Read on an exclusive extract from ‘Winter at Wishington Bay’ by Maxine Morrey.
Winter at Wishington Bay
‘Morning, Sophia!’ Ernie raised a hand being kept toasty by a thick sheepskin glove. ‘Bit nippy today.’
I waved back and nodded in agreement, the bobble on my woolly hat bouncing as I did so. ‘Just a little!’ I grinned at both him and the typically British understatements. It was absolutely bloody freezing.
Wrapping my coat a little tighter, I dug my hands into my pockets and hurried along the cobbled village streets. Now that the bulk of the tourists had gone for the winter, it was easier to do without having to negotiate round the shuffling window shoppers of summer who filled the narrow pavements during the high season. Not that Wishington Bay ever entirely closed. Its renowned beauty, and relatively sheltered position, made it popular even out of season, and of course the brilliant reputation of Ned’s restaurant, where I worked as a waitress, brought people from miles away all through the year.
I took extra shifts at the restaurant whenever I could, which on many occasions was over a weekend thanks to one particular colleague, Corinne. She’d been hired by Ned as a favour to old friends and was apparently there more for the ‘life experience’ rather than any need to earn a decent income. The latter part was covered most indulgently by her father, allowing Corinne to be far more concerned with fitting work around her social life, rather than the other way round. My own circumstances, however, dictated that I would never turn down the opportunity to earn a little extra cash, and why I was now hurrying along the road that led towards the edge of the village.
The idea that I would ever be in a position to need to earn money at all was still one that occasionally took some getting used to but I had, in general, adjusted fairly well to this new circumstance, and thanks to Carrie and her sister-in-law, Holly, I was on my way to the first day of another new venture.
As I turned into the private lane that led down to Holly and Gabe’s house, I looked across from the raised position and took in the curve of the bay, the pale sand today edged with a sea of bright turquoise. Above it, puffy white clouds chased each other quickly across the blue sky. The sun shone, although there was little warmth from it, but the rays caught the tops of the white horses as they danced across the water before breaking onto the shore. I took a deep lungful of the cold, sharp air, tasting the salt in it, and smiled to myself, realising that despite my reduced circumstances I was lucky to have ended up at Wishington Bay. Pulling my phone from my pocket, I snapped a couple of pictures of the beautiful scenery to upload onto my Instagram later before heading on down the lane towards the house.
* * *
How the world turns, I thought, not for the first time that morning, as I gave the toilet brush a thorough exploratory trip under the rim. Eighteen months ago I had never cleaned a toilet, and most certainly had never had any inclination to. Now here I was cleaning them for strangers. Well, not exactly strangers. The house belonged to Holly, and until she and Gabe had become an item over the summer he’d been renting the other side of this gorgeous Art Deco semi. Now they were both living here, in what had once been Holly’s grandmother’s house, and which Holly had completely renovated during her enforced sabbatical from work last year, and both were full of the joys of young love. I only hoped it stayed that way – but I’d seen the way they looked at each other so I had a good feeling about it. Love had to have a solid foundation on which to build and they, like Ned and Carrie, seemed to have been lucky enough to find the right person to help grow that love and strengthen the relationship. I’d already popped next door and given it a quick flick with the duster and vacuumed round. With the two of them off taking a long overdue holiday, Holly had asked me to keep an eye on things. And now I was back in their half of the house – the difference that Holly had made to it emphasised how outdated next door was now, making it seem more shabby than it really was. But I got the feeling it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Gigi, Holly and Ned’s grandmother, had been a wonderful woman by all accounts, and from what Carrie had said her death had completely devastated Holly. It had taken her granddaughter a year to even set foot back in the house that had been almost the sole source of any happiness she’d had during their childhood. But coming back to Wishington Bay had proved to be another pivotal point in Holly’s life. It was that kind of place – I knew that from experience. The people here were special and the village itself had something almost magical about it. Even if you didn’t feel you belonged anywhere, even if you walked in one day with everything you owned in one bag and had no clue what your next step was going to be, all the while wondering whether you’d just taken an enormous one in the wrong direction, Wishington Bay took care of you. It wrapped its arms around you and whispered, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ Of course, I hadn’t envisioned my version of OK would include cleaning other people’s toilets, but beggars can’t be choosers and it would have to do for now.
If Holly had had her way, she’d already have started transforming next door but on this point Gabe had managed to get her to see that she was at risk of setting herself up for exhaustion again, exactly the situation that had forced her return to Wishington Bay in the first place. So after consideration, Holly had acquiesced and admitted that he might actually be right, agreeing to slow down with her new endeavours – for now, at least. Especially in light of the surprise Gabe had in mind.
* * *
Nate McKinley wasn’t due in until this evening but I wanted to make sure everything was in place and as comforting as it could be for his stay. Ned and Carrie, and by extension their family, had been so welcoming to me that I felt personally compelled to ensure that Gabe’s brother felt welcomed too. It wasn’t great timing that his trip was coinciding with Gabe’s surprise holiday for him and Holly but, from what I understood, it wasn’t a visit his brother had been planning to make at all – at least not for a while.
