(The Story Behind) The Extra Guest Charity – Part Two
Myrrnah was woken abruptly the next morning by the telephone.
‘Well, you know we never liked him.’ Her mother didn’t try to hide her relief, hearing that David had left. ‘But we have a suggestion for you. Your father and I are taking off for six months or so. Why not come back to Brighton and run Langton’s while we’re away?’ Myrrnah – who knew the business as well as they did – would be their new manager.
Not that I ever go back, Myrrnah reasoned privately then suddenly she remembered the child with the bowl. What if this wasn’t going back at all but moving on? She remembered Sally’s words too: ‘You should open a restaurant. Something different, with a twist,’ and pictured the Brighton hotel’s rather dated dining room transformed. There was, she mused, so much she could change.
Six months became five years and the Langtons, happy to leave things in their daughter’s hands, retired. The drab old dining room had soon become The Extra Guest, a stylish eating place known for its imaginative cuisine, and the little hotel quickly doubled its bookings. Each summer Lupin came to stay and would often recall, a little wistfully, The White Hart, and how much she had missed its strange but alluring human presence. And often, Myrrnah would have a dream in which she was searching for something she’d lost. She would embark on long journeys to unfamiliar places, driven on by a sense of loss, until at last her dream led her to The Gallery where the Hart appeared, clear as day, in the window. Thereupon, having gone inside to buy it for her friend, she always awoke with a thrill.
And now ten years on, she was back in Hartridge once more. Puzzled by the portrait of the woman in pink, she strolled back into town, bought a coffee and panini in the Ambergate Arms and unfolded her newspaper and spread it across the table:
Myrrnah Langton is here to promote her latest cookbook ‘The Extra Guest.’ It highlights a new trend in ‘ethical dining,’ initiated at her Brighton hotel. Ms. Langton encourages her diners to pay for an extra place setting (or ‘extra guest’) and proceeds go to combat poverty in the undeveloped world. £0.5 million has been raised so far and schools built in several African villages. The scheme has now been taken up by restaurants and bars throughout the U.K.
It was a full-page article with colour photographs of the newly painted hotel and smiling school-children, neatly uniformed, and there, in the middle of it all, herself. She felt a sudden surge of affection, almost love, for the woman in the publicity picture. Shyly displaying her new book, her eyes were bright enough but behind the closed smile was a certain buried loneliness. There had been no-one since David, no-one in ten years, for how else would she have done all this? A successful hotel, a collection of cookbooks and a thriving charity had left no room for anything else. She refolded the newspaper and glanced at her watch. The book signing – she had almost forgotten and Lupin would already be there, waiting and wondering what had delayed her.
She hurried back to The Gallery for one more glimpse of the woman in pink. But the portrait was no longer there, only an empty easel. It seemed rather like looking in a mirror and finding no reflection; she had suddenly ceased to exist. For those few moments outside The Gallery the woman in pink had become an extension of her self – and perhaps more than that, a promise of things to come.
‘I noticed a portrait here earlier.’ She pointed to the empty easel and hoped that the girl at the counter hadn’t spotted the likeness. Her neck reddened but the girl was busy, tidying the counter.
‘Woman in Love? It’s not for sale?’
‘And who is the artist?’ Myrrnah persisted, emboldened by curiosity.
‘Miss Trostin? The owner?’ Annoyingly the girl made everything she said sound like a question.
Myrrnah imagined her Miss Trostin; an elderly lady most likely with a talent for water colours.
‘I see.’ It was clearly all a coincidence and anyway, time was now short. ‘In any case, I was looking for something quite different. I was told you might have it here.’ She lied – she was, after all, only here on the strength of a stupid old dream – and began to describe the white deer with human eyes. Feeling foolish, she waited for the girl’s response, afraid suddenly that she might actually say yes.
Frowning, the girl opened her order book and ran her finger down several pages. Finally she shook her head. ‘The White Hart? No luck, I’m afraid?’
A current of air from an overhead fan cooled Myrrnah’s cheeks. Unsure whether it was relief or disappointment, she reached falteringly into her bag to call Lupin then remembered she had left the phone in the car.
‘Miss Trostin did have it here once?’ the girl murmured as an afterthought but Myrrnah was already through the door. ‘For quite a while, maybe?’
