*

AN INFUSION OF STARS

The stranger wondered if the rest of the hotel’s users thought he was a stranger. The rooms were of a style suitable to the passing trade so in fact all the guests should have been strangers. This particular stranger was no different. One never considers oneself to be a stranger. All the others were strangers, surely. The others were real strangers inasmuch as they were not only strangers to each other but, strangely, to themselves.

The stranger was without a name, although he could remember signing the guest register at the reception desk earlier in the day. Now being nameless was not a good sign. Perhaps he was a stranger, after all. Just like the rest of them: sitting solitary in his bedroom: dependant on room service and the entertainment from the TV and the use of en suite facilities and the trouser press.

He hadn’t taken advantage of room service as yet but he continued to inspect the tray of free goodies always left by good hotels for weary strangers with which to refresh themselves. A few individualised bags of infusable tea or coffee. Scattered tabs of milk or sugar. Wrapped gingernut biscuits. Strangely, for such a set of freebies, a bone china teapot was set upon the tray: to be used for steeping rather than just a teacup directly open-mouthed for a tea-bag’s dunking. An electric kettle was already full of water. He wondered how long it had been stagnating there. He could see the only source for water was from the sink’s cold tap in the bathroom. Strangely, despite travelling all day with few comfort-stops, he had not yet been forced to use the bathroom’s facilities. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Only true strangers would be unaccustomed to the relative strength of their own bladders.

The red glow of an advertising sign just outside his room’s window was relentlessly pulsing. Strangely, the window possessed usable shutters rather than curtains. Strange for England. It felt as if he were in France. He stood up and stared down at the city’s main-street. Despite it being the rush hour, there was very little traffic along it. Only an odd taxi turned up outside the hotel with guests: more strangers, no doubt. A noteworthy couple with smart suitcases, he guessed. He shrugged. He was determined not to slip into being a noteworthy stranger himself. It would be all too easy to become someone else’s stranger rather than a person who simply shuffled about a hotel bedroom at a loose end, listening for others behaving similarly, given the sufficient thinness of the walls between them.

He returned his attention to the tray of freebies. He had already given a cursory glance at the room service menu, but he was always reluctant to use it. It always made him feel self-conscious and slightly awkward. He never knew what to do with the dirty plates after he had eaten. Whether to give a tip or not. Despite having plenty of money, he always resented paying through the nose simply for a waiter to bring the food to his room. ‘Never’, ‘always’: he couldn’t possibly be a stranger to be able to use such words about his general behaviour and feelings. That rather satisfied him. Maybe he would venture downstairs later to see if he could find the hotel’s dining-room. There was no reason, of course, why he would not be able to find it. But there was always a doubt.

He then heard the strangers next door shuffling about. Having been sitting on the bed, the strangers next door were probably visiting the en suite bathroom together. The TV next door could not be heard through the wall, so it was probably still switched off. Possibly for fear of accidentally igniting the Porn channel rather than the News one. The former made him feel dirty.

‘Dirty’ reminded him. He needed freshening up in the bathroom. he hoped it would also be full of freebies. But nothing was really free, was it? Room rates always included overheads.

When he returned, the trayful of freebies was glowing more readily in the onset of dusk from outside while the advertising pulse continued but at a slower shutter speed.

He suddenly saw that the teapot had been moved. Never had the stranger been so frightened before.

.
When the teapot moved not once but twice, you realise that the first time it moved could not have been as imaginary as you had originally imagined, given the evidence of the second time. You have often been in situations with inanimate things moving where there is no obvious cause for the effect. All to do with mirrors, lights, angles, tiredness. Nothing supernatural or psychokinetic. Only you watching. But when it happens out of the blue, you often take a double-take. Did it really move? Probably not. It would take a ruler to measure any give or take in the situation. But if it moves as a result of you looking at it, even without you consciously willing it to move, it becomes obvious that there are strange happenings abroad.

The darkness settled in early, despite the clocks going forward an hour the day before. You wonder if it’s a clotted cloud formation, rather than the leading edge of night’s blanket being used to make your bed, tucking you in as comfortably as possible so that premature sleep might explain any subsequent dreaming. And, surely, you thought, the act of seeing the teapot move on the hotel-table before the dream started would surely make you wonder if you were dreaming that you were awake.

The window was now blacker than if you had painted the glass with an opaque gloss stolen from a dead person’s cupboard. Night was never that dark, was it? The light hanging from the ceiling didn’t even swing. It was stock still. But it was dimming faster than the sun must have done in the last few minutes. Dimming, however, was not a movement as such; dimming was never as strange as an object like a teapot budging of its own volition. The stewed remains within settled into a coagulation of leaves and black space. There were exactly one thousand tealeaves and you wonder who had taken the trouble to count them into the teapot before pouring over the scalding water. It needed other eyes to see what was happening inside the pot, as yours were busy watching events from outside. One single abrupt jolt, and the first movement was complete.

You only now needed – with the requisite suspense – to await the second movement … except you were unaware that there was due to be a second movement, especially as you thought you had merely imagined the first one. You decided it was time for bed. You pray a thousand prayers to a God addressed as thou or thy or thee. You must have assessed the passing of time differently from its reality. And if time is misjudged, you were unsure that the time correcting itself might cause objects to move, as if you had moved the teapot during the period of time that had now been blocked or short-circuited so as abruptly to change dusk into night.

You were in your hotel bedroom, pulling back the bed covers ready for your body to be finally laid to rest. Steeped in sleep, infused with dream, cosied by darkness, motionlessly reaching out for a silent prayer that you ached to pray but couldn’t. Wedged in by a sodden mass of dead insects which, even beyond a dream’s unreason, were still alive and eager to become your single-minded stew of consciousness – a spout for a thousand thoughts or a thousand thous. Dead … until you moved again. Or the teapot moved again.

