:: Article

The Night-Porter

Two a.m. The hotel is dead. Liam is asleep on one of the sofas in the Residents’ Lounge. I slept last night but I can’t sleep tonight. My body-clock needs to readjust. If I sleep now, then I won’t be able to sleep during the day. 

* * * * * * * * *

I come in at ten forty-five. My shift begins at eleven. I say hello to the day staff as they prepare to leave and catch up on gossip concerning people who I’ve never met/never will. I hang my fleece up in the back office, lock my bike in the cellar and by five-to I am ready to begin.
When the last member of staff leaves, I close the big front doors and push a bolt to lock one of them. The other locks itself to the first door through a Yale lock. I take the pager from behind the front desk that tells me when somebody is ringing the front door bell/phone when I’m out of earshot. I perform my security check after locking the front door. This is just ensuring that all windows and doors are shut and locked on the ground floor. I make sure that the cellar doors are locked so that nobody from the outside world can penetrate in.
I then empty the bins in the office and bar, putting the empty bags in the cellar. The notice board comes down next and I take off and replace such as letters as necessary for a new date/new line of information/new residents. And then back behind the desk, I program the wake-up calls and ring the newsagents for morning papers.
By this time, seventy-five percent of all the lights are off on the ground floor. I sit behind this desk and have the hotel almost entirely to myself throughout the night.
In the mornings, I essentially reverse what I did the night before. I switch the lights back on, open the doors, and turn on everything in the kitchen. I fetch ice from the cellar and take it to the bar. If it is needed, then I vacuum the carpets.
It sounds like a lot but it isn’t. And I can’t forget. I can never forget because I have a list.
My night jobs take me forty to fifty minutes. The morning jobs take me an hour. For seven hours of my shift I watch TV or read a book. One night a week, there is another porter on. But, usually, it’s just me.
* * * * * * * *

I saw their names on the guest list tonight: MR AND MRS B. FARRINGDON, Seawell

Because I never did go back, she came to find me. Like her never-paramour, she can’t totally leave her past behind.
Bernard, do you know why she’s here?
I don’t.
* * * * * * * *

Liam is a big man. His hair, judging by the halo of fuzz that he has left around his head, was a superb copper colour before it all fell out. At the age of thirty-one, most of his hair has already gone but I think the rest won’t fall out just yet. He is shorter than me, although not by much. He is bigger in the chest and arms and he tells me that he used to play rugby a lot when he was younger. Certainly, this would account for the kink in his nose.
Liam survives on only two hours sleep throughout the night. He watches the TV till three while I stay in the office and then he sleeps till five. About midday when he’s finished in the kitchen, he often retires to Room 525 for a few hours sleep. After dinner around eight he goes back to Room 525 and sleeps again for another two hours.
In fifteen years, he has never had a dream because he never sleeps deep or long enough.
* * * * * * *

In the mornings, I swear at traffic lights. I am often so tired I can feel the lactic acid in my veins, tightening my muscles. The freshness of the air and the quality of the early light are almost alien to me. The world has a parched and cold grey feel to it.
If the lights are green, then I ignore them like I do God.
If they are bad and are at red, then I pray to them like they are God. I beg them to change, to switch to that garish lime colour so I may get home and get into bed. I bargain with them, inform them of my tiredness. The colours switch eventually.
I come home, strip naked as a newborn as crawl into the warmth of my duvet. I get lost in the easy warmth of the cover.
I wake at five, watch TV and eat small amounts before I go to work again. I try not to eat or drink much at home because I can do all that for free at the hotel.
* * * * * *

I saw their names on the list tonight. I wasn’t looking for them. I was checking if 525 were empty because I wanted the TV for the office. That’s where they are sleeping. They must be on holiday here.
Just being a Porter, I don’t know how long they are staying here for.
I see 301 is empty tonight. I’ll take the TV from there.
I’ll skip 525 till they go.

