“Dave, Dave,” Miriam shrieked, wielding her super mop in one hand and her new iPhone with the other.
“Just take a gander at that!” She pointed at the IMessage that had just pinged:
Congratulations you have an Airbnb booking for February 14th to 17th. Pay-out £420.”
“Well. Champagne tonight. First booking on Swift cottage. Only three weeks after we launched the bugger.” Dave ran to hug Miriam. He knew she would be elated. It was their first project together, as well as the first achievement since retirement.
They had been together seven years, meeting at the retirement class that Leeds Council had put on for over 55’s, about to begin their new adventure:
Old farts plunge into the unknown.
All those things you had always wanted to do but didn’t have the time.
For many travelling. For some a hobby: maybe crafting or knitting?
Art, Photography. The list was endless these days. Most retirees had paid off their mortgage, no dependents, decent public sector pensions and courses on offer at the local libraries and community centres were off the scale.
This new generation of sexagenarians still dyed their hair, Miriam often thought.
“No curly grey perms and handbags clutched to droopy bosoms like my grandma,” she would often say to Dave.
“Some of my friends have even had boob jobs in their fifties,” she would chuckle.
“Well, you don’t need one! You only look about 40, Miriam. Can’t believe no one snapped you up before me. You were the most glamourous, well-dressed lady in that room all those years ago. I couldn’t believe it when someone like you agreed to start seeing me. I was only a boring joiner and there were you an account manager in a beautiful green dress with purple suede boots and those green eyes. Your curly black hair. Well, you took my breath away.”
Miriam had been told she had been gifted with a natural aesthetic style. The way she dressed; her homes had always outshone her friends. Even her Christmas trees looked like Instagram sensations. Except, she prided herself, that her style was eclectic, original, classy of course. Not tacky like these young ones with their trout-pout lips with grey, white and silver houses posing like Stepford Wives against the six-burner range they never used holding a nauseating white fluffy toy-like dog against their obscenely bare cleavages.
No granny Zumba for her. No elderly oil painting by numbers or the like.
No, she would do something she had always wanted to do: renovate a listed cottage in the Yorkshire Dales and market it in the category of ‘luxury’ for holiday rentals. She would finally utilise her gift in her final decades. She had only stuck with those spreadsheets for thirty years because of the security and pension. Now it was time to be creative and let her hair down.
Dave and she were the dream team. She would style and he would do.
They got the keys for Swift Cottage in the late autumn on a rainy day as the leaves danced around the solid oak painted door.
The mullion windows were cracked in places and the lead guttering was bowed and rusty, but the cobbles shone like gold after the heavy downfall.
The previous owners had died aged 92 and 94 in their beds within four days of each other and the cottage was in need of ‘modernising’ or ‘upscaling’ as Miriam told her ex-work colleagues.
“Well, if you can’t do it, then I am not sure who can,” said Pauline from payroll, who looked like Les Dawson in drag most days. If only she lost some weight, wore clothes that didn’t make her back so square. Miriam had often hinted that Trinny and Susannah really could work with all shapes and sizes.
Pauline seemed to get worse after that. Becoming squarer and squarer, no waist, stick legs, wearing beige and brown from head to foot; like a gigantic parcel too big for the post office scales.
The first task was to recreate the original flagstone floor and put underfloor heating in. Of course, the beams needed uncovering and repainting after the woodworm treatment.
The stain had to be dark wood, classier, more authentic and the colour would then contrast with the pale grey floor.
Next was decimating the 1950’s tiled fireplace, exposing the mantle beam and installing a beast of a wood-burning stove in solid black cast iron.
Logs would be stored artistically in a reclaimed casing Dave had made to Miriam’s exact specification. Floor to ceiling naturally in a corner at a cheeky angle.
“You really have an eye for it don’t you, Miriam?”
“I was just born that way, I guess. My Barbie’s were always the best dressed. Everything matching with all the accessories.”
David laughed but when he looked Miriam wasn’t.
And then paradise for Miriam. The dressing. The textures and colours of patterned fabrics for blinds and cushions, the sourcing of Yorkshire wool throws in jaunty spots and checks. Miriam was ecstatic. “Better than any orgasm,” she tittered to herself as she stroked her latest purchase: an off-white sheepskin rug for the back of the new tweed sofa.
“Only crisp white Egyptian cotton bedding, Dave, will do for a luxury cottage!”
