Today I am taking part in the blog tour and sharing an extract from The Waitress by Nina Manning, published by Boldwood Books.
Nameless. Faceless. Deadly?
Waitress Kit Lowman knows that people look down on her and the job she does. But being anonymous offers Kit safety and security and allows her own terrible secrets to remain hidden.
And then Kit’s luck changes, and she suddenly faces a terrible dilemma: reveal her true identity and accept that life will never be the same. Or stay in the shadows…where she hopes she’ll be safe?
But secrets can’t stay hidden forever. And the more Kit tries to hide away, the more someone makes it clear that they are going to make her pay for what she did.
I stood at the edge of the broken window as shards of glass crunched under my sandals. I felt a piece slice through my shoe and into my toe – a sharp pain then the slow warm trickle of blood. I welcomed the pain. I had yearned for it. It was a distraction from everything else that I was trying to contend with. But now, finally, there was nothing more to distract me; I knew what it was I needed to do. I was acutely aware of the crowd that was forming beneath me. Were they chanting? Egging me to do it? It was hard to tell; they were so far away, so very far below me. It was funny how my fear of heights had suddenly disappeared. Where I usually felt fear, I now only felt numb.
I took a small step forward and I looked down. My thoughts turned to the line from Peter Pan – ‘To die would be an awfully big adventure’ – the one part of the film that had always struck a chord with me. For here I was, ready to take the step into the unknown. What was waiting for me? What would it feel like? Whatever it – death – was, it had to be better than the alternative. Staying here amongst the madness and chaos.
I could hear the tiny voices of the crowd and I wondered what they were saying. It was all such a blur now. I didn’t need to know. I edged further forward; both of my feet were now teetering over the edge. I surprised myself at how calm I felt; the beginning of the day seemed so far away, and I could no longer recall the steps I had taken to get here. But it didn’t matter any more. Too much had gone on recently. Was this finally the end? Surely I could not survive this next part. Because maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Because maybe this was finally it.
For a brief amount of time, I had been the luckiest girl, now I was standing here, wishing I didn’t exist.
I listened to the voices calling me, telling me to do it. I took a deep breath – heard the crackle of glass under my shoes as a thousand faces from my past and present shot before my eyes. I took one final step, so it was only air between me and the ground. I instantly felt my stomach being pushed into my chest, then I simply floated down.
People look at me and think, she’s just a waitress, but really, I am so much more than that. I hear snippets of conversations, feel the energy from each person around the table, and I can tell if they are happy, sad or anxious. It is me who changes them from hungry to full, from skittish to comfortable. I am there to tend to their every need. Some people would just ignore these facts, and pretend being a waitress is just another job, but waiting tables takes skill, precision, and patience. You must know the exact moment the customer has made their decision and approach the table with a smile, as though you hadn’t just been surreptitiously watching and waiting for the final person to lay their menu down, satisfied with their choices. You need to be aware of when a wine glass has become too low and top it up with finesse and grace, as though you had barely been there, whilst also watching out for a hand over a glass to indicate that person has had enough. Then you wait patiently as they eat their food, looking for a single clue that someone was not entirely satisfied. You can be at their side in a moment, quietly assuring them it is fine for them to send the dish back and you will replace it immediately, and no, they will not be charged for their inconvenience.
I had been an exceptional waitress once.
Now I was just good enough.
Because sometimes we get things wrong. And sometimes we make mistakes.
Her face was pure and angelic. She was smiling. She was always smiling. That was the most appealing thing about her. I mean, who wouldn’t be mesmerised by that winning smile? A real bobby dazzler, my dad would have called her. If he had ever met her. Such a small, tiny thing. Gone far too soon.
Someone cleared their throat and the image of her face that had been dancing in front of me disappeared. She was gone. Again. I wondered when she would return to me.
I looked to my left, to the stranger who was waiting for me to say something, do something. I wasn’t sure what I needed to do. Suddenly I felt self-conscious.
Click-click. A man behind a camera was standing a few feet away, taking my photo. Had he been watching me intently? Had I said anything that might have sounded strange or out of context to him? It was happening more and more, the visits from her, and I let myself get swept away in the illusion, trying to make it feel as real as possible.