* * * * * *

We got paid today and I forgot all about it till I got my payslip. We get paid every fortnight.
I said: ‘I forgot all about this. It’s still every fortnight, isn’t it?’
The manager said: ‘Yeah, –, it’s still every fortnight. No changes.’
* * * * * *

I saw them again tonight. I caught their backs as they were walking to their rooms. I recognised her hair, knew every brown curl on her neck and how. She had on a pink dress and high-heeled shoes that made her two inches taller than him.
* * * * * *

Hotels are, by their very definition, transient in nature. Unlike myself, nobody makes a home in hotels. They sleep here, maybe one night, maybe many but they always move on. Like I will soon.
Sex and hotels has always gone —
She’s here.
‘I knew it was you. They left a clipboard on the desk. PORTERS. Your name was on it.’
‘Hey, Hol. How are you?’
‘We’re good. Bern’s just up–‘
‘Don’t. Not yet… Do you want a drink?’
She didn’t say anything. Just turned and walked away, and stopped at the top of the stairs.
‘I see you’re still writing. We’re here for a few days. It’s nice to see you again.’
* * * * * *

A feeling — fluttering/hand on my neck/fingers through my hair/hot breath – I slept too long.
* * * * * *

I came in tonight. I don’t want to check my porters’ list. If she saw my name on a clipboard then she’ll know I’m working tonight. And he’ll know.
I thought about taking the night off and letting them leave without seeing me again. This time it would be the other way around.
Maybe I should have taken the night off. And the next night and the next night.
* * * * * *

My favourite place in the hotel is the bar. I don’t drink on duty and, apart from my interview, I’ve never been in this place when I’ve not supposed to be. I just like to sit by the bar and drink Pepsi and munch Mint Imperials until my teeth feel really crappy. There are ghosts, I think, in the walls — spirits of past times, of guests who have slept, danced, made love here. By just sitting by the bar and writing this, I feel like I’m absorbing history.
I am part of the tapestry of life.
* * * * * *

My memory of the night when I fell asleep on the couch is no clearer but I can put it into context and analyse and re-evaluate what I saw and felt.
I saw her hand, slender and ivory-coloured in the darkness. She was stroking my hair as I lay facedown on the sofa. It felt nice and I didn’t flinch. Having company during the night makes it all go so much easier. She moved her finger up from the top of my shoulders to the top of my hand. The hairs on the back of neck tingled when she brushed them.
She lay down behind me and placed her chin on my neck and looked into my mind.
It was so comfortable with her that I couldn’t wake up enough to turn around so I could kiss her.
I can hear somebody in the back corridor. She’s here now:
‘How ya doin’, skipper?’ she says rocking on her heels with her hands on her hips. She looks confident and unafraid but doesn’t sound it.
‘I’m fine’ I say, trying to lead her further.
She sits down on a chair. She has no shoes on and I can see her feet are dusty. Her toenails are painted red. She drops her chin to her chest and holds a piece of her hair.
‘Does he know you’re down here?’
She gives me a look that says ‘Come on’ and goes back to concentrate on the piece of hair.
‘I love you. I always loved you and I still do.’
I get that inevitable look, the one that says that there is too much water under the bridge, that we went too far and the beginning is right far away.
She speaks now, and even that’s inevitable: ‘I broke your heart.’
‘Things fall down.’
‘Two years.’ Holly says. ‘Two years and you’re still so noble, still shrugging it off like it was nothing. You got it bad.’
‘I don’t hate you, Hol. I should do.’
She stands back up, then comes across and kisses me. Her tongue feels different in my mouth than what I thought it would be. Warm/wet. I kiss her back; grab the back of her shirt as hard as I can. I won’t let her go again. Her hand comes gently to my face and pushes me away.
‘Never can be.’ She walks away.
My hand is empty.
* * * * * *

Day follows night follows day.
Three comes after two comes after one.
There was a stupid film a few years ago — A Fine Line Between Love And Hate. And it’s true.
But hate means letting go, and accepting the inevitable. You can hate those you love, but not love those you hate
That’s why I’ve never hated you, Hol. Because I can’t let you go.
But I had to hate someone so I hate him.
* * * * * *