So, she had spent £1200 on three sets to allow for changeovers and because she wanted reviews which said, ‘it was like sleeping on a cloud’, so top of the range beds and mattresses followed.
By the time Miriam had bought cast iron antique curtain poles, an eighteenth-century farmhouse table and matching chairs, and an original sea merchant’s trunk to store games and use as a coffee table, she realised she had spent nearly all of their original set-up budget.
Reluctantly, she sourced some pans and oven dishes from a local supermarket and stocked the kitchen cupboards with sale items.
She told herself that it didn’t matter as they were hidden away and it was the effect, the aura, the style oozing out of every pore of the cottage walls that mattered. That was her gift after all.
The day before the first guest arrived Dave and Miriam spent a whole day, polishing and cleaning with their glasses on, did the de rigueur ‘pubic hair test’ in the bathroom and plumped cushions until they couldn’t be plumped anymore.
The whole weekend they waited on pins for the first review to come in.
It took their first guests 5.5 days to get round to writing a review.
Public review: ‘Lovely cottage in a pleasant setting with good restaurants nearby’.
The private response to them was ‘You could do with some bowls for nibbles and plastic toys for children’.
“What the hell, Dave? Lovely, pleasant. Is that it? Is that it? All my hard work summed up in banalities. And as for nibbles. I have a bloody fruit bowl, mixing bowl, salad bowl, cereal bowls, rice bowls and they want a flipping nibbles bowl.”
Guests were arriving in four days, so she bought two nibbles bowls from Asda in a crackled grey design and awaited the next review.
‘Nice house in a quiet spot’.
“It isn’t a house it is a 250-year-old cottage! And what is a spot?”
By the time the third non-descript review landed, Miriam had toughened up and had developed an embattled host persona. It was us and them.
The superhostess with the mostess versus ignorant, unappreciative moronic guests.
The battle turned into full scale war when guests number five broke the toilet seat and tried to sue for a torn leg ligament.
Not long after, visitors number nine stole the liquid soap from the bathroom and jammed the sash windows and broke the sash cord.
And to think, in her naivety she had been peeved when guest number three had had the audacity to leave three peanuts and a Dorito under the sofa.
“Oh well, at least guests number eight had described the cottage as stylish,”
Miriam became obsessed with Airbnb statistics.
She knew her daily % booking rate, the prices of other similar lets in the area and their reviews. She devoured local cottage stat ratings like pieces of velvet chocolate: greedily, privately, and manically.
One Tuesday lunchtime after Dave had gone to play yet another game of bowls, she sat down with a macchiato and a bowl of quinoa and halloumi salad, wasabi, and lemon dressing on the side.
As she forked her first mouthful into her mouth, she opened the laptop and logged on to Airbnb. She dropped half of the quinoa balls onto her granite island, as she choked in disbelief and fury.
“Dormouse Cottage 5-star property of the week: charming cottage oozing style and sophistication. And guess what it was in her Dales village! Not only that, it was next door but two to her cottage just round the corner, at the top of the hill. She feverishly opened the listing, scrutinising the photos as if her life depended upon it, the slimy deposits of quinoa remaining in situ like weird insect eggs about to hatch.
Miriam was astounded. The Farrow and Ball colour combinations were heavenly. The vintage vases and pictures were way better than hers.
The sofas were so sumptuous and inviting, she felt sick.
But it was the bedrooms: the satin textured bedspread with velvet throws strategically placed with slightly, but not totally matching lampshades. A bit like poetry, she thought. Not a full rhyme, but assonance. Half match.
Why am I transported to my ‘O’level literature classes when my whole ‘raison d’etre’ is now a travesty? She started to flick the balls of quinoa onto the floor, purple with rage.
“Look, Miriam, you have done an amazing job of the cottage. You have 5-star reviews anyway, so what’s the problem?”
“But their first review said ‘stupendous. Best place we have ever stayed. Styling heaven. Unique. Oozing originality and taste’.”
Dave just said, “You know it’s the semi-final at Skipton Bowling Club tomorrow? A few of us are going out to eat after as it’s Friday. That, okay?”
She barely took in what he had said, barely noticed him these days, especially as he always seemed to be out bowling.
Friday came, and Miriam decided, for her own mental health, she would not log on to the dreaded website. She would do some therapeutic gardening. The white hydrangeas needed deadheading and her bay trees needed clipping.
She put her gardening shoes on and was about to exit out of the back door when her mobile rang.
She hesitated and then thought, “No, I’d better answer. It’s changeover day and there may have been another breakage!”
