The Hotel Guest

by Ben Parkes

I received a letter from my beloved this morning, but it did nothing to lift my spirits. A three page outpouring, written in her exquisite handwriting, informing me that, despite her best efforts, she was dissatisfied with our relationship and had been for some time. She went on to tell me, at great length, how she felt she could no longer wait for me to return, and must instead seek out companionship from other, more attainable, sources. The next forty years of my life, which I had mentally outlined so carefully in my head, disappeared with the morning breeze.

I counted the last of the 199 steps, and, slightly out of breath, I made my way across the deserted graveyard until I stood at the very edge of the cliff. This is my favourite place, the place where I come to do my thinking. I light a cigarette and breathe out smoke, which drifts lackadaisically down on to the docile town below me. The faint smell of salt and kippers hangs in the morning air, and the repetitive groan of the sea is the only sound to be heard.

You're never truly alone in a graveyard.

I remove my beloved's letter from my breast pocket, and take great pleasure in feeding it to the wind for breakfast. I watch the tiny white scraps of paper whisked away out of my hand, and feel her words become insignificant and meaningless as I say goodbye to her forever. I rest a hand on the nearest gravestone, and take great enjoyment from the rest of my cigarette.

The day seemed to get progressively colder as it went on. The air feels clammy and close, almost as if it's got a grip on my throat. Daniel Merryweather, the recently widowed proprietor of the bookshop told me that there was a storm brewing.

I had to be at work by one o'clock, so after my daily visit to the graveyard and a quick fruitless rummage in the bookshop, I made my way back across the cobbled streets to my quarters. They're not too bad. The bed is hard and uncomfortable, and I can't get any hot water, but at least the view is nice. It's the kind of view that you could imagine constructing a jigsaw puzzle of; rows of snug white cottages with big red chimneys and long smoky winding streets that seem to lead everywhere but nowhere, both at the same time. A picturesque snapshot that could be divided into a thousand pieces and then put back together again. I comb my hair and shave " two of lives most irksome necessities. I've only been shaving for a few months, but I've yet to cut myself, which is an impressive feat considering I'm restricted to freezing cold water. I agonise briefly over which suit to wear, and settle on the brown one. Ruefully I recall that this was the suit I was wearing when I first met my beloved.

I leave my quarters and make my way down the familiar spiral staircases, each of them patterned with the same hideous flowery carpeting. Mr Jessop, with his angry purple face and wheezy voice is waiting for me. I'm not late, but he still speaks to me as if I am. He's never liked me, and I know that he would relish the first opportunity presented to him to throw me out by my ear. I don't think he likes young people in general.

'What time do you call this?' He sounds like he's in danger of losing his voice at any moment. It's scratchy and grating and rasping.

'I'm five minutes early, sir.'

'According to my watch, you're late." He looks like the villain from every book I've ever read. 'Get to work before I change my mind and remove you from my hotel.'

I put my head down and scuttle off, about to begin my sixteen hour shift. The tea room is busier than usual today. People in wet coats, shivering and rubbing their hands together, are huddled together round the fires, glad of the heat. The room is steamy and the smell of coffee permeates the air. I take up my notebook, and head for the nearest table. A man, who somehow looks like he's managed to avoid the downpour, in spectacles and tailcoat orders a pot of tea, and I duly oblige. The sound of clinking saucers and low chatter gradually becomes inaudible over the hammering of rain outside. A low rumble of thunder, seeming to come directly from the belly of the town itself, signifies the beginning of the storm. It seems Mr Merryweather was right. The sea sounds wrathful, and it is already dark outside.

The storm seems almost Biblical. In my seventeen years, I have never known anything like it. Great waves of water rocking the whole town to it's core, and the primal animal roar of the wind, which shrieks out like a wolf. The tea room eventually empties. We stop serving at five o'clock. Most people, in their ludicrous wisdom, decided to make a dash for it. I wonder how far they managed to get before they drowned.

The wiser people who decided to stay undercover in the shelter and warmth progressed to the Dining area and booked themselves rooms for the night. I switched notebooks and served out much appreciated hot food and ale. The Dining area emptied at around ten o'clock, and I extinguished the candles and bade the guests' goodnight. People, especially those on their own, seemed wary to leave the bright warm confines of the Dining area. I can't imagine people will be getting much sleep tonight.

