Posted August 15, 2011on:
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I knew that something was very wrong when I pulled up in the hotel car-park. I had had no problems finding the place, the directions they had sent me had been very thorough, and the journey down had gone without a hitch. The omens and portents had all been good. The hotel’s reviews on the Internet had been excellent, and their answers to my queries had been faultlessly efficient and helpful. The long drive down had also gone painlessly, which considering it was a hot Saturday in July was quite something in itself.
The North Devon coastline was somewhere I was previously quite well acquainted with. I had spent family holidays here as a child, and had returned again in my student days, when I had got holiday bar-work, so that I could combine it with my love of surfing on the side. Now in my 40s, I had suddenly got a nostalgic hankering to see all my old haunts again. I think sometimes people get like that when they reach a cross-roads in their life, as if by returning to the past they can get some helpful pointers to the future. There’s a lot of sense in that really.
I had chosen a hotel that was new to me though. It must be a symptom of middle-age that I wanted comfort, and not the basic accommodation I had quite cheerfully tolerated in my younger days. The ‘Headland Hotel’ was a roomy family-run place, which promised me all the little niceties I wanted, but with a free-and-easy atmosphere. I have to stay in enough soulless corporate hotels during business excursions, and I wanted something very different for the first proper holiday I had taken in nearly 3 years.
As I pulled up on that broiling hot July afternoon, the first thing I noticed was that the hotel car-park was completely empty. This was disconcerting. We were bang at the peak of the holiday season when all was said and done. There was also a skip full of rubbish standing to the side of the driveway, which didn’t present a very salubrious image. I told myself I was being too picky, and drove up to the hotel’s main entrance, all the while looking out for a sign that might tell me the main car-park was round the back or something. Already the hotel’s lack of life was bothering me greatly.
When I got closer to the hotel my alarm intensified. The hotel was abandoned. Derelict. Weeds were sprouting from the steps running up to the main door, which had a rusty padlock and chain draped across it. The downstairs windows were shuttered, and the paintwork on the windowsills was broken and flaky.
“It can’t be”, I said to myself. I had spoken to them on the phone only a week ago, when I had rung them to confirm that the booking was still on. They had been friendly service personified, had said they were looking forward to welcoming me at the ‘Headland’. The girl on reception I had spoken to had even joked that it looked like I may even be lucky with the weather, “which makes a change for Britain”. We had both agreed that – astonishingly – it had been a very good summer so far, after a spate of particularly bad ones.
I switched the engine off on the car, and sat listening to the silence all around me. I couldn’t hear anything, not even seagulls. Feeling extremely nervous I got out of the car, and stood looking around me. In the harsh glare of the afternoon sun, the derelict state of the whole place looked very sad indeed. For one moment I thought I was even going to cry. I had been looking forward to this holiday for months, the thought of it had sustained me through some hideously huge amounts of work, and some very trying office politics. To arrive and find this was close to heartbreaking. There was no way I could bear the thought of driving all the way back to a hot and claustrophobic London.
There seemed to be a sort of small yard to the right-hand side of the hotel and I walked towards it. If I could find somebody, ask them what was going on. There was more evidence of demolition work here. Some old fence-panels had been stacked up against the wall of an outbuilding. Opposite was a small shop of sorts. It had a display of wicker-baskets outside, and in the window was an assortment of little windmills, and other beach paraphernalia. The shop was firmly locked though, and the windows looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in some time.
I banged on the shop door, although by this time I had virtually given up any hope that there might be somebody around. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me. I turned, and the stack of old fence-panels seemed to move, as though something was trying to struggle out from behind them.
“Hello?” I called.
My God. A man appeared from behind the panels. He was old, completely bald, and with a chalk-white face. He didn’t just look old, he looked ill, in fact he looked half-dead. I don’t know what I was surprised at most, his appearance, or his unexpected appearance from behind the fence-panels! To add to the whole bizarreness of the situation, he was wearing an old-fashioned three-piece suit.
Something about him made me decide instantly that I wasn’t going to waste any time engaging him in conversation. I just wanted to get away from him. I don’t know why I didn’t run back towards my car, after all it would have been the most logical thing to do. Get in and drive away from there at once. Instead I walked hurriedly down a narrow path which ran down the side of the main building of the hotel. It led to the garden, complete with swimming-pool, as the hotel details on the Internet had promised. The pool was quite impressive really, it even had a little bridge spanning over it. Unlike the rest of the place the pool still seemed well-kept. It didn’t have a neglected air about it.
I went up onto the little hump-backed bridge and paused for a moment. I glanced below into the water. A boy was floating face-down on a lilo. I knew he was dead the moment I saw him. There was no movement to his body at all, and there was a strange, almost luminous white sheen to him that I had never seen before.
This pushed this whole series of strange events into a different sphere entirely. I had to call the police. Fortunately I had remembered to bring my handbag with me when I had left the car, (I had once had a bag stolen from my car so I never took any chances these days). It meant I had my mobile phone conveniently to hand. A movement out of the corner of my eye though sent an even greater chill down me. The strange old man in the suit was stumbling down the side path towards me. He reminded me of the zombie in the graveyard at the opening of ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. I glanced around me in a state of panic, looking for another exit from this horrible place.
On the far side of the garden I could see a wooden gate hanging off its hinges. Beyond it appeared to be a footpath. I knew enough about the area to surmise that this might be one of the cliff top footpaths, and if I got onto it I could eventually make my way to a road that led down to the village. I had coming for pleasant walks in this area many years ago, but now I found myself scrambling wildly about on the verges, trying to look for a gap where I could get into the field which would eventually take me to the road. I had another reason for trying to find the road too, from what I could remember there was a campsite halfway down the hill. I could get help there.
