“When did you come to the Chatsworth?”
I looked up from the screen of my computer, where I’d been lost in a revision. There was an elderly woman with a cane sitting halfway across the room. Had she spoken to me?
“Are you here at the Chatsworth?” she asked again.
So I replied, saying I’d just come by the hotel for some afternoon coffee.
“I came for New Years. I come here every year, for the last ten or eleven years now. It’s a great place. I met my friend here two years ago walking through the swinging door!” She gestured into the reception area where a white-haired gentleman was chatting with the concierge. “I have my same room, they always put me in the same room. And he has his same room that he always stays in. But we like the same things. Two years ago, I was at my table, my same table as always, Table 4. I also have the same number room, not 4 but a different number. There was a group of people at another table who saw that I was alone at my table and they invited me to join them. I was just going to get up to go to their table, when the staff told me not to. They brought Tom over to sit with me. We like the same things and we’ve been friends since then. This year, he went with me to my daughter’s for Christmas, and then we came here for New Years.”
Then she lowered her voice to an almost-whisper. “He’s a lot younger than me, though, 20 years!” And she smiled a clever smile.
I finally got a word in edgewise to ask her where she lives and discovered she only lives a couple of miles away. Then she started telling a story about a young man she met in Vienna, years ago. He wanted to come to the UK to study English but he couldn’t because the place where he had been accepted told him not to come back because he talked during the cricket match. As she chattered away, I found this little detail ironic. So from when he was 15 until he was 25, he came and spent the holidays every year with her and her family.
Wilhelm, or Willy as she called him, had trouble with his mother. She didn’t want him to marry the woman she loved. So my new friend explained that she had told Willy to say to his mother, “Mother, this is the woman I love. I am going to marry her, and I trust you will grow to love her one day, too.” And Willy followed that advice, and they are eternally grateful to this woman. “And you know who took care of his mother when she was ill? Yes, his wife did.”
She continued to explain that her late husband had wanted to dictate who their children married but she wouldn’t let him. “It is their choice, and it is they who pay the consequences. I told him to remember that we struggled against our parents, too. His mother had someone chosen for him, and my parents had a rich farmboy chosen for me. But we loved each other so we got married. It was our choice, and it was our daughters’ choice.”
As fascinating as this conversation was, my productive streak of revision had been broken, so I took the last sips of my coffee and packed up my laptop to leave. She asked me how old I think she is, that I should guess. I refused to guess – I’m afraid I had no clue whether she was 65, 75, 85 or 95… So she told me her age – definitely near the upper end of that range – and asked me if she looks that old. I had to tell her that she, indeed, does not.
She started telling me about some time she had spent in hospital and that she’d had heart surgery, when Tom walked back in and she introduced us. She was pleased to learn that he and I live in the same city – London. Although Tom quickly realised that we live on opposite sides of the city.
Then she asked my name and I told her. Her name is Kathleen, and she goes by Kate, so we have something in common. “My father was listening to a band playing that song that talks about Kathleen, so that was my name!” She reached out an arm to draw me to her so that she could give me a kiss on either cheek. I told her and Tom that, sincerely, it had been a privilege to meet them, and maybe I’d see them again next year at New Years. I might stop by the Chatsworth on the first of next year just to see if they are there!
Hotel website: http://www.chatsworthworthing.co.uk/