Lupin was already outside the book shop where quite a queue had formed for Myrrnah’s latest recipes. Later, every copy sold and signed, they wandered back to Myrrnah’s car, debating whether to stop for supper at the Ambergate Arms or take a leisurely drive back to Brighton and arrive before dark. The mobile phone displayed six missed calls, two voicemails and an impatient text from the hotel receptionist: Tried you several times. Please return urgently – half the staff down with ‘flu.
Suddenly the two paintings were forgotten and as they set off together for her annual visit to the sea, Lupin spread out a handful of cards on her lap.
‘I have a good feeling about today all the same,’ she confided, selecting The Wheel of Fortune. ‘After all, the best things always happen when least expected. It’s a good omen for us both, I’m sure.’
They arrived an hour before opening to find Langton’s in chaos. With three staff ill and the sous-chef sneezing violently, Lupin prepared the tables while Myrrnah grabbed an apron and set to work in the kitchen. Soon she was interrupted by the girl from reception.
‘Excuse me, Ms. Langton, but there’s someone at the desk insisting that you see him now. I’ve told him you’re busy but he just won’t go away.’ Myrrnah wiped her hands on her apron and followed her into the hall.
A distinguished looking man carrying two large packages was waiting at the desk. His hair was dark and he wore an elegant suit and well-polished shoes. ‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘Do you happen to have room for an extra guest?’
‘I’m sorry, sir.’ She smiled professionally and ran a finger down the list of rooms. ‘We’re a little short-staffed today but I can find you a room tomorrow.’
His face lit up. ‘You don’t remember me at all, do you? I’m Richard Austen from The Gallery. It seems our journeys have crossed today.
His smile was a searchlight.
‘So, you’re Miss Trostin?’ Myrrnah said, mimicking the girl in the gallery. Then she laughed, remembering the scruffy angel at the party, unrecognizable now with his smart suit and tidy hair. ‘And you’re really the new owner?’
He nodded. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
Myrrnah hesitated, taking in his golden skin and inviting smile. He would certainly impress the guests. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like a little job for the evening, would you, Richard? We could always find you somewhere to stay.’
‘Well, why not?’ He had begun to unwrap one of his packages but changed his mind and asked if they could be placed somewhere safe for a while. ‘These can wait till later, I think.’
‘Well,’ said Myrrnah, locking up as the last of the diners left. ‘Shall we eat?’ She set a place in the empty restaurant for herself and Lupin and their unexpected extra guest. ‘Let’s open a bottle of something special.’
Richard had collected his two packages and began once more to un-wrap them. He removed a canvas from the first and leaned it against their table. The woman in pink looked back, poised and untroubled by love.
‘I’d better explain. This is how I saw you at Phil’s – not as you were then of course, but as you will become one day.’
He had worked painstakingly from the little New Year’s Day photograph and, as the years passed, the portrait had changed, become gradually older but curiously more beautiful. ‘She’s taken ten years to finish and I reckoned now was the time you should have it.’
Before she had time to thank him he was un-wrapping the other package and soon he revealed another canvas. ‘I found this in the Oxfam shop, soon after you left. I mended the frame and I think it inspired me to paint you. Now the portrait’s done it seems time to pass it on.’ For a moment it seemed that the White Hart had actually winked.
Myrrnah filled their glasses and proposed a toast. (He was, she had to admit, a complete angel; and a rather presentable waiter too): ‘To Richard, our extra guest! Lupin, your hart is in the right place at last, the book is selling well and we’ve made enough here this month to build another classroom.’ And it seems perhaps I’ve learned to love myself too, she smiled, if Richard’s portrait is anything to go by.
‘You love all this, don’t you?’ Richard Austen observed.
‘Oh yes,’ she answered. ‘It’s my passion – just as painting is yours, I suppose.’
‘No Myrrnah dear – not painting!’ Lupin teased when they were alone. ‘Not by that look on his face.’
‘Rubbish – he hardly knows me.’ She protested but her apricot cheeks had ripened a little.
‘He’s just spent ten years getting to know you, silly girl. Remember The Wheel of Fortune? The best things happen when least expected,’ said Lupin, carrying The White Hart to her room.
‘Give it time.’