‘A great read’ Matt Haig
13 October 2008. Welcome to the worst day of Chef Charlie Sheridan’s life, the day he’s about to lose his two great loves: his childhood sweetheart, Lulu, and the legendary Brighton hotel his grandfather, Franco Sheridan, opened in 1973.
This is the story of the Belle Hotel, one that spans the course of four decades – from the training of a young chef in the 1970s and 80s, through the hedonistic 90s, up to the credit crunch of the noughties – and leads us right back to Charlie’s present-day suffering.
In this bittersweet and salty tale, our two Michelin star-crossed lovers navigate their seaside hangout for actors, artists and rock stars; the lure of the great restaurants of London; and the devastating effects of three generations of family secrets.
I would like to thank Craig Melvin for busting booksaremycwtches today with an extract of his nobro today.
Legal Notice of Repossession 13 October 2008
Unless you pay £10,000 by noon today, Belle Hotel will be repossessed under section 21 (4a) of the Property Act.
This is your final warning, Charlie.
Paul Peters, Banker
13 October 2008
Tick-tock, tock-tick, crunch.
13 October. One day that would not be going down in Charlie Sheridan’s grandfather’s book as a good one. Charlie had three hours to save the two loves of his life. Paul Peters, his exasperated banker, waited with the bailiffs to change Belle Hotel’s locks on the stroke of noon. Charlie had already blown it with his other love, his long- suffering girlfriend Lulu. Lulu had chucked Charlie by text after her new suitor, Graeme, showed her the latest tabloid scandal involving ‘My Night with Belle Hotel Celebrity Chef’.
Sweating into his chef’s whites, Charlie thumbed a last-ditch attempt from the kitchen of Belle Hotel.
Give me another chance, Lu, I’ll make it up 2
The phone company cut Charlie off on U. He slung the knackered Nokia into the sink, where it plunged through a sea of crushed Stella cans, and swung out of the kitchen door and into the alley leading to Ship Street. Charlie left a salty trail of disaster in his wake. Uncollected bins, disconnected water, gas and electric. Fridges bare, broken hearts and plates.
Lulu sat at her paper-free desk in the hushed surroundings of the Hotel Epicure management office. Time passed. No reply. Not for want of looking. Lulu stood, tucked the stray strands of her long bob behind her ears and let out a slow release of breath. Charlie bloody Sheridan, you’ve really blown it this time. Typical. Just as they were finally getting things right and Lulu was seriously considering going back to him and Belle Hotel. Home. The place they’d done their growing up. Belle Hotel yesterday, the location of the ghastly scene between the two of them when she’d delivered her news and, then, the magazine article. It blared up at her where Graeme had thoughtfully left it, just within view. Charlie had made her decision for her. Lulu looked at Graeme: clean-shaven, neat, reliable. Everything Charlie was not.
‘He’s had his last chance. Let’s do this.’
Graeme clicked the spreadsheet shut. He stood, slipped off his starched ‘Executive Head Chef’ embroidered jacket and eased into the leather Hugo Boss trench coat he deemed more suitable for stealing another man’s work and woman. Paul Peters had been more than receptive when they’d called the banker with the offer for Belle Hotel. Be there with the banker’s draft by nine thirty and we’ll whisk through the inventory together. Peters’ faith in the word of a Sheridan had gone to the grave with Charlie’s grandfather. The public’s faith in Paul Peters’ bank was dead and buried, too. Graeme had read out the headlines to Lulu from the live feed on his computer. Hookes Bank was now publicly owned and Paul Peters would be desperate to sell Belle Hotel to the two of them asap to cover his mismanagement of the account for over three decades.
Lulu watched the digital clock hit nine thirty, shook her head and stood to take Graeme’s outstretched arm. The brand-new business partners walked arm in arm down the salty shaft of Ship Street to Belle Hotel.
Charlie pushed on along a wind-whipped Ship Street, moments before Graeme and Lulu appeared. Ten grand. That was a lot of lolly to haul in by lunch. Who’d help? Who was still on his side? The bloody bank had got him hook, line and sinker this time. Hook, line and sinker. Sinker, his fishmonger, yes! The old miser always kept cash at his seafront arch. Charlie whooped with delight, racing out across Kingsway to the prom, too drunk on debt to give a damn about traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, all usual warnings of the dangers that lay ahead. He flicked the bird at Hotel Epicure as he passed. Lulu, his love, the one he could not be with, was in there plotting against him with that chef-accountant, Graeme. Go to hell, Graeme. The bailiff’s note, what was left of it, half burnt in Charlie’s pocket. He’d rolled and used it to light his morning fag from the pilot light on the stove, sputtering along on what was left of the disconnected gas.
