30/10/17 - Short Story: Dead End

     The emergency light for Room 18 has been blinking red on the reception desk for the last eleven rows of my knitting.  A guest has got trapped in their bed again.  It happens all the time, particularly to Yanks.  They got distracted halfway through my welcome speech, insisting on snapping photos of each other posing in front of the foyer’s picture window with its impressive view of the ruins.  A loud couple, her with a lurid bum-bag and him with a camera lens so big he must be compensating for something.  I had to stand there, their key outstretched and my voice trailing off as it became apparent that they were no longer paying any attention.  Eventually they remembered they were only halfway through the checking-in process and I was able to give them the customary health and safety tips.  Even when they deigned to listen to me, it was clear that they felt I was wasting their time.  They just wanted to get up to their room and see what all the fuss is about.  I finally gave them their key and he wheeled their supersize suitcase towards our rickety lift, while she paused and rummaged in the bag at her waist for a moment, pulling out a crumpled five pound note.  Immediately my mood lightened.  Maybe she’s not so bad.  They’re just tourists after all, they don’t know any better.  She eyed me carefully and then slowly and deliberately changed her mind.
     “Oh, sorry, I forgot that y’all don’t really do that here.  Silly of me.”  The tip slid back into the hot pink pouch and I had to force a gracious smile to stop myself from leaping over the reception desk and ripping her stupid tanned throat out.  

     So now I was in no rush to rescue them.  This is precisely why we brief every guest, and if they weren’t listening then that isn’t my fault.  There’s always someone who gets stuck.  The lids aren’t even that heavy.  There’s a knack to finding the right bit to push and how hard to push it to get out.  With the oldies, it’s fair enough.  I can’t begrudge little Doris who’s come on a coach from Llandudno accidentally letting the lid close and then not being able to get out.  If that were the case, I’d have sent Jeremy up there as soon as the light had started flashing.  On this occasion, I was happy to let him finish his sandwich first.
     Five rows later and I’m tangled, trying to seamlessly mask the start of a new ball of wool and failing miserably.  Jeremy has emerged from the office, smacking his lips and depositing his ball of foil in the bin at my feet.  He taps Room 18’s light and looks at me.
     “I told you, didn’t I?” I say.  I had predicted that they’d need saving at least once before the entertainment started in the dining room and as usual, my suspicion was correct.  I’ve only been back a few months and I’m already falling into all the old routines.
     Jeremy nods and makes his slow way across the threadbare carpet that scarcely covers the floorboards of the foyer towards the stairs.  Although you’d think his limp would discourage him from a lot of walking, he’s too tall to squeeze into the lift.  The creaking could either be our ancient floorboards or his ancient knees.  I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know Jeremy and for all of that time he has seemed impossibly old.  To a child, anyone over the age of thirty seems ridiculously decrepit but when I look at photos of my childhood Christmases and Halloween events at the hotel, Jeremy looks exactly the same as he does today.  Exactly the same as his father’s father, the first caretaker of the hotel back when Mum’s grandfather left the funeral home under a scandalous cloud to start what is now the family business. 

     Every corridor is lined with photographs of the hotel.  Ornate frames tarnished with age display images ranging from sepia to simple monochrome and into tentative colour more recently.  In most, a row of smiling faces stand on the gravel as the building behind them gets more and more dilapidated as the years wear on.  It never used to be as ramshackle as it is now.  The first photo has been blown up and the reproduction hung above the fireplace in the drawing room, where guests retire for a drink after dinner.  It shows the hotel on the day of its grand opening back in 1923.  My great-grandparents have the grave expressions typical of photographic subjects of the time.  Jeremy’s grandfather stands at one end of the line, his height casting a shadow over the face of the housekeeper stood next to him.  The hotel looks resplendent and it’s hard to imagine it in all its former glory when I look around at the peeling wallpaper and the dull scratched surface of the wood panelling.  The guests don’t seem to mind.  Dad claims that the slightly run-down look adds character.  I think it’s just too much hassle to get someone in to do the place up.  We couldn’t afford to lose the business a renovation would cost us, and Grandma would cast herself off the cliffs if we dared change any of the building’s original features.

