Southern England, 1920
Most of the hotel was Victorian, but an extension was being built now. In the kitchen, men with palms like leather were taking a break. Sea salt lodged in their nostrils. Nye was the youngest and still in his teens.
A loud bang reached Nye's ears. It made him jump and spill his coffee on a kitchen table. He recalled a Krakatoa sized boom and men screaming. One of his colleagues shouted "be careful you stupid boy!"
A young woman came in. Her uniform showed that she was a hotel maid. Seeing the spillage she guessed what had caused it. "Don't worry," she said. "The lifeboat crew are practisin' an' they let off a firework to signal the start."
"Thanks," he said while rubbing a shoulder sore from carrying bricks.
She mopped up brown coffee, then moved on. Then she stopped in her tracks. Someone had wolf whistled her. Turning she saw Nye and other labourers, sitting near pans and scales. The rest of them were leering at her but he wasn't.
"Leave her alone!" Nye snapped. There was a Celtic lilt in his voice, and it was unusual in that area.
Then the hotel manager appeared in a doorway. "A child's gone missing and he's three years old!" the man said. "Come and help to look for him, all of you."
Everyone hurried outside and spread out. Nye scoured the grounds but he couldn't see any toddlers. He heard a lorry drive past. It sounded like it was driving too fast. Near a flowerbed, a woman clung to a man. She was shaking and her cheeks were wet. He held her tight. Fear showed in his eyes. Nye thought that his mother must be feeling like that on his account.
Nye bent to look under a shrub, then felt a sharp pain in his bottom. He cried out and spun round. Another labourer confronted him.
"Why did you do that?" Nye asked.
"You're gettin' off lightly boy! If I had my way you'd be shot."
Nye's mouth dried up and cold sweat wet his forehead. "I'm not a deserter!" He snapped. "I told you i was too young to be called up."
"We've only your word for that. Who are you, Nye ap Morgan? We don't know you from Adam."
They were distracted by sounds of crying, then a female voice, slow and gentle. "There there there," she said. "Everthing's all right now."
Nye turned and saw a chambermaid walking down the drive, skirt swishing around her legs. It was she who had been wolf whistled. She carried a small boy, clearly the one who had got lost. He looked around wide eyed, then pointed and cried "Mummy, Mummy!" His mother cried out, ran up to him and took him off the maid. Mummy pressed him against her as if she would never let him go. "Oh darling!" She sobbed. "Oh my angel, I'm so glad to have you back." She laughed with relief and kissed him over and over again. Nye lost count of how often she did so. Her little boy wrapped both arms around her neck. Had it been dark his mother's smile could have lit the whole town. The father pounded up and engulfed his family in a hot embrace, strong yet sweet. He thanked the maid, then gave his son a cuddle.
Members of staff returned to their duties, passing wicker chairs and potted plants. Smells of bacon lingered in the kitchen. Nye and the chambermaid walked side by side, towards outside walls painted white.
"You're not from round 'ere are you," she said. "Where are you from?"
He felt startled by her forthright tone. Then he replied "I'm from Wales."
"Which part of Wales? How come you're working 'ere?"
Nye tensed. Could he trust her? How much should he say? "Jobs are hard to come by," he answered. "I had to take what I could get."
"Well that's true Mr..... oh sorry we havn't been introduced."
"My full name is Aneurin Ap Morgan, but friends call me Nye."
"Cathy Bladen." She looked at him with lively eyes, bright as winter swans. The corners of her mouth turned upwards. "Well Mr Morgan, if you need someone to show you around I'd be happy to do it."
"Yes thanks, that's very good of you."
They passed a circular flowerbed, pale yellow and deep pink. Gulls called above them and sounded like squeeky gates. Cathy bared white teeth, said "meet me round the back at eight," then returned to her duties.
One of the waiters paused, then asked "are you sure you can measure up to her?"
Nye didn't know how to react. What was that man talking about? The manager ordered both of them back to work before he could ask. He recalled the family Cathy had reunited. He envied them but also thought how good it must feel to help someone that way.
Next day at lunchtime, Nye settled down at the kitchen table. He felt an itch on his left ankle where a bedbug had bitten him. He pulled a boot off, tossed it aside and scratched the spot.
Then someone shouted "who left this in my way?" Nye looked up and saw a waiter glaring at him. This man held up Nye's boot. "You left it right in front of the door and I nearly fell over it!" the waiter bellowed. He shoved the offending footwear into Nye's hands. "Don't ever do that again, I could've dropped a tray full of glasses if I'd fallen over it."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry Mr...."
"Millward, James Millward," the waiter replied. He marched away past small pots of jam that looked like edible gemstones. Nye turned red and clenched his buttocks. Only the thought of meeting Cathy raised his mood.
To be continued