Valentine’s Day is coming. Love is in the air. Or is it?
A couple from England, on holiday in Chelsea, have a way of infecting those around them with something akin to hatred.
A dog is abandoned in the relative safety of the Inn, but cats, dumped at the campground, don’t have as easy a time.
Bullies at the high school have taken their mean tactics to a higher level and it leads to violence.
Folks on The Avenue and in the community pull together when two of their own come to grief. This is Chelsea, after all. Somehow, they are able to figure it out before that all important day that comes around only once every four years: Leap Day.
What would you do with an extra day of your life?
Author: Kathleen Thompson
Excerpt from Holiday.
Annie sat at her small kitchen table. She looked out the balcony doors that faced the lake, a chill, gray fog keeping the horizon at bay. She felt a kindred spirit with the lake: choppy, colorless, and hemmed in by the atmosphere. A storm was brewing.
A cup of coffee in her hands, she sipped slowly, wondering if she should get up and start her day.
Tiger Lily sat in the middle of the table. She looked at Annie intently, communicating silently but clearly, “How could you do this to us?”
At Annie’s feet, Kali curled a tail around an ankle and cried. It was a plaintive, “Do we have to go downstairs?” cry that seemed to bore into Annie’s heart.
Mr. Bean was behind the chair, reaching through the chair railings, stabbing at Annie’s butt as if to say, “It’s all your fault!”
Or maybe he was saying, “Fix it!”
Annie and her family of seven cats were in their spacious apartment on the third floor of a bed and breakfast in the town of Chelsea. It was early, but the town outside the Inn was bustling even before the full light of day.
Chelsea, a resort town, was nestled into a cocoon that kept it separate from the outside world. On two sides, the north and the south, were the wooded acres of a state park. On a third, the west, was a Great Lake. Positioned as it was, the town was noted for panoramic views of brilliant sunsets over the lake.
The KaliKo Inn enjoyed a prime position. It was separated from the lake by a public parking lot and an expanse of white sand beach. Nothing hindered the view between the house and the lake.
The Inn was one of several businesses owned by Annie. Her little patch of heaven took up the entirety of the south side of Sunset Avenue, known by locals simply as The Avenue, a broad expanse running from the town circle to the lakefront. The median was paved with brick and decorated with concrete urns holding flowers and greenery of the season. In between the urns were game tables and benches, used almost daily with the exception of some of the more stormy days of winter. Later today, the median would clear out as the storm brewing over the lake made landfall.
On the south side, a block-long 1880s era building was anchored at one end by the Inn and the other by the town circle. Through the decades the building had been well maintained, and for the most part the original brick fascia was intact. Windows ran the length of it from about knee-height to a height of eight feet, letting walkers see within and allowing natural light into every space. The building held five unique businesses, each tailored to enhance the tourist atmosphere of the town.
Annie started most mornings with an actual walk up the block, stopping into each business. Today, she decided to take a virtual tour, pushing off the inevitability of the day for another few minutes.
Annie sighed again, took another sip of coffee, closed her eyes, envisioned the broad expanse of The Avenue outside, colored it with the gray hues of the day, and began her walk. Striving for realism, Annie mentally shrugged more deeply into her utilitarian coat and added boots, a scarf and gloves, feeling the bite of a winter breeze with a few sharp pieces of ice and snow.
She looked to her right and saw the old mansion, the Inn, with a wrap-around porch reminiscent of southern mansions. The Inn was surrounded by gardens, now snow-covered. Outdoor furniture was in storage for the winter, so the porch and gardens looked bare. The awning stood in stark contrast to the day, bright blue with pinstripes of green, red, yellow, orange and purple. The sign, with a picture of two large dilute calico cats standing side by side, proclaimed the names of both the Inn and the cats, the KaliKo Inn.
In contrast to the porch of the Inn, sturdy wrought iron café tables and chairs remained outside the block-long brick building year round. The arrangements were painted to mimic the awnings under which they sat. In one long virtual glance, Annie took in the expanse of outdoor seating that was used nearly every hour of every day. With this gray aura, however, Annie couldn’t bring herself to picture either die-hard locals or tourists sitting at the tables, enjoying coffee or breakfast.
Stepping away from the Inn and toward the center of The Avenue, Annie reached the corner of the long two-story building, coming first to a sign with the picture of a small, spunky cat curling around the name of the business, Sassy P’s Wine & Cheese. The sign sat atop a bright red awning accented with purple wine glasses. In her mind, Annie saw Minnie stocking the cheese display refrigerator while Jesus stocked wine racks.
She moved on. Mr. Bean’s Confectionary was next. On this sign, a muscular gray kitten danced on hind legs, reaching for the top of a letter proclaiming the name of the business. His awning was bright green. White stars danced around the green canvas.