     Working here never used to be this bad, I’m sure it didn’t.  It was only the school holidays, with the occasional weekend when we were particularly busy.  The temporary nature of it made it easier to bear.  When I was a kid, it was merely an inconvenience – something that kept me from running around the grounds pretending to be a pirate or hiding in my wardrobe with a torch and a pile of books.  When I was a teenager, it was harder.  I’d finally managed to make some friends and it was tough to be missing endless shopping trips and sleepovers.  I couldn’t help but worry that the girls might get bored of me if I was never around.  But even then, even on the days when I would sulk behind the desk and Grandma would tell me off for scowling at guests, I knew that it was only for now.  As soon as I went to university, I’d be gone without a backward glance.  That’s when I’d make up for all the lost summers and all the adventures I never got to have.  And that’s exactly what happened.  For a while.  

     The ruins look particularly bleak on grey days like this.  The clouds are heavy in the sky, the rain unrelenting.  I can see little rainbow spots as tourists in primary coloured cagoules explore the remains of the Abbey.  There aren’t too many of them today.  It’s partly the weather, which tends to drive all but the most hardcore into the pubs and tea rooms of the town, and partly the time of year.  As you might expect, the summer is our peak season but we also do roaring trade around the end of October.  Halloween pilgrimages are common and our rooms sell out months in advance for the famous Goth Weekends, although the one in November tends to be more popular than the one in April.  And of course we go all out.  We have to, it’s what people expect.  We have an excellent reputation to maintain.  Some of the other attractions are a little tacky and the locals look down on them.  The tour guides wearing their joke shop plastic teeth, the clich├ęd souvenirs – “My sister-in-law went vampire-hunting and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!”  We, at least, have the cache of over eighty years of legitimate trading behind us.    We have a lot to thank the Goth community for.  And there’s nowhere else doing what we do.

     There’s a soothing rumble of voices coming from the drawing room.  We’ve got a group in from the Northern Irish Gothic Literature Association and they’ve spent most of their time drinking endless pots of tea while reading passages aloud and then discussing the intricacies of the text.  A couple of times, I’ve had to abandon my post at the desk in order to mediate debates which have escalated into slanging matches.  You wouldn’t believe how het up these literary types can get when someone dares to question the validity of their argument about the portrayal of religion within the canon of Victorian poetry.  I can’t help but respect anyone who cares so much about something like that.  The only thing I’ve ever cared about with that sort of passion was getting away from Whitby and my parents.  Look how well that worked out for me.  Jeremy’s just delivered them a fresh brew and before he heads back into the office to take up his customary seat, he places a mug of coffee on the desk at my elbow.  He sets it carefully on the black lace doily which acts as a coaster and pauses for a moment as though he’s about to speak.  I wait expectantly although I know he’ll move off without a word.  He does, and I turn my attention back to my half-hearted attempt at a scarf.  Grandma taught me to knit before I could even ride a bike, back when her curls were as dark as mine.  We spent hours sat right here behind this desk, me perched on her lap with her arms around me and hands in front of my face as she demonstrated each kind of stitch and how to recover if you made a mistake.  Sometimes Mum would come and join us, coffee mug in hand and ignoring Dad’s sharp words as she left him to deal with the piles of paperwork which cover the office. 
     “Your mother used to be able to knit,” Grandma would tell me, her fingers – bony even then – working deftly as she glanced up at Mum.  “Didn’t you, Mina?”  
     “There’s a lot of things I used to be able to do.”  Mum would take a sip of coffee before retreating back to helping Dad.

     It’s a shame about the weather.  The walkers will be really disappointed when they come back later, cold and mud-spattered.  When they’d set off early this morning, waving cheerily to me on their way past the desk, the sky had been blue with only a couple of clouds.  It wasn’t exactly warm but it looked as though they were going to have a nice day for it.  They had just marched out the main door when the family from Room 12 descended the stairs.  The parents both looked a little pale and the mother in particular had the clear dark circles of a disturbed nights’ sleep.  In stark contrast, their son came bounding down the stairs and over to the desk.
     “This place is cool!” He grinned up at me in unadulterated glee.  His two front teeth were missing.  “Mummy kept crying in the night and dreaming she was being buried alive, but I think it’s wicked!”  His mother’s cheeks flamed and she ushered him towards the dining room where the standard continental and cooked breakfast options were on offer.  I found that I was smiling as I watched them go, the boy frolicking along in his little black cape.  Some people can’t quite hack it here, but kids love it.  I suppose it’s because they’re not aware of their own mortality yet.  Oddly, a lot of oldies seem to like it too.  “Might as well get used to it,” they joke when I ask how their night was.  