When I eventually scrambled up the bank to a gap in the foliage which I could get through, I was horrified to find that the field beyond was filled with dead sheep. Their corpses were scattered all over the glass, lying on their sides, with flies buzzing over them. I think at that point I could have opened my mouth and screamed for the rest of eternity, but fortunately commonsense dictated that I didn’t want to alert that horrid old man as to where I was. I had to get across the corpse-ridden field. By now I was sobbing, almost out of my mind with the horror of what I had seen since arriving in the area. I didn’t have time to speculate as to what had happened here to cause all this carnage, except some wild thought running through my head that perhaps some awful disease, like the Black Death, had broken out. It was all too much for my shell-shocked brain to focus on.
There was one thing I could hang onto though. There was no possible way that civilisation could have suddenly ground to a halt the moment I drove into the grounds of ‘The Headland Hotel’! Good God, only a couple of hours ago I was driving along the motorway, which was filled with other holidaymakers all going in the same direction as myself. It just wasn’t possible for everything to have ended since then.
There was a church clock chiming, but for some reason I thought it must be wrong. I checked my watch. It was 25 minutes past 11, so why would a church clock be chiming? The sheer white heat in the streets was dazzling my eyes. Due to a prolonged heat wave London was taking on a strange, almost unearthly white light to its streets.
London. I was in London. I recognised where I was, a couple of blocks away from the entrance to Paddington Station. The streets were clogged with people carrying rucksacks and pulling suitcases on wheels. The shops were a higgledy-piggledy maze of small newsagents, takeaways, pubs, and cheap hotels.
I was getting in the way of people with my constant dithering, so I stopped and hung onto some railings which bordered a little garden in the middle of a square. The noise around me was cacophonous. There was extensive renovation work going on in a row of houses nearby, and the din was deafening. This was added to the roar of the traffic and the constant babble of voices. Almost (but no quite) lost in the hubbub was the constant tolling of a church bell, which now sounded like a death-knell summoning people to an important funeral. Perhaps somebody important has died, I thought (irrelevantly).
I thought I had better look more purposeful, the way people do when they’re on the Underground. Walking doggedly straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with other passengers at all costs. I knew that the entrance to Kensington Park, at Lancaster Gate, wasn’t far from here, so I headed – very purposefully – in that direction. Being in the park would give me a space to think. I wouldn’t be in anybody’s way there.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got away from the streets and through the park gates. I wandered past the fountains and found myself standing opposite the huge cloud-reflecting mirror which had been put up on the opposite side of the Serpentine. So many people were just standing there, gazing in awe at it, that I didn’t feel at all conspicuous. I needed to think. I swear it was only then that it dawned on me that I wasn’t supposed to be in London at all. I was supposed to be in North Devon, and it wasn’t supposed to be morning, it was supposed to be late afternoon.
The urge to cry came over me so strong that it almost overwhelmed me. But I must still have had sufficient self-awareness to know what I would look like, standing there sobbing by the edge of the Serpentine.
“Where’s my car? Is it still at the hotel?”
To my horror I realised I had said those words out loud. Somebody nearby gave me a quick quizzical look and then hurriedly looked away again.
I’ve always been a very practical person, organised and methodical. It’s what makes me good at my job, and why (I like to think so anyway) I’m valued there. I MUST be practical. I sat down on an empty bench, and looked in my handbag (thank god I still had that with me!). I had my purse with credit cards and cash in, so I wasn’t helpless by any means. My mobile phone was blank, it had no messages or missed calls on it, which is very unusual. It was as if it had been wiped, like a human memory. Well my memory wasn’t wiped, that was for sure. I still knew who I was, so I can’t be that barking, I thought. My car-keys were there, I just had to get to my car. I had to get to North Devon.
I got myself to Paddington Station, and went upstairs to a bar which overlooked the busy concourse, and ordered a large glass of white wine. In my head I plotted the train route I would need to take to get back to North Devon, and then hope I could find a taxi when I got to the other end. The thought of the taxi reassured me a bit, because it meant this time I wouldn’t be arriving at the hotel on my own. Someone else would be with me, who could act as a witness if I found ‘The Headland’ in the same sad state as previously.
I had a second glass of wine, served by a very chatty young Irishman, and then finally wandered down to the concourse. It was very busy, but a different kind of busyness to what I had expected. People were standing around, frantically texting on their mobile phones. Nobody seemed to be moving anywhere. I walked over to the Departures board, where three women were squinting myopically up at it. A random thought went through my head of “what’s wrong with wearing glasses?” Nearby a man in a black business suit, looking like a suave undertaker, was ranting down his mobile.
“All the trains are completely fucked”, he bellowed, indignantly “Nothing’s going out for a couple of hours at least. A jumper on the line”.
A jumper on the line? Stupidly, I thought at first that he meant a woolly jumper, the kind you wear. I was soon put right with his next utterance.
“Yeah that’s right”, he said “Suicides are so fucking selfish, never think of the inconvenience they cause to everybody else”.
Clearly none of us were going anywhere in a hurry. It all seemed like a conspiracy to stop me getting back to North Devon. Well I wasn’t leaving the station. I had no intention of going home, or looking for a hotel nearby. I wanted to be here for when the trains started running again, as they assuredly would at some point in the near future.
A neighbour rang the local council to complain about a hedge that was getting out of control, and which was now overhanging the pavement, getting in everybody’s way. The owner of the unruly hedge was contacted a number of times, by telephone and mail, but there was no reply, so the council decided to take matters into their own hands, and sent someone out to trim it.
“They’ll get billed for it, don’t you worry”, said the hedge-cutter to the neighbour.
“Some people just don’t care about the inconvenience they cause to others”, said the neighbour, in her best self-righteous voice “They are so selfish!”