(No essay this week! Last week was essay no 26, which means that I am HALF WAY, MATE. This also means that I need a small break. Instead of an essay, here is the first part of a story. I think I will try and publish it here in three parts, maybe four. It doesn’t have a name yet, which in itself is a real novelty for me. Usually I think of the name first.)
It was an electrical fault. A light bulb in one of the chandeliers burnt out and shorted the socket. This is quite common, apparently, with old chandeliers, old wiring. No one to blame. A few of the Americans wondered aloud about the possibility of litigation, but their hearts were not really in it. It was an accident, anyone could see that. Also: no one was hurt. The fire had started in a living room that no one ever used, due to its awkward position at the back of the hotel and almost total lack of natural light. Besides which, it began in the middle of the day, when nearly all of the writers were out.
The only ones still in the hotel were a Belgian writer of extremely violent science fiction, and the poet from Johannesburg. The science-fiction writer was pretending to be sick (hungover nearly to the point of dying) and the poet had excused herself by saying she had already been to the wine farm they were all so enthusiastic about seeing. This was a lie. She had never been, was actually longing to go. She had heard the restaurant was very good. Plus, the whole thing was paid for by the festival organisers.
She had her shoes on and everything, ready to get into the bus, when she saw the day reeling out in front of her. She would try her best to avoid it, she would go so far as to make a small scene in order to avoid it, but she would end up sitting next to Eliza Reid. It was her destiny. Eliza Reid had taken the most violent shine to her, from almost the minute they had met. She sought her out at every event, she nodded wildly at everything she said. Why? The poet, whose name was Laura, was under no illusions: she knew herself to be bad at small talk, and underwhelming in the company of strangers. Did Eliza Reid want to sleep with her? There was nothing in her three memoirs which would lead one to believe that such a thing was possible. If it was, she would have written about it. Candour in matters sexual was the whole point of Eliza Reid. So what, then? Laura could not figure it out, and really, she didn’t want to try. Eliza Reid’s presence at the festival was the main reason she had wanted to come. She was, or had been, a serious fan. She had looked forward to meeting her, and maybe sitting across the table from her at one of the dinners. She had cherished the hope they would speak about her favourite of Reid’s memoirs, Mermaid Syndrome. But nothing like this. Not Eliza Reid following her about the place, saying her name so much, lending her earrings etc. Just last night, the woman had gripped her wrist and said “This has been such a special time, hasn’t it, Laura?” Her hand was surprisingly damp, and her voice quavered. “I’m so glad to have met you,” she’d said. It was unbearable. It was too much, the thought of an hour on the bus, Reid staring at her and blinking like some kind of bird, and then many hours in the restaurant with Reid’s surprisingly damp hand always on her shoulder. So she had lied, that morning. She had looked into the disappointed eyes of Eliza Reid and lied, and she had been glad to do it.
She’d carried on being glad all morning, and then she smelled the smoke. And then great billowing gusts of it coming down the passage as she opened the door, and then footsteps and shouting, and then the receptionist steering Laura down the stairs by her elbow. The Belgian science-fiction writer was behind her, in tiny squalid underpants. They were shepherded into the front garden and stood there coughing and heaving, five or ten minutes behind what had just happened.
The Belgian, Ansel, kept patting at where his pockets would be. “My passport,” he said to Laura. “My things.” Patting and patting at his sinewy upper legs, as if he had pants on and was not standing in the front garden of the Lady Grey Hotel, knee deep in the hydrangeas, essentially naked. He’d known something like this would happen. People were beginning to cluster behind the gates of the hotel. A little girl in plaits pointed at Ansel and laughed, and her father shushed her. He passed his jacket to Laura over the gate and she handed it to Ansel, who tied it round his waist like a skirt. He had known, truly, that something of this nature would happen. It was his destiny, to be shadowed by mishap at every literary festival. He had been bitten by a dog in Jaipur. The dog had looked perfectly normal to him, but the festival organiser had said, simply, “Rabies”, and carted Ansel off for the first round of almost indescribably painful treatment. They shoot a needle straight into your stomach. Ansel had pleaded at the clinic to be let go, but the doctor would not hear of it. He described to Ansel in vivid detail how rabies attacks the system. Hydrophobia, it used to be called. You become terrified of water, of even a teaspoon of it, and then you die.
So that was Jaipur. He’d taken ketamine at Hay-on-Wye, and tumbled into a K-hole of such depth and blackness that he thought he would never emerge. Two days spent crawling around on all fours, making a noise that was later described to him as “beeping”. And then falling off the bicycle in Venice Beach, and injuries more commensurate with a car accident. Why did he do it? He wanted to be at home with his husband and his dogs. Instead he was here in these hydrangeas, passport probably burnt to cinders, standing with a woman whose calmness was beginning to enrage him.
“There’s no one left inside, and look, the fire engines are already here,” she said, gesturing. Two fire engines, actually, and an ambulance. The firemen advanced round the side of the hotel and waded through more hydrangeas, getting themselves as close as possible underneath the window where the smoke billowed out. On went the hosepipes, the streams of water angled straight into the room. There was a loud cracking noise, and a popping, the sound of heavy objects falling. The manager was standing with the firemen, actually wringing his hands. The nicer receptionist was crying, and struggling to maintain her hold on the hotel cat. “They know what they’re doing, and really it was only a little fire,” the poet said. A little fire, maybe, but one in which Ansel knew all his possessions would be burnt beyond recognition. Like the hotel manager, he began to wring his hands. Strange how these clichés prove useful.
The poet turned to him and smiled, showing a lot of gum. “Anyway,” she said, “it’s a good story.”