We’d had a tiff in the Strand and I’d stormed off. It was late. I didn’t have anywhere else to stay the night, and I live in Devon, so I had to storm off halfway across Britain to get home. I caught the last train out of Paddington by the skin of my teeth. Once aboard, my anger subsided.
It was the last train headed for the west country and it stopped at every station in Berkshire, Avon and Somerset. This put it in a leisurely frame of mind and it also stopped in open countryside for long periods of time just because it felt like it. Finally, at Exeter station, the train decided it just couldn’t be bothered any more and called it a day. Via loudspeakers, the train manager advised all passengers that the train would be going no further and would we please be sure to take all our belongings with us.
I alighted. One-thirty in the morning. Raining. Bitter cold. No taxis. I’m dressed for the theatre. And 50 miles away from my bed still. A hotel for the night was my only remaining option. I started up the hill towards the city centre.
At first glance, the hotel looked closed, derelict even. But as I came level I saw a light on downstairs, and the front door was ajar. The reception desk was deserted, but further in was an unlit bar and a woman dressed in black sitting astride a bar stool. ‘Hallo,’ I said.
She turned and stared. It was an odd, inscrutable stare, signifying fear or hostility or lust. ‘Have you got a room?’ I said. She continued to stare. Then a man, previously out of sight, stood up suddenly behind the bar, took one involuntary step backwards, two to the side, almost lost his balance, regained it, steadied himself both mentally and physically for a moment, and said, ‘Have you a reshervation?’
I had many reservations, to tell the truth. The hotel was very seedy. It was the type of place Graham Greene would put an adulterous travelling salesman with religious doubts. But I only wanted somewhere to put my head till the first westbound train left in the morning. I had no reservation, I told the man, but could pay cash in advance.
Hearing this, he made this ecstatic, slow-motion shrug and remained in the shrug position, his shoulders up to his ears, palms heavenwards, eyes closed, until for a moment I thought he’d fallen asleep like that, or the end had come and he’d been raptured. The woman in black was staring at me as if I were a ghost. I was looking at the man. The man was shrugging. After the shrug there was another exaggerated, slow-motion gesture. This one was John Wayne at the start of a long and potentially perilous cattle drive, giving the signal to move ’em on out. I followed him out to the reception, paid and he gave me a key.
Well, the floor of my coffin-shaped single bedroom creaked at every step, the sash window rattled in the wind and someone had punched a hole in the door. And I could hear all too clearly the peculiarly vagrant snoring of the occupant in the room next door. And there were stains. But I slept like a dormouse on Mogodon, and in the morning, re-imbued with a sense of optimism, went downstairs to try the breakfast.
There was a restaurant. Six other guests seated at tables, all looking terribly ashamed. The waitress, her face still creased with sleep, stood over me, betting-shop Biro poised over her pad, while I studied the menu. There were two choices: take it or leave it. I’ll take it, I told her. The restaurant décor was late-Seventies porno, coated with 30 years of nicotine. The tablecloth was creased, the cutlery stained, and, like a bouquet fastened to a lamppost at an accident black spot, there was a sprig of pink campion in a vase.
Nobody was holding out much hope for the actual food. But oddly enough the full English, preceded by fresh grapefruit, was absolutely superb. We ate in disbelieving silence, as if it was some kind of a trick. Then to round things off the drunken man of the night before, adorned now with a squashed chef’s hat, emerged from the kitchen and made a desperate little curtsey in our midst. And the arresting thought occurred to me that in this alcoholic breakfast chef I was perhaps being granted a premonition of my own situation in about ten years’ time.