     My great-grandfather had been an undertaker since he was fourteen.  He’d started out as an apprentice, sweeping the floors and polishing the coffins until the mourners could see their own teary faces in the wooden surfaces.  He was an excellent pallbearer, strong and silent.  The harder he worked, the more respect he gained from Mr Corner and when he got old, doddery on his feet and his eyes were going, he asked my great-grandfather to take over the bulk of the business.  Mr Corner didn’t have any children of his own, just a niece who he’d taken in when his widowed sister died during childbirth.  His niece was ethereally beautiful but she apparently never spoke and a lot of people said that when she killed her mother, her voice had been snatched as penance.  Of course that can’t have been true.  

     Half an hour feels like an absolute eternity when you spend it sitting silently behind an imposing mahogany desk in an empty hotel lobby.  Jeremy isn’t much of a talker.  In fact he doesn’t talk at all.  Never has.  It’s something I grew up with and now I’m used to the deathly silences between guests checking in and out. If I had a normal job, I could at least browse the Internet for the latest gossip about people whose lives I’ve been told I’m supposed to care about.  I could pass joyful hours playing an increasingly frustrating brightly coloured game under the desk.  My fingers twitch for my phone, sitting mournfully on my bedside table up in what used to be the servants’ quarters.  If Dad caught it on me, my life wouldn’t be worth living.  It would be nice to have a distraction but no, there’s no mindless entertainment for me.  Because I have a ridiculous job in a stupid novelty hotel which is lit by gas lamps.  The only technology is that which is necessary by law – fire alarms, for example.  And the emergency buttons wired into every bed, which light up the panel of tiny bulbs in front of me. We’d have shut down years ago without them.  There used to be ‘incidents’ quite a lot.  But that was back before Health and Safety mattered, and the local police have always been a bit superstitious about coming up here so somehow nothing ever came of it.  Other than for the guests’ safety, almost everything is ancient and analogue.  It took Amanda ages to talk Mum around to letting her and Duncan get some proper lighting and a PA system for their performances.  Dad’s utmost concern is delivering ‘the atmosphere that people have come to expect’.  I think it’s just so he doesn’t have to have wi-fi installed.  Guests are forever getting frustrated by the fact that I can’t just run them off a second copy of their bill at a moment’s notice.  I have to clunk away at the typewriter which serves as our printer, squinting at the sheet I’ve already painstakingly produced but now with the added pressure of an audience.  They sigh and suck their teeth as each end-of-the-line ding taunts them.  I used to be quite adept, knowing from years of practise which keys needed a little more force.  At school, I would get in trouble for hammering the keyboards in the computer room.  
     “Lucy, you know there is really no need to be so aggressive,” Miss Harker would coax, trying to pretend she couldn’t hear my classmates giggling and muttering about me behind her back.

     This isn’t the way my life is supposed to be.  If you’d told me a year ago that I would be digging my teenage knitting needles out from under my narrow single bed and settling myself back behind this desk, behind the big leather-bound ledger which holds all the guest information and the typewriter, I think I would have either burst out laughing or burst into tears. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I didn’t move back home after university – the bit of university that I bothered with.  While my friends from school were tearing their hair out over dissertation deadlines and pulling all-nighters in the library, I was driving across America in a rusty camper van.  As everyone else graduated and migrated back to their childhood bedrooms, surrounding themselves with tatty stuffed bears and the musk of cheap teenage perfume, I was sleeping on the floor of a bookshop on the Left Bank of the Seine.  And now – while they all get rings, get houses with gardens, get babies – I’m here, living with my parents, doing the job I’ve been doing my whole life.  I’m back to being the weird girl from the weird hotel.  
     “It’s what you were born to do,” that’s what Grandma always said when I whinged about missing my after-school TV shows.  “It’s what we were all born to do – me, your mother, and now you.”  I worked so hard to prove her wrong.  The greyness of the sea, the ruins, the clouds feels like it’s seeping into my soul.  This town is monochrome and I can feel all the colour that I accumulated over the past six years sapping out of me.  By the time Goth Weekend rolls around again, I’ll be as grey as Jeremy’s skin.  I can feel myself breathing out all my hues, my reds and my blues, and when I breathe the foggy salty air back in, it’s just…grey.  I exhale, a little puff of orange, and pick up my knitting again.