I had to set a conference up tonight in the boardroom style. The boardroom style is the simplest of them all. You set the tables in a rectangle, put a blue cloth over them and add writing boards, pens and paper. Put in some jugs of water, some various cordials in decanters, flowers in a vase and Mint Imperials.
I stripped the fourteen small tables from dinner, and then put the cloths in a corner. I moved all the cutlery, cups, plates and extras back out to the kitchen. The small tables went next to be stacked in the Porter’s cupboard and I replaced them with two big tables. I counted out the right number of cloths (13) and placed them around the table and then I took the cloths to the laundry.
The laundry is just by reception. It is a small rectangular room with three spin-dryers and four washing machines in it. There are shelves surrounding the walls that hold towels and sheets. I dropped the cloths on the floor, and turned to leave:
I looked around the corner to where the spin-dryers were. Holly was laid down on the floor, wrapped in a makeshift bed. Her shoulders, and I knew the rest of her, were naked.
‘Stay.’ Her eyes caught one of the hotel floodlights through the glass roof – small pinpricks of light. ‘Please, stay.’
I slipped my shirt off as I fell to the bed. She slipped her arms over my shoulders and held onto my back. Hungry to kiss her, I held back to savour. I knew she wouldn’t be here in the morning. She kissed me back, and slipped her palm to the back of my head. She pushed my hair down.
I kissed her even harder with arms placed down on the bed. I moved, laid on my side, and kissed her.
‘We have to be quick. He can’t find out.’ Her hand slipped down to my trousers and worked the zip. I felt for her under the sheet and climbed back on top.
I kissed her as she held me. She kissed me as I touched her. I fumbled my clothes aside.
‘Don’t analyse this,’ she said.
I pulled the sheet away from her and lay down. She positioned me and I pushed inside her. We didn’t close our eyes and we didn’t kiss. We moved against each other afraid of the knowledge that this was all we had and would have.
When it finished, she looked into my eyes and cried. I held on to her as long as I could.
* * * * * *
I’ve put on weight since starting here. When I used to see the daylight I was a nice, trim Middleweight — cheekbones present and all. Now I can use the fryers I’ve gone past Super-Middle and bordering on Light-Heavy.
From tomorrow, I’m going to steam chicken and boil potatoes. I have to get back to my fighting weight.
Maybe if I start smoking, I could kill some of this appetite I’ve developed.
* * * * * *

Being nocturnal.
Living like a vampire.
I’ve become a creature of the night.
My days end at 8AM.
The Post-man is a night-time caller.
Maybe I’m going mad. There have to be bats in my belfry.
* * * * * *
The CCTV needs changing. I can this high-pitched whine from the back office. I don’t know how long it’s been going on for. I’ve been with her.
I tell her: ‘Let me go.’
She says: ‘Honey, you’ve got it all wrong.’
I look for something else to say and tell her: ‘Leave him. We could still be happy together.’
She shakes her head so I change the tape.
There. That’s done. I can think more clearly now. I come back to her and she’s sitting in a chair in the Lounge. She looks hot. There’s sweat on her forehead. She seems unhappy and looks down at her tee shirt.
‘Holly, what’s wrong?’
‘I’m hot. Can I have a Coke?’
Post-mix drinks — free to all the staff. I’ll bend the rules some more.
‘No problem.’
‘And can I have some ice in it?’
‘Darling,’ I say half-joking, ‘you can have anything you want.’
* * * * * *

We made love again tonight. I took her to Room 301. Afterwards, I curled into her body with my head locked into her stomach.
I remembered everything.
Simon — we called him Bernard (teenage nickname). I wondered what she called him now.
She lies on her back when she sleeps, her head directed at the ceiling.
Hold me tight, I whisper to her like a man drowning. Don’t let me go.

She fingers my ear in slumber and I look up again at her.
You don’t understand. I’ve been through so much and seen so many things. You’re the only one who can save me.
* * * * * *

I can’t remember how long they’ve been her now. He’s not been down yet. Does he know I’m here? That I’m sleeping with his wife. Does he sleep through it?

How long have they been here? Am I the reason they’re here? Do they search for me throughout the day?
Bad news, Bern. Holly’s already found me. We love each other.
I told you the best man would win in the end.
We just need rid of you.
* * * * * *
I try and write to her. Some things are too big to be put into words:-

 We’ve got to make a new life. And we need to do it together this time. Fuck Bernard. If you stay, and he leaves, we don’t have to see him again. And I’ll make sure he leaves. What do you say?

  I leave it in my pocket. I decide to make it a speech for when I saw her next. It’ll be my ‘Hey, I made a new life. I got away. For a while I thought I didn’t need you and hey, yeah, I was wrong about that but I definitely haven’t needed him. And you don’t either. Listen, try it out. You only live once’ speech.
Times are dangerous, and the tides are high, girl. Let’s blow this joint before the world unfurls.
 She sits at the bar and reads my speech. When she finishes, she turns:
 I leave it in my pocket. I decide to make it a speech for when I saw her next. It’ll be my ‘Hey, I made a new life. I got away. For a while I thought I didn’t need you and hey, yeah, I was wrong about that but I definitely haven’t needed him. And you don’t either. Listen, try it out. You only live once’ speech. Times are dangerous, and the tides are high, girl. Let’s blow this joint before the world unfurls.