I looked at the man next to me again. What was his name? Hendrick. That was it. It was a rare name, not one I had heard before. It made me think about Jimi Hendrix and that Hendrix would have been a better name, more rock and roll. But then this guy didn’t look particularly rock and roll in his navy suit and white shirt. So maybe he was more suited to Hendrick. I could feel myself getting warmer; it was probably just the weather and the fact I had been standing outside in the heat for almost twenty minutes now and I desperately needed a drink. Something to calm my nerves, maybe. Surely there should be some champagne or something; wasn’t that what was supposed to happen at these events, someone pops a comically sized bottle of champagne?
Why was I suddenly feeling as though I couldn’t speak up? Tell this Hendrick dude to hurry up, or better still, fetch the oversized bottle of champagne he must have forgotten he had in the boot of his car. I had always managed to converse articulately enough in front of a small audience; it was part of my job as a waitress, confidence came with the role. It did once, anyway. And as I stood in front of the camera and this stranger, Hendrick, I suddenly felt as though I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I had fantasised about being popular; not necessarily famous, just well-known and respected, yet the reality of the attention was overwhelming, and I could feel a swelling in my head. This was all out of sync; it wasn’t meant to be, surely? There she was again, a tiny glimpse, just dancing in my peripheral vision. I shot around, to catch her full-on, but she disappeared.
‘Are you okay?’ Hendrick asked. I looked at him properly, tried to plump my face into a smile, to look as though I were ready to engage in a normal interaction, so he could see I was just a normal woman, here to receive my prize.
Surely this was it, someone had taken my photo a few times, he was talking, saying something that sounded official, and he was holding a key – another photo opportunity. Click-click. I went to take the key from him. The one that must belong to the grand house that was behind us. The house that I had won and was now the owner of. I nodded my thanks and went to walk away from the glare of the sun and the camera lens that kept catching my eye and making me feel all squirmy inside, back to where I had parked my little blue Fiesta on the driveway. I would bring my overnight bag out, and go inside, perhaps make a cup of tea if there was no sign of alcohol. Why didn’t I think to bring something with me? But Hendrick from the competition company who was hosting this ceremony and who was also my chaperone, grabbed my arm firmly and dragged me backward, almost lost his charming host demeanour for a second, but quickly pulled it back in time as the camera started up again.
‘Hey, Kit, we’re not done yet,’ he said through a painfully inane smile. ‘Now smile.’
I turned to the short stout man behind the camera for what felt like the fiftieth time and put on the happiest face I could muster. ‘It’s not going in the paper or anything, is it?’ I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. The last thing I needed was to start drawing attention to myself. If anything, this win was a blessing in disguise. At least here I could hide away a little; no one could find me if I didn’t want them to.
‘No,’ Hendrick said. ‘Just for the website. To prove to others that people do win these prizes. That it’s not a hoax.’
I had always thought these things were a hoax. That they just advertised these grand prizes but that no one ever won them, that someone just pocketed all the money at the end. But here I was, living proof. Such a shame, I thought. If only this could have happened a year or so ago, I could have been the right person to fully appreciate it. At the very least, the year-ago version of me would have deserved it.
A two-million-pound house would come in handy for someone who was settled with a partner or kids, maybe. But this massive place just for me? I wasn’t sure why the universe had picked me or this time in my life to bestow upon me such an expensive gift. But for whatever reason, I had to accept that it was meant to be. Sometimes things happened that just didn’t make sense. Good things. Bad things. Very bad things.
I wasn’t hard up, that was the important thing to remember. I was doing just fine and had been living on just my waitressing wage. Sure, I relied heavily on the tips, always opting for the evening shifts because people were more generous after a few bottles of wine, but that was the nature of the industry, and anyone who didn’t leave at least 10 per cent of the bill in a restaurant was the devil incarnate as far as I was concerned. Luckily all the restaurants I had ever worked at had been renowned for good tippers. Even Citrus, the one I currently found myself working at. I didn’t relish working there, but it hadn’t been my choice.
I suppose most people would just stop working if they suddenly found out they were the winner of a two-million-pound house – which also came with a cash prize of twenty thousand pounds. Hendrick nudged me, a little too hard, I thought, but as I looked at him, ready to express my frustration at the length of time this was taking, he gestured to the camera.
‘Just one more, please,’ he said and so I pulled my face into something that I thought resembled ecstatic joy.
