*

Water Hammer

Fog-tired and feckless, Gerald followed his endless headlights towards the hotel which the petrol attendant had said was down the road, turn right, straight over the roundabout and then left up a dirt track that used to be a river…

Why a hotel should be so inaccessible, Gerald had indeed wondered … but some exclusivity must attach to it: an erstwhile bankside watering-hole or golf-club conference centre, perhaps. In any event, what did it matter, since Gerald was on another of his go-anywhere see-anything jaunts, one with chance meetings, eccentric co-travellers, comings and goings, innocent flirtations, gentle dalliances and, hopefully, the odd full-blooded holiday romance – a trip where the *least* expected was more natural than the *most* expected – or so Gerald considered these solitary holidays of his to entail.

He nearly missed the turning, sunk as it was between two towering hedgerows. Of course, he nearly missed it – only to be expected. But, there again, he didn’t miss it. And he laughed at his own unexpected joke about ‘missed’ and ‘fog’. Worth every chuckle.

His tyres crunched loudly as they traversed the dry terrain like a truck on a track to nowhere, except his car was only a truck by the noise which its cranking cronk of an engine made and by the size he sensed it to be around him as he drove.

Indeed, he sometimes felt he was pilotting an ancient Lancaster bomber. His teeth pained him as imagined the huge heights he soared…

In reality, the car was not very big at all. But if not a truck, the destination *did* seem to remain firmly a trick of nowhere … until the most unexpected event of all: a large mist and dusk-draped hotel with twin turrets (and chimneystacks even larger than the twin turrets) and several wings *and* what looked like an old steam-rail water-tower at the back of a prefabrication that was evidently the staff annexe … all surrounded by a deserted golf course with, as he discovered the next day, only the short flag-pins poking above the undulating dunes of its bunkers and greens.

The noise he heard that night was no doubt the flags flapping in a wind that the fog belied. Silhouettes and shadows shifting.

Gerald’s mind was still in a mist of his own making as his reverberating vehicle drew up at the entrance of the FOREST LINKS HOTEL – or so it was called. But Golf Courses were only called Links when beside the sea and his journey – albeit random – was so far from the coast as it was possible to be in England. He lived by the sea, so why spend a holiday by the sea? Unless, of course, he had wandered off course to such an extent he had hit upon a patch of coastline that he previously didn’t know existed or should never have existed this far inland…

These laughable thoughts buoyed him towards FOREST LINKS, his luggage weighing less as a result of his mind’s absence elswhere. It was true that problems ceased to be problems when they weren’t occupying the mental spaces. Yet, when Gerald reached the reception desk in the foyer – after negotiating some extremely spiteful swing doors – his arms felt like a pair of solid bones: extensions from the toothache he’d been suffering all day. He dropped his cases with over-lapping thumps so as to face out whoever was going to be officious enough to deny him a meal and a room.

“Yes?”

This yesser had ‘no’ written all over its mean and pinched face, someone no doubt with wrinkles under the clothes as well as above them.

“I would like some food and a room for the night,” said Gerald, trying to look away from the person to whom he was talking, looking away without making it too obvious.

“Food and a room?” answered the receptionist whose stature belied the existence of one or scope for the other.

At that point, Gerald spotted a porter approaching from the direction of the lift, carrying luggage which looked loaded with lead, but not preventing him from making a bee-line for Gerald’s own luggage.

“We’re full,” said the scrawny jobsworth receptionist, having flicked through a dusty volume of seeming names and numbers in lists.

“But the car park’s empty,” said Gerald, suddenly remembering something he hadn’t noted as particularly important when he was outside. It would have been the devil’s own job to reach FOREST LINKS without a car.

“They all came in a coach,” muttered the gaunt guest-clerk, “and *that’s* parked at the back.”

Meanwhile, the porter’s long-armed hands had abandoned his original set of luggage at Gerald’s feet and replaced them with Gerald’s own.

“Hey! Where you going with them?” asked Gerald, twirling on his toes.

Another man – apparently a fellow guest, one with a casual cut of clothes and stooping angular gait – emerged at this point from a room marked NINETEENTH HOLE. He was less substantial even than the desk-clerk, yet, within the cut-down sides of what must once have been the man’s face, Gerald vaguely recognised someone from a time when they were both younger and the other man of fatter cast.

But before Gerald had the opportunity to acknowledge this possible erstwhile acquaintance, there stumped from an area signposted POP’S PANTRY a dwarfish figure of a buxom persuasion, one which snapped words that did not seem to necessitate moving cheeks, jowls or, even, lips:-

“Gerald! You’re late.”

.
Eventually – and at last – Gerald was ensconced in his room, some of the earlier confusions and recognitions having been ironed out satisfactorily, others not. There was no ensuite bathroom; always rather perturbing having to negotiate public corridors at the dead of night when – as was his general wont – he would doubtless need a necessarium. Still, there was a hand-basin in the room, one which – at a pinch – he could use for something more down to earth than simply washing his face.

There was an annoying clunk every time he turned off the cold tap – as if someone, elsewhere in the building, banged a pipe with a hammer; a ghost of some ancient plumber who knew exactly when to synchronise his hammer? Gerald was laughing at his own conceit – one of his best, he thought – when there was a tap at his room door.

“Yes?”

The answering voice – “It’s the water-cress sandwich you ordered, Sir” – was that of the strange big-bosomed dwarf who had claimed expectation of Gerald’s arrival and having known him at some vulnerable point in his past. He was no longer hungry, so he shouted for the sandwich to be left outside the door.

“Very good, Sir, but I’m afraid it’ll go off.”

Nevertheless, the interchange succumbed to silence before Gerald lay down – fully dressed – upon the hard bed and slept (or dreamt that he slept).