She sits at the bar and reads my speech. When she finishes, she turns: ‘You still don’t understand, do you?’
I believe that nowadays I am the type of guy that she would go out with and would love. But that’s irrelevant. It really is. I follow the old maxim: What Doesn’t Kill You Will Only Make You Stronger.
I’m stronger now.
* * * * * *

She stands there in the doorway of the hotel looking at the snow. It’s sometime around two now. I’ve switched the floodlights on around the hotel so she can see the snowflakes in the air. The way she stands, there’s one hand in her pocket and one loose by her side. The fingers are curled slightly and the palm faces back towards me in the hotel.
She looks like a little girl who has lost her teddy bear and she needs to leave here.
She turns and walks back in. Tonight, she’s worn a long dress, which is deep purple sliding into grey. It’s strapless, and her arms are bare. There are a few drops of water in her hair where the snow has melted.
She gives me a smile that’s all mine and I can see light sparkles in the water in her hair.
There’s a sofa by the door that she sits on and rests on the arm. I sit by her but don’t lean. We probably look like strangers on a bench in a bus station.
After a while, she kicks her legs under her dress.
‘Do you remember this?’ she says, meaning the dress.
I do. Graduate Ball, 200-.
‘The Ball. I remember the pictures. You looked so beautiful.’
‘I sort of remember you. Black suit, dark grey shirt, light grey tie.’
‘Yeah. I took the tie off later in the night. I never did get that dance.’
I turn the music back on, and then we dance. It’s Sam Cooke singing ‘Cupid’. I look into her eyes because I know that whatever I do, I’m still going to lose her again very soon.
She puts her arms around my neck and looks at me like she’s trying to find the strength to leave him.
The music stops/the record goes on.
* * * * * *

I just took a room order up — two vodka/tonics — ice and lemon.
‘Do you like lemon?’ the woman said on the phone.
‘Yeah, sure, that’s what I stick in my drinks.’
‘Good, let’s stick some lemon in them then. It’s Room 326.’
‘Okay. Say ten minutes.’
I go back to the bar and make up the drinks to take to her room. When I get there, she answers the door naked. She’s about thirty, with long blonde hair. And she takes care of herself.
‘Do you want to come in?’
I pause — two heartbeats — ‘My heart belongs to another.’
‘It’s not your heart I’m interested in.’
We go in and sit on the bed. We drink the vodka-and-tonics after I squeeze lemon into mine. I wince when the juice runs over a cut. She tells me that it looks terrible and sucks my finger.
I say no, and leave.
On the way down, I can still taste the lemon and the vodka in my mouth. I wonder what made her do what she did. I wonder how many hotels she’s stayed at this year.

* * * * * *
Holly sits behind the reception desk. She’s gotten a uniform from somewhere. It doesn’t quite fit. The blouse is tight around her neck so she’s left the collar button undone.
Even though it’s nearly three, she sits tight into the desk reading a copy of Bella. She looks at me strangely:
‘Isn’t it your night off?’
I blink again and her face turns into that of Jane, the receptionist.
* * * * * *

Day after day after day. I lose track of time. I might be losing track of my mind.
Hey, that rhymes.
I didn’t see Jolly Holly last night. We didn’t go to 301. Now someone’s ringing the Reception Desk Bell.
Hell, that rhymes as well.
* * * * * *

I ask: ‘Why won’t you leave him, Hol?’ and she just shakes her head.
Smiles like I’m a kid: ‘Because he needs me. And because he says he’d die without me. And I suppose I love him.’
I want to ask about me but don’t see how any of this would fit.
I think: ‘Holly, girl, we’re still young and there’s a whole life ahead of us. He’ll find someone else. Don’t think that he won’t. And me and you can be happy together.’
But it comes out as: ‘If he’s the one you love, then go to him.’
‘Always so noble, weren’t you?’
‘If it makes you happy …’
I didn’t want to tell her I loved her. I didn’t want her to have the pressure of having two men who’d die for or without her.
She kisses me on the corner of the forehead, and walks off into the restaurant.
I find her eating mints in the dark, looking at the rain through the window. The light from a lamppost outside in the street reflects on her face. There are shadows of rain on her cheeks that shudder as she chews. She presses her bare feet on the pane of glass.
‘Why are you here?’ I ask as I come in.
She doesn’t turn. ‘We were over you. None of it hurt anymore. You were the past.’
Something rolls down her cheek. It’s not a reflection of a raindrop.
‘We knew you were here and we didn’t want to find you. It’s just a coincidence.’
Like shuffling a deck and landing four aces at the top.
She agrees: ‘Yeah.’
* * * * * *

