironing might be a chore, at least she doesn’t have to commute two hours to work or worry about office politics. Maybe she studies Spanish in the afternoons, runs a Book Club in the evenings, takes long winter holidays in the Canaries. Possibly she’s really happy.
But as far as I’m concerned, watching her for a couple of mornings has served to underline one thing for me very clearly. Never, not even in an alternative reality, will I ever be a Guest House landlady!
Because I can’t cook eggs, I hate the smell of vegetables, and I’m not a fan of cleaning toilets. But mainly – because I can quite easily see myself crossing the fine line between enforced politeness and eccentricity, and ending up talking to bread-baskets myself!