I smiled in anticipation as I pulled up in front of the Little Stables Tearoom and dismounted. I was already imagining the wonderful aroma of fresh baking and the warm atmosphere of happy customers talking and laughing that would envelop me as soon as I entered the tearoom. But when I stepped through the front door, I was met by an empty dining room, with only one
solitary elderly gentleman at a table in the corner.
Faltering to a stop, I looked around in surprise and dismay. What’s going on? After letting Muesli out of her carrier, I pushed through the swinging baize door behind the counter and stepped into the kitchen. There, I found my baking chef Dora bent over the large wooden table in the centre of the room, her arms covered in flour up to the elbows as she busily flattened a large slab of dough
with a rolling pin.
“Oh hullo, Gemma,” she said, glancing up distractedly. “I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you.”
I gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry! I over-slept.” I glanced over my shoulder and lowered my voice. “Dora, why is the tearoom so empty?”
Dora straightened and gave a helpless shrug. “I don’t know. Mr Prendergast is the only person who’s come in all morning.”
“The only one?” I said in horror. “But… but I don’t understand… Where is everyone?”
Dora gave another shrug, then said in a hesitant voice. “Actually, it was like this yesterday as well… and the day before, remember? Although things did seem to pick up a bit as the day went on,” she added quickly.
I bit my lip, my stomach churning suddenly with anxiety. Dora was right. Things had been very quiet all week, although I had been trying to ignore it, telling myself that fluctuations were the norm in the hospitality business.
“It’s probably nothing,” said Dora, seeing my expression. “It might just be coincidence, you know. Maybe a lot of people have gone away on holiday at the same time or… or maybe one of the tour bus companies is having a break this week…”
“It still doesn’t make sense,” I said, frowning. “Have there been any complaints that I’m not aware of? Any customers who were really unhappy about something?”
Dora shook her head. “You’d have to ask Cassie to be sure since she does most of the serving, but I haven’t heard anything. I certainly haven’t seen any plates returned to the kitchen.”
I sighed, then reached for one of the tearoom aprons hanging from a hook on the kitchen wall. “Well, I’d better go out and check that Mr Prendergast is okay, otherwise we might lose the only customer we have!”
Back in the dining room, I found Muesli curled up in her favourite spot on the window seat overlooking the high street and Mr Prendergast leaning back in his chair, engrossed in a newspaper, while an empty teacup and plate sat on the table in front of him. A retired accountant, Mr Prendergast had been recently widowed and claimed that our scones were just like the ones his wife used to make. Thus,
he came almost every day to sit at the same table and do the crossword in the daily paper, while enjoying a cup of tea and some home baking. I was glad to see that we were still part of his daily routine, and I gave him a bright smile as I went over to collect his empty plate and teacup.
“Good morning, Mr Prendergast. Everything all right with your order?” I asked casually.
“Hmm? Ooh yes, marvellous. Nothing like fresh homemade crumpets slathered with butter and honey,” said Mr Prendergast, making a lip-smacking noise. He lowered his newspaper and glanced around the dining room, then observed, “A bit quiet here this morning, isn’t it?”
I flushed slightly. “Yes, I suppose it is a bit.”
“Must be that new place that everyone’s gone off to,” he said.
I stared at him. “New place?”
“Yes, you know—down by the Cotswolds Manor Hotel, on the other side of the village. Haven’t you seen it?”
I shook my head. I had been so busy at work that I’d barely had any free time and when I did, I usually went straight home.
“Don’t fancy the look of it myself,” continued Mr Prendergast, “but young people like these fancy new places, don’t they? Calls itself a ‘tea bar’ and menu’s full of odd food and tea cocktails! Bah! What’s a ‘tea cocktail’, I ask you?” he said, his moustache bristling. He looked down at his empty cup and gave an emphatic nod. “A good cup of tea is brewed dark and strong, with milk and sugar—or a
slice of lemon—but nothing else!” He smiled at me. “And there’s no better cup of tea than what one can get here at the Little Stables.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, flushing again but this time with pleasure. “That’s really kind of you to say.”
“It’s no more than the truth,” he said gruffly. Folding his newspaper, he stood up and added, “Well, I’d best be off. If you could let me have the bill, my dear…?”
A few minutes later I stood at the tearoom doorway and watched Mr Prendergast’s erect figure walk, with almost military bearing, down the high street. My eyes followed him, but my mind was busy going over what he had told me. A new ‘tea bar’ on the other side of the village? Could that be the reason business had slumped so much lately?
(sneak peek from first draft of Wrongfully Infused: Oxford Tearoom Mystery Book 11 - coming soon!)