     “Stay away from Lucy, she lives in the creepy hotel.  My mum says her family have always been freaks.”
     I kept my head down and continued my stroll around the perimeter of the playground, my dark curls the closest thing to a hiding place I could find.  I was sort of used to it by now.  For as long as I could remember, the hotel had defined me.  That’s just the way it was.  It still bothered me a little bit, that no one wanted to play with me.  The harder I tried to make friends, the worse the teasing got.  This was before I learned to laugh it off, before I learned to play up to it.  Before the lunchtime when Connor Bradley said he’d heard spiders lived in my hair, and I ate one to shut him up.  I plucked it from a leaf just beside his head and made a show of it for his cronies, holding it between my front teeth for a moment before crunching down and licking my lips, gulping dramatically.  My teeth were bared in a satisfied grin as they stared in horror before running off to tell everyone what a weirdo I was.  As soon as they were gone, I sat down behind the tree they’d cornered me against and cried, using a dock leaf to try and wipe the remnants of insect from my tongue.  When I got back into the classroom, Miss Harker told me off for having mud on my skirt and the whole class stared at me.

     I’m in the process of making a list of the guests who are checking out tomorrow.  My first task in the morning will be typing out their bills ready for when they return their keys.  I’m not even allowed to use a biro and a notepad to do these little tasks – we have a big stack of thick paper and a fountain pen instead.  I’m turning one of the huge pages of the ledger, scanning back over the list of names when the unmistakable scent of lavender and mothballs hits me.  I lower my head and try to continue working but it’s no good.  A shadow falls across the desk and I have to look up and smile.
     Madame Desdemona peers down at me through the impossibly thick lenses of her spectacles.  Behind the glass, her pupils seem totally blown out but I suspect this is merely an optical illusion. The end of her long crinkly shawl drags over the surface of the ledger, tinkling with ethnic-looking coins.  This is why I finally managed to convince Mum to get rid of the quill pen and ink pot; old Des was always messing up my notes.  She holds up her withered hands, heavy with chunky silver rings, and wafts them vaguely in front of my face with her eyes closed.  I’m glad she’s not looking because it means she misses my eye roll.  I sit patiently and wait, while the wrinkly claws pluck at the air around my head.  Every now and then, Des comes to give my aura a cleansing.  Apparently some people pay a lot of money for this and I should be grateful to get it done for free.  It’s supposed to make you feel better afterwards, like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders.  I’ve never felt that post-cleansing.  If anything, I feel a little bit violated in a way I can’t quite place.  I’m not convinced I even have an aura, but if I do I think it’s my business what state I keep it in.  
     Madame Desdemona is another permanent fixture of the hotel.  She floats around in a daze, gazing blankly at everyone and occasionally making vague predictions, the kind you find in fortune cookies.  On Tuesdays, she takes over the dining room after dinner and uses her gypsy blood and her second sight to pass on messages from beyond the grave.  She does consultations and private readings as well, and she gets a steady stream of customers heading up to her attic room.
     My aura must be particularly clogged with cosmic gunk as this seems to be taking longer than usual.  I go back to my notes until there’s a sigh and a jingle and I glance up.  She opens her eyes, standing back proudly and peering at me, inspecting her handiwork.  
     “Now, that’s better, isn’t it?”  Des’s voice is uncomfortably high and whispery.  It sounds like a mouse is trying to escape from her throat.  I have to lean forwards a little bit to hear her.
       “Oh, much better thank you,” I say without being able to summon much enthusiasm.  “Can I help you with anything?”  
     She smiles, revealing a row of yellow tombstone teeth.
     “The winds blow us to where we are supposed to be.  The rains wash us to our rightful place.”  And with that, she’s off, her grubby slippers shuffling across the foyer and towards the drawing room.  