The one-man credit crunch slid to a halt on the slippery cobbles outside the flaking paint sign of ‘N. Sinker, Fishmonger. Est 1788’. The heavy wooden door, faded Brighton blue, was firmly shut against the hostile elements. Right, get a grand off Sinker and buy some time. Charlie flicked the butt of his fag in an oily puddle and banged on the door. A radio playing in a nearby arch broke the news that Hookes, Belle Hotel’s bank for four decades, had been bailed out by the government a day late to get Charlie off it. Hookes off the hook; Charlie not. Typical. ‘Go away.’
‘Sinker, it’s me, Charlie.’ ‘Definitely go away, then.’
Charlie banged harder on the heavy door.
‘Come on, Sinker, open up. You’ve gotta help me. Save Belle Hotel.’
Charlie could hear a shuffling behind the door and then the slow slinging of locks. A set of beady eyes glinted out through the gap in the door. The stench of fish assaulted Charlie’s nostrils.
‘Save Belle Hotel. What, lend you money? You’re joking, aren’t you. You owe me over nine hundred in unpaid bills. Why would I help you?’
‘You’ve been supplying my hotel for thirty-five frigging years, Sinker. And now you’re quibbling about a few hundred quid. Come on, mate. Give us a break, here. If not for me, then for Belle Hotel’s sake.’
Charlie kicked the bottom of the door to make his point.
A warm quid coin shot through the narrow gap in the door, struck the cobbles and rolled under a pile of lobster pots.
‘There’s my contribution. What you’re worth. Try your luck in the slots on the pier. Then try and live within your means, like your grandfather taught you.’
Live within yer means, that was Franco’s maxim. But Franco was dead and Charlie was left to live by whatever means necessary without him.
Paul Peters waited at Belle Hotel’s front door to meet them.
‘I feel strange to be doing this, Paul, going behind Charlie’s back.’ ‘Strange times indeed, my dear. I expect you’ve heard our news? Nationalised at noon. Bloody disgrace, Thomas Hooke will be turning in his grave. So, Belle Hotel. It’s not as if you don’t know your way
around. Shall we?’
Graeme stepped back to let Lulu pass. Sort of thing that Charlie would never do. Charlie never did. Past tense. She shuddered at the reality of what she was about to do and then shook it off with the thought of the hundred K of her father’s money Charlie had burned through in less than six months. It had to be done, there was no other way. For the sake of Belle Hotel. Her father was right.
‘Lead on, Mr Peters. We aren’t the legal owners yet. I’m guessing you’ve brought all the paperwork with you. Dad said you’d be keen to shore up the Hookes balance sheet today. With the chancellor breathing down your neck.’
Graeme reached out for her hand, but she was reluctant to take it. Not yet. He’d get his way later, Charlie had made sure of that. But take care of business first. Isn’t that what her father always said? Graeme had impressed Roger Hardman when they’d met. Good head for figures, that lad. Polar opposite of that Charlie Sheridan. Looks like he knows how to run a tight ship. Happy to serve frozen cod, keep the margins fresh. Good lad.
Charlie set off towards the pier with the quid in his pocket. Well, it was a start. Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine more to go. How many times, how many more times would he have to do this? Borrowing from Tom, Dick and Harry to pay Paul Peters. Fucking credit crunch. Fucking Hotel Epicure, Fucking Graeme. Judas. Charlie couldn’t bring himself to curse Lulu. He loved her, but could not be with her. So much had happened to them both over the years. It had always seemed their destiny to be together, yet every time they got close something happened to snatch their happiness away. Recent nuclear bombshells and today’s carnival of chaos were just the last in a long line of lamentable epic love and work fails that
killed the chances of them ever being together.
Charlie needed that 10K badly. It was enough to clear the
emergency over-overdraft and buy himself another month’s trading and some time to set things straight with Lulu. Although it may already be too late for that. Too many lies and betrayals. If he told her the whole truth, what little chance they had of getting back together would be gone.
