St Austell x
St Petersburg x
Santarcangelo di Romagna
New York x
She has no interest whatsoever in France. The subject is unbroachable with her. She disregarded it as best she could on the train from Nice. She did not absorb her cab ride here. With this indifference, of course, she has defeated herself: tomorrow will mean the acquisition of a map. The, as yet, avoidable worse though would be requesting directions in her tense-less French. It galls – the merest suggestion of this and the insufferable tone it habitually elicits. With a shudder, she calls to mind a previous incident of “Madame, shall we start again . . . perhaps in English this time?” Too late, too late will be the cry. But as she inwardly simmers her fractious eye alights on a bowl of matchbooks nearby – crimson, gold and gratis, liveried for the hotel. Their reverse addressed, surely? Location marked on a street grid? Retrieving two and flipping one she discovers it is. So, upon sliding them between the folds of her valise, finds a complication resolved.
This appeasement aside, the foyer sags with humidity unleavened by the indoor trees. Palms, she supposes. Fronds dust-patinaed to rust, as though some off-Riviera Death in Venice were the desired effect. Should this be the case they’ve not been entirely unsuccessful, she reflects – the aqueous decadence of old Venice excepted, alongside any perceptible increase in the likelihood of an untimely death. Th. And there it is, death again. Displaying its feathers as the always inevitable. Even here, in this suppurating suburban hotel to where she herself doesn’t know how to get. Enough however, enough of that. This kind of thing could make her blink but before it can she recalls her previous assessment that, however stifling the atmosphere may be, it’s unlikely to bring about her demise. Besides which, there appears to be a dearth of golden-haired boys upon whom to unhealthily dwell. In fact, as she casts about, she sees absolutely no children at all. Naturally she finds in this no cause for complaint having, in her own small way, contributed to their absenteeism too. To be perfectly frank – as she is to herself – the, approaching fetid, adult clientele also fail to seriously assert their presence, beyond peripherally. An unwelcome thought this, the thought of them: walking, being, unconsciously imbibing the air as though it’s a rightful allocation of theirs which will never run down. But then, above, a fan kicks in. Its whirr invasive. Air imitates motion. Time reasserts itself. Sweat rolls down her neck. It brings to mind her much favored attitude of haste – not that she’s in any specific rush. It’s merely her preference not to indulge mortality’s by now routine assaults on her carefully habituated ennui – a good word, ennui, so one–nil to French. This timely revival indicating, however, that now it’s best the brass call bell gets repeatedly pressed and the concierge is delivered a long look of impatience. As he indicates the desk clerk’s imminent attendance, she drums her fingernails almost to dents on the dark, high polished wood. Having come so far, with so little delight, she embraces this brief performance of her magnified distaste for delay.And there it is, death again. Displaying its feathers as the always inevitable.
The clerk arrives, sunned-brown and neat and slow, through the door behind the desk. His disinterest does not regard her particularly while, invested in her own, she does not regard him back. Framed in keys, who is he to me, this arbiter of rooms? Besides, she’s already booked hers with some specificity and therefore need not gaze up hopefully for favor in his eyes. Well fortified thus, she slides her passport across. Her credit card after that. And as soon as the tan hand languidly indicates, swiftly signs without flourish along the dotted line. Neat fingers pass keys and hers, pale, intercept. She does not look into them for the number, just goes where his point – the white tips elegantly signaling stage right.
She already knows where. This is not her first time in this hotel but she had not expected to return.
The ground-floor corridor. Its hot dun gloom. The carpet runner and rods beneath her feet.
Against all inclination, she remembers its brown tinted glass, the outsize faux Ming vases in gilt willow pattern. She seems to recollect how the nylon awnings stretched to construct channels of respite from the sun. She possesses little interest in the doings of the sun – bodies spit-stretched beneath, skin crimpling to burnt umber from – but recalls how her silently professed repugnance had borne little weight on the matter before. Rather, a radiant torture appears to remain the hotel’s aim, prosecuted most effectively by a marked absence of even the most cursory blind. She remembers that. Thinking that. So now does she think it afresh? And can she think it afresh? Or only ever again? Rat running around its run over and over and Stop. An instant of regret, forced from the knowledge that allowing memory, or any of its variables, admittance is invariably a mistake. Nonetheless, and even knowing that much, time makes a ladder of her anyway. Down. The room key – not being the more modern card but cut – and how on that previous occasion she’d also thought “When was the last time you saw one of those?” What about that cigarette burn, to the far left, was that there? Located, unusually, in the skirting board. Surely she would remember a peculiarity like that? Does she remember? And if, in that past, she turns her head away, to the right, what other oddities might she see? Or what welcome familiarity might there be? Impatient now though with her brain’s apparent receptivity, she encourages her irritation to grow. Familiarity is not the ambition. Never at all, of late. In fact, she’d say she has been at pains to let nothing embed. Surely, it’s merely human nature, travel, stress, which beckons the mind back to that other visit? She could admit she came here on purpose but that would mean owning to a degree of conscious volition which she remains at pains to deny. And. On that first visit, she reminds herself, her attention had been on everywhere and so nowhere near the now all-important imperative to forget. She just saw all she saw and it went in and there’s nothing to be done about that.