Even on this gray morning, Annie had no trouble envisioning several people crowded into the small space, lined up for fresh baked goods. She could even smell it, and she saw Carlos, smiling, laughing, and enjoying personal conversations with everyone he served.
Mo, handsome long-haired gray Mo, sat with a sexy, sultry stare on a sign that proclaimed Mo’s Tap, an upscale blues bar that for now, this morning and every other morning at this time, sat empty. Mo’s awning was bright yellow, the silhouette of a black bar tap to one side, indicative of the artisan brews that George, the manager and bartender, kept on tap.
Lil’ Socks’ Virasana, a yoga studio, had a bright orange awning with the white silhouette of a yoga practitioner in the Virasana (veer AHS ana), or Hero, pose. The sign, in contrast, showed Little Socks in her signature pose.
Annie had received all of the building signs as a Christmas gift just a couple of months before. Her staff, the managers and assistant managers of the businesses, had come together to design each sign to go with the colors and tempo of their respective businesses.
Diana, the head instructor and manager of the yoga studio, had taken great pride in this particular sign. It showed the lady herself, Little Socks, engaged not in the Virasana pose, but in her signature pose, the Lessiver Mon Derriere (LESS-e-vay mon DAIR-i-air). Translated to “wash my behind,” this was a pose few human yoga students could emulate. Privately, Little Socks wondered how humans managed to keep their hind areas clean.
Finally, Annie came to the corner establishment, a large café with windows and awnings on both the north and east sides. Bright purple awnings with mint green pinstripes covered the windows on both sides, and of course Tiger Lily herself graced the new sign, sitting serenely, surveying her world. While Annie couldn’t bring herself to see people at the outside tables, inside the windows of the Café she saw a bustling crowd.
Tiger Lily’s Café served as the gateway to Sunset Avenue and the lake. It was the main gathering place for the town of Chelsea, locals and tourists alike. Annie allowed herself to step inside the virtual door, to smell the unique breakfasts that only chef and manager Felicity could produce and the coffees and teas that Trudie sent out from the coffee bar in the corner. Annie took a virtual turn and saw Tiger Lily at the hostess stand, ready to greet the next guest.
Except that she wasn’t. There. At the hostess stand.
Tiger Lily was here. On her kitchen table.
Annie opened her eyes.
Yes. Tiger Lily was still here. Sitting on the table. Staring at Annie as only Tiger Lily could stare.
Annie’s semi-solitude finally ended when a shrill “Yap!” came through the cat door. A guest of the Inn, a British Jack Russell Terrier, followed it in. She was British because she actually was from Great Britain.
Her name was Tillie, and she hailed from “outside Uppingham, a smallish town in Rutland County in the East Midlands. We’re country people. Rutland is one of the smallest and most sparsely populated counties in England, you see. We don’t have a lot of water like most Brits do. The closest thing we have to a beach is Rutland Water, a nature reserve. It’s quite famous.”
Annie’s head bobbled back and forth as she recited this little ditty in her mind. She had heard the paragraph at least twenty times a day for the past few days. Make that thirty.
Well, probably only once a day, multiplied by the force of the delivery.
Annie couldn’t forget the sentence that closed out the explanation. “And even with our country background, we are ever so much more sophisticated than anyone we’ve met here in the colonies.” Annie wondered if anyone else said that – the colonies – in this century.
Tillie had given Annie her usual good morning salute, a quick reach to her knees and a few sharp yips, and she ran out of the kitchen in search of fun playmates.
Tiger Lily stayed where she was and looked on. Mr. Bean and Sassy Pants joined in as Tillie ran around the apartment, onto and off of furniture as fast as her little legs would allow.
Kali, Ko and Mo were probably hiding somewhere. Little Socks materialized on top of the refrigerator.
Not for the first time, Annie considered locking the pet door to the apartment. She had, at her guests’ request, locked the outside pet doors, making for a tense situation with her own brood. They liked having the opportunity to leave the Inn whenever they chose, and most of them would have left the Inn long ago for their own places, Tiger Lily to the Café, Sassy Pants to the Winery, Mr. Bean to the Confectionary, Little Socks to the yoga studio, Mo to the Tap, even though it was not yet open. Cat doors into the businesses allowed them easy access any time of the day or night.
While these guests were on hand, the cats couldn’t leave for their own places until Annie went downstairs to start her day. And hopefully open an outside door for them.
On most mornings, Kali and Ko would have been downstairs long ago, helping Henrie as he served breakfast to their guests. There was something about the week, though, that kept everyone close to Annie. None of the cats seemed to want to leave her side.
