Neil Rathmell’s surreal short story follows a man as he desperately tries to understand where he is and how he got there. Illustration by Nadia So.
I have no idea where I am. Really. No idea.
Perhaps I should qualify that. I am sitting at a table in a hotel dining room. The other guests either sit in silence or exchange words quietly, discreetly. All I can hear is a vague murmur, a distant hum, like the sound of bees in midsummer: pleasant, soothing and not in the least distracting. But the fact remains that, although I know I am here, I still don’t know where I am.
The waiter is helpful and attentive, but offers no enlightenment. He bids me good morning, asks me whether I would like tea or coffee, draws my attention to the menu on the table, then withdraws. When I saw him coming, I was afraid he might challenge my right to be here and ask me to leave. But my rising panic subsided the moment he began to speak. His pleasant manner and soothing voice have a calming effect. While I may have no idea where I am or how I got here, he does and that means I must be in the right place and soon it will all come back to me.
I look at the menu. I make my choice and wait for him to return. I am in no hurry. Quite the opposite. The only thing I want is for my memory to come back. I want to be able to enjoy my breakfast which, if the surroundings are anything to go by, will be perfect, like everything else. The only thing that stands between me and the realisation of ultimate perfection, otherwise known as a hotel breakfast, is my temporary amnesia. Thinking that nothing like this has ever happened to me before, I ask myself the obvious question: how do you know?
Of course it has happened before. It happens to everyone. A memory lapse is not uncommon. You forget what you were going to do, you stop, think and it comes back to you. You forget someone’s name. Your mind goes blank. But it always comes back. The difference is that it doesn’t usually last this long.
The waiter returns and I am pleased to see him. He is a familiar face. He knows where we are and who I am, and that is the next best thing to knowing it myself.
I order my breakfast. He asks me how I like my eggs and I tell him, though I don’t really know. The fact that he seems to approve my choice gives me enormous pleasure. My heart goes out to him. When he walks away I have to suppress the impulse to call him back. Without his reassuring presence, I feel vulnerable again. If I could just sit with him for a few minutes and ask him some simple questions such as ‘Where am I?’ or ‘Who am I?’ everything would be alright.
But how can I ask him that without drawing attention to myself, without making him question my right to be here, perhaps asking me to leave? It’s better to wait. Soon it will all come back to me. Trying too hard to remember something that has slipped your mind only drives it further away. When you forget someone’s name, the best thing to do is to avoid using it until someone else does or something happens to remind you what it is. But I have to admit that it is rather more disturbing when the name you have forgotten is your own.
I have finished my breakfast which was, as I knew it would be, perfect. The waiter returns to ask, with his customary solicitude, whether I have finished. I tell him that I have and watch as he clears the table. I begin to be troubled by the realisation that, when he has finished, I won’t know what to do or where to go. I imagine myself wandering around the hotel like a lost soul.
Then I see the room key on the table. I must have put it there when I sat down. Not only do I not remember putting it there, I don’t even remember sitting down. It is as if I woke up here with no memory of anything that went before, like a new-born baby. There it is nevertheless and I grasp it like a talisman.
I am in the hotel lounge reading the newspaper the waiter gave me. He brought it to me after he had cleared the table. Would sir prefer to sit in the lounge? Should he bring coffee? The key safely in my pocket, I made my way to the lounge, unfolded the newspaper and started to read. The waiter brought me my coffee. I thanked him and went on reading. I must have been reading for a good hour, hoping to find something to jog my memory, when I came to the obituaries. It was the photograph that caught my attention. I recognised myself at once.
When you read your own obituary in the newspaper, there is only one explanation: you have been the victim of a practical joke. I keep reading, hoping that a word or a phrase will jog my memory, but nothing does.
…two by his first wife, one by his second… cognitive research… humanism… his many disciples… hill walking.
None of it rings a bell. If this is me, I don’t recognise myself. It makes me feel lonely. I would be happy to be him. Two marriages, three children, a successful career, admirers, the great outdoors.
Ascertaining whether this is or is not an accurate summary of my life so far is a pointless task. I am who I am, come what may. The more pressing matter is to find out who has played this trick on me.
I fold the newspaper and put it on one side. Instead of dwelling on the obituary, which might be a deliberate red herring anyway, I will apply myself now, like the scientist I am supposed to be. I will find a hypothesis that fits all the known facts and provides an explanation for the situation in which I find myself.
The waiter appears from nowhere and pours more coffee. I feel for him, as before, not just gratitude, but something approaching love. It is the feeling of loneliness, I suppose, that is responsible for this, rather than any latent homoerotic aspect of my personality. My obituary does not even hint at anything like that.
I have a hypothesis. The conspirators, whoever they are, disciples or detractors, brought me here for dinner last night on some pretext or other and during the course of the evening administered, most likely by spiking my drink, some sort of drug. Obviously, the hotel is in on it. The staff and perhaps the other guests have been persuaded to play along. Some of them might even be actors. My waiter, for example. If he is not an actor, he should be. I will tell him so when the conspirators make their appearance and he comes out of character.
Until then, I will do what they want me to do and play along. Why spoil their fun?
