Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Room 34

Time for a story sacrifice. I'm giving this one up though I like it. It's a twist on the dangerous theme of writing about writing, see picture. It also features a dangerously common character, the soulful, aimless millennial. I have another story with the same title that may one day see daylight, but it's more of a novelette. At absolute best I may have four stories published in the next two months and this blog may actually serve its intended purpose. In the meantime have a gander at this. The picture comes from here

Two things you need to know about Dane:
  1. He was twenty-nine years old and it was slowly dawning on him that his life-options were running out.
  2. He worked in an hotel in Central London as a concierge. His job had a lot of leeway however he, like all other staff at the hotel, were strictly forbidden to do one thing.
"Do not look into Room 34." His manager, Jens, told him during his induction, a twenty-minute chat, sat in his office, down in the basement, between the kitchen and the storeroom, before the shift began. "Do not go there, do not look inside, if you hear anything going on do not respond, ignore it, continue with your business." Jens made sure every new member of staff understood this, and they did, except this one time, not long ago as it happened. He repeated this injunction often and to all the staff, but on first hearing this Dane almost asked 'why?' Instead though he wondered:

"What happens if we get a call from Room 34?"

This turned out to be a good question. Jens thought about it for a moment before saying "there has not been a call from Room 34, not for a long time... but if there is... put it through to me, right away."

"What if I can't find you?" Dane asked. He cringed inside, why was he doing this? Just say 'yes boss.'  But Jens was not phased: 

"Just find me" he said, and smiled.

Dane had been a concierge for five years. He got the job shortly after finishing university, completing an MA but running out of funding to go on. The job was intended to tide him over until he could begin a doctorate. He still hoped he could take up where he left off but, of course, that hope was fading.

He enjoyed his job, though he enjoyed it more when he was younger. Any shift he worked he would be either behind the main desk or patrolling the lobby. The work was physical, mental and social. At any point he could be making restaurant reservations, arranging for spa services, recommending night life hot spots, booking transportation, coordinating porter service, procuring tickets to special events, and assisting with various travel arrangements and tours of local attractions, sending and receiving parcels, and they were just the regular tasks. In his time he also:

  1. Helped catch a baby crocodile that had escaped from a room, frightening the third floor guests.
  2. Concluded an agreement on behalf of the hotel with the local sex-workers union
  3. Taste tested a wedding cake for a Ukrainian businessman with a morbid fear of poisoning.

But the last point also illustrated what he felt was wrong with the job. In a moment of curiosity Dane looked up the etymology of 'concierge' and found it came from the Latin for "fellow slave." He served people who were generally richer than him, much richer. Many were pleasant, often they were nice but even the nice ones usually couldn't help patronise and demean, and there were nasty guests as well. His work was low. It wasn't egalitarian. He did menial things for people who couldn't be bothered, and that bothered him, more and more.

The money was more or less the same; a little rise here, a little Christmas bonus there, but Dane was still earning more or less the same. The same when you're 24 is different when you're 29. When Dane was younger he flat-shared with friends. Now he flat-shared with strangers. He kept in touch but his social circle was scattered wide. Dane lived in a far-corner of Brent, getting down to the West End, let alone to places like Greenwich, Battersea or even Archway, for a chat and a pint was a struggle. Time went on, Dane worked back-to-back shifts more often, both to make ends meet and to cover for gaps at work. Occasionally he'd sleep in a spare room or nap on the sofa in the staff room. More and more his life was about the hotel.

The staff as well as the guests tended to be a revolving cast. Jens was a fixture however, he was the Day Shift Manager. He was a busy, anxious man, who fretted a lot but was ultimately shrewd and efficient. Short, balding, he was camp, with a crisp, transatlantic accent. Dane assumed Jens was gay (and assumed that everybody else did also).

They got on well, Dane and Jens, not friends but friendly, until a small incident, so brief probably nobody else remembered. Shortly after a staff meeting, the room was busy Jens stepped toward Dane, a little closer than usual. Dane flinched almost reflexively. For a moment Jens looked at him, puzzled, then got about his business. He didn't think he was homophobic, Dane, but was worried he might be. Jens could be a little stern with other staff but now he seemed a little off with Dane as well. This went on for months.