Mr Jessop had been one of the few who had elected to face the storm. Despite having the best room in the entire hotel, he had chosen to attempt to find his wife, who had gone out earlier in the day to visit her mother, who was sick. I wondered if I'd ever see him again, and what I was supposed to do if he didn't return. As it was, for now, I was solely in charge of the hotel, so I made myself comfortable, poured myself a large flagon of dust coloured ale, lit a candle and began reading a book. It was a thick leather-bound volume, and told of pirates and treasure, but it didn't hold my interest. I felt twitchy and nervous. The rain sounded worse than ever, almost as if it would go on indefinitely and never stop. The Grandfather clock in the hall told me it was midnight, twelve eerie chimes which reverberated around the Hotel. Then, everything went cold.

It didn't happen exactly on the last stroke of midnight, perhaps thirty seconds later, but there was a loud, urgent knock on the door. My initial reaction was that it was Mr Jessop returning, bedraggled and half-dead. Quicker than the lightening that was electrocuting the town outside, I threw down my book and ran to the door. I flung it open, and water, cold and spiky, immediately lashed at my face. It was painful. The rain obscured the figure that stood on the threshold.

I didn't hesitate. Still thinking it was Mr Jessop, I grabbed hold of the man's arm and pulled him roughly inside, elbowing the door shut as I did so. I drew the two iron bolts tightly home, and stood panting and spluttering. That was when I realised that the figure I had just admitted wasn't Mr Jessop.

The man before me was tall and thin. Despite the fact that he was drenched completely from head to foot, he still, somehow, inexplicably, looked oddly grand and impressive in the dim candlelight. He wore a black travelling cloak, which he clasped tightly, lovingly, around his shoulders. His face, obscured in the semi-darkness, appeared pale and chalky, but at the same time, youthful and handsome. His eyes found me.

'It is late I know.' He wasn't English.

'What were you doing out in weather like that?'

'I have come a long way. I had, business, to take care of. Urgent matters. You wouldn't understand.' I had to strain my ears to understand what he was saying, and I still wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly. I considered asking him what business could possibly be so urgent and pressing that he'd had to brave the worst storm in over a century, but decided I should know my place. That's what Mr Jessop always said, know your place.

'You must be freezing.'

'I don't feel the cold.'

Water slides down his cloak and amasses to create a small puddle at his feet.

'You have rooms?'

Technically, the answer to that question is 'no'. Due to the weather, all our rooms " thirty-two in total " are fully occupied for the night, which is a rarity. But, then I remembered Mr Jessop's empty bedroom. Nobody would be sleeping in those sheets tonight. Mr Jessop would strangle me if he knew I was contemplating the idea of giving his room up, but he wasn't in charge anymore. I knew he kept the key to his bedroom underneath the reception desk, and it would be downright callous to turn away a needful man and toss him back into the ravenous storm.

'As it happens, you're in luck.' I could live to regret this. 'We have one spare room. In fact, it is the best room in the entire hotel.'

'That is good.' The stranger seems pleased, though his face is hard to read. 'And, food? As I said, I have had a long journey " many days, many nights. Food would be . . .' He pauses, and licks his lips, apparently searching for the perfect word, 'nice.'

There was food left over from dinner, and I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight and thus had nothing more worthwhile to dedicate my time too. 'That shouldn't be a problem,' I said, 'It may take me some time to prepare. Would you like to see your room, maybe dry yourself down a bit before you eat?'

This suggestion seemed to appeal to him. 'I would like that.'

'Follow me.' I find the key to Mr Jessop's room from under the reception desk, and gesture to the man to follow me upstairs. Together we walk in silence. The stairs creak underfoot. All we have is the light of one dim candle, so the flowered carpets aren't visible, which is a good thing. I can feel the man breathing on my neck. Mr Jessop's room is located on the fourth (and top) floor of the hotel, at the bottom of the furthest corridor. I slide the key in, turn, and push down the handle when I hear a resounding click. I fumble in the darkness. The stranger watches me, as I light three candles and a gas lamp. The room glows gloomily.

'Hope this is okay for you.' I set my candle down momentarily on the wooden table beside the bed. The bed is vast and elegant, with deep red curtains enshrouding it completely. The bathroom is situated in a separate chamber of the room, glistening mahogany taps, huge mirrors and a tub large enough to bathe an army of soldiers. The guest silently glides behind me into the bathroom, and I notice that he has no reflection.

'Bath tub here, should you want to use it.' I recover quickly from the shock of what I have just witnessed.

'Yes.'

