Copyright © 2011 Peter Beckett
My jacket was off before the door had finished closing. My shoes swiftly followed. By the time I had the kettle on and the TV
blaring, my shirt and tie had joined the collection on the floor. Sitting on the bed I let the white noise of
the evening news disguise the groan of discontent that had become the final
part of my routine. The floor mocked me
for not doing any fitness regime and my bag of snacks joined the fun. Despite my expenses allowance, I wouldn’t be
joining the couples in the hotel restaurant, tonight or any other night. So far I had managed to take my breakfast
before anyone else had finished pressing their trousers or applying their
make-up. It had become an art-form. It wasn’t that the hotel food was bad;
in-fact the hotel was excellent, once you got passed the attempts at Georgian
regency despite its 1973 origin.
the first time I’d been there. I had visited
once before for a conference and had been amazingly overwhelmed with a feeling
of self-importance just like so many others on their first business trip. This hadn’t lasted. Fifteen years had passed since I first
checked in. The halls had seemed so much
bigger then. The marble effect floor had
sparkled with hope and the brass doorknobs felt classy. The food was fine dining at its peak and the
cable television was a privilege I barely warranted.
I was a young enthusiastic go getter, the
very embodiment of a cliché intern. I
had no wife then. No kids at home. My
car was a hatchback and my single suit was a gift from my mother.
I threw the
covers off the bed and pushed the overzealous pillow arrangement against the
headboard. My suitcase sat half-full
beside me, essentials in my wardrobe, several novels poking their covers out
from between balled up socks and boxer shorts.
The flat screen on the wall was half the size of my kitchen TV forcing
me to squint at the headlines. Who had
judged this as a suitable viewing angle?
Even standing on the bed I had struggled to reach the optimum colour
density. The small clock in the bottom
corner read 18:23. My wife would be
serving dinner in seven minutes. My boy
would be watching the end of ‘The Simpsons’ and my baby girl would be down for
her nap. This temporary housing felt like a
prison. Home. I could barely think of the word. We didn’t call each other anymore when I was
away. It made it harder for her. It barely mattered how I felt about it. It was my job. My responsibility. My burden.
Outside, cars used the link road flyover to accentuate my island in the
city. George Aligiah was my Man-Friday and
we hadn’t mastered communication.
It had gone
midnight when I had dropped off to sleep. It was ten past one when the fire alarm
brought me back. I clawed at the bed
beside me, searching desperately for my wife before I worked out where I
was. A slight acrid smell had seeped
under the door. Somewhere, something was
burning. I grabbed my jacket to retain
some dignity and scanned the escape plan framed on the back door. My laces dangled from my shoes as I walked
down the fire escape stairs to join the huddled throng, collectively muttering
against the hour and the cold. The sky
was clear and the stars fought hard against the artificial blanket of light. It was there that I saw her. She was perfect; wrapped in a dressing gown,
wearing little white slippers, her hair up in a loose twirl. She stood slightly away from the group
although they seemed to gravitate towards her, or at the least, their eyes did. I didn’t mean to catch her eye but as the
fire warden marshalled me towards her an awkward encounter became inevitable.
“Hi,” She said looking immediately back to her feet “So much
for my early night.” I smiled despite myself and was compelled to reply,
“I think we can start queuing for breakfast now.” I said
trying hard not to stare at her neckline.
Her skin looked too soft and taut to be past nineteen.
“You’re here for the conference.” She said, with just the slightest incline
towards a question.
“Yes, you are too?” I
asked, wishing I would be spared by the end of the fire alarm.
“Yes. I saw you at the
meet and greet, although you seemed to disappear.”
“I don’t like networking.
I have done it for too long.”
“I’m new, just starting.
I don’t know many people yet, just the people I trained with. There were five of us, but they… well… they
aren’t very interesting.”
“I’m sure you will find your feet soon enough.” I said.
I felt old immediately, patronising this poor timid thing, shivering
against the night breeze.
“How long have you been doing this?” These words, innocuous as they were,
stung. I didn’t want to answer.
“Quite a while now.”
“Do you still enjoy it?”
“I used to.”
“I got old.” She
giggled at my self-flagellation.
“You don’t seem old.”
She said, her eyelashes saying more than her words. My wedding band weighed heavy on my hand
dragging it deep into my pocket. “My
name is Olivia.” She said. She offered a
hand, curling her other arm around her waist stopping her gown blowing open in
“Charles.” I said, briefly taking her hand in a loose grip,
my ring somehow stayed in my pocket.
“It’s nice to meet you Charles.” She said, slightly stroking
my palm as her hand dropped back to her side.
I was saved further embarrassment by the maître-de turned fire warden whose
megaphone deafened us briefly with feedback.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience ladies and gentlemen. The problem has been resolved and you can all
return to your rooms. I would like to
remind you that smoking on the premises is strictly forbidden and our alarms
are extremely sensitive. Thank you.”
“I guess we’re safe then.”
I said turning back to Olivia.
“Sweet dreams Charles.”
She said, knowing I would watch her walk away.
I woke early
the next morning, bleary eyed and irritable.
I had dreamt of my wife and felt dirty and unfaithful. After a lukewarm shower in the cramped
cubicle I dressed in a cream shirt worth as much as my first suit. I paid no attention to the morning headlines,
it was just nice to hear voices. Without
my little boy trying to feign illness and my baby girl screaming for her feed
it should have been peaceful, relaxing.