Charlie glanced at the Roman numerals on the pier clock. Hurry up, Charlie, Belle Hotel becomes a pumpkin at noon. Get on with it. At this rate, Charlie’d never get back with enough cash in time.
Charlie pulled the quid from his pocket, yanking the repossession letter from the bank along with it. What was it with the bits of paper? Notice of repossession, court order, removal from the Michelin Guide. Bring back the old days, when Franco’s book bulged with glowing reviews, drop-top Jag purchase notes and recipes that held the secrets of Belle Hotel’s success.
Maybe he should take Sinker’s advice and gamble the quid on the pier’s pound waterfall? Charlie cut under the flashing sign and set off across the salty planks for the arcade. Off on yet another wild goose chase, hoping against hope that he could turn a pound into a pot of gold.
‘And on this floor, sea-facing doubles, carpet, worn, er, very worn and one fire extinguisher. Last serviced in, er, December nineteen ninety- nine.’
Lulu looked at the time on her phone. Two hours to go and still no word from Charlie. All it’d take was one word. If his mobile was shot, he could always call her from a payphone. She’d pick up. And it wasn’t as if he’d have any problem remembering the number. It was one digit off his. They’d been to the One-2-One shop together in Churchill Square. Got the phones so that he could call her from Le Gavroche while she was working at Belle Hotel and not have to speak to his mum or grandfather. Lulu shook her head and stuck her phone back in her handbag.
‘I think we’ve seen enough of the bedrooms, Mr Peters. We know they need a major refurb. Let’s go and see Belle Hotel Restaurant and do a stock-check.’
Graeme nodded in agreement and placed a guiding arm around Lulu’s back as they descended the wide flight of stairs. Lulu sidestepped away from him and bent to pick up a plastic cigarette lighter that someone, Charlie probably, had dropped.
Half an hour later, Charlie was on a roll, his blue-and-white checked pockets bulging with golden coins. Then, as was Charlie all over, just when he was on a winning streak, his luck changed and he lost the lot. Quid after quid went back onto the waterfall and not one bastard coin came out.
Then Charlie had an idea. Time to use a skill he’d learned as a kid. The old arm inside the machine trick. Looking around, checking that none of the polo-shirted pier attendants were about, Charlie dropped to his knees and pulled up the sleeve of his chef ’s jacket to the elbow. He popped his last quid in the slot while holding down the refund button with his left hand. Right, Charlie had thirty seconds to shake as many coins out of the beast before the tilt-tamper alarm was re-activated. In a flash, his right arm was in the hole and into the guts of the machine. Charlie felt the sweat bead on his brow as his body took the full weight of the thing, while fishing about with his bent right wrist.
Christ, this thing was heavy. Then, just as a wave of coins spilled out onto the patterned carpet, Charlie felt the thing begin to tip.
‘This’ll have to be renewed. I want metric calibrated equipment, vac- pacs, water baths.’
Lulu looked at Graeme looking at Charlie’s kitchen. Her heart hurt. She’d watched Charlie earn his star on those knacL
pots. Seen Franco, his grandfather and mentor to the two of them, throw most of them at the back door in one decade or another.
‘This door will have to be replaced. Looks like it has faced the firing squad. I’ll need a bacteri-seal delivery door like we have at Hotel Epicure.’
Graeme was beginning to sound like he knew who was about to be boss, which he didn’t. Whatever funds Lulu had scraped together to buy Belle Hotel back from the bank had come from her own years of hard graft in the catering business. Belle Hotel, Quaglino’s, The Wolseley and Hotel Epicure. Sure, her father was wealthy, the self- made carpet king had made most of his loot outfitting Brighton’s hotels. But what wealth Roger now had was sunk into his new Academy school and any surplus he had squirrelled away in an Icelandic bank, off the thin ice of Britain’s credit crunch. Graeme, for all his fancy certificates, had little more in savings than she did. Lulu chided herself for not having the guts to go Belle Hotel alone. Shame that Janet, Charlie’s mother, was a sozzled wreck. It would have been good to keep her on with the business. Paul Peters had popped in to see Janet at the Belle Hotel pub and exchanged a few salty tales for old times’ sake before nipping back through the adjoining door and making sure he’d locked it from their side.
