They All Came Knocking
A diva, a daughter and a pile of villains. A perfect recipe for trouble.
AVAILABLE SPRING 2024
Well, that was the thing, wasn't it? Walk into any entrance hall and there it was staring you right in the face, that first impression. Then, shortly after being hit by that, there was the natural reaction. A kind of deciding what sort of place you had let yourself in for. Standing there looking at the soiled, greasy carpets. Chipped, yellowing paintwork. Dull, deep maroon flock wallpaper peeling in the damp corners. Cracked, bulging ceilings with the inevitable question: is the lathe and plaster about to collapse? The flickering, inadequate lighting adding not much to an already gloomy space. The Bay View Boarding House in Eastbourne, two roads back from the front, did not disappoint. Add the wide shabby desk nestling into a neat alcove, piled high with unattended correspondence, and the description would be almost complete.
Hanging on the wall behind the desk, just above Gloria Dubonnet’s over-permed, blonde, going on ginger heaped up bundle, in seven lines a tall, wide sign simply said, Dinner: Six to Seven. Breakfast: Seven to Eight. Two gongs ten minutes before. One gong five minutes before. It went on to say, Leave by eight-fifteen a.m. SHARP. The sharp in large, bold, bright red capitals. Below that, BB & ED Nine shillings and eleven pence. Under that, Proprietor Gloria Dubonnet.
Look for the gong and it cannot be missed suspended on its tall, ornate dragon pillared stand. Its padded leather beater hanging by a thin strap from a nail loosely banged into the wall. A magnificent oversized lump of brass embossed with a flying dragon. Perhaps one of many made maybe one hundred years ago and probably by a near deaf Victorian craftsman if the deep, resonating bong was anything to go by.
A twenty-five year anniversary falls on the next weekend. Twenty-five years of running the boarding house and coincidentally Gloria’s fiftieth birthday. Will there be a celebration? Absolutely… not. For one thing the fuss. For another, the cost. And therein lays the foundation of her small but extremely viable empire. Cost. Expenditure: minimal. Income: maximum. As she called it, the minimum - maximum equation. A not so secret formula. Take one look around… That first impression and the evidence stacked up high for all to see. She ran a tyrannical establishment.
Her husband, Bernie. A reserved man but possessing quite a bit of style. Straight away she had seen the potential. Had she loved him? Maybe, once a long time ago when they first tied the knot. One thing though: he certainly loved her. Besotted is a good word. Sure, she had seen to that. Gave him everything he wanted to snag him. Seduced him. Beguiled him with her fluttering eyelashes and lithe, trim figure. In those days she was considered something of a goddess. The youthful innocence of a young man escaping the sheltered life of a well off family and extremely gullible. Did she dominate him? Absolutely and remorselessly. That worn out cliche ‘made his life a misery’ well, that did nothing to sum up her regime. In the early years the one thing she had prayed for every single day: his parent’s hotel. When Bernie’s inheritance finally arrived it had been quickly appropriated. Her tempestuous ambition and rapacious attitude saw to that. Coinciding with Bernie’s legacy, if there ever had been any love or affection, it disintegrated. She shoved him way into the background where curiously he seemed happy for her to run the show.
The hotel had begun life catering for the mass holiday market so strong through the twenties and thirties. But the visitors made a constant but understandable fuss. Well to do families demanded smart decor and sound cuisine. A combination Gloria found outrageously sucked at the profits and almost worse, the holidaymakers bothered her for the two whole weeks of their stay. All of them, all summer and sometimes even longer, well into the autumn. Their incessant moaning and screaming kids wore her down there was no doubt about that.
Almost instantly upon taking control the name changed. Hotel became Boarding House. As the name suggested, out with those obnoxious families and in with the short stay, mostly salesmen punters. One or two nights at the only boarding house in town. An all year round clientele. A higher room rate that the punters could claim back as expenses. Minimal maintenance. Cheap food prepared by Derek, a balding, sweaty, weirdly round man who slept in a room off the back of the kitchen. To call him a chef would be a great insult to that profession. There was doubt he even deserved the title cook. To say his relationship with Gloria was strained would stretch the bounds of understatement. She constantly berated him for over-spending. Insisted he work with a piece of string so short it would fail to tie a knot. Why did he endure it? He had nowhere else to go. Here he was fed, housed and paid, not so much, but at least he was paid. And, unfortunately, he lacked the required number of brain cells, a weakness Gloria vigorously exploited.
A niche market, the salesmen. In an era of high public transport use sales reps worked a circuit. Travelling between clients. Staying in boarding houses. And there were the Knockers, of course. Those parasites who trawled the south coast residential areas in the spring, summer and autumn. In their snappy suits with their fast talking spiel and good looks. Their tales of woe and multiple young mouths to feed beguiling housewives. Persuading them to part with a few shillings for a duster or pegs or polish or small items of kitchenware all with the prefix ‘magic’. The magic tin opener. The magic knife sharpener. The magic cleaner which was simply Vim in a seductively shaped bottle with a fancy ‘cleans everything’ label and worth a mere fourpence but with the hefty price tag of one shilling and ninepence. The war years briefly changed her clientele. Salesmen who had gone to war were replaced by servicemen and working girls. That is girls with a reputation. Goodtime girls, there to entertain the troops so to speak. Now, normality had long since resumed and generally girls were not encouraged.