'Okay.' I twist the tap on top of the bath tub, and hot water erupts from the end. I can't resist putting my hand underneath it, and as I do, I feel a surge of pleasure. 'And towels here. Help yourself to fresh clothes from the wardrobe. I can wash those ones for you, if you want?'

'Yes.' The man nods.

I can hear gushing water, and I'm unable to decipher if it's the rain outside or the bath tub taps. Steam begins to rise, and my forehead begins to feel hot and sticky. The man has removed his travelling cloak. He hands it to me. I look down at the floor as he removes his shirt and trousers. He thrusts them into my hands, and ushers me to leave.

'i will eat when I have bathed, yes?'

'Yes, of course. There are candles through there, so you can find your way back down.'

'That is good.'

He licks his lips, contemplatively. I bundle his clothes close to my breast and turn to leave. I felt sweaty and nauseous as I re-entered the bedroom chamber, but by the time I'd made my way back downstairs, I was shivering and wishing it was I who was about to sink myself down into a hot, steaming bath tub.

The meal I managed to assemble was hardly a feast, but hopefully it would suffice my late arrival. There were left over carrots, onions and potatoes, which I chopped into small chunks and put into a saucepan. I added water and sliced half a dozen pieces of flesh coloured meat, which I then added. I wanted to flavour my recipe with some garlic, but I couldn't seem to find any. I stirred my concoction, until everything melted together into a thick brown stew. I chopped some crusty bread, which I placed on a dish along with a slab of butter.

I heard the stairs creek, and saw the faint light of a candle looming in the darkness.

The man looked much refreshed. Out of his wet clothes, he looked even more youthful and handsome, probably only two or three years older than me. He had taken an expensive looking black robe from Mr Jessop's wardrobe, and combed his hair neatly back off his forehead. His face seemed even whiter.

'Smells good.'

'It's stew.' I say, ladling out copious amounts on to his plate. 'I hope it's okay.'

He takes a seat, and I lay the plate down before him. As I do so, I catch the strong scent of soap. His black hair glistens in the candlelight. He seizes his fork and hungrily attacks his meal. I watch him chew.

'Is good.' He says. 'Though, it would be better with a little wine.'

I nod. I leave him with his dinner for several moments, whilst I retrieve a bottle of wine. I pour him a glass, which I fill to the brim. It is redder than blood.

'You will join me, yes?' He points his fork, which has a piece of beef skewered on the end, towards the wine bottle. I oblige and pour myself a moderately full glass.

'Drinking is better with two.' He smiles. 'We drink a lot of wine where I come from.'

I take a sip. It's rather dry. 'Where are you from?'

'Oh, long, long way away. Miles and miles, across the sea. You wouldn't know it.'

He sips his wine, thoughtfully and in a rather genteel fashion. He seems to be enjoying it more than the food. He swallows.

'I came here by boat. Across the water. Voyaged across the Black Sea. Many people died.' He spreads butter on to a slice of bread, but doesn't allow his eyes to leave my face. 'I like it here. Peaceful. You like it?'

'It's not too bad.' I take another small sip of wine, wishing it was ale or water or tea. 'There's not much to do, but it's nice to look at, I suppose.'

'Yes, is beautiful. Most beautiful.' He places his knife and fork together on his plate, indicating that he's had enough to eat. 'Of course, where I come from, also beautiful. Much hotter, too hot you could say. I shall have more wine, yes?' I re-fill his glass. 'Tell me, how old are you?'

Funny question. 'I'm seventeen.'

'Ten and seven years. Oh yes, so young. So innocent, fresh as a daisy.' He laughs and the wine gleams red on his white teeth. 'You are pure, untouched, unblemished . . . I see it in your eyes. People don't appreciate you, do they? I can tell, you see. People reject you, and they order you about. It's all there . . . in your face. You have a nice face.'

I don't know what to say, so I drink more wine and smile. He smiles too. His lips seem so very red on his white, white face. The thunder rumbles.

'What would you say, young man, if I were to tell you that I caused this storm?'

'I'd say . . . I don't know, I'd say that . . . it's impossible.'

He laughs, and as he does so, I'm reminded of the grandfather clock chiming. 'Impossible is good.' He reaches across the table, and takes my hand in his. It is soft and tiny, and cold. He strokes my fingers, one by one. 'I tell you, you wear your feelings like a glove. You don't hide things, do you? You have had your heart broken. You were in love.'