Finally, Annie rose, sighed, took the empty coffee cup to the kitchen sink, sighed, pocketed her cell phone, sighed, opened the door, sighed, and headed downstairs. The cats followed close behind.
Annie hoped this would not be a typical Monday, long on angst and short on joy.
She could hear the guests from her third floor landing. The British accent didn’t waft up the stairs as much as it landed with a thud.
“All I wanted was a holiday! I didn’t want to come to this God-forsaken place where they don’t know a knacker from a hurdler!”
Low tones came in reply.
By the second floor landing, she heard, “I am being gracious. I am open-minded.” Emphasis had been placed on the word “am.” Two times. “These people are off their trolleys. All of them. I want to go to a city. A real city. A city with decent, intelligent people.”
Low tones came in reply.
As Annie hit the first floor, heading for the dining room, she heard an anguished, “What do you mean we can’t afford it? Where did the money go?” The words “where” and “go” had a long, drawn-out, especially whiny quality.
Annie tried to turn around before she was noticed, but both guests looked up. Alistair and Cressida Bartram stared at her, forks halfway from plates to open mouths.
Annie tried to smile warmly while correcting her step.
“Good morning, Cressida, Alistair. Have you made plans for the day?”
Alistair put his fork down. “We thought we would take our rental car and motor up the lakefront.”
Rental cars were not available in Chelsea, so the Inn made a point of allowing guests to use a car from their small fleet. This couple, however, used a car all day, every day. After the first day, Henrie handed the telephone to Alistair with a list of telephone numbers of rental agencies in Marsh Haven.
He insisted they rent their own vehicle and locked the keys for the fleet vehicles away in his own apartment.
Cressida stared at Alistair. “We thought what?”
Alistair resumed eating.
Cressida didn’t bother to either put her fork down or swallow her bite before talking. “Well, ‘we’ will have to rethink this motoring trip. ‘We’ did that two days ago, and the day before that ‘we’ went in the other direction.” For this paragraph, Cressida placed special emphasis on the word “we.” “Honestly, Alistair, you are as boring as the people who live in this dreadful town.”
Alistair nodded his head slightly to Annie in apology.
Annie had thought long and hard over the last few days as to just what it was that made the people of the town of Chelsea so boring, so unenlightened, so…whatever it was that Cressida disliked. She thought she knew what it was. No one in Chelsea bowed from the waist at the sight of Cressida, and no one deigned to kiss that dreadful, pudgy hand.
Annie kept the smile on her face and turned to inspect the breakfast dishes. She had completely lost her appetite.
Henrie entered, noticed that most of the dishes could be replenished, and turned back to the kitchen to do just that. He was stopped by Cressida.
“You! Stop there! I wanted biscuits again this morning. Biscuits! When will you ever get it right?”
Henrie looked again at the buffet, concentrating on the breads. He noted that his biscuit offering was depleted. Not a crumb could be seen on the dining plates. Surreptitiously, he glanced into the waste can. Nothing there, either. Henrie politely did not look at the oversized bellies of his guests.
Henrie was ever gracious. Never without his wits. An enigma to Annie and the rest of the community, Henrie left a stellar career in the five-star hotel industry in New York to become the chief cook, bottle washer, toilet bowl cleaner and concierge of a bed and breakfast in this small resort community.
He did not invite confidences and spoke little about himself. Most people, townsfolk and tourists alike, came away thinking, “What is that accent? French? Cameroon? Rwandan?” They also went away with the eerie feeling that he could read their minds. Indeed, whatever was needed or desired, he offered before a request was made.
The Bartrams had been guests at the Inn for several days. Cressida had immediately requested biscuits for their first breakfast. Henrie erred. He mistakenly assumed – this would be the last time he would make any such assumption – that travelers to this country would want to sample foods of native origin.
Their first breakfast included flakey buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy on the side. The Bartrams ate every smidgeon, then Cressida asked Henrie if he had forgotten the biscuits she had requested. She was peeved. Actually, “peeved” is a mild word, hardly descriptive of her ranting.
On the second day, Henrie offered biscuits supplied by Mem, the owner of a local tea shop. She had recently stocked vanilla flavored ginger snaps from Sweden. They were very thin, crisp, almost like a shortbread. The sweet flavor of ginger was heavenly as the cookie nearly melted in Henrie’s mouth. Cressida had not been impressed, but she ate every one.
On day three, Carlos brought fresh biscuits made from his research of British recipes. They were shortbread cookies filled with raspberry jam and were called Jammie Dodgers. From his research, Carlos learned this variety had been popular in Britain for over 50 years.
They were not popular with Cressida. Again, she ate every one.
Today, Henrie offered another biscuit from Carlos. Called rich tea biscuits, they were plain-flavored and especially good for dunking in hot tea.