     It’s amazing the difference a six week holiday can make.  At the end of primary school, I’d emerged with top marks in all of my Key Stage Two SATs and no friends whatsoever.  My polo shirt remained white and unsigned while my classmates scribbled all over each other.  But in secondary school, I managed to get by.  I wasn’t popular by any stretch of the imagination, but I wasn’t at the bottom of the food chain either.  It helped that Chelsea, who took me under her wing on the first day, didn’t go to my primary school and that everyone was terrified of her.  Even at the age of eleven, she was a force to be reckoned with.  Her mum had two full sleeves of tattoos and her dad ran one of the pubs in town, the one that let local bands thrash out their loudest music on a Saturday night.  I was well aware that the hotel was the main thing she found most interesting about being my friend, I was never under any illusion that it was to do with me.  But I didn’t care, I was just grateful to have someone.  Someone to partner with in PE and sit with in the canteen and take home for tea after school.  I remember Chelsea swooping up the gravel drive, her coat forming a makeshift cloak, the first time I showed her the hotel.  She bounced into the foyer like a pre-teen tornado and was instantly charming with her loud cackle of a laugh and her expressive face.  We spent the next four years trapping each other in the beds of unoccupied rooms, holding mock funerals for everyone we knew, particularly the bitchy girls at school for whom Chelsea would reserve the most cutting of eulogies.

     There’s banging and mumbling outside and I can tell that the walkers are struggling to get the main doors open.  I stand up, taking the opportunity to flex my shoulder-blades and roll my head this way and that as I pad across to the door in my socks.  I pull hard at the ornate handle and the carved panelling swings open, hinges creaking, to reveal a sodden gang of middle-aged couples, walking-rods in hand.  Their mud-caked boots are lined up neatly next to the umbrella stand, taking heed of the carefully calligraphied message about respecting our historic building and its antique furnishings.  The walkers are some of our more unlikely regulars.  They traipse in after me, their soggy socks squelching and we exchange mild pleasantries about the horrendous weather and tonight’s menu before they make their way up to the first floor.  One of the women calls something to the others about having a lie down before dinner, to which a man replies that he intends to get some work done.  “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” he insists and someone follows it up with a comment about this being the place for it and they all hoot with laughter.  That’s the sort of joke people make here.  I’ve heard them all by now.

     The guests have been heading down to dinner in dribs and drabs for the past hour.  As each of them passes the desk, I mark a little cross in the ledger.  I’ve always had a skill for remembering faces.  Not so much names, as names are no good to me.  But I’m excellent at putting a room number to a face.  We’re only waiting for that bloody American couple now and I would’ve put money on them being the type to be late and hold everyone else up.  Guests are under no obligation to eat at the hotel so if they opt to, we don’t think it’s too much to ask that they be on time.  It’s not fair on the ladies from the Cheltenham book group – Rooms 1, 2 and 3 – who have been sat patiently in the dining room since before the grandfather clock last chimed.  It’s not fair on the kitchen staff who will have to keep everything from burning while they wait.  And it’s not fair on Duncan and Amanda, who might actually have to speak to each other as they wait to head into the dining room to start the show.
     They had barrelled in, shuddering and swearing at the rain which has become what can only be described as torrential.  Amanda swung her coat down from where she’d been holding it over her head on the dash from the car to the front porch.  The black fur was matted and in the warmth of the foyer it was already beginning to smell like Grandma’s old German Shepherd after he’d been chasing seagulls into the water.  Duncan followed her in, his cape held over his head to protect his makeup.  Why he couldn’t just get ready for the evening’s performance here is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand.  Amanda always arrives in leggings and a baggy jumper and proceeds to take over the office for forty minutes, making Jeremy move his little stool out behind the desk next to me.  Every few weeks, she throws a hissy fit to Mum about not being able to commit to her art under such conditions and how proper performers got dressing rooms and stagehands to make them drinks and fetch them things.  And then Mum has to grovel and tell Amanda how much her hard work is appreciated and how the hotel just wouldn’t be the same without her and then she normally offers her an extra day’s paid holiday or total creative control over this year’s Halloween performance, and Amanda is satiated for the time being.
    “And anyway, Lucy can make you drinks and fetch you things, can’t you Luce?”  To which I nod obediently over my knitting, knowing full well that I have no intention of fetching Amanda anything.     