I hated it. This room, even with
its vast bed and leather armchair was double the size of our master bedroom,
yet it felt suffocating. It was the
oppressive quiet, the unfamiliar smells and Corby trouser press. It was artificial. I entered the breakfast room to see the usual
blank canvas of white table cloths unattended by guests. I filled a glass with orange juice and turned
to place it at my usual table. I hadn’t
noticed her sitting in the corner.
“Good morning Charles.”
She said stroking the rim of her coffee mug. “Won’t you come join me?” My manners overcame my objections even though
every part of me wanted to just run back to my room.
“Did you sleep well?”
I asked, trying not to think of her lying in bed or what lay beneath the
dressing gown she had been wearing last night.
“I was cold after being out for so long, but I survived. How about you?”
“I slept soundly enough,” I lied, “You’re not usually up this
“No. I know it sounds
silly, but I was… well I hoped I would bump into you again,” Why would she say
that? My ring lay on my bedside
table. It had remained too tight on my
finger all night. “I was hoping, maybe
you would walk with me to the conference this morning? It would be nice to have a friend. It’s very lonely away from home for the first
time. God I sound silly don’t I? Like a little schoolgirl!”
“Oh it’s fine,” Don’t think of her dressed as a schoolgirl. “I
was useless the first time I did this.”
“Really?” Hopeful eyes
joined with mine, aged and wise.
“It was here as it happens.
It was a while back now, mind you, I had only just left college. I think I spent every night on the phone to
friends or family.” She giggled slightly
and started to peel a grapefruit with her slender fingers. I wanted to hate her. I wanted to shout at her or hit her. I wanted her to find me revolting and
old. But mostly I wanted her.
“I’ve just left college now.
I was going to start university but I got offered this job and thought,
why not? My mum misses me now when I’m
away though. It’s only her left in the
house until I get back. My dad left us
when I was young.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh it’s fine, I don’t miss him anymore. It’s hard to miss someone you don’t really
know.” She dropped her spoon clumsily on
the plate, squirting grapefruit juice across the table onto my shirt. “Oh god I’m so sorry!” she cried jumping up
from her seat. She moistened a napkin in
the water jug and proceeded to dab at my chest.
She had decided to kneel by my side resting her elbow on my knee. I just sat frozen, terrified, trying
desperately to avoid looking down her blouse or enjoying the contact. Suddenly she stopped, just resting the moist
cloth on my heart and looked up, embarrassed.
I instinctively glanced at my crotch but I had no looming lawsuit. She backed away without a word and turned to
the window. “Sorry,” she said softly and turned back to the table.
“It’s fine, honestly,” I said, trying to keep my breathing
even. I stood and took another
cautionary glance at my trousers. I was
still free of that particular embarrassment.
“I’ll just go and change my shirt, and then we can head down if you
“Oh, yes. That would be lovely. I’m so sorry.” She said.
She looked younger now than before but, worse still, more beautiful.
“Honestly, don’t worry about it. You enjoy your coffee and I’ll be back down
now.” I didn’t look back as I left the
room. I just threw out a parting comment
of “And no more apologies.” and entered the lift.
The day passed with moderate discomfort. Olivia decided to accompany me at all times
although the morning’s events had left our conversations as coherent as a
poorly drafted Pinter sketch. Lunchtime
had been the most awkward. We sat at a small
table in a dimly lit café. She looked
like my Mrs Jones, or worse, my Lolita.
We spent the majority of the hour stirring cold coffee, opening our
mouths to say something before nervous embarrassment stole our breath. I can’t remember what we talked about. I don’t think it mattered. All I can remember is desperately wanting to
leave. Or be ten years younger, and
On the walk
back I knew I would soon be free. We
only had one night left in the hotel then we could return to our respective
homes. Olivia to her mother, me to my
wife and children. She stood too close to
me in the lift on the way to our respective rooms.
Although we were on different floors she
stepped off at mine, seeming lost in the recent conversation she had chosen to
force. “Oh I’m silly,” She said,
breaking off from the inane chatter she had been spouting, “this isn’t my floor
at all.” She looked expectantly from
behind her heavy mascara. I couldn’t
muster a reply. All I wanted was to be
away, back in the relative safety of room 319 to start my packing. “Perhaps you would like to get dinner later? Being as it’s the last night.” My hesitation was too severe causing her to
interject on my behalf, “Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to pay! The company
can pick up the bill.” Her smile
“It will take me a while to pack,” I started, but she was too
quick for my objections.
“Then maybe we should get room service? I’ve already packed. I really didn’t sleep all that well. I was too lonely.” Blind panic.
I’m sure I should have had some suave reply, some James Bond response
worthy of my years and experience, but all I managed was the dumbfounded
expression of a teenager in the girl’s locker room. “Well, I’ll leave it up to you,” She said,
saving me further embarrassment, “I’m in 428 if you want to keep me company. Don’t worry how late.” And with that she
turned back towards the lift. My hand
was rested on my door but my eyes stayed fixed on her. She turned, smiling back at me as she pressed
the lift button.
I stayed frozen in the
corridor until I saw her wave through closing lift doors.
I opened the
door just passed midnight, knowing a beautiful woman lay in the bed waiting for
me. I immediately started to undress
dropping my clothes to the floor and kicked off my shoes. One dropped heavily, thudding on the
floor. With that my baby girl wailed as
loud as a siren. My wife jumped out of
bed with eyes of fire, not recognising me in the dark. “Charles, what the hell? What time is it? I thought you weren’t coming home till
tomorrow? God and now Isabelle’s awake,
well thank you Charles. You really
shouldn’t have bothered.”
“I missed you.” I
said, to no one in particular.v
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