Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 1 November 2008

A rude awakening

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The help-yourself breakfast buffet was a single, waxed carton of orange juice (made from concentrate), and a stack of small upturned glasses. I filled one of these, tipped it down my throat, poured another and bore it to a table set for one beside the swing service door leading to the kitchen. A grubby laminated menu on the tea-stained tablecloth said that the Continental breakfast was tea or coffee with brown or white toast. Dotted about at the other tables were what appeared to be foreign tourists: a solitary meditative backpacker, two not quite awake couples, a fitfully vivacious table of four Spaniards. The unspoken shame of having to start the day in such shabby, penny-pinching surroundings was palpable.

On the far side of the room, directly opposite my table, was a large mirror. I could see myself from the waist up, neatly framed within it, my elbows on the table. In spite of a smart, plain-white shirt, my appearance was surprisingly dissolute, lending credence to a growing suspicion that I was far from sober. The eyes, smaller than usual, gleamed insolently back at me. The service door swung violently open, interrupting my view and wafting a gust of warm kitchen air over me. Then it swung back once more, and there I was again, staring menacingly back at myself, a few stray strands of my squashed barnet waving in the breeze.

When I’d woken up, I was lying flat on my back in a narrow single bed in a hotel room I didn’t recognise. The room was like a cupboard. It was so narrow I could have spanned it with outstretched arms. And my legs were wet. The bottom half of the bed was sodden. Further investigation told me that, although the sheets were soaked, the duvet and the suit trousers I’d slept in were perfectly dry. Strange. The only possible solution to this mystery was that at some stage during the night I’d stood up and mistaken the bottom of the bed for the lavatory. But what conscientious impulse allied to this odd delusion had made me carefully pull back the duvet before relieving myself? (A similar unfathomable occurence came to mind from my past involving a pair of my host’s shoes in the bottom of a wardrobe.) 

Having solved the mystery, I got back between the sheets and dozed fitfully for an hour or so, while the traffic noise outside the window grew in volume, and many different voices, speaking in languages that I didn’t recognise, enacted little one-act dramas on the other side of my door. Thirst eventually drove me out of bed and down three flights of a once grand staircase in search of a dining room and an inclusive breakfast. 

Still contemplating my image in the dining-room mirror, I drank my orange juice. Then I hunched my shoulders and covered my eyes with my hands, like a child pretending to be invisible. Immediately I felt a human presence at my side. Turning to the side and opening my eyes, I was confronted by a woman’s shapely, well-defined crotch.  The waitress. Skin-tight black trousers, tight white shirt, body of a gymnast, face of a porn star — a disillusioned porn star.

‘Tea or coffee?’ The tone was brisk, faintly contemptuous. The sooner she finished her daily stint waiting on losers like us, the sooner she could get out and commence her real life. I told her crotch I’d like tea. ‘Brown or white toast?’ I thought white. The crotch vanished, the service door swung violently, and another gust of warm stale air wafted over me.

Why was I in a hotel? How had I got here? My memory was a complete blank. Amnesia on this scale could only mean yet another alcoholic disaster of some kind. And why this particular hotel? The last thing I could remember of the night before was being at a drinks party in west London hosted by the editor, a civilised affair as far as I could recall. Why hadn’t I gone back to my girlfriend’s flat afterwards, as usual? I wanted to sing and cry at the same time.

Instead, I lowered my head and began beating it lightly with my fists. Then I noticed that the waitress’s crotch was back beside my ear. A basket containing four halves of white bread, lightly browned at some of the edges, skidded across the tablecloth. ‘Anything else?’ Speaking directly to the crotch, as though it contained a microphone, I said, ‘There is. Can you tell me where I am?’ Without missing a beat, as though nothing that a loser like me could ever say or do was ever going to surprise or move her, she said, ‘Marble Arch,’ followed by, ‘London.’ And then the door swung more violently than ever and another gust of warm air wafted over me.