I thought of all the people who might look at the website and see that image, or one of the many other photos that had been taken, and what they would think. There’s a woman who has nothing to worry about any more. But they would be wrong. Then there were the people who I didn’t want to see the photo. Was this a bad idea? Perhaps I should ask Hendrick if he could stop the photo from getting published anywhere.
Hendrick handed me the key to the house in what he clearly believed to be a dramatic manner and the photographer snapped one final photo before he slung his camera over his shoulder. He mumbled something to Hendrick which I didn’t quite catch, and Hendrick’s face formed into a frown. He nodded quickly and waved the photographer away.
‘Here we are then, Kit Lowman. The place is officially yours.’ Hendrick turned back to me, the wide smile back on his face.
‘Is there something I should sign? Something to say it belongs to me now?’ I asked, still wondering how it was possible for me to not only own a house but for it to be this size.
‘You did all you needed to do when you responded to the initial email and then signed the paperwork we sent you.’
He began rooting around in his man bag. ‘Here is the final paperwork with our signatures.’ He pulled out a large wad of A4 papers; they were clipped neatly together into a large booklet.
‘You’ve probably read it all, I imagine?’
I gave him a blank look. It was too much for me to think about. I had ignored most of it and skipped to the important parts about me being the prize winner and coming here today to accept the prize.
‘No? Oh, okay. You don’t need to read it all tonight.’ He noted my face drop at the sight of so much paperwork. ‘In fact, at all. You have the prize now, it’s all yours.’
Hendrick turned the pages and presented the final one to me.
‘Anything else you need to know is in the emails I sent.’
‘Emails?’ I questioned, thinking of my inbox full of some two thousand unread messages plus spam. I shuddered at the thought. Modern technology, for all its convenience, unnerved me to my core and so I ignored it whenever I could.
‘Yes, check your spam, but most should have gone to your inbox.’
I took a deep breath and scratched my neck; the heat of the day had finally got to me.
‘Look, you can always call me if you need to know anything, don’t look so worried!’
It was mid-June and had been over 25°C for most of the day. I felt a tired warmth wash over me. It was barely 6 p.m. but I was ready for bed. I glanced back at the huge house that I knew hardly anything about, but which was now, apparently, mine. Hendrick had talked with real animation over the phone when he called to tell me I had won.
What I did know was that it was a fourteenth-century mill house, Grade II listed with extensive grounds, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. All the furniture was included, but it was the gardens that had intrigued me the most when I saw them in the photo Hendrick had shown me when I bought the tickets from him. They were enchanting, like something straight out of a fairy-tale book I’d had when I was a child. The front cover depicted a garden scene that was just so similar to the one surrounding this house. When I was younger I had stared at the front cover, imagining myself walking through the garden. Right at the edge of the house stood a willow tree that hung over a small lake with a tiny bridge that took you from one side of the lawn to the other and gave the building its name – Willow Cottage. It stood behind, gazing over the lake like a proud parent. I looked at the lake now, and I wondered just how deep it was.
Hendrick cleared his throat behind me.
‘So, it’s all yours, then.’ He was holding out another set of keys. The actual keys to the property, not the one key he had held up for the sake of a photo. ‘Would you like me to talk you through all the locks?’
I looked at him and wondered if he had someone at home waiting for him. He seemed in a rush.
I shook my head. ‘I’ll figure it out. There’s one for every door I presume?’
Hendrick nodded. ‘Right then, I’ll be off—’
‘Could you just take a photo of me, please?’ I interrupted just before he turned back towards his car in the driveway. I suddenly felt I needed to mark this occasion, with a photograph just for me, that I could keep on my phone and look back on, because that was what you did, wasn’t it? I remembered when I was a child, the sound of a camera clicking and being wound on was a permanent fixture in my memory. My parents captured every school race, every present opened on Christmas morning. They were so proud of me. Amongst the chaos of what my life had become, there was a sliver of an emotion that was driving me to mark the occasion, making me realise I would regret not creating a memory with a photograph. Who knew if one day I would want to look back and remember? Would I see the fear in my eyes, would the image spark something visceral?
‘With the house in the background,’ I added as Hendrick placed all the paperwork and his briefcase on the grass in an awkward manner. I thought about who I would send the photo to and then I felt a sudden wave of sadness as I realised I wouldn’t be sending it to anyone.
