Book Reviews

You’re Invited: The Guest House by Robin Morgan Bentley

I read Robin Morgan Bentley’s The Wreckage in 2020 (you can read it here!) and couldn’t resist giving you a taste of this new novel!

update: I have had to rewrite this post four times, and now that it’s finally visible to all, I am grateful for the WordPress team, and I can only apologize to Tracy and Morgan for the blog hiccup.

First, let’s see what The Guest House is about!

KEEP YOUR FAMILY SAFE.
WHATEVER THE COST…

Jamie and Victoria are expecting their first baby.

With a few weeks to go, they head off for a final weekend break in a remote part of the North Pennines. The small and peaceful guesthouse is the ideal location to unwind together before becoming parents. Upon arrival, they are greeted by Barry and Fiona, the older couple who run the guesthouse. They cook them dinner and show them to their room before retreating to bed themselves.

The next morning, Jamie and Victoria wake to find the house deserted. Barry and Fiona are nowhere to be seen. All the doors are locked. Both their mobile phones and car keys have disappeared. Even though it’s a few weeks early, Victoria knows the contractions are starting.

The baby is coming, and there’s no way out.

Saturday, 6 March, 7.43 a.m.

I am woken by an electric surge in my lower back and grasp my swollen belly. I look down and see ghastly floral bed sheets. The pillow is so soft and thin that it may as well not be there. For months I’ve lain awake, imagining this new pain dormant in my body, threatening to emerge and take hold of me. Now it’s here and I’m in someone else’s bed. The ache runs deep, pierces sharp and subsides quickly.

Jamie is snoring next to me, louder than usual, like the call of a lighthouse, periodically interrupted by a snort and a gasp. I think about waking him but decide not to raise an alarm yet. It may be nothing and my husband has a tendency to panic.

A strip of daylight flares at the opening between the curtains a couple of feet to my right. I sit up and stretch over to draw them apart. There are fields and fields of pale green, undulating hills for as far as I can see. Patches of grass are covered with sheaths of silvery white ice. There are no other houses in sight and the only sign of life is a small cluster of birds, swooping in perfect unison from one side of the pane to the other. The single, narrow, winding road cutting through the hills is silent, untouched perhaps since we drove down it last night – the final stretch on our epic seven-hour drive from London to the North Pennines.

There would be complete quiet in the guest house were it not for the groaning wind forcing its way through cracks in the stone walls and wood-panelled ceilings. Its moans, rising and falling, are punctuated every few seconds by a rattle or a squeal. The ebb and flow of wind is continuous, like white noise, and I try to focus on the sound, anchoring myself on its constancy to calm me.

I ease myself up, grimacing as I inch my feet out of the bed and onto the carpet, then use both hands on the bedside table to lift the rest of my body. My feet are so hot, swollen and sticky that when I reach the bathroom, the chill of the tiles is refreshing. I lower myself onto the toilet, close my eyes and cherish the relief. I stay seated for a while and read a note above the sink that ‘the wet wipes we have provided are for the bin, not the toilet :)’. I use a couple, drop them between my legs and flush. I’ve always been tempted by small acts of rebellion.

The owners have made a cursory attempt to be fancy, the hand soap decanted into a dispenser with a terrazzo effect and a small tube of hand cream perched on the windowsill, but the bath itself is in need of a good scrub, with black mould around the edges. I sniff and mildew prickles the back of my throat, then I haul myself up, rinse my hands and waddle back across the cold tiles and into the bedroom.

Jamie stirs and blows me a kiss from the bed but keeps his eyes shut. As I stand, I clutch the bottom of my belly and push in with my fingers, one by one, testing for more pain.

Judging by the frost on the grass and the condensation on the windows, it must be freezing outside, but I feel like I can almost see steam pumping out of the radiators and the heat of my own body is overwhelming. I don’t know what to do with my hands and a bead of sweat itches down the back of my head and onto my neck. I need some fresh air.

I hold on to the wall as I edge towards the large sash window by my side of the bed. Placing both hands in the middle, I use all of my might to push upwards, clenching my jaw and shaking as I push, but it’s not budging. I’m starting to feel dizzy and as I pace around the room looking for a key, I can hear myself panting.

‘Jamie, Jamie, wake up. Sorry, I wanted to let you sleep, but I’m dying here. We need to open a window.’

Jamie sits up with a start, his mouth hanging open, his eyes still sticky.

‘What’s wrong? Is it Shrimpy?’

Shrimpy is the pet name for our unborn son, because he looked like a prawn on the first scan. We’ve already picked a name for when he arrives, but Jamie is consumed by a superstition that it’s bad luck to refer to him by that name until he’s out of the womb, so we stick to ‘the baby’,

‘Shrimpy’ or ‘the little guy’ for now. I think it’s all a bit puerile.

‘No, I’m fine. The baby’s fine. It’s just boiling in here and the windows are all locked.’ Jamie rubs his eyes, stands up and heads round the bed towards the window, squeezing past me in just his boxer shorts. He tries to open it from the bottom.

