The hotel is a large boxy square sat facing the beach, much like the other boxy squares sat either side. The elderly flaking paint is peach coloured and ugly. The windows, though equally old, are scrubbed and the frames careworn. The resulting effect is that of a treasured family mongrel having been groomed for a show. It is, by most measures, a standard seaside hotel. In front of it line up the usual assortment of ice-cream vans and candy floss vendors in an established empire. If a passer-by were foolish enough to bring their purchased catering into the sunshine, they would promptly be assaulted by the gathered seagulls perched on the hanging strings of multi-coloured lightbulbs arranged along the seafront. The rendition would have been true to The Birds and no doubt very entertaining.
Enter to the scene a middle aged man, strolling by with his hands in his pockets. Although windswept he is not weary and is neatly kept, wearing a hat that matches his jacket nicely. There is nothing about him of note in particular, he could be anyone. Before reaching the pier which extends out into the waves, he leans against the chipped white paint of a railing in thought.
The sky is blue and clear, one of those lovely English seaside summer days where it is possible to ascertain exactly where the water meets the horizon. Upon checking his watch, he discovers that it has stopped. This is of no consequence; he cannot recall why he needed the time in the first place. Was he supposed to meet someone? He is pensive, though to what, who can tell? All in all, he was uncertain of why he had arrived here.
Nor was he sure why he had stopped in front of this hotel in particular. There was nothing special about its facade to draw him in. Having no prior experience here he did not have a preference for it. Neither had he received a recommendation from a friend. If you or I had walked by this thinker on this sunny afternoon and asked him for direction, much like the time, he would have been unable to help us. Though he was not aware of it yet.
A blonde woman walked back along the pier towards him, child in tow. Through her sunglasses she smiled politely at the waiting man in greeting and he returned the gesture. Passing on, she paused to inspect the prices of ice creams available to her before deciding against and leading her offspring away. Still, the man leant on the railing and looked out to sea.
There was nothing in particular on his mind; no troubles or worries. This state of affairs did not seem peculiar to him. In truth, it was hard for him to recall a time when anything had. Forgetting about his broken timepiece, he checked his wrist again and shook it, putting his ear to the glass face. No ticking. Instead, the soft roar of the waves in the distance and a couple of gulls overheard. If he really strained his ears he could hear the repeated jolly melody of a penny arcade or slot machine lined up out on the pier.
Checking his pockets, he finds them empty but for a spotted handkerchief, with which he dabs at his crown. However he is still not yet concerned; merely bemused. Turning away from the ocean, he polishes his spectacles using an untucked portion of his white shirt. Then he marches across the wooden decking and onto the flagstones paving the front of the drab hotel. There appear to be two choices left to him now; he can amble down the pier or he can climb up the steps to the hotel. Continuing his pleasant stroll is unthinkable.
And so he enters the hotel lobby, empty headed. In the same way that his mind is cleared of thoughts, the lobby is cleared of people; the concierge desk stands unmanned. The room is air-conditioned and cool; a break from the afternoon heat. In every corner is a well-watered fern. The man’s shoes squeak as he crosses the floor. Placing both hands on the desk, he inspects it for signs of life. Somewhere, a radio is playing but he cannot make out the song.
Tired of waiting, he lightly taps the bell on the desk; his first hint of impatience. Once more, he unsure of why he does this. He does not desire a room or a table. Loneliness aside he is otherwise content. It does not matter as nobody answers the call. The people staffing this desk, if indeed there are any, are nowhere to be found.
Noticing that the clock above the desk has stopped, he leaves his position and walks across the lobby to one of the ornate sets of white double doors. Gripping the curved brass handle, he turns it firmly to discover that it is locked. Its twin on the opposite edge is similarly sealed. Other than the bell, the only object inhabiting the polished wooden desk is a cream coloured Bakelite telephone, an excellent companion to the colour of his suit. The sole hotel visitor picks up the handset and tries to recall his home number but cannot. At this stage dignity will not let him express his alarm. Putting the set to his ear, there is no dial tone; the telephone is completely inanimate.
He walks outside, back into the sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he checks the seafront again. Out to sea there are no boats on the deep blue waves, despite the calm waters and mild weather. No tourists stroll along the decking and all of the vendors’ stands are closed, despite it probably being peak time (having no clock nor working watch he is unable to determine this). Still the pier doesn’t appeal; in part it could be that the empty hotel warrants further investigation. Though this could also be attributed to some primal animal instinct or desire for shelter. Back inside, the foyer is still perfectly featureless and pristine.
So the access to the ballroom and the dining hall are barred, for him. Behind the desk, he pulls out the drawers. There are bundles of paper but each one is crisp, white and blank. There are no pens or seals for which to blemish the stationary. He is perplexed. On the wall beneath the clock are plenty of hooks which would have held keys, were that any keys were present. This, surely, is a positive sign? There being no keys present then logically they must be in the possession of the hotel guests. Still, the absent radio murmurs out of the edge of his hearing. That, and the gull cries and his footfalls are the only sounds.