Gloria had the habit of sitting upright on the edge of her seat. It made her look authoritative, or so she thought. Taking a large sip from a moulded glass she picked up her reading glasses and carefully flicked through the black coloured demands before consigning them to the black demand pile that would be recategorised when red demands arrived to be paid on the final day of the seven. She checked the clock leaning against the opposite wall. A tall grandfather with an old oak frame. One of those cheap efforts but with the workings precise to the minute although the chime consisted of nothing but a dispirited dong. At seven-thirty Derek would have cleared away dinner.
The loose front door handle rattled, making her glance that way. An outline of a tall man wearing a trilby grinned through the surprisingly clean stained glass panel set into the top half of the door. The failing sunlight exaggerated the vision and cast a rainbow of colours onto the probably once deep blue carpet trying to brighten it up but failing. The door swung inwards and the man stood in front of the desk. His suit jacket undone. A medium grey cloth with a soft, expensive look about it. Tailored, with five buttons on the cuffs. Gloria noticed the red silk lining. In his right hand he carried a brown suitcase. Not so large but quite deep. In 1955 two main suitcase manufacturers competed for trade. Well, not so much competed as they were miles apart in quality. Each catered for their own particular customers.
First, the famous Beezer case as it was known. An all tough leather construction stained brown with a layered leather handle reinforced corners and strong brass catches. Each with a lock. A nice size. Not too long. Not too short and deep. Popular with professional and posh people as being easy to handle. Fitted well into the overhead rack on the trains. Second, the not so famous but immensely popular W G Clack and Company superbly crafted but very cheap replica made out of thick, tough cardboard. The same brown stain but there was no mistaking the difference. Mr Clack had designed his case especially for the travelling salesman. Identical in size to the Beezer which he had identified as the optimum for carrying sufficient samples or wares. The lightweight Clacker, as the trade termed it, proved perfect for a long walk with maximum contents.
Lifting her chin Gloria peered through her glasses along the length of her nose. The man smiled, brightening his handsome face. Removed the trilby and put down the case. Brushed his hand through his dark brown hair lifting a flattened quiff. Deep brown smiling eyes stared at her. Broad shoulders. She felt a small tremble and, purely out of surprise at experiencing an unaccustomed feeling, inaudibly gasped. How old? Maybe thirty. Nice age, she thought, and what a man. If I were thirty… But sighed and dismissed the thought along with the tremble.
She noticed the case and immediately recognised the connotation. Impressed by his manners she felt obliged to smile back. Not something her fairly attractive face was used to these days. She had smiled frequently at one time. Way before the war. Before the inheritance certainly. Definitely before the screaming brat arrived who had almost disastrously curtailed her ambition. Now a twenty-two year old who lived in the attic. Then war came and in 1940 Bernie went and did not come back.
“Can I help you?” she enquired, hoping the smell of gin would not extend across the desk. She absentmindedly removed her glasses. Patted her hair and freed a couple of strands to hang loose. That was how Bernie liked her hair all those years ago when they were courting. A strand or two hanging loose. So sexy he had said. It had been then that she had fluttered her eyelids and now she smiled at the memory of the intended consequence. Then she coughed and, in the same moment, regretted the bright red lipstick and rouge on her cheeks, aware that sometimes she overdone it to look rather… well, cheap.
“Would you have a room for one night, please?” He talked real slow as though he was reluctant to spit out the words giving the impression that maybe they needed to be dragged from his lips.
“Tonight…” She was going to add we are full. But then glanced at his handsome face, eyes staring at the sign above her head. Dee can share with me. Yes, if she’s snappy she can prepare her room.
“Yes please. If that’s possible.” He stared at the sign and smiled.
“The only room is in the attic. Four floors up. It does have its own bathroom though,” she said, adding what used to be a sweet, beauty queen, smile.
“That’ll be fine and thank you,” he replied. He made no indication if he found her smile disturbing but did think, that was easier than we thought. I did not have to offer her an inducement.
“Can you fill in the register please?” She opened a paper bound book, presented a Parker with a worn, scratchy nib and looked at the name as he wrote, Dexter Carmichael.
“You have just missed dinner, Dexter. There’s usually a plate left though. Would you like chef to prepare something?” Those words surprised her. They were a first.
“That would be perfect, thank you Mrs Dubonnet.”
She caught herself beginning to titter but managed to stop short, and said, “Oh, please, it's Gloria.” And that surprised her some more, particularly the threat of a girlish giggle. Recovering, she continued, “Give me an hour to get the room ready. You can wait in the sitting room. Just across the hall.” She pointed to the buzz of conversation emanating from the partially open door. “I’ll bring you dinner shortly.”
The case looked heavy as he picked it up. She watched him disappear. Rested her chin on her clasped hands deep in thought, A tall, broad, attractive man. Slipped in after hours. Room for one night only. And don’t forget the case, it’s leather and heavy. There’s one more thing: expensive brogues… I wonder what that one’s all about because it sure ain’t selling pegs and toiletries.