After every one had been devoured, Cressida again declared Henrie had erred. Apparently in an egregious manner. Even though, according to Carlos, this type of biscuit had been a British standard since the 17th century.
Henrie, as close to wits’ end as he ever came, looked calmly but with appropriately downcast face and eyes at Cressida. “I am once again very sorry to have disappointed. May I ask where you purchase your biscuits, or, perhaps, you make them yourself?”
Cressida barked, “We purchase only the finest biscuits from the East End Bakery in Uppingham. They,” heavy emphasis on the word, ‘they’, “know how to make biscuits!”
Henrie made mental note of the name of the bakery as he turned to go to the kitchen. On his way he made eye contact with Tiger Lily and winked.
Tiger Lily gave Henrie a slow blink in return.
She sat by a four-person dining table that often was not needed. Typically it sat against the wall next to the kitchen door. Recently, Henrie changed the table covering to one that reached to the floor. A slit was cut into the cloth and stitched with a simple hem to make an opening. Henrie placed soft cat beds, pillows and blankets under the table.
A small wooden sign hung from the table. Purchased at the same time staff made signs for the storefronts, Henrie fashioned this one with a detective cap, magnifying glass and the engraving, “Seven Cats Detective Agency.”
Henrie explained the sign to the cats in a solemn ceremony. Proclaiming their importance to Annie, to her staff and friends, to her businesses, and to the town in general, he extolled their fine detective skills.
Henrie and Annie watched as the cats, first timidly, then with joyous abandon, claimed this “office” as their favorite place to sit when gracing the dining room with their presence.
When, of course, they were not sitting in the window napping in the sunshine. Or on the buffet table sneaking bites. Or on the table bothering guests. Or under the table sniffing shoes.
While Tiger Lily stood guard at the door to the detective office, Mo, Sassy Pants and Mr. Bean huddled inside it, together on one pillow, hoping to escape the evil eye of Cressida Bartram. Even Tillie hid from them. At the moment, she was inside the office, hidden underneath one of the blankets.
Fearless Little Socks sat on the buffet table, aiming a fierce green-eyed stare at the Bartrams. Kali and Ko hid under the TV table in the library.
Annie could feel the angst of her kids and wished again that the guests would find a reason to leave Chelsea – and the Inn – sooner rather than later.
Once again she looked out the window and suddenly she realized she was not being a proper host. “You really should reconsider making a trip up the coast today. The weather is supposed to turn bad.”
Alistair gave Annie a condescending look. “Do you believe we do not know how to drive in a little snow?”
“I’m sure you know how to drive in snow, but along the lakeshore, the snow and ice can turn wicked, especially if the wind kicks up as predicted.”
Cressida joined in. “I’m sure we are more than capable of handling a little winter weather, and it is so dreadfully boring in this town. Perhaps we will be able to find something worth our while if we drive north.”
Annie’s cell phone rang. Grateful for the intrusion, she picked up, only to hear the warm voice of Chris, her very special friend.
“I hate to break our date tonight, but I’m going to have to stay on station.”
“Is it the weather?”
“Yes. The shipping doesn’t slow down, not even for Mother Nature, and tonight could bring some problems.”
“Will you have to go out if there’s trouble?”
“Probably not. I’ve called in the staff, and volunteers are ready to go out if called. But I have to stay here. How are your guests?”
“Don’t ask.” Annie had wandered into the most distant corner of the library as she talked. She continued in a low voice, “Henrie struck out on the biscuits for the fourth day in a row.”
“And that means that Carlos has also struck out. I think I’ll hit the confectionary before Henrie has time to let him know. I’d rather see him in a good mood.”
“I don’t think anything can hurt Carlos these days. Last I heard, he was shopping for diamond rings.”
“That can be therapeutic.”
Annie smiled and gazed at her left hand, at the brilliant ring Chris had given her for Christmas. It wasn’t a diamond. It was a deep purple oval-cut amethyst surrounded by white topaz and garnets of various colors. The smaller stones swirled around, encasing the amethyst in pinwheels of color.
It wasn’t exactly an engagement ring. It wasn’t exactly a pre-engagement ring. It wasn’t exactly an anything ring, except a physical token of a promise to be faithful, honest and loving. Annie was still trying to think of something she could give Chris that would say and mean the same thing. Something a Coast Guard Captain would want to wear or keep near at all times.
She finally replied, “Yes, it can be. It’s time for me to make the rounds, before the weather turns bad.”
They hung up, and Annie, on her way to the dining room, swung by the TV table to give tail tugs to the two cats who thought they were hidden. “I’ll be leaving, girls. You have my permission to go back to the apartment. Henrie can get along without you today.”