Is there anything in your life that you still regret? You’d be a liar if you said there was nothing, not even a little thing that you wish that you had acted differently in.
I have never regretted not asking Holly out although I do regret a lot of what came afterwards. Because of what happened, because of the broken heart, I am the man I am today. After the dark time, I reconstructed and made myself into a better person.
* * * * * *

I decide not to tell her. I know what to do now. She will never leave me because she is afraid of him – of how bad he would feel, of what he would do to himself if it happened. We both need her with the same conviction but she’s been with him so long she can’t do it by herself.
That’s why I must do it. That’s why it’s me that has to get rid of him.
* * * * * *

I’m not a violent man by any means. I’m a reasonable person. I’m just going to say that it’s over between him and Holly. He’ll realise the truth – we were meant to be together and although it’s taken a lot of time and it has never been straightforward this is how things have worked out. And he should do the honourable thing and leave.
I don’t wish anything bad on him. I want him to be happy. But this time I’m thinking of number one, putting myself first.
I remember the room number: 525.
* * * * * *
‘I’m off to do my security check.’ I tell her.
She’s in the office, watching the CCTV. Earlier I saw eight men chase a coach from the office window. I thought that a coach had been stolen from outside while we were kissing. I rang Liam but he said that it was just a random coach full of girls that the guys were chasing. He lives opposite the hotel in the staff flat and he had a better view of things.
I’m on my way now. One of the nightly security checks. What’s locked must stay locked. Windows, doors, cellar hatches.
I remember again and say the number to myself when Holly is out of earshot.
I go left through one of the stairs doors, up the stairs, then left, then right to double back on myself. It’s not because I’m afraid that I walk slower but because I don’t want her to know yet. I don’t want her to stop me. Hopefully, she can’t hear me above the noise of crunching Imperials and the rap music that she playing on her Walkman.
I stop. I’m here now.
Come on, 525, your time is up.
Bernard, old buddy, this is what has been coming for a long time.
* * * * * *

The room is empty. I think for a moment that he’s not here, that he’s gone out somewhere. But the bed’s tidy and the complimentary coffee sachets are still on the nightstand. There are no suitcases and the tourist guides are still unruffled.
I switch the light on and walk around the room. I look in the drawers but they’re empty apart from the standard Gideon’s bible. I go in the bathroom; all the shampoos and soaps have been replaced.
As a last chance, I look at the number of the door in case I’ve forgotten where I am or misread it in the dark. No, I was right. It’s 525.
I sit on the bed and try to make sense. As it becomes clearer, as names and dates and events slide into place, I remember. I remember.
* * * * * *

‘Hey, Hol. How are you?’
‘We’re good. Bern’s just up—‘
‘Don’t. Not yet … do you want a drink?’
‘I see you’re still writing. It’s nice to see you again.’
‘How long?’
‘Just tonight. We’re travelling north. There’s a wedding we’re going to. Remember Ritchie?’ I smile – old memories/warm/bathed in a golden light. I remember Ritchie. ‘He’s getting married in two days.’
‘Tell him congratulations from me. Are you sure you can’t stay another night, Hol? We can catch up.’
‘Just tonight.’
Just tonight – that’s what she said/I remember now.
* * * * * *
I’m sitting at the bar now with a pint glass of milk. My teeth have started to ache from the two litres of Pepsi a night. And I’m down to just twenty-one Mint Imperials a shift.
It’s seven o’clock now and I’m tired. So very tired. I have just vacuumed the entire bottom floor and turned all the lights back on. The ice next to me is just beginning to gain its condensation.
Jane has just arrived. She’s putting her coat away in the office and by now she’s seen the brown envelope on the manager’s desk. Inside it is my notice, effective as from thirty minutes hence. When I finish this shift, I’m not coming back.
I look around. This is no tapestry of life. I am not gaining from being sat here while my years pass me by. I drain the milk and pick up the few things on the bar that I have here. I walk to the front doors.
I open them. I go outside.

Pete Carvill is one of the Fiction Editors at 3:AM, and the European Writer for FightBeat. ‘The Night-Porter’ was written in the Summer of 2002 when he was working in the hotel this was set in. It was the first story he ever wrote when he started adjusting his narratives, a habit he still hasn’t quite shaken off.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 9th, 2007.