Without further ado, here's the next installment of my WIP:
After a restless night, thanks to dreams that had me awaking with a gasp twice, but not remembering what they were about, and a slightly too hard mattress, I pulled the curtains open and was delighted to see only a few clouds lazily moving across the blue sky. Yet again, a wonderful day, and perfect for a run before breakfast. It was Christmas day and, if was honest to myself, I dreaded the community dining room. People were in an excited mood, lovers even more in love, and generally I didn't know if I could cope with all the 'happy, happy, bouncy' energy, but I would try my best. I stretched and nodded to myself, then put on my running gear, grabbed my iPod, and left. A quick glance at my watch revealed that it was 6.30. I pulled the door open and the quietness of a place with everyone else being asleep made me tiptoe my way downstairs. Muffled sounds of pots and pans hinted at someone preparing breakfast. I knocked at the kitchen door and stuck my head in; Susan, in a jumper with a Santa on it, turned her reddened face towards me. 'Oh, good morning, Elaine. Jesus, you're up early!'
'Well, so are you,' I replied and smiled.
'Touché!' She grinned. 'Do you need something?'
I shook my head. 'No, I just wanted to know when breakfast starts.'
'At eight, served till two, sort of a breakfast turning brunch.'
'Ah, okay, thanks.' I looked at the many pots, pans, and trays. 'Are you expecting a bus, then?'
She laughed. 'No, dear, all sixteen guests staying have booked today's special.'
'Sixteen? I thought you were fully booked.'
'We are. We only take x-amount of guests over the Christmas holidays. It's only me and my husband, the three other employees are on leave, you see?'
I nod. What a weird way of running a business. 'Very kind of you.'
'Well, I know it may sound odd, but it's not always about the money. We're not doing this to get rich, we're doing it because we love it. And we don't have kids, our staff have.'
'Makes sense, and it shows that you love what you're doing. Really admirable. There are plenty of people out there working in jobs they hate.'
'Exactly. Now, if you excuse me, please, I don't want to be rude, but I need to get this done; don't want to serve the guests burnt sausages.'
'Of course not, and I better do my run—work up an appetite.' I winked.
'You'll need it. Enjoy. And, Elaine?'
I stopped and turned. 'Yes?'
'And to you,' I replied, hoping she wouldn't notice my internal wincing.
The cool morning air bit into my skin, I slowly began to run, picking up speed steadily until I was in the zone. Eminiam pushed me forwards, spurring me on with his beats. John used to make fun out of my love for that man, saying it was a miracle I didn't start swearing like a sailor. While my interest regarding music had always been diverse, John had been a keen fan of classical music or anything by the Eagles. The latter being more annoying and something I couldn't understand. Slim Shady shoved the memories out of my head, making space for the stunning countryside I was running through; the dew glistening on the twigs of leaf-stripped bushes, the rich green of the fields bordering the empty road, cows, sheep, and horses dozing, as if they knew that the world has slowed down for the day, hares hopping back and forth between them, deer grazing in the distance, laid back and unbothered; everything was so peaceful. It was as if someone had put me into a warm bubble; my feet rhythmically moving to the music, my breathing even.
A cyclist came towards me, in Lycra shorts, high visible long-sleeve shirt, gloves and the face hidden behind a scarf, sunglasses and a hat pulled deeply into the face. He whooshed past me at a respectable speed, crouched over the drop down handlebar, using the momentum of a slight downhill stretch. I could imagine that he enjoyed his ride just as much as I did my run; it felt as if we were the only people in this remote place in England.
An hour later, I was sitting in my window seat reading, passing the time until breakfast. I couldn't decide whether I liked the three main characters or not. Particularly the one girl, who started to grind on me, but I wanted to know what would happen to them, so I kept reading. A door being slammed again took me out of the story and into a rocket of anger. How difficult could it be to consider others? Had that guy ever heard of a door handle? They bloody had been invented for a reason. When I'd get the chance, I'd drop a comment—one that was clearer than the previous one. With a sigh, I put my book aside, I was hungry, which was a good thing.
The dining room was an explosion of colours, sounds and smells. People were shuffling back and fourth between the four tables along the panoramic windows and the buffet with a spread that could probably feed an army. A Christmas tree with its angel figure on top reaching the high ceiling, lovingly decorated in red and gold, was half-obscuring the view at the big fireplace. It was overwhelming. Out of habit I reached out to my right; realising that there wasn't a hand to squeeze, I quickly pulled it back and awkwardly ran it through my hair.. How much I wished John would be here; he would have liked it. With him, I'd been able to cope with the buzz floating about; as I expected it proved difficult to me. While everyone seemed to be in high spirits, I suddenly felt most alone, with only sadness for company. I was just about to turn on my heels when Susan, beaming with joy, rushed towards me and pulled me inside and to a table with three guys.
'Hello, my dears, you don't mind to have this lovely lady sitting with you, do you?'
They looked up from their plates, chewing, and shook their heads in unison. One of them, bald with a goatie, dabbed his mouth on a serviette. 'Not at all, it's Christmas, nobody should eat alone.' He then stretched out his hand. 'I'm Ronnie, by the way.'
I shook it and introduced myself. The other two were Ben and Gary and their accents led to the conclusion that they were Irish. Susan had left with a satisfied smile on her face. I had to give it to her, she had integrity and solved the awkwardness I must have projected by placing me with the gays. I stirred in my cup which Gary had poured me and looked around. There were further three couples, a family with two children and a table with three girls, who had the obnoxious guy completing their round. Of course he'd sit with them. Probably a homophobic. I suppressed a snort. Everyone was chatting and eating, every now and again someone laughed, Susan was busily flitting from table to table to make sure everyone was happy. It would have been perfect, if only I wouldn't have felt so terribly lost.
'Hey, love, what's the matter?' Ronnie waved his hand in front of my face.
I blinked and smiled weakly. 'Err, I think I'm not hungry.'
'Nonsense,' Ben said, picking up a bread basket. 'Here, have a croissant. Croissants will make you smile.'
'No, seriously, I'm not hungry.'
Gary studied me for a moment, then said, 'Whatever it is that makes you sad. Try to forget it for today. We're here, it's Christmas, we have delicious food, we're healthy and we're alive. And most importantly: we're not alone.'
If only you knew. I didn't say something. If I didn't want to be looked at with petty, I had to make an effort. I nodded and took one of the still warm croissants from the basket Ben was patiently holding up.
'There you go. It'll all be fine. Trust uncle Gary.'
Ben and Ronnie snorted and I smiled. Maybe there were right, maybe I should forget my sorrows for today and just try to enjoy being here in what seemed to be nice company. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the three girls flirting with Mr Obnoxious. That will hopefully keep him busy for the rest of the time.
Once I had one croissant and a tea down, my appetite returned, the three guys were keeping me occupied with little stories about their travels together.
'We always go away over this period,' Ronnie explained. 'Last year we were in Germany, Bavaria to be precise. Jesus Christ, I though the Irish were heavy on the drink, but those people there had a pint for breakfast.'
Ben shuddered. 'Yes, you know, and those white sausages. Well, they were quite something.' He leaned back and scratched his overweight stomach. Gary saw that and patted it lovingly; a gesture showing how comfortable they were with both each other and being gay. Ben and Gary had been friends for a few years and met Ronnie on one of their holidays. They'd been inseparable ever since. I envied them the ability to enjoy today. Even though they were rather entertaining, the loss of John kept sitting next to me on the invisible chair. On one hand I wanted to let go and join the merry mood, on the other hand I felt horribly guilty.