‘I wasn’t expecting you quite so soon. You finished work early?’ Sarah stood back from the door. ‘Ooh wine. Come in.’
‘Here, take this.’ Anna passed the bottle of red to her friend. ‘And make the most of it, it could be my last,’ she followed Sarah into the kitchen. ‘I am officially out of work.’
‘As of when? Pizza just going in.’ She closed the oven door.
‘As of now.’ Anna scooped up the two glasses from the worktop and followed Sarah and the bottle into the sitting room.
Glasses filled Sarah passed one to Anna.
‘Did you poison a customer?’
Anna pulled a face, shook her head, and took a sip of shiraz.
‘I didn’t think so, but I thought you said your job was safe, even though Antonio died, because his son can’t cook.’
‘Yeah. I did. Rat-face has got no idea about cheffing and worse, he doesn’t even possess working taste buds. Unless it’s a burger in a bun wallowing in ketchup he can’t identify it as food.’
‘Disappointing. You and Antonio worked hard to make it a vegan restaurant and were getting really good feedback. Is he changing it back to a meaterie?’
‘Worse. He’s sold it to a fast-food chain. Came into the kitchen in the middle of lunch service and told us. Stupid grin on his face. On a positive, at least he’ll know where to get his supper.’ She reached for her glass. ‘Sod it. What am I going to do? I have got till the end of the month to get out of my flat before they knock it down. I didn’t see that as a problem, but now, with no job who is going to give me a tenancy?’
‘Can’t you dip into your saving pot? Just this once?’ Sarah sipped her wine and waited but Anna didn’t answer her. Sarah sighed. ‘Okay, I know your parents left it for you to start your own restaurant, but this is an emergency. They wouldn’t want you to be homeless.’
A tabby cat performed a couple of feline pilates stretches on the mat then landed feather-light on the couch beside Anna before stepping onto her lap and curling up.
‘Hello Princess.’ Anna tickled her behind the ear. Princess closed her eyes in contentment, paddled her feet against Anna’s jeans and emitted a sound like a distant chainsaw. Anna ran her hand over the soft fur releasing the scent of sweet hay and herbs,
‘I could always try and get a job as a cushion.’
The smell of hot cheese drifted through from the kitchen. ‘Was ditching Jamie last week the right decision? He still has a good job.’
‘Definitely the right decision. I don’t like being ordered around or having decisions made for me without consultation.’ Anna caught Sarah’s expression and laughed aloud. ‘Yep, that’s me. The perfect employee.’
When there were just scraps of pizza crust left on the plate and Princess had slid out through the cat flap in search of her own supper, they relaxed back against the cushions.
‘Joking aside, Anna, what are you going to do?’
‘No idea. Being jobless has thrown me a bit. I wasn’t expecting it and rat-face never gave me a clue he was selling up.’
‘If he had, then you would have found another job and dented his profits while he did the deal.’ Sarah emptied the last of the wine into their glasses.
‘I can see why he did it. He’s only trying to make the best of what he’s got. He knows he’s not cut out for the restaurant trade. Probably the best decision he could have made.’ Anna emptied her wine glass. ‘Tomorrow, after I’ve been to see Uncle Joe’s solicitor. I’ll see what the estate agents have on their books for rent.’
‘I was sorry to hear about Uncle Joe. Some premises to rent with a flat over the top would be good.’
‘Yeah. Joe was a sweetie. Unconventional but fun.’
‘So that’s where you get it from. Do you remember that summer we went down to his barge?’
Anna smiled. Her eyes lost focus as she looked into the past. ‘Fun times.’
‘Hilarious. You fell in and was thrashing about scaring the ducks. Joe jumped in and saved you, remember?’ Sarah’s eyed flashed with humour.
‘Oh my God, do I? I panicked because I couldn’t swim…’
‘…and the water wasn’t even deep enough to get into his wellies.’
Anna tucked her feet up onto the couch. ’Dear Uncle Joe. Every December he sends me a card with a picture of him aboard, raising a glass to the camera, smiling through that thicket of a beard with a twinkle in his eye. I’m going to miss him.’
Sarah smiled. ‘He once told me that his boat was painted red and gold because it was a decoration that had fallen from a giant’s Christmas tree.’
‘Yeah, and he told me that every year Santa was so tired after delivering all the presents that he slept in the front cabin to save him dashing back to the North Pole.’
Anna drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, hugging her memories to her, like a warm, favourite cardigan. Life had been so simple then.
The tow path was well trampled and firm beneath her feet. She lagged behind the agent at a careful distance because he gesticulated enthusiastically when speaking and was carrying a large ‘FOR SALE’ sign that he wielded like a giant flyswatter. Passing the gaggle vessels moored along the canal bank she recalled her conversation with the solicitor.
‘Are you serious?’ she had asked.
He had paused before answering. ‘Perfectly, Ms Chandler. Mr Joseph Hemp has bequeathed to you the narrow boat, ‘The Anna Chandler’. I understand that he named her after you when you were born.’
She had chewed on the floating dust motes in silent relief. She had expected to be informed of unpaid bills that she would be responsible for as his next of kin.
The estate agent slowed his march, waiting for her to catch up with him.
‘We shouldn’t have any problem finding a buyer for ‘The Anna Chandler’, Miss…’ he referred to his notes, ‘Miss Anna Chandler.’