There would be three concierges on duty for each shift. For a long time there was Emma, Canadian, another accent. She worked a lot of shifts with Dane. They got on well. She was a friendly, articulate, demonstrative tumble of curly hair and gooey soft brown eyes, and touchy-feely and, for a long time she confused Dane. He was mature enough to not take her behaviour for attraction, just about, but Dane couldn't help carrying a small torch for her, even as they dated other people. Emma went back home about a year ago. Dane dithered too long about whether to contact her online. It was too late now. Emma was gone. That tended to be the way of relationships for Dane. He was beginning to see a pattern, lines fluffed, cues missed. It was if something was holding him back.

Dane had one serious relationship in his twenties. Her name was Rachel. She was pale with dark bobbed hair, sharp-minded and funny, brilliant really. He now realised he loved her, really loved her.

They had never quite managed to move in together. To begin with it was kind of fun, travelling across town to see your lover, waiting for you. More claims kept falling on their time. Rachel's chief claim was she had made it back to university. She was an intellectual, like him, only she had managed to start a doctorate, comparative linguistics at the LSE. She also found work as a teaching assistant. They saw less of each other after that and, when they did, often it was in company. Rachel's undergraduates were whip-smart and arch, just like her, bulldozing his ideas with ease, Dane just couldn't keep up.

Eventually Rachel just had to have to have The Talk. They had grown apart, she said, she could not give him what he wanted anymore, she said, she hoped they could still be friends, other people's lines maybe, but she was saying them to him. Dane still loved Rachel but she was gone now too.

These days he made do moving among lesser characters and smaller scenes. Such as:

  1. The Sou Chef who ran a discrete dope dealing ring. He usually met his customers in the alley out the back by the bins. His stash was somewhere in the hotel, it had to be.
  2. Room 23, where a combination of knocking pipes and a strange persistent draft combined to produce a haunting. It also helped that sixty years prior a rich, elderly couple died in the room, both in their sleep, seemingly of old age.
  3. Room 13, where the aforementioned Ukrainian businessman lived. The son of former nomenklatura, he had 'significant interests' in Donbass mining, now under Russian occupation. He directed his front of the civil war from Room 13, ordering a lot of odd food and only occasionally coming down to the bar to get drunk with fellow veterans.

So Dane's life was slowly reducing, down and down, until one day that was actually night he got a call from Room 34. Dane was alone at the reception desk. He had been working off and on for nearly 36 hours and was feeling speedy and alert but wavering anxious. Dane wasn't sure what time it was. A light flashed. He picked up the phone.

“Hello, reception...”

"Yeah..." the voice at the other end was hesitant, "this is, uh..." and male. "This is Room 34..." The third time this week. Dane's mind scrambled. Where was Jens?

"Excuse me, Sir, can you please hold for a moment..." Dane muted the line. He asked around. "Where's Jens?" He asked a passing footman, a cleaner, even a fellow concierge, Antonio, a new guy Dane really wasn't sure about. “Has anyone seen Jens?” He was on shift but no one had seen him for hours. Perhaps he was in his office, down in the basement, between the kitchen and the storeroom. Dane tried forwarding the call but got no response. No one knew... and the clock was ticking. Dane saw the clock across the lobby, it was... almost midnight in fact. It was staff policy not to leave a call on hold for more than two minutes. “Sorry to keep you on hold, Sir... I'm afraid the Shift Manager is not currently available. Perhaps...”

“Oh, never mind him” the Voice interrupted. “Jens is an uptight fusspot at the best of times. You should see his back story, really, it's a good job he's manager because he could start an argument in an empty room...” The Voice softly pattered.

Dane was dumbstruck. If he thought about it for a second he could have concluded that a long-term guest might know the Shift Manager's name, especially as Jens always went on about the bloody room, Room 34... though there was the matter of the back story, but, but... “But... what's going on...?”
“You're an intelligent man” said the Voice, still quiet but audibly confident now.”Perhaps you can help...?”

“I... I'm not sure I can...” Dane thought about it for a second. He felt a strange pull. “What kind of help do you need?” he said slowly.

I can only really explain if I show you” said the Voice.

“Why don't you come down to the reception?” Dane hadn't lost all sense.