Lulu looked from Graeme to Paul Peters and gave them both her young-restaurant-manager-of-the-year award-winning smile.
‘Righto, that’s quite enough time in here. There’ll be no new pans till we turn a profit, but I can promise you a deep clean, just to get rid of the smell of him, I mean, grease.’
Charlie eased his head from side to side and tried to lift the machine off himself. The pain in his right wrist, trapped and snapped inside the machine, was unbearable. But he had to bear it. Had to pick up the mound of pounds that he’d been covered in when the thing came
over on him. Then, Charlie’s thirty seconds of grace were gone, the tilt alarm sounded and four burly polo-shirted pier attendants exploded from the change booth. Charlie screamed blue murder from the scene of the crime and promptly passed out from the pain in his broken wrist.
‘I think we can safely conclude that we’ll not be seeing Charlie this side of noon. Mr Peters, can we proceed with the contracts? I’ve got the banker’s draft, here. How about we get everything ready then sign at noon? He has to be back at Belle Hotel before noon with funds, right, or it’s yours to repossess?’
Lulu felt sick inside.
Charlie came to on a bench outside the arcade, the sound of heavy seas singing in his shell-likes, and waited for whatever mess he was in to come clanging back to him. Belle Hotel. Lulu. Midday. Christ. What time was it? Charlie struggled to sit up. As his eyes began to focus, Charlie noticed two policemen walking towards the arcade.
The failed quid machine heist. His wrist, limp at his side, spiked pain when he tried to move it. The pier attendants must have called the cops. Explaining things to plod was not an option. Charlie had been too much of a regular down the cop shop of late for all that. There was only one thing for it.
‘So we sign here and here, yes?’
Lulu’s hand shook a little as she held the paperwork. This was painful. Damn Charlie for pushing her to it.
Charlie crawled up the shingle on the nudist beach. The swim had
been horrific, trying to keep his head up above the churning water. Hoping like hell that the cops didn’t spot him. Charlie shook his soaking head and looked up, trying to ascertain from the height of the watery sun above what time it was. He picked up the track that wove from the beach and up onto Whitehawk Hill. The pathways of his youth, walked in happier circumstances, pathways that led down to Charlie’s home,
It’d be a good half-hour walk and his wrist was killing him, but he had to get the money. Charlie needed a friend right now. And preferably a friend with funds to lend. As he crossed onto Whitehawk Hill, Charlie looked back to take in Brighton, the city by the sea. Arcs of pastel-hued terraces ran down to the pier, blue light of the cop car still flashing, and, hidden behind the rock shops, the briny slit of Ship Street and
Charlie walked and the adrenalin ebbed away with the salty water. It was replaced by an overwhelming feeling that it was all his fault. If he’d not been so fucked, he’d never have had to go near the pier. If he’d not gone on such a bender after Franco’s death, and if all those secrets hadn’t come out, his right wrist would still be straight. What had Lulu shouted at him down the phone? Walking disaster. That was it. He’d better walk a bit quicker, or it really would be a disaster.
The pain in his wrist was excruciating, but two hours in A&E was not an option. He had to get back, needed an alibi that placed him away from the scene of the pier incident, something to keep him out of the cop shop. Last thing Charlie needed was another night in the cells.
The track snaked up past the electric thrum of the Whitehawk transmitter. His allotment was near. Dawn was near. The earth mother he hoped would show him some love. The allotment gave Charlie his alibi, too. Something to place him away from what happened at the pier. He’d needed some fresh air that morning, he’d say, turn up at Belle Hotel with some vegetables from his allotment, hide the wrist,
Napoleon-style in his chef’s jacket; no one would be any the wiser. Slip Paul Peters the wedge. Give ’em the old Charlie Rock Star Chef smile. Cook up a spot of lunch. Back in business. Bingo.
The allotment was quiet, smoke belching from chimneys, but nobody up and about. It was, after all, barely lunchtime. Charlie weaved through the assortment of handmade shacks looking for something to take away. Near his own, long-neglected, Belle Hotel allotment, Charlie spied what he was looking for and grabbed a bunch of carrots, recently pulled kicking and screaming from the earth. The carrots had been neatly laid in a stack by the water butt and Charlie thanked the heavens that he didn’t have to break the autumn soil with his one good hand.