‘It’s locked, Jamie. I just said that.’

‘OK, no need to snap at me,’ he snaps at me, while still trying to haul it up.

He gives up, bent over with his hands palms down on the faded white sill. He looks back at me and breathes out deeply.

‘The owners said they’d be up early to make breakfast. I’ll go downstairs and ask them for a key. I’ll get you some water, too.’

Jamie picks up his T-shirt and jeans from last night, still on the floor, flings them on, heads out of the room and closes the door behind him. I sit on the bed, listening to the clack of his feet on the stairs. I bite the nail on my right thumb, too low, and it stings. This is it, I know it.

The nearest hospital must be miles away, tiny, and I don’t have my notes with me. I touch my belly. Does it feel more tender than usual?

When Jamie bursts back into the room, he’s out of breath.

‘They must still be asleep. There’s no one downstairs.’

I sigh and look past Jamie towards the bedroom door, which is ajar.

‘I’m just going to go out through the front door and stand outside for a bit. Can you pass me some clothes? I can’t bend down.’

Jamie hands me his red Adidas hoodie and my favourite tracksuit bottoms, just about the only ones that I can still heave onto my body right now, and I sit on the bed and strain to pull them up. He watches me and I wish he’d look away. I glance down at my own body and feel disgusted by it. It’s not that I didn’t expect my body to change, but I never actually pictured what I’d look like in the flesh, without clothes on, so stark and bulging and marked.

When I look down, I feel detached from myself, like I’m looking at images of someone else’s body. Jamie says that he’s never felt as attracted to me as he does now, in this late stage of pregnancy. That as much as he’ll cherish the arrival of our first child, he’ll miss this body. But he doesn’t have to live with it, inhabit it, squeeze it into clothes that are getting progressively tighter, experience the surprises of a body that’s constantly changing, morphing into something increasingly unfamiliar. We haven’t had sex for months because I feel so undesirable. He’s given up trying.

I sit on the edge of the bed, slip my feet into trainers, and Jamie helps me with the shoelaces. I stand and reach beneath the hoodie to wipe away a strip of sweat between my belly and my boobs.

‘I’m not going anywhere. I just need some air.’

I head out of the room and venture carefully down the steep wooden stairs, which feel treacherous as I can’t see my own feet. I take small steps, holding on to the banister, feeling my way down. The walls are covered in paintings and prints, ornaments and photo frames, so crowded that there are only glimpses of the navy wallpaper underneath.

Someone has made a real effort to make the décor quirky: a portrait of a Jack Russell in a top hat and bow tie, a framed film poster celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Grease, a black-and-white photograph of a baby with curly hair, grinning from ear to ear.

At the bottom of the stairs, I head for the front door and tug at the large gold handle, but it doesn’t move. I pull and I pull but it’s locked and there doesn’t seem to be a way to open it without a key. I can feel my pulse quickening, the sting of my eyes welling.

I stumble into the kitchen and try the back door, but that is also shut. I start opening every drawer and cupboard, desperate to find a key and a way out, and when Jamie comes up behind me and grabs my right shoulder, I let out a sharp gasp.

‘What are you doing? Just relax. I’ll go upstairs and knock on their door. Their room is the one just opposite ours.’

I try to push past him.

‘Don’t tell me to relax. All the bloody doors are locked. I need some fresh air.’

Jamie puts his arm out and blocks my way.

‘Please, let’s not argue here. They’ve obviously just locked up before going to bed. I’ll go and find them. It’s not a big deal.’

‘Hello?’ I hear him shout as he heads up the stairs.

‘It’s not even eight o’clock yet, Jamie. You can’t just wake them up.’

He doesn’t acknowledge me and shouts louder.

‘Hello? Is anybody there?’

I can hear him trying doors, one by one, pressing the handles down and then knocking, his bangs and shouts gathering momentum as he finds each consecutive one to be locked.

‘Hello?’

I walk to the kitchen sink and turn on the cold water, testing the temperature with my hand before leaning right down and lowering my head into the hard, cool jet. Relief.

But then the pain comes again and this time it’s stronger – a tornado of white heat building in pressure from the base of my spine. I pull away from the tap, arch my back and place my hands on the sink.

When Jamie comes rushing in, his cry of concern merges with the sound of the water still crashing into the sink, distorted, blurred, distant. He rubs my back and at some indeterminate moment, the pain subsides.

Jamie asks the question, as if there’s any doubt, as if he needs the confirmation.

‘What’s going on, Victoria? Is it . . . are you?’

I turn round, craning my neck, and as our eyes meet, I feel the sting of forming tears.

‘Contractions,’ I whisper between breaths. ‘I’m in labour.

Danny’s coming.’

AND now, if you want to know more, all you have to do is click on the link!! Get your copy of The Guest House!

Thank you to Tracy for inviting me to be part of the tour!

2 thoughts on “You’re Invited: The Guest House by Robin Morgan Bentley”

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