Door. Scratched dull lock. Put in. Turn the key. Fail. Joggle. Lean into. Be firm. Try again now. Try again, again. And, on another try, there. She’s in.
She shuts it hard behind. Abominable heat. The day aches around her shoulders in search of other mischief. Headache. Perhaps but will not do and, before it attempts to beat this path through her, she turns the anxious air conditioning on. Once foxed by dials not of her immediate ken, she is now au fait with all the buttons of hotels and more than adept at deciphering their idiosyncrasised versions of “Up”, “Down”, “Whirlaround”, “Press”. This time she presses. A briefly baited wait. Hum. Cool air sputters live from the vent. In hoc signo vinces! Well, no. Or not exactly . . . some.
In the corner, inevitably, a strapped fold-out stand for a case. Hers fits snug into the cradle. Zip. She checks for washbag damage – out of habit nowadays, rather than deep concern, and about convenience because if she had to, she could easily replace everything. Times have changed, she notes, as is her wont on these occasions of which, of late, there have been more than a few. Another unzipped bag, in another uninteresting hotel room, upon which she stares indifferently down at the folded clothes, or the shampoo congealing into them if she’s been unlucky which, on this occasion, she has not. All’s well in there so that’s all she does, apart from extracting then balancing her toothpaste-spattered washbag on the too-short shelf above the low, piss-stinking loo. Scrubbed though she’s sure and certainly looks it but a high turnover of dehydrated urine has a tendency to out. The poor aim of men, drunks and cracked tiles is her theory. The pungent condensation, her proof. A tightly shut bathroom door should work wonders, she thinks, and it could be so much worse. That said, she is grateful to have not yet removed her boots. Soon though she will, everything’s starting to hurt. Perhaps a quick check for which make-up’s gone astray first? She pulls the shaving light on. The cheap yellow fog shows her sickly but she already knew it would. Make-up’s fine, almost off. There is nothing needs tending, except a quick undereye wipe. Should she shower? She quite probably should. Not now though. She’s going nowhere. She is certain of that. She turns the shave light off. Nothing to see here. She prefers it in the dark anyway.
To do. To do. She seeks tasks to do but can’t find them anywhere. Look.
No need to hang up her clothes. She won’t be here long enough for that. Instead the wants of sweat and thirst propagate in her head. She recalls the mini-bar not being in the obvious place but has, nevertheless, located its whereabouts after a swift moment or two. In its sole 7Up, she recognizes an opportunity for restraint which she has promised herself to avail of, should the opportunity present. But, she explains to no one, it’s been a very long day. Then she remembers that this has indeed been the case and grows irritable with herself for allowing no one a say. The perennial problem recurs. If only no one could be banished as easily as bade. It gets wearing, the contortions of the critic in her head to whose scrutiny she must, however, submit. She should just make the choice, as it was once previously made. She knows that. She makes it then. Sees the phone and calls to the front desk and, in overly imperative English, requests a bottle of white wine. Or two. On hanging up, she mouths, “It’s unendurable, this heat,” which her hands pretend is the directive to unlock and un-slide the fly-blown inner door. No one heard her though and did not in any regard buy this excuse.
It’s not a courtyard, she thinks. A wall of breeze blocks enclosing a ‘bird of paradise’ run amok. However, they certainly fulfill their stated remit of keeping the breeze well and truly out. And, paradisiacal as the truncated vista purports to be, she’d far rather find herself in receipt of the occasional light lickings of . . . is it the Mistral here? She can imagine that sensation described as “delicious” by some. Never by her. It’s an appropriation she finds particularly grim, as though even the pleasure of the fat is being re-consecrated by the messianic thin. At any rate, this ill-conceived digression fails to divert her for long and the lighting of a cigarette soon rekindles her preference for the feel of moving air. She suspected it would because it usually does. And she is tired. Exhausted. France appears to be taking its toll. Or her body disapproves the incidental disinterment of long, long ago. No. Just a few years ago. She wishes it was long ago though.
So instead, she makes herself of now and forswears what has been.
Meaning, here she sits, feet slipped into the grey sand beneath and already countless fag ends there. Even in their advanced state of decay she can confidently differentiate the dogged constancy of English tips from their more pliant European relatives. And, if she looks carefully does she spy a lung-collapsing papirosa there? Maybe. No matter. No matter to that, or the curl of smoke undulating over her head, all the way back in. It can linger by the ceiling. Nothing is at stake. This is France, as she’s chosen. There need be no excuses made. Besides which, no other person will be in this room tonight. That is the plan. That is the plan.
Excerpted from Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Faber & Faber.