“I'm afraid not” said the Voice. “It's in my room, you see, Room 34. It's... it's not like that, Dane, if you were thinking it was... Yes, I know your name, Dane. I know a lot of things. I know that you tend to freak out in these situations but, given a moment's clear thought you'll realise what I'm saying is... serious... I need some help, Dane... I promise you, if you think about it... I will show you what's... going on...” He said the last two words deliberately. “It's up to you...” and with that he hung up.

A few minutes later Dane was on the third floor, outside Room 34. No one was around. It was quiet, late, dark. Dane was now under some kind of spell he felt, compelled he was, but he still rationalised what he was doing every step of the way. What a damn silly rule this was, do not go in Room 34. Jens was probably asleep by now, or off site. Staff shouldn't be dictated to like that, like the cleaner who, three weeks ago, blundered into the room. She was only agency, poor girl. Jens gave her such a dressing down, in his office, in the basement between the kitchen and the storeroom. His voice could be heard though the walls, over the clatter and the din. A prurient little audience gathered, not even Dane could resist. He overheard Jens saying something like:

“It's a good job you can't read because...!” mumble, mumble, mumble...

The more he thought about it the less he liked Jens and the more he wanted to look inside Room 34. He felt justified as well as compelled. Dane knocked on the door. He felt nervous. Dane waited. The door crept open. He drew breath. There was a man:

“Come in” he said, softly, smiling. The Man was older than him, though not by much. Dane looked at him for a second. He looked familiar, the Man, but Dane couldn't put his finger on how or why. He was dressed comfortably, not smartly. “Please” he said, standing aside. Dane could see the room, it looked... normal. Dane stepped forward. He went into Room 34, still looking around; bed, table, lamp, phone, wardrobe, desk and mirror, kettle, everything was still normal, just about, normal like a TV set or a stage.

“So...” said Dane, “who are you?”

The Man did not answer, merely half-shrugging, standing still for a moment. “Dane...” he began to speak but Dane interrupted.

“How long have you been here?”

“I've been busy” said the Man. He gestured toward the desk and mirror. There was a laptop lying there open. Dane had not noticed until now, or had it...? No...

“You're a writer” said Dane.

“I suppose so” said the Man.

“Anything I might have read?” asked Dane, slightly askance.

“Well...” the Man cupped his hands then rocked on his heels, thinking. “Yes” he said, “in a sense... Dane...”


“What was your degree in?” the Man asked. Dane realised. He didn't know. The Man continued: “where in Central London is this hotel?” Again Dane did not know. “What is your surname? Who is your family? Why have you never asked yourself these questions?” Dane did not know. “You're part of a story, Dane. I'm writing all of this, or I have been. Dane...” The Man stepped forward and placed a hand on Dane's shoulder. Dane did not resist this time. He looked into Dane's eyes. “I've been doing this for a long time. Jens knows all about it. The chambermaid figured some of it out, I'm sure. But the point... the point is I've been very unfair to you, to all of you...” The Man paused for a second, let go and looked down as if ashamed.

“Are you...?” Dane croaked. “Are you God?”

“No Dane,” The Man laughed wryly and shook his head. He looked up. “I'm not a god, I'm a writer. I wrote you. I wrote this bit here in fact. As we talk I'm elsewhere but I know for a fact you're agnostic, in practice an atheist.” He smiled. “Don't go changing the script now... Or...”

“What?” asked Dane.

“Well” said the Man again. “I have a little proposition for you.” A pause. “It's really very simple. I would like to get out of here for a bit. While I am out I would like you,” he gestured to the laptop, open on the desk, under the mirror, “I would like you to write a better future and a happier, more rounded past. He looked at Dane and smiled once more.

“I don't know what to say” said Dane, mouth dry, still reeling with shock.

“Wait a minute” said the Man, and he leant forward, over the laptop. He typed something.
“OK” said Dane, straightening himself up. “I'll do it” he said, summoning a dignity and sense of purpose completely new to him. Dane pulled up a chair. He scanned the script while the Man backed away carefully, watching Dane intently. “But...” said Dane suddenly. He turned round to the Man. “When will you be getting back?”

“Soon” said the Man. “I'll see you soon.”

“OK” said Dane, second thoughts now completely banished. He began writing and the Man quietly slipped through the door of Room 34, closing it behind him.

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