When Maggie Mathews’ husband died, she had no idea what she was going to do. They had owned a small flower shop near Withington Road but he had always taken care of the day-to-day running of the shop and she had been in charge of the business side. She was a strong woman but the loss of her husband hit her hard and she found running the shop too much in her grief. The debts mounted and she found that she did not enjoy dealing with customers like her husband had and eventually decided to shut the shop.
She sold the property which included the flat above where she and her son lived. They had lived there for so long that it had risen substantially in value and she managed to make enough money from the sale to pay off all her debts and was left with a modest amount that would allow her to start over. Manchester held too many memories for her and she wanted to move somewhere far away and looked into living abroad.
After discussing it with her young son, she eventually left England and opened a hostel on one of the smaller islands in Thailand that was not yet well known but was becoming more popular.
After a few years the hostel had become a favourite with travellers but it had also attracted some long-term residents, many of whom worked online as writers or developers. Maggie was an imposing presence in the hostel but she also knew how to read people. She was able to impose her will when necessary but she also knew when to relax and the long-term residents liked and respected her.
The residents got to know each other very well and Maggie learned a lot about the Internet and social media and they helped her promote her hostel online.
Ben Mathews, Maggie’s son, was now a young man of seventeen and worked as a tour guide, taking guests out to snorkelling sites around the island on their long-tail boat. He was handsome, with thick dark hair and a jawline that looked like it had been carved by a sculptor. His eyes, a brilliant shade of blue, did his laughing for him, his mouth rarely forming more than a slight smile.
He attracted the attention of many of the young girls on their gap years who stayed at the hostel. Maggie was a careful observer and protective of her son but she could tell that these girls were not serious about him and that he was not serious about them. He found them to be fun on occasion but preferred to spend his time reading T. S. Eliot and Haruki Murakami and was quickly bored by their talk and drunken nights out. He kissed one or two of them but he had a romantic soul and it never went further than that as it was never quite right.
Then Maggie heard a rumour that there was something going on between Ben and one of the long-term residents. She watched them carefully for a while which confirmed her suspicions and so she decided to talk to the resident about it.
It was a Friday in May with a day that promised high temperatures that would be tempered by a fresh breeze coming in from the ocean. The windows of the hostel were open and the ceiling fans gently hummed through the house. Outside on the beach couples and small groups of friends wandered backwards and forwards, laughing and talking on the pale yellow sand.
Breakfast was finished and the guests had left the dining room and she sat in the corner in one of the armchairs. Maggie looked at the clock on the wall. It was ten forty-five. She wanted to talk to Emily before she had to deal with the check-outs and check-ins of the early afternoon.
Emily was in her mid-thirties and Maggie knew that she was not serious. She had also seen that Ben had fallen deeply in love with her and that this was going to be his first heartbreak. She decided that this relationship needed to stop as soon as possible. As far as Maggie saw there was only one way out of this: Emily needed to break it off, tell Ben that she had never loved him so that he would not keep any hope, and leave the island for good.
Emily was a popular travel writer with a large audience. She had written for major websites, newspapers, and magazines and she had a strong reputation. She was a careful, thoughtful woman. If it had been Isabel or one of the backpacker girls it would have been much harder but she knew that Emily was careful about her reputation and would not wish to face the publicity.
Upstairs, Emily was in her room trying to write as she had a deadline on the following Monday but was finding it hard to concentrate. She had been struggling with her work for a few weeks as she had noticed that Maggie had not been as friendly towards her and she now suspected that Maggie knew about her and Ben.
She wondered if Jen had told her. Jen herself claimed not to indulge in idle gossip but she had made no secret of her disdain for Emily’s behaviour. Yesterday, when she was making a cup of tea in the kitchen, Jen had been there telling a story to Isabel of an older celebrity in Hollywood who had started dating a young musician. She said that she thought it was disgusting and she had talked loudly in order that Emily might hear it. It had made Emily uncomfortable.
This memory caused her to recall the night a month ago when she had drunk too much and confessed the affair to Isabel and Jen, who she thought she could trust. Isabel was Spanish and romantic and thought that it was wonderful and had been happy for her friend. Jen had not been so supportive and had drawn out many details and the more details that she heard, the less approving she was. Jen behaved exactly as Emily had feared that people would, and it showed her the kind of scorn that the relationship might generate, especially on the Internet where people revelled in their outrage and moral judgements and would not be shy at making their feelings known.
After that, Emily became afraid of the details getting out. All of her long years of writing for almost no money and building up her reputation to the point where she could actually make a living from her work might all be lost if she handled this badly. As a younger woman, she would have fought it, of course, using it as a rallying cry against outdated thinking and hypocrisy but as she had got older, she had developed a more conservative readership and it was her popularity with them that helped her get writing commissions with the magazines and newspapers.
She had seen what online public shaming could do to people and she could easily see some of her peers and jealous rivals gossiping about the affair and encouraging the judgements about her. Although she could count on the support of some of her more liberal-minded friends, it was likely that she would lose many important commissions.
As she sat at her desk not writing she wondered what she should do. She thought about running off with Ben but could not decide if she really loved him. She enjoyed his literary pretensions but often found his teenage soliloquies about the state of the world naive and boring. But he was adventurous and curious and had a youthful vigour and an insatiable desire that made her feel young and attractive.
She remembered the first late night conversations she had had with him, relaxed from the bottles of Singha she had drank, talking earnestly about literature and laughing about the drunken escapades of the other guests. She remembered him nervously leaning closer to her as they sat next to each other on the common area couch and the reluctance he had shown when it was time to go to their separate beds. Then one night a few days later she had answered the door and he had said that he wanted to borrow a charger for his phone as his had been lost when he had taken it out on the boat. She had been dressed only in a pair of blank panties and a vest top as it was so hot. He was only wearing a pair of board shorts and she noticed that his chest and arms—usually hidden by loose t-shirts—were well defined from all of his work on the boat. She remembered the overreaching touch he had made when she handed the cable to him, the gentle stroke of his fingers against hers.
After that, she would wait up for him on nights when he returned late after a visit to the mainland, preparing him a simple dinner in the hostel kitchen. She would be ready with a towel and a change of clothes on the days when the heavy rains of the wet season would leave him as soaked as if he had fallen into the ocean.
On these nights they would sneak upstairs together on tiptoes, stifling giggles as their hands grew more adventurous in the hallways, and she would lead him to her room which was on the second floor and was furthest away from the walls of his mother’s room.
Maybe, she thought, there was a chance for them. Her instincts were to run away with him but then her older self reminded her of the age difference, of how much growing he had yet to do and how his feelings to her might change as they got older.
She went downstairs to fetch a glass of water to try to calm herself and focus on her writing. At the bottom of the stairs she passed Jen who eyed her cooly. Before she entered the dining room she turned and saw Jen at the top of the stairs staring at her with a sneering smile on her face.
When she entered the dining room, she saw Maggie sitting there.
“Emily? Could I have a word?” Said Maggie.
She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined being taken far away from here, where she would not have to have this conversation and where she would not have to deal with the emails and messages and articles and judgement of the entire world but when she opened them she was still in the hostel.
She went over and sat down on the chair next to Maggie.
Ben was lying on his bed reading a novel by Donna Tartt when he heard a knock at his door. Emily entered and he smiled with his eyes like he always did when he saw her but this time he could see in the pained expression on her face that something was wrong.
“Ben,” she said. “We need to talk.”
He looked at her and waited for what he didn’t want to hear.