His eyes won't release me. I stare deep within them. They're like two portals leading to dangerous unknown places. I can't help myself. The man holds his wine glass up to his face, and his skin glows red in the darkness. The windows rattle like bones. I think they might break at any moment.

'The storm,' he says, musingly, 'It could destroy us all.'

He's right. Outside, civilisation is at the mercy of an unrelenting force. The world is enraged. All I see is black, with the occasional jagged flash of striking fiery blue. The wind sounds like an animal in pain and the sea sounds almost as if it is drowning within itself. Would there even be a morning?

The man rises from the table. 'You will come with me.'

We both hold candles as we make our way creakily up the staircases. Neither of us speaks, though the endeavour to remain quiet seems unnecessary considering I doubt very much that anyone in the hotel would be sleeping. I imagine families will be huddled together, trying to remain warm. People would be praying, or else crying.

Mr Jessop's room is very cold, despite the gas lamp that I lit earlier that night. The man walks over to the window, and I follow him. He lights a cigarette and throws back the red curtains and together we stand and stare out at the storm. A black foggy mass " pitchforks of violent light and the sound of death. The man puts his hand on my shoulder, and I feel a charge of something I can't describe pulse through me and the soft waft of tobacco.

'This could be the end of the world.' The man said. 'There may never be light again.'

I say nothing. I just listen to the soothing rhythm of his voice.

'It would be a shame, would it not, if you left this world without ever knowing how it felt?' His eyes were bright lights in the dark. 'Consider, if this is the end of everything, as I fear it could be, then wouldn't you like to know how it feels to be alive. Truly alive.'

He traces his hand down the side of my newly shaved cheek and sighs. 'Beautiful boy.'

He says nothing, but leads me to the bed. Red curtains completely encase us, and I feel as if I am in a tomb.

He sucked more than my blood that night. He took my soul.

I feel the eyes of the dead upon me as I cross the graveyard and stand by the edge of the cliff. I look down at the sprawling wreckage below me. Ships and boats lay crushed and tossed and thrashed and whipped in what remains of the harbour. Dozens of destroyed vessels that would never sail again strewn like the dead on a battlefield. There is a deathly stillness to the graveyard this morning. It feels even calmer than usual. The storm has passed, leaving years of devastation behind. The wind has dropped down to nothing, just a summer breeze lingering in the air.

On my way to the 199 steps this morning, all I saw was damage and disaster. Houses, missing roofs and windows and doors and people, and trees uprooted and several bodies. Nobody I recognised. I passed a pile of dead horses. They didn't look real. So many people left helpless and homeless, including me.

Mr Jessop hadn't perished in the storm, as I had suspected. He reappeared looking flustered and dishevelled and even more aggressive than usual at around ten o'clock. The storm had subsided by then, and he had come marching back into the hotel with his wife and sick mother in tow. On first greeting me, he was almost congratulatory, and applauded me for managing to keep the hotel in order during such a crisis. His good humour unfortunately did not last. After going upstairs to inspect his quarters, he returned to the lobby, seized me by the hair and forcefully ejected from the premises. He claimed that his bedclothes were awash with blood and that his finest satin black robe had vanished.

On the subject of vanishing, I awoke this morning to find myself ensconced behind the draped curtains, alone in bed. The mysterious unnamed guest from the night before had disappeared. My memories of the previous night " or at least the events that occurred after we went upstairs after dinner were vague and hazy. I don't remember falling asleep. I felt dizzy this morning, almost as if I'd had too much ale to drink.

Atop the cliff I hear the feeble lapping of the sea below. It seems so tame and quiet compared to the raging cacophony of the storm last night. I withdraw writing paper, pen and ink from my jacket pocket. I fill my pen, and then lean on the nearest gravestone to write. This is going to be difficult.

I have to tell my Beloved to reconsider. I decide to tell her, as poetically and powerfully as possible, that I've decided to abandon my fortune and return to her because my life without her simply isn't worth living. I won't tell her that I've lost my job and living accommodation and therefore had no choice but to return anyway, as that seems to lessen the emotional impact of my decision. I write her name in curvy letters, unsure how to continue.

After perhaps an hour of false starts and empty words, I decide to be frank. I tell her about the storm and the unknown stranger who claimed that he was the one who had caused it. I told her that everybody in this town, or indeed everybody who felt the storm last night, would remember it forever and that it would be spoken of for generations to come. I ended my letter by saying that I would be the only person in this town who would never speak of the storm, not as long as I lived, and that she would be the only one who knew about that night, and that man, and what happened between us and what he took.

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