     The Yanks finally bother to make an appearance while Amanda is still hidden away in the office, destroying what remains of the ozone layer with liberal applications of hairspray.  Duncan makes a dramatic retreat out onto the porch when he hears the floorboards creak, pulling the front door closed behind him.  He would never run the risk of a guest seeing him before the performance starts for fear of ruining the illusion.
     She’s replaced her bum-bag with a thick belt in the same shade of pink, perfectly matching her shiny lipstick.  His hair is slicked back and he’s still got his camera around his neck.  They pause at intervals as they make their way down the stairs, snapping her smiling face next to each photograph.  They seem to have no sense of urgency as they stop to peer through the sheets of rain at the shadow of the Abbey in the distance.
     “Look honey, I told you that’s where Dracula lived,” she says, pointing an insistent finger.  They stay looking out through the picture window considering this revelation even though the ruins are barely visible.  Eventually, they head into the dining room without so much as a glance at me and Jeremy sat behind the desk.  

     Just as Duncan comes back into the foyer now the guests are all safely out of the way, Amanda emerges from the office with her long dark hair teased high into an elaborate beehive with a carefully sprayed grey streak running up it.  Her blue eyes have been covered by contact lenses which make them all pupil and the lashes which surround them are thick with synthetic enhancements.  Her already pale skin has been powdered an even chalkier white and her features have been redrawn in thick lines of black and red like a Gothic Lichtenstein.  She sweeps past the desk, her velvet gown trailing behind her.  It snags on the hinge of the office door, pulling taut against the legs of Jeremy’s stool before falling loose as she accidentally steps out of the long skirt.  
     “Shit,” she mumbles, yanking the heavy fabric away from where it got stuck and refastening the Velcro around her waist.  Apparently, the part of the routine where she whips off the lower half of her outfit to reveal her fishnets is the turning point of the evening.  An old man once nearly died from choking on his pork chop, such was the shock of the sight of Amanda in her corset and the short flouncy skirt she hides under the longer one.  In my opinion, the whole thing is a little bit uncomfortable.  At least when Duncan and Amanda got along, there was some sense of camaraderie between them.  Now, it’s just two over-the-top performers in constant competition.  
     Amanda is inspecting herself in the lobby’s gilded mirror and Duncan moves so that his reflection looks over her shoulder, running his tongue over his pointed teeth.  They’re his pride and joy; custom made to stick onto his canines without impeding his speech at all.  He rolls his eyes as Amanda sidesteps, her beehive blocking his view.  She leans closer and tidies a smudge of eyeliner at the corner of her mouth, the line crossed with lots of little lines extending up her cheek, the typical cartoon zombie stitches.  
     “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that Dracula and the Bride of Frankenstein make absolutely no sense together,” Duncan remarks cattily, quirking an eyebrow.  If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would never believe they used to be a couple.
     “And I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that I refuse to play a virgin that you get to bite in the neck.  I didn’t go to drama college for that,” Amanda snaps back.

     Duncan has stopped pacing and is raising and lowering himself on the balls of his feet, taking deep meditative breaths with his eyes closed.  Amanda is alternating shaking out her hands and feet with testing the Velcro on her long skirt.  Jeremy and I are stood on either side of the doors which lead to the dining room, counting.  I’ve already popped my head in, inconspicuous to the room full of guests getting stuck into their starters – goat’s cheese quiche for the handful of vegetarians, smoked chicken pate for the rest – and given the sound guy the nod.  As I slip back around the door and let it close, the lights in the dining room dim.  There’s a murmur from the guests as track one of the CD booms through the speakers.  There is a crash of thunder and a swelling ominous laugh.  The laugh seems to bring Duncan and Amanda to attention and immediately they’re both poised to start.  Jeremy and I continue to count, my lips moving noiselessly and his head bobbing in time.  Finally, in unison, we throw the doors wide to allow Duncan and Amanda to advance into the room.  I watch every face turn to look, forks pausing halfway to mouths, and just as the doors swing closed there comes an unmistakeable voice.
     “Is that we rushed down here for?” the American woman drawls, far too loud.  “Is this really it?”

No comments:

Be the first to comment on this post: