Lorien street

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind, cutting at my neck. I pulled my scarf tighter about me. The legs of my trousers whipped about my ankles. Bits of litter spiralled around in eddies. It was the sort of day when snow always seems imminent, but never actually falls. Pushing south, walking blindly, almost at random, I continued into Mayfair. Here were antique dealers, discreet fine art shops, vendors of ancient vellum manuscripts.

All I knew, in my mourning, was to walk through the winter streets of this great city. It was my therapy, my treatment, my medicine. If I stopped even for a moment, I should end up thinking. And if I allowed myself time to think, I’d be lost. I would think of my daughter, who was gone. I could not bear to do that, not just yet. I knew that, in time, I would: I would pause, own what had happened, and move on. But not yet.

I found myself in Berkeley Square, walking down the west side. The trees were bare, and brown, twigs and branches flung accusingly out against the grey sky. I barely noticed myself crossing Curzon Street and continuing into the little maze of secret streets that led out onto Piccadilly. Here, my best efforts not to cry failed me, and the tears came flooding out. For a few moments, I stumbled along in tears. A big city is no bad place for a grown man to cry: you can be on your own, lost in the crowd. Maybe you want to cry alone; maybe, really, you secretly long for someone to notice.

As darkness fell, I stopped to look into the window of a little bistro. A few flakes of snow were just starting to appear.  Inside, an Italian looking man of about my age, caught my eye. I’m not an impulsive man, but I turned nonetheless and straightaway went inside, out of the cold, biting wind. The waiters’ gaze through the window had seemed to contain, in a single split second, all moments. Though nothing was said, something mysterious passed from him to me. Some complicit understanding, some unspoken empathy.

The first thing I noticed as I came in out of the cold, was a cheap framed print of Rembrandt’s “The raising of Lazarus”. So out of place did it look, my eye was drawn towards it. The waiter, already moving to greet me, noticed my looking at the picture, and murmured very quietly, almost under his breath, “anche Gesu piange“. Then he spoke in English, and louder, with words of welcome. I glanced at my watch, and saw that the time was a little after 4pm. I ordered coffee, and after a glance at the menu, some form of cake I cannot now recall.

It seemed to me that the waiter lingered when he bought my coffee, and we spent some time talking, but I cannot recall what we were talking about. Outside, snow fell, and the darkness was complete. But inside, in the warm pools of light, there was friendship. The waiter’s brother arrived, and we got talking. I talked my heart out, I spoke at length. They listened to me and they hardly said a word. I talked about my whole life; about my former wife, about my daughter. They nodded solemnly as I told them about the tragedy of her sudden death. One of them put his hand on mine. The other touched my shoulder.

I thought I ought to get up to leave. I was in a kind of daze. But not so dazed that when I moved to stand up and get my coat, I didn’t spot the lady behind the bar shaking her head minutely. Then she smiled at me like I was the only person in the universe. “But…” I started to say.

“Stay” said the waiter.

Later, more people arrived, and there was dinner. A hearty dish of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. Sphaghetti, Garlic bread. Red wine. I could never afterwards recall the conversation at that dinner. It was as if I was an honoured guest at an intimate family dinner, an outsider made welcome at a private occasion for just a few close friends and relations. For a brief while, the burden of my grief was put by.  It was laid aside, like the scarf and overcoat hung up in a little alcove by the door. It was like when someone carrying a huge and wearisome load for many miles, lays that burden down.

For a while I was sat at the bar, talking to the barmaid, the one who’d smiled at me so winningly. She was telling me about her profoundly disabled son, and the struggles they had getting him dressed, or strapped into the car. I sipped a glass of some Aniseed spirits – Pernod, perhaps, or more likely Sambuca, in an Italian restaurant. “Don’t miss”, she said, a London barmaid to her fingertips, “your train”. I gave a start. Then she did something quite startling. In a quite intimate way, yet somehow in no way suggestive or inappropriate, she took hold of my hand, and said something. She said this:

“Don’t look at your watch.” She looked right at me and said again, “Don’t look at your watch. Just put your coat on, and walk.”

I put my coat on. The wonderful Italian waiter shook my hand. I opened the door and stepped out of the warm restaurant, into the cold night air. The snow must have stopped a while ago; I must have been in the place for hours, yet there was just the merest icing sugar dusting on the roofs of the cars. At the corner, I saw the name of the street: Lorien street.

Walking away through that hidden quarter of lost streets, I turned a corner and found myself in the bustle of Piccadilly.  Something was not quite right.  It was too busy for late evening; I’d been sat in that bistro all night, talking, eating, drinking, until after 10 o’clock. Yet here were buses, taxis, pedestrians, tourists. Automatically, I shot the cuff of my overcoat and looked at my watch, and saw that it was just after 5pm. Thunderstruck, I wondered what had happened. Was it even the same day? 

I turned round, and retraced my steps. But of Lorien Street, or of that little bistro, I never found any sign. I’ve been back that way several times, and never found so much as a trace.  Nothing could be found of that hidden place of healing, where those people made me so welcome and were so generous to me in my time of grief. 

Rekningen

Rising from the table, he walked through the almost deserted dining room, intending to return to his room.  There were huge oil paintings on the walls, scenes of fjords and mountains, fishermen mending their nets, simple farming folk.  In winter, this hotel was the biggest and most famous of a provincial ski resort.  Now, in autumn, before the snows, it was as  good as deserted.  His route to his room took him through a little glassed over area, formerly a little courtyard.

“Outside in the distance, a wild cat did howl…” the words from Dylan’s song came unbidden and unwanted to his mind – an earworm, he’d heard this called by his kids.  Rain was beating down on the glass roof, gusts of wind driving frenzies of rain against the glass.  The cold, driving, strength-sapping rain of late  October.  No night to be outdoors – a good night to be warm and in shelter.

Tomorrow, he would complete the deal.  In so doing, he would gain access to a whole new market; he would sell more than his competitors, and start to gain an edge over the last few hold-outs that refused to trade with him.  He would show them all, the naysayers, those who did not believe in him.  He cast his mind back to a lecture he had given years ago to a group of beginners in his trade.

You want to see what the world’s greatest salesman looks like? You’re looking at him.

Not long after he’d made that assertion, his boss had walked in, interrupted him, and introduced himself to the students.  Clearly somebody else senior, sitting incognito at the back of the room, had tipped his boss off.  But he’d shown them.  A word in the right ear at the right time, and his boss hadn’t lasted much longer.  He himself had taken his bosses’ job.  Eventually, he’d even found out the name of the guy who had grassed him up.  Soon enough, that one was on his way too.  It was easy enough if you knew what to say, whose ear to plan the seed in; whom to whisper the quiet accusations to.  Now, he was unstoppable.  He was at the top of his game.  At the head of the table.

From the foyer, two sets of stairs.  He decided to walk rather than take the lift, which, in this antique wooden building, was rather slow.  He’d always taken pride in his fitness.  But this old hotel rambled on and on.  It was a number of buildings combined, connected together with funky little open courtyards and cobbled alleyways that used to be outside but now had settees and bookcases in them. It had the feel of a caravanserai.  He walked up to the first floor, and along round a corner, past a picture of a mountain at sunset, very much like Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

Very good use of light.  Like Joseph Wright.

He touched a metal bannister and got a static shock. The weather? The carpet? His shoes? Up to the second floor, and onto the third. And on up to the fourth floor – the top floor – where the best rooms were.  The doors opened outward, which to him, seemed strange.  The rooms were all different; there was no standard room here in this timber building.  His own was right up in the eaves of the building, but it was spacious enough.  It lay along a corridor with the roof sloping down one side.  Windows were set into this roof, and rain was thrashing against them.  The windows looked like washing machines, so much water was hitting  them.  He walked along the corridor, looking at the room numbers.  432.  433. 434.  And that was it.  No 435.  He must surely have gone the wrong way.

How odd…I’ll retrace my steps.

He turned on his heel, walking back along the corridor, down the stairs and past the picture of the mountain, to the foyer.  The receptionist glanced up at him from behind her counter, and gave a friendly little smile.

The other stairs.  These led up the side of one of the open alleyways to the first floor.  Then along a corridor, past a folded up travel cot in an alcove.  And onto the second floor.  As he went, he thought of hotels, back over the years.  Some hotels seemed to be all the same; others were very unusual and different.  The Oriental Palace Hotel in Tunis, where he’d had lamb and couscous with a colleague, and afterwards, some interesting cigarettes.  He remembered the gaff not because of that but chiefly because that particular colleague didn’t last much longer either.  A hotel at a seedy port in Italy – could it have been Brindisi? – where another colleague had got so drunk that he’d snapped the key to his room off in the lock when trying to open the door.  The Agadir Beach Club Hotel where walking along the corridors felt a bit like one was walking through a computer game – as if at any moment a monster or an armed man might appear from around the corner.  The Okumu Palace Hotel in Libreville where he and a number of his colleagues had tormented and insulted some little Frenchman who they took a dislike to.

The third floor…or was it the fourth floor? And then he found himself at a kind of dead end, in what felt something like a tower.  There were what looked like old servants rooms, and shelves of towels, sheets and cleaning materials.  How had he got here?

Turn back again.  This is getting a bit silly. Back down to the foyer.

He turned around and went back down the stairs to reception.  The girl on the desk noticed him and asked brightly, in Norwegian, “Are you lost?”.  This confused him to silence, though he knew much more Norwegian that he let on.  She asked again in English. “Have you lost your way?”

“Can’t find my room” he mumbled, “but I’ll be fine. I’ll use the lift”.  He hated asking for directions or admitting he was wrong, especially to women or people young enough to be his kids.  He entered the lift and punched the button for the fourth floor.

Remember that time when you put that young chap in the picture whilst in the lift? He’d given a piece of his mind to some cocky smart-ass young hotshot straight out of university, when a crowd of them were in the lift on the way down to dinner one night at a conference.  Some big hotel in the Middle East.  This young hotshot thought he knew it all; the youth had been banging on about this or that, he couldn’t for the life of him remember now what he was on about.

But I surely let rip and told it like it was.  Called a spade a spade. Put him well and in the picture.

“Christ, your diplomatic pin must have fallen out”, a colleague had said, as they made their way to their table, some minutes later.  “That was a bit harsh”, another had said.

Maybe so. But it was hardly my fault the boy killed himself a few months later.

Up to the fourth floor and out of the lift.  Ah – here was familiar territory.  The corridor with the sloping roof.  The rain drumming down; the wind shrieking round the corners.  Room 432.  Room 433.  Room 434.  As he walked past Room 434, another guest walked past him and stared right at him in an astonished and hostile way, as if perhaps he did not belong here.

How rude.

But that was it – there was no Room 435.  Room 434, a fire door, and then a landing leading to some stairs back down.  He went through the fire door and started down the stairs.  Puzzled, frowning, he was going down these stairs when he passed a maid on the way up.  A maid?  At 9p.m? And dressed like she was out of the period drama.  Strange.

Down to reception again but by the stairs.   As he walked into reception, he noted that literally minutes ago there must have been a shift change, for there was now a different person on the counter.  The pretty smiling Norwegian girl had gone.  In her place, a cold and formal looking older lady.

“Kan du Engelsk?” he began. She nodded. “Can you help me find my way back to my room? I can’t seem to find my way in this ancient hotel. It’s all strange corridors and mystery stairways”

“Of course, sir” she replied, with only a hint of a Norwegian accent. “What room is it?”

“435.”

Her eyes widened ever so slightly in the way that told him that she was about to say something disappointing or negative.

“We have no Room 435.  There’s never been a room 435. Perhaps 434 or 335, you meant?”

“No. I checked into Room 435.  All my stuff is in Room 435.  I put my dinner on-“

He’d been about to say that he’d put his dinner on the room bill, to be paid when he checked out.  But then he’d recalled that there’d been a problem and he’d actually paid in cash.  He produced the key, which was an electronic key card, and offered it to the lady.  She looked at it blankly, making no attempt to take it.  At that moment, a door to an office behind reception opened, and a man came out, perhaps the night manager or someone more senior than the receptionist.  It seemed odd for there to be a night manager at such relatively small provincial hotel.  He was formally and anciently dressed, as if going to a re-enactment  of Edwardian times.

The night manager looked at him, professional concern on his face.

“I can’t find Room 435”, he said to the manager, holding up the key to his room between two fingers. All of a sudden he was minded of the time years ago that his hotel room had been inadvertently rented to someone else.  Had the stranger got into his room, he would have lost all he had in his room – more than just clothes and a bit of money.  That would have caused some problems; he would have had some trouble explaining that. He’d left his key at reception that day.   Arriving back from work, he’d asked for his key, and it could not be found.  It was Friday night.  A stag do was going to take place. The hotel was nearly full.  Together with a member of staff he’d walked towards his room, when a clearly drunken man had lurched up to this member of staff and said where is room 116? Holding up the key to his room – the room with all the stuff stashed in it.   A wave of cold fear ran down his back as he leaned forward and neatly snatched the key from the drunken fool’s fingers. “That’s my room, thank you”.

“These are our keys”, the lady receptionist put in, holding up a heavily varnished slice of wood embossed with the hotel’s name, attached to which was an actual key.  He stared, somewhat bewildered, looking between the proffered physical key and the key card in his hand.

“What is your name?” asked the night manager, kindly and slowly, pronouncing each word carefully, pronouncing “what” with a distinct “v” sound.  Vat. Is. Your. Name?

He gave his name and the night manager and the receptionist together started to look through a register on the desk. There seemed to be no sign of a computer.  Mind, he had not been paying attention when he checked in.  Who does?

After searching through the register for a minute or so, the manager looked up. “I’m sorry sir, we have no-one of that name registered at the hotel tonight.  Are you sure you gave us the correct name?”

He gave his name again, and spelt it out.  Again the manager looked in his book, coming back up to shake his head.

“No, I’m afraid we have no-one of that name booked here in the hotel tonight.  And there is no room 435.  There’s never been a room 435.”