.
There was a gathering in the foyer when he managed to struggle down there. He thought it was morning but he soon established it was still evening. The porter and the very thin guest with the sides of his face missing were having an altercation with the desk-clerk, apparently unaware of Gerald’s presence.

“Why put him in that room?”

“Because we were full up.”

“You knew he was coming.”

“A clerical error.”

“A double booking?”

“Sort of. More a double-entry.”

“Either it was a double-booking or it wasn’t a double-booking. It couldn’t have been both.”

“Well, if it *were* a double-booking (and I’m not saying it was or it wasn’t), I’m not sure you can call a couple who only came here for an hour simply to have sex with each other a booking at all.”

“This is *not* a knocking-shop.”

“We’ve got to get custom where we can. That’s why we let *him* in.”

“But he was already booked.”

“That’s a matter of opinion.”

Gerald could imagine this (sort of) conversation going on all night, so he stepped from the shadows.

“I’m sorry if my arrival was an inconvenience.”

“Well, it *is* the busy season here at the moment. People have come for the display.”

“Display?”

“Yes, a sea and air display. But you’re almost too late. It happened today. And nothing much is left over for tomorrow.”

“Sorry I missed it.”

“Well, usually we have thousands and thousands of craft, but the fog put paid to that.”

“Ah well, can’t be helped. Anyway, I didn’t know there *was* any sea round here.”

“Oh yes, plenty of sea. We’re an island, after all.”

.
Gerald woke up from sleeping. The pipes were thrumming, interspersed with odd clanks and ricochets as other guests got ready for bed. He had not been dreaming. He never dreamt. Merely slept. There had never been a smoother sleep than Gerald’s. He felt his pulse. Perhaps he’d try and retrieve that sandwich now.

It was then he realised that he was not alone in the bed.

.
Someone spoke quietly, pillow to pillow, barely disturbing Gerald’s renewal of sleep.

“I may be small but I am big with love. Do you know, Sir, every living person was once abused?”

The non-sequitur was more disturbing than anything that had gone on before.

The voice waited for a reply but, gaining none, resumed:

“The most trustworthy elder siblings, Sir, even one’s long-loved Mummy and Daddy, they have all dabbled their fingers in the evil brew of prurience and salaciousness – and such puddle-stirrings ripple out into memory-loss upon memory-loss, whereupon false doors lead to false memories to replace the ones lost – false memories of people being loving and caring, of lap-top nursery rhymes, of sweetly kissed cheeks, of gentle tossings of your hair, of glorious good-night cuddles … and all else is forgotten, the baby with the bathwater – the past itself is forgotten and life eventually becomes merely a mindless limping, thereafter, towards death, when the Devil’ll likely eat your privities for the sin in ’em…”

At that point, a pipe thumped with an overlap of rattling, a cannonade of clunks, a rich reverberance that echoed and continued to echo, throughout all wings of the hotel and, even beyond the hotel itself, into the ancient Victorian sewer-system, towards the surrounding seas.

Gerald became wide awake. The pillow next to his was empty, but still warm. He heard – and then saw – a short buxom shape at his sink, washing each hand with the other.

“Talk for yourself,” Gerald righteously said aloud, as if completing a long-forgotten conversation.

.
The next morning, during his breakfast of kipper, tea and toast, Gerald wondered if he should stay in the area for a while – see the rest of the “display”, however little of it remained. He imagined white-sailed yachts dissecting the sun-drenched waves and twin-winged aircraft threading the blue yonder.

The familiar-looking guest sat a separate table away, becoming less and less familiar the more he ate of his coddled eggs and button kidneys. The erstwhile desk-clerk served the various dishes – including rack upon rack of black toast – without a murmur, merely acknowledging Gerald’s pleasantries of choice and of eschewal with tactful nods of the wizened head.

The porter lugged an unwieldy bag of tools along a nearby corridor, including a protruding spanner, the largest Gerald had ever seen. There was no sign of the other guests. The coach party must be full of slug-a-beds, thought Gerald, recalling a term his mother once used to refer to his own dilatory waking habits.

The tea looked decidedly iffy, jaundiced, luke-warm – as if they’d dunked in it something other than a pukka tea-bag or used some dubious water.

He suddenly felt tears at his still sleep-filled eyes as he remembered something that was nagging him from the night before…

“They ought to get water cannon to them,” came a sudden voice.

Gerald was disturbed from his brown study since the only other breakfaster had broken the cup-clinking silence.

“Pardon?”

“Those demonstrators. Students. And to think we pay our taxes so that they can go to university. Water cannon will put a stop to their sit-ins and love-ins.”

“What they demonstrating about?” Gerald asked, being polite but not really caring less.

“Animal rights or something. We never had animal rights and such malarkey in our day.”

“Mmmm.” Gerald nodded non-committally. He wasn’t going to tell the other breakfaster what both of them had in common with animals. Infant children often played on all fours.

There was a metallic roar as a large-winged shadow passed over the hotel.

.
Fog-free and reckless, Gerald drove from FOREST LINKS, remembering the buxom creature in the night that had used his bedsheet as a skin-tight covering, rearing up like a monstrous, if midget, mummy, gurgling upon desiccations of its own flesh.

He negotiated the drought-ridden track, between dunes and the yellow-bleached greens, eager for his first sight of the white flags pinning the sail-kissed sea, sheeted to the arid winds, smoke-salted to the gills, ring-fenced by untapped tides, tossed upon the ether of random memory and mismemory…

He laughed, emptied his mental spaces. After all, his toothache had disappeared and there may just be ANOTHER holiday romance in store for him round the next bend.

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