‘How long will it take?’ Her bills were beginning to mount up.
‘Hopefully not long. We have people on our lists looking for these sorts of properties.’ He shrugged deeper into his coat, raised his sign and marched onward like the leader of a Salvation Army band. His hooded duffle coat reminded Anna of a monk who had been short-changed by the garment department.
The Anna Chandler looked cheerful in the morning sun and for a second, she briefly entertained the thought of living on board, sleeping in Santa’s cabin and…and what? Whittle clothes pegs for a living? Two swans glided past, silver reflections serenely sliding along the gunwale until a raucous mallard water-skied a landing and shattered the image into sparkling shards.
The agent climbed on deck, leaned the sale board against the side of the cabin as Anna watched from the bank. A sign-written boat crawled past with that comfortable phut phut of the diesel engine, and the man at the tiller raised a hand. She was about to acknowledge him when she realised that the greeting was intended for a man striding along the tow path towards her. He nodded to the tillerman before offering her his hand.
‘Brodie Carlton.’ His voice was assertive, and his r’s bounced off his tongue like a drumroll.
His name rang a bell. ‘Anna Chandler,’ she said cautiously, her fingers cool in his warm grasp.
‘Yes. I’m here to see Anna Chandler.’
She looked up at his unfamiliar face. Should she know him? Then she realised that he was referring to the boat, not her.
‘I’m on your mailing list. You alerted me that she is for sale.’
He thought she worked for the agent.
‘Right.’ They both watched the agent unlock the doors and disappear below deck. ‘What do you intend to do with her?’ Anna asked. ‘Live on board?’
With his peppery stubble and long hair secured in a ponytail, he looks like a water-gypsy, although she had never seen one wearing a dove grey suit, gold embroidered waistcoat and hand-made shoes.
‘Not personally.’ He huffed a laugh at her assumption. ‘I’m going to turn her into a floating restaurant, for select clientele, intimate dining, excellent food.’
Instantly she knew why his name was familiar. ‘Carlton Cruise Cuisine’ was a big concern with an even bigger reputation that it well deserved. Customers got to see the sights along the canals on his fleet of boats while being served superlative meals in congenial surroundings. To get a table you needed to book months in advance.
He read her face. ‘You’ve heard of us then.’ He smiled amiably. ‘I think Anna Chandler is exactly what I am looking for.’
Anna felt the flutter of her diaphragm as she struggled to take a breath. Why had she not thought of this herself? It had been floating there right before her eyes, waiting for her to open them and see it. She could name the bar ‘Uncle Joe’s’, call the tables after the waterbirds that paddled past the windows, name dishes after local landmarks. A spider diagram of possibilities exploded in her head like a firework.
Duffle coat had climbed back on shore and both men stood looking at her.
‘Are you alright?’ Carlton asked, a frown on his brow.
Anna realised that she obviously had what Sarah referred to as ‘her lunatic grin’ on her face.
‘Yes, thank you. I’ve never felt better.’ Her mind was racing, adding things to her mental ‘to-do’ lists. She would offer Christmas specials, Easter feasts, theme nights. She would need some help with front of house, but she knew a whole restaurant of people who were out of work. Walking away from them along the path, she peered down through the windows of ‘The Anna Chandler’. How many covers could she comfortably seat?
Behind her she heard the agent asked Carlton ‘What will you do to her if you buy her?’
‘A full refit. Update the galley. The front cabin will become the chef’s accommodation, the remainder will be table space and a small bar. While that’s underway we’ll find the right chef, with experience, innovative menu ideas, local food sourcing will be a priority.’
Anna turned to walk back to the men, her step was firm, her eyes bright with anticipation. Their conversation stalled and they were silent when she reached them.
The agent correctly read her body language. ‘You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you, Miss Chandler?’ His voice was flat, and his ebullient energy level had dwindled to a trickle at the prospect of lost commission.
‘Yes. I have changed my mind and I’m not going to sell her.’ She flicked an apologetic glance at Carlton.
‘Miss Chandler?’ He looked at the name on the prow then back at her. His smile folded the skin around his eyes into soft corduroy. ‘Are you the chef at ‘The Laughing Duck?’
‘I was. It’s just closed its doors. Sold to a burger chain.’
‘That’s a shame, I had heard excellent reports about the food you served. And it was a great name for a vegetarian eaterie. I see why the duck was laughing.’
‘It amused Antonio, too.’
His eyes were fixed on her face, his focus snaring her attention. ‘You are going to turn her into a restaurant yourself, aren’t you, now I given you the idea?’ His voice was stern, his face serious.
Anna lifted her chin and held his gaze. She was not about to apologise for what, she hoped, would be the best decision of her life.
‘Yes, I am.’
His features softened as he reached into his jacket pocket. ‘Then you will need this, Miss Chandler, Miss Anna Chandler.’ He held out his card. ‘I applaud enterprise, and you have gained a good reputation in the trade. When you hit a problem – which believe me you will– call me, and if I can help, I will.’
Anna took his card with fingers that trembled just a little and smiled her thanks. Her eyes prickled and she didn’t trust herself to speak.
With a nod to the agent, he stepped back onto the tow path. ‘And I wish you the very best of luck.’
About the author
She is an avid reader