The rocky marriage Nate had been struggling with for years appeared to have broken apart irreconcilably some months ago and, having spent hours on the phone and Skype to his brother, Nate had finally accepted the offer of coming to stay at the house. I wasn’t sure exactly what his job was – something to do with safety and the airlines from what I could gather. Gabe had told me that Nate had been a consultant on some TV series about aviation accidents as well as a couple of big budget action films and had now been asked to write a book on the same subject. He’d negotiated the time off in order to write it, but with the deadline creeping closer, the stress of his marriage and then its complete implosion, Gabe was clearly worried about his brother. Holly’s suggestion of Nate coming over and using their house as a retreat and a quiet place for him to just reset and write had seemed the perfect solution.
The timing may not have been great but at least Nate was going to have company in the form of Gabe’s mostly-sausage dog, Bryan. At the moment, the pooch was lodging with Carrie and Ned, a situation they were both happy with, but Gabe had argued that, with the restaurant plus Holly’s one-year-old nephew, they already had a lot to deal with, and Bryan would be good company for Nate. It was pretty hard to be sad or gloomy when you had one of the cutest dogs in the country by your side.
I finished the bathroom and then moved onto the rest of the upstairs, giving it all a dust and polish so that it was gleaming when Nate arrived. Once that was done, I moved downstairs and made sure everything was perfect there too. Labelling the last container, I checked the fridge over one more time and closed it. That should keep him going for a while, anyway. I pulled out a pad and pen from the basket I’d plonked on a kitchen chair and began writing.
Welcome to Wishington Bay. I hope you had a good flight. Everything is pretty well stocked, as per Holly and Gabe’s instructions, and there are three meals in the fridge ready to be heated up to get you going, plus a couple of fresh soups. I did check with your brother if there was anything you didn’t like so hopefully these will be OK.
I know Gabe has mentioned that I am happy to come in and cook for you during your time here, so once you’ve decided whether that’s something you want to go ahead with, perhaps you could let me know. I’ve popped my phone number and email on the bottom of this note, and will be back next Thursday anyway to clean, if I don’t hear from you before.
Good luck with the writing!
I chewed the pen for a moment, unsure how to finish off the note. I’d unwound a lot since I’d made my home in Wishington Bay, no longer feeling the need to calculate every word of everything I wrote in case someone took it the wrong way, or double checking I’d used exactly the right words and tone to ensure I was making precisely the right impression. But Gabe and Holly were my friends and I wanted his brother to feel welcome, especially as he’d been having a tough time, and so I was eager to do what I could to help.
In the end, I settled for just ‘Sophia’ to the note, adding a smiley face next to it, before popping the paper on the table, tucking the very corner of it under a vase of white lilies already wafting their delicious scent through the house so that Nate would see it easily upon arrival.
* * *
Nate McKinley was a man of few words. The opposite of his brother, whose open, easy manner was perfect for his career as a paediatrician, Nate’s serious manner suited someone who spent his days thinking about all the ways a plane could crash. But still, a thank you text wouldn’t have hurt, would it?
‘I’m not sure he’s going to be that thrilled to have me interrupting his day,’ I said to Carrie as I popped my head into the restaurant a week later to say hi and double check my waitressing shifts.
‘You’re not interrupting. You’re there to do a job. He knows that.’
‘What’s he like?’ I asked.
Carrie gave a bit of a shrug as she transferred the little one to her other hip. ‘Quiet. Shyer than Gabe, but he’d just stepped off a flight after a twenty-four-hour journey and his wife’s flounced off with her tennis coach so it’s not surprising he wasn’t at his chattiest when he came to pick up Bryan.’
‘You think he’ll look after him OK’
She flapped a hand. ‘Absolutely no question. There’s no way on this earth that Gabe would have left that dog in anyone’s hands he didn’t trust. You know that.’
I nodded. Gabe had rescued Bryan as a tiny puppy, having found him injured and abandoned, shivering in the pouring rain on a city street. He’d stuffed him in his motorbike jacket, raced to the veterinary practice where Carrie worked and begged them to save him, whatever the cost. Bryan had been lucky to last the night but to look at him now, you’d never have known he’d had such a tough start and he and his burly, six-foot-four guardian angel had been pretty much inseparable ever since. Hopefully Nate was just as crazy about the little dog as the rest of us were.
The doorbell tune echoed round the tiled hallway. I had a key, of course, but it didn’t feel right to just let myself in, especially as I still hadn’t received any sort of reply to the note I’d left. I shifted my weight to the other foot, then rang again. Nothing. Slightly hesitantly, I plugged the key into the lock and turned it. No small rocket of fur and energy came flying at me and there was a stillness to the house.
‘Hello?’ I called out, just in case, my voice echoing a little in the entryway.
‘Mr… McKinley?’ Should I call him Nate or Mr McKinley? I hadn’t even thought of that.
Cautiously I moved into the kitchen and called out again but there was no reply. Well, I couldn’t stand there all day. I was there to do a job and if Nate McKinley wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to run into his cleaner, then so be it. That was, of course, his prerogative. I knew from past experience that some people could make a variety of assumptions about others based entirely on their jobs. I was ashamed to say that, at one point, I’d been one of them. But my eyes had now been opened to the world in a myriad of ways and I was proud to say I was no longer like that. If Nate was, then he really was different to his younger brother, and not in a good way.
* * *
‘I assume you must be Sophia?’
‘Holy shit!’ I jumped, stumbling backwards. I steadied myself on the side of the bath as the toilet brush went skittering across the floor and stopped within millimetres of the feet of a tall, broad, very serious-looking man with a quiet but deep Australian voice.
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