He rapped on the door of Dawn’s railway carriage. ‘Charlie, what a surprise.’
Dawn was still in the day-glo T-shirt she used as a nightie. Her body felt warm and soft as she leaned in for a hello hug. A moment or two later and Dawn fully woke up.
‘OK, Sheridan. What is it this time?’
She sighed. This wasn’t the first time he’d come begging, but to be fair he had always paid it back with a chunk on top. Eventually.
‘I’ll go and get me spade.’
Dawn made Charlie wait blindfolded in the railway carriage as she dug up her treasure. She trusted him, but not that much.
‘There you go, sunshine. Two grand. My life’s savings. Be sure to pay it back. And Charlie… be good, eh. Try not to hurt anyone.’
Charlie took his favourite route back to Belle Hotel, due south down Whitehawk Hill along the track carved out by his grandfather, Franco.
‘Straight to the sea. This way you cut out all that council estate concrete. Here we go, Charlie Farley, you want a hand over this stile?’ As Charlie made his way past the county hospital, cutting a swathe through the pub sided, seagull-shat alleyways of Kemp Town,
a wobbly theatre flat of seediness and sophistication, Charlie broke out with his bunch of carrots and limp wrist onto the seafront.
Larry’s house was up for sale again. Number four Royal Crescent’s black ceramic tiles glinted in the sharp October sun. The great man was long gone, heaven via Steyning, an alabaster plaque all that remained to remind us.
BARON OLIVIER of BRIGHTON OM ACTOR
Lived Here 1961–1979
Charlie raised the bunch of carrots, a greeting for his grandfather’s most famous friend, and set off westward along the prom.
Charlie knew it must be nearly noon and he was nowhere near his target. Charlie had blown it once and for all. All he’d had to do was get back with enough cash and he’d already saved Belle Hotel, got it firing on gas, got on the track to getting his Michelin star back. How hard was it to stride into Belle Hotel, stick it to Paul Peters, pop his head into the pub and pat Janet, his mother, on the head, stuff what was left of the Hooke’s repossession notice in the back of Franco’s book, strap on his apron (kitchen hook where he left it), scrub, turn, blanche and serve the buttered carrots for three pounds seventy-five’s worth of salvation. That was all that Charlie had to do. His one last chance. And he’d fucked it up.
Lulu turned the cigarette lighter over and over in her hands. The Belle Hotel dining room was as old as she was. Peters pushed the papers towards her and Graeme. This was it.
‘Do you have a pen?’
Of course Graeme did, he’d brought his space pen. The one that wrote upside down. Lulu took Paul Peters’ proffered Bic.
His timeworn key wouldn’t fit in the lock. The shiny new face of the hole repelled Charlie’s ham-fisted attempt at entry. Disgusted, he flung the only key left on his ring in the gutter and set off for the side twitten of Belle Hotel and the hotel’s pub.
Janet, his mother, was propping up the bar. Or rather, the bar was propping her up. Twin tracks of mascara trailed down her face.
‘Ma, they’ve locked me out. I’m back with the cash.’ ‘Too late, darling. Peters has already sold her.’
‘Like fuck he has. Over my dead body.’ ‘No, sweetheart, over Franco’s dead body.’ ‘Where are they?’
Janet jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Restaurant.
His restaurant. The bloody cheek of it. He ran at the door that separated the pub from the rest of the hotel and was surprised to bounce back off it rather than plough through. What a friggin’ liberty. Peters had locked the brass, slid it shut from the other side. Charlie looked back at Janet and cracked out his lucky grin.
‘How long’s this thing been locked?’
12.04pm: Charlie & Lulu
Lulu heard the thud and knew it was him. ‘It’s not fair. We should at least let him in.’
She rose, left her co-conspirators, went into the lobby and shot back the bolt.
As Lulu walked back to the dining room, Charlie made his entrance with an almighty crash. Expecting to break the door down, he’d run at it like a bull in a china shop and flown through the lobby when the door yielded easily to his shoulder barge.
Charlie lay dazed on the wooden floor. He’d hit his head on the reception desk and was out cold for what felt like decades. When he came round, Charlie struggled to work out when he was. He knew exactly where he was, but he hadn’t seen Belle Hotel from floor height since, when? Was he, two, crawling around on the floor with Lulu, getting under people’s Cuban-heeled feet? Or maybe thirteen, back from the fishing trip and collapsed in a dirty heap before Franco scooped him up and brushed him out of sight. Or, wait, it’s the morning glory after the night before, Oasis at the Brighton Centre and the after-party to end all after-parties, hadn’t he crashed out with Noel in this same spot? But, look, what’s this, Lulu looking down at him, and what’s this, Paul Peters spoiling the view and then, from out of shot, the nasal twang of that excuse for a chef, Graeme.
‘Is he all right? I mean, Lulu, shouldn’t we call the police, or something?’
‘He’s fine, Graeme. Come on, Charlie, get up. We want to talk to you.’
Lulu helped him to his feet, took him by the shoulders and shook some sense into him. This was business now, not love.
Belle Hotel’s grandfather clock struck noon. Set five minutes late, Brighton time, it had been at the hotel almost as long as Franco had owned it. Bought it from the pawnbroker’s, Franco did. Cost a pretty penny, even back then.
Charlie clocked the clock chiming and an idea struck him. ‘Lu, tell these vultures to wait. I’ll be right back.’
Charlie braced the clock against the shoulder of his one good arm, tipped it back and lifted. He was gone, back out of the bar entrance before anybody had the time to do anything about it.
Graeme and Paul Peters went back into the restaurant and took their place on the brass-studded green leather banquette at table one, the family table. The table at which the Sheridans broke bread and
talked business. Loyalty, conflict, power. Franco, Charlie and Janet. Four decades of family business and now this. Outsiders staking their claim. It was too much for Janet to take, so she took it out on the beer pump in the pub, swilling her glass and swaying along like the drunken sailor. She watched Charlie heading past with Franco’s clock and shook her head.
Ten minutes later, Charlie was back, grinning from ear to ear. Lulu was still waiting for him in the lobby. She’d passed the time looking at a Hockney-ish portrait of Franco, Janet and a cat that hung over the key rack. Charlie collapsed into Lulu and then rolled into the restaurant on his ex-girlfriend’s arm, letting himself be led to face the firing squad. Peters spread the papers in front of him, covering the stain-spattered tablecloth with words, deeds and numbers. The restaurant that rang down the decades, percussion of cutlery on china, was deathly silent.
‘I am sorry, Charlie, for Franco’s sake. You missed the deadline. But for the future of your grandfather’s legacy it is essential that you countersign these papers and let Graeme and Lulu open the hotel tonight as a going concern. They have bookings that they can overspill from Hotel Epicure and a healthy few pencilled in for dinner tonight. Come on, Charlie, be smart, take a leaf out of Franco’s book. Who knows, play your cards right and Graeme may even offer you a role in the kitchen, you know, show him the ropes, make sure Belle’s reputation stays intact.’
Quite a speech from Peters, though Charlie was barely taking things in. He could feel Lulu’s grip on his good arm, the searing pain from the other, and as Peters came to the end of his words, Charlie’s gaze settled on a nodding Graeme. Not so much on Graeme’s bonce, but on what the thieving, talentless bastard had in his mitts.
The leather book Larry gave Franco.
Franco’s book, which held the story of Belle Hotel. Four decades of secret recipes and receipts. Every important document relating to the Sheridan family and Belle Hotel. Under Graeme’s fist.
‘Paul, I’m back. I was back before twelve, helping Mum out in the pub. Ask her if you like. I tried to enter my hotel, but you seemed to have locked the interconnecting door from your side. Is that legal? Locking me out of part of my own hotel? And Paul, I have the money you requested. Not… all of it, but enough.’
Charlie twisted out of Lulu’s grip, reached around for the roll of Dawn’s tatty tens and twenties and the pawnbroker’s crisp fifty-pound notes. He yanked the roll from his back pocket and flung it onto the table where it bounced twice and plonked in Peters’ lap.
‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it.’ ‘Charlie, I, er, we’ve come too far to—’
‘Five K. Enough for five more days. Come on, Peters, you owe me that. I’ll give you the other five grand in five days’ time. Don’t you dare lecture me about financial prudence. You should hear what they’re saying about your fucking lot on the radio.’
‘Lulu, please, this isn’t about us. This is between me and Peters. And you,’ Charlie dead-eyed Graeme, ‘don’t even think of squeaking.’ Charlie held out his good arm for Franco’s book and left it there. ‘Give me that book.’
‘I’m waiting for Mr Peters to tell us all exactly who is the owner of Belle Hotel and all its assets before I hand over what, to the letter of the law, is now about to become my property.’
On ‘property’, Charlie leapt, the tines of the fork he’d grabbed from the waiters’ station glinted in the sun that poured in through the coloured glass windows.
The fork only glanced across Graeme’s neck, with just two of the four tines piercing the skin, a touch wide of the pronounced Adam’s apple that Charlie had so mercilessly mocked in the past. It was his
left hand, after all, and he’d had a knock to the head. Graeme was on his feet and in the karate stance in less than half a second. He broke the stance momentarily, touching the back of the book-clasping hand to his neck, checking for blood.
‘You crazy mother. I’ll have you for this. You’ll get years. They’ll be handing down more than anger management this time.’
Lulu screamed and dived at Charlie, grabbing his long greasy hair with both hands and pulling him away from Graeme with a force that shocked even her. The fork fell from Charlie’s hand and skittered across the mosaic floor.
The table tipped and clattered to meet the fork as Peters rose to his feet. Charlie and Graeme grappled left-handed with Franco’s book, Graeme still holding his stronger hand in the knife hand position. Charlie supported his broken wrist in his chef’s whites, flexing his bicep against Lulu’s violent tugs.
The moment that Peters yelled ‘Enough!’, Graeme dropped an extremely well- executed chop onto Charlie’s nose, the force of which propelled Charlie backwards in an arc of blood and caused Franco’s book to yank from Graeme’s hand and follow Charlie onto the skull- shattering surface.
The four of them watched the book, its worn leather covers wings in flight as it released all four of its brass clasps and let forty years of memories out like a confetti bomb.
Charlie came to for the second time in as many minutes with the gentle caress of fusty paper fluttering across his face.
‘Enough!’ It was Peters, at full height and finally taking control of what had fast become a very out-of-control situation, ‘Charlie, Graeme, Lulu. Enough. Stop it, the three of you.’
The last leaf fell from space, a birth certificate, Second World War paper. Light as a prisoner of war.
‘Enough. Charlie, you’ve bought yourself five working days. Five days, you hear me. Got yourself off on a technicality and only come
up with half of the money. I shouldn’t be doing this. Count yourself lucky that things are in such disarray at the bank. I’m ashamed to say that the Hookes balance sheet is not reading well. We have too much bad debt, Belle Hotel’s included, and Her Majesty’s Government are going to have to bail us out. Lulu, Graeme, we should leave now. We’ll be back in five days’ time to do this again properly. You’ve no chance of turning this around, Charlie, I mean look at you. Your grandfather will be rolling in his grave. No need to get up, Sheridan, we’ll let ourselves out. Oh, I expect you’ll be needing these.’
The shiny new set of keys bounced off Charlie’s chest and came to rest among the scattered papers. Charlie let his eyes close as he listened for the footfall to fade, ignoring the whispered ‘Charlie’ from the stilettoed step that hung back a little from the rest. He couldn’t face Lulu now. It was just too complicated. More complicated and awful than even Lulu knew. What had gone on between them, what he now knew he’d done, must never, ever, come to light. He’d lost his childhood sweetheart, for sure. From where Charlie lay, the first thing he saw upon opening his eyes was the black-and-white photo of Charlie and Lulu as children peering over the lip of Franco’s stockpot on the stove. The old man had taken it as a joke, the pot was clean and stove cold, and framed it for the customers’ amusement. The kids in a stockpot picture sat at the centre of a gallery of over three decades of Belle Hotel family life. Snaps of Charlie and Lulu as teenagers wrestling in Christmas jumpers by the giant tree in Belle Hotel’s lobby. Franco in his chef’s whites showing Charlie how to serve a whole salmon at table, Lulu grinning at his side, waiting with the silver service spoon and fork. Caught on celluloid in memory of a shared past and sympathy for a separate future.
The sound of Belle Hotel’s main doors banging shut brought Janet rolling in and she helped Charlie pick up their past, rise to room 20, and there begin re-binding the book of Belle Hotel.
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