“Hi, it’s Rebecca, I can’t clean I’m afraid today. Susie has tonsillitis and I am keeping her off school. Can you come up, Miriam? I am so sorry!”
“Fine, I am on my way.”
After review number twelve, Miriam had employed one of the local mums to clean the cottage as she got sick of changing beds and was always secretly alarmed when guests had moved cushions to the wrong sofa or had left carrot peelings in the kitchen sink. Rebecca had been given a long list of tasks associated with the cleans, one of which made an excellent after school tale with other mums. Task number 23 was to check that nobody had left ‘The Sun’ or ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper scrunched up in the log basket as kindling for the fire. It had to be a reputable newspaper preferably ‘The Times’.
“Is she for real?” said Rebecca’s oldest friend.
“You haven’t met her! And he is so normal and ordinary with lovely kind brown eyes.”
Miriam broke a couple of speed limits on the journey up, panicking she was too slow these days to get all of the chores done before the next guests arrived. She seemed to have lost her vra vra vroom these last few months.
She parked off road and walked down the hill with a carrier bag full of spare kitchen roll and two bottles of bleach which were needed according to Rebecca’s last stock take.
As she turned the key in the door, she saw Dave at the top of the hill talking and laughing with a woman wearing a kind of uniform. A blue tabard. A nurse? A veterinary assistant?
Ooh, she is carrying a Henry Hoover. Must be a cleaner.
Miriam walked up a few steps to say ‘hello’ and ask Dave what he was doing when the pair turned round the corner and entered ‘Dormouse Cottage’ with a key Dave was holding.
Dave just couldn’t understand why Miriam was so bothered he had bought and renovated the cottage near to their cottage. He had an inheritance from his old Aunt May in Scotland and had enjoyed doing up their cottage so much he wanted to do another.
“I knew you wouldn’t want another one as you seem to get so wound up with everything to do with holiday letting. I didn’t want to stress you out.”
Dave, furthermore, didn’t get that it wasn’t the deceit, the lying about playing bowls, it was that she had been usurped.
His cottage was better than hers. And she could not bear it.
The gift she had been born with was not a gift at all.
Other people who were merely handymen could do better.
Miriam’s whole world, indeed, her whole life was pointless.
Her retirement dream had been based on a smug falsehood. She felt hollow and rudderless. Maybe she should have stuck to spreadsheets all along.
Once she had told Dave, she wanted a divorce, Miriam went for it big time. One phone call after another: solicitors, surveyors, estate agents, Leeds City Council pension office. It kept her busy, well, for a few months anyway.
She let her hair grow long and grey and wore taupe-coloured anoraks and sensible black shoes with black, polyester, straight leg trousers from George at Asda.
She felt nothing, absolutely nothing that November morning when she went to sign the contract for the sale of Swift Cottage. Just numb and otherworldly somehow. She parked a few streets away and then walked down the hill past the cottage. It was a warm sunny day, the sun low in the sky making the whitewash on the cottage blinding. The Pyracantha looked like flames dancing against the walls of Swift Cottage, and she thought she had never seen it look so enticing and spectacular. She put her head down as she walked past feeling ashamed and foolish. She picked up speed, almost running into the square to open the creaky solicitor’s door. The legal clerk made a comment about only having the property for two years which obviously meant, “What’s happened?” but she just signed with wet ink on the dotted line and walked up the hill to take one last look at what had been her dream less than twenty-four months before.
“Hiya, Miriam. I didn’t recognise you at first.”
“Oh, hi, Pauline. You look well.”
And she did. She had lost weight, her skin looked luminous, and her smile was so full and bright and happy. Yes, happy. Pauline had always been a jolly sort, to be fair.
“What are you doing up here, Pauline? Still working?”
“No, I retired two months ago. Me and Clive have got into walking and cycling a bit and so we’ve just bought a cottage to live in for our retirement.
“It’s nice. All been done up and renovated. They wanted a quick sale, did the owners, as they were splitting up. Sad tale really.
Someone called ‘Robinson’. Forget the fella’s name.”
And, suddenly, it all clicked into place. Miriam had changed her name by deed poll back to her maiden name even before the divorce came through. She just wanted to start afresh and forget everything about the last seven years. Maybe then she would feel less humiliated.
Miriam Robinson was the vendor and Pauline had bought her prize possession right from under her feet.
Oh, my goodness, her gift really was the gift that kept on giving.