Around the corner is a small staffroom, a back office, which is situated beneath grand set of stairs leading to the guest rooms. There is no door to block access this time so he investigates. The filing cabinets and glass fronted cupboards are locked. There are no ornaments or trophies on display. Pinned to the corkboard are postcards and papers but in fitting with the precedent, they too are unmarked. Stood upright adjacent to an empty wastepaper basket is a bare hat stand.
In some attempt at changing his immediate environment, he hangs his hat upon it and leaves the small office. As he makes an exit, his hand flicks the light switch by the door. Yet still the bulb shines, ignoring his adjustment. Noticing this, he toys with the light switch and watches the bulb all the while. No action of his on via the light switch is able to modify the lighting in the room. It is a strange phenomenon in keeping with the rest of this bizarre establishment.
Sweeping his finger along the desk front trawls no dust. The floor is polished and clean. No rust or corrosion erodes the metal anywhere in the lobby. The glass is unscratched and spotless. He runs his fingers on the underside for splinters, nails or even discarded gum but to no avail. Had anything turned up he would not know what to do with it.
From where he is stood, the plush red carpet on the stairs is inviting. As are the brass railings running up either side. A gold cord suspended from the deep red curtains secures them in their place. Beyond them, the cream wallpaper is replaced by dark wooden panelling decorated by painted scenes which could be of anywhere.
He is almost fooled, almost tempted by this new frontier. Instead, he spots a row of elevator doors to the other side of the desk. Once more his squeaky shoes track their progress across the lobby. He selects the far right, for no particular reason or emotion, and presses the button. Expecting it to be as unresponsive as the light switch, he is surprised yet rewarded when the doors open to the inside of the lift. He steps inside and its bucks moderately under the additional weight. Within this confined space he is able to inspect his appearance on the flawless mirrors lining the walls.
Adjusting his glasses he sees himself as a dirty blond haired man in his early forties. His cheeks are not overly pale nor ruddy. His rounded nose is not spoilt by a scar or pockmark and his ears do not stick out, instead serving as perfectly average and balanced pegs to hang the frames of his glasses upon.
The frames themselves are smooth and black with no indentation or logo. He takes them off and opens and closes them. The motions are smooth, without resistance. Replacing them, he sees that he is of middling weight and height and is generally mediocre all around. So why is there no familiarity?
The doors close and he shuts his eyes. A single finger points from his right hand. He holds it, hovering in front of the buttons and swirls it around in the air. He chases this flourish by pushing on a chosen button, which promptly lights up. In this way he has succeeded in selecting a floor at random. The lift hums and, eyes still shut, he feels pressure on the soles of his feet as the small container he is in rises to a floor which was selected by pure chance. The lift dings, startling him, as the door opens. Tentatively, he treads a single foot on the carpeted corridor.
The pattern here is identical to that of the top of the stairs back in the lobby. Dark wooden panels poorly lit by converted gas lamps house bland watercolours and two-tone photographs, probably of the rest of the resort, but it’s difficult to determine. Nose almost pressed to the glass, he examines one closely, as if to spot some afore unseen landmark yet is fruitless. The landscapes depicted are bland and plain, each one nearly resembling the next.
Sighing, he strides down the corridor and begins trying the un-numbered doors, all of which are locked. As if to mock him, each doorknob rattles emptily with the same repeated syllable. His steps are muffled by the plush red carpet, which ordinarily would appear worn perhaps at any other hotel in any other place, but here it is immaculately kept.
Panic breaks and he begins to run. How has he not reached an end yet? The lift has disappeared from view down the lengthy stretch already travelled. The light does not change, the curvature of the corridor is constant. It is all the same. Uniform. Occasionally he stops and tugs at the doors, shoving the clear panels with his shoulder. Now he bangs against them and cries out incomprehensibly. He beats his fists raw and bloody in desperation.
And then he stops, panting heavily. He is bent double. His profuse sweat splatters the carpet and is absorbed by the thick weave, leaving no trace.
“Are you in my dream too?” His struggle is interrupted. The door behind him is open. Sunlight streams through the window and bathes the room. A small girl in a white smock sits barefoot on the bed. Her legs swing casually to and fro; she is immune to his tumult. In puzzlement, he looks up at her, still breathing heavily.
“What?” A small gout of blood, from where he bit his lip perhaps, dribbles down from the corner of his mouth and mingles with sweat at his chin. He wipes it with his cuff and but remains in his crouch. The sense of loneliness lingers whilst he is still separated from this other person by a doorway.
“I said, are you in my dream?” She reconfirms in childish treble. “Why don’t you come in?” She points at a wicker chair perched by the window beyond the bed. The man hesitates a moment and catches his breath. At this point he is unsure of what to expect. And then he picks himself up off of the floor and is seated on the chair within his young girl’s room. He leans forward and addresses her:
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” she mirrors in reply and this stops him dead; he does not know! This idle game introduces a reflection which mounts and transfigures to become a terrifying speculation; he does not know who he is! Much like the time of day or his present location, when asked he is unable to produce a satisfactory answer. He pulls off his jacket and checks the labels. They are intact but nameless and so he remains anonymous. The unwelcome bloom of panic flourishes in his chest. It is cold and clutches at him. How could this occur? Counting his steps backwards he traces himself back to the lift, around the lobby and out to the walkway above the beach and to… nothing. To where? He doesn’t not know. He is an amnesiac, some specimen of memory deficient? Must he now be forced to live in the present moment forever? It is not a kind prospect.