‘Sure.’ He took my phone from me, and I pulled myself into another pose that felt just as wrong and uncomfortable. Even after twenty or so photos I still didn’t know how I was supposed to look when I had just won a house.
He handed me my phone back. ‘I took a few. Hopefully, there is one you will like.’
‘Thanks.’ I scrolled through them quickly, searching for the one that showed I was thrilled, that this was where my new life was about to begin. But in each shot, I wore the same tired and worn-out expression, a slight variation of my life’s failures in each image. Then I remembered it didn’t matter how I looked because I wasn’t going to share this win with anyone. But I would keep hold of the photo and maybe one day, not too long from now, I could share this picture and this memory with someone. I still had hope, if nothing else.
Hendrick stooped to pick up his briefcase and then the paperwork, which he handed to me.
‘Thank you.’ I clutched the mound to my chest.
‘Enjoy your new home,’ he said as he turned towards his car. I noticed it was modest: a blue Ford saloon. Why did I presume he would drive something flashier just because he’d handed over a property worth two million to me? I wasn’t entirely sure.
Suddenly he looked back at me. He put his hand inside the breast pocket of his suit jacket and took out his mobile.
‘Actually, let’s swap numbers, in case you need anything, or have any questions.’
‘Okay,’ I said because it seemed a reasonable thing to do. I put my mobile number into his contacts, and he called me straight away. I saved his number under ‘Hendrick – the admin guy’.
We stood for a second and I smiled, wondering if I was supposed to offer him a cup of tea or something. But a lot of my things were still at my flat in Bournemouth. All I had with me here was my overnight bag, with the notion that of course, I would want to stay here straight away. That was what I was supposed to do; I was merely following some sort of hypothetical protocol. There was no one to tell me what to do. This was adulting at its absolute finest. Should I stay in the mansion I had just won or go home to a tiny yet very comfortable flat? Yet there was a part of me that yearned for the security of it. Here was unfamiliar. But that could do me some good; unfamiliarity was a distraction and I desperately needed to distract myself. And of course, I was here now. I could always go back to my seaside flat if I felt at all unsure.
Now I knew Hendrick was going to leave this time, I felt a pang of worry. I would be all alone. But I righted myself quickly. I was not the sort of person to worry about being alone. If anything, this was a test and one I would gladly accept. I needed to find myself amongst all the guilt, remind myself that I was someone who deserved to live. There she was again; every time I began to imagine a life where I could move on, she caught up with me. Why was that, I wondered? Was it because I was never going to be able to forget? I had ruined so many lives. Yet here she was, still flitting around in my peripheral vision, like a guardian angel. But I was not worthy of one of those.
‘I will definitely call you if I need something,’ I told Hendrick firmly, so he knew that this wasn’t just a pleasant exchange of numbers. This was an unusual situation and I had once been a strong independent woman who knew her mind, who knew what she wanted. I never wanted to rely on anyone. I felt a sliver of worry crawl from the pit of my stomach; suddenly, and with remarkable force, it began to paralyse my limbs. I shook my legs out and watched how Hendrick was back at his car in a few strides, throwing his briefcase onto the passenger seat. I wondered what woes he carried, did he have many life regrets, was he bearing a heavy heart? He waved as he drove away and I stood there watching the dust from the gravel swirl in the air and felt jealous of that dust, at how it could be disrupted and then so easily fall and settle somewhere new. This was a good thing, I needed to remind myself. I was thirty-one years old, and I didn’t need anyone to prop me up. I could manage this next episode of my life.
And it was okay if, from time to time, I thought of him, if the images of who he and I were when we had been together occasionally crept into my mind. I didn’t allow myself to hold them there for too long; they were fleeting, sweeping through my mind, resting for a moment where I could almost reach out and touch them before they floated away. And for a few moments afterward, I felt the dull ache of loss, for someone and something that had once saturated my life, that was no more.
THE WAITRESS BLOG TOUR
Follow the tour along the way for these bloggers thoughts on The Waitress.
LET’S GET TO KNOW NINA MANNING
Nina Manning studied psychology and was a restaurant-owner and private chef (including to members of the royal family).
She is the founder and co-host of Sniffing The Pages, a book review podcast.
Her debut psychological thriller, The Daughter in Law, was a bestseller in the UK, US, Australia and Canada. She lives in Dorset.
BOOK TOUR ORGANISER
Thanks to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for my spot on this blog tour and for the promotional materials.