The waiter really is superb. When I showed him my obituary, he merely smiled and asked me if I would like to order lunch now or later. I said I would wait until later and smiled to let him know that I had guessed. He, of course, kept a straight face, said ‘Very good, sir’ and withdrew in the way that he has been doing all morning. Perhaps he is known for playing this kind of role. Perhaps, when I get my memory back, I will remember seeing him in films or on television. I might even ask for his autograph.
I begin to think the drug might be starting to wear off, like the first hint of sensation returning after a local anaesthetic. The fact that I have seen through this masquerade must, in itself, be a sign that things are returning to normal. I am becoming myself again and may, at any moment, remember who I am.
What I must do now is go to my room. There might be clues to be found, or the conspirators themselves. More hired actors. I have a feeling the masquerade is not over yet. If they are waiting for me to spring the next trap, I had better not keep them waiting.
The room is empty. Before I turned the key, I put my ear to the door, thinking I could hear voices inside. But when I opened it, there was nobody there. A search of the cupboards and drawers revealed nothing. Not even an empty suitcase.
What did I expect? Planting a room key on my table was just a way of giving me false hope so they could enjoy my disappointment. A red herring. A false lead. Stupidly, I fell for it and now they’re laughing at me. This hotel and everything in it is an elaborate hoax. It is like a ghost train, complete with mysterious noises, designed to mislead me at every step and frighten me into thinking that perhaps I really am dead. The man I am supposed to be, to have been, is a humanist. He doesn’t believe in life after death. What better joke to play on me than to convince me that I was wrong?
I refuse to add to their amusement by letting them think that either I have been taken in, or that I can’t take a joke. I am careful, since it is quite possible that I am being watched, that a secret camera has been installed somewhere in this room, not to give them anything to laugh at. I lie on the bed with my hands behind my head and, maintaining an air of perfect equanimity, close my eyes.
I am annoyed with myself for having fallen asleep. I have the feeling that I heard voices just moments before I woke. It is the same feeling that I had when I was standing outside the door. I can’t hide from myself the fact that all this is unsettling, that there are moments when I feel afraid. I can’t hide it from myself, but I can hide it from them.
I have no idea how long I slept for. I pull back my sleeve to look at my watch, but the watch I expect to see is not there. I stand up and walk to the window. All I can see is blue sky. What floor am I on? I remember stepping out of a lift but not getting into it. How many floors did I pass on the way up? I don’t know. All I remember is stepping out of the lift and walking down a corridor. It is as if moments of wakefulness have been interspersed with sleep. Could I be sleep-walking?
‘That newspaper, the one you gave me at breakfast…’
‘Where is it?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir.’
‘I left it here when I went up to my room.’
‘It will have been picked up, sir, by a member of the hotel staff.’
‘Can you get it back for me? I’d like to read it again.’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘Oh? Why not?’
‘It is a rule of the house, sir.’
‘A rule of the house?’
‘Yes, sir. If there is an obituary, we never keep it after it has been read by the person to whom it refers.’
‘You speak of it as if it were a regular occurrence.’
‘It is a daily occurrence, sir.’
It is strange how tears sometimes precede the emotion that causes them. I had not realised how upset I was. I thought I was demonstrating control of the situation by speaking as I did, but suddenly I found myself its helpless victim. I would have cried like a baby if he had not rescued me. All I could do — and I can hear my voice now, as if it belonged to somebody else — was let him lead me away while I demanded, in the pathetic voice of a broken man, to see the manager.
I want him to come back so that I can thank him and apologise for making a scene. He promised to bring the manager and went to look for him. I don’t know how long ago that was. I think I must have had another of my sleeps. Emotion is very tiring. There is something hypnotic about my waiter too. His mere presence is enough to make me long for sleep.
‘The manager will see you now, sir.’
I follow him to a door behind the reception desk.
‘This way, sir.’
He stands back for me to go through and follows me into a corridor lit only by the shaft of light that falls through the open door.
‘There is a light switch to your left, sir.’
A naked bulb, hanging from the ceiling, illuminates bare walls. He closes the door behind us.
‘Follow me, sir.’
The narrow corridor seems endless, one turning after another. Concrete passageways broken only by unmarked doors and entrances to lift shafts.
‘Are we going round in circles?’
He does not reply. Perhaps I did not ask the question, only thought it. If he were not my waiter, in whom I have complete trust, he could be my jailer leading me from my cell to the gallows.
We have been walking for a long time. I start to lag behind. He waits at the next turning for me to catch up.
‘I will leave you now, sir. Just knock on the door and go in.’
I had not seen the door. This passageway is not like the others. There is a door at the end of it. I stop and look back, but my waiter has gone. I feel a momentary sadness at his going. He might have been complicit in the joke that has been played on me, but his part was only to help me and now he’s gone.
I turn back and put my ear to the door. This time there are no voices, real or imagined. But when I knock I hear a voice asking me to come in. Or I think I do. The voice is barely audible, more like someone calling from a long way off than someone sitting on the other side of a door. It is the kind of sound which could be taken to mean anything: as if air could hold for a moment the impression left by a passing thought.
I look back over my shoulder but, as I do, the light goes out and I am left in darkness. Did I catch a glimpse of him first? I can’t be sure.
In the darkness, I reach for the door handle. My hand closes round it. I think I hear a voice behind me, very faint and far away.
I probably imagined that too. I turn the handle and open the door. All I see is blue sky. I walk through.
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