In his terror he looks to the girl for answers. While he is agape she smiles warmly at him, which offsets his anxiety to an extent. The grip of his terror relaxes and retreats.
“Where are we?” he begs of her. She is calm and cheerful. The lack of fear in her enables him to remain unafraid, though his feet tremor somewhat as he sits.
“In a dream.” He does not argue to this answer, as it is satisfactory to him. It provokes a memory, deep within the back of his mind. Suddenly he remembers.
“I was dreaming,” he says, more to himself as if in discovery,“but then I got lost.” The girl nods; she understands. Maybe she finds herself in the same situation as this interloper. “And I am still in a dream.” It refreshes him to hold a conversation with another. He is reassured. “But whose dream?” At this, the girl shrugs, open to the possibility that she was not the one being asked.
“Is it your dream?” he asks, directing the question to her. Again, she shrugs. “Well,” he theorises, “if we are the only people here then it must be one of us that is dream belongs to. I saw a few people outside, but they never spoke to me and I do not think they’re real.”
“But you think you are?” He is ready to cut across her with this, but instead he seizes the question and contemplates it. Is he real? Does it matter? This blank environment in which he finds himself provides the perfect platform upon which to consider such an abstract suggestion. Again; is he real? He feels real. The chair presses into his back and feels real. The air taken in and out of his lungs feels real. He heard the gulls’ shrieks and they seemed real too. Here and now feels real. Is that not enough? The casual caress of authenticity? How could he know any better? He pulls back from this burgeoning crisis. Of course he is real. To suggest otherwise is untenable. If need be he will assume. That is as much as he can hope.
So it is established: he is the genuine article. But is she? Does he have any way of assessing this beyond his own assumptions? In purely practical terms, would he change his behaviour to accommodate this? Would he act any more or less considerate to an entity which although could not experience suffering, would act as though she would perfectly? As wagers go, it feels too much to risk. Not chancing it, he takes upon this soft reasoning, this faith that the both of them are ‘real’ with all the rights and responsibilities of this. Though how real can one be in a dream?
Politely, he says to her. “I would like this to stop now. I would like to wake up.” One eyebrow raises as if to say, ‘why ask me?’. Whilst he finds himself in not an immediately unpleasant environment, the toll it would exact against him were it the be all of his very existence is almost too great to consider. At her non-answer he wants to reach out and grab her, to shake her, to demand and coerce her to release him. But, keen to maintain the civility, he does not. Instead, a new avenue opens.
In as far as much as he not being in control of the dream, that she has this leverage over him, how much can it be said that it is not his dream? Fore surely, if he is begging of her to relinquish him, then by dint of having to ask something of her, she must be the dreamer. Her unphased demeanour serves only to re-enforce this opinion in him. That his identity is merely a stock character in the dream of a little girl is also impossible to contemplate so he discards it and does not.
“If you wanted to leave, you have always known how.” She states cryptically and tilts her head softly towards the window. He looks beyond it through the glass and sees the white foam of the waves crashing against the timbers of the pier. It is enough; he is convinced. One last time he looks her straight in the eye before he leaves, to assess her and weigh her humanity before leaving and retreating with purposeful stride in a proud march back to the lift, which he locates without difficulty.
This time selecting the ground floor, he is returned to the lobby. For the last time, he crosses its floors, each self-satisfied footstep a reminder to his assurance of their finality. His hat, were it still upon the stand, would remain forgotten. Upon exiting the doors, open wide for him, he descends the stairs to the flagstones.
He meets the wooden decking at a brisk pace. The sun beats down upon his bare head. Still, with not a person inside, he crosses the promenade and takes his first steps upon the pier. The saline smell of the shoreline, true or false, imbeds itself on his tongue. The seagulls chant and soar above him. Halfway along the length of the pier, his stride breaks into a jog as he sheds his jacket, too heavy for him now. The excitement mounts, lightening his shoulders and straightening his back. He takes deep breaths: his heart is racing. A broad grin trickles its way across his cheeks.
Sprinting now, he meets the railing at the end of the pier. His palms grip the rough, salt stricken edge. Without pause or doubt he vaults it. His idea is secure, certainty is within his grasp. The hotel, the girl, the hat are nothing to him, they are the past. Fully clothed in shirt and tie he leaps from the edge of the unknown pier and executes a perfect dive into the waves beneath; his legs straight and paired, his arms arcing ahead of him, his eyes open wide in anticipation.
George Huntington is a 23 year old medical student. He has had worked published in the Boston Literary Magazine, Entropy Squared, and Penniless Press.
Illustrations by Henry Davis
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