.
I sat up beside the teapot. I had placed it there and I’d told myself to let it ‘stand’ for a few minutes. Steep? Infuse? Draw? Brew? No, ‘stand’ was the word I wanted.

It was then I noticed the teapot moved again. Only slightly but clearly enough. I was staggered. I stared at it to make sure I was not mistaken, willing it to move back to where it had moved from, in an illogical hope for its previous standing as the status quo. I might then have been able to imagine it had not moved at all.

A teapot moving of its own volition was certainly an anxiety that a person like me would find difficult to cope with. It was best I did not believe it at all. “Strainer!” I shouted again, in an attempt to cloud my misperceptions with a recognisable routine rather than to elicit the missing strainer. This was not the first time that the tea strainer had been ‘forgotten’ in the many hotel rooms I frequented.

“Stop your whining!” the teapot suddenly said with a righteous gurgle of its innards.

“Pardon?” I said automatically.

“Just stop your whining. The stew I’ve got inside me today doesn’t need straining. Get on with the pour!”

I was more upset by its distasteful reference to ‘stew’ than by the fact the teapot was talking to me at all. This represented more of a certain settling into a customary mindset of denial, I suspect, when I now look back at the events. I had also forgotten that room service had forgotten the dunking-biscuits.

Was there a ghost inside the teapot – a ghost capable of moving it as well as speaking for it? This was not a question that occurred to me at the time. Only since.

I put the bed covers over my head, hoping to blot out not only this single segment of time encompassing the teapot incident but also the whole of reality itself now and forever.

But the voice persisted: “I’ve got good quality stuff inside today and the longer you leave it the more it will stew.”

My head re-appeared over the top of the bedcovers like a bedraggled puppet or worried clown. It was easy to imagine myself as this downbeat figure through lack of any mirror in my room. Only the tiny curved bowl of the teaspoon gave any chance of a reflected image.

The spout of the teapot waved in the air like a tiny snake with, I imagined, a certain wild desperation to perform its duty of pouring: its only reason for existence.

I hastened to do its business. I can’t now understand what possessed me. I picked up the teapot. At least it could not now move of its own volition without me feeling it wriggling or twitching in my hand. I thought that pouring out tea – a generally tasteful art-form of upper class people like me – would expunge any remnant of uncouthness in the teapot creature that I had earlier considered as out of my control. Civilisation is all to do with control. Taste and good breeding, too.

But instead of a golden shaft of healthy infusion, the spout exuded a syrupy blood-like substance into the teacup. I heard myself cackling with uncontrollable delight. I snatched up the teaspoon in haste. But it dropped to the floor. My clownish head wagged from side to side like a funfair target and shouted: “Dunk it!”

I had obviously let things stand too long. They’re still standing now: waiting for hindsight to kick in – or waiting for a dream strainer.

***

When I met him, I saw straightaway that he was full of a story he wanted to tell. It was as if he existed simply for the benefit of this story. No point in describing him, as that would take away from the story. And he did tell me this story time and time again, when we sat together, draining a bottomless teapot.

And before I forget, there is not much point in describing me, either.

I was only there to listen. And, well, to drain tea.

One story that still sticks in my mind (literally) was one he told of when he was employed as a chauffeur in Paris and stayed in a hotel room with a slowly strobing advertising sign just outside. Well, I assume it was about himself. But whether it was him or not, it was only a story, after all. And it went as follows:

“I had been without work for several weeks, and was coming to the end of my money in the last cafe under the last Parisian sky of (what now seemed to be) my last sojourn in the city drinking the last cup of tea that perhaps I would ever drink in France. The French frowned on tea, but I managed to find where they brewed it best. I preferred it to any other sort of drink. So it was with mixed feelings that I accepted a job that entailed driving a car and drinking something other than tea. But I would now be able to stay in Paris a little longer. The man had sat down opposite me at my table as I drained the dregs of my cup on that (what had seemed to be) my last day in Paris. It was like Fate. I was to drive a Princess. Why me? Well, he said it had to be me. I fitted the story. But I must drink alcohol quite a bit of the time, he insisted. That was part of the job. I shrugged. I didn’t mind drinking alcohol so that I could later afford a room in Parisian hotel where they provided tea in the rooms as well as coffee. Drinking tea gave me inspiration, led me to all sorts of creative thought for my next story. So, to cut a long story short, I allowed myself to take to heavier drinking while driving the Princess to fashion shops and to cafes where in fact she drank tea, I noticed. I didn’t much like the company she sometimes kept. I also turned a blind eye to the baggage she carried. I am not one for gossip. Only story-telling. Well, on the big day, I needed to drink several hard drinks before taking the Princess on a trip that, unlike the previous trips, was more of a mystery tour. I can tell you that, even with alcohol in my veins, I am still a very good driver. So when the car I was driving managed to crash in the road tunnel, it was not that I lost control for no reason, but I suddenly saw a little girl carrying a teapot across the road in the tunnel, and I swerved to miss her…”

I put my teacup down and stared at him.

“A teapot?” I said.

“Not really,” he said with a smile, “that was only part of the story.”

And I blinked. He was no longer sitting opposite me. I must have been drinking tea with myself. The little girl in the tunnel, perhaps, was the ghost of the Princess; a happy creature that wished she had never meet a Prince. But then without such a meeting, of course, she’d not have been a Princess at all or, if that were the case, become even the ghost of a Princess.

I poured another cup from the bottomless teapot and then stared into the darkening Parisian sky. A faint circle of stars like a distant UFO passed slowly over the Paris Ritz